Retrospective: The Wire Science in 2019

At the start of 2019, The Wire Science decided to focus more on issues of science and society, and this is reflected in the year-end list of our best stories (in terms of traffic and engagement; listed below). Most of our hits don’t belong to this genre, but quite a few do – enough for us to believe that these issues aren’t as esoteric as they appear to be in day-to-day conversations.

Science communication is becoming more important in India and more people are taking to it as a career. As a result, the visibility of science stories in the press has increased. Scientists are also using Facebook and Twitter to voice their views, whether on the news of the day or to engage in debates about their field of work. If you are an English-speaker with access to the internet and a smartphone, you are quite unlikely to have missed these conversations.

Most popular articles of 2019

The Sciences

  1. Poor Albert Einstein, His Wrong Theories and Post-Truths
  2. What Is Quantum Biology?
  3. If Scientists Don’t Speak out Today, Who Will Be Left to Defend Science Tomorrow?
  4. Why Scientists Are Confused About How Fast the Universe Is Expanding
  5. CSIR Lab? Work on Applied Research or Make do With Small Share of Funds

Health

  1. Why Everyone Around You Seems to Be Getting Cancer
  2. MCI Finally Updates MBBS Curriculum to Include Disability Rights and Dignity
  3. PM Modi is Worried About Population Explosion, a Problem Set to Go Away in 2021
  4. Bihar: Who is Responsible for the Death of 100 Children?
  5. What’s NEXT for the NMC Bill? Confusion.

Environment

  1. Extreme Events in the Himalayan Region: Are We Prepared for the Big One?
  2. A Twist in the Tale: Electric Vehicles Will Worsen India’s Pollution Crisis
  3. How Tamil Nadu Is Fighting in the First Attempt to Save a Sinking Island
  4. Why NGT Thinks Allahabad Is on the Verge of an Epidemic After Kumbh Mela
  5. But Why Is the Cauvery Calling?

Space

  1. NASA Briefly Stopped Working With ISRO on One Count After ASAT Test
  2. Senior ISRO Scientist Criticises Sivan’s Approach After Moon Mission Setback
  3. ISRO Doesn’t Have a Satisfactory Answer to Why It Wants to Put Indians in Space
  4. Chandrayaan 2 in Limbo as ISRO Loses Contact With Lander, History on Hold
  5. ISRO Delays Chandrayaan 2 Launch Again – But How Is Beresheet Involved?

Education

  1. NCERT to Drop Chapters on Caste Struggles, Colonialism From Class 9 History Book
  2. JNU: The Story of the Fall of a Great University
  3. Dear Students, Here’s How You Could Have Reacted to Modi’s Mockery of Dyslexia
  4. Can a Student’s Suicide Note Make Us Rethink the IIT Dream?
  5. NET Now Mandatory for Scheduled Caste Students to Avail Research Scholarship

Our choice

The state has become more involved with the R&D establishment, although these engagements have been frequently controversial. In such a time, with so many public institutions teetering on the brink, it is important we ensure science doesn’t become passively pressed into legitimising actions of the state but rather maintains a mutually beneficial relationship that also strengthens the democracy. It is not the prerogative of scientists alone to do this; we must all get involved because the outcomes of science belong to all of us.

To this end, we must critique science, scientists, their practices, our teachers and research administrators, forest officers, conservationists and environmental activists, doctors, nurses, surgeons and other staff, members of the medical industry, spaceflight engineers and space lawyers, rules that control prices and access, examinations and examiners, and so forth. We must question the actions and policies of everyone involved in this knowledge economy. Ultimately, we must ask if our own aspirations are in line with what we as a people expect of the world around us, and science is a part of that.

It would be remiss to not mention the commendable job some other publications have been doing vis-à-vis covering science in India, including The Hindu, The Telegraph, The Print, Mongabay, Indian Express, Dinamalar, etc. Their efforts have given us the opportunity to disengage once in a while from the more important events of the day to focus on stories that might otherwise have never been read.

This year, The Wire Science published stories that interrogated what duties academic and research institutions have towards the people whose tax-money funds them, that discussed more inclusivity and transparency because only a more diverse group of practitioners can ask more diverse questions, and that examined how, though science offers a useful way to make sense of the natural order, it doesn’t automatically justify itself nor is it entitled to the moral higher-ground.

