A meeting with the PSA's office

The Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) organised a meeting with science communicators from around India on January 27, in New Delhi. Some of my notes from the meeting are displayed below, published with three caveats.

First, my notes are not to be treated as the minutes of the meeting; I only jotted down what I personally found interesting. Some 75% of the words in there are part of suggestions and recommendations advanced by different people; the remainder are, broadly, observations. They appear in no discernible order not because I jumbled them up but because participants offered both kinds of statements throughout. The meeting itself lasted for seven or so hours (including breaks for lunch and tea), so every single statement was also accompanied by extensive discussion. Finally, I have temporarily withheld some portions because I plan to discuss them in additional blog posts.

Second, the meeting followed the Chatham House Rules, which means I am not at liberty to attribute statements uttered during the course of the meeting to their human originators. I have also not identified my own words where possible not because I want to hide but because, by virtue of these ideas appearing on my blog, I take full responsibility (but not authorship) for their publicisation.

Third, though the meeting was organised by the Office of the PSA, its members were not the only ones of the government present at the meeting. Representatives of some other government-affiliated bodies were also in attendance. So statements obviously uttered by a government official – if any do come across that way – are not necessarily attributable to members of the Office of the PSA.


“We invest a lot in science, we don’t use it imaginatively enough.”

Three major science related issues:

  1. Climate change
  2. Dramatic consequences of our growth on biodiversity
  3. B/c of these two, how one issues addresses sustainable development
  • Different roles for journalists within and without the government
  • Meeting is about what each one of us can do — but what is that?
  • Each one of us can say “I could do better if only you could better empathise with what I do”
  • Need for skill-sharing events for science journalists/communicators
  • CSIR’s National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources has a centre for science and media relations, and a national science library
  • Indian Council of Medical Research has a science communication policy but all press releases need to be okayed by health minister!
  • Knowledge making is wrapped up in identity
  • Regional language communicators don’t have access to press releases, etc. in regional languages, nor access to translators
  • Department of Science and Technology and IIT Kanpur working on machine-translations of scientific content of Wikipedia
  • Netherlands Science Foundation published a book compiling public responses to question ‘what do you think of science?’
  • In the process of teaching kids science, you can also get them to perform science and use the data (e.g. mapping nematode density in soil using Foldscope)
  • Slack group for science communicators, channels divided by topic
  • Leaders of scientific bodies need to be trained on how to deal with journalists, how to respond in interviews, etc.
  • Indian Space Research Organisation, Defence R&D Organisation and Department of Atomic Energy need to not be so shut off! What are they hiding? If nothing to hide, why aren’t they reachable?
  • Need structural reforms for institutional research outreach — can’t bank on skills, initiative of individual science communicators at institutes to ensure effective outreach
  • Need to decentralise PR efforts at institutions
  • People trained in science communication need to find jobs/employment
  • Pieces shortlisted for AWSAR award could be put on a CC BY-ND license so news publications can republish them en masse without edits
  • Please hold meetings like this at periodic intervals, let this not be a one-time thing
  • Issues with covering science: Lack of investment, few people covering science, not enough training opportunities, not enough science communication research in India
  • Need local meet-ups between journalists and scientists to get to know each other, facilitated by the government
  • Outreachers needn’t have to be highly regarded scientists, even grad students can give talks — and kids will come to listen
  • Twitter is an elite platform — science communicators that need to stay in touch need to do more; most science communicators don’t know each other!
  • Can we host one edition of the World Conference of Science Journalists in India?
  • What happened to the Indian Science Writers’ Association?
  • Today the mind is not without fear! The political climate is dire, people can’t freely speak their minds without fear of reprisal — only obvious that this should affect science journalism also
  • ISRO is a darling of the media, the government and the masses but has shit outreach! Rs 10,000 crore being spent on Gaganyaan but the amount of info on it in the public domain is poop.
  • CSIR’s Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology is very open and accessible, director needs to be kept in the loop about some press interaction but that’s it; perhaps the same template can be recreated in other institutes?
  • Outreach at scientific institutions is a matter of trust: if director doesn’t trust scientists to speak up without permission, and if PR people don’t respond to emails or phone calls, impression is that there is no trust within the institute as well as that the institute would like journalists to not be curious
  • People trained in science communication (informally also) need a place to practice their newfound skills.
  • Private sector industry is in the blindspot of journalists
  • People can more easily relate to lived experiences; aesthetically pleasing (beautiful-looking) stories are important
  • Most people have not had access to the tools of science, we need to build more affordable and accessible tools
  • Don’t attribute to malfeasance what can be attributed to not paying attention, incompetence, etc.
  • Journalistic deep-dives are good but lack of resources to undertake, not many publications do it either, except maybe The Wire and Caravan; can science communicators and the government set up a longform mag together?
  • Create a national mentorship network where contact details of ‘mentors’ are shared and mentees enrolled in the programme can ask them questions, seek guidance, etc.
  • Consider setting up a ‘science media centre’ — but can existing and functional models in Australia and the UK be ported to India without facing any issues?
  • Entities like IndiaBioscience could handle biology research outreach for scientific institutes in, say, the South India region or Bangalore region with some support from the government. That would be better than an SMC-from-scratch.
  • Consider including science communication in government’s new draft Scientific Social Responsibility policy and other S&T innovation policies
  • Allocate a fixed portion of funding for research for public outreach and communication (such as 2%)
  • Need more formal recognition for science communication researchers within scientific institutions; members currently stuck in a limbo between outreach office and scientists, makes it difficult to acquire funds for work
  • Support individual citizen science initiatives
  • Need better distinction between outreach groups and press offices — we don’t have a good press office anywhere in the country! Press officers encourage journalistic activity, don’t just promote institute’s virtues but look out for the institute as situated in the country’s overall science and society landscape
  • Any plans to undertake similar deliberations on philosophy of science (including culture of research, ethics and moral responsibilities)?
  • Scientific institutions could consider hosting journalists for one day a month to get to know each other
  • What’s in it for the scientist to speak to a journalist about their work? Need stronger incentives — journalists can provide some of that by establishing trust with the scientist, but can journalists alone provide incentives? Is it even their responsibility?
  • Consider conducting a ‘scientific temper survey’ to understand science literacy as well as people’s perceptions of science — could help government formulate better policies, and communicators and journalists to better understand what exactly their challenges are
  • Need to formulate specific guidelines for science communication units at scientific research institutions as well as for funding agencies
  • Set up fellowships and grants for science communicators, but the government needs to think about attaching as few strings as possible to such assistance
  • Need for more government support for regional and local newspapers vis-à-vis covering science, especially local science
  • Need to use multimedia – especially short videos, podcasts illustrations and other aids – to communicate science instead of sticking to writing; visuals in particular could help surmount language barrier right away

