Categories
Scicomm

Why scientists should read more

The amount of communicative effort to describe the fact of a ball being thrown is vanishingly low. It’s as simple as saying, “X threw the ball.” It takes a bit more effort to describe how an internal combustion engine works – especially if you’re writing for readers who have no idea how thermodynamics works. However, if you spend enough time, you can still completely describe it without compromising on any details.

Things start to get more difficult when you try to explain, for example, how webpages are loaded in your browser: because the technology is more complicated and you often need to talk about electric signals and logical computations – entities that you can’t directly see. You really start to max out when you try to describe everything that goes into launching a probe from Earth and landing it on a comet because, among other reasons, it brings together advanced ideas in a large number of fields.

At this point, you feel ambitious and you turn your attention to quantum technologies – only to realise you’ve crossed a threshold into a completely different realm of communication, a realm in which you need to pick between telling the whole story and risk being (wildly) misunderstood OR swallowing some details and making sure you’re entirely understood.

Last year, a friend and I spent dozens of hours writing a 1,800-word article explaining the Aharonov-Bohm quantum interference effect. We struggled so much because understanding this effect – in which electrons are affected by electromagnetic fields that aren’t there – required us to understand the wave-function, a purely mathematical object that describes real-world phenomena, like the behaviour of some subatomic particles, and mathematical-physical processes like non-Abelian transformations. Thankfully my friend was a physicist, a string theorist for added measure; but while this meant that I could understand what was going on, we spent a considerable amount of time negotiating the right combination of metaphors to communicate what we wanted to communicate.

However, I’m even more grateful in hindsight that my friend was a physicist who understood the need to not exhaustively include details. This need manifests in two important ways. The first is the simpler, grammatical way, in which we construct increasingly involved meanings using a combination of subjects, objects, referrers, referents, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, gerunds, etc. The second way is more specific to science communication: in which the communicator actively selects a level of preexisting knowledge on the reader’s part – say, high-school education at an English-medium institution – and simplifies the slightly more complicated stuff while using approximations, metaphors and allusions to reach for the mind-boggling.

Think of it like building an F1 racecar. It’s kinda difficult if you already have the engine, some components to transfer kinetic energy through the car and a can of petrol. It’s just ridiculous if you need to start with mining iron ore, extracting oil and preparing a business case to conduct televisable racing sports. In the second case, you’re better off describing what you’re trying to do to the caveman next to you using science fiction, maybe poetry. The problem is that to really help an undergraduate student of mechanical engineering make sense of, say, the Casimir effect, I’d rather say:

According to quantum mechanics, a vacuum isn’t completely empty; rather, it’s filled with quantum fluctuations. For example, if you take two uncharged plates and bring them together in a vacuum, only quantum fluctuations with wavelengths shorter than the distance between the plates can squeeze between them. Outside the plates, however, fluctuations of all wavelengths can fit. The energy outside will be greater than inside, resulting in a net force that pushes the plates together.

‘Quantum Atmospheres’ May Reveal Secrets of Matter, Quanta, September 2018

I wouldn’t say the following even though it’s much less wrong:

The Casimir effect can be understood by the idea that the presence of conducting metals and dielectrics alters the vacuum expectation value of the energy of the second-quantised electromagnetic field. Since the value of this energy depends on the shapes and positions of the conductors and dielectrics, the Casimir effect manifests itself as a force between such objects.

Casimir effect, Wikipedia

Put differently, the purpose of communication is to be understood – not learnt. And as I’m learning these days, while helping virologists compose articles on the novel coronavirus and convincing physicists that comparing the Higgs field to molasses isn’t wrong, this difference isn’t common knowledge at all. More importantly, I’m starting to think that my physicist-friend who really got this difference did so because he reads a lot. He’s a veritable devourer of texts. So he knows it’s okay – and crucially why it’s okay – to skip some details.

I’m half-enraged when really smart scientists just don’t get this, and accuse editors (like me) of trying instead to misrepresent their work. (A group that’s slightly less frustrating consists of authors who list their arguments in one paragraph after another, without any thought for the article’s structure and – more broadly – recognising the importance of telling a story. Even if you’re reviewing a book or critiquing a play, it’s important to tell a story about the thing you’re writing about, and not simply enumerate your points.)

