Categories
Life notes

Ending 2020

My blogging took a hit this year – as did everything for everyone. I couldn’t publish nearly as much as I’d have liked. While the average post length was the highest it’s ever been – 989 words – and audience engagement was through the roof, I had to just forget many ideas for posts I’d had because I lacked the time and more importantly any creative energy to produce them. Since around May, I felt like writing only on the weekends, and only if an idea or an insight crossed a threshold of interestingness that for some reason kept climbing higher.

YearPostsWords
201211981,710
20139671,096
2014163117,302
2015209181,233
20166455,206
2017135114,737
2018184145,530
2019169136,241
2020113111,752

That said, I have two takeaways from blogging this year. The first is a minor one – that I’ve published 1,200 posts in all now. I don’t think of this number except at the end of every year; its bigness feels reassuring, and reminds me when I’m down that I haven’t entirely wasted my time.

The other takeaway is that it’s certainly becoming harder to get through to The Other Side, as their louder commentators clamber further down their rabbit hole, and further persist with argumentative tactics guided not by reason or even the pursuit of common ground but by the need to uphold Hindutva at all times. And as they’ve dug their heels in, I’ve found I’ve been doing the same thing, although not deliberately. I’ve used the first person to refer to positions and the provenance of argumentative tacks more in 2020 than in any other year, and I’ve also been less and less inclined to spell my position – as if I’ve become sub-consciously aware that I’m no longer speaking out to change minds as much as to harden the stances of those who have already expressed solidarity.

I’m not entirely happy with this shift, this closing of the gates – even if it sounds more productive, as the engagement data also attests – because I don’t know whether when all this tides over, and it will tide over, I will be capable of reopening the gates as swiftly as I might need to. Granted, keeping the gates open even a little bit now – i.e. attempting to reason every now and then with those who aren’t amenable to reason – could prove injurious, but I remain convinced for now that it’s the smaller price to pay. And this is why I think the continuously rising threshold of interestingness is a coping mechanism of sorts, an internally supplied resistance to the hardening of the exterior.

I’m excited to find out where blogging, writing, reporting, editing, publishing in 2021 will take me – will take us all, in fact.

Categories
Culture Scicomm Science

‘Hunters’, sci-fi and pseudoscience

One of the ways in which pseudoscience is connected to authoritarian governments is through its newfound purpose and duty to supply an alternate intellectual tradition that subsumes science as well as culminates in the identitarian superiority of a race, culture or ethnic group. In return, aspects of the tradition are empowered by the regime both to legitimise it and to catalyse its adoption by the proverbial masses, tying faith in its precepts with agency, and of course giving itself divine sanction to rule.

The readers of this blog will recognise the spiritual features of Hindutva that the Bharatiya Janata Party regularly draws on that fit the bill. A German rocket scientist named Willy Ley who emigrated to the US before World War II published an essay entitled ‘Pseudoscience in Naziland’ in 1947, in which he describes the sort of crazy beliefs that prepared the ground with other conditions for the advent of Nazism.

In Hunters, the Amazon Prime show about Jewish Nazi-hunters in 1970s America, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s sci-fi novel The Coming Race (1871) finds brief mention as a guiding text for neo-Nazis. In the novel, a subterranean race of angelic humanoids has acquired great power and superhuman abilities by manipulating a magical substance called Vril, and threatens to rise to the surface and destroy the human race one day.

Bulwer-Lytton also wrote that Vril alludes to electricity (i.e. the flow of electrons) and that The Coming Race is an allegory about how an older generation of people finds itself culturally and political incompatible with a new world order powered by electric power. (At the same time, he believed these forces were a subset of the aether, so to speak.) In a letter to John Forster on March 20, 1870 – precisely 150 years ago in twelve days – Bulwer-Lytton wrote:

I did not mean Vril for mesmerism, but for electricity, developed into uses as yet only dimly guessed, and including whatever there may be genuine in mesmerism, which I hold to be a mere branch current of the one great fluid pervading all nature. I am by no means, however, wedded to Vril, if you can suggest anything else to carry out this meaning – namely, that the coming race, though akin to us, has nevertheless acquired by hereditary transmission, etc., certain distinctions which make it a different species, and contains powers which we could not attain through a slow growth of time’ so that this race would not amalgamate with, but destroy us.

