The commentariot

The following post is an orange flag – a quieter alarm raised in anticipation of something worse that hasn’t transpired yet but is likely in the offing. Earlier today, at the end of a call with a scientist for a story, the scientist implied that my job – as science journalist – required nothing of me but to be a commentator, whereas his required him to be a ‘maker’ and that that was superior. At the outset, this is offensive because if you don’t think journalism requires both creative and non-creative work to conduct ethically, you either don’t know what journalism is or you’re taking its moving parts for granted.

But the scientist’s comment merited an orange flag, I thought, because it’s the fourth time I’ve heard something like that in the last three months – and is a point of view I can’t help but think is attached in some way to our present national government and the political climate it has engendered. (All four scientists worked for government-funded institutes but I say this only because of the slant of their own views.)

The Modi government is, among many other things, a cult of personality centred on the prime minister and his fabled habit of getting things done, even if they’re undemocratic or just unconstitutional. Many of the government’s reforms today are often cast as being in stark contrast to the Congress’s rule of the country – that “Modi did what no other prime minister had dared.” The illegitimacy of these boasts aside, the government and its supporters are obviously proud of their ability to act swiftly and have rendered inaction in any form a sin (to the point where this government has also been notorious for repackaging previous governments’ schemes as its own).

They have also consigned many activities as being sinful for the same reason because their practice is much too tempered, or whose outcomes they believe “don’t go far enough”, for their taste. Journalism is one of them. A conversation a few months ago with a person who was both scientist and government official alerted me as to how real this sentiment might be in government circles when they said, “I have real work unlike you and I will get back to you with a concrete answer in two or three days.” The other scientists also said something similar. The right-wing has often cast the mainstream Indian journalism establishment as elite, classist, corrupt and apologist, and the accusation that it doesn’t do any real work – “certainly not to the nation’s benefit” – simply extends this view.

But for scientists to denigrate the work of science journalists, especially since their training should have alerted them to different ways in which science is both good and hard, is more than dispiriting. It’s a sign that “journalists don’t do good work” is more than just an ideological spearpoint used to undermine adversarial journalism, that it is something at least parts of the establishment believe to be true. And it also suggests that the stories we publish are being read as nothing more than the babble of a lazy commentariot.

A personal manifesto

Many people who are unsure of how their work can help put out the various (figurative) fires ravaging the country at the moment often quickly conclude that purpose is best found at the frontlines of this battle.

The common trap here is to conflate the most obvious path with the most right path, or either of them with the only path. It’s easier to protest, violently or non-violently, than to confront the apparent uselessness of whatever it is we had been doing until that moment. We passively discourage ourselves from doing something just because we liked doing it and aspire to doing something else because it accords a stronger sense of purpose, of being useful, in this moment. Putting the fires out becomes more important than everything else.

But the greatest trick the fascists ever pulled was in convincing us that everything we do that’s not immediately of service to the nation is useless.

What we do is worth protecting. How we enjoy the peace is what makes a people, society and culture worth protecting – not the other way around. The nationalist machine has slowly but surely turned this truism on its head, positing the protection itself, and the ethnically and religiously rooted cause legitimising it, as the end-all of our existence, and rendering the freedom of choice as constructed by various articles of the Constitution an indulgence of the selfish elite.

The fascists isolate us and make us think we’re alone. This loneliness stems from the sense either that we’re not one with the nationalists’ cause or that we’re not part of the resistance actively opposing the fascists. Resistance is necessary but the fascists score a point the moment you believe physical resistance is the sole form of valid resistance, and that the endgame is the only moment that matters. Resistive action in moments of crisis is by itself a necessary but insufficient condition that must be fulfilled to thwart our enemies.

If only we remember, for example, that we as a people are worth protecting for choosing to exercise our freedoms when the going gets tough and – to borrow Neil Gaiman’s suggestion – make good art, we are easily salvaged. We are salvaged if we have a fun evening with friends, go for an eclipse-watching picnic with the family, learn to sing or teach to dance, tip generously, water the fields, figure out a problem, walk the dog, go to school, make a good cup of tea, even watch the Sun rise.

There is a simple but persistent purpose in all of these things, little springboards from which to make giant leaps, and the politics of Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro would destroy just this foundation. Their politics represents the extremum of JFK’s exhortation to ‘ask what you can do for your country’, so it’s only natural to feel conflicted when one is seemingly forced to oppose it. But oppose it we must because the nation-state cannot make unlimited demands of the individual either.

The nationalists have further isolated us by carving science and society into distinct parts, robbing science of the moderating lessons of history and by robbing the transient present of the reassuring light of reason. They prize expertise to the point that it renders common sense dangerous, and they declare war on universities to ensure expertise is rare. They value data and facts above all else, empowering themselves to claim the virtuous pedestals of rationality and objectivity, when in fact they have weaponised the context and twisted definitions beyond recognition.

They isolate us by delegitimising our fictions, and the people and labour that produce them, substituting them in the public imagination with made-up histories that have none of fiction’s potential to enlighten and empower and all of scripture’s aspiration to subdue and stifle. In this moment, there is a valuable victory to be had in celebrating homegrown writers, musicians, filmmakers and illustrators.

