'Aatmanirbharta through science'

The Week magazine distinguished itself last year by picking Indian Council of Medical Research chief Balram Bhargava as its ‘person of the year’ for 2021. And now, ahead of National Science Day tomorrow, The Week has conducted an “exclusive” interview with science minister Jitendra Singh. Long Small story short, it’s rubbish.

I discovered the term ‘Gish gallop’ in a 2013 blog post by David Gorsky, in which he wrote about the danger of acquiescing to cranks’ request for experts to debate them on a public stage. While such invitations may appear to legitimate experts to be an opportunity to settle the matter once and for all, it never works that way: the stage and the debate become platforms on which the cranks can spew their bullshit, in the name of having the right in the limited context of the event to do so, and use the inevitably imperfect rebuttal – limited by time and other resources – as a way to legitimise some or all of their claims. (Also read in this context: ‘No, I Will Not Debate You’.)

One particular tactic to which cranks resort in these circumstances is, Gorsky wrote, “to Gish gallop”: to flood their rhetoric with new terms, claims, arguments, etc. with little regard for their relevance or accuracy, in an effort to inundate their opponents with too many points on which to push back.

In their ‘interview’, with the help of kowtowing questions and zero push-back, The Week has allowed Jitendra Singh to Gish gallop. In this case, however, instead of Singh drawing credibility from his ‘opponent’ being an expert who couldn’t effectively refute his contentions, he derives his upper-hand from his interlocutor being a well-known, once-reputed magazine, and secretly from its (possibly enforced) supinity.

The penultimate question is the best, to me: “Yet, India’s good work gets shadowed by pseudoscience utterances. Somehow, your government has not been able to quieten the mumbo jumbo.” Dear interviewer, the government itself is the origin of a lot of the mumbo jumbo. Any question that isn’t founded on that truth will always ignore the problem, and will not elicit a solution.

Overall, the interview is a press release worded in the form of a Q&A, with a healthy chance that the opportunity to publish it was dangled in front of The Week in exchange for soft questions. Yet its headline may be accurate in a way the magazine didn’t intend: this government is going to achieve its mythical goal of perfect ‘Aatmanirbharta’ only by boring a hole through science, and reason and common sense.

Happy national science day!

Featured image: Jitendra Singh, May 2014. Photo edited (see original here). Credit: Press Information Bureau/GoI, GODL – India.