‘Hunters’, sci-fi and pseudoscience

One of the ways in which pseudoscience is connected to authoritarian governments is through its newfound purpose and duty to supply an alternate intellectual tradition that subsumes science as well as culminates in the identitarian superiority of a race, culture or ethnic group. In return, aspects of the tradition are empowered by the regime both to legitimise it and to catalyse its adoption by the proverbial masses, tying faith in its precepts with agency, and of course giving itself divine sanction to rule.

The readers of this blog will recognise the spiritual features of Hindutva that the Bharatiya Janata Party regularly draws on that fit the bill. A German rocket scientist named Willy Ley who emigrated to the US before World War II published an essay entitled ‘Pseudoscience in Naziland’ in 1947, in which he describes the sort of crazy beliefs that prepared the ground with other conditions for the advent of Nazism.

In Hunters, the Amazon Prime show about Jewish Nazi-hunters in 1970s America, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s sci-fi novel The Coming Race (1871) finds brief mention as a guiding text for neo-Nazis. In the novel, a subterranean race of angelic humanoids has acquired great power and superhuman abilities by manipulating a magical substance called Vril, and threatens to rise to the surface and destroy the human race one day.

Bulwer-Lytton also wrote that Vril alludes to electricity (i.e. the flow of electrons) and that The Coming Race is an allegory about how an older generation of people finds itself culturally and political incompatible with a new world order powered by electric power. (At the same time, he believed these forces were a subset of the aether, so to speak.) In a letter to John Forster on March 20, 1870 – precisely 150 years ago in twelve days – Bulwer-Lytton wrote:

I did not mean Vril for mesmerism, but for electricity, developed into uses as yet only dimly guessed, and including whatever there may be genuine in mesmerism, which I hold to be a mere branch current of the one great fluid pervading all nature. I am by no means, however, wedded to Vril, if you can suggest anything else to carry out this meaning – namely, that the coming race, though akin to us, has nevertheless acquired by hereditary transmission, etc., certain distinctions which make it a different species, and contains powers which we could not attain through a slow growth of time’ so that this race would not amalgamate with, but destroy us.

And yet this race, being in many respects better and milder than we are, ought not to be represented terrible, except through the impossibility of our tolerating them or they tolerating us, and they possess some powers of destruction denied to ourselves.

The collection of letters is available here.

In Bulwer-Lytton’s conception, higher technological prowess was born of hereditary traits. In a previous letter, dated March 15, Bulwer-Lytton had written to Forster:

The [manuscript] does not press for publication, so you can keep it during your excursion  and think over it among the other moonstricken productions which may have more professional demand on your attention. The only important point is to keen in view the Darwinian proposition that a coming race is destined to supplant our races, that such a race would be very gradually formed, and be indeed a new species developing itself out of our old one, that this process would be invisible to our eyes, and therefore in some region unknown to us.

So this is not a simple confusion or innocent ignorance. Bulwer-Lytton’s attribution of the invention of electricity to genetic ability was later appropriated by interwar German socialists.

This said, I’m not sure how much I can read into the reimagination of technological ability as a consequence of evolution or racial superiority because another part of Bulwer-Lytton’s letters suggests his example of electricity was incidental: “… in the course of the development [of the new species], the coming race will have acquired some peculiarities so distinct from our ways … and certain destructive powers which our science could not enable us to attain to, or cope with. Therefore, the idea of electrical power occurred to me, but some other might occur to you.”

Now, according to Ley, the Society for Truth believed Vril to be a real thing and used its existence to explain how the Britons created their empire. I don’t know how much stock Adolf Hitler and his “shites of the round table” (to quote from Hunters) placed in this idea but the parallels must have been inescapable – especially so since Ley also writes that not just any pseudoscientific belief could have supported Hitler’s rise nor have acquired his patronage. Instead, the beliefs had to be culturally specific to Germany, pandering to local folklore and provincialism.

Without commenting on whether this conclusion would apply to Fascism 2.0 in a world with the internet, civil aviation and computerised banking, and in naïve spite of history’s fondness for repeating itself and the politico-corporate-media complex, I wonder what lessons there are here – if any – for science educators, a people already caught between political anti-intellectualism and a stronger sense of their purpose in an intellectually debilitated society.

