Pandemic: A world-building exercise

First, there was light news of a vaccine against COVID-19 nearing the end of its phase 3 clinical trials with very promising results, accompanied with breezy speculations (often tied to the stock prices of a certain drug-maker) about how it’s going to end the pandemic in six months.

An Indian disease-transmission modeller – of the sort who often purport to be value-free ‘quants’ interested in solving mathematical puzzles that don’t impinge on the real world – reads about the vaccine and begins to tweak his models accordingly. Soon, he has a projection that shines bright in the dense gloom of bad news.

One day, as the world is surely hurtling towards a functional vaccine, it becomes known that some of the world’s richest countries – representing an eighth of the planet’s human population – have secreted more than half of the world’s supply of the vaccine.

Then, a poll finds that over half of all Americans wouldn’t trust a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. The poll hasn’t been conducted in other countries.

A glut of companies around the world have invested heavily in various COVID-19 vaccine candidates, even as the latter are yet to complete phase 3 clinical trials. Should a candidate not clear its trial, a corresponding company could lose its investment without insurance or some form of underwriting by the corresponding government.

Taken together, these scenarios portend a significant delay between a vaccine successfully completing its clinical trials and becoming available to the population, and another delay between general availability and adoption.

The press glosses over these offsets, developing among its readers a distorted impression of the pandemic’s progression – an awkward blend of two images, really: one in which the richer countries are rapidly approaching herd immunity while, in the other, there is a shortage of vaccines.

Sooner or later, a right-wing commentator notices there is a commensurately increasing risk of these poorer countries ‘re-exporting’ the virus around the world. Politicians hear him and further stigmatise these countries, and build support for xenophobic and/or supremacist policies.

Meanwhile, the modeller notices the delays as well. When he revises his model, he finds that as governments relax lockdowns and reopen airports for international travel, differences in screening procedures in different countries could allow the case load to rise and fall around the world in waves – in effect ensuring the pandemic will take longer to end.

His new paper isn’t taken very seriously. It’s near the end of the pandemic, everyone has been told, and he’s being a buzzkill. (It’s also a preprint, and that, a senior scientist in government nearing his retirement remarks, “is all you need to know”.) Distrust of his results morphs slowly into a distrust towards scientists’ predictions, and becomes ground to dismiss most discomfiting findings.

The vaccine is finally available in middle- and low-income countries. But in India, this bigger picture plays out at smaller scales, like a fractal. Neither the modeller nor the head of state included the social realities of Indian society in their plans – but no one noticed because both had conducted science by press release.

As they scratch their heads, they also swat away at people at the outer limits of the country’s caste and class groups clutching at them in desperation. A migrant worker walks past unnoticed. One of them wonders if he needs to privatise healthcare more. The other is examining his paper for arithmetic mistakes.

The WHA coronavirus resolution is not great for science

On May 19, member states of the WHO moved a vote in the World Health Assembly (WHA), asking for an independent investigation into the sources of the novel coronavirus.

Their exact demands were spelled out in a draft resolution that asked the WHO to, among other things, “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions”.

The resolution was backed by 62 countries, including India, and the decision to adopt it was passed with 116 votes in favour, out of 194. This fraction essentially indicates that the overwhelming majority of WHO’s member states want to ‘reform’ the organisation towards a better response to the pandemic, especially in terms of obtaining information that they believe China has been reluctant to share.

The resolution follows from Australia’s demand in April 2020 for a public inquiry against China, suggesting that the Asian superpower was responsible for the virus and the global outbreak (not surprisingly, US President Donald Trump expressed his support). Together with the fact that the document doesn’t once mention China, the resolution is likely an expression of concern that seeks to improve international access to biological samples, specific locations and research data necessary to find out how the novel coronavirus came to infect humans, and which animal or avian species were intermediate hosts.

As it happens, this arguably legitimate demand doesn’t preclude the possibility that the resolution is motivated, at least in part, by the need to explore what is in many political leaders’ view the ‘alternative’ that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.

The WHA vote passed and the independent investigation will happen – but by who or how is unclear. Let’s assume for now that some team or other comes together and conducts the requisite studies.

What if the team does find that the virus is not lab-made? Will those WHO member states, and/or their politicians back home, that were in favour of the resolution to explore the ‘lab hypothesis’ let the matter rest? Or will they point fingers at the WHO and claim it is too favourable to China, as President Trump has already done and to which the resolution’s reformatory language alludes?

In fact, the investigation is unlikely to zero in on the virus’s origins if they were natural because too much time has passed since the first zoonotic spillover event. The bread crumbs could have long faded by the time the investigation team sets out on its task. It won’t be impossible, mind, but it will be very difficult and likely require many months to conclude.

But what if the investigation somehow finds that the virus was engineered in a lab and then leaked, either deliberately or accidentally? Will the scientists and those who believed them (including myself) stand corrected?

They will not. There’s a simple reason why: they – we – have thus far not been given enough evidence to reach this conclusion.

