Culture Op-eds

Why we need *some* borders between us

Borders are often a bad thing because they create separation that is unconducive for what are generally considered to be socially desirable outcomes. And they’re often instituted to maximise political outcomes, especially of the electoral variety. However, as electoral politics – and the decisions politicians make leading up to elections – become increasingly divisive, the people’s perception of politics, especially among those belonging to the middle classes, simultaneously becomes more cynical. At one point, those engaged in less political activities could even begin to see politics as a meaningless enterprise engaged solely in furthering the interests of the powerful.

This is a wholly justified conclusion given the circumstances but it’s also saddening since this cynicism is almost always paid for by writing off all political endeavours, and all the borders they maintain – and it is even more saddening now, in this time of protests, riots, apathy and deaths among the poor of hunger, of all things. This particular point is worth highlighting more now because space, especially human spaceflight, is in the news. Elon Musk’s SpaceX recently launched two astronauts to the International Space Station in history’s first crewed mission by a non-governmental company (that still subsists mostly on government funds).

For many decades, creators, engineers and officials alike have billed space as an escape, particularly in two ways. First, as a material volume of the universe that humanity is yet to occupy in any meaningful way, space is a frontier – a place other than Earth where there are some opportunities to survive but more importantly which could present a fresh start, a new way to do things that apparently benefits from millennia of civilisation on Earth that has only left us with great inequality and prejudice. Second, as a vast emptiness composed of literally nothing for billions of kilometres at a time, space imposes a ‘loneliness tax’ on Earth that – as many spaceflight entrepreneurs are fond of saying – should prompt us to remember that “we’re all in this together”.

However, the problem with both perspectives is that they gloss over borders, and when some borders disappear, our awareness of inequality disappears while inequality itself doesn’t. A common refrain aspiring spacefarers like to pitch is of the view of Earth from the Moon, accompanied by a gruff but nonetheless well-intentioned reminder that borders are of our own making, and that if we got rid of them and worked in humanity’s best-interests as a whole, we’d be able to achieve great things.

I call bullshit because without borders to constantly remind ourselves that invisible lines exist in the ground as well as in our minds that a Dalit or a black person can’t cross, no Dalit or black person – or even many women for that matter – can enter the spaceflight programme, leave alone get to the Moon.

More broadly, what many of those engaged in less-political work see as “unnecessary borders” are really discomfiting borders, a fact that became immutably apparent during India’s #MeToo uprising on Twitter in October-November 2018. Then, the mass of allegations and complaints pouring in every day indicated, among other things, that when inequality and discrimination have become ubiquitous, affording men and women equal opportunities by way of redressal can’t make the inequality and discrimination go away. Instead, women, and indeed all underprivileged groups, need affirmative action: to give more women, more Dalits, more black people, more transgender people, etc. access to more opportunities for a time until both the previously privileged groups and the newly privileged groups are on equal footing. It’s only then that they can really become equals.

A popular argument against this course of action has been that it will only create a new asymmetry instead of eradicating the old one. No; it’s important to recognise that we don’t need to eradicate privileges by eradicating opportunities, but to render privileges meaningless by ensuring all people have equal access to every new opportunity that we develop.

Another contention, though it doesn’t dress like a contention, is that we should also discuss why it’s important to have people of diverse identities around the table. But to me, this view is awfully close to the expectation of people from underprivileged groups to justify themselves, often more than those from privileged groups ever have for the same or equal positions. Instead, to quote Tarun Menon, of the National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bengaluru: “Deliberative democracy” – “a form of democracy in which deliberation is central to decision-making” (source) – “is key to any well-ordered democratic society, both because it helps ensure that a variety of concerns are taken into account in democratic decision-making, and because it grants legitimacy to decision-making by making it participatory.”

This is why borders are important – to define groups that need to be elevated, so to speak; without them, our economic and political structures will continue to benefit who they always have. And this is also why borders not used to achieve socially desirable outcomes are nothing but divides.

More importantly from the spaceflight bros’ point of view, when the borders we do need are erased, space will mostly be filled with white men, and a proportionately fewer number of people of other racial, ethnic, gender and caste identities – if at all.

Featured image: Daria Shevtsova/Pexels.

Op-eds Science

A science for the non-1%

David Michaels, an epidemiologist and a former US assistant secretary of labour for occupational safety and health under Barack Obama, writes in the Boston Review:

[Product defence] operations have on their payrolls—or can bring in on a moment’s notice—toxicologists, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, risk assessors, and any other professionally trained, media-savvy experts deemed necessary (economists too, especially for inflating the costs and deflating the benefits of proposed regulation, as well as for antitrust issues). Much of their work involves production of scientific materials that purport to show that a product a corporation makes or uses or even discharges as air or water pollution is just not very dangerous. These useful “experts” produce impressive-looking reports and publish the results of their studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals (reviewed, of course, by peers of the hired guns writing the articles). Simply put, the product defence machine cooks the books, and if the first recipe doesn’t pan out with the desired results, they commission a new effort and try again.

