Injustice ex machina

There are some things I think about but struggle to articulate, especially in the heat of an argument with a friend. Cory Doctorow succinctly captures one such idea here:

Empiricism-washing is the top ideological dirty trick of technocrats everywhere: they assert that the data “doesn’t lie,” and thus all policy prescriptions based on data can be divorced from “politics” and relegated to the realm of “evidence.” This sleight of hand pretends that data can tell you what a society wants or needs — when really, data (and its analysis or manipulation) helps you to get what you want.

If you live in a country ruled by a nationalist government tending towards the ultra-nationalist, you’ve probably already encountered the first half of what Doctorow describes: the championship of data, and quantitative metrics in general, the conflation of objectivity with quantification, the overbearing focus on logic and mathematics to the point of eliding cultural and sociological influences.

Material evidence of the latter is somewhat more esoteric, yet more common in developing countries where the capitalist West’s influence vis-à-vis consumption and the (non-journalistic) media are distinctly more apparent, and which is impossible to unsee once you’ve seen it.

Notwithstanding the practically unavoidable consequences of consumerism and globalisation, the aspirations of the Indian middle and upper classes are propped up chiefly by American and European lifestyles. As a result, it becomes harder to tell the “what society needs” and the “get what you want” tendencies apart. Those developing new technologies to (among other things) enhance their profits arising from this conflation are obviously going to have a harder time seeing it and an even harder time solving for it.

Put differently, AI/ML systems – at least those in Doctorow’s conception, in the form of machines adept at “finding things that are similar to things the ML system can already model” – born in Silicon Valley have no reason to assume a history of imperialism and oppression, so the problems they are solving for are off-target by default.

But there is indeed a difference, and not infrequently the simplest way to uncover it is to check what the lower classes want. More broadly, what do the actors with the fewest degrees of freedom in your organisational system want, assuming all actors already want more freedom?

They – as much as others, and at the risk of treating them as a monolithic group – may not agree that roads need to be designed for public transportation (instead of cars), that the death penalty should be abolished or that fragmenting a forest is wrong but they are likely to determine how a public distribution system, a social security system or a neighbourhood policing system can work better.

What they want is often what society needs – and although this might predict the rise of populism, and even anti-intellectualism, it is nonetheless a sort of pragmatic final check when it has become entirely impossible to distinguish between the just and the desirable courses of action. I wish I didn’t have to hedge my position with the “often” but I remain unable with my limited imagination to design a suitable workaround.

Then again, I am also (self-myopically) alert to the temptation of technological solutionism, and acknowledge that discussions and negotiations are likely easier, even if messier, to govern with than ‘one principle to rule them all’.

Ending 2019

This blog achieved multiple minor but personally enjoyable milestones in 2019:

  • It was read by people in 143 counties, the highest in a single year since 2008 (when I started blogging)
  • It was the second busiest year by traffic (after 2015)
  • It was the year with the highest post engagement (as ‘likes’ on WordPress and shares/comments on Twitter and Facebook)
  • It crossed both 1,000 and 1,100 published posts
  • The number of subscribers breached the 5,600 mark
  • 2019 was my third most productive year by total number of posts (169) and average post length (793 words)
YearPostsWords
201211981,710
20139671,096
2014163117,302
2015209182,316
20166455,206
2017135112,818
2018184144,841
2019169134,092

Some notes

1. In 2019, most of what I learnt about writing had to do with straddling the thin line between populist and heterodox writing. Where populism dictates giving the people what they want, and progressively enclosing them deeper within echo chambers, the heterodoxy here refers to giving your readers something they don’t know they want but consume once they discover it. This is harder than it sounds largely because interestingness is a vague goal. Lots of things are interesting, and most people interested in interesting things aren’t interested in all topics. So if I’ve been as productive as I have this year, it’s because I think I got better at identifying what kind of heterodox content Root Privileges‘s readers like and which I also like.

2. I hit multiple rough patches in my personal as well as professional lives this year, and experienced at least three extended periods of writers’ block brought on by an overwhelming sensation of irrelevance on one occasion, of disgust and world-weariness on the second, and a protracted period of mental illness on the third. While I resent the occurrence of these episodes, I’m also grateful and delighted for having found a way on all of them to get back to the writing habit, one way or another. So if in future I find myself stuck in a similar rut, I will have one more way to motivate myself beyond discovering the specific antidote to the circumstances: to simply tell myself I did it before so I should be able to do it again.

