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Science

Trump, science denial and violence

For a few days last week, before the mail-in votes had been counted in the US, the contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump seemed set for a nail-biting finish. In this time a lot of people expressed disappointment on Twitter that nearly half of all Americans who had voted (Trump’s share of the popular vote was 48% on November 5) had done so for anti-science and science denialism.

Quite a few commentators also went on to say that “denying science is not just another political view”, implying that Trump, who has repeatedly endorsed such denialism, isn’t being a part of the political right as much as stupid and irresponsible.

This is a reasonable deduction but I think it’s also a bit more complicated. To my mind, a belief that “denying science is not just another political view” could be unfair if it keeps us from addressing the violence perpetrated by some supporters of science, and the state in the name of science.

Almost nowhere does science live in a vacuum, churning out silver bullets to society’s various ills; and in the course of its relationship with the state, it is sometimes a source of distress as well. For example, when the scientific establishment adopts non-democratic tactics to set up R&D facilities, like in Challakere, Kudankulam and Theni (INO); when unscrupulous hospitals fleece patients by exploiting their medical illiteracy; and when ineffective communication and engagement in ‘peace time’ leads to impressions during ‘wartime’ that science serves only a particular group of people, or that ‘science knows best’. These are just a few examples.

Of course, belief in pseudo-Ayurvedic treatments and astrological predictions arise due to a complicated interplay of factors, including an uncritical engagement with the status quo and the tendency to sustain caste hierarchies. We must also ask who is being empowered and why, since Ayurveda and astrology also perpetrate violences of their own.

But in this mess, it’s important to remember that science can be political as well and that choosing science can be a political act, and that by extension opposing or denying science can be a political view as well – particularly if there is also an impression that science is something that the state uses to legitimise itself (as with poorly crafted disease transmission models), often by trampling over the rights of the weak.

This is ultimately important because erasing the political context in which science denialism persists could also blind us to the violence being perpetrated by the support for science and scientism, and its political context.

When I sent a draft of the post so far to a friend for feedback, he replied that “the sympathetic view of science denialism” that I take leads to a situation where “one both can and can’t reject science denialism as a viable political position.” That’s correct.

“Well, which one is it?”

Honestly, I don’t know, but I’m not in search of an answer either. I simply think non-scientific ideas and organisations are accused of perpetrating violence more often than scientific ones are, so it’s important to interrogate the latter as well lest we continue to believe that simply and uncritically rooting for science is sufficient and good.

Categories
Op-eds

Vaccines for votes

A week or so ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar released its poll manifesto, the first point on which was that should the party win, it would make a COVID-19 vaccine cleared by the ICMR available for free to every resident of the state. It was an unethical move, and Siddharth Varadarajan and I explained why.

Soon after, trolls on Twitter pointed out that Joe Biden had made the same promise ahead of the US presidential elections. And this morning, Indian Express quoted the Election Commission saying the BJP’s promise didn’t violate the poll code; the report also included a curious paragraph: that “the EC had taken the same stand on a complaint received during the Lok Sabha elections last year against the Congress’s NYAY scheme that guaranteed a minimum income of Rs 6,000 per month, or Rs 72,000 a year, for 25 crore people.”

The BJP’s promise still feels unethical to me. This isn’t for reasons that have anything to do with the poll code if only because the poll code’s scope doesn’t extend beyond the election itself, to the bigger picture.

At the outset, I don’t think vaccines should feature at all in election rhetoric (even if this may be wishful thinking with a majoritarian-populist government). But here we are.

The BJP is in power at the Centre – it runs the national government – and is hoping to come to power in the state. It isn’t necessarily including Nitish Kumar, the state’s incumbent chief minister and whose party the BJP is allied with, because the vaccine promise appeared only in the BJP’s manifesto, not in the alliance’s, and was announced with much fanfare by the Union finance minister. So Kumar was nowhere in the picture but the Centre was. This is a slight but significant difference vis-à-vis Biden’s promise.

State is a health subject in India but a COVID-19 vaccine, should one become available, will have significant participation by the Centre, from purchasing to distribution. Note that India’s states didn’t fight polio – they simply couldn’t. The country has a whole did and today COVID-19 presents an even bigger challenge.

A new study, echoing some older ones, has found that antibodies to COVID-19 fade over a few months. Assuming for a moment that vaccine-induced antibodies work like natural antibodies, and setting aside the fact that the question of antibody persistence is yet to be settled, access to vaccines (including the question of affordability) matters as much as its uniformity. That is, the level of access should be uniform across the epidemic’s ‘jurisdiction’.

For example, if a state with poor pubic health care and infrastructure to begin with is forced to administer the vaccine by itself, failures on its part could allow the virus to become endemic to that region, and allow it spread once again through the rest of the population once their antibody responses have weakened. So an additional pitfall here is if the BJP fragments the responsibility of distributing and administering a COVID-19 vaccine to the states, in an effort to legitimise piecemeal agreements based on political expediency, the vaccination drive will fail, especially in states like Bihar.