While the greatest trick the fascists ever pulled was in convincing us that everything we do that’s not immediately of service to the nation is useless, they have also given away what it is we feel we have lost when we begin to feel helpless and insufficient in the face of their bigotry and triumphalism. Let’s reclaim the right to enjoy anything at all that we please (as long as they abide by constitutional principles). It may not seem like much but that’s also why we shouldn’t cede it: lose it and we have no legs to stand on.

Ad verecundiam

That Swedish group announced today that Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer are the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for economics. Within minutes, my Twitter feed was awash with congratulations as well as links to criticisms Duflo and Banerjee had voiced in the past against the economic policies of the Narendra Modi government. If nothing else, I can think of three motives on the part of those who shared these links: to draw traffic to certain news sites (i.e. the links had been shared by accounts belonging to news publishers), because the posters were deferring to the laureates’ reestablished authority to make a point, or to call attention to the fact that a woman had won a Nobel Prize. The first two are opportunistic and dicey at best. Setting aside for a moment the presumably small (if any) overlap between the group of people who shared the links to articles about Duflo’s and Banerjee’s work and the group of people who think the Nobel Prizes should be “cancelled” (to borrow Ed Yong’s word), using the Nobel Prizes to denote authority is to further cement the prizes’ undeserved place in the public consciousness of scholastic merit. Of course, lots of people are looking for the slightest opportunity to tell the Modi government it got something wrong – and both Banerjee and Duflo have admitted they couldn’t understand demonetisation, for starters – but using the Nobel Prizes to say “I told you so!” is not a free lunch. I don’t know what the alternatives could be; it’s certainly infeasible to think anyone could persuade mainstream Indian newsrooms to stop covering the announcement of the Nobel Prizes if only because it’s an excellent opportunity to talk/write about something in science and have your audience listen/read. We could try harder, but until we don’t, it also makes sense to criticise the Nobel Prizes while popularising them – and this is what’s missing in the social-media conversations shout-outs that seek to challenge one form of authority with another.

Similar DNA

From an article in Times Now News:

Comparing Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Union Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan on Wednesday said both have a similar “DNA” and share a passion for scientific research.

I’m sure I’m interpreting this too literally but when the national science minister makes a statement saying two people share similar DNA, I can’t help but wonder if he knows that the genome of any two humans is 99.9% the same. The remaining 0.1% accounts for all the difference. Ergo, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has DNA similar to Rahul Gandhi, me and you.

That said, I refuse to believe a man who slashed funding for the CSIR labs by 50% (and asked them to make up for it – a princely sum of Rs 2,000 crore – in three years by marketing their research), who claims ancient Indians surgically transplanted animal heads on humans, whose government passively condones right-wing extremism fuelled by irrational beliefs, whose ministries spend crores of rupees on conducting biased investigations of cow urine, and whose bonehead officials have interfered in the conduct of autonomous educational institutions even knows how scientific research works, let alone respects it.

Vardhan himself goes on to extol Vajpayee as the man who suffixed ‘jay vigyan‘ (‘Hail science’) to the common slogan ‘Jay jawan, jay kisan‘ (‘Hail the soldier, hail the farmer’) and, as an example of his contribution to the scientific community, says that the former PM made India a nuclear state within two months of coming to power. Temporarily setting aside the fact that it takes way more than two months to build and test nuclear weapons, it’s also disturbing that Vardhan thinks atom bombs are good science.

Additionally, Modi is like Vajpayee according to him because the former keeps asking scientists to “alleviate the sufferings of the common man” – which, speaking from experience, is nicespeak for “just do what I tell you and deliver it before my term is over”.

Curious Bends – killer palm oil, bunking homeopathy, India’s sex ed. and more

1. How Indonesia’s palm oil industry is killing people in China and India

“In both China and India, air pollution is one consequence of a massive exodus from farm to city that has occurred in recent decades. The change has contributed to rising emissions from both vehicles and factories, especially coal-fired power plants, and an emerging middle class that increasingly desires a range of consumer goods that are common in Europe and the United States. South-east Asia has encountered similar problems in recent decades as its economies and populations have boomed. In fact, according to the WHO, nearly one million of the 3.7 million people who died from ambient air pollution in 2012 lived in South-east Asia. But on top of smokestacks and tailpipes, the region faces an added burden: smoke haze produced in Indonesia that is a by-product of the world’s US$50 billion palm-oil industry.” (19 min read)

2. Casual paternity testing is a way of encouraging people to be suspicious all the time

“Easy DNA, a laboratory based in the town of Nagarcoil in Tamil Nadu, deals with 30 cases of paternity tests a month, said Rama Anandi, who works in its marketing division. Most requests for paternity tests at Easy DNA are spurred by “husbands having doubts on wives”. The DNA samples and results are generally sent across via mail and the payments made online. All a client has to do is buy a home test kit, take a saliva swab of the child’s mouth, and mail the samples to the nearest collection centre. The results are sent back in no more than two weeks. The lab also gets requests from hospitals for ‘maternity tests’ to resolve the tricky cases of infants mixed up by hospital staff or caught up in a suspected ‘child swap’.” (13 min read)