The overarching idea was to ask questions about the natural universe without forgetting that the process of answering those questions is embedded in a wider social context that both supports and informs scientists’ practices and beliefs. There is no science without the scientists that practice it – yet most of us are not prepared to consider that science is as messy as every other human endeavour and isn’t the single-minded pursuit of truth its exponents often say it is.

In these fraught times, we shouldn’t forget that science guided only by the light of logic produces many of the reasons of state. The simplest way science communication can participate in this exercise, and not just be a mute spectator, is by injecting the scientist back into the science. This isn’t an abdication of the ideal of objectivity, even though objectivity itself has been outmoded by the advent of the irrational, majoritarian and xenophobic politics of nationalism. Instead, it is a reaffirmation that you can take science out of politics but that you can’t take politics out of science.

At the same time, the stories that emerge from this premise aren’t entirely immune to the incremental nature of scientific progress. We often have to march in step with the gentle rate at which scientists invent and/or discover things, and the similar pace at which the improvements among them are available to everyone everywhere. This fact offers one downside and one up: it is harder for our output to be noticed in the din of the news, but by staying alert to how little pieces of information from diverse lines of inquiry – both scientific and otherwise, especially from social science – can team up with significant consequence, we are better able to anticipate how stories will evolve and affect the world around them.

We hope you will continue to read, share and comment on the content published by The Wire Science. We have also been publicising articles from other publications and by bloggers we found interesting and have been reproducing (if available) on our website and on our social media platforms in an effort to create an appreciation of science stories beyond the ones we have been able to afford.

On this note: please also donate a sum comfortable to you to support our work. Even an amount as little as Rs 200 will go a long way.

The Wire
December 26, 2019

My country is burning. Why should I work?

A few days ago, I found asking myself the following question: My country is burning, why should I work? I ended up with some (admittedly inchoate) thoughts, delineated below.

I’m trying to fight off this abject helplessness I’m feeling and edit some science articles, and failing. I’m not able to justify to myself why I shouldn’t drop everything and rush to Delhi (at this time, the violence at Jamia Milia Islamia is about to peak). At the same time, deep in my heart and mind, I know there must be some reason to persevere with what one likes to do and is interested in doing instead of rushing to the frontlines at every sign of trouble.

Somewhere in this maze of thoughts, there is sure to be an illustrative story about duty and country – about the insidious diminishment of one endeavour in favour of another. Yes, we must resist the forces of tyranny and fascism, but there is less and less freedom to choose any forms of resistance other than pouring out on the streets, raising your hands and shouting slogans.

I have nothing against peaceful protest but I have everything against how other forms of protest have been rendered less useful, or entirely meaningless, largely by the same entity whose institutional violence instigated these protests in the first place. This isn’t a question of convenience but of effectiveness: If many of us are out protesting on the street, how many among us are there because other forms of resistance no longer work?

With notable exceptions, the press these days comprises organisations ranging from supine to malicious. Democratic institutions, like many lower courts, various government bodies and even the executive, have been press-ganged into the national government’s majoritarian agenda. The polarisation has become so sharp and the political opposition so negligible that it seems nearly impossible to counter India’s extreme-right politics with anything but politics of other extremes.

In such a time, what does it mean to focus on science communication? To be abundantly clear: I don’t mean focusing on science communication – or any endeavour not apparently connected to the maintenance of a democracy – instead of protesting. I mean joining a protest in the morning, and editing science articles in the evening. That is, where in your work lies the justification to do what you’re doing, simply because you’ve always liked doing it, and which empowers you the same way a resistance movement empowers its participants (at least if you believe you shouldn’t have to protest in order to express your participation and involvement in the country’s wellbeing)?

There is a terribly clichéd example from a previous era: that of starving children in Africa. But in that case, resolution was very easy to access. More recently and closer home, every time ISRO launches satellites to the Moon and Mars, some people in India complain that the country should focus on fixing smaller problems first. Here, too, the road to clarity is evident, if somewhat meandering, taking recourse through economic principles, technological opportunities and (thankfully) a bit of common sense.

However, going from science communication to resisting fascism seems more difficult than usual, although I refuse to admit it’s impossible. There must be a way.