A view of Earth's curvature from space

Mad Mike: Foolish Road

On Sunday, an American thrill-seeker named Mike Hughes died after attempting to launch himself to an altitude of 5,000 feet on a homemade steam-powered rocket. A video of the accident is available because a crew of the Science Channel filmed the incident as part of a programme called ‘Homemade Astronauts’. On February 23, Science Channel tweeted condolences to his loved ones, and said Hughes had died trying to fulfil his dream. But in fact he had died for no reason at all.

Hughes believed Earth was flat and had hoped to ‘prove’ it by flying himself to space, which makes Science Channel’s conduct irresponsible if not entirely reckless. I assume here that the Science Channel knows Earth is an oblate spheroid in shape as well as knows how such knowledge was obtained. But it still decided to capitalise on the ignorance of another person, presumably in the names of objectivity and balance, and let them put themselves in danger (with airtime on the Science Channel as an incentive).

For his part, Hughes wasn’t very smart either: aside from thinking Earth is flat, he could never have proven, or disproven, his claim by flying to 5,000 feet. Millions of people routinely fly on airplanes that cruise at 35,000 feet and have access to windows. Even at this altitude, Earth’s curvature is not apparent because the field of view is not wide enough. Hughes likely would have had some success (or failure, depending on your PoV) if he had been able to reach, say, 40,000 feet on a cloud-free day.

But even then, the Kármán line – the region beyond which is denoted space – lies 328,000 feet up. So by flying to a height of 5,000 feet, Hughes was never going to be an astronaut in any sense of the term nor was he going to learn anything new, except of course finding new reasons to persist with his ignorance. On the other hand, a TV channel called ‘Science’ quite likely knew all this and let Hughes carry on anyway – instead of, say, taking him to a beach and asking him to watch ships rise as if from under the horizon.

A trumpet for Ramdev

The Print published an article entitled ‘Ramdev’s Patanjali does a ‘first’, its Sanskrit paper makes it to international journal’ on February 5, 2020. Excerpt:

In a first, international science journal MDPI has published a research paper in the Sanskrit language. Yoga guru Baba Ramdev’s FMCG firm Patanjali Ayurveda had submitted the paper. Switzerland’s Basel-based MDPI … published a paper in Sanskrit for the first time. Biomolecules, one of the peer-reviewed journals under MDPI, has carried video abstracts of the paper on a medicinal herb, but with English subtitles. … The Patanjali research paper, published on 25 January in a special issue of the journal titled ‘Pharmacology of Medicinal Plants’, is on medicinal herb ‘Withania somnifera’, commonly known as ‘ashwagandha’.

This article is painfully flawed.

1. MDPI is a publisher, not a journal. It featured on Beall’s list (with the customary caveats) and has published some obviously problematic papers. I’ve heard good things about some of its titles and bad things about others. The journalist needed to have delineated this aspect instead of taking the simpler fact of publication in a journal at face value. Even then, qualifying a journal as “peer-reviewed” doesn’t cut it anymore. In a time when peer-review can be hacked (thanks to its relative opacity) and the whole publishing process subverted for profit, all journalists writing on matters of science – as opposed to just science journalists – need to perform their own checks to certify the genealogy of a published paper, especially if the name of the journal(s) and its exercise of peer-review are being employed in the narrative as markers of authority.

2. People want to publish research in English so others can discover and build on it. A paper written in Sanskrit is a gimmick. The journalist should have clarified this point instead of letting Ramdev’s minions (among the authors of the paper) claim brownie points for their feat. It’s a waste of effort, time and resources. More importantly The Print has conjured a virtue out of thin air and broadcast asinine claims like “This is the first step towards the acceptance of ‘Sanskrit language’ in the field of research among the international community.”

3. The article has zero critique of the paper’s findings, no independent comments and no information about the study’s experimental design. This is the sort of nonsense that an unquestioning commitment to objectivity in news allows: reporters can’t just write someone said something if what they said is wrong, misleading, harmful or all three. Magnifying potentially indefensible claims relating to scientific knowledge – or knowledge that desires the authority of science’s approval – without contextualising them and fact-checking them if necessary may be objective but it is also a public bad. It pays to work with the assumption (even when it doesn’t apply) that at least 50% of your readers don’t know better. That way, even if 1% (an extremely conservative estimate for audiences in India) doesn’t know better, which can easily run into the thousands, you avoid misinforming them by not communicating enough.