Indeed, there is already sufficient explanation these days to claim that the novel coronavirus is of natural origin and insufficient explanation that it was engineered. A study published on March 17, 2020, collected evidence for the former (and many others continue to do so). An excerpt from the conclusion:

The genomic features described here may explain in part the infectiousness and transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimised RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.

If there is any animosity at all directed at China for supposedly engineering the virus, the countries that backed the resolution could only have done so by actively ignoring the evidence that already exists to the contrary.

In this particular case, it becomes extremely important for the representatives of these countries to explain why they think the evidence that scientists have not been able to find actually exists, and that they are simply yet to discover it. That is, why do they think some pieces are missing from the puzzle?

There is of course room for a deeper counter-argument here, but it isn’t entirely tenable either. One could still argue that there might be a larger ‘super-theory’ that encompasses the present one even as it elucidates a non-natural origin for the virus. This is akin to the principle of correspondence in the philosophy of science. The advent of the theories of relativity did not invalidate the Newtonian theory of gravity. Instead, the former resemble the latter in the specific domain in which the latter is applicable. Similarly, a ‘super-theory’ of the virus’s origins could point to evidence of bioengineering even as its conclusions resemble the evidence I’m pointing to to ascertain that the virus is natural.

But even then, the question remains: Why do you think such a theory exists?

Without this information, we are at risk of wasting our time in each pandemic looking for alternate causes that may or may not exist, many of which are quite politically convenient as well.

Perhaps we can assimilate a sign of things to come based on Harsh Vardhan’s performance as the chairman of the WHA’s executive board. Vardhan was elected into this position at the same WHA that adopted the draft resolution, and his highest priority is likely to be the independent investigation that the resolution calls for. As it happens, according to OP8 of the resolution, the resolution:

… calls on international organisations and other relevant stakeholders to … address, and where relevant in coordination with Member States, the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation particularly in the digital sphere, as well as the proliferation of malicious cyber-activities that undermine the public health response, and support the timely provision of clear, objective and science-based data and information to the public.

India as a member state is certainly a stakeholder, and Nitin Gadkari, one of the country’s senior ministers, recently said in an interview that the novel coronavirus was made in a lab. This is misinformation plain and simple, and goes against the call for the “timely provision of clear, objective and science-based information to the public”. Will the chair address this, please – or even future instances of such imprudence?

Ultimately, unless the investigation ends with the conspiracists changing their minds, the only outcome that seems to be guaranteed is that scientists will know their leaders no longer trust their work.

Featured image: The assembly hall of the Palace of Nations, Geneva, where the World Health Assembly usually meets. Photo: Tom Page/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

A personal manifesto

Many people who are unsure of how their work can help put out the various (figurative) fires ravaging the country at the moment often quickly conclude that purpose is best found at the frontlines of this battle.

The common trap here is to conflate the most obvious path with the most right path, or either of them with the only path. It’s easier to protest, violently or non-violently, than to confront the apparent uselessness of whatever it is we had been doing until that moment. We passively discourage ourselves from doing something just because we liked doing it and aspire to doing something else because it accords a stronger sense of purpose, of being useful, in this moment. Putting the fires out becomes more important than everything else.

But the greatest trick the fascists ever pulled was in convincing us that everything we do that’s not immediately of service to the nation is useless.

What we do is worth protecting. How we enjoy the peace is what makes a people, society and culture worth protecting – not the other way around. The nationalist machine has slowly but surely turned this truism on its head, positing the protection itself, and the ethnically and religiously rooted cause legitimising it, as the end-all of our existence, and rendering the freedom of choice as constructed by various articles of the Constitution an indulgence of the selfish elite.

The fascists isolate us and make us think we’re alone. This loneliness stems from the sense either that we’re not one with the nationalists’ cause or that we’re not part of the resistance actively opposing the fascists. Resistance is necessary but the fascists score a point the moment you believe physical resistance is the sole form of valid resistance, and that the endgame is the only moment that matters. Resistive action in moments of crisis is by itself a necessary but insufficient condition that must be fulfilled to thwart our enemies.

If only we remember, for example, that we as a people are worth protecting for choosing to exercise our freedoms when the going gets tough and – to borrow Neil Gaiman’s suggestion – make good art, we are easily salvaged. We are salvaged if we have a fun evening with friends, go for an eclipse-watching picnic with the family, learn to sing or teach to dance, tip generously, water the fields, figure out a problem, walk the dog, go to school, make a good cup of tea, even watch the Sun rise.

There is a simple but persistent purpose in all of these things, little springboards from which to make giant leaps, and the politics of Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro would destroy just this foundation. Their politics represents the extremum of JFK’s exhortation to ‘ask what you can do for your country’, so it’s only natural to feel conflicted when one is seemingly forced to oppose it. But oppose it we must because the nation-state cannot make unlimited demands of the individual either.