A friend recently told me, “The onslaught on science and reason is part of the fascist agenda, too, and that must be resisted.” Indeed! This is an important perspective… but somehow it also seems insufficient because – again – the tunnel from ‘critical thinking’ to ‘healthy democracy’ has caved in. The one from ‘curious about the world’ to ‘healthy democracy’ is not even on the map, as if we are forgetting that the right to information is one of the foundational principles of a functional democracy, and that science since the early 20th century at least has been one of the dominant ways to obtain such information.

At a colloquium in August last year, Raghavendra Gadagkar, the noted ecologist at IISc, Bengaluru, described two periods that background the practice of science communication: wartime, when it is deployed with uncommon urgency and specificity of purpose, often to beat back a troublesome claim or belief, and peacetime, when it narrates various kinds of stories united only broadly in theme and often in pedagogic form.

The issue is with peacetime science communication and its perceived relevance. In India at least, the simplistic notions that the fascist narrative often reduces more nuanced arguments to present themselves to the typical reader in too many ways for scientists and its communicators to grapple by themselves. When they do, it’s most likely during wartime, and their – our – heightened effectiveness during these episodes of engagement, such as it is, could mislead us into believing science communication is effective and necessary, at least as gauged by quantitative metrics.

Our effectiveness depends on two things: the circumstances and the culture. The circumstances of communication are in our hands, such as the language, topic, presentation, etc. Subversive, small-minded politics erodes the culture, reducing the extent to which good science communication is in demand and pushing its place in the public conversation to the margins. Scicomm in this scenario becomes an esoteric specialisation treated with special gloves in the newsroom and as an optional extra by the readership.

This in turn is why if science communication, or communication of any sort, is to be effective during wartime, it must be kept up during peacetime as well. More specifically, science writers, reporters, editors and communicators of all hues should help in the fight against rhetoric that would reduce a multifaceted issue into a unidimensional one, that would flatten the necessary features of scientific progress into technological questions. We need to preserve the value of good science communication in peacetime as well. But thanks to the unfortunate sensationalist tendencies of journalism, often (but not always) motivated by commerce, such resistance will require more strength and imagination than is apparent.

One battle at a time.

Irrespective of whether you have joined the protests, you must at all other times – through your work, actions and words – keep authoritarian narratives at bay. And it’s because these modes of resistance have been annulled that a physical protest, one of whose strengths lies in numbers, which in turn renders it immutably visible, has become the most viable and thus the dominant display of opposition.

Standing in this moment and looking back at the last few years, some of us (depending on where our ideological, political and moral axes intersect) see a landscape mutilated by the slow violence of right-wing nationalism, and the Citizenship Amendment Act as the absolute last straw. I, a science communicator, am protesting every day – beyond the protests themselves – by reviving the formerly straightforward connections from curiosity and critical thinking to a plural, equitable, just and secular democracy.

False equivalency

Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post on August 16:

Does finding these powerful ways to frame the [Charlottesville] situation amount to abandoning journalistic impartiality?

“The whole doctrine of objectivity in journalism has become part of the [media’s] problem,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, said this week in a talk at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. He believes that journalists must state their biases up front and not pretend to be magically free of the beliefs or assumptions that everyone has.

If objectivity is a “view from nowhere,” it may be out of date. What’s never out of date, though, is clear truth-telling.

Journalists should indeed stand for some things. They should stand for factual reality. For insistence on what actually happened, not revisionism. For getting answers to questions that politicians don’t want to answer.

On point.

On the “view from nowhere”, a coinage of the philosopher Thomas Nagel, from Rosen’s blog:

In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view.

The traditional sides that reporters have been used to for many decades have, in these fractious times, been destabilised. One side – usually framed in the context of partisan politics – has been increasingly coming off as unhinged, almost depraved. In the US, this side is epitomised by its president, Donald Trump. In India, this side is that of the political right, the one occupied by the incumbent national government and in particular the politico-religious organisations backing it: the VHP, the RSS, etc.

Sullivan writes that Trump’s tacit support for the neo-Nazis and pro-Confederate forces at Charlottesville should put an end to false equivalency in journalism once and for all. She’s absolutely correct – just as we must put an end to ‘striving for objectivity’ within all of journalism itself. This said, one of her statements struck me as odd:

Journalists should indeed stand for some things. They should stand for factual reality. For insistence on what actually happened, not revisionism. For getting answers to questions that politicians don’t want to answer.