To them – which is all of them because those who think they know the difference but really don’t aren’t going to acknowledge the need to bridge the difference, and those who really know the difference are going to continue reading anyway – I say: I acknowledge that imploring people to communicate science more without reading more is fallacious, so read more, especially novels and creative non-fiction, and stories that don’t just tell stories but show you how we make and remember meaning, how we memorialise human agency, how memory works (or doesn’t), and where knowledge ends and wisdom begins.

There’s a similar problem I’ve faced when working with people for whom English isn’t the first language. Recently, a person used to reading and composing articles in the passive voice was livid after I’d changed numerous sentences in the article they’d submitted to the active voice. They really didn’t know why writing, and reading, in the active voice is better because they hadn’t ever had to use English for anything other than writing and reading scientific papers, where the passive voice is par for the course.

I had a bigger falling out with another author because I hadn’t been able to perfectly understand the point they were trying to make, in sentences of broken English, and used what I could infer to patch them up – except I was told I’d got most of them wrong. And they couldn’t implement my suggestions either because they couldn’t understand my broken Hindi.

These are people that I can’t ask to read more. The Wire and The Wire Science publish in English but, despite my (admittedly inflated) view of how good these publications are, I’ve no reason to expect anyone to learn a new language because they wish to communicate their ideas to a large audience. That’s a bigger beast of a problem, with tentacles snaking through colonialism, linguistic chauvinism, regional identities, even ideologies (like mine – to make no attempts to act on instructions, requests, etc. issued in Hindi even if I understand the statement). But at the same time there’s often too much lost in translation – so much so that (speaking from my experience in the last five years) 50% of all submissions written by authors for whom English isn’t the first language don’t go on to get published, even if it was possible for either party to glimpse during the editing process that they had a fascinating idea on their hands.

And to me, this is quite disappointing because one of my goals is to publish a more diverse group of writers, especially from parts of the country underrepresented thus far in the national media landscape. Then again, I acknowledge that this status quo axiomatically charges us to ensure there are independent media outlets with science sections and publishing in as many languages as we need. A monumental task as things currently stand, yes, but nonetheless, we remain charged.

Categories
Scicomm Science

Caste, and science’s notability threshold

A webinar by The Life of Science on the construct of the ‘scientific genius’ just concluded, with Gita Chadha and Shalini Mahadev, a PhD scholar at HCU, as panellists. It was an hour long and I learnt a lot in this short time, which shouldn’t be surprising because, more broadly, we often don’t stop to question the conduct of science itself, how it’s done, who does it, their privileges and expectations, etc., and limit ourselves to the outcomes of scientific practice alone. The Life of Science is one of my favourite publications for making questions like these part of its core work (and a tiny bit also because it’s run by two good friends).

I imagine the organisers will upload a recording of the conversation at some point (edit: hopefully by Monday, says Nandita Jayaraj); they’ve also offered to collect the answers to many questions that went unanswered, only for lack of time, and publish them as an article. This was a generous offer and I’m quite looking forward to that.

I did have yet another question but I decided against asking it when, towards the end of the session, the organisers made some attempts to get me to answer a question about the media’s role in constructing the scientific genius, and I decided I’d work my question into what I could say. However, Nandita Jayaraj, one of The Life of Science‘s founders, ended up answering it to save time – and did so better than I could have. This being the case, I figured I’d blog my response.

The question itself that I’d planned to ask was this, addressed to Gita Chadha: “I’m confused why many Indians think so much of the Nobel Prizes. Do you think the Nobel Prizes in particular have affected the perception of ‘genius’?”

This query should be familiar to any journalist who, come October, is required to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for that year. When I started off at The Hindu in 2012, I’d cover these announcements with glee; I also remember The Hindu would carry the notes of the laureates’ accomplishments, published by the Nobel Foundation, in full on its famous science and tech. page the following day. At first I thought – and was told by some other journalists as well – that these prizes have the audience’s attention, so the announcements are in effect a chance to discuss science with the privilege of an interested audience, which is admittedly quite unusual in India.

