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Life notes

Good luck with your Maggi

You know when you’re cooking a packet of Maggi noodles in a saucepan, and you haven’t used enough water or don’t move the stuff soon enough from the pan to a plate once it’s done cooking, and you’re basically left with a hot lump of maida stuck to the bottom? That’s 2020. When you cook Maggi right, right up to mixing in a stick of butter at the end, you get a flavourful, well-lubricated, springy mass of strings that’s a pleasure to eat at the end of a long day. Once in a while you stick a fork into the plate and pull up a particularly long noodle, and you relish sucking it into your mouth from start to finish, with the masala dripping off at the end. That was probably many other years – when you had a strong sense of time moving from one event to the next, a sense of progression that helps you recall chronologies even long after you’ve forgotten what happened in March and what in September. For example, 2015 in my mind is cleanly divided into two parts – before May 11 and after May 11 – and memories of little personal accomplishments from that time are backgrounded by whether The Wire existed at the time. If it did, then I know the accomplishment happened after May 11. The Wire‘s birth effectively became an inflection in time that cut a little notch in the great noodle of 2015, a reference mark that created a before and an after. 2020 had none of this. It forsook all arrows of time; it wasn’t linear in any sense, not even non-linear in the sense of being exponential or logarithmic. It was practically anti-linear. Causality became a joke as the pandemic and its attendant restrictions on society fucked with the mind’s ability to tell one day apart from the next. So many of us beheld the world from our windows or balconies, although it wasn’t as if the world itself moved on without us. We weren’t there to world the world. Or maybe we were, but our collective grief at being imprisoned, literally and otherwise, seemed to be able to reshape our neighbourhoods, our surroundings, our shared cosmologies even and infused the fabrics of our every day with a cynical dye that we know won’t come off easily. Many of our lived experiences carried an awful symmetry like the circular one of a bangle, or a CD. How do you orient it? How do you say which way is up, or left, just by looking at it? You can’t. In the parlance of Euclidean geometry, 2020 was just as non-orientable. There was no before and after. Even our universe isn’t as bad: despite the maddening nature of the flatness problem, and the even more maddening fact of Earth’s asymptotically infinite loneliness, the universe is nearly flat. You’d have to travel trillions upon trillions of light-years in any direction before you have any chance of venturing into your past, and even then only because our instruments and our sciences aren’t accurate enough to assert, with complete certainty, that the universe is entirely flat and that your past will always lie in the causal history of your future. 2020 was, however, a singularity – an entrapment of reality within a glass bubble in which time flowed in an orbit around the centre, in perpetual free-fall and at the same time managing to get nowhere really. You can forget teasing out individual noodles from the hot lump on your plate because it’s really a black hole, probably something worse for shunning any of the mysteries that surround the microscopic structure of black holes in favour of maida, that great agent of constipation. As you stare at it, you could wait for its effects to evaporate; you could throw more crap into it in the hopes of destabilising it, like pushing yourself to the brink of nihilism that Thucydides noticed among the epidemic-stricken people of Athens more than two millennia ago; or you could figure out ingenious ways à la Penrose to get something good out of it. If you figure this out, please let the rest of us know. And until then, good luck with your Maggi.

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Analysis Science

Ayurveda is not a science – but what does that mean?

This post has benefited immensely with inputs from Om Prasad.

Calling something ‘not a science’ has become a pejorative, an insult. You say Ayurveda is not a science and suddenly, its loudest supporters demand to know what the problem is, what your problem is, and that you can go fuck yourself.

But Ayurveda is not a science.

First, science itself didn’t exist when Ayurveda was first born (whenever that was but I’m assuming it was at least a millennium ago), and they were both outcomes of different perceived needs. So claiming ‘Ayurveda is a science’ makes little sense. You could counter that 5 didn’t stop being a number just because the number line came much later – but that wouldn’t make sense either because the relationship between 5 and the number line is nothing like the relationship between science and Ayurveda.

It’s more like claiming Carl Linnaeus’s choice of topics to study was normal: it wouldn’t at all be normal today but in his time and his particular circumstances, they were considered acceptable. Similarly, Ayurveda was the product of a different time, technologies and social needs. Transplanting it without ‘updating’ it in any way is obviously going to make it seem inchoate, stunted. At the same time, ‘updating’ it may not be so productive either.

Claiming ‘Ayurveda is a science’ is to assert two things: that science is a qualifier of systems, and that Ayurveda once qualified by science’s methods becomes a science. But neither is true for the same reason: if you want one of them to be like the other, it becomes the other. They are two distinct ways of organising knowledge and making predictions about natural processes, and which grew to assume their most mature forms along different historical trajectories. Part of science’s vaunted stature in society today is that it is an important qualifier of knowledge, but it isn’t of knowledge systems. This is ultimately why Ayurveda and science are simply incompatible.

One of them has become less effective and less popular over time – which should be expected because human technologies and geopolitical and social boundaries have changed dramatically – while the other is relatively more adolescent, more multidisciplinary (with the right opportunities) and more resource-intensive – which should be expected because science, engineering, capitalism and industrialism rapidly co-evolved in the last 150 years.

Second, ‘Ayurveda is a science’ is a curious statement because those who utter it typically wish to elevate it to the status science enjoys and at the same time wish to supplant answers that modern science has provided to some questions with answers by Ayurveda. Of course, I’m speaking about the average bhakt here – more specifically a Bharatiya Janata Party supporter seemingly sick of non-Indian, especially Western, influences on Indian industry, politics, culture (loosely defined) and the Indian identity itself, and who may be actively seeking homegrown substitutes. However, their desire to validate Ayurveda according to the practices of modern science is really an admission that modern science is superior to Ayurveda despite all their objections to it.

The bhakt‘s indignation when confronted with the line that ‘Ayurveda is not a science’ is possibly rooted in the impression that ‘science’ is a status signal – a label attached to a collection of precepts capable of together solving particular problems, irrespective of more fundamental philosophical requirements. However, the only science we know of is the modern one, and to the bhakt the ‘Western’ one – both in provenance and its ongoing administration – and the label and the thing to which it applies, i.e. the thing as well as the name of the thing, are convergent.