4. A worryingly tendentious statement appears in the middle of the piece: “The study proves that WS seeds help reduce psoriasis,” the journalist writes, without presenting any evidence that she checked. It seems possible that the journalist believes she is simply reporting the occurrence of a localised event – in the form of the context-limited proof published in a paper – without acknowledging that the act of proving a hypothesis is a process, not an event, in that it is ongoing. This character is somewhat agnostic of the certainty of the experiment’s conclusions as well: even if one scientist has established with 100% confidence that the experiment they designed has sustained their hypothesis and published their results in a legitimate preprint repository and/or a journal, other scientists will need to replicate the test and even others are likely to have questions they’ll need answered.

5. The experiment was conducted in mice, not humans. Cf. @justsaysinmice

6. “‘We will definitely monetise the findings. We will be using the findings to launch our own products under the cosmetics and medicine category,’ Acharya [the lead author] told ThePrint.” It’s worrying to discover that the authors of the paper, and Baba Ramdev, who funded them, plan to market a product based on just one study, in mice, in a possibly questionable paper, without any independent comments about the findings’ robustness or tenability, to many humans who may not know better. But the journalist hasn’t pressed Acharya or any of the other authors on questions about the experiment or their attempt to grab eyeballs by writing and speaking in Sanskrit, or on how they plan to convince the FSSAI to certify a product for humans based on a study in mice.

A sympathetic science

If you feel the need to respond, please first make sure you have read the post in full.

I posted the following tweet a short while ago:

With reference to this:

Which in turn was with reference to this:

But a few seconds after publishing it, I deleted the tweet because I realised I didn’t agree with its message.

That quote by Isaac Asimov is a favourite if only because it contains in those words a bigger idea that expands voraciously the moment it comes in contact with the human mind. Yes, there is a problem with understanding ignorance and knowledge as two edges of the same blade, but somewhere in this mixup, a half-formed aspiration to rational living lurks in silence.

The author of another popular tweet commenting on the same topic did not say anything more than reproduce Kiran Bedi’s comment, issued after she shared her controversial ‘om’ tweet on January 4 (details here), that the chant is “worth listening to even if it’s fake”; the mocking laughter was implied, reaffirmed by invoking the name of the political party Bedi is affiliated to (the BJP – which certainly deserves the mockery).

However, I feel the criticism from thousands of people around the country does not address the part of Bedi’s WhatsApp message that reaches beyond facts and towards sympathy. Granted, it is stupid to claim that that is what the Sun sounds like, just as Indians’ obsession with NASA is both inexplicable and misguided. That Bedi is a senior government official, a member of the national ruling party and has 12 million followers on Twitter doesn’t help.

But what of Bedi suggesting that the controversy surrounding the provenance of the message doesn’t have to stand in the way of enjoying the message itself? Why doesn’t the criticism address that?

Perhaps it is because people think it is irrelevant, that it is simply the elucidation of a subjective experience that either cannot be disputed or, more worryingly, is not worth engaging over. If it is the latter, then I fear the critics harbour an idea that what science – as the umbrella term for the body of knowledge obtained by the application of a certain method and allied practices – is not concerned with is not worth being concerned about. Even if all of the critics in this particular episode do not harbour this sentiment, I know from personal experience that there are even more out there who do.

After publishing my tweet, I realised that Bedi’s statement that “it is worth listening to even if it’s fake” is not at odds with physicist Dibyendu Nandi’s words: that chanting the word ‘om’ is soothing and that its aesthetic benefits (if not anything greater) don’t need embellishment, certainly not in terms of pseudoscience and fake news. In fact, Bedi has admitted it is fake, and as a reasonable, secular and public-spirited observer, I believe that is all I can ask for – rather, that is all I can ask for from her in the aftermath of her regrettable action.

If I had known what was going to happen earlier, my expectation would still have been limited – in a worst case scenario in which she insists on sharing the chant – to ask her to qualify the NASA claim as being false. Twelve million followers is nothing to be laughed at.

But what I can ask of others (including myself) is this: mocking Bedi is fine, but what’s the harm in chanting the ‘om’ even if the claims surrounding it are false? What’s the harm in asserting that?

If the reply is, “There is no harm” – okay.

If the reply is, “There is no harm plus that is not in dispute” or that “There is harm because the assertion is rooted in a false, and falsifiable, premise” – I would say, “Maybe the assertion should be part of the conversation, such that the canonical response can be changed from <mockery of getting facts wrong>[1] to <mockery of getting facts wrong> + <discussing the claimed benefits of chanting ‘om’ and/or commenting on the ways in which adherence to factual knowledge can contribute to wellbeing>.”