And yet this race, being in many respects better and milder than we are, ought not to be represented terrible, except through the impossibility of our tolerating them or they tolerating us, and they possess some powers of destruction denied to ourselves.

The collection of letters is available here.

In Bulwer-Lytton’s conception, higher technological prowess was born of hereditary traits. In a previous letter, dated March 15, Bulwer-Lytton had written to Forster:

The [manuscript] does not press for publication, so you can keep it during your excursion  and think over it among the other moonstricken productions which may have more professional demand on your attention. The only important point is to keen in view the Darwinian proposition that a coming race is destined to supplant our races, that such a race would be very gradually formed, and be indeed a new species developing itself out of our old one, that this process would be invisible to our eyes, and therefore in some region unknown to us.

So this is not a simple confusion or innocent ignorance. Bulwer-Lytton’s attribution of the invention of electricity to genetic ability was later appropriated by interwar German socialists.

This said, I’m not sure how much I can read into the reimagination of technological ability as a consequence of evolution or racial superiority because another part of Bulwer-Lytton’s letters suggests his example of electricity was incidental: “… in the course of the development [of the new species], the coming race will have acquired some peculiarities so distinct from our ways … and certain destructive powers which our science could not enable us to attain to, or cope with. Therefore, the idea of electrical power occurred to me, but some other might occur to you.”

Now, according to Ley, the Society for Truth believed Vril to be a real thing and used its existence to explain how the Britons created their empire. I don’t know how much stock Adolf Hitler and his “shites of the round table” (to quote from Hunters) placed in this idea but the parallels must have been inescapable – especially so since Ley also writes that not just any pseudoscientific belief could have supported Hitler’s rise nor have acquired his patronage. Instead, the beliefs had to be culturally specific to Germany, pandering to local folklore and provincialism.

Without commenting on whether this conclusion would apply to Fascism 2.0 in a world with the internet, civil aviation and computerised banking, and in naïve spite of history’s fondness for repeating itself and the politico-corporate-media complex, I wonder what lessons there are here – if any – for science educators, a people already caught between political anti-intellectualism and a stronger sense of their purpose in an intellectually debilitated society.

Categories
Culture Op-eds Science

Why are the Nobel Prizes still relevant?

Note: A condensed version of this post has been published in The Wire.

Around this time last week, the world had nine new Nobel Prize winners in the sciences (physics, chemistry and medicine), all but one of whom were white and none were women. Before the announcements began, Göran Hansson, the Swede-in-chief of these prizes, had said the selection committee has been taking steps to make the group of laureates more racially and gender-wise inclusive, but it would seem they’re incremental measures, as one editorial in the journal Nature pointed out.

Hansson and co. seems to find the argument that the Nobel Prizes award achievements at a time where there weren’t many women in science tenable when in fact it distracts from the selection committee’s bizarre oversight of such worthy names as Lise Meitner, Vera Rubin, Chien-Shiung Wu, etc. But Hansson needs to understand that the only meaningful change is change that happens right away because, even for this significant flaw that should by all means have diminished the prizes to a contest of, for and by men, the Nobel Prizes have only marginally declined in reputation.

Why do they matter when they clearly shouldn’t?

For example, according to the most common comments received in response to articles by The Wire shared on Twitter and Facebook, and always from men, the prizes reward excellence, and excellence should brook no reservation, whether by caste or gender. As is likely obvious to many readers, this view of scholastic achievement resembles a blade of grass: long, sprouting from the ground (the product of strong roots but out of sight, out of mind), rising straight up and culminating in a sharp tip.

However, achievement is more like a jungle: the scientific enterprise – encompassing research institutions, laboratories, the scientific publishing industry, administration and research funding, social security, availability of social capital, PR, discoverability and visibility, etc. – incorporates many vectors of bias, discrimination and even harassment towards its more marginalised constituents. Your success is not your success alone; and if you’re an upper-caste, upper-class, English-speaking man, you should ask yourself, as many such men have been prompted to in various walks of life, who you might have displaced.

This isn’t a witch-hunt as much as an opportunity to acknowledge how privilege works and what we can do to make scientific work more equal, equitable and just in future. But the idea that research is a jungle and research excellence is a product of the complex interactions happening among its thickets hasn’t found meaningful purchase, and many people still labour with a comically straightforward impression that science is immune to social forces. Hansson might be one of them if his interview to Nature is anything to go by, where he says:

… we have to identify the most important discoveries and award the individuals who have made them. If we go away from that, then we’ve devalued the Nobel prize, and I think that would harm everyone in the end.

