NYT’s ISRO coverage continues assault on sense

The New York Times refuses to learn, perpetuating views of ISRO that are equal parts blurry and illiterate, and often missing points that become clearer with just a little bit of closer reading. The launch and subsequent success of Chandrayaan 3 brought its annoying gaze the way of India and its space programme, about which it published at least one article whose interpretation was at odds with reality. But for the newspaper’s stubbornness, and unmindful of the impact it has on the minds of its large audience in India, pushback is important, even just a little, when and where possible. This is another such attempt. On August 24, the day after the Chandrayaan 3 lander module descended on the moon’s surface in the south polar region, The New York Times published an article trying to tie the mission’s success with India’s ascendancy aspirations. Annotated excerpts follow:

Meet frugality porn – when this style of administration and work is exalted without acknowledging the restrictions it imposes. We see more of it in the coming paragraphs.

It’s amusing how this question – once rightly derided as superficial – has of late come to be legitimised in articles by the BBC and now The New York Times.

Just one ISRO success and this is the crap we need to deal with. What “deeply rooted tradition”? What “pillar” of India’s rise? Name one field of research and I will point you to articles discussing deep-seated problems in it, ranging from paucity of funds for research to academic freedom, from shortcomings in research infrastructure and environments that are overcome almost entirely by enterprising researchers going out of their way to help others to bureaucratic and government interference that vitiates the uptake of research findings in the public sphere. If anything, the article suggests that the blueprint India is offering other nations is: “Get one pretty important moon mission right and the world’s most read newspaper will pretend that you have arisen, to the ignorance of very real, very bad problems.”

a) The governments of India and the US have allocated to ISRO and NASA similar fractions of their national budgets. b) Scientists are paid much better in the US than in India, at all levels, after adjusting for differences in purchasing power. c) NASA operates one of the world’s best public outreach efforts for a state-run entity while ISRO has no such department. The “potent message” that The New York Times is tooting is, in sum, hard to understand and potentially dangerous.

This is the same Modi who thought it best to plaster his portrait on all vaccination certificates (instead of photos of the respective vaccinees) but refused to investigate the Adani Group after Hindenburg’s allegations, who didn’t utter a peep about the incidents of brutal violence in Delhi, Hathras, Manipur or Nuh but whose giant face appeared on the screen about to show the last few – and most important – seconds of the Chandrayaan 3 lander’s descent on the moon’s surface, sending almost every viewer nationwide into paroxysms of rage. I’m not sure of the purpose of describing him in such positive terms vis-à-vis his communication.

The outcome of the Chandrayaan 3 mission created something that has become extremely rare in India since 2014: a success that could be celebrated sans any reservations. But it didn’t prove a way to overcome the “fiercely fractious politics”; in fact, it became yet another point – among the extant thousands – over which to deepen divisions and render impotent the effects of public debate on governance. In fact, absolutely every major national success since 2014 has been used to fuel the fire that is the “fiercely fractious politics”. And again, I fail to see these resources that India “is finally getting”.

Get a historian of science and technology in India since independence – i.e. someone who studies these things closely, going beyond appearances to examine the effects of scientific and/or technological development and practices on all classes of society – to say the same thing, and then we’ll talk. Until then, spare me the superficial and status-quoist reading of the place of science in India. Some suggested reading here, here, and here.

Finally, an acknowledgment of the problem with “frugality” and “shoestring” budgets, yet not nearly in the same context. And the second highlighted line is either a bald-faced fabrication or a reluctance to acknowledge reality: that scientists have been discouraged, silenced and/or harassed when their work is something a) that the state doesn’t know how to integrate into its nationalist narratives, b) that disputes, negates or complicates something whose public understanding the state would like to control but isn’t able to, or c) that the state simply cares little for.

The highlighted portion? True everywhere, all the time. Commendable, but not special.

You’ve got to be kidding me. Here we have The New York Times reviving the desiccated corpse of the beast that so many laboured to kill and bury: the comparison of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) with the 2013 film Gravity and, by implication, NASA’s MAVEN mission. MOM was a technology demonstrator that cost Rs 454 crore (around $57 million), and whose scientific results did little to advance humankind’s understanding of Mars. Its principal accomplishment is that it got into orbit around Mars. MAVEN cost $582.5 million, or Rs 3,410.53 crore (assuming a conversion rate of Rs 58.55 to a dollar in 2013). For that its scientific output was orders of magnitude more notable than that from MOM.

As for Gravity: I’ve never understood this comparison. The film cost $80-130 million to make, according to Wikipedia; that’s 468.40-761.15 crore rupees. So what? Gattaca cost $36 million and Interstellar cost $165 million. Moon cost $5 million and Into Darkness cost $185 million. Can someone explain the comparison to me and actually have it make sense?

This is the note on which the article ends, which matters because what goes here has the privilege of delivering a psychologically impactful blow, and the writer (and/or editor) has to be careful to choose something for this portion whose blow will line up with the whole article’s overarching message. I’m disappointed that The New York Times picked this because it’s of a piece with the same casteist and classist politics and policies that, for India’s non-elite hundreds-of-millions, have disconnected “working hard” from financial, educational, biomedical, and social success even while keeping up the myth of the wholesomely gainful productivity.