The discourse of rational aspiration currently lacks any concern for the human condition, and while scientificity, or scientificness, has been becoming a higher virtue by the day, it does not appear to admit that far from having the best interests of the people at heart, it presumes that whatever sprouts from its cold seeds should be nutrition enough.[2]

[1] The tone of the response is beyond the scope of this post.

[2] a. If you believe this is neither science’s purpose nor responsibility, then you must agree it must not be wielded sans the clarification either that it represents an apathetic knowledge system or that the adjudication of factitude does not preclude the rest of Bedi’s message. b. Irrespective of questions about science’s purpose, could this be considered to be part of the purpose of science communication? (This is not a rhetorical question.)

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.

Trouble at the doorstep

When an alumnus of the IISc wanted to organise an astrology workshop at the institute’s premises in 2017, students and various members of its teaching faculty rose in protest and wrote to the director to have the event cancelled, and it was cancelled. Their voices died down quickly after and didn’t emerge when astrology workshops popped up in other places around the city or even the country. The Union culture ministry launched a portal earlier in 2019 celebrating ‘ancient Indian knowledge’ that included essays on the ‘scientific validity’ of astrology penned by another IISc alumnus, and there wasn’t a peep.

And here we are again, when the institute’s students and some teachers have raised their voices against an event on mental wellbeing by the godman Sri Sri, scheduled to happen yesterday. There is certainly increasing – and never too late – awareness of the importance of access to good and timely mental healthcare for students in academic and research institutions, and props to the protestors for separating the right ways to respond to mental stresses and illnesses from the wrong.

However, these voices were silent until Sri Sri showed up at IISc’s doorstep and this I find troubling. With the astrology workshop, it seemed as if the protestors didn’t just draw a line between science and pseudoscience but also one between IISc and the rest of society, and reserved the expression of their disappointment towards pseudoscience inside IISc alone. That seems to be the case now as well: if there are conscientious people within IISc that are also motivated to collectivise and agitate (irrespective of how vehemently), their not doing so is only conspicuous by absence in other instances where it is similarly necessary.

(Deferring to the synecdoche) If IISc can rise up, it must rise up all the time. This isn’t a veiled caution against rising up altogether but to recall that selective outrage is irredeemably useless as well as to encourage students and practitioners of science to protest as often as they can – not just by pouring into the streets as they did when their funding was under threat but also for example writing against events and ideas they recognise to be dangerous – because their educational qualifications and academic situation vests theme with a measure of authority that non-scientists can’t passively accrue.

People at a rally in Gwalior, 2007. Credit: Ekta Parishad/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

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.

Firstpost’s selfish journalism

I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept of false balance, which is based on the conviction that there are two sides to every story even when there aren’t or when it’s not clear to anyone what the other side is. I’m also sure you’re aware of how journalism based on false balance can legitimise fake news and pseudoscience, as we used to see so often with climate change until the mid-2010s.

The problem with believing there exists a balance between two viewpoints where there is actually none is rooted in the belief that both points are equally valid, which in turn is rooted in ignorance and/or prejudice. However, it would appear there is another form of false-balance reportage that is rooted in selfishness and/or apathy – one where a publication publishes an article that, at some point, acknowledges that A and B are not equally valid but whose headline and lede declare that they are. Here’s a fresh example from Firstpost:

The lede goes thus:

After months of delay in its launch, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said that the country’s second moon mission — the Rs 800 crore ‘Chandrayaan-2’ — is designed to hunt for deposits of Helium-3 — a waste-free nuclear energy that could answer many of Earth’s energy problems.

Chandrayaan 2 isn’t going to prospect the Moon for helium-3, or any other potential sources of clean energy for that matter, if only because we don’t have the wherewithal to use such materials to produce energy. Second, the problem with C2, as with many of ISRO’s space science missions at the moment, is that there is no roadmap. I don’t know what or who Firstpost‘s sources were for it to have pieced together this BS.

However, after talking about this as if any of it made sense, the article quotes my article in The Wire to say “even if we are successful in bringing back huge deposits of Helium-3 from the moon, we are far away from having the technology to harness it”.