On that note, I hope you have a great, happier, more productive and more gainful year in 2020!

Taking the ringdown route to understanding the humans of science

What follows is an attempt to process and understand Cassandra Willyard’s post on Last Word on Nothing, about her preferring the humanised stories of science over the stories of the science itself (“Physics writers, this is how you nab the physics haters — human emotion”; my previous post on this is here). He words have been weighing on my mind – as they have been on others’ – because of the specific issues that they explored: humanising the process of science, and to be able to look at all science stories through the humanised lens. By humanising the process of science, it’s not that the science takes a backseat; instead, the centrepiece of the story is the human. Creating such stories is obviously not a problem for/to anyone. The problems come to be when, per the second issue, people start obsessing over such stories.

At this point, I’m not speaking for anyone but myself; nor is my post written in the usual upside-down pyramid style, rather the other way round. Second: I deviate significantly from Willyard’s post’s demesne because I’m just following my thoughts-current on the subject. I’m tempted to use a metaphor: that of the ringdown, the phase when two blackholes that have merged settle down into a stable, unified shape.

I

By virtue of not being about people, or humans in general, science stories without the human component are a hard-sell. Willyard’s right when she says that humans are interested in stories about other humans – but I think what she’s taking for granted here is that humans being interested only in stories about other humans is fair. It’s definitely tenable, but is it fair? The sense of fairness in this context emerges from the idea that it’s not okay for us to consume – while we’re alive the one time we are – only that which immediately affects us. Instead, we must make room for the truly wonderful, and identify and appreciate the kinds of beauty that transcend utility, that would be beautiful from all points of view and not just our own.

If such appreciation had been shared by all consumers of journalism, then producing pure-science stories would be a breeze. But in reality, it’s anything but. This is why advocating for the persistent humanisation of science is almost offensive: humanised science sells very well; it does not need a shot in the arm, nor a platform like Last Word on Nothing, to help its cause. It is an economically privileged form of science journalism that has no right to complain.

To be sure, Willyard is neither calling for the persistent humanisation of science nor is she complaining that humanised stories of science are not the norm. That said, however, I feel that she is downplaying the importance of non-humanised science stories from a very pragmatic perspective: her grounds are that they’re not emotional enough – which suggests she’s saying that emotions are important. Why? Emotions are easy to market; emotions are easy tools of interpersonal communication, especially ones that can transcend language, culture and enterprise.

A part of my indignation towards her post emerges from this endpoint: the axiomatic inference that that which lacks emotions is unimportant, and that such a suggestion disparages an entire branch of science communication that seeks to explore science without simultaneously exploring the human condition. What also contributes to my sentiment being what it is is the fact that Willyard is a science journalist – she’s one of us – and for her to make such distinctions, for her to declare such preferences without also exploring their underlying economics, feels like she’s being either myopic or selfish.

(I must clarify that though I’ve used big words like ‘selfish’, I’m feeling them in a more diluted form.)

II

Humanised science is almost populist as well. In India, many newsrooms publish such stories without having to call it science, and they don’t. They’re disguised as ‘science and society’, ‘science policy’, ‘higher education’, ‘public administration’, etc. You, my reader, consume these kinds of science stories regularly, without having to be lured into the copy or being given extra incentives. You’re definitely interested.

… except for one small genre of the whole thing: pure science, the substrate on which all else that you’re reading about is founded, but which has over time become sidelined, ostracised into the ‘Other’, the freak show reserved for nerds and geeks, the thing which scares you without making you question that fear. (“I’m scared of math! I gave up working with numbers a long time ago.” Why the actual fuck? “No idea. I see an equation and I’m just scared.”)

The reason I’m so riled up (which I didn’t realise until I began writing this sentence – and that’s why I write this blog) was something I recently discussed with my friend O.A. at a party organised by The Wire. That was when I’d first heard about C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ essay, which O.A. mentioned in the context of a spate of news reports discussing hydrological issues in agriculture.