The nationalists have further isolated us by carving science and society into distinct parts, robbing science of the moderating lessons of history and by robbing the transient present of the reassuring light of reason. They prize expertise to the point that it renders common sense dangerous, and they declare war on universities to ensure expertise is rare. They value data and facts above all else, empowering themselves to claim the virtuous pedestals of rationality and objectivity, when in fact they have weaponised the context and twisted definitions beyond recognition.

They isolate us by delegitimising our fictions, and the people and labour that produce them, substituting them in the public imagination with made-up histories that have none of fiction’s potential to enlighten and empower and all of scripture’s aspiration to subdue and stifle. In this moment, there is a valuable victory to be had in celebrating homegrown writers, musicians, filmmakers and illustrators.

While the greatest trick the fascists ever pulled was in convincing us that everything we do that’s not immediately of service to the nation is useless, they have also given away what it is we feel we have lost when we begin to feel helpless and insufficient in the face of their bigotry and triumphalism. Let’s reclaim the right to enjoy anything at all that we please (as long as they abide by constitutional principles). It may not seem like much but that’s also why we shouldn’t cede it: lose it and we have no legs to stand on.

Accumulation then philanthropy

Peter Woit’s review of a new book about Jim Simons, the mathematician and capitalist who set up the Simons Foundation, which funds math and physics research around the world but principally in the West to the tune of $300 million a year, raises an intriguing question only to supersede its moral quandaries by the political rise of Donald Trump in the US. To quote select portions from the review:

In the case of the main money-maker, their Medallion fund, it’s hard to argue that the short-term investment strategies they use provide important market liquidity. The fund is closed to outside investors, and makes money purely personally for those involved with RenTech, not for institutions like pension funds. So, the social impact of RenTech will come down to that of what Simons and a small number of other mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists decide to do with the trading profits.

Simons himself has engaged in some impressive philanthropy, but one perhaps should weigh that against the effects of the money spent by Robert Mercer, the co-CEO he left the company to. Mercer and his daughter have a lot of responsibility for some of the most destructive recent attacks on US democracy (e.g. Breitbart and the Cambridge Analytica 2016 election story). In the historical evaluation of whether the world would have been better off with or without RenTech, the fact that RenTech money may have been a determining factor in bringing Trump and those around him to power is going to weigh heavily on one side.

This may be the Simons Foundation’s fate but what of other wealthy bodies that accumulate capital by manipulating various financial instruments – the way Jim Simons did – and then donate all or part of them to research? Bill Gates was complicit, as were his compatriots at Silicon Valley, in the rise of techno-optimism and its attendant politics and fallacies, but the foundation he and his wife run today is becoming instrumental in the global fight against malaria. Gates’s Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen has a similar story, as did Jeffrey Epstein, as do many other ‘venture capitalists’ who had to accumulate capital – a super-sin of our times – before redistributing it philanthropically to various causes, benign and otherwise.

If these various organisations hadn’t acquired their wealth in the first place, would their later philanthropy have been necessary? A follow-up: There’s an implicit tendency to assume the research that these foundations fund can only be a good but is it really? Aside from the question of science’s, and scientists’, relationship with the rest of society, I wonder how differently research efforts would be spread around the world if the world had been spared the accumulation-then-philanthropy exercise. If there is a straightforward argument for why there’s likely to be no difference, I’m all ears; but if such an argument doesn’t exist, perhaps there’s an injustice there we should address.

A view of a road from next to a gutter filled with leaves.

Two sides of the road and the gutter next to it

I have a mid-October deadline for an essay so obviously when I started reading up on the topic this morning, I ended up on a different part of the web – where I found this: a piece by a journalist talking about the problems with displaying one’s biases. Its headline:

It’s a straightforward statement until you start thinking about what bias is, and according to whom. On 99% of occasions when a speaker uses the word, she means it as a deviation from the view from nowhere. But the view from nowhere seldom exists. It’s almost always a view from somewhere even if many of us don’t care to acknowledge that, especially in stories where people are involved.

It’s very easy to say Richard Feynman and Kary Mullis deserved to win their Nobel Prizes in 1965 and 1993, resp., and stake your claim to being objective, but the natural universe is little like the anthropological one. For example, it’s nearly impossible to separate your opinion of Feynman’s or Mullis’s greatness from your opinions about how they treated women, which leads to the question whether the prizes Feynman and Mullis won might have been awarded to others – perhaps to women who would’ve stayed in science if not for these men and made the discoveries they did.

One way or another, we are all biased. Those of us who are journalists writing articles involving people and their peopleness are required to be aware of these biases and eliminate them according to the requirements of each story. Only those of us who are monks are getting rid of biases entirely (if at all).

It’s important to note here that the Poynter article makes a simpler mistake. It narrates the story of two reporters: one, Omar Kelly, doubted an alleged rape victim’s story because the woman in question had reported the incident many months after it happened; the other, the author herself, didn’t express such biases publicly, allowing her to be approached by another victim (from a different incident) to have her allegations brought to a wider audience.