There is no other way of doing science; there is no science with a different set of methods that claims to arrive at the same or ‘better’ scientific truths. (I’m curious at this point if, assuming a Kuhnian view, science itself is unfalsifiable as it attributes inconsistencies in its constituent claims to extra-scientific causes than to flaws in its methods themselves – so as a result science as a system can reach wrong conclusions from time to time but still be valid at all times.)

It wouldn’t be remiss to say modern science, thus science itself, is to the nationalistic bhakt as Ayurveda is to the nationalistic far-right American: a foreign way of doing things that must be resisted, and substituted with the ‘native’ way, however that nativity is defined. It’s just that science, specifically allopathy, is more in favour today because, aside from its own efficacy (a necessary but not sufficient condition), all the things it needs to work – drug discovery processes, manufacturing, logistics and distribution, well-trained health workers, medical research, a profitable publishing industry, etc. – are modelled on institutions and political economies exported by the West and embedded around the world through colonial and imperial conquests.

Third: I suspect a part of why saying ‘Ayurveda is not a science’ is hurtful is that Indian society at large has come to privilege science over other disciplines, especially the social sciences. I know too many people who associate the work of many of India’s scientists with objectivity, a moral or political nowhereness*, intellectual prominence, pride and, perhaps most importantly, a willingness to play along with the state’s plans for economic growth. To be denied the ‘science’ tag is to be denied these attributes, desirable for their implicit value as much as for the opportunities they are seen to present in the state’s nationalist (and even authoritarian) project.

On the other hand, social scientists are regularly cast in opposition to these attributes – and more broadly by the BJP in opposition to normative – i.e. pro-Hindu, pro-rich – views of economic and cultural development, and dismissed as such. This ‘science v. fairness’ dichotomy is only a proxy battle in the contest between respecting and denying human rights – which in turn is also represented in the differences between allopathy and Ayurveda, especially when they are addressed as scientific as well as social systems.

Compared to allopathy and allopathy’s intended outcomes, Ayurveda is considerably flawed and very minimally desirable as an alternative. But on the flip side, uptake of alternative traditions is motivated not just by their desirability but also by the undesirable characteristics of allopathy itself. Modern allopathic methods are isolating (requiring care at a designated facility and time away from other tasks, irrespective of the extent to which that is epidemiologically warranted), care is disempowering and fraught with difficult contradictions (“We expect family members to make decisions about their loved ones after a ten-minute briefing that we’re agonising over even with years of medical experience”**), quality of care is cost-stratified, and treatments are condition-specific and so require repeated hospital visits in the course of a lifetime.

Many of those who seek alternatives in the first place do so for these reasons – and these reasons are not problems with the underlying science itself. They’re problems with how medical care is delivered, how medical knowledge is shared, how medical research is funded, how medical workers are trained – all subjects that social scientists deal with, not scientists. As such, any alternative to allopathy will become automatically preferred if it can solve these economic, political, social, welfare, etc. problems while delivering the same standard of care.

Such a system won’t be an entirely scientific enterprise, considering it would combine the suggestions of the sciences as well as the social sciences into a unified whole such that it treated individual ailments without incurring societal ones. Now, say you’ve developed such an alternative system, called PXQY. The care model at its heart isn’t allopathy but something else – and its efficacy is highest when it is practised and administered as part of the PXQY setup, instead of through standalone procedures. Would you still call this paradigm of medical care a science?

* Akin to the ‘view from nowhere’.
** House, S. 2, E 18.

Featured image credit: hue 12 photography/Unsplash.

Categories
Analysis Science

The real story of ‘The Old Guard’

Spoiler alert: Don’t read this post if you intend to watch The Old Guard but haven’t done so yet.

The Old Guard, an action film starring Charlize Theron among others, released on Netflix on July 10. In a scene in the film, Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) delivers two undying men to the CEO of a pharmaceutical company (Harry Melling) only to watch the CEO, demanding that their proof of immortality be “indisputable”, stab them to death and then watch their wounds heal. After he’s had his fill, the CEO orders the men to be taken away to a lab for ‘tests’. Before he leaves the room, Copley walks up to the CEO and attempts to remind him that “this” – referring to their arrangement, pursuant to the CEO’s stated intention to mine the immortals’ genetic material for life-saving drugs – “is about science, not profits or sadism”.

The Old Guard has received good reviews, as you might know if you’ve already watched it, but perhaps the film’s entire story could have been non-existent were it not for Copley’s naïve beliefs, no?

At another point in the film, Copley talks about entering into his deal with Merrick, the CEO, because Copley’s wife’s death of ALS taught him that genetic gifts that could alleviate “needless suffering” should be shared with humanity, not hoarded by a few. A noble sentiment – and I almost fell for it until being jolted back by another character, who reminds Copley that the gift wasn’t his to give. In The Old Guard, it’s four white people who have been forced to give, but the argument is strengthened by the fact that it’s an apt metaphor for the real world, in which it’s often the people of the developing world, and in that world the most marginalised, doing the ‘giving’.

In effect, the film’s story is about Copley’s mistake and Copley fixing that mistake – except the mistake doesn’t seem defensible to me as much as it must have been born out of a long-standing ignorance of a bunch of issues, from self-determination to science’s need to be guided by politics. When Copley tells Merrick that “this is about science, not profits”, I laughed out loud, and my scalding hot tea poured out through my nose when he added “or sadism”. What kind of person arranges to violently capture four people who really don’t wish to be caught, puts them in chains, and brings them to a pharma company believing it’s neither for “profits” nor “sadism”?

Even more broadly, when has science ever not been for sadism or profits? Vast swathes of modern science as we know it – since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the entry into consciousness in those moments of the science-military nexus, exemplified by the apoliticism of Enrico Fermi that, in the final analysis, had deeply political ramifications – have been for profits and power, if not directly sadism.