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.)

Social media and science communication

The following article was originally intended for an Indian publication but I withdrew from the commission because I couldn’t rework the piece according to changes they required, mostly for lack of focus. I thank Karnika Kohli and Shruti Muralidhar for their inputs.

Since the mid-20th century, the news-publishing industry has wielded the most influence on people’s perception of what science is, what its responsibilities and goals are, and what scientists do. The internet changed this by disrupting how news-publishers made money.

In 2012, The Hindu used to sell a copy of its newspaper in Chennai for Rs 4.50 (or so) while it used to cost the publisher Rs 24 to print each copy. The publisher would make up the deficit by soliciting and printing ads from advertisers in different parts of the newspaper. The first major change in this regard was Google and the new centrality of its search engine to exploring the internet. Sites were keen to have their pages ‘rank’ better on search results and began to modify their content according to what Google wanted, giving rise to the industry of search-engine optimisation.

Second, Google AdSense allowed websites to run ads as well as advertisers to target specific users in line with which websites they visited and their content consumption patterns. Third, once Google News started becoming a major news aggregator, news sites re-tailored their content according to its specific needs, including reinterpreting the news in terms of the preferences of Google News and its users.

Fourth, bandwidth became cheaper around the world but especially in India, reducing the cost of accessing the internet and bringing more people online. In response, social media platforms — especially Facebook — began to set up walled gardens to keep these users from leaving the platform and consuming the news elsewhere. And when traffic to sites plummeted, their ads-based revenue came crashing down.

The effect of these ‘gardens’ has become so pronounced that recently, a paper in the journal Experimental Economics found that college students who went off Facebook consumed less news. This conclusion suffixes the belief that most people, especially in the 18-24 age group, consume the news on social media platforms with the notion that they don’t consume news anywhere else.

In another instance, Google at long last become a walled garden proper in August 2019: the fraction of its users who consumed the news on the site itself instead of following a link through to the publisher’s site had breached the 50% mark.

Finally, because the social media made it so easy to share information, citizen-journalism became more appealing, even lucrative. At the same time, social media platforms, which constantly evolve to accommodate their users’ aspirations, began to chip away at the need for public-spirited journalism. As a result, the amount of ‘bad information’ in the public domain exploded even as people become more unwilling to acknowledge that this was all the more reason society needed good journalists.

Obviously all of this is bound to have profound implications for how social media users perceive science. But while this isn’t easy to gauge without a dedicated, long-term study, it is possible to extrapolate based on what we know from anecdotal experiences. Through this exercise, let’s also move beyond the logistics of using the social media well and spotlight the virtues of getting on these platforms that so many people love to hate.

Broadly, social media allows users to organise information in a fixed number of ways but doesn’t give users control over how they are displayed. This limitation is good because the platform sidesteps the paradox of choice and forces users to focus only on what they are saying. But it is also bad because the limitation eliminates diversity of presentation, sometimes forcing users to shoehorn an idea into a note or image when a longer article or an interactive graphic would work better.

Second, social media platforms incentivise some user behaviours over others, which then constrains how users can present scientific results.

These two arcs are united by the fact that these platforms have socialised the consumption of news (and the production as well to some extent). That is, users discover a lot of news these days in social settings, such as in conversation with other users or in the timelines of accounts they follow. Such discovery happens after the news has been filtered through the lenses of others’ interests, encouraging users to follow users whose tastes they like and views they endorse, and stay away from others. This tendency is psychologically rewarding because it contributes to building the echo chamber, which is then economically rewarding for the platform’s owners.