However, today, it’s clear to me that the Nobel Prizes are deeply flawed in more ways than one, and if journalists are using them as an opportunity to discuss science – it’s really not worth it. There are many other ways to cover science than on the back of a set of prizes that simply augments – instead of in any way compensating for – a non-ideal scientific enterprise. So when we celebrate the Nobel Prizes, we simply valorise the enterprise and its many structural deformities, not the least of which – in the Indian context – is the fact that it’s dominated by upper-caste men, mostly Brahmins, and riddled with hurdles for scholars from marginalised groups.

Brahmins are so good at science not because they’re particularly gifted but because they’re the only ones who seem to have the opportunity – a fact that Shalini elucidated very clearly when she recounted her experiences as a Dalit woman in science, especially when she said: “My genius is not going to be tested. The sciences have written me off.” The Brahmins’ domination of the scientific workforce has a cascading set of effects that we then render normal simply because we can’t conceive of a different way science can be, including sparing the Brahmin genius of scrutiny, as is the privilege of all geniuses.

(At a seminar last year, some speakers on stage had just discussed the historical roots of India being so bad at experimental physics and had taken a break. Then, I overheard an audience member tell his friend that while it’s well and good to debate what we can and can’t pin on Jawaharlal Nehru, it’s amusing that Brahmin experts will have discussions about Brahmin physicists without either party considering if it isn’t their caste sensibility that prevents them from getting their hands dirty!)

The other way the Nobel Prizes are a bad for journalists indicts the norms of journalism itself. As I recently described vis-à-vis ‘journalistic entropy’, there is a sort of default expectation of reporters from the editorial side to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for their implicit newsworthiness instead of thinking about whether they should matter. I find such arguments about chronicling events without participating in them to be bullshit, especially when as a Brahmin I’m already part of Indian journalism’s caste problem.

Instead, I prefer to ask these questions, and answer them honestly in terms of the editorial policies I have the privilege to influence, so that I and others don’t end up advancing the injustices that the Nobel Prizes stand for. This is quite akin to my, and others’, older argument that journalists shouldn’t blindly offer their enterprise up as a platform for majoritarian politicians to hijack and use as their bullshit megaphones. But if journalists don’t recast their role in society accordingly, they – we – will simply continue to celebrate the Nobel laureates, and by proxy the social and political conditions that allowed the laureates in particular to succeed instead of others, and which ultimately feed into the Nobel Prizes’ arbitrarily defined ‘prestige’.

Note that the Nobel Prizes here are the perfect examples, but only examples nonetheless, to illustrate a wider point about the relationship between scientific eminence and journalistic notability. The Wire for example has a notability threshold: we’re a national news site, which means we don’t cover local events and we need to ensure what we do cover is of national relevance. As a corollary, such gatekeeping quietly implies that if we feature the work of a scientist, then that scientist must be a particularly successful one, a nationally relevant one.

And when we keep featuring and quoting upper-caste male scientists, we further the impression that only upper-caste male scientists can be good at science. Nothing says more about the extent to which the mainstream media has allowed this phenomenon to dominate our lives than the fact of The Life of Science‘s existence.

It would be foolish to think that journalistic notability and scientific eminence aren’t linked; as Gita Chadha clarified at the outset, one part of the ‘genius’ construct in Western modernity is the inevitability of eminence. So journalists need to work harder to identify and feature other scientists by redefining their notability thresholds – even as scientists and science administrators need to rejig their sense of the origins and influence of eminence in science’s practice. That Shalini thinks her genius “won’t be tested” is a brutal clarification of the shape and form of the problem.