There are four sentences in this statement, and they progressively segue from being applicable to all of journalism to being applicable in a particular context, that of politics. And through this progression, I think some of the power of what she’s asking for, hoping for, is being lost. ‘Getting answers to questions politicians don’t want to answer’ is not so much a tenet of journalism (although arguably it is for adversarial journalism) as much as a narrative arc, and it doesn’t always conflict with equivalency, false or otherwise. Sullivan’s framing as a result seems to be a proxy for the belief that false equivalency is a problem only in national-level political coverage.

It is not.

At least not in the Indian context, where politics of one kind or other permeates our lives all the time. Even my writing on this blog is political in a sense because it is a display of social and economic privilege, no matter how subtle or unprovocative, and what advice I have to dispense out of this blog has to be – and will be – viewed through that lens. This is because there is more than just economic or even racial inequality in India: there are class- and caste-conflicts, linguistic chauvinism, a tacit north-south divide, and even an urban-rural split (typified by most mainstream media coverage).

A big problem in Indian journalism is the lack of representation of Dalits: there are no Dalits covering the news, at least not in any of the major media houses that publish content in English. Yet Dalits around the country are being mistreated by the government, the violence against them passively condoned. How this affects what we write might be apparent when covering politics or issues like agricultural distress and labour – but there is danger in assuming that it doesn’t affect how we cover science, for example (I’m a science writer).

Scientific facts could be ‘hard’ facts and writing/reporting about them is easier by a degree for this reason. When covering phenomenological developments – such as in physics and chemistry – you’re often either completely right or completely wrong. But the moment you step away from (at least classical) phenomena and turn your gaze onto human beings, you also give way for multiple truths to prevail, depending on the contexts in which you’re framing your narrative.

A popular example is in education. Well-staffed English-medium schools are less affordable than schools of other kinds in the country, and this creates a distortion in the demographic of scientists who eventually graduate from such a system. And if some of these scientists eventually argue against the quota system in Indian universities because it is limiting the number of ‘talented-enough’ students who graduate and work in their labs, they are both right and wrong – more likely neither and floating in the pea soup that is affirmative action.

Another example, and one of my pet peeves, is the representation of institutions in science journalism. When covering topics like stem-cell or molecular biology, political ecology, etc., many journalists quote scientists from one of three institutions (to establish authority in their stories): NCBS, IISc and ATREE. While researchers from these institutions might be doing good work and, more importantly, willing to speak to journalists, increasingly speaking only to them and playing up only their ideas may or may not create an imbalance of importance – but the journalist’s abdication of her responsibility to seek out scientists from other parts of the country definitely creates the impression that nobody else is doing good work in X area.

… and I could go on.

Circling back to Rosen’s and Sullivan’s comments: journalists should surely stand for factual reality. But it need not – and should not – be under the banner of objectivity. Similarly, the ‘view from nowhere’ does not exist because ‘nowhere’ does not exist. Where monopolar facts do prevail and feed into, say, sociological issues, their truth-value could remain at 1 but their relationship with social realities could simultaneously be in flux. In other words, right/wrong cannot be the sole axis on which journalists navigate reality; there is also the more-correct/less-correct axis (and possibly many others). And together, they can and do give rise to complex stories.

Recommended reading: To stop superstition, we need viable ethical perspectives, not more scienceThe Wire

Bitcoins and the landscape of internet commerce

In a previous post, I’d laid out the technical details of what goes into mining and transacting with bitcoins (BTC). My original idea was to talk about why they are an important invention, but also felt that the technology mattered enough to merit a post of its own.

BTCs are not a fiat currency. That means they’re a kind of money that has not acquired its value from a government, a government-backed organization or a law. Instead, BTCs acquire their value by assuring security, anonymity and translatability, and are most suited for performing transactions that could do without incompetent interference from banks and public bodies. In short, BTCs are not government-backed.

They’re ‘produced’ by users who have a piece of open source code using which they perform multiple encryptions to ‘mine’ a coin. The rest of the network then checks the validity of the coin using similar encryptions. There’s a mediating regulatory system that’s purely algorithmic, and it automatically and continuously adjusts the difficulty of mining a coin until all 21 million have been mined.

