The difficulty of option ‘c’

Can any journalist become a science journalist? More specifically, can any journalist become a science journalist without understanding the methods of scientific practice and administration? This is not a trivial question because not all the methods of science can be discovered or discerned from the corresponding ‘first principles’. That is, common sense and intelligence alone cannot consummate your transformation; you must access new information that you cannot derive through inductive reasoning.

For example, how would you treat the following statement: “Scientists prove that X causes Y”?

a. You could take the statement at face-value

b. You could probe how and why scientists proved that X causes Y

c. You could interrogate the claim that X causes Y, or

d. You could, of course, ignore it.

(Option (d) is the way to go for claims in the popular as well as scientific literature of the type “Scientists prove that coffee/wine/chocolate cause your heart to strengthen/weaken/etc.” unless the story you’re working on concerns the meta-narrative of these studies.)

Any way, choosing between (a), (b) and (c) is not easy, often because which option you pick depends on how much you know about how the modern scientific industry works. For example, a non-science journalist is likely to go with (a) and/or (b) because, first, they typically believe that the act of proving something is a singular event, localised in time and space, with no room for disagreement.

This is after all the picture of proof-making that ill-informed supporters of science (arguably more than even supporters of the ideal of scientism) harbour: “Scientists have proved that X causes Y, so that’s that,” in the service of silencing inconvenient claims like “human activities aren’t causing Earth’s surface to heat up” or like “climate geoengineering is bad”. I believe that anthropogenic global warming is real and that we need to consider stratospheric aerosol injections but flattening the proof-making exercise threatens to marginalise disagreements among scientists themselves, such as about the extent of warming or about the long-term effects on biodiversity.

The second reason (a) and (b) type stories are more common, but especially (a), follows from this perspective of proofs: the view that scientists are authorities, and we are not qualified to question them. As it happens, most of us will never be qualified enough, but question them we can thanks to four axioms.

First, science being deployed for the public good must be well understood in much the same way a drug that has been tested for efficacy must also be exculpated of deleterious side-effects.

Second, journalists don’t need to critique the choice of reagents, animal models, numerical methods or apparatus design to be able to uncover loopholes, inconsistencies and/or shortcomings. Instead, that oppositional role is easily performed by independent scientists whose comments a journalist can invite on the study.

Third, science is nothing without the humans that practice it, and most of the more accessible stories of science (not news reports) are really stories of the humans practising the science.

Fourth, organised science – hot take: like organised religion – is a human endeavour tied up with human structures, human politics and human foibles, which means as much of what we identify as science lies in the discovery of scientific knowledge as in the way we fund, organise, disseminate and preserve that knowledge.

These four allowances together imply that a science journalist is not a journalist familiar with advanced mathematics or who can perform a tricky experiment but is a journalist trained to write about science without requiring such knowledge.

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Anyone familiar with India will recognise that these two principal barriers – a limited understanding of proof-making and the view of scientists as authority figures – to becoming a good science journalist are practically seeded by the inadequate school-level education system. But they are also furthered by India’s prevailing political climate, especially in the way a highly polarised society undermines the role of expertise.

Some people will tell you that you can’t question highly trained scientists because you are not a highly trained scientist but others will say you’re entitled to question everything as a thinking, reasoning, socially engaged global citizen.

As it happens, these aren’t opposing points of view. It’s just that the left and the right have broken the idea of expertise into two pieces, taking one each for themselves, such that the political left is often comfortable with questioning facts like grinding bricks to unusable dust while the political right will treat all bricks the same irrespective of the quality of clay; the leftist will subsequently insist that quality control is all-important whereas the rightist will champion the virtues of pragmatism.

In this fracas to deprive expertise either of authority or of critique, or sometimes both, the expert becomes deconstructed to the point of nonexistence. As a result, the effective performance of science journalism, instead of trying to pander equally to the left’s and the right’s respective conceptions of the expert, converges on the attempt to reconstruct expertise as it should be: interrogated without undermining it, considered without elevating it.

Obviously, this is easier said, and more enjoyably said, than done.

Authority, authoritarianism and a scicomm paradox

I received a sharp reminder to better distinguish between activists and experts irrespective of how right the activists appear to be with the case of Ustad, that tiger shifted from its original habitat in Ranthambore sanctuary to Sajjangarh Zoo in 2015 after it killed three people. Local officials were in favour of the relocation to make life easier for villagers whose livelihoods depended on the forest whereas activists wanted Ustad to be brought back to Ranthambore, citing procedural irregularities, poor living conditions and presuming to know what was best for the animal.

One vocal activist at the agitation’s forefront and to whose suggestions I had deferred when covering this story turned out to be a dentist in Mumbai, far removed from the rural reality that Ustad and the villagers co-habited as well as the opinions and priorities of conservationists about how Ustad should be handled. As I would later find out, almost all experts (excluding the two or three I’d spoken to) agreed Ustad had to be relocated and that doing so wasn’t as big a deal as the activists made it out to be, notwithstanding the irregularities.