Do you see the problem here? Doubting the victim or blaming the victim for what happened to her in the event of a sexual crime is not bias. It’s stupid and insensitive. Poynter’s headline should’ve been “Reporters who are stupid and insensitive fail their sources – and their profession”. The author of the piece further writes about Kelly:

He took sides. He acted like a fan, not a journalist. He attacked the victim instead of seeking out the facts as a journalist should do.

Doubting the victim is not a side; if it is, then seeking the facts would be a form of bias. It’s like saying a road has two sides: the road itself and the gutter next to it. Elevating unreason and treating it at par with reasonable positions on a common issue is what has brought large chunks of our entire industry to its current moment – when, for example, the New York Times looks at Trump and sees just another American president or when Swarajya looks at Surjit Bhalla and sees just another economist.

Indeed, many people have demonised the idea of a bias by synonymising it with untenable positions better described (courteously) as ignorant. So when the moment comes for us to admit our biases, we become wary, maybe even feel ashamed, when in fact they are simply preferences that we engender as we go about our lives.

Ultimately, if the expectation is that bias – as in its opposition to objectivity, a.k.a. the view from nowhere – shouldn’t exist, then the optimal course of action is to eliminate our specious preference for objectivity (different from factuality) itself, and replace it with honesty and a commitment to reason. I, for example, don’t blame people for their victimisation; I also subject an article exhorting agricultural workers to switch to organic farming to more scrutiny than I would an article about programmes to sensitise farmers about issues with pesticide overuse.

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

An image from a shipborne NASA investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Establishing trust across the aisle on issues of climate change

Featured image: An image from a shipborne NASA investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean’s chemistry and ecosystems. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I met someone over the weekend who wasn’t sure:

  1. That there is scientific consensus on the magnitude of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and
  2. What the level of human contribution is to rising temperatures (or, how much natural variations could/couldn’t account for)

I believe that AGW is valid and that, if we don’t do something about the way we’re using Earth’s natural resources, AGW will be extremely damaging to the environment as soon as a century from now (to be even more proper about it: that AGW will force nature to adapt in ways that will no longer preserve characteristics that we have been able to attribute to it for thousands of years). This said: I’m not here to describe how the conversation with my friend went but to highlight two specific sources of information that were in play last night and which I think are worth discussing because of their attempts at coming off as trustworthy.

An ivory tower from the inside

In May 2013, John Cook et al published a paper titled ‘Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature’. It was a literature review of 11,944 papers published in 1,980 journals, all papers dealing with climate change. Using a large team of volunteers, the authors then classified each paper into one of five groups depending on what its abstract said about the paper’s position on climate change. These were the results:

rucyo-1

(Obviously the links within the image aren’t clickable, so if you’re looking for the data: the paper’s open access.) At the time of publication, the paper received a lot of play in the media – largely because of the numbers in the first row, columns two and four. According to it, 97.1% of all papers that have a position on AGW endorse AGW and 98.% of all authors that have a position on AGW endorse AGW. However, both the giant numbers don’t correspond to the 11,944 abstracts surveyed but the 3,893 (32.6%) that the authors qualified as having a position on AGW.

Clearly, the way to interpret John Cook et al would’ve been to say it like Der Spiegel did: ‘Von knapp 4000 Studien, die die Ursachen der Klimaerwärmung thematisierten, stützen 97 Prozent die Annahme vom menschgemachten Klimawandel’ (“Of nearly 4,000 studies dealing with the causes of climate warming, 97 percent support the assumption of human-driven climate change”). However, my friend – during the course of his arguments – often lingered on the 66.7% (7,966) of all papers that were uncertain about or refused to take a position on AGW. Specifically, he took the exclusion of these papers from the calculation that arrived at a number like “97.1%” to be misguided. After all, he reasoned, ~8,000 papers out of ~12,000 had seen it fit to not explicitly endorse AGW.

Dana Nuccitelli and John Cook, two of the paper’s authors, tried to explain these numbers thus on the Skeptical Science blog:

We found that about two-thirds of papers didn’t express a position on the subject in the abstract, which confirms that we were conservative in our initial abstract ratings. This result isn’t surprising for two reasons: 1) most journals have strict word limits for their abstracts, and 2) frankly, every scientist doing climate research knows humans are causing global warming. There’s no longer a need to state something so obvious. For example, would you expect every geological paper to note in its abstract that the Earth is a spherical body that orbits the sun?

I don’t buy it. The first sentence – “We found that about two-thirds of papers didn’t express a position on the subject in the abstract, which confirms that we were conservative in our initial abstract ratings” – is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else. The first part of the second sentence requires even more analysis to verify, considering the 11,944 papers they parsed appeared in 1,980 journals, and the fraction of journals that set a word-limit for the abstract might just be non-trivial. The second part is, to me, the display of off-putting arrogance. Doesn’t saying “frankly, every scientist doing climate research knows humans are causing global warming” imply the authors are being dismissive of their own conclusions? And finally, that Earth orbits the Sun is far more obvious than a thesis the defence of which rests on the presumption that the thesis is right – a circularity that renders all facts moot.

