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‘Science alone triumphs’: A skeptic annotates

An article entitled ‘Science alone triumphs: Providing a true picture of the world, only science can help India against coronavirus’, penned by a Jayant Sinha, appeared on the Times of India‘s editorials page on April 8, 2020. My annotated reading of the article follows…

As the coronavirus continues its deadly spread around the world, it is only science that protects us. Many different scientists and experts are responding to the global challenge…

A sweeping statement that suggests whatever science can protect for us are the only things worth protecting. Obvious exceptions include social security, access to food and other essential supplies, protection against discrimination and stigma, and of course individual rights. The author quite likely does not intend to imply that one’s biological safety is more important than any of these other attributes, but that’s what the words imply.

… Their deep technical expertise, honed through years of education and practice, keeps us from falling into the abyss.

A bit too florid but okay.

Ultimately, it is the practice of science – developing new ideas, testing them against hard evidence, replicating them successfully, scaling them up, and then further improving them through honest feedback – that drives all of them.

It’s quite heartening to have a lawmaker acknowledge these aspects of the scientific method, esp. a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, but these exact are also curious at this time. The Indian Council of Medical Research has allowed frontline health workers to consume hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic against COVID-19 with flimsy (if that) evidence to support the drug’s efficacy and safety. Where are the tests, leave alone the replication studies?

This is the quintessential scientific method, the unrelenting search for truth.

More than 99% of the article’s readers are unlikely to notice a difference between the scientific method and the search for truths (I prefer using the plural), but it exists: the scientific method is a way to acquire new knowledge about the natural universe. The nature of the quest depends on the practitioner – the scientist.

What science tells us about coronavirus infections has reached everyone. People are wearing masks, washing their hands, and avoiding crowds. Yet most people I meet are stumped by questions such as: What is a virus? How does it actually spread? How does your body fight the coronavirus? Why do some people die from the virus? This indeed is the great paradox of our times.

Truly!

Even as science becomes more vital, fewer and fewer people understand and appreciate it. As a child who loved science, as a young man trained in engineering, and as a technocrat who believes in analytical reasoning and hard evidence, I find this hard to accept.

I’m not sure if the author means he does not understand why this paradoxical engagement with science persists but I have some ideas:

  1. Science is becoming increasingly more specialised, and a lot of what we learn from the cutting edge these days cannot be communicated to anyone without at least 18 years of education.
  2. Most people think they understand science when they really mean they’re familiar with its commonest precepts and scientists’ pronouncements. Their knowledge is still only based on faith: that, for example, the new coronavirus spreads rapidly but not why so, freeing them to use scientific knowledge in unscientific narratives.

(Reason: because the virus’s spike proteins have evolved to establish stronger bonds with the ACE2 receptor protein produced by cells in the respiratory tract, compared to the spike proteins of the closely related SARS virus, as well as the ability to attach, albeit less strongly, to another protein – furin – produced by all cells in the body.)

To change this state of affairs, we must focus on four key areas. … We are afflicted by too much quackery and superstition.

Is this article really a dog-whistle? The author is the BJP MP from Hazaribagh (Jharkhand) so there is some comfort – no matter how fleeting – that the BJP is not completely devoid of appreciation for science. However, I’m curious how often the author has brought these issues up with other BJP lawmakers, including the prime minister himself, who have frequently issued a stream of nonsense that undermines a scientific understanding of the world. The answer wouldn’t affect what we should or shouldn’t take away from this piece, but this not uncommon practice of speaking sense in some fora but shutting up in others is annoying, especially when the speaker wields some power.

… Of course, mythology has immense power to shape people’s beliefs, but it must be acknowledged that it is only science that can solve our material problems.

Well said… I think. Can’t be a 100% sure.

While there is certainly much wisdom in age-old practices, it is primarily because there is a genuine scientifically proven cause-and-effect relationship that underlies these practices.

No. Specifically, causality – nor any of the properties we associate with modern science – is not a precondition for traditional wisdom, beliefs and rituals, nor is it meaningful to attempt to validate such wisdom, beliefs and rituals using filters developed to qualify scientific theories of the natural universe. Science and tradition (in many contexts) are born of and seek to fulfil different purposes. Additionally, science alone does not empower – traditional practices do as well (look no further than tribal groups that have been stewarding many of India’s forests for centuries) – and science abandoned by the guiding hand of social forces has often become an instrument of disempowerment.

… In short, we would all be much better off if we shifted some of our time and resources away from blind faith and towards a better scientific understanding of the world.

This is very true. Faith has its place in the world (more so than some might like to acknowledge); outside this finite domain, however, it’s a threat.

Second, our children must learn honestly about science. There is no ‘Western’ concept of science taught in schools which should then be negated at home. Science is universal – just look up the path-breaking research conducted by SN Bose, or CV Raman, or S Chandrasekhar. The pure scientific truth that they discovered holds true everywhere, even in the deep cosmos.