O.A. said, “People don’t understand how water works in agriculture. I read something about someone trying to estimate how much water a crop uses in a season and then, with that information, trying to determine how much water we’re losing across our borders when we export that crop to other countries. The whole method is so stupid.” (This conversation happened a few months ago, so I’m rephrasing/paraphrasing.)

It really is stupid: evaluating agriculture – even when at the level of a single crop sown in one reason in a single acre of land – in terms of just one of the resources it utilises makes no sense. Moreover, the water used to grow a crop does not rest in the produce; it seeps into the soil, runs off, evaporates, it reenters our local ecosystems in so many ways. What made this ‘analysis’ stupider was that (a) it appeared in a leading business daily and (b) the analyst was a senior bureaucrat of some kind.

O.A. went on to describe a fundamental disconnection between the language of India’s policymakers and the language of India’s farmers and labourers, a disconnection he said was only symptomatic of the former’s broad-brushstroke ideas being so far removed from the material substance of the enterprises they were responsible for regulating. He then provided some other examples: fuel subsidies for fishermen, petroleum distribution, solar power grid-feeding, etc.

This kind of disconnection comes to be when you know more about the logistics of a product or service than about how its physical nature defines its abilities and limitations. And more often than not, investigations of this physical nature neither require nor benefit from having their ‘stories’ humanised. There are so many natural wonders that populate the world we engage with, that have quietly but surely revolutionised our lives in many ways, whose potential to enhance–

III

Fuck, there I go, thinking about the universe in terms of humans. I concede that it’s a very fine line to inhabit – exploring our universe without thinking about humans… Maybe I should just get it out of my system: without understanding how the universe works, we as a species cannot hope to forever improve our quality of life; and, disconcertingly, this includes the act of being awed by natural beauty! It’s like Joey’s challenge to Phoebe in Friends: “There are no selfless acts.”

BUT we first do need to understand how the universe works in non-human, non-utilitarian terms. Asking if such a thing is even possible is a legitimate question but I also think that’s a separate conversation. We consume the pure science that we do because it’s what caught someone else’s fancy, it’s what a scientific journal is pushing in our faces, it’s what a scientist is thinking about in a well-funded research lab in the First World. There are many biases to overcome before we can truly claim to be in the presence of unadulterated/unmitigated beauty, before we can have that conversation about whether objective beauty really exists. However, the way to begin would be by acknowledging these biases exist and working to overcome them.

To those asking why should we at all – I’d have said “we should because I think so, and it’s up to you to trust me or not”, but I don’t because a lot of science writers around the world feel the same way, which means we have something in common. I don’t know what this something is but, thanks to the wellspring of responses Willyard’s post received, I know that I must find out.

Finally, I know that Willyard’s post doesn’t preclude all these possibilities. It simply asks that we get those uninterested in physics to give a damn by using the humans of physics as a conduit of interestingness. After all, the human condition may be a vanishingly small part of the cosmic condition that we partake of, that we have used to construct civilisation, and everything else out there may be cold, cold space – but humans are the way the universe examines itself.

My reservations exist in a very specific context: that of science journalism in India, specifically the India of pseudoscience, fake news, caste conflicts and broken education. In this context, I’m constantly anxious about becoming a selloff – a writer who gives up someday and trades his conviction in the power of pure science to help us think more clearly about our fraught communities and governments off in exchange for easy career progression.

fin.

Featured image: A simulation showing a binary blackhole pair (as seen by a nearby observer) spiralling around each other before they merge. Credit: Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes Lensing/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

On that 'Last Word on Nothing' post

A post published on the Last Word On Nothing blog yesterday has been creating quite the stir on Twitter. Excerpt:

While I can appreciate that this is an important scientific discovery, I still have a hard time mustering excitement over gravitational waves. I would not have read these articles had I not embarked on this experiment. And I wanted to stop reading some of these articles as I was conducting the experiment. Space is not my thing. I don’t think it ever will be, at least not without a concerted effort on my part to get a basic handle on physics and astronomy. …

Physics writers, this is how you nab the physics haters — human emotion. You can explain gravitational waves using the cleanest, clearest, most eloquent words that exist — and you should! — but I want the story of the scientists in all their messy, human glory.