So what has Firstpost done here? a) It reignited the pseudo-debate over ISRO’s non-existent plans to mine the Moon for helium-3; b) it re-legitimised Sivan’s, and others’, ridiculous point of view that India should lead the way in this endeavour; and, most importantly, c) it cashed in on the fallacy even as it suggested it may have recognised that the helium-3 story is erected entirely on speculation and daydreams.

In effect, this is nauseatingly selfish and, insofar as it is journalism, apathetic. It does not have the public interest in mind; in fact, it completely disregards it. And in case someone demands to know how I can claim to know better than K. Sivan, who claimed last year that it’s important for India to be at the forefront of helium-3 mining, only that anecdote about what Bertrand Russell – a staunch atheist – would say should he come face to face with god comes to mind: “Well, I would say that you did not provide much evidence.”

Phone on a plane. Credit: Javier Cañada/Unsplash

Myth of harmful cell phone radiation is good business for IndiGo

When I fly, I always fly IndiGo. They’re not perfect but they and their services have become familiar, from their website (where I book my tickets) to when I exit the airport at my destination. The efficiency with which the IndiGo staff works – rather the economy of processes they follow – has seemed well thought-out. (For example, the air hostesses are sweet but the pilot also chips in over the intercom, keeping passengers updated about how high and fast they’re flying, etc.).

On my most recently flight, however, this facade of sanity was disturbed when I saw the following advertisement in their in-flight magazine:

Credit: Vasudevan Mukunth
Credit: Vasudevan Mukunth

You can see how that’d have gotten my goat. Indio strives to offer a highly optimised journey for the domestic traveller – including a healthy dose of pseudoscience. The funny thing is that the handheld extension plugged into the mobile phone has an electrical and electronic architecture similar to the one working inside the phone; the only difference is the absence of a signal receiver and emitter. It then follows that whatever radiation one is alleging the phone is serving as a hub of is all around us: if your phone is not on a call right now, some other phone in your vicinity surely is.

Cell phone radiation is not harmful because it is not ionising radiation. It’s that simple. Only ionising radiation can harm the body. It’s okay to want to protect yourself from threats but to believe your mobile phone is giving your head or your genitals cancer is stupid. On top of this, the product being advertised – aptly called the Phoni3 – promises to cut out 95% of the nonexistent harmful radiation. *facepalm* This is consumerism at the peak of its sway.

In fact, I’m curious why neither the makers of Phoni3 nor IndiGo saw fit to speak about background radiation. Did you know that the radiation your body is exposed to in the course of a six-hour flight is 444-times higher than the dose it receives if you live within 80 km of a nuclear power plant for a year? The reason we don’t panic is because even this elevated dose poses no danger to the human body. And the reason we don’t see an advertisement for lead-lined jackets or portable Faraday cages to wear/carry during air travel in the in-flight magazine is because it will be bad for business.

But anything short of hurting IndiGo can pass go. To wit, the following message is at the bottom of the same page containing the phone Phoni ad:

Credit: Vasudevan Mukunth
Credit: Vasudevan Mukunth

The government should ban advertisements for such products if only because, in this specific case, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has been working to dispel beliefs that cell phone radiation is harmful to the body. Unless the civil aviation authority bans such ads, TRAI’s efforts will be in vain. The IndiGo in-flight magazine is available for 180 passengers per flight of an Airbus A320, and the airline flies 131 such flights across the country a day (as of April 10, 2017). That’s more visibility than the TRAI can manage without significant effort.

Featured image credit: Javier Cañada/Unsplash.

The March for Science, ed. 2018

K. VijayRaghavan, India’s new principal scientific advisor to the Government of India, has brought a lot of hope with him into the role as a result of his illustrious career as a biologist and former secretaryship with the Department of Biotechnology. Many stakeholders of the scientific establishment are already looking to him for positive changes in S&T policy, funding and administration in India under a government that, on matters of research and education, has focused on applications, translational research and actively ignored the spread of superstitious ideas in society.

In a recent interview, VijayRaghavan was asked about R&D funding in India. His response is worth noting against the backdrop of a ‘March for Science’ planned across India on April 14. As the interviewer reminds the reader, the 2018 Economic Survey bluntly acknowledged that India was underspending on research. This has also been one of the principal focus areas of the ‘March for Science’ organisers and participants: they have demanded that the Centre hike R&D spending to 3% and education spending to 10%, both as fractions of the GDP, apart from asking the government to stop the spread of superstitious beliefs.