Members of the corporate class have played an instrumental role in undermining trust in science in the last century, and Michaels’s exposition provides an insightful glimpse of how they work, and why what they do works. However, the narrative Michaels employs, as illustrated above, treats scientists like minions – a group of people that will follow your instructions but will not endeavour to question how their research is going to be used as long as, presumably, their own goals are met – and also excuses them for it. This is silly: the corporate class couldn’t have done what it did without help from a sliver of the scientific class that sold its expertise to the highest bidder.

Even if such actions may have been more the result of incompetence than of malice, for too long have scientists claimed vincible ignorance in their quasi-traditional tendency to prize unattached scientific progress more than scientific progress in step with societal aspirations. They need to step up, step out and participate in political programmes that deploy scientific knowledge to solve messy real-world problems, which frequently fail and just as frequently serve misguided ends (such as – but sure as hell not limited to – laundering the soiled reputation of a pedophile and convicted sex offender).

But even so, even as the scientists’ conduct typifies the problem, the buck stops with the framework of incentives that guides them.

Despite its connections with technologies that powered colonialism and war, science has somehow accrued a reputation of being clean. To want to be a scientist today is to want to make sense of the natural universe – an aspiration both simple and respectable – and to make a break from the piddling problems of here and now to the more spiritually refined omnipresent and eternal. However, this image can’t afford to maintain itself by taking the deeply human world it is embedded in for granted.

Science has become the reason for state simply because the state is busy keeping science and politics separate. No academic programme in the world today considers scientific research to be at par with public engagement and political participationa when exactly this is necessary to establish science as an exercise through which, fundamentally, people construct knowledge about the world and then ensure it is used responsibly (as well as to demote it from the lofty pedestal where it currently lords over the social sciences and humanities). Instead, we have a system that encourages only the production of knowledge, tying it up with metrics of professional success, career advancement and, most importantly, a culture of higher educationb and research that won’t brook dissent and tolerates activist-scientists as lesser creatures.

a. And it is to the government’s credit that political participation has become synonymous with electoral politics and the public expression of allegiance to political ideologies.

b. Indeed, the problem most commonly manifests as a jaundiced impression of the purpose of teaching.

The perpetuators of this structure are responsible for the formation and subsequent profitability of “the strategy of manufacturing doubt”, which Michaels writes “has worked wonders … as a public relations tool in the current debate over the use of scientific evidence in public policy. … [The] main motivation all along has been only to sow confusion and buy time, sometimes lots of time, allowing entire industries to thrive or individual companies to maintain market share while developing a new product.”

To fight the vision of these perpetuators, to at least rescue the fruits of the methods of science from inadvertent ignominy, we need publicly active scientists to be the rule, not the exceptions to the rule. We need structural incentives to change to accommodate the fact that, if they don’t, this group of people will definitely remain limited to members of the upper class and/or upper castes. We need a stronger, closer marriage of science, the social sciences, business administration and policymaking.

To be sure, I’m neither saying the mere presence of scientists in public debates will lead to swifter solutions nor that the absence of science alone in policymaking is responsible for so many of the crises of our times – but that their absence has left cracks so big, it’s quite difficult to consider if they can be sealed any other wayc. And yes, the world will slow down, the richer will become less rich and economic growth will become more halting, but these are all also excuses to maintain a status quo that has only exploited the non-1% for two centuries straight.

c. Michaels concludes his piece with a list of techniques the product-defence faction has used to sow doubt and, in the resulting moments of vulnerability, ‘sell science’ – i.e. techniques that represent the absence of guiding voices.

Of course, there’s only so much one can do if the political class isn’t receptive to one’s ideas – but we must begin somewhere, and what better place to begin than at the knowledgeable place?


Spotting scientists, lazy scientists

Indian scientists are lazy, says CNR Rao:

Bharat Ratna Prof CNR Rao on Wednesday said Indian scientists are “lazy” compared to those in countries like Japan, South Korea and China. “We are generally a lazy lot. If a person is angered by his superiors or something like that happened in Japan, he tends to work for an additional two hours. But in India, we stop working,” he said at a ceremony organized by the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology, and the department of Information Technology, Biotechnology and Science & Technology to honour scientists and engineers.

Aside from my general displeasure about this man being accorded the prefix ‘Bharat Ratna’ at every mention, Rao has been coming across as a superficial commentator of late. Recently, while speaking at some event, he said that given as large a population as India’s, and making the safe assumption that a fixed fraction of it would have be significantly smarter than the rest, it was a tragedy that we still hadn’t spotted the country’s brightest scientists yet. This might make logical sense to many people but it absolutely should not to educators like Rao. He heads JNCASR and served as the prime minister chief scientific advisor in 2004-2014. To make India’s research excellence a matter of spotting is to abdicate the responsibility of nurturing these scientists. Who will you spot if you aren’t thinking about the best ways to create them?