I have never treated activists as experts since but many other publications continue to make the same mistake. There are many problems with this false equivalence, including the equation of expertise with amplitude, insofar as it pertains to scientific activity, for example conservation, climate change, etc. Another issue is that activists – especially those who live and work in a different area and who haven’t accrued the day-to-day experiences of those whose rights they’re shouting for – tend to make decisions on principle and disfavour choices motivated by pragmatic thinking.

Second, when some experts join forces with activists to render themselves or their possibly controversial opinions more visible, the journalist’s – and by extension the people’s – road to the truth becomes even more convoluted than it should be. Finally, of course, using activists in place of experts in a story isn’t fair to activists themselves: activism has its place in society, and it would be a disservice to depict activism as something it isn’t.

This alerts us to the challenge of maintaining a balancing act.

One of the trends of the 21st century has been the democratisation of information – to liberate it from technological and economic prisons and make it available and accessible to people who are otherwise unlikely to do so. This in turn has made many people self-proclaimed experts of this or that, from animal welfare to particle physics. And this in turn is mostly good because, in spite of faux expertise and the proliferation of fake news, democratising the availability of information (but not its production; that’s a different story) empowers people to question authority.

Indeed, it’s possible fake news is as big a problem as it is today because many governments and other organisations have deployed it as a weapon against the availability of information and distributed mechanisms to verify it. Information is wealth after all and it doesn’t bode well for authoritarian systems predicated on the centralisation of power to have the answers to most questions available one Google, Sci-Hub or Twitter search away.

The balancing act comes alive in the tension between preserving authority without imposing an authoritarian structure. That is, where do you draw the line?

For example, Eric Balfour isn’t the man you should be listening to to understand how killer whales interpret and exercise freedom (see tweet below); you should be speaking to an animal welfare expert instead. However, the question arises if the expert is hegemon here, furthering an agenda on behalf of the research community to which she belongs by delegitimising knowledge obtained from sources other than her textbooks. (Cf. scientism.)

This impression is solidified when scientists don’t speak up, choosing to remain within their ivory towers, and weakened when they do speak up. This isn’t to say all scientists should also be science communicators – that’s a strawman – but that all scientists should be okay with sharing their comments with the press with reasonable preconditions.

In India, for example, very, very few scientists engage freely with the press and the people, and even fewer speak up against the government when the latter misfires (which is often). Without dismissing the valid restrictions and reservations that some of them have – including not being able to trust many journalists to know how science works – it’s readily apparent that the number of scientists who do speak up is minuscule relative to the number of scientists who can.

An (English-speaking) animal welfare expert is probably just as easy to find in India as they might be in the US but consider palaeontologists or museologists, who are harder to find in India (sometimes you don’t realise that until you’re looking for a quote). When they don’t speak up – to journalists, even if not of their own volition – during a controversy, even as they also assert that only they can originate true expertise, the people are left trapped in a paradox, sometimes even branded fools to fall for fake news. But you can’t have it both ways, right?

These issues stem from two roots: derision and ignorance, both of science communication.

Of the scientists endowed with sufficient resources (including personal privilege and wealth): some don’t want to undertake scicomm, some don’t know enough to make a decision about whether to undertake scicomm, and some wish to undertake scicomm. Of these, scientists of the first type, who actively resist communicating research – whether theirs or others, believing it to be a lesser or even undesirable enterprise – wish to perpetuate their presumed authority and their authoritarian ‘reign’ by hoarding their knowledge. They are responsible for the derision.

These people are responsible at least in part for the emergence of Balfouresque activists: celebrity-voices that amplify issues but wrongly, with or without the support of larger organisations, often claiming to question the agenda of an unholy union of scientists and businesses, alluding to conspiracies designed to keep the general populace from asking too many questions, and ultimately secured by the belief that they’re fighting authoritarian systems and not authority itself.

Scientists of the second type, who are unaware of why science communication exists and its role in society, are obviously the ignorant.

For example, when scientists from the UK had a paper published in 2017 about the Sutlej river’s connection to the Indus Valley civilisation, I reached out to two geoscientists for comment, after having ascertained that they weren’t particularly busy or anything. Neither had replied after 48 hours, not even with a ‘no’. So I googled “fluvio-deltaic morphology”, picked the first result that was a university webpage and emailed the senior-most scientist there. This man, Maarten Kleinhans at the University of Utrecht, wrote back almost immediately and in detail. One of the two geoscientists wrote me a month later: “Please check carefully, I am not an author of the paper.”

More recently, the 2018 Young Investigators’ Meet in Guwahati included a panel discussion on science communication (of which I was part). After fielding questions from the audience – mostly from senior scientists already convinced of the need for good science communication, such as B.K. Thelma and Roop Malik – and breaking for tea, another panelist and I were mobbed by young biologists completely baffled as to why journalists wanted to interrogate scientific papers when that’s exactly why peer-review exists.

All of this is less about fighting quacks bearing little to no burden of proof and more about responding to the widespread and cheap availability of information. Like it or not, science communication is here to stay because it’s one of the more credible ways to suppress the undesirable side-effects of implementing and accessing a ‘right to information’ policy paradigm. Similarly, you can’t have a right to information together with a right to withhold information; the latter has to be defined in the form of exceptions to the former. Otherwise, prepare for activism to replace expertise.