Modern medicine is not at all free of pain either. Even within the limited view of physical violence, drug trial protocols require a set of preclinical trials to be conducted in ‘animal models’, and many researchers who work with animals also grapple with mental health issues, for example in the form of compassion fatigue. Only in this decade or so have we begun to grow organs in the lab or virtual environments in computers to simulate the actions of different drugs, and even these solutions are eons away from entering regular practice. And then there’s the brutal history of medical and psychological experimentation that, at various points in time, overlapped disturbingly neatly with the day’s most significant human rights abuses.

If we considered violence of other forms as well – including but not limited to rationalists who wield ‘science’ to delegitimise non-scientific ways to organise and make sense of the world and to terrorise the followers of other traditions; to the West, which, “rather than improve conditions of work where necessary, or make a provision for proper career structures where they are lacking so as to attract local graduates, … has found it simpler and less expensive to import foreign doctors to work under conditions which locally trained doctors would not accept” (source); to even imperialist trade agreements that suppress local enterprise in favour of foreign imports – neither medicine nor the institutions responsible for its development are at all free of violence.

This said, I’m not railing against Copley here as much as his writers, Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández. Even considered in toto, The Old Guard affords Copley the resolution of his moral crisis by facilitating the rescue of the ‘caged’ immortals – but in so doing legitimises the separation of scientific practice from cruelty and abuse. But as history has revealed on multiple occasions, science as so many of us would like it to be is so frequently not what it actually is. As a human enterprise, it’s dirty, fraught and contested. Most of all – likely to the chagrin of those who still believe there can be a functional line between science and politics that wouldn’t be to science’s detriment – it is negotiated. And the more we persist in our efforts to install the scientific enterprise on a pedestal, as being even if only in idea to be untainted by social and cultural considerations, the more we diminish its influence on society, the more we overlook its use unto oppressive ends and thus the more we empower those who do so.

Instead, what Copley should really have done after being contacted is deduce preemptively that Merrick is cruel and therefore Merrick’s practice of science is bound to be cruel, sign the contract (to keep the deal from going to someone else) and then stealthily undermine Merrick’s plans while also protecting the immortals. Then, once Merrick has been killed off (in order to make it a good action film), the immortals volunteer to have their genomes sequenced and the corresponding results uploaded onto a preprint server, and then recall all their time on this good Earth to write anecdotally well-supplied books about the real history of science.

Categories
Culture Science

The rationalists’ eclipse

The annular solar eclipse over South India on December 26 provided sufficient cause for casual and/or inchoate rationalism to make a rare public appearance – rarer than the average person who had decided to stay indoors for the duration of the event thanks to superstitious beliefs. Scientists and science communicators organised or participated in public events where they had arranged for special (i.e. protective) viewing equipment and created enough space for multiple people to gather and socialise.

However, some of these outings, spilling over into the social media, also included actions and narratives endeavouring to counter superstitions but overreaching and stabbing at the heart of non-scientific views of the world.

The latter term – ‘non-scientific’ – has often been used pejoratively but is in fact far from deserving of derision or, worse, pity. The precepts of organised religion encompass the most prominent non-scientific worldview but more than our tragic inability to imagine that these two magisteria could exist in anything but opposition to each other, the bigger misfortune lies with presuming science and religion are all there is. The non-scientific weltanschauung includes other realms, so to speak, especially encompassing beliefs that organised religion and its political economy hegemonise. Examples include the traditions of various tribal populations around the world, especially in North America, Latin America, Africa, Central and South Asia, and Australia.

There is an obvious difference between superstitious beliefs devised to suppress a group or population and the framework of tribal beliefs within which their knowledge of the world is enmeshed. It should be possible to delegitimise the former without also delegitimising the latter. Assuming the charitable view that some find it hard to discern this boundary, the simplest way to not trip over it is to acknowledge that most scientific and non-scientific beliefs can peacefully coexist in individual minds and hearts. And that undermining this remarkably human ability is yet another kind of proselytisation.

Obviously this is harder to realise in what we conceive as the day-to-day responsibilities of science communication, but that doesn’t mean we must put up with a lower bar for the sort of enlightenment we want India to stand for fifty or hundred years from now. Organising public eat-a-thons during a solar eclipse, apparently to dispel the superstitious view that consuming foods when the Sun has been so occluded is bad for health, is certainly not a mature view of the problem.

In fact, such heavy-handed attempts to drive home the point that “science is right” and “whatever else you think is wrong” are effects of a distal cause: a lack of sympathetic concern for the wellbeing of a people – which is also symptomatic of a half-formed, even egotistical, rationalism entirely content with its own welfare. Rescuing people from ideas that would enslave them could temporarily empower them but transplanting them to a world where knowledgeability rules like a tyrant, unconcerned with matters he cannot describe, is only more of the same by a different name.

B.R. Ambedkar and E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, a.k.a. Periyar, wanted to dismantle organised religion because they argued that such oppressive complexes pervaded its entire body. Their ire was essentially directed against autocratic personal governance that expected obedience through faith. In India, unless you’re a scientist and/or have received a good education, and can read English well enough to access the popular and, if need be, the technical literature, science is also reduced to a system founded on received knowledge and ultimately faith.

There is a hegemony of science as well. Beyond the mythos of its own cosmology (to borrow Paul Feyerabend’s quirky turn of phrase in Against Method), there is also the matter of who controls knowledge production and utilisation. In Caliban and the Witch (1998), Sylvia Federici traces the role of the bourgeoisie in expelling beliefs in magic and witchcraft in preindustrial Europe only to prepare the worker’s body to accommodate the new rigours of labour under capitalism. She writes, “Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalisation of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action. ‘Magic kills industry,’ lamented Francis Bacon…”.

To want to free another human from whatever shackles bind them is the sort of virtuous aspiration that is only weakened by momentary or superficial focus. In this setup, change – if such change is required at all costs – must be enabled from all sides, instead of simply a top-down reformatory jolt delivered by pictures of a bunch of people breaking their fast under an eclipsed Sun.

Effective science communication could change the basis on which people make behavioural decisions but to claim “all myths vanished” (as one science communicator I respect and admire put it) is disturbing. Perhaps in this one instance, the words were used in throwaway fashion, but how many people even recognise a need to moderate their support for science this way?