All together, the social media — comprising platforms whose motive is profit and not social and psychological wellbeing — are populist by design. They privilege popularity over accuracy and logical value. In this regard, it would be hubristic to assume that the public perception of science has been separately or distinctly affected by general social-media use patterns.

Then again, these patterns have also helped mature the old idea that public debates aren’t won or lost on the back of strong scientific evidence or clever logical arguments. More generally, science communication in India is becoming more popular at the same time Indians are becoming more aware of the socio-political consequences of our digital lives and worlds. This simultaneity has the potential to birthe a generation of more conscientious and social-media-savvy science communicators that can devise clever ways to work around apparent barriers.

For example, scientists can adapt an app that has been designed to communicate speed, say by allowing users to rapidly compose and share text, pictures or videos, to meaningfully convey changes in that speed. They could highlight how different parts of a long experiment can proceed at different paces: sluggishly when growing a bacterial culture overnight and rapidly when some chemical reactions with it produce results in seconds.

Communicators can also ‘hack’ social-media echo chambers by setting up small, homogenous online communities. According to one 2018 study, such groups can “maximise the amount of information available to an individual” according to their preferences. The study argues that such “homophilic segregation can be efficient and even Pareto-optimal for society”.

Finally, the limits on how users can organise and present information has in fact incentivised those who had stayed away from communicating science for lack of time and/or resources to sign up. Maintaining a blog or writing articles for newspapers can be laborious. Additionally, writing for the press — the historically most common way to communicate scientific knowledge outside of journals — also means using at least a few hundred words to set readers up before the author can introduce her idea.

But if you discover that a paper has made a mistake or that you want to explain how something works, you post a few threaded tweets on Twitter in a matter of minutes and you are done. A Facebook note wouldn’t take much longer. Instagram even gives you the added benefit of using a large visual prompt to grab users’ attention. WhatsApp introduced the power to do all of this from your smartphone.

One remarkable subset of this group is traditionally underprivileged science workers (to use a broader term that encompasses scientists, postdoctoral scholars and lab assistants). While journalists are typically expected to be objective in their assessment, they — like almost everyone else — have been fattened on a diet of upper-caste men as scientists. So in the course of shortening the distance between a communicator and her audience, social media platforms empower less privileged groups otherwise trapped in a vicious media cycle, which renders them more obscure, to become visible.

Of course, some platforms exact a steep psychological price from users of currently or formerly marginalised groups (including women, transgender people, transsexual people, and pretty much everyone that doesn’t conform to heteronormativity) by forcing them to put up with trolls. So their continued presence on these platforms depends on the support of their institutions, other scientists and science communicators. And should they persist, the rewards range from opportunities to change users’ impression of who/what a scientist is to presenting themselves as a more socially just set of role models to aspiring scientists.

Obviously populism has downsides that are inimical to how science works and how it needs to be communicated, such as by falsely conflating brevity with conciseness and objectivity with neutrality. But it is always better to have a bunch of people using the social media to communicate science while being aware of its (arguably marginal) pitfalls than to have them avoid communicating altogether. This also seems to be the prevailing spirit among those scientists who recognise the importance of reaching the people, so to speak.

Science communication is becoming increasingly popular as an interdisciplinary field of its own right, wherein scientists and sociologists team up to determine the general principles of good communication by examining why some stories work so well among certain audiences, how psychological and linguistic techniques could play a part in establishing authority, etc.

These efforts parallel many scientists taking to Facebook and Twitter, posting updates regularly including comments on the news of the day (at least from their points of view) and offering non-scientists a glimpse of what it is like to be a working scientist in India. Easier access to their views also allows science journalists to contact scientists to understand which developments are worth covering and to solicit comments on the merits of a study or an idea.

In effect, Snehal Kadam and Karishma Kaushik wrote in IndiaBioscience, “social media discussions and opinions are playing a key role in Indian science. This is evident on multiple fronts, from increasing accessibility to administrators and enforcing policy changes to determining the way the Indian science community wants to be represented and viewed, and even breaking down silos between scientists and citizens.”

There are many resources to help scientists understand the social media and use these platforms to their advantage — whether to popularise science, find other scientists to collaborate with or debate science-related issues. I don’t want to repeat their salient suggestions (but @IndScicomm is a good place to start), plus I am not a scientist and I will let scientists decide what works for them.

That said, it is useful to remember that the social media are here to stay. As Efraín Rivera-Serrano, a cell-biology and virology researcher, wrote on PLOS, “These platforms are shaping the future of science and it is imperative for us to exploit these avenues as outreach tools to introduce, showcase, and defend science to the world.”

Retrospective: The Wire Science in 2019

At the start of 2019, The Wire Science decided to focus more on issues of science and society, and this is reflected in the year-end list of our best stories (in terms of traffic and engagement; listed below). Most of our hits don’t belong to this genre, but quite a few do – enough for us to believe that these issues aren’t as esoteric as they appear to be in day-to-day conversations.

Science communication is becoming more important in India and more people are taking to it as a career. As a result, the visibility of science stories in the press has increased. Scientists are also using Facebook and Twitter to voice their views