So while state governments will be able to decide whether to sell the vaccines for free, the decision depends considerably on the Centre’s cooperation. In effect, the BJP at the Centre abdicates the option to ensure everyone gets the vaccine at no cost when it offers to do so only in a specific area, and in exchange for votes.

Biden is not entirely in the clear either: ‘vaccines for votes’ is a prompt for voters to think of their choice of president as a question of life or death, which is nothing but a dire threat. But neither his case nor that of the Congress’s NYAY scheme are ones of abdicated responsibilities. Neither is yet in power in their respective countries, so neither is pulling back on their existing responsibilities, making their exercise contingent on electoral outcomes or vouchsafing the rewards to – from the epidemic’s PoV – an arbitrary section of the population.

Categories
Analysis Culture Science

The ignoble president and the Nobel Prize

What is the collective noun for a group of Nobel laureates? I’m considering ballast. A ballast of Nobel laureates is appealing because these people, especially if they are all white and male, often tend to take themselves too seriously and are taken so by others as well. I’m not saying they tend to say meaningless things but only that they – and we, speaking generally – overestimate the import of their words, mistaking them for substance when more often than not they are just air (often as a result of being dragged into, or being compelled to comment on, matters in which they may not have been involved if they hadn’t received Nobel Prizes).

On September 7, Physics World reported that 81 Nobel laureates had “voiced their support” for Joe Biden ahead of the impending presidential elections in the US. This move, so to speak, echoed a letter authored by a group of 150 or so well-known Indian scientists ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in India. The Indian group had asked that the people “vote wisely”, principally in order to protect constitutional safeguards and against those who violated or would abrogate them. This was sage advice – even though the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose actions and policies in its first term in power from 2014 to 2019 had dismissed just this wisdom, won a thumping majority – but it was jarring on one count.

The letter’s authors taken together constituted an important subset of the national community of scientists – a community that had stayed largely silent through a spate of horrific incidents of violence, harassment and subversion of institutions and people alike for five years or so. Though it was courageous to have spoken up at a crucial moment (even if the letter didn’t directly name the party or those political candidates whose ideologies were evidently opposed to the ethos the letter’s authors advocated), there was a nagging feeling that perhaps it was too little too late. And in a way, it was.

In addition, the advantages of scientists grouping together as such wasn’t clear – if only to me. Scientists are members of society just as much as most other people are. While it makes sense to come together as scientists, especially as scientists in the same field, to oppose or support an idea that defies or benefits that field, to accumulate as scientists to offer advice on a matter that they haven’t spoken up about before and on which they have as much authority as non-scientists sounds like a plea – apart from broadcasting their support for Biden or saying “vote wisely” or whatever – to defer to their especial authority as scientists, in particular as ‘leading scientists’, as they say, or as Nobel laureates, with emphases on the ‘leading’ and ‘Nobel’.

Otherwise, what does a group of scientists really mean? The Nobel laureates who have spoken up now in favour of Biden offer a similarly confusing proposition. The citizens of a democratic country coming together to vote means they are governing themselves. They are engaging in a specifically defined activity part of a suite of processes the traversal of which gives rise to effective, politically legitimate governments. The employees of a factory coming together to protest their wages (while forsaking them) means they are striving to uphold their rights as labourers. Twenty-two people coming onto a large, grassy field to kick one ball around according to a prefixed and predetermined rule-set means they are playing football. What does a group of Nobel laureates coming together to endorse a presidential candidate mean – other than the moment being crafted to attract the press’s attention?

The fact of their being Nobel laureates does not qualify their endorsement for any different or higher recognition than, say, the endorsement of a businessperson, a badminton champion or a poet, or in fact the many, many scientists who are being good in ways that no award can measure. (Whether the laureates themselves aspire to such relevance is moot.) And this is true from both the electoral and civilian perspectives: neither Trump nor Modi are going to rue the lack of scientists’ support if only because, ironically, the scientists would rather wait to organise among themselves on rare occasions instead of speaking up as often as is necessary or even diffuse into the superseding community of ‘protestors’ to oppose injustice. Just as much as a biologist needs to have studied evolution as well as have successfully demonstrated their proficiency in order to be acknowledged as an expert on evolution – so that they may then dispense thoughts and ideas on the topic that could be taken seriously – good political guidance needs to emerge from a similar enterprise, grounded in knowledge of public affairs and civic engagement.

This also means speaking up once in a while can only influence one’s audience so much. Generic appeals to “vote wisely” are well-taken but, considered in context, their potential to change minds is bound to be awfully finite, or even patronising, depending on the context. For example, Physics World quoted Bill Foster, the Democratic representative from Illinois, reportedly the “only physicist in Congress” and the person who canvassed the laureates, saying:

[Asking the laureates to back Biden] was like pushing at an open door. … there was a lot of enthusiasm because of the difference [the laureates] perceive in the scientific understanding [between Biden and Trump]. … They recognise the harm being done by ignoring science in public policy. And it’s not only science; it’s logic and integrity. The scientific community wants to get to a situation in which they trust people’s word. … The only reason we’re in a position to develop vaccines rapidly is decades of scientific research. This may be an opportunity for the scientific community to remind everyone about long-term investment in science.