Categories
Op-eds Scicomm

In conversation with Sree Srinivasan

On May 1, I was hosted on a webinar by the American journalist Sree Srinivasan, along with Anna Isaac of The News Minute and Arunabh Saikia of Scroll.in. As part of his daily show on the COVID-19 crisis, hosted by Scroll.in, Srinivasan hosts a few people working in different areas, and they all chat about what they’re doing and how they’re dealing with everything that’s going on for about an hour. However, our episode, the 50th of the series, was a double feature: the first 60 minutes was a conversation among us journalists, and for the next 50 minutes or so, Srinivasan had on Aseem Chhabra to discuss the lives and work of Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor, who had passed away a few days earlier. The full video is available to view here as well as is embedded below.

I also transcribed the portion of the video where I spoke for two reasons. First, because I’d like to remember what I said, and writing helps me do that. Second, I’m a lousy speaker because I constantly lose my train of thought, and often swallow words that I really should have spoken out loud, often rendering what I’m saying difficult to piece together. So by preparing a transcript, pasted below, I can both clarify what I meant in the video as well as remember what I thought, not just what I said.

How would you grade Indian journalism at the moment, in these last two months, in terms of coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The mainstream English press has been doing okay, I guess, but even then to paint it all with the same brush is very difficult because there are also very different stories to cover at a time like this. For example, many social and political issues are being covered well by specific publications. Some others are addressing different aspects of this.

In fact, if I had to pick out one aspect that I could say we’re not doing enough about is in terms of the science itself. The coronavirus outbreak is a crisis, and a large part of it is rooted in health issues, in scientific issues – much like climate change, antimicrobial resistance, etc. A lot of journalists are doing a good job of covering how this outbreak has impacted our society, our economy, etc. but there’s actually very little going into understanding how the virus really works or how epidemiologists or virologists do what they do.

One easy example is this business of testing kits. There’s a lot of controversy now about the serological tests that ICMR procured, probably at inflated prices, are not very accurate. The thing is, whenever you’re in a crisis like this and somebody’s rapidly developing kits – testing kits or ventilators or anything like that – there is always going to be a higher error rate.

Also, no test is 100% perfect. Every test is error-prone, including false positives and false negatives. But in this rush to make sure everything is covered, most of what is being elided – at least among organisations that are taking the trouble – is the science itself [of how tests are developed, why the errors are unavoidable, etc.]. That’s a significant blindspot.

But on the positive side of it, there is also a heightened awareness now of the need to understand how science works. We’ve been seeing this at The Wire, I don’t know if it applies to other organisations: there is a sort of demand… the engagement with science stories has increased. We’re using this opportunity to push out these stories, but the thing is we’re also hoping that once this pandemic ends and the crisis passes, this appreciation for science will continue, especially among journalists.

Apart from this, I don’t want to attempt any grading.

What is your reaction to the value of data journalism at this time?

The value of charts has been great, and there are lots of charts out there right now, projecting or contrasting different data-points. Just a few days ago we published a piece with something like 60 charts discussing the different rates of testing and positivity in all of India’s states.

But the problem with these charts – and there is a problem, that needs to be acknowledged – is that they tend to focus the conversation on the data itself. The issue with that is that they miss ground realities. [I’m not accusing the charts of stealing the attention so much as giving the impression, or supporting the takeaway, that the numbers being shown are all that matter.]

While data journalism is very important, especially in terms of bringing sense to the lots of numbers floating about, [it also feeds problematic narratives about how numbers are all that matter.] I recently watched this short clip on Twitter in which a bunch of people were crowded at a quarantine centre in Allahabad fighting for food. There was very little food available and I think they were daily-wage labourers. I think there is a lot being said about the value and virtues of data journalism and visualisations but I don’t think there is much being said at all – but definitely needs to be – about how data can’t ever describe the full picture.

Especially in India, and we’ve seen this recently with the implementation of the Aadhaar programme as well: even if your success rate with something is as high as 99%, 1% of India’s population is still millions of people [and it’s no coincidence that they already belong to the margins of society.] And this is something I’ve thus far not seen data stories capture. Numbers are good to address the big picture but they’ve been effectively counterproductive during this crisis in terms of distracting from the ground stories. [So even the best charts can only become the best stories if they’re complemented with some reporting.]

The Wire compiled a list of books to read during the lockdown, with recommendations by its staff. You recommended Dune by Frank Herbert. Why?