While none of this makes me question the validity of AGW, which I still endorse for various reasons, Nuccitelli-Cook’s pseudo-defence doesn’t help me trust them in particular. In fact, their position makes me more suspicious of why they arrived at a number like 32.6% when they were assuming at the outset that it would really be 100%.

An attempt to escape the tower

As it happens, Nuccitelli-Cook don’t appear to be in the minority. To assume that all climate researchers know AGW is valid is also to presume that those who dispute its existence or extent are not really climate researchers (if they’re in the same field) – and this appears to be the case with Judith Curry’s detractors. Until a week ago, Curry was the chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta (she quit on January 1). She shot into the limelight in 2005 after coauthoring a paper that linked a rising incidence of hurricanes with AGW. However, it wasn’t the conclusion of the paper itself but what it led to that put Curry on the climatological map: she began to engage actively with climate skeptics on blogs and other fora in an effort to defend the methods of her paper. And this, for some reason, infuriated her colleagues. A profile of Curry in Nature in 2010 said:

Climate skeptics have seized on Curry’s statements to cast doubt on the basic science of climate change. So it is important to emphasize that nothing she encountered led her to question the science; she still has no doubt that the planet is warming, that human-generated greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are in large part to blame, or that the plausible worst-case scenario could be catastrophic. She does not believe that the Climategate e-mails are evidence of fraud or that the IPCC is some kind of grand international conspiracy. What she does believe is that the mainstream climate science community has moved beyond the ivory tower into a type of fortress mentality, in which insiders can do no wrong and outsiders are forbidden entry.

But Curry’s position has diverged further since: On April 15, 2015, Curry testified before the US House of Representatives Committee on Space, Science and Technology that she didn’t think scientists knew how much humans influenced the climate, especially since the 1950s. This was discomfiting to discover because now I’m suspecting what qualms Curry had with climate science itself instead of only with the attitudes subsection of it. Ken Rice, a computational astrophysicist at the University of Edinburgh, commented at the time:

Again with all the we don’t knows. Yes, we might not know but we have a pretty good idea of what caused the Little Ice Age (reduced solar insolation and increased volcanic activity) and it was obviously not attributed to humans. Why is that even worth mentioning? Again, we might not know what will happen in the 21st century, but we have a fairly good idea of what will happen if we continue to increase our emissions.

So, if we’re going to move forward by acknowledging that what we’ve been trying so far has failed and that others should have a stronger voice, why would we do so if some of those others don’t appear to know anything? Given this, I’ll expand a little on my thoughts with regards to [Steven] Mosher’s point that with regards to policy, science doesn’t much matter. Yes, in some sense I agree with this; let’s stop arguing about science and just get on with deciding on the optimal policies. However, science does inform policy and I fail to see how we can develop sensible policy if we start with the view that we don’t know anything.

In the same vein: what reason is there to get out of the ivory tower at all if, from within, climate scientists have been able to accomplish so much? The simplest answer would be that Donald Trump is set become the 45th president of the US about eleven days from now, and the millions who voted him to power don’t care that he’s a climate skeptic. Even if outgoing president Barack Obama believes that the American adoption of clean energy is irreversible, what Trump could do is destabilise American leadership of international climate negotiations. AGW-endorsers sitting within their comfort zones of Numbers Don’t Lie could find this a particularly difficult battle to win because the IPCC and its brand of questionable integrity is doing no one any favours either. Even if the body’s on the “right” side of things, its attitude has been damaging to say the least (sort of like GMO and Monsanto).

Keith Kloor, former editor of Audubon, recently wrote on Issues of Science and Technology,

Donald Trump’s improbable march to the White House shocked many, but the tactics that made it possible undoubtedly looked familiar to those of us who have navigated the topsy-turvy landscape of contested science. For Trump’s success was predicated on techniques that are used by advocates across the ideological spectrum to dispute or at least muddy established truths in science. … With the ascension of Trump in 2016, have we graduated from truthiness to what some political observers are now calling the post-truth era? Post-truth is defined by Oxford Dictionary as a state in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion.” But this doesn’t do justice to the bending of reality by Trump en route to the White House. You can’t do that simply with appeals to emotion; you need, as his triumph suggests, a made-for-media narrative, with villains, accomplices, and heroes. You need to do what has already been proven to work in warping public perceptions and discussion of certain fields of science.

Those who believe Curry shouldn’t engage with skeptics because her decision could be interpreted as a prominent academic exiting the pro-AGW camp is difficult to buy into – even if Curry did switch camps. It’s hard to arbitrate because there are two variables: the uncertainties inherent in climate modelling (even if the bigger picture still endorses AGW) and how that proselytised someone of the calibre of Judith Curry. Surely the (former) head of a reputed department at Georgia Tech is not the same as any other skeptic?