3. Homeopathy is pure bunkum (even if Indian PM Narendra Modi says it isn’t)

“On top of this, those who report apparent improvements are not unbiased observers, but presumably believers in homeopathy who want their loved ones to get better. Homeopaths will often state that some conventional doctors prescribe homeopathy. Some do, but many do not. In fact, the overwhelming majority of real doctors think homeopathy is pseudoscience. After all, homeopaths typically dilute their remedies until they contain no actual ingredients. Even though zero was invented in India, I suspect that most Indians would spurn the ridiculous notion of pills containing zero.” (4 min read)

4. The silence around sex in India has prompted new ways to educate kids

“Sex education is being outsourced to non-profit or private organizations because the Indian government is “abdicating its responsibility,” said Ketaki Chowkhani, who is working on a doctorate in women’s studies about sex education in urban India at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. “It should be the responsibility of the school, and consequently the state, to provide comprehensive sexuality education,” said Ms. Chowkhani in an email. Private schools that have sex education as part of the curriculum tend to call in someone else rather than leaving it to their teachers.” (5 min read)

5. There’s a little selfishness in the US wanting India to go big on solar

“It is clear that sustainable and renewable energy resources have a strong role to play in India, and the source of choice is the sun. India hopes to become into a solar-power-equipment-manufacturing hub and a global solar power. The US hopes its manufacturers will benefit from India’s ambitions and simultaneously encourage India to reduce carbon emissions. Solar power generation in the country increased 14.2% during 2012-13 to 2013-14. It costs Rs 6.91 crore per MW of grid-connected solar PV power, according to the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission. In comparison, nuclear power costs Rs 17.27 crore per MW and electricity from coal Rs 5.75 crore per MW, according to our calculations.” (5 min read)

Chart of the week

“Every now and then, though, you stumble across a map that enlightens. That’s how we felt when we saw the awesome map made by Reddit user TeaDranks. The map resizes countries based on their population. It’s simple: Each square represents 500,000 people. TeaDranks posted the graphic on Reddit’s “map porn” discussion on Jan. 16. He calls it his “magnum opus”.” NPR’s goats and soda has more.


The dignity of human labor

My Twitter friend and compatriot @zeusisdead made a good, bristling case for why we shouldn’t celebrate India’s Mars Orbiter mission’s frugality. Here’s a telling excerpt from his piece as it appeared in Times of India:

ISRO [India’s space agency] did not get to Mars by using duct tape and M-seal to make the orbiter work. ISRO is not trying to repair cars by refashioning cycle chains. It takes several minutes for the ISRO command centre to beam a message to the orbiter and an equal length of time to hear back. The “thoda adjust kardenge” attitude of jugaad with people tinkering on the fly would have failed like a wet cracker here. ISRO built a top-class launch vehicle and payload, and we should not cheapen its success by harping on any number. India’s space programme is a testament to a culture of tackling hard challenges because they are hard, not because they are easy. Of doing the best, and not the cheapest. Jugaad in India was born as a necessity in impoverished conditions, and instead of elevating it to godhood we should be trying to escape a culture of jugaad as quickly as possible. ISRO is showing us the way.

For those who don’t know much Hindi, including me, “jugaad” means to hack something together in a very creative, sometimes cunning, sense.

Anyway, there is perhaps a simpler explanation for why the Mars Orbiter worked out so cheap (it does find mention in @zeusisdead’s piece). Having moved to the United States less than a month ago, I was expected to be alarmed by the cost of many products and amenities by my relatives already living in the country. They converted every dollar into rupees and were in a perpetual state of astonishment when it all worked out 60 times costlier. But then, they were careful to note the exceptions: medicines, books, public transport, shipping, and most of all tips. These things worked out way costlier than they ought to, they said.

I’m much more comfortable in the United States, and it’s not in spite of these “costlier” things, it’s because of them. In my opinion, they make it easier for me to acknowledge the dignity of human labor. It’s the cost of labor that escalates the cost of certain products and services. Medicines bought at the pharmacy or books downloaded from the web may be cheaper but they ought to be more expensive if you want to have them delivered home. Fuel is cheaper, too, if you can be honest about how much you’re filling up for and are able to do it yourself, but if the bunk has to manned, who pays those who man it? That’s the price we ought to pay to respect the dignity of human labor.

In the same way, as an organization operating out of India, ISRO has to spend much less than the developed world to consume manhours. And that the price of a manhour is low in India is not as a natural product of our socio-economic forces but as a result of deliberate subsidization whose costs we hide behind a veil of cheapness. It is in this sense that Modi’s call to ‘Make In India’ sounds ominous, too. Labor shouldn’t come cheap, but if it does, who’s paying for it? In the words of American economist Thorstein Veblen,

Labor wants pride and joy in doing good work, a sense of making something beautiful or useful – to be treated with dignity and respect, as brother and sister.