Dune to me was an obvious choice for [three] reasons. One is that Dune is set on a planet where you already see life in extremes, especially with the tribe of the Fremen, who play an important role in the plot. What really stayed with me about that book was its sort of mystic environmentalism, about how humans and nature are connected. The book explores this in a long-winded way, but that’s something we’ve seen a lot of these days in terms of zoonoses – [pathogens] that jump from animals to humans.

There’s also a lot of chatter these days about killing bats because they host coronaviruses. But all of that is rubbish. Humans are very deeply responsible for this crisis we’ve brought on ourselves in many ways.

This also alludes to what Anna Isaac mentioned earlier: what do you mean by normal? Yes, life probably will return to normal in India’s green zones next week, but the thing is, once this crisis ends, there’s still climate change, antimicrobial resistance and environmental degradation awaiting us that will bring on more epidemics and pandemics. Ecologists who have written for us have discussed this concept called ‘One Health’, where you don’t just discuss your health in terms of your body or your immediate environment but also in terms of your wider environment – at the ecosystem level.

Dune I think is a really good example of sci-fi that captures such an idea. And Dune is also special because it’s sci-fi, which helps us escape from our reality better, because sci-fi is both like and unlike.

The third reason it’s special is because the movie adaptation is coming out later this year, so it’s good to be ready. 😀

[When asked for closing remarks…]

When I started out being a journalist, I was quite pissed off that there wasn’t much going on in terms of the science coverage in India. So my favourite stories to write in the last eight years I’ve been a journalist have been about making a strong point about a lot of knowledge being out there in the world that seems like it’s not of immediate benefit or use [but is knowledge – and therefore worth knowing – nonetheless]. That’s how I started off being a science journalist.

My forte is writing about high-energy physics and astrophysics. Those are the stories I’ve really enjoyed covering and that’s the sort of thing that’s also lacking at the moment in the Indian journalism landscape – and that’s also the sort of coverage of science news we wanted to bring into the pandemic.

Here, I should mention that The Wire is trying to build what we hope will be the country’s first fully reader-funded, independent science news website. We launched it in February. We really want to put something together like the Scientific American of India. You can support that by donating at thewire.in/support. This is really a plea to support us to go after stories that we haven’t seen many others cover in India at the moment.

Right now, most stories are about the coronavirus outbreak but as we go ahead, we’d like to focus more and more on two areas: science/society and pure research, stuff that we’re finding out but not talking about probably because we think it’s of no use to us [but really that’s true only because we haven’t zoomed out enough].

Categories
Life notes Op-eds

Some empathy for Treebeard’s privilege

There’s a line from The Two Towers (2002) that’s really stayed with me:

I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.

It’s spoken by Treebeard, the Ent, to one of Meriadoc/Peregrin when asked whose side he was on: Saruman’s or the Fellowship’s. At first glance, it seems a fair answer because nobody has been bothered about the plight of the Ents since Saruman set up shop at Isengard. On second thought, however, you wonder what good it did to anyone when they didn’t bother to make their voices heard. If you shied away from political participation when it mattered, is it any surprise that you were subsequently excluded from decisions that impact you? And then, on third, it becomes pertinent to ask why the onus is on a community that has been continuously disenfranchised to speak up and make itself count. And so forth.

There are many parallels here to conversations that are had in the news everyday. Neha Sinha’s latest piece for The Wire is founded on almost the same premise: In the film Newton, the forest of Dandakaranya, its being a proxy for ecological democracy practiced by the Gond tribe that inhabits it, and the security forces’ relationship with the flora stands in for Tolkien’s Ents. It is not on the Gond to stand up and be counted.

I digress. As the headline of this post suggests, I’m on Treebeard’s side to the extent that I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side. However, I’m not an Ent in Middle Earth; I’m a privileged upper-caste, upper-class English-speaking male – an acknowledgement that needs to be articulated because, even if I choose to be on nobody’s side and extricate myself from all proceedings, my privilege will get many things done for me. And the ‘proceedings’ I speak of is the news. I don’t have to keep myself abreast of all the political, financial, economic and judicial happenings in the country. As a journalist I might have to but as a citizen, I don’t. My skipping an important political development impacts – rather has impacted – my life as much as my bunking a class in engineering college has: not at all.