Myths, as narratives that harbour traditional knowledge and culturally unique perspectives on the natural universe, should not vanish but be preserved. A belief in the factuality of this or that story could become transformed by acknowledging that such stories are in fact myths and do not provide a rational basis for certain behavioural attitudes, especially ones that might serve to disempower — as well as that the use of the scientific method is a productive, maybe even gainful, way to discover the world.

But using science communication as a tool to dismantle myths, instead of tackling superstitious rituals that (to be lazily simplistic) suppress the acquisition of potentially liberating knowledge, is to create an opposition that precludes the peaceful coexistence of multiple knowledge systems. In this setting, science communication perpetuates the misguided view that science is the only useful way to acquire and organise our knowledge — which is both ahistorical and injudicious.

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Culture Op-eds

The calculus of creative discipline

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over world-building. World-building is dull. World-building literalises the urge to invent. World-building gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). World-building numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, world-building is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism.

Once I’m awake and have had my mug of tea, and once I’m done checking Twitter, I can quote these words of M. John Harrison from memory: not because they’re true – I don’t believe they are – but because they rankle. I haven’t read any writing of Harrison’s, I can’t remember the names of any of his books. Sometimes I don’t remember his name even, only that there was this man who uttered these words. Perhaps it is to Harrison’s credit that he’s clearly touched a nerve but I’m reluctant to concede anymore than this.

His (partial) quote reflects a narrow view of a wider world, and it bothers me because I remain unable to extend the conviction that he’s seeing only a part of the picture to the conclusion that he lacks imagination; as a writer of not inconsiderable repute, at least according to Wikipedia, I doubt he has any trouble imagining things.

I’ve written about the virtues of world-building before (notably here), and I intend to make another attempt in this post; I should mention what both attempts, both defences, have in common is that they’re not prescriptive. They’re not recommendations to others, they’re non-generalisable. They’re my personal reasons to champion the act, even art, of world-building; my specific loci of resistance to Harrison’s contention. But at the same time, I don’t view them – and neither should you – as inviolable or as immune to criticism, although I suspect this display of a willingness to reason may not go far in terms of eliminating subjective positions from this exercise, so make of it what you will.

There’s an idea in mathematical analysis called smoothness. Let’s say you’ve got a curve drawn on a graph, between the x- and y-axes, shaped like the letter ‘S’. Let’s say you’ve got another curve drawn on a second graph, shaped like the letter ‘Z’. According to one definition, the S-curve is smoother than the Z-curve because it has fewer sharp edges. A diligent high-schooler might take recourse through differential calculus to explain the idea. Say the Z-curve on the graph is the result of a function Z(x) = y. If you differentiate Z(x) where ‘x’ is the point on the x-axis where the Z-curve makes a sharp turn, the derivative Z'(x) has a value of zero. Such points are called critical points. The S-curve doesn’t have any critical points (except at the ends, but let’s ignore them); L-, and T-curves have one critical point each; P- and D-curves have two critical points each; and an E-curve has three critical points.

With the help of a loose analogy, you could say a well-written story is smooth à la an S-curve (excluding the terminal points): it it has an unambiguous beginning and an ending, and it flows smoothly in between the two. While I admire Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series for many reasons, its first instalment is like a T-curve, where three broad plot-lines abruptly end at a point in the climax that the reader has been given no reason to expect. The curves of the first three books of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series resemble the tangent function (from trigonometry: tan(x) = sin(x)/cosine(x)): they’re individually somewhat self-consistent but the reader is resigned to the hope that their beginnings and endings must be connected at infinity.

You could even say Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t been smooth at all because there have been so many critical points.

Where world-building “literalises the urge to invent” to Harrison, it spatialises the narrative to me, and automatically spotlights the importance of the narrative smoothness it harbours. World-building can be just as susceptible to non-sequiturs and deus ex machinae as writing itself, all the way to the hubris Harrison noticed, of assuming it gives the reader anything to do, even enjoy themselves. Where he sees the “clomping foot of nerdism”, I see critical points in a curve some clumsy world-builder invented as they went along. World-building can be “dull” – or it can choose to reveal the hand-prints of a cave-dwelling people preserved for thousands of years, and the now-dry channels of once-heaving rivers that nurtured an ancient civilisation.

My principal objection to Harrison’s view is directed at the false dichotomy of writing and world-building, and which he seems to want to impose instead of the more fundamental and more consequential need for creative discipline. Let me borrow here from philosophy of science 101, specifically of the particular importance of contending with contradictory experimental results. You’ve probably heard of the replication crisis: when researchers tried to reproduce the results of older psychology studies, their efforts came a cropper. Many – if not most – studies didn’t replicate, and scientists are currently grappling with the consequences of overturning decades’ worth of research and research practices.

This is on the face of it an important reality check but to a philosopher with a deeper view of the history of science, the replication crisis also recalls the different ways in which the practitioners of science have responded to evidence their theories aren’t prepared to accommodate. The stories of Niels Bohr v. classical mechanicsDan Shechtman v. Linus Pauling and the EPR paradox come first to mind. Heck, the philosophers Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend are known for their criticisms of each other’s ideas on different ways to rationalise the transition from one moment containing multiple answers to the moment where one emerges as the favourite.

In much the same way, the disciplined writer should challenge themself instead of presuming the liberty to totter over the landscape of possibilities, zig-zagging between one critical point and the next until they topple over the edge. And if they can’t, they should – like the practitioners of good science – ask for help from others, pressing the conflict between competing results into the service of scouring the rust away to expose the metal.

For example, since June this year, I’ve been participating on my friend Thomas Manuel’s initiative in his effort to compose an underwater ‘monsters’ manual’. It’s effectively a collaborative world-building exercise where we take turns to populate different parts of a large planet with sizeable oceans, seas, lakes and numerous rivers with creatures, habitats and ecosystems. We broadly follow the same laws of physics and harbour substantially overlapping views of magic, but we enjoy the things we invent because they’re forced through the grinding wheels of each other’s doubts and curiosities, and the implicit expectation of one creator to make adequate room for the creations of the other.