The technical intricacies behind the currency have built up to provide the virtual currency with some critical features that have, in the recent months, made BTCs both a currency and a commodity.

Bitcoins are different because they’re made differently

The commodity value rests in its currency value (and some speculative value), which isn’t just a number but a number and some implications. The number, of course, is somewhere around $124 for 1 BTC today (June 2, 2013). The implications are that you don’t have to reveal your identity if you’re an owner of BTCs. This is partly because the currency has no central issuing authority that’s regulating its flow, therefore no body that wants to know how the coins are being used and by whom.

Think World of Warcraft and in-game money: You play the game, you make some, you hoard and safeguard it. Now, imagine if you could use this money in the real world. That’s what BTCs are.

As a collateral, you also get to transfer coins anonymously. You do this between what are called wallets, each of which contains ‘addresses’ to locations on the web; each address contains some bitcoins.

The technical architecture is such that once coins are sent, they stay sent; there’s no way to reverse the transaction other than by initiating a new one. There are also far fewer security concerns than those tagging along with offline currencies, such as forgery and material damage. BTCs simply exist as a string of numbers and characters on the internet. Their veracity is established by the mining network.

They are also invisible to banks and taxmen. Why are they invisible to banks? Because the implied authority of BTCs arises from its ‘democratically’ secured birth and distribution, and doesn’t need an institution like the bank to verify its validity, nor, as a result, will it be subject to a processing fee (the ‘democracy’ is ironic because there’s no one to take the blame when something about the coins goes wrong). Why are they invisible to taxmen? Because they are not issued by a government.

Thus, on the upside, there is no authority that can debase the currency, mishandle it out of greed or just plain incompetence, nor lend it out in waves with no thought spared for the reserves. As Warren Buffet wrote in 2012: “Governments determine the ultimate value of money, and systemic forces will sometimes cause them to gravitate to policies that produce inflation. From time to time such policies spin out of control.”

The threat of deflation

On the downside, because of the anonymity and irreversibility of transactions, and if your system is left vulnerable to a hack while you take a nap, your BTCs can be stolen from your wallet forever, with no way to find out who took them. However, this is only a minor glitch in the bitcoins system; an even larger one is the threat of deflation.

At the moment, there are some 11 million BTCs already mined, with the remaining 10 million to be mined by 2025. Even by about 2020-2022, the supply of BTCs as regulated by the network will become so low as to be, for all practical purposes, considered constant. By then, price discovery would’ve matured, and speculations diminished, so that each coin will then have an almost fixed, instead of constantly increasing, price-tag. This process will also be aided by scale.

Unfortunately, if, by then, millions use BTCs, the absence of anyone to issue new units would lead to spiking demand and, thus, value, resulting in an enormous deflation of commodities. And in a deflationary environment, economies don’t grow; this is where a primitive crypto-currency differs from government-issued notations of currency (this is also what happened in 1636). So, a widespread adoption of BTCs is not a good thing, but it’s a good place to start thinking what about currencies needs to be fixed.

An ideal currency, for example, might be able to transcend borders and appeal to things other than nationality to be held valuable, like BTCs can be converted into a host of other currencies, and even be used to denote value in different countries simultaneously.

For instance, a service titled Mt. Gox operates out of the US that lets you convert dollars into BTCs. However, ever since the FBI decided to crack down on the system because it was a violation of federal law for individuals to create private currency systems, Mt. Gox has necessitated photographic identities of its users since May 30, which defeats the central purpose. Of course, Gox’s faulty policies that made it harder to obtain coins were also to blame. The moral’s that they’re attracting the wrong kind of attention and that makes them even less attractive an asset.

Lighting the way ahead

At the end of the day, BTCs offer a lot of promise about refining future payments. Extensions to it likeZerocoin assist in the preservation of anonymity even if it has been violated by government interference. In the future, BTCs might even tear down paywalls and boost trade. Even fight spam (by making you pay a thousandth of a BTC to a receiver every time you sent out a mail. If you sent out a billion, you’d have paid up – all without the hassle of using a credit card)!

At the moment, though, bitcoins are assailed by important flaws as well as heady speculation that’s driving their mining, but they’re showing the way ahead well enough.

This post first appeared, as written by me, on The Copernican science blog on June 2, 2013.