I don’t want to follow the news anymore. The bulk of it is faeces-flinging, from one side of the ideological aisle to the other. The bulk of it is mostly posturing unto the fulfilment of myopic goals, aimed at winning skirmishes but losing all sight of the war. And most of it is self-indulgent populism in that most news publishers print/publish what the people want to read; if this is not true, we’d be reading a lot more of non-mainstream writing (in English at least, the only language I read the news in). As I’ve said multiple times before, it’s important to sell. But on the flipside, I don’t see anyone even thinking about trying to sell something new. For example, as a recent dinner conversation with two friends concluded, where do you go to look for Indian literary journalism?

Of course, some news outlets – like The Wire (where I work) – are trying to move away from this featureset by ensuring that only the journalists at The Wire get to decide what to cover and what not to cover; the only other stakeholder in our enterprise is the reader, so axiomatically there are no business or political interests dictating our agenda. However, my specific ire is directed at a subset of what even The Wire has been trying to do, a subset that represents a perception of the news that no single news outlet can attempt to modify by itself. Specifically, I’m on no journalist’s side because no journalist is on my side – the side that believes that political journalism is not the raison d’être of the fourth estate.

This isn’t a call (muted though it is) to eradicate political journalism. I’m saying that political journalism is a necessary but not sufficient component of the practice of journalism. Granted, the national polity is the ultimate seat of all power in the country, the Well of Eternity from which all life on Azeroth flows. But to prioritise the coverage of it over many other topics is, to me, a quiet surrender. Journalists flock to it because it’s easy to score ‘hits’ with; you draw blood by covering politics, and ‘change the world’ therewith, because the blood flows thick and fast there. But when was the last time news organisations attempted to draw blood from suppressed veins? To put it in less sanguine terms: when was the last time news organisations tried to investigate parts of our reality where power festers but not ostentatiously?

To me, in many ways, this is the physical world and the natural laws that govern it, the world where groups of people called scientists undertake expeditions – intellectually and otherwise – to unravel the foundations of civilisation as well as destiny. Science journalism is only another vantage point, just the way politics and business are vantage points, from which to survey our lives. However, to ignore one in favour of the Others simply because the Others are easier to communicate, easier to resonate with, is a copout. In fact, I believe that the blood flows thick and fast in cis-/peri-science matters as well; many simple don’t know where to look nor are interested.

Some also argue that science by itself won’t suffice to effect change, that it has to be coupled with policy, i.e. with an outside-in gaze. However, this is mostly the view of science from politics’ point of view, whereby political considerations influence our engagement with science. What is lacking is the other way round: where, for example, there is a public debate about why people who clean the toilets in a household can’t also cook in the same household, where a confrontation is encouraged between the chemistry of disinfectants and the socio-cultural beliefs rooted in caste traditions – instead of sidelining scientific knowledge to the margins.

This clause I’ve marked in italics is an indictment of the media, not of anyone else, because the media space is where it is the most lacking. Where activists and their allies on the ground might be going from door to door explaining how disinfectants work to the uninitiated, where educationists and young schoolchildren will be teaching each other about the deleterious effects of burning sulphur-laden firecrackers during Deepavali, most journalists have briefly cited this or that bit of research and moved on to discuss the social, cultural, political, etc. implications. In other words, it’s not that scientific knowledge alone must dictate our public life; that would be disastrous. It’s that, at least in my opinion, science gets less space than it truly deserves in the way we compose, and consume, our news.

Instead, our ideas of ‘newness’ within the context of journalism, at least in India, have become boxed in. ‘New media’ has become limited to the use of unfamiliar mediums to communicate the same thing we were communicating before in new ways. From what I’ve seen, there is a vanishing amount of introspection in most newsrooms about why we cover news the way we do, how the invention of different communication technologies influenced that decision, and what parts of the hitherto sidelined topics do new technologies open up.