💯 A diversity in the choice of names (by gender or by caste, for example) would have been better.

Teachers and parents must tell children that science is the pursuit of truth and provides a true picture of the world.

As the children grow up, can we encourage our teachers and parents to communicate more nuanced ideas of what science is and why it was invented?

… We should not demand obedience from our children, rather we should encourage them to probe all that we do. …

Again, is this article really a dog-whistle?

Third, we must revere our scientists and technologists.

Never revere another human. Never assume anyone is closed off to (constructive) criticism, particularly when they deserve it. Obviously there’s a time and place (including absurd advice like “don’t berate a surgeon in the middle of a surgery”), but when such opportunities arise don’t let reverence stop you.

It is through their efforts that we flourish today.

Brian Josephson won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1973 for predicting the Josephson effect but he also supported the “water memory” hypothesis that claimed to make sense of homeopathic remedies. Giving scientists the keys to running the world is not guaranteed to produce the desired results.

… Even our start-up culture tends to value the business celebrity, not so much the tech nerd. …

The author is probably thinking of celebrity tech nerds, the Bezoses and the Jobses. “Nerds” and “geeks” in general have become more popular and their culture more socially and commercially profitable.

Billions of dollars of wealth has been created by writing great code, developing insanely good products, creating clever new financial solutions, and establishing entirely new scientific approaches. …

Many of these “insanely good products” have also progressively eroded democracy. To quote Jacob Silverman in The Baffler (at length, hoping Silverman doesn’t mind):

The fundamental underlying problem is the system of economic exchange we’re dealing with, which is sometimes called surveillance capitalism. It’s surveillance capitalism that, by tracking and monetizing the basic informational content of our lives, has fueled the spectacular growth of social media and other networked services in the last fifteen years. Personal privacy has been annihilated, and power and money have concentrated in the hands of whoever owns the most sophisticated machine to collect and parse consumer data. Because of the logic of network effects—according to which services increase in value and utility as more people use them—a few strong players have consolidated their control over the digital economy and show little sign of surrendering it.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For years, tech executives and data scientists maintained the pose that a digital economy run almost exclusively on the parsing of personal data and sensitive information would not only be competitive and fair but would somehow lead to a more democratic society. Just let Facebook and Google, along with untold other players large and small, tap into the drip-drip of personal data following you around the internet, and in return you’ll get free personalized services and—through an alchemy that has never been adequately explained—a more democratized public sphere.

While these promises provided the ideological ballast for the tech revolution of the last decade or two, they turned out to be horribly wrong. There is nothing neutral, much less emancipatory, about our technological systems or the data sloshing through them. They record and shape the world in powerful, troubling ways. The recent clutch of stories, including in the New York Times and the Guardian, about Cambridge Analytica, the favored data firm of the Trump campaign, provides a humbling example of how personal data can be used to manipulate voter populations. This essential truth has been known at least since 2012, when a University of California-San Diego study found that a few nudges on Facebook appreciably increased voter turnout. From there, it’s only a small jump to isolating and bombarding millions of potential Trump voters with customized appeals, as Cambridge Analytica did.

In the final analysis, the author’s association of “scientific approaches” with technological triumphalism is just a very good reminder that “scientific approaches” don’t have morals built-in.

Finally, we must massively strengthen our scientific institutions. … The hard work of science gets done in these places and they must be among the best in the world.

Without specifying how ‘best’ or even ‘better’ needs to be measured, the task of strengthening institutes is at risk of being hijacked by the single-minded pursuit of better scores on ranking tables.

… Our best diaspora scientists should be provided generous support to come back to India and set up their research labs. Top scientific institutions must be granted the autonomy to govern themselves, hire the best faculty, attract great students from around the world, and pursue the best research. …

I once picked a fight with a scientist after he submitted a piece arguing that the Government of India should improve the supply of masks and other PPE to tame India’s tuberculosis burden. He couldn’t understand why I was opposed to publishing the piece, insisting he was “saying the rights things – the things that need to be said.” Here’s the thing: no one disagrees, and the dialogue has in fact moved leaps and bounds ahead. So while it may be the right thing to say, I’m not sure it needs to be said – much less deserves a thousand words. Put differently: You’re a minister, try moving the needle!

To that end, I have introduced a private members bill to grant IIM-level autonomy to the IITs that have been selected as institutions of eminence.

Okay… Is this what the article was about: to build support for your Bill? According to PRS, fewer than 4% of private members’ Bills were even discussed during the 14th Lok Sabha (i.e. Modi’s first term as prime minister). Why not build support within the party and introduce it as a government Bill?

Our civilisation is marked by its unending quest for knowledge, … The Mundaka Upanishad enlightens us: Satyameva Jayate – Truth alone triumphs. Our republic is based on this eternal principle.

Seriously, STAHP. 😂