I thought it was common sense to engage with people from across the aisle instead of letting them persist with information they think is credible but which you think is incredible – to the point that, over time, you become habituated to disregard them irrespective of the legitimacy of their demands. Moreover, giving room for people to disagree with you, to engage with them by making your methods and data available, and working with them to conduct replication studies that test the robustness of your own methods are all features of research and publishing that are being increasingly adopted to everyone’s benefit, most of all science’s.

It’s not hard from here-now to see that moving the other way – by making people anxious even to ask honest questions, by robbing them of the opportunity to respectfully disagree – isn’t going to do much good. Being nice also helps maintain a non-fragmented community that doesn’t further legitimise the impression that “science doesn’t matter when it comes to policy”.

The metaphorical transparency of responsible media

Featured image credit: dryfish/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I’d written a two-part essay (although they were both quite short; reproduced in full below) on The Wire about what science was like in 2016 and what we can look forward to in 2017. The first part was about how science journalism in India is a battle for relevance, both within journalistic circles and among audiences. The second was about how science journalism needs to be treated like other forms of journalism in 2017, and understood to be afflicted with the same ills that, say, political and business journalism are.

Other pieces on The Wire that had the same mandate, of looking back and looking forward, stuck to being roundups and retrospective analyses. My pieces were retrospective, too, but they – to use the parlance of calculus – addressed the second derivative of science journalism, in effect performing a meta-analysis of the producers and consumers of science writing. This blog post is a quick discussion (or rant) of why I chose to go the “science media” way.

We in India often complain about how the media doesn’t care enough to cover science stories. But when we’re looking back and forward in time, we become blind to the media’s efforts. And looking back is more apparently problematic than is looking forward.

Looking back is problematic because our roundup of the ‘best’ science (the ‘best’ being whatever adjective you want it to be) from the previous year is actually a roundup of the ‘best’ science we were able to discover or access from the previous year. Many of us may have walled ourselves off into digital echo-chambers, sitting within not-so-fragile filter bubbles and ensuring news we don’t want to read about doesn’t reach us at all. Even so, the stories that do reach us don’t make up the sum of all that is available to consume because of two reasons:

  1. We practically can’t consume everything, period.
  2. Unless you’re a journalist or someone who is at the zeroth step of the information dissemination pyramid, your submission to a source of information is simply your submission to another set of filters apart from your own. Without these filters, finding something you are looking for on the web would be a huge problem.

So becoming blind to media efforts at the time of the roundup is to let journalists (who sit higher up on the dissemination pyramid) who should’ve paid more attention to scientific developments off the hook. For example, assuming things were gloomy in 2016 is assuming one thing given another thing (like a partial differential): “while the mood of science news could’ve been anything between good and bad, it was bad” GIVEN “journalists mostly focused on the bad news over the good news”. This is only a simplistic example: more often than not, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can be replaced by ‘significant’ and ‘insignificant’. Significance is also a function of media attention. At the time of probing our sentiments on a specific topic, we should probe the information we have as well as how we acquired that information.

Looking forward without paying attention to how the media will likely deal with science is less apparently problematic because of the establishment of the ideal. For example, to look forward is also to hope: I can say an event X will be significant irrespective of whether the media chooses to cover it (i.e., “it should ideally be covered”); when the media doesn’t cover the event, then I can recall X as well as pull up journalists who turned a blind eye. In this sense, ignoring the media is to not hold its hand at the beginning of the period being monitored – and it’s okay. But this is also what I find problematic. Why not help journalists look out for an event when you know it’s going to happen instead of relying on their ‘news sense’, as well as expecting them to have the time and attention to spend at just the right time?

Effectively: pull us up in hindsight – but only if you helped us out in foresight. (The ‘us’ in this case is, of course, #notalljournalists. Be careful with whom you choose to help or you could be wasting your time.)


Part I: Why Independent Media is Essential to Good Science Journalism

What was 2016 like in science? Furious googling will give you the details you need to come to the clinical conclusion that it wasn’t so bad. After all, LIGO found gravitational waves; an Ebola vaccine was readied; ISRO began tests of its reusable launch vehicle; the LHC amassed particle collisions data; the Philae comet-hopping mission ended; New Horizons zipped past Pluto; Juno is zipping around Jupiter; scientists did amazing (but sometimes ethically questionable) things with CRISPR; etc. But if you’ve been reading science articles throughout the year, then please take a step back from everything and think about what your overall mood is like.

Because, just as easily as 2016 was about mega-science projects doing amazing things, it was also about climate-change action taking a step forward but not enough; about scientific communities becoming fragmented; about mainstream scientific wisdom becoming entirely sidelined in some parts of the world; about crucial environmental protections being eroded; about – undeniably – questionable practices receiving protection under the emotional cover of nationalism. As a result, and as always, it is difficult to capture what this year was to science in a single mood, unless that mood in turn captures anger, dismay, elation and bewilderment at various times.