Q: Getting funding for research is widely considered to be a prickly issue. The 2018 Economic Survey stated that India underspends on R&D. Is this a concern at the administration level?

A: These are wrongly posed questions, because it says that should magically the amount of funding go up, then science’s problems would be solved. Or that this is the key impediment. There’s no questions that there’s a correlation between increased R&D funding and innovation in many economies. South Korea is a striking example how high-tech R&D has resulted in transformation in their industries… Have we analysed, bottom-up, what Korea’s spending goes into and what we can learn from that and do afresh? Have we analysed our contest and learnt? …

Now interestingly, top-down this analysis has been done long ago. We as scientists, individuals and as journalists need to see that. The DST, and the DBT, the CSIR, the ICMR all have their plans should they get more resources. You can’t have a top-down articulation of how the resources can come and be used, unless that is also dynamically connected bottom-up.

When I look at 100 cases of why fund-flow is gridlocked, in about 70 cases, it’s poor institutional processes.

March for more than science

After the first Indian ‘March for Science’ happened in August 2017, the government showed no signs of having heard the participants’ claims, or even acknowledged the event. This was obviously jarring but it also prompted conversations about whether the march’s demands were entirely reasonable. Most news reports, include The Wire‘s, had focused on how this was the first outpouring of scientists, school-teachers and students, particularly at this scale. Scrutinising it deeply was taboo because there was some anxiety about jeopardising the need for such a march itself. However, ahead of the second march planned for April 14, it’s worth revisiting.

Sundar Sarukkai, the philosopher, had penned an oped the day after the 2017 march, asking scientists whether they had thought to climb down from their ivory towers and consider that the spread of superstitions in society under the Narendra Modi government may have been because of sociological and cultural reasons, and wasn’t simply a matter of spending more on R&D. Following a rebuttal from Rahul Siddharthan, Sarukkai clarified in The Wire:

Whenever ideal images are constructed (like ideal of woman, ideal of nation, etc.), one should be wary, since any such act is often driven by considerations of power. This ideal image of science too is used to establish science as a powerful agent within modern societies. The use of this ideal image to solve social problems related to caste, religion or hatred of any kind is a red herring. It is like using a hammer to fix a bulb. When we do that, it only means that we are not really interested in solving the problem (fixing the bulb) but more invested in using the method (the hammer) – irrespective of whether it is suitable for the task or not.

The terrible cases of lynching, hatred, oppression and misuse of religion must be unequivocally opposed. For those who are serious about that task, the solution is more important than the method used to achieve it. The categories of the ideal notion of science are applicable primarily to non-human systems. So even if they work well within such systems, there is no reason why they should do so within human systems.

A physicist said something similar to me around the time: that the old uncle preaching the benefits of homeopathy in his living room is doing so not because he doesn’t have access to scientific knowledge. That may be true but what’s more conspicuous by absence is someone in the same room challenging his views, communicating to him without being intimidating or patronising and having a discussion with him about what’s right, what’s wrong and the methods we use to tell the difference. Instead, focusing on making it easier for scientists to become and remain scientists alone will not take us closer to achieving the outcomes the ‘March for Science’ desires.

Sarukkai echoed this point in a comment to The Print: that scientists who march only for science are not doing anything useful, and that they must march against casteism and sexism as well (and social ills outside their labs). Without real change in these social contexts, it’s going to be near-impossible for those deemed less powerful by structures in place in these contexts to challenge the beliefs of those afforded more social authority. Ultimately, effecting such change is not going to be all about money – just as much as more money alone won’t solve anything, just as much as imploring the government to “fix” all these issues by itself will not work either.

This is where VijayRaghavan’s comments about R&D spending fit in. Before we throw more money in the general direction of supporting R&D, its Augean stables will have to be cleaned out and inefficiencies eliminated. One example, apropos VijayRaghavan’s comment about 70% of funds being gridlocked due to “poor institutional processes”, comes immediately to mind.

Sunil Mukhi, a theoretical physicist, wrote in 2008 that when he had been a member of the faculty at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, his station afford him a variety of privileges even as there was “no clear statement of our responsibility or duty to perform, and no consequences for failing to do so”. While he has since acknowledged a potential flaw in his suggested solution, the fact remains that many researchers often laze in prized research positions at well-funded institutes instead of also having to grapple with the teaching and mentorship load prevalent at state universities and colleges.