Cassandra Willyard, the post’s author, was writing about the neutron-star collision announcement from LIGO. Many of those who are dissing the point the post is making are saying that Willyard is vilifying the ‘school’ of science writing that focuses on the science itself over its relationship with the human condition. I think she’s only expressing her personal opinion (as the last line in the excerpt suggests) – so the levels of indignation that has erupted in some pockets of the social media over these opinions suggests Willyard may have touched off some nerves.

I myself belong to the school that prefers to excite science readers over the science itself over its human/humanist/humanitarian aspects. In the words of Tracy, who wrote them as a comment on Willyard’s post,

So many amazing things happen in this universe without a human noticing it, reflecting on it, understanding it, being central to it. So many wondrous mysteries abound despite the ego. The human story is just one of billions.

And I will concede from personal experience that it’s quite difficult as a result to sell such stories to one’s editors as well as readers. I’ve written about this many times before, e.g. here; edited excerpt:

I couldn’t give less of a fuck for longer pieces, especially because they’re all the same: they’re concerned with science that is deemed to be worthy of anyone’s attention because it is affecting us directly. And I posit that they’ve kept us from recognising an important problem with science journalism in the country: it is becoming less and less concerned with the science itself; what has been identified as successful science journalism is simply a discussion – no matter how elaborate and/or nuanced – of how science impacts us. Instead, I’d love to read a piece reported over 5,000 words about molecules, experiments, ideas. It should be okay to want to write only about particle physics because that’s all I’m interested in reading. Okay to want to write only about this even if I don’t have any strength to hope that QCD will save lives, that Feynman diagrams will help repeal AFSPA, that the LHC will accelerate India’s economic growth, that the philosophies of fundamental particles will lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. I haven’t been presented with any evidence whatsoever to purchase my faith in the possibility that the obscurities of particle physics will help humans in any way other than to enlighten them, that there is neither reward nor sanction in anxiously bookending every articulation of wonder with the hope that we will find a way to profit from all of our beliefs, discoveries and perceptions.

For many people in this ‘school’, this fight is almost personal because it’s arduous and requires tremendous conviction, will and resilience on one’s part to see coverage of such kind through. In this scenario, to have a science writer come forward and say “I won’t write about this science because I don’t understand this science” can be quite dispiriting. It’s a science writer’s job to disentangle some invention, discovery or whatever and then communicate it to those who are interested in knowing more about it. So when Willyard writes in her post that “The day I write about a neutron star collision is the day hell will freeze over” – it’s a public abdication of an important responsibility, and arguably one of the most complicated responsibilities in journalism in the Information Age thanks to its fiercely non-populist nature.

(Such a thing happened recently with Natalie Wolchover as well. Her words – written against topological physics – were more disappointing to come across because Wolchover writes very good physics pieces for Quanta. And while she apologised for the “flippancy” of her tweet shortly after, saying that she’d been in a hurry at 5.45 am, that’s precisely the sort of sentiment that shouldn’t receive wider coverage without the necessary qualifications. So my thanks to Chad Orzel for the thread he published in response.)

However, it must be acknowledged that the suggestion Willyard makes (in the second paragraph of the excerpt) is quite on point. To have to repeatedly pander to the human condition in one way or another when in fact you think the science in and of itself is incredibly cool can become frustrating over time – but this doesn’t mean that a fundamental disconnect between writers like me and the statistically average science reader out there doesn’t exist. If I’m to get her attention, then I’ve found from experience that one must begin with the humans of science and then flow on to the science itself. As Alice Bell recommends here, you start upstream and go downstream. And once you’ve lured them in, you can begin to discuss the science more freely.

(PS: Some areas of Twitter have gone nuts, claiming Willyard shouldn’t be called a science journalist. I’m making no such judgment call. To be clear, I’m only criticising a peer’s words. I still consider Willyard to be a science journalist – though my fingers cry as I type this because it’s so embarrassing to have to spell it out – and possibly a good one at that going by her willingness to introspect.)

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.

On that ‘Last Word on Nothing’ post

A post published on the Last Word On Nothing blog yesterday has been creating quite the stir on Twitter. Excerpt:

While I can appreciate that this is an important scientific discovery, I still have a hard time mustering excitement over gravitational waves. I would not have read these articles had I not embarked on this experiment. And I wanted to stop reading some of these articles as I was conducting the experiment. Space is not my thing. I don’t think it ever will be, at least not without a concerted effort on my part to get a basic handle on physics and astronomy. …

Physics writers, this is how you nab the physics haters — human emotion. You can explain gravitational waves using the cleanest, clearest, most eloquent words that exist — and you should! — but I want the story of the scientists in all their messy, human glory.