So, to simplify our exercise, let’s do that furious googling – and then perform a meta-analysis to reflect on where each of us sees fit to stand with respect to what the Indian scientific enterprise has been up to this year. (Note: I’m hoping this exercise can also be a referendum on the type of science news The Wire chose to cover this year, and how that can be improved in 2017.) The three broad categories (and sub-categories) of stories that The Wire covered this year are:

GOOD BAD UGLY
Different kinds of ISRO rockets – sometimes with student-built sats onboard – took off Big cats in general, and leopards specifically, had a bad year Indian scientists continued to plagiarise and engage in other forms of research misconduct without consequence
ISRO decided to partially privatise PSLV missions by 2020 The JE/AES scourge struck again, their effects exacerbated by malnutrition The INO got effectively shut down
LIGO-India collaboration received govt. clearance; Indian scientists of the LIGO collaboration received a vote of confidence from the international community PM endorsed BGR-34, an anti-diabetic drug of dubious credentials Antibiotic resistance worsened in India (and other middle-income nations)
We supported ‘The Life of Science’ Govt. conceived misguided culling rules India succumbed to US pressure on curtailing generic drugs
Many new species of birds/animals discovered in India Ken-Betwa river linkup approved at the expense of a tiger sanctuary Important urban and rural waterways were disrupted, often to the detriment of millions
New telescopes were set up, further boosting Indian astronomy; ASTROSAT opened up for international scientists Many conservation efforts were hampered – while some were mooted that sounded like ministers hadn’t thought them through Ministers made dozens of pseudoscientific claims, often derailing important research
Otters returned to their habitats in Kerala and Goa A politician beat a horse to its death Fake-science-news was widely reported in the Indian media
Janaki Lenin continued her ‘Amazing Animals’ series Environmental regulations turned and/or stayed anti-environment Socio-environmental changes resulting from climate change affect many livelihoods around the country
We produced monthly columns on modern microbiology and the history of science We didn’t properly respond to human-wildlife conflicts Low investments in public healthcare, and focus on privatisation, short-changed Indian patients
Indian physicists discovered a new form of superconductivity in bismuth GM tech continues to polarise scientists, social scientists and activists Space, defence-research and nuclear power establishments continued to remain opaque
/ Conversations stuttered on eastern traditions of science /

I leave it to you to weigh each of these types of stories as you see fit. For me – as a journalist – science in the year 2016 was defined by two parallel narratives: first, science coverage in the mainstream media did not improve; second, the mainstream media in many instances remained obediently uncritical of the government’s many dubious claims. As a result, it was heartening on the first count to see ‘alternative’ publications like The Life of Science and The Intersection being set up or sustained (as the case may be).

On the latter count: the media’s submission paralleled, rather directly followed, its capitulation to pro-government interests (although some publications still held out). This is problematic for various reasons, but one that is often overlooked is that the “counterproductive continuity” that right-wing groups stress upon – between traditional wisdom and knowledge derived through modern modes of investigation – receives nothing short of a passive endorsement by uncritical media broadcasts.

From within The Wire, doing a good job of covering science has become a battle for relevance as a result. And this is a many-faceted problem: it’s as big a deal for a science journalist to come upon and then report a significant story as finding the story itself in the first place – and it’s as difficult to get every scientist you meet to trust you as it is to convince every reader who visits The Wire to read an article or two in the science section per visit. Fortunately (though let it not be said that this is simply a case of material fortunes), the ‘Science’ section on The Wire has enjoyed both emotional and financial support. To show for it, we have had the privilege of overseeing the publication of 830 articles, and counting, in 2016 (across science, health, environment, energy, space and tech). And I hope those who have written for this section will continue to write for it, even as those who have been reading this section will continue to read it.

Because it is a battle for relevance – a fight to be noticed and to be read, even when stories have nothing to do with national interests or immediate economic gains – the ideal of ‘speaking truth to power’ that other like-minded sections of the media cherish is preceded for science journalism in India by the ideals of ‘speaking’ first and then ‘speaking truth’ second. This is why an empowered media is as essential to the revival of that constitutionally enshrined scientific temperament as are productive scientists and scientific institutions.

The Wire‘s journalists have spent thousands of hours this year striving to be factually correct. The science writers and editors have also been especially conscientious of receiving feedback at all stages, engaging in conversations with our readers and taking prompt corrective action when necessary – even if that means a retraction. This will continue to be the case in 2017 as well in recognition of the fact that the elevation of Indian science on the global stage, long hailed to be overdue, will directly follow from empowering our readers to ask the right questions and be reasonably critical of all claims at all times, no matter who the maker.

Part II: If You’re Asking ‘What To Expect in Science in 2017’, You Have Missed the Point

While a science reporter at The Hindu, this author conducted an informal poll asking the newspaper’s readers to speak up about what their impressions were of science writing in India. The answers, received via email, Twitter and comments on the site, generally swung between saying there was no point and saying there was a need to fight an uphill battle to ‘bring science to everyone’. After the poll, however, it still wasn’t clear who this ‘everyone’ was, notwithstanding a consensus that it meant everyone who chanced upon a write-up. It still isn’t clear.