If we don’t ask this question more often of ourselves as journalists, I fear political news is going to remain the mainstay of mainstream journalism in India, a traffic-hogging bully that shoves other, possibly more meaningful points of view down.

Featured image: Treebeard in ‘The Two Towers’. Source: YouTube.

Categories
Analysis Op-eds

How infographics can lose the plot

By this point it should’ve become apparent to most people who engage with infographics on a semi-regular basis that there are some rules about what they should or shouldn’t look like, and that your canvas isn’t actually infinite in terms of what you can create that will a) look good and b) make sense. But just when you think everyone’s going to create sane visualisations of data, there comes along one absolute trash-fire of an infographic to remind you that there are still people out there who can and will ruin your day. And when that someone is a media channel the size of News18, the issue at hand actually transforms from being a molehill to a mountain.

Because it’s News18, it’s no longer just about following good practices when making an infographic but also about moving the hundreds of thousands of people who will have seen the infographic (@CNNnews18 has 3.4 million followers) away from the idea that News18’s effort produced something legitimate. It’s like you and your squad are guiding a group of people quietly through a jungle at night, almost unseen, when an idiot decides he has to smoke a joint, lights his match, gives your position away to the enemy and you all get killed. To the wider world, you were all idiots – but only you will know that things would’ve been rosier if it hadn’t been for that junkie (and spare me your consternation about what a lousy analogy this is). Without further ado, the trash-fire:

Fonts and colours, not bad, but that’s it. Here’s what’s wrong:

  1. The contours of the chicken-leg and the leaf appear to have dictated the positioning of numbers and lines in the graphic, whereas it should’ve been the other way around
  2. The same length represented by 25% for Rajasthan also signifies 31% and 33% for Haryana and Punjab, respectively
  3. The states (in the graphic) from Bihar to Telangana all have less than 10% on the veg side – but the amount of leafy area would suggest these values are much higher than actual
  4. If anything, West Bengal and Telangana are the worst offenders: the breadth of leaf they have for their measly 1% is longer than that of Rajasthan’s 25%
  5. The numbers say that only 4/21 states have more vegetarians than non-vegetarians – but a glance would suggest that fraction’s closer to 13/21
  6. Also: wtf are these irregular shapes? Why not just pick regular rectangles and shade them accordingly?

In fact, across the board (of mistakes), it seems the designer may have forgotten or ignored just one guiding principle of all infographics: that they should give a clear and accurate impression of the truth as represented by the numbers. This often requires the designer to ensure that the axes are clearly visible, that representations of values through parameters like distance, area, volume, etc. are consistent and predictable throughout the graphic, that the representation of relative values is proportionate, that colours and/or stylisations don’t mislead the reader, etc.

These are the reasons why the ‘3D’ pie-chart offered by MS Powerpoint hasn’t found wider use. It offers nothing at all in addition to the normal ‘flat’ pie-chart but actually make things worse by distorting how the values are displayed. Similarly, you take one look at this chicken-leaf thing and you take away… nothing. You need to look at it again, closer each time, toss the numbers around a bit if they make sense, etc. It’s really just an attention-whore of an infographic, to be used as bait with which to trawl Twitter for a flamewar around the Indian government’s recent attitude towards the consumption of meat, especially beef.

Also: “So what if it’s a little off the mark to get some attention? It’s done its job, right?” → if this is your question, then the answer is that if you don’t force designers – especially those working with journalists – to follow best practices when making an infographic, you’ll be setting a lower bar that will soon turn around and assault you with all kinds of charts and plots conceived to hide what the numbers are really saying and instead massage your preconceived biases while playing up ‘almost-right’ propaganda. Yes, infographics can quickly and effectively misguide, especially when you don’t have much time to spend scrutinising it. Hell, isn’t that why infographics were invented in the first place: to let you take one look at a visualisation and get a good idea of what’s going on? This is exactly why there’s a lot of damage done when you’re screwing with infographics.

So DON’T DO IT.

Categories
Op-eds

No country for new journalism

(Formatting issues fixed.)