I see it as the intersection of two functions: at first, their curves will criss-cross at a point, and the writers must then fashion a blending curve so a particle moving along one can switch to the other without any abruptness, without any of the tired melodrama often used to mask criticality. So the Kularu people are reminded by their oral traditions to fight for their rivers, so the archaeologists see through the invading Gezmin’s benevolence and into the heart of their imperialist ambitions.

Categories
Op-eds Science

The alleged politicisation of science

“Don’t politicise X” has become the defence of choice for a class of scientists and public intellectuals in India whose class and caste privilege utterly blinds them to various inequities in the practice of science – as privilege is wont to do – and who labour with the presumption that these inequities, should they miraculously become aware of a few, don’t affect what new knowledge is produced and how it affects relationships predicated on a power imbalance in the wider society.

Consider a simple example: men and women are equally capable of being good scientists, but there aren’t many women the further down the academic pipeline you go because they have been driven out by their male colleagues’ and supervisors’ sexism and misogyny. As a result, a lot of modern scientific research simply collects the results of questions that men asked and questions that the same or other men answered. This problem impoverishes the scientific undertaking by depriving it of the insights and sensibilities of a significant section of society.

The way ahead from here should not be to ‘normalise’ things because the normal has come to mean the preservation of the status quo, in terms of protecting men and safeguarding their domains as temples of patriarchy; there can be progress only with near-constant struggle and pushback, and among non-male scientists as well as non-male workers, together with their male colleagues and peers, in all endeavours of modernity. It would in turn be impossible for such a historic movement to be non-political or apolitical.

A part of the problem is rooted in the demonisation of politics, at least the label itself. ‘To politicise’ has come to mean to infuse an endeavour with partisanship where there has thus far been harmony, with incentives that suppress intelligent decision-making with the simpler algorithms of populism. However, when such harmony and intelligence are products of oppression, they must go.

A male PI’s contention that women in the lab will “distract” men – as the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt said – or that they are unlikely to be available to run experiments owing to menstruation or pregnancy should prompt us to reexamine how labs are organised, the rights and freedoms of female lab-workers, and how the university frames the relationship between labour and research, and not have us considering if women should be allowed to work in labs at all. In a different context, many Indians on discussion forums and social media platforms have recently become fond of demanding that I, or anyone else, “shouldn’t politicise space”. But space has become interesting and lucrative only because it has been politicised.

“Politics,” according to Wikipedia, “is a set of activities associated with the governance of a country or an area.” In this regard, it should seem impossible for any endeavour, no matter how small or fleeting, to remain untouched by the influence of the politics of the people undertaking the endeavour. Caste-based and gender-based discrimination are obvious manifestations of this truism in Indian society; for another, consider the following snippet from an article I (first) published in July. It summarises the extent to which public policy influences the possible trajectories of scientific careers in India:

Consider a scientist from the developing world. Let’s say he is a male, English-speaking middle-class Brahmin so we can set aside the ceaseless discrimination the scientific community’s non-malenon-Hindu/non-upper-castenon-heterosexualIndian-language-speaking members face for the sake of our discussion. The picture has already been oversimplified. This scientist has access to some instruments, a few good labs, not many good mentors, irregular funding, not enough travel grants, subpar employment prospects, insufficient access to journals, lives in a polluted city with uneven public transport, rising costs of living, less water to spare and rising medical bills. If at this juncture we reinstate the less privileged Indian in this matrix, it becomes a near-chaotic picture of personal, social, economic and political problems. Even then, it is still only the substrate upon which international inequities – such as access to samples from other parts of India and the world, information published in journals that libraries can’t afford or exclusion from the editorial boards of scientific journals – will come to bear. Finally, there is the climate crisis and its discomfiting history.

For a less obvious example: Chandrayaan 2 has been widely touted as a technological as well as scientific mission. However, in the lead up to the mission’s launch on July 22 as well as after the unfortunate events of September 7, ISRO’s focus as well as that of the people and most journalists has remained on the mission’s technological aspects. In fact, ISRO chairman K. Sivan declared on September 22 that the mission had been a 98% success when its scientific phase had barely begun – that is, that Chandrayaan 2’s scientific mission constitutes only 2% of the whole thing.

As bizarre as this sounds, these proclamations are in line with ISRO’s relatively poor track record of executing sophisticated scientific missions. This should force us to confront the political economics of science administration in India – whereby those in power have become increasingly unwilling to fund non-applied research thanks to the rising influence of populist politics and its predilection for short-term gains. This is in addition to the relationships central and state-level funding agencies have with the receivers of their money, how such money is distributed between elite and non-elite institutes, and how nationalism shields ISRO from backlash as it centralises authority and further limits public outreach.

There are many other examples to illustrate that there is no such thing as the politicisation of X inasmuch as there is either the acknowledgment of this truth or its denial. But if you are still grasping for an out, there is one. There are two broad ways to divide the public perception of what politics is: the kind concerned with the principles by which we govern ourselves as a peaceful and productive society, and the kind concerned with maximising media exposure and perpetuating the inefficiencies of bureaucracy.

The influence of the former is inescapable by design and must be guided by reason and debate; the influence of the latter is regrettable and must be rejected for its small-mindedness at every opportunity. If one takes a charitable view of those fond of saying “don’t politicise X”, one would hope that they are speaking of politics of the second variety: the dirty realpolitik and its Machiavellian ambitions. But a less charitable, and an arguably more justified, view suggests that many scientists – in India at least – lack an appreciation of the politics of principles, a politics of social justice if you will.

Indeed, it is curious that many of them, together with many non-scientists as well, often prefer a more scientistic outlook, whereby the traditionally imagined ‘scientific’ disciplines and the knowledge these endeavours supply are considered to be incontestably superior to alternatives derived from, say, sociological studies or even paralogical systems like religion and traditional beliefs. To quote the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, “Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding.” (Source: Against Method, fourth ed., p. 223.)