Additionally, though most people have directed their ire at the government for underfunding R&D, 55% of our R&D expenditure is from the public kitty. Among the ‘superpowers’, China is a distant second at less than 20%. So the marches for science should also ask the private sector to cough up more.

One for all

When the government pulled the financial carpet out from under the feet of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in 2014 and asked its 38 labs to “go fund themselves”, many scientists were aghast that the council was being handicapped even as more money was being funnelled into pseudo-research on cow urine. But there were also many other scientists who said that the CSIR had it coming, that – as a network of labs set up to facilitate applied and translational research – it was bloated, sluggish and ripe for a pruning. Perhaps similar audits, though with ample stakeholder consultations (not the RSS) and without drastic consequences, are due for the national scientific establishment as a whole.

As a corollary, it is also true that every march, protest or agitation undertaken against casteism, sexism, patriarchy, bigotry and zealotry can work in favour of the scientific establishment since what ‘they’ are fighting against is also what scientists, and science journalists, should be fighting against. Access to bonafide scientific ideas should not be solely through textbooks, news articles and freewheeling chats on Twitter. Instead, and irrespective of whether they become available, they should have the option to be availed through the many day-to-day interactions in which we confront structures of caste and class.

For example, there is no reason the person who cleans your toilet should not also cook your dinner. To institute this dumb restriction is to perpetuate caste/class divisions as well as to reject science in the form of hand-wash fluids. For another, there is no reason an employer shouldn’t let their domestic help use the toilet when they need to. However, the practice of expecting those who work in our homes to use separate toilets or be fired still persists, even in a society as ostensibly post-caste as West Bengal’s, demonstrating “the extent to which employer relations with domestic workers continue to be flavoured by caste” – as well as the extent to which we falsely attribute different human bodies with irrational biological threats.

These problems are also relevant to scientists, and must be solved before we can confront the bigger, and more nebulous, order of scientific temper in the country. However, such problems can’t be fixed by scientists and science alone.

It is worth reiterating that the ‘March for Science’ tomorrow is not a lost cause; far from it, in fact. The demand that 3% of GDP be spent on R&D is entirely valid – but it also needs to be accompanied by structural reforms to be completely meaningful. So the march, in effect, is an opportunity to examine the checks and balances of science’s administration in the country, the place of science in society, and introspect on our responsibility to confront a protean problem and not back down in the face of easy solutions. If the solution was as easy as ramping up spending on R&D and education, the problem would have been solved long ago.

The Wire, 13 April 2018.

The language and bullshitness of ‘a nearly unreadable paper’

Earlier today, the Retraction Watch mailing list highlighted a strange paper written by a V.M. Das disputing the widely accepted fact that our body clocks are regulated by the gene-level circadian rhythm. The paper is utter bullshit. Sample its breathless title: ‘Nobel Prize Physiology 2017 (for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm) is On Fiction as There Is No Molecular Mechanisms of Biological Clock Controlling the Circadian Rhythm. Circadian Rhythm Is Triggered and Controlled By Divine Mechanism (CCP – Time Mindness (TM) Real Biological Clock) in Life Sciences’.

The use of language here is interesting. Retraction Watch called the paper ‘unreadable’ in the headline of its post because that’s obviously a standout feature of this paper. I’m not sure why Retraction Watch is highlighting nonsense papers on its pages – watched by thousands every day for intriguing retraction reports informed by the reporting of its staff – but I’m going to assume its editors want to help all their readers set up their own bullshit filters. And the best way to do this, as I’ve written before, is to invite readers to participate in understanding why something is bullshit.

However, to what extent do we think unreadability is a bullshit indicator? And from whose perspective?

There’s no exonerating the ‘time mindness’ paper because those who get beyond the language are able to see that it’s simply not even wrong. But if you had judged it only by its language, you would’ve landed yourself in murky waters. In fact, no paper should be judged by how it exercises the grammar of the language its authors have decided to write it in. Two reasons:

1. English is not the first language for most of India. Those who’ve been able to afford an English-centred education growing up or hail from English-fluent families (or both) are fine with the language but I remember most of my college professors preferring Hindi in the classroom. And I assume that’s the picture in most universities, colleges and schools around the country. You only need access to English if you’ve also had the opportunity to afford a certain lifestyle (cosmopolitan, e.g.).