Moreover, much has been written about the importance of science, the value of engaging with it in any form without expectation of immediate value and even the usefulness of looking at it ‘from the outside in’ when the opportunity arises. With these theses in mind (which I don’t want to rehash; they’re available in countless articles on The Wire), the question of “What to expect in science in 2017?” immediately evolves into a two-part discussion. Why? Because not all science that happens is covered; not all science that is covered is consumed; and not all science that is consumed is remembered.

The two parts are delineated below.

What science will be covered in 2017?

Answering this question is an exercise in reinterpreting the meaning of ‘newsworthiness’ subject to the forces that will assail journalism in 2017. An immensely simplified way is to address the following factors: the audience, the business, the visible and the hidden.

The first two are closely linked. As print publications are shrinking and digital publications growing, a consideration of distribution channels online can’t ignore the social media – specifically, Twitter and Facebook – as well as Google News. This means that an increasing number of younger readers are available to target, which in turn means covering science in a way that interests this demographic. Qualities like coolness and virality will make an item immediately sellable to marketers whereas news items rich with nuance and depth will take more work.

Another way to address the question is in terms of what kind of science will be apparently visible, and available for journalists to easily chance upon, follow up and write about. The subjects of such writing typically are studies conducted and publicised by large labs or universities, involving scientists working in the global north, and often on topics that lend themselves immediately to bragging rights, short-lived discussions, etc. In being aware of ‘the visible’, we must be sure to remember ‘the invisible’. This can be defined as broadly as in terms of the scientists (say, from Latin America, the Middle East or Southeast Asia) or the studies (e.g., by asking how the results were arrived at, who funded the studies and so forth).

On the other hand, ‘the hidden’ is what will – or ought to – occupy those journalists interested in digging up what Big X (Pharma, Media, Science, etc.) doesn’t want publicised. What exactly is hidden changes continuously but is often centred on the abuse of privilege, the disregard of those we are responsible for and, of course, the money trail. The issues that will ultimately come to define 2017 will all have had dark undersides defined by these aspects and which we must strive to uncover.

For example: with the election of Donald Trump, and his bad-for-science clique of bureaucrats, there is a confused but dawning recognition among liberals of the demands of the American midwest. So to continue to write about climate change targeting an audience composed of left-wingers or east coast or west coast residents won’t work in 2017. We must figure out how to reach across the aisle and disabuse climate deniers of their beliefs using language they understand and using persuasions that motivate them to speak to their leaders about shaping climate policy.

What will be considered good science journalism in 2017?

Scientists are not magical creatures from another world – they’re humans, too. So is their collective enterprise riddled with human decisions and human mistakes. Similarly, despite all the travails unique to itself, science journalism is fundamentally similar to other topical forms of journalism. As a result, the broader social, political and media trends sweeping around the globe will inform novel – or at least evolving – interpretations of what will be good or bad in 2017. But instead of speculating, let’s discuss the new processes through which good and bad can be arrived at.

In this context, it might be useful to draw from a blog post by Jay Rosen, a noted media critic and professor of journalism at New York University. Though the post focuses on what political journalists could do to adapt to the Age of Trump, its implied lessons are applicable in many contexts. More specifically, the core effort is about avoiding those primary sources of information (out of which a story sprouts) the persistence with which has landed us in this mess. A wildly remixed excerpt:

Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim. Seek and accept offers to speak on the radio in areas of Trump’s greatest support. Make common cause with scholars who have been there. Especially experts in authoritarianism and countries when democratic conditions have been undermined, so you know what to watch for— and report on. (Creeping authoritarianism is a beat: who do you have on it?). Keep an eye on the internationalization of these trends, and find spots to collaborate with journalists across borders. Find coverage patterns that cross [the aisle].

And then this:

[Washington Post reporter David] Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. … He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe.

Transparency is going to matter more than ever in 2017 because of how the people’s trust in the media was eroded in 2016. And there’s no reason science journalism should be an exception to these trends – especially given how science and ideology quickly locked horns in India following the disastrous Science Congress in 2015. More than any other event since the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party to the centre, and much like Trump’s victory caught everyone by surprise, the 2015 congress really spotlighted the extent of rational blight that had seeped into the minds of some of India’s most powerful ideologues. In the two years since, the reluctance of scientists to step forward and call bullshit out has also started to become more apparent, as a result exposing the different kinds of undercurrents that drastic shifts in policies have led to.

So whatever shape good science journalism is going to assume in 2017, it will surely benefit by being more honest and approachable in its construction. As will the science journalist who is willing to engage with her audience about the provenance of information and opinions capable of changing minds. As Jeff Leek, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, quoted (statistician Philip Stark) on his blog: “If I say just trust me and I’m wrong, I’m untrustworthy. If I say here’s my work and it’s wrong, I’m honest, human, and serving scientific progress.”

Here’s to a great 2017! 🙌🏾