But modern society considers politicisation to be a greater threat than scientism whereas historians of science brim with anecdotes about how the scientific endeavour remains constantly on the cusp of being weaponised in the absence of political safeguards that regulate its practice. The ongoing nationalist project to debase non-scientific research typifies this; to quote from an older post on this blog:

… the left has been painted as anti-fact and the right [as being guided] by righteous logic when in fact this is the result of the deeper dismissal of the validity of the social sciences and humanities, which have served throughout history to make facts right and workable in their various contexts. The right has appropriated the importance of quantitative measures – and that alone – and brandishes it like a torch. … And by attacking the validity of the social sciences and humanities, the left has effectively had the rug pulled out from under its feet, and the intellectual purpose of its existence delegitimised.

Not all of us may fully appreciate how we got here, but there is no question that we are indeed here – and that the way forward must be cognisant of, if not entirely critical of, the alleged politicisation of science and the political agendas of the perpetrators of this idea.

Categories
Scicomm

Some thoughts on the Mack/Dorigo Twitter exchange, and Zivkovic, Feyerabend, etc.

This exchange made me squirm:

(In case Dorigo deletes his tweets, screenshots here, here and here.)

If you didn’t know: Katherine Mack is a theoretical astrophysicist at Melbourne University and Tommaso Dorigo is an Italian particle physicist working at CERN. Mack’s Twitter feed is one of the best places to learn about astrophysics, and Dorigo’s blog is one of my preferred sources of information and analysis of LHC results. I consider them both very knowledgeable people. At least, I used to – until this short exchange on Twitter disabused me of the notion that they might be equally knowledgeable.

As my friend put it, Dorigo’s comment “makes it sound like being bi is a privilege” – especially since Mack goes on to detail the non-privileges being bisexual comes with. While I’m familiar with the issues surrounding gender and sexuality, I’m not entirely conversant with them, and yet even I know that Dorigo is being facile and refusing to engage substantively with the topic at hand. His response to Mack’s sharing the link is proof enough, conflating two attributes in a way that makes no sense:

I’m inclined to call this “Dorigo’s fall from my graces”. Some would argue that we ought to separate his technical expertise with his views on topics that seem to not directly relate to what made me pay attention to him in the first place. But I’m becoming increasingly wary of this line, particularly since allegations of sexual harassment were visited upon Woody Allen in 2014. While many hold that an appreciation of his films doesn’t require one to be okay what kind of a person he is, I disagree because the separation of professional achievements and personal conduct overlooks how one might enable the other, and together help establish structures of power and authority.

My example of choice with which to illustrate this is Bora Zivkovic, the former ‘All Father’ of Scientific American‘s famous network of blogs. His leadership as well as abilities as a communicator made young and aspiring writers flock to him for advice and favours. However, a string of allegations (of harassment and impropriety) emerged in 2013 that put paid to his job and, at least temporarily, his career. It was obvious at the time the scandal broke out that Zivkovic had abused his position of power to take advantage of trustful women and solicit crass things from them. When I first heard the news, I was devastated.

Now, science – rather, STEM – and science journalism already have a problem retaining women in their ranks. When they do, sexual abuse, harassment and sexism are rampant, often ensconced within organisational structures that struggle to remain cognisant of these issues. So when you embed men like Zivkovic and Dorigo – and, of course, Geoff Marcy – into these structures, you automatically infuse the structures with insensitivity, ignorance, etc., as well as increase the risk of women running into such men. And by paying attention to Dorigo – even when he’s talking about hadron-hadron collisions – I feel like I will be feeding his sense of relevance and legitimising his persistence as a scholar of note.

(Caveat: I’m keenly aware that mine could be a precarious position because it could displace a very large number of people from my self-aggrandising graces, but I choose to believe that there are still very many people who are good, who are aware, sensible and sensitive, who are not abusive. Katherine Mack is a living example; Dorigo would’ve been, too, if he’d had the good sense to apologise and back off.)

So where does Paul Feyerabend fit in?

From his Against Method (fourth edition, 2010; p. 169-170):

I have much sympathy with the view, formulated clearly and elegantly by Whorf (and anticipated by Bacon), that languages and the reaction patterns they involve are not merely instruments for describing events (facts, states of affairs), but that they are also shapers of events (facts, states of affairs), that their ‘grammar’ contains a cosmology, a comprehensive view of the world, of society, of the situation of man which influences thought, behaviour, perception. … Covert classifications (which, because of their subterranean nature, are ‘sensed rather than comprehended – awareness of [them] has an intuitive quality – which ‘are quite apt to be more rational than over ones’ and which may be very ‘subtle’ and not connected ‘with any grand dichotomy’) create ‘patterned resistances to widely divergent points of view’.

(Emphases in the original.) Our language influences the weltanschauung we build together. While Feyerabend may have written his words in relation to his idea of incommensurability in the philosophy of science, their implications are evident in many spheres of human endeavour. For example, consider product advertisement: a brand identity is an intangible thing, an emotion trapped within a cage of words, yet it is built and projected through tangible things like design and marketing all embodying that emotion.

Similarly, involving this or that scientist in a conversation is to include a certain point of view that – even in the presence of robust safeguards – suggests not an endorsement but definitely a willingness to ignore something that may not always be ignorable.

Featured image credit: coldbrook/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Categories
Analysis

Can science and philosophy mix constructively?

Quantum mechanics can sometimes be very hard to understand, so much so that even thinking about it becomes difficult. This could be because its foundations lay in the action-centric depiction of reality that slowly rejected its origins and assumed a thought-centric one garb.

In his 1925 paper on the topic, physicist Werner Heisenberg used only observable quantities to denote physical phenomena. He also pulled up Niels Bohr in that great paper, saying, “It is well known that the formal rules which are used [in Bohr’s 1913 quantum theory] for calculating observable quantities such as the energy of the hydrogen atom may be seriously criticized on the grounds that they contain, as basic elements, relationships between quantities that are apparently unobservable in principle, e.g., position and speed of revolution of the electron.”

A true theory

Because of the uncertainty principle, and other principles like it, quantum mechanics started to develop into a set of theories that could be tested against observations, and that, to physicists, left very little to thought experiments. Put another way, there was nothing a quantum-physicist could think up that couldn’t be proved or disproved experimentally. This way of looking at the world – in philosophy – is called logical positivism.