Foster’s effort is clearly aimed at hitting the limelight – which it did; getting 81 Nobel laureates is more glamorous than getting 81 well-regarded principal investigators, scientist-communicators, lecturers or postdocs. However, the extent to which such an exercise will be able to sway public opinion is hard to say. I personally can’t imagine, assuming for a moment that we are all Americans as well, that I, my father (a libertarian of sorts), my mother (a devout Hindu), one of her brothers (a staunch BJP supporter) or my father’s brother-in-law (a seemingly committed centrist) would ever think, “Oh, a Nobel laureate has vouched for Biden (or a group of scientists have recommended against Narendra Modi). I should think about whether or not I wish to vote for him (or not for the other).”

And while I don’t presume to know why each of these laureates endorsed Biden’s candidature, their combined support – as compiled on Foster’s initiative – together with Foster’s words indicate that the community of laureates is simply looking out for itself, just as much as every other community is, but in its case wielding the COVID-19 pandemic and its ‘pre-approval’ of anything scientific to press its point that Trump, in its view, is not fit to be president. It is easy to agree that Trump should go but impossible to agree that he must go because science is not in charge! Science is not supposed to be in charge; this – whether the US or India – is a democracy, not a scientocracy, and the government constituted by the performance of democratic rights and responsibilities must not function to the exclusion of disciplines, considerations or even knowledge other than those with a scientific basis. The Physics World article also quotes Carol Greider, a 2009 medicine laureate, thus:

[She] asserted that elected leaders “should be making decisions based on facts and science,” adding that she “strongly endorses” Biden, in particular because of his “commitment to putting public health professionals, not politicians, back in charge”.

This is a dangerously sweeping statement. The pandemic has temporarily legitimised a heightened alertness to the prescriptions of science, at pain of death in many cases, but it can be no excuse – even if pandemics are expected to become more common and/or more dangerous – to substitute broad-based decision-making to that based only on “facts and science”, nor to substitute politicians with public health professionals as the people in charge. In fact, and ultimately, if the laureates’ endorsement this year parallels Greider’s thoughts, it would seem there is an opinion among some of these scientists that “facts and science” ought to constitute the foundations of all political decision-making. Many Indian scientists are already of this view.

The social scientist Prakash Kashwan discussed a similar issue in the context of climate geoengineering in The Wire in December 2018; his conclusions, outlined in the short excerpt below, apply just as well to the pandemic:

Decisions about which unresolved questions of geoengineering deserve public investment can’t be left only to the scientists and policymakers. The community of climate engineering scientists tends to frame geoengineering in certain ways over other equally valid alternatives. This includes considering the global average surface temperature as the central climate impact indicator and ignoring vested interests linked to capital-intensive geoengineering infrastructure. This could bias future R&D trajectories in this area. And these priorities, together with the assessments produced by eminent scientific bodies, have contributed to the rise of a de facto form of governance. In other words, some ‘high-level’ scientific pronouncements have assumed stewardship of climate geoengineering in the absence of other agents. Such technocratic modes of governance don’t enjoy broad-based social or political legitimacy.

Yes, pseudoscience during the pandemic is bad; denying the reality of climate change is bad. But speaking out solely against these ills – in much the same way the ‘Marches for Science’ in India have seemed to do, by drawing scientists out onto streets to (rightfully) demand better pay for scientists and more respect for scientific prescriptions even as the community of scientists has not featured prominently in protests against other excesses by the Government of India, especially the persecution of Muslims and Dalits – suggests a refusal to see oneself as citizen first, as being committed to the accomplishment of one’s goals as a scientist ahead of being concerned with direr issues that predominantly affect the minority or, more worryingly, to see in science alone the solutions to all of our social ills. (Young scientists have been the exception by far.)

Disabusing those who cling to this view and persuading them of the reality that their authority is a dream-state maintained by science’s privileged relationship with the modern state and capitalism’s exploitative relationship with the scientific enterprise is a monumental task, requiring decades of sustained interrogation, dialogue and reflection. Thankfully, we have a cheap and very-short-term substitute in our midst for now: on September 9, news reports emerged that a Norwegian politician named Christian Tybring-Gjedde had nominated Trump for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, allegedly for brokering the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE. I really hope the prize-awarding committee takes the nomination seriously and that Trump receives the prize. Irrespective of what consequences such an event will have on American politics, it will be a golden opportunity for the world – and especially India – to see that the Nobel Prizes are a deeply human and therefore uniquely flawed enterprise, as much as any other award or recognition, that they are capable of being wrong or even just plain stupid.

The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam did the Nobel Prizes a big favour when he received the physics prize in 1979. But by and large, motivated by Henry Kissinger winning the peace prize six years earlier and Barack Obama doing so in 2009, the popular perception of these prizes has only become increasingly irredeemable since. I have full confidence in His Laureateship Donald J. Trump being able to tear down this false edifice – by winning it, and then endorsing himself.