Cassandra Willyard, the post’s author, was writing about the neutron-star collision announcement from LIGO. Many of those who are dissing the point the post is making are saying that Willyard is vilifying the ‘school’ of science writing that focuses on the science itself over its relationship with the human condition. I think she’s only expressing her personal opinion (as the last line in the excerpt suggests) – so the levels of indignation that has erupted in some pockets of the social media over these opinions suggests Willyard may have touched off some nerves.

I myself belong to the school that prefers to excite science readers over the science itself over its human/humanist/humanitarian aspects. In the words of Tracy, who wrote them as a comment on Willyard’s post,

So many amazing things happen in this universe without a human noticing it, reflecting on it, understanding it, being central to it. So many wondrous mysteries abound despite the ego. The human story is just one of billions.

And I will concede from personal experience that it’s quite difficult as a result to sell such stories to one’s editors as well as readers. I’ve written about this many times before, e.g. here; edited excerpt:

I couldn’t give less of a fuck for longer pieces, especially because they’re all the same: they’re concerned with science that is deemed to be worthy of anyone’s attention because it is affecting us directly. And I posit that they’ve kept us from recognising an important problem with science journalism in the country: it is becoming less and less concerned with the science itself; what has been identified as successful science journalism is simply a discussion – no matter how elaborate and/or nuanced – of how science impacts us. Instead, I’d love to read a piece reported over 5,000 words about molecules, experiments, ideas. It should be okay to want to write only about particle physics because that’s all I’m interested in reading. Okay to want to write only about this even if I don’t have any strength to hope that QCD will save lives, that Feynman diagrams will help repeal AFSPA, that the LHC will accelerate India’s economic growth, that the philosophies of fundamental particles will lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. I haven’t been presented with any evidence whatsoever to purchase my faith in the possibility that the obscurities of particle physics will help humans in any way other than to enlighten them, that there is neither reward nor sanction in anxiously bookending every articulation of wonder with the hope that we will find a way to profit from all of our beliefs, discoveries and perceptions.

For many people in this ‘school’, this fight is almost personal because it’s arduous and requires tremendous conviction, will and resilience on one’s part to see coverage of such kind through. In this scenario, to have a science writer come forward and say “I won’t write about this science because I don’t understand this science” can be quite dispiriting. It’s a science writer’s job to disentangle some invention, discovery or whatever and then communicate it to those who are interested in knowing more about it. So when Willyard writes in her post that “The day I write about a neutron star collision is the day hell will freeze over” – it’s a public abdication of an important responsibility, and arguably one of the most complicated responsibilities in journalism in the Information Age thanks to its fiercely non-populist nature.

(Such a thing happened recently with Natalie Wolchover as well. Her words – written against topological physics – were more disappointing to come across because Wolchover writes very good physics pieces for Quanta. And while she apologised for the “flippancy” of her tweet shortly after, saying that she’d been in a hurry at 5.45 am, that’s precisely the sort of sentiment that shouldn’t receive wider coverage without the necessary qualifications. So my thanks to Chad Orzel for the thread he published in response.)

However, it must be acknowledged that the suggestion Willyard makes (in the second paragraph of the excerpt) is quite on point. To have to repeatedly pander to the human condition in one way or another when in fact you think the science in and of itself is incredibly cool can become frustrating over time – but this doesn’t mean that a fundamental disconnect between writers like me and the statistically average science reader out there doesn’t exist. If I’m to get her attention, then I’ve found from experience that one must begin with the humans of science and then flow on to the science itself. As Alice Bell recommends here, you start upstream and go downstream. And once you’ve lured them in, you can begin to discuss the science more freely.

(PS: Some areas of Twitter have gone nuts, claiming Willyard shouldn’t be called a science journalist. I’m making no such judgment call. To be clear, I’m only criticising a peer’s words. I still consider Willyard to be a science journalist – though my fingers cry as I type this because it’s so embarrassing to have to spell it out – and possibly a good one at that going by her willingness to introspect.)

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.