This made quantum mechanics a true theory of reality, as opposed to a hypothetical, unverifiable one.

However, even before Heisenberg’s paper was published, positivism was starting to be rejected, especially by chemists. An important example was the advent of statistical mechanics and atomism in the early 19th century. Both of them interpreted, without actual physical observations, that if two volumes of hydrogen and one volume of oxygen combined to form water vapor, then a water molecule would have to comprise two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen.

A logical positivist would have insisted on actually observing the molecule individually, but that was impossible at the time. This insistence on submitting physical proof, thus, played an adverse role in the progress of science by delaying/denying success its due.

As time passed, the failures of positivism started to take hold on quantum mechanics. In a 1926 conversation with Albert Einstein, Heisenberg said, “… we cannot, in fact, observe such a path [of an electron in an atom]; what we actually record are the frequencies of the light radiated by the atom, intensities and transition probabilities, but no actual path.” And since he held that any theory ought only to be a true theory, he concluded that these parameters must feature in the theory, and what it projected, as themselves instead of the unobservable electron path.

This wasn’t the case.

Gaps in our knowledge

Heisenberg’s probe of the granularity of nature led to his distancing from the theory of logical positivism. And Steven Weinberg, physicist and Nobel Laureate, uses just this distancing to harshly argue in a 1994 essay, titled Against Philosophy, that physics has never benefited from the advice of philosophers, and when it does, it’s only to negate the advice of another philosopher – almost suggesting that ‘science is all there is’ by dismissing the aesthetic in favor of the rational.

In doing so, Weinberg doesn’t acknowledge the fact that science and philosophy go hand in hand; what he has done is simply to outline the failure of logical positivism in the advancement of science.

At the simplest, philosophy in various forms guides human thought toward ideals like objective truth and is able to establish their superiority over subjective truths. Philosophy also provides the framework within which we can conceptualize unobservables and contextualize them in observable space-time.

In fact, Weinberg’s conclusion brings to mind an article in Nature News & Comment by Daniel Sarewitz. In the piece, Sarewitz, a physicist, argued that for someone who didn’t really know the physics supporting the Higgs boson, its existence would have to be a matter of faith than one of knowledge. Similarly, for someone who couldn’t translate electronic radiation to ‘mean’ the electron’s path, the latter would have to be a matter of faith or hope, not a bit of knowledge.

Efficient descriptions

A more well-defined example is the theory of quarks and gluons, both of which are particles that haven’t been spotted yet but are believed to exist by the scientific community. The equipment to spot them is yet to be built and will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and be orders of magnitude more sophisticated than the LHC.

In the meantime, unlike what Weinberg and like what Sarewitz would have you believe, we do rely on philosophical principles, like that of sufficient reasoning (Spinoza 1663Leibniz 1686), to fill up space-time at levels we can’t yet probe, to guide us toward a direction that we ought to probe after investing money in it.

This is actually no different from a layman going from understanding electric fields to supposedly understanding the Higgs field. At the end of the day, efficient descriptions make the difference.

Exchange of knowledge

This sort of dependence also implies that philosophy draws a lot from science, and uses it to define its own prophecies and shortcomings. We must remember that, while the rise of logical positivism may have shielded physicists from atomism, scientific verification through its hallowed method also did push positivism toward its eventual rejection.

The moral is that scientists must not reject philosophy for its passage through crests and troughs of credence because science also suffers the same passage. What more proof of this do we need than Popper’s and Kuhn’s arguments – irrespective of either of them being true?

Yes, we can’t figure things out with pure thought, and yes, the laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known. However, in the search for objective truth – whatever that is – we can’t neglect pure thought until, as Weinberg’s Heisenberg-example itself seems to suggest, we know everything there is to know, until science and philosophy, rather verification-by-observation and conceptualization-by-ideation, have completely and absolutely converged toward the same reality.

Until, in short, we can describe nature continuously instead of discretely.

Liberation of philosophical reasoning

By separating scientific advance from contributions from philosophical knowledge, we are advocating for the ‘professionalization’ of scientific investigation, that it must decidedly lack the attitude-born depth of intuition, which is aesthetic and not rational.

It is against such advocacy that American philosopher Paul Feyerabend voiced vehemently: “The withdrawal of philosophy into a ‘professional’ shell of its own has had disastrous consequences.” He means, in other words, that scientists have become too specialized and are rejecting the useful bits of philosophy.

In his seminal work Against Method (1975), Feyerabend suggested that scientists occasionally subject themselves to methodological anarchism so that they may come up with new ideas, unrestricted by the constraints imposed by the scientific method, freed in fact by the liberation of philosophical reasoning. These new ideas, he suggests, can then be reformulated again and again according to where and how observations fit into it.

In the meantime, the ideas are not born from observations but pure thought that is aided by scientific knowledge from the past. As Wikipedia puts it neatly: “Feyerabend was critical of any guideline that aimed to judge the quality of scientific theories by comparing them to known facts.” These ‘known facts’ are akin to Weinberg’s observables.

So, until the day we can fully resolve nature’s granularity, and assume the objective truth of no reality before that, Pierre-Simon Laplace’s two-century old words should show the way: “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future” (An Essay on Probabilities, 1814).

This article, as written by me, originally appeared in The Hindu’s science blog, The Copernican, on June 6, 2013.

Categories
Culture Science

Can science and philosophy mix constructively?

'The School of Athens', painted by Rafael during the Renaissance in 1509-1511, shows philosophers, mathematicians and scientists of ancient Greece gathered together.
‘The School of Athens’, painted by Rafael during the Renaissance in 1509-1511, shows philosophers, mathematicians and scientists of ancient Greece gathered together. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Quantum mechanics can sometimes be very hard to understand, so much so that even thinking about it becomes difficult. This could be because its foundations lay in the action-centric depiction of reality that slowly rejected its origins and assumed a thought-centric one garb.