In other words, the Nobel Prizes are just going to look at the world from the top, and probably from a great distance too, so the jungle has been condensed to a cluster of pin-pricks.

Another reason why the Nobel Prizes haven’t been easy to sideline is that the sciences’ ‘blade of grass’ impression is strongly historically grounded, with help from notions like scientific knowledge spreads from the Occident to the Orient.

Who’s the first person that comes to mind when I say “Nobel Prize for physics”? I bet it’s Albert Einstein. He was so great that his stature as a physicist has over the decades transcended his human identity and stamped the Nobel Prize he won in 1921 with an indelible mark of credibility. Now, to win a Nobel Prize in physics is to stand alongside Einstein himself.

This union between a prize and its laureate isn’t unique to the Nobel Prize or to Einstein. As I’ve said before, prizes are elevated by their winners. When Margaret Atwood wins the Booker Prize, it’s better for the prize than it is for her; when Isaac Asimov won a Hugo Award in 1963, near the start of his career, it was good for him, but it was good for the prize when he won it for the sixth time in 1992 (the year he died). The Nobel Prizes also accrued a substantial amount of prestige this way at a time when it wasn’t much of a problem, apart from the occasional flareup over ignoring deserving female candidates.

That their laureates have almost always been from Europe and North America further cemented the prizes’ impression that they’re the ultimate signifier of ‘having made it’, paralleling the popular undercurrent among postcolonial peoples that science is a product of the West and that they’re simply its receivers.

That said, the prize-as-proxy issue has contributed considerably as well to preserving systemic bias at the national and international levels. Winning a prize (especially a legitimate one) accords the winner’s work with a modicum of credibility and the winner, of prestige. Depending on how the winners of a prize to be awarded suitably in the future are to be selected, such credibility and prestige could be potentiated to skew the prize in favour of people who have already won other prizes.

For example, a scientist-friend ranted to me about how, at a conference he had recently attended, another scientist on stage had introduced himself to his audience by mentioning the impact factors of the journals he’d had his papers published in. The impact factor deserves to die because, among other reasons, it attempts to condense multi-dimensional research efforts and the vagaries of scientific publishing into a single number that stands for some kind of prestige. But its users should be honest about its actual purpose: it was designed so evaluators could take one look at it and decide what to do about a candidate to whom it corresponded. This isn’t fair – but expeditiousness isn’t cheap.

And when evaluators at different rungs of the career advancement privilege the impact factor, scientists with more papers published earlier in their careers in journals with higher impact factors become exponentially likelier to be recognised for their efforts (probably even irrespective of their quality given the unique failings of high-IF journals, discussed here and here) over time than others.

Brian Skinner, a physicist at Ohio State University, recently presented a mathematical model of this ‘prestige bias’ and whose amplification depended in a unique way, according him, on a factor he called the ‘examination precision’. He found that the more ambiguously defined the barrier to advancement is, the more pronounced the prestige bias could get. Put another way, people who have the opportunity to maintain systemic discrimination simultaneously have an incentive to make the points of entry into their club as vague as possible. Sound familiar?

One might argue that the Nobel Prizes are awarded to people at the end of their careers – the average age of a physics laureate is in the late 50s; John Goodenough won the chemistry prize this year at 97 – so the prizes couldn’t possibly increase the likelihood of a future recognition. But the sword cuts both ways: the Nobel Prizes are likelier than not to be the products a prestige bias amplification themselves, and are therefore not the morally neutral symbols of excellence Hansson and his peers seem to think they are.

Fourth, the Nobel Prizes are an occasion to speak of science. This implies that those who would deride the prizes but at the same time hold them up are equally to blame, but I would agree only in part. This exhortation to try harder is voiced more often than not by those working in the West, with publications with better resources and typically higher purchasing power. On principle I can’t deride the decisions reporters and editors make in the process of building an audience for science journalism, with the hope that it will be profitable someday, all in a resource-constrained environment, even if some of those choices might seem irrational.

(The story of Brian Keating, an astrophysicist, could be illuminating at this juncture.)