The raison d'être of a science journalist, courtesy Hobsbawm

For someone who reads very slowly (a 300-page book usually takes a week), Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes offered an astonishingly enjoyable experience*. A week after I picked it up at a secondhand books store, I’m 534 pages in and keep going back to it. While Hobsbawm’s celebrated breadth of knowledge intimidated me enough to get writer’s block, the book exhibits just the right level of topical fluency, insightfulness and, fortunately, snark.

My only grouse is that Hobsbawm had to have a separate section on the natural sciences in the book’s last chapter. As a result, it is as if he acknowledges that the unique traits of 20th century science don’t quite fit into the stories of anything else that happened in 1914-1991 – which is disappointing. It requires the reader to assimilate advances in quantum mechanics, relativity, semiconductor electronics and ICT by themselves and not together with how the 77 years panned out politically, economically and socially. Of course, Hobsbawm tries every now and then (in the natural sciences section) to contextualise scientific and technological advancements in issues and narratives of societal development, but this doesn’t quite click.

Nonetheless, Age of Extremes is highly recommended, doubly so because, even if the science section seems like an afterthought, it still offers a carefully considered picture of modern science and its philosophical roots. (While some sections seemed facile, this may have been because I regularly read on these topics.) One paragraph in particular (p. 530) caught my eye: Hobsbawm argues that anti-science beliefs took root in the world because its subjects were becoming increasingly specialised, abstracted, and whose contents were becoming removed further from both common sense and sense experience – and, ultimately, from the common man. He then offers the following:

The suspicion and fear of science was fuelled by four feelings: that science was incomprehensible; that both its practical and moral consequences were unpredictable and probably catastrophic; and that it underlined the helplessness of the individual, and undermined authority. Nor should we overlook the sentiment that, to the extent that science interfered with the natural order of things, it was inherently dangerous.

In these lines, I see the perfect raison d’être of the science journalist. It is the task of the science journalist to dispel the pall of inaccessibility and incomprehensibility surrounding science, to lay out its practical and moral consequences, to inspire confidence in those who would doubt its effects, to invite them to participate in it, and to expose its processes so scientists cannot claim authority over the ignorant. And if Authority perceives a threat to itself emerging from science, it is likelier than not that it is advocating for a scientific idea that is of Authority’s own making and that it is not a ‘natural entity’. In this case, the exposition of the processes of science can be used to challenge Authority.

*I’m sorry Jahnavi, I’ll come to your book next.

Featured image: Eric Hobsbawm. Source: YouTube.

The raison d’être of a science journalist, courtesy Hobsbawm

For someone who reads very slowly (a 300-page book usually takes a week), Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes offered an astonishingly enjoyable experience*. A week after I picked it up at a secondhand books store, I’m 534 pages in and keep going back to it. While Hobsbawm’s celebrated breadth of knowledge intimidated me enough to get writer’s block, the book exhibits just the right level of topical fluency, insightfulness and, fortunately, snark.

My only grouse is that Hobsbawm had to have a separate section on the natural sciences in the book’s last chapter. As a result, it is as if he acknowledges that the unique traits of 20th century science don’t quite fit into the stories of anything else that happened in 1914-1991 – which is disappointing. It requires the reader to assimilate advances in quantum mechanics, relativity, semiconductor electronics and ICT by themselves and not together with how the 77 years panned out politically, economically and socially. Of course, Hobsbawm tries every now and then (in the natural sciences section) to contextualise scientific and technological advancements in issues and narratives of societal development, but this doesn’t quite click.

Nonetheless, Age of Extremes is highly recommended, doubly so because, even if the science section seems like an afterthought, it still offers a carefully considered picture of modern science and its philosophical roots. (While some sections seemed facile, this may have been because I regularly read on these topics.) One paragraph in particular (p. 530) caught my eye: Hobsbawm argues that anti-science beliefs took root in the world because its subjects were becoming increasingly specialised, abstracted, and whose contents were becoming removed further from both common sense and sense experience – and, ultimately, from the common man. He then offers the following:

The suspicion and fear of science was fuelled by four feelings: that science was incomprehensible; that both its practical and moral consequences were unpredictable and probably catastrophic; and that it underlined the helplessness of the individual, and undermined authority. Nor should we overlook the sentiment that, to the extent that science interfered with the natural order of things, it was inherently dangerous.

In these lines, I see the perfect raison d’être of the science journalist. It is the task of the science journalist to dispel the pall of inaccessibility and incomprehensibility surrounding science, to lay out its practical and moral consequences, to inspire confidence in those who would doubt its effects, to invite them to participate in it, and to expose its processes so scientists cannot claim authority over the ignorant. And if Authority perceives a threat to itself emerging from science, it is likelier than not that it is advocating for a scientific idea that is of Authority’s own making and that it is not a ‘natural entity’. In this case, the exposition of the processes of science can be used to challenge Authority.

*I’m sorry Jahnavi, I’ll come to your book next.

Featured image: Eric Hobsbawm. Source: YouTube.