In his 1925 paper on the topic, physicist Werner Heisenberg used only observable quantities to denote physical phenomena. He also pulled up Niels Bohr in that great paper, saying, “It is well known that the formal rules which are used [in Bohr’s 1913 quantum theory] for calculating observable quantities such as the energy of the hydrogen atom may be seriously criticized on the grounds that they contain, as basic elements, relationships between quantities that are apparently unobservable in principle, e.g., position and speed of revolution of the electron.”

A true theory

Because of the uncertainty principle, and other principles like it, quantum mechanics started to develop into a set of theories that could be tested against observations, and that, to physicists, left very little to thought experiments. Put another way, there was nothing a quantum-physicist could think up that couldn’t be proved or disproved experimentally. This way of looking at the world – in philosophy – is called logical positivism.

This made quantum mechanics a true theory of reality, as opposed to a hypothetical, unverifiable one.

However, even before Heisenberg’s paper was published, positivism was starting to be rejected, especially by chemists. An important example was the advent of statistical mechanics and atomism in the early 19th century. Both of them interpreted, without actual physical observations, that if two volumes of hydrogen and one volume of oxygen combined to form water vapor, then a water molecule would have to comprise two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen.

A logical positivist would have insisted on actually observing the molecule individually, but that was impossible at the time. This insistence on submitting physical proof, thus, played an adverse role in the progress of science by delaying/denying success its due.

As time passed, the failures of positivism started to take hold on quantum mechanics. In a 1926 conversation with Albert Einstein, Heisenberg said, “… we cannot, in fact, observe such a path [of an electron in an atom]; what we actually record are the frequencies of the light radiated by the atom, intensities and transition probabilities, but no actual path.” And since he held that any theory ought only to be a true theory, he concluded that these parameters must feature in the theory, and what it projected, as themselves instead of the unobservable electron path.This wasn’t the case.

Gaps in our knowledge

Heisenberg’s probe of the granularity of nature led to his distancing from the theory of logical positivism. And Steven Weinberg, physicist and Nobel Laureate, uses just this distancing to harshly argue in a 1994 essay, titled Against Philosophy, that physics has never benefited from the advice of philosophers, and when it does, it’s only to negate the advice of another philosopher – almost suggesting that ‘science is all there is’ by dismissing the aesthetic in favor of the rational.

In doing so, Weinberg doesn’t acknowledge the fact that science and philosophy go hand in hand; what he has done is simply to outline the failure of logical positivism in the advancement of science.

At the simplest, philosophy in various forms guides human thought toward ideals like objective truth and is able to establish their superiority over subjective truths. Philosophy also provides the framework within which we can conceptualize unobservables and contextualize them in observable space-time.

In fact, Weinberg’s conclusion brings to mind an article in Nature News & Comment by Daniel Sarewitz. In the piece, Sarewitz, a physicist, argued that for someone who didn’t really know the physics supporting the Higgs boson, its existence would have to be a matter of faith than one of knowledge. Similarly, for someone who couldn’t translate electronic radiation to ‘mean’ the electron’s path, the latter would have to be a matter of faith or hope, not a bit of knowledge.

Efficient descriptions

A more well-defined example is the theory of quarks and gluons, both of which are particles that haven’t been spotted yet but are believed to exist by the scientific community. The equipment to spot them is yet to be built and will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and be orders of magnitude more sophisticated than the LHC.

In the meantime, unlike what Weinberg and like what Sarewitz would have you believe, we do rely on philosophical principles, like that of sufficient reasoning (Spinoza 1663Leibniz 1686), to fill up space-time at levels we can’t yet probe, to guide us toward a direction that we ought to probe after investing money in it.

This is actually no different from a layman going from understanding electric fields to supposedly understanding the Higgs field. At the end of the day, efficient descriptions make the difference.

Exchange of knowledge

This sort of dependence also implies that philosophy draws a lot from science, and uses it to define its own prophecies and shortcomings. We must remember that, while the rise of logical positivism may have shielded physicists from atomism, scientific verification through its hallowed method also did push positivism toward its eventual rejection. There was human agency in both these timelines, both motivated by either the support for or the rejection of scientific and philosophical ideas.

The moral is that scientists must not reject philosophy for its passage through crests and troughs of credence because science also suffers the same passage. What more proof of this do we need than Popper’s and Kuhn’s arguments – irrespective of either of them being true?

Yes, we can’t figure things out with pure thought, and yes, the laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known. However, in the search for objective truth –whatever that is – we can’t neglect pure thought until, as Weinberg’s Heisenberg-example itself seems to suggest, we know everything there is to know, until science and philosophy, rather verification-by-observation and conceptualization-by-ideation, have completely and absolutely converged toward the same reality.

Until, in short, we can describe nature continuously instead of discretely.

Liberation of philosophical reasoning

By separating scientific advance from contributions from philosophical knowledge, we are advocating for the ‘professionalization’ of scientific investigation, that it must decidedly lack the attitude-born depth of intuition, which is aesthetic and not rational.

It is against such advocacy that American philosopher Paul Feyerabend voiced vehemently: “The withdrawal of philosophy into a ‘professional’ shell of its own has had disastrous consequences.” He means, in other words, that scientists have become too specialized and are rejecting the useful bits of philosophy.

In his seminal work Against Method (1975), Feyerabend suggested that scientists occasionally subject themselves to methodological anarchism so that they may come up with new ideas, unrestricted by the constraints imposed by the scientific method, freed in fact by the liberation of philosophical reasoning.

These new ideas, he suggests, can then be reformulated again and again according to where and how observations fit into it. In the meantime, the ideas are not born from observations but pure thought that is aided by scientific knowledge from the past. As Wikipedia puts it neatly: “Feyerabend was critical of any guideline that aimed to judge the quality of scientific theories by comparing them to known facts.” These ‘known facts’ are akin to Weinberg’s observables.

So, until the day we can fully resolve nature’s granularity, and assume the objective truth of no reality before that, Pierre-Simon Laplace’s two-century old words should show the way: “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future” (An Essay on Probabilities, 1814).

(This blog post first appeared at The Copernican on June 6, 2013.)