More than anything else, what science journalism needs to succeed is a commonplace acknowledgement that science news is important – whether it’s for the better or the worse is secondary – and the Nobel Prizes do a fantastic job of getting the people’s attention towards scientific ideas and endeavours. If anything, journalists should seize the opportunity in October every year to also speak about how the prizes are flawed and present their readers with a fuller picture.

Finally, and of course, we have capitalism itself – implicated in the quantum of prize money accompanying each Nobel Prize (9 million Swedish kronor, Rs 6.56 crore or $0.9 million).

Then again, this figure pales in comparison to the amounts that academic institutions know they can rake in by instrumentalising the prestige in the form of donations from billionaires, grants and fellowships from the government, fees from students presented with the tantalising proximity to a Nobel laureate, and in the form of press coverage. L’affaire Epstein even demonstrated how it’s possible to launder a soiled reputation by investing in scientific research because institutions won’t ask too many questions about who’s funding them.

The Nobel Prizes are money magnets, and this is also why winning a Nobel Prize is like winning an Academy Award: you don’t get on stage without some lobbying. Each blade of grass has to mobilise its own PR machine, supported in all likelihood by the same institute that submitted their candidature to the laureates selection committee. The Nature editorial called this out thus:

As a small test case, Nature approached three of the world’s largest international scientific networks that include academies of science in developing countries. They are the International Science Council, the World Academy of Sciences and the InterAcademy Partnership. Each was asked if they had been approached by the Nobel awarding bodies to recommend nominees for science Nobels. All three said no.

I believe those arguments that serve to uphold the Nobel Prizes’ relevance must take recourse through at least one of these reasons, if not all of them. It’s also abundantly clear that the Nobel Prizes are important not because they present a fair or useful picture of scientific excellence but in spite of it.

Categories
Analysis Op-eds

Religious sentiments: upsetting them v. getting upset

Featured image: Prashant Bhushan. Credit: Swaraj Abhiyan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5.

Get a load of this: Over the weekend, advocate and social activist Prashant Bhushan tweeted saying CM Yogi Adityanath’s anti-Romeo ‘policy’ would imply that the Hindu god Krishna could be classified as a “legendary eve-teaser” in modern Uttar Pradesh. In quick succession, Bhushan had FIRs filed against him from both BJP and Congress spokespersons, in Delhi and Lucknow respectively. On both counts, the charge was of “upsetting religious sentiments”.

This is funny: Bhushan’s tweet does not upset religious sentiments but recalls a story and questions how it will be interpreted in this day. And if the BJP and the Congress have been offended by this, it could only be because they have interpreted his tweet offensively. If reason had prevailed, Bhushan’s statement should’ve been interpreted to say Adityanath’s policy perspective almost directly raises questions about Krishna’s attitude towards women, and the only way the BJP/Congress can imagine it “upsets religious sentiments” is by suggesting either:

  1. Adityanath is right ⇒ Krishna was an “eve-teaser” ⇒ religious beliefs are wrong, or
  2. Krishna was not an “eve-teaser” ⇒ Adityanath is wrong ⇒ Adityanath is upsetting religious sentiments

Either way, the offence seems to stem from someone other than Prashant Bhushan. As for the offended, one thing is certain: women get the short shrift, as usual. They’re once again stuck making lousy choices: between a political ideology that supports honour killings and thinks its women should stay at home, aspire to get married and run a household – and a religious tradition that extols a god about whom the popular narrative is that he “teased” gopis, i.e. women. And this isn’t just the women in UP: it limits the narratives through which women can participate in national politics.

Moreover, it’s ironic that the anti-harassment squads are being called “anti-Romeo” squads. Romeo from William Shakespeare’s tale did not harass. Similarly, the couples being targeted by Adityanath’s anti-harassment squads – the Romeos and Juliets, supposedly – aren’t harassing each other. They’re spending time together in public spaces, spaces in which intimacy is still somewhat taboo because it is even more difficult for them to do so in private spaces. In the more conservative pockets of urban India (I can’t profess to know much about the rural), these spaces don’t exist. Adityanath should instead be empowering the police force and social support groups to intervene properly and sensitively, so those who feel victimised don’t have to seek arbitrary – and often drastic – courses of action.

He should also be cognisant of the fact that his and his supporters’ purported goal to ‘protect women’ robs women of their agency and right to self-determination.