2. There are not enough good journals publishing in vernacular languages in India – at least not that I know of. The ‘best’ is automatically the one in English, among other factors. Even the government thinks so. Earlier this year, the University Grants Commission published a ‘preferred’ list of journals; only papers published herein were to be considered for career advancement evaluations. The list left out most major local-language publications.

Now, imagine the scientific vocabulary of a researcher who prefers Hindi over English, for example, because of her educational upbringing as well as to teach within the classroom. Wouldn’t it be composed of Latin and English jargon suspended from Hindi adjectives and verbs, a web of Hindi-speaking sensibilities straining to sound like a scientist? Oh, that recalls a third issue:

3. Scientific papers are becoming increasingly hard to read, with many scientists choosing to actively include words they wouldn’t use around the dinner table because they like how the ‘sciencese’ sounds. In time, to write like this becomes fashionable – and to not write like this becomes a sign of complacency, disinterest or disingenuousness.

… to the mounting detriment of those who are not familiar with even colloquial English in the first place. To sum up: if a paper shows other, more ‘proper’ signs of bullshit, then it is bullshit no matter how much its author struggled to write it. On the other hand, a paper can’t be suspected of badness if its language is off – nor can it be called bad as such if that’s all is off about it.

This post was composed entirely on a smartphone. Please excuse typos or minor formatting issues.

The language and bullshitness of 'a nearly unreadable paper'

Earlier today, the Retraction Watch mailing list highlighted a strange paper written by a V.M. Das disputing the widely accepted fact that our body clocks are regulated by the gene-level circadian rhythm. The paper is utter bullshit. Sample its breathless title: ‘Nobel Prize Physiology 2017 (for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm) is On Fiction as There Is No Molecular Mechanisms of Biological Clock Controlling the Circadian Rhythm. Circadian Rhythm Is Triggered and Controlled By Divine Mechanism (CCP – Time Mindness (TM) Real Biological Clock) in Life Sciences’.

The use of language here is interesting. Retraction Watch called the paper ‘unreadable’ in the headline of its post because that’s obviously a standout feature of this paper. I’m not sure why Retraction Watch is highlighting nonsense papers on its pages – watched by thousands every day for intriguing retraction reports informed by the reporting of its staff – but I’m going to assume its editors want to help all their readers set up their own bullshit filters. And the best way to do this, as I’ve written before, is to invite readers to participate in understanding why something is bullshit.

However, to what extent do we think unreadability is a bullshit indicator? And from whose perspective?

There’s no exonerating the ‘time mindness’ paper because those who get beyond the language are able to see that it’s simply not even wrong. But if you had judged it only by its language, you would’ve landed yourself in murky waters. In fact, no paper should be judged by how it exercises the grammar of the language its authors have decided to write it in. Two reasons:

1. English is not the first language for most of India. Those who’ve been able to afford an English-centred education growing up or hail from English-fluent families (or both) are fine with the language but I remember most of my college professors preferring Hindi in the classroom. And I assume that’s the picture in most universities, colleges and schools around the country. You only need access to English if you’ve also had the opportunity to afford a certain lifestyle (cosmopolitan, e.g.).

2. There are not enough good journals publishing in vernacular languages in India – at least not that I know of. The ‘best’ is automatically the one in English, among other factors. Even the government thinks so. Earlier this year, the University Grants Commission published a ‘preferred’ list of journals; only papers published herein were to be considered for career advancement evaluations. The list left out most major local-language publications.

Now, imagine the scientific vocabulary of a researcher who prefers Hindi over English, for example, because of her educational upbringing as well as to teach within the classroom. Wouldn’t it be composed of Latin and English jargon suspended from Hindi adjectives and verbs, a web of Hindi-speaking sensibilities straining to sound like a scientist? Oh, that recalls a third issue:

3. Scientific papers are becoming increasingly hard to read, with many scientists choosing to actively include words they wouldn’t use around the dinner table because they like how the ‘sciencese’ sounds. In time, to write like this becomes fashionable – and to not write like this becomes a sign of complacency, disinterest or disingenuousness.

… to the mounting detriment of those who are not familiar with even colloquial English in the first place. To sum up: if a paper shows other, more ‘proper’ signs of bullshit, then it is bullshit no matter how much its author struggled to write it. On the other hand, a paper can’t be suspected of badness if its language is off – nor can it be called bad as such if that’s all is off about it.

This post was composed entirely on a smartphone. Please excuse typos or minor formatting issues.