TwitterNgoodThrough an oped in Nieman Lab, Ken Doctor makes a timely case for explanatory – or explainer – journalism being far from a passing fad. Across the many factors that he argues contribute to its rise and persistence in western markets, there is evidence that he believes explainer journalism’s historical basis is more relevant than its technological one, most simply by virtue of having been necessitated by traditional journalism no longer connecting the dots well enough.

Second, his argument that explainer journalism is helped by the success of digital journalism takes for granted the resources that have helped it succeed in the west and not so much in countries like India.

So these points make me wonder if explainer journalism can expect to be adopted with similar enthusiasm here – where, unsurprisingly, it is most relevant. Thinking of journalism as an “imported” enterprise in the country, differences both cultural and historical become apparent between mainstream English-language journalism and regional local-language journalism. They cater to different interests and are shaped by different forces. For example, English-language establishments cater to an audience whose news sources are worldwide, who can always switch channels or newspapers and not be worried about running out of options. For such establishments, How/Why journalism is a way to differentiate itself.

Local v. regional

On the other hand, local-language establishments cater to an audience that is not spoiled for options and that is dependent profoundly on Who/What/When/Where journalism no matter where its ‘reading diaspora’. For them, How/Why journalism is an add-on. In this sense, the localism that Ken Doctor probes in his piece has no counterpart. It is substituted with a more fragmented regionalism whose players are interested in an expanding readership over that of their own scope. In this context, let’s revisit one of his statements:

Local daily newspapers have traditionally been disproportionately in the Who/What/When/Where column, but some of that now-lost local knowledge edged its ways into How/Why stories, or at least How/Why explanations within stories. Understanding of local policy and local news players has been lost; lots of local b.s. detection has vanished almost overnight.

Because of explainer journalism’s reliance on digital and digital’s compliance with the economics of scale (especially in a market where purchasing power is low), what Doctor calls small, local players are not in a position to adopt explainer journalism as an exclusive storytelling mode. As a result of this exclusion, Doctor argues that what digital makes accessible – i.e. what is found online – often lacks the local angle. But it remains to be seen if this issue’s Indian counterpart – digital vs. the unique regional as opposed to digital vs. the small local – is even likely to be relevant. In other words, do smaller regional players see the need to take the explainer route?

Local-level journalism (not to be confused with what is practiced by local establishments) in India is bifocal. On the one hand, there are regional players who cover the Who/What/When/Where thoroughly. On the other, there are the bigger English-language mainstreamers who don’t each have enough reporters to cover a region like India thanks, of course, to its profuse fragmentation, compensating instead by covering local stories in two distinct ways:

as single-column 150-word pieces that report a minor story (Who/What/When/Where) or

as six-column 1,500-word pieces where the regional story informs a national plot (How/Why),

—as if regional connect-the-dots journalism surfaces as a result of mainstream failures to bridge an acknowledged gap between conventional and contextualizing journalism. Where academicians, scholars and other experts do what journalists should have done – rather, in fact, they help journalists do what they must do. Therefore, readers of the mainstream publications have access to How/Why journalism because, counter-intuitively, it is made available in order to repair its unavailability. This is an unavailability that many mainstreamers believe they have license to further because they think the ‘profuse fragmentation’ is an insurmountable barrier.

There’s no history

The Hindu and The Indian Express are two Indian newspapers that have carved a space for themselves by being outstanding purveyors of such How/Why journalism, and in the same vein can’t be thought of as having succumbed to the historical basis that makes the case for its revival—“Why fix something that ain’t broken?”. And the “top-drawer” publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post that Doctor mentions that find a need to conspicuously assert this renewal are doing so on the back of the technology that they think has finally made the renewal economically feasible. And that the Times stands to be able to charge a premium for packaging Upshot and its other offerings together is not something Hindu or Express can also do now because, for the latter couple, How/Why isn’t new, hasn’t been for some time.

Therefore, whereupon the time has come in the western mainstream media to “readopt” explainer journalism, its Indian counterpart can’t claim to do that any time soon because it has neither the west’s historical nor technological bases. Our motivation has to come from elsewhere.