Questions we should be asking more often

1. Okay, but where’s the money coming from?

In a lecture at the Asian College of Journalism, where I was in the audience as a student, P. Sainath told us that if we needed one rule following which we’d be able to produce good stories, it’s “follow the money”. It’s remarkable how often this suggestion has been borne out (in the right contexts, of course) – and it’s even more remarkable how many people don’t follow it. Asking where the money is coming from also serves to enlighten people about why journalism works the way it does. I’m often asked by aspiring science journalists why a journalistic magazine devoted to, say, astronomy, physics or genomics doesn’t exist in India. I’ve always had the same answer: tell me how you’re going to make money (as in profits, not just revenues).

2. Okay, but what’s the power source?

The next time you receive a WhatsApp forward about a newfangled device that can do remarkable things, ask yourself where it could be getting its power – especially the requisite amount of electric power. Very few claims of amazing feats survive this check, especially as they pertain to very small objects like chips or transmitters being embedded in things and beaming signals to satellites. Depending on the medium through which they’re transmitting – air, soil, water, stone, etc. – and the distance to which they need to transmit, you can get a fair idea of the device’s power needs, and then set about figuring where the power is coming from. This question is analogous to ‘follow the money’; the currency here is energy.

3. Okay, but who’s behind the camera?

We seldom stop to think about the person behind the camera, especially if the picture is striking in some way. This goes for photos and videos about terrifying events like natural disasters, objects deep underwater and strange things in space. Pictures purporting to show something amazing but are actually fake are often taken from impossible vantage points, with a resolution that should be impossible to achieve with the device in use, with an impossible spatial scale, at locations that should have been impossible to reach at that time or by a cameraperson whose presence at the scene defies explanation. At other times, the photos appear as if they could only have been captured by specific people, and that in turn may impose some limitations on their public availability. For example, images captured by fighter-jet pilots shouldn’t be easily available – while those captured by policemen during riots could have been planted.

4. Okay, but who said so?

Ad hominem makes for bad arguments – but it’s very useful in fact-checking. It’s important who makes a certain claim so you can check their expertise and if they’re qualified to make the statement they did. If you’re looking for problems with Darwin’s theory of evolution, listen to an evolutionary biologist, not a geologist – not even if they’re a Nobel-Prize-winner. Asking for the source also helps push back on ‘data supremacy’, the tendency to defer to data just because it’s data and without checking for its provenance or quality, and on a general laziness to ascertain that a claim has been traced to its first-hand source, instead of feeding off of second-hand, third-hand, etc. sources.

5. Okay, but how many things had to fall in place?

The idea of the Occam’s razor has captured the imagination of many a rookie analyst, so much so that some of them over-apply its prescriptions to draw reductive conclusions. In their view, only the likeliest event happens all the time; when something unlikely happens, they smell something rotten – like conspiracy theorists do with the novel coronavirus. However, the mathematics of probability allows unlikely events to happen more often than you think, often because they were only seemingly unlikely to begin with. For example, the novel coronavirus was quietly evolving through other ‘forms’ in the wild before it became the strain adapted to infecting humans – the most widespread animal species on the planet. Even now, there may be other strains circulating in the wild, but we remain fixated on the one infecting us.