And then this example of Japanese scientists working longer hours because they’re pissed with their bosses. What’s wrong with the Japanese? At least that was my first thought before I realised I couldn’t disparage Japan. It could be possible that they have a system that rewards hard work without bureaucracy getting in the way. We clearly don’t. I can work 10-times as hard as others in some Indian government offices but I sure as hell won’t receive proportionate appreciation for it. Similarly, I can’t expect people to work harder in any other setting if they think they aren’t going to get their dues, and I’d actively discourage them from doing so if it impacted their personal lives. So like in the previous instance, Rao sounds like he’s simply not thinking things through: calling scientists as a community ‘lazy’ is to abdicate the responsibility to make it easier for them to enjoy the fruits of their labours.

Also, let’s try to stop importing cross-border solutions for good governance?


Notes from my interaction with Dr. Kannan Soundararajan, Infosys Prize winner

My article on this interview and Dr. Soundararajan’s opinions appeared in The Hindu’s EducationPlus supplement on October 22, 2012 titled “It’s a mixed bag“.

Dr. Kannan Soundararajan is a professor at Stanford University and the director of its Mathematics Research Center. He is a recipient of the Infosys Prize for the Mathematical Sciences, the Ostrowski Prize (both in 2011), the SASTRA Ramanujan Prize (2005), and the inaugural Morgan Prize (1995). Dr. Soundararajan’s research interests concern L-functions and multiplicative number theory.

Here are some excerpts from my interview with him (My comments appear in square-brackets).

You’ve been awarded the Infosys Prize in the mathematical sciences category in 2011 for your work in number theory. Could you explain the nature of your work?

I work with Riemann zeta-functions, which are used to encode properties of integers and prime numbers together [Bernhard Riemann observed about 150 years ago that the properties of primes could be studied with this function].

As the director of the Mathematics Research Center at Stanford University, may I ask what your responsibilities are?

I am responsible for administering funds received from the university. We also bring in 40 to 50 visitors every year to the department of mathematics for seminars.

Further, we encourage research collaborations by inviting and paying for researchers from outside the university. There are also lecture series, and the conduction of outreach activities for undergraduate and high-school students.

Do you think there’s sufficient encouragement for students to pursue a career in pure research? Have you seen this interest decline in the last five or so years?

There is lots of enthusiasm for students going from school to college these days. We encourage some of those students to take up summertime research with university professors. Moreover, our proximity to Silicon Valley helps because it draws in a lot of people interested in pure-mathematics research. There is also an increasing interest in the subject due to the export of problems from computer science.

Because of these factors and some others, there has been an increase in the number of mathematics majors by nine times in eight yrs! Another important way for us to judge the interest of our students is through their participation in extracurricular activities.

As far as teaching the technical sciences is concerned, do you think there are any shortcomings in the education system – in the West and in India?

Classroom education is in a period of flux. Online education is changing things for the future.

The most successful model has been one that involved one-to-one interactions along with small class-sizes, but that is bound to change as classes grow bigger. Also, with an increasingly interdisciplinary nature of courses in the mix, balancing online courses with interactive sessions in the classroom is necessary.

I believe that this evolution will continue for the next five to ten years before it stabilizes.

With budget cuts by states around the world, big experimental physics has taken a hit. This isn’t to say theoretical research thrives – in fact, the public has always had trouble understanding the latter. So, in the current economic scene, what’re the ways in which the government can be convinced that advanced mathematics also deserves investment?

A good question.

A lot of solutions in various fields have spun out of advanced mathematics research. There is an increase in the number of problems being exported by computer science. Mathematics has for a long time been influenced by problems in physics, and vice-versa, but now, computer science has come to assume that mantle.

Further, advanced mathematics research has grown to become a huge field by itself now, and has come to influence many aspects of life. The give-and-take between fields continues to happen: as one grows, the other does, too. Pure mathematics now shares connections with other sciences, most recently with biology.

Although it might be difficult to see physical results of pure-mathematics research in the short-run, they will become visible with time. In fact, such benefits have always been hard to foretell, but they have been there all the same.

Do you think the Infosys Foundation and others like it are doing enough to offset this imbalance?

Science research in India is still funded in large parts by the government. Around the world, the trend has been toward using private funding for research, especially in light of the economic recession. For example, in the USA, the Simons Foundation has started to contribute for many research initiatives.

So, where public spending has gone down, foundations like Infosys’ are doing good work. The influx of private funding for science research is welcome.

In terms of your research, what’re you looking at next?

I am working on a couple of books, one on the Riemann zeta-function and the other on quantum unique ergodicity. Both are aimed at graduate students.