Retrospective: The Wire Science in 2019

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

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

Most popular articles of 2019

The Sciences

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

Health

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

Environment

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

Space

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

Education

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

Our choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wire
December 26, 2019

Scientism is not ‘nonsense’

The @realscientists rocur account on Twitter took a surprising turn earlier today when its current curator, Teresa Ambrosio, a chemist, tweeted the following:

If I had to give her the benefit of doubt, I’d say she was pointing this tweet at the hordes of people – especially Americans – whose conspiratorial attitude towards vaccines and immigrants is founded entirely on their personal experiences being at odds with scientific knowledge. However, Ambrosio wasn’t specific, so I asked her:

The responses to my tweet, encouraged in part by Ambrosio herself, were at first dominated by (too many) people who seemed to agree, broadly, that science is an apolitical endeavour that could be cleanly separated from the people who practice it and that science has nothing to do with the faulty application of scientific knowledge. However, the conversation rapidly turned after one of the responders called scientism “nonsense” – a stance that would rankle not just the well-informed historian of science but in fact so many people in non-developed nations where scientific knowledge is often used to legitimise statutory authority.

I recommend reading the whole conversation, especially if what you’re looking for is a good and sufficiently well-referenced summary of a) why scientism is anything but nonsense; b) why science is not apolitical; and c) how scientism is rooted in the need to separate science and the scientist.

'Nothing in the history of science is ever simple'

Once I finished Steven Weinberg’s book Dreams of a Final Theory, I figured I’d write a long-winding review about what I think the book is really about, and its merits and demerits. But there is a sentence in the seventh chapter – titled ‘Against Philosophy’ – which I think sums up all that the book essentially attempts to explain.

Nothing in the history of science is ever simple.

And Dreams of a Final Theory wants to make you understand why that is so. To Weinberg’s credit, he has done a good job – not a great one – with complexity as his subject. I say ‘not a great one’ because it has none of the elegance that Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe did, and it laid out string theory from beginning to end. At the same time, it is still Weinberg, one of the towering figures of particle physics, at work, and he means to say, first, that there is no place for simplicity in his line of work and, second, even in all the terrible complexity, there is beauty.

The book, first published in 1992, is a discourse on the path to a ‘final theory’ – one theory to rule them all, so to speak – and the various theoretical, experimental, mathematical and philosophical challenges it presents. Weinberg is an erudite scientist and you can trust him to lay out almost all facets of all problems that he chooses to introduce in the book – and there are many of them. Also, I wouldn’t call the book technical, but at the same time it demands its fair share of intellectual engagement because the language tends to get (necessarily) intricate. And if you’re wondering: There are no equations.

In fact, I would be able to describe the experience of reading Dreams of a Final Theory using a paragraph from the book, and such internal symmetry is unmistakable throughout the book:

But why should the final theory describe anything like our world? The explanation might be found in what [Robert] Nozick has called the principle of fecundity. It states that the different logically acceptable universes all in some sense exist, each wit its own set of fundamental laws. The principle of fecundity is not itself explained by anything, but at least it has a certain pleasing self-consistency; as Nozick says, the principle of fecundity states ‘that all possibilities are realized, while it itself is one of those possibilities’.

Buy the book.

‘Nothing in the history of science is ever simple’

Once I finished Steven Weinberg’s book Dreams of a Final Theory, I figured I’d write a long-winding review about what I think the book is really about, and its merits and demerits. But there is a sentence in the seventh chapter – titled ‘Against Philosophy’ – which I think sums up all that the book essentially attempts to explain.

Nothing in the history of science is ever simple.

And Dreams of a Final Theory wants to make you understand why that is so. To Weinberg’s credit, he has done a good job – not a great one – with complexity as his subject. I say ‘not a great one’ because it has none of the elegance that Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe did, and it laid out string theory from beginning to end. At the same time, it is still Weinberg, one of the towering figures of particle physics, at work, and he means to say, first, that there is no place for simplicity in his line of work and, second, even in all the terrible complexity, there is beauty.

The book, first published in 1992, is a discourse on the path to a ‘final theory’ – one theory to rule them all, so to speak – and the various theoretical, experimental, mathematical and philosophical challenges it presents. Weinberg is an erudite scientist and you can trust him to lay out almost all facets of all problems that he chooses to introduce in the book – and there are many of them. Also, I wouldn’t call the book technical, but at the same time it demands its fair share of intellectual engagement because the language tends to get (necessarily) intricate. And if you’re wondering: There are no equations.

In fact, I would be able to describe the experience of reading Dreams of a Final Theory using a paragraph from the book, and such internal symmetry is unmistakable throughout the book:

But why should the final theory describe anything like our world? The explanation might be found in what [Robert] Nozick has called the principle of fecundity. It states that the different logically acceptable universes all in some sense exist, each wit its own set of fundamental laws. The principle of fecundity is not itself explained by anything, but at least it has a certain pleasing self-consistency; as Nozick says, the principle of fecundity states ‘that all possibilities are realized, while it itself is one of those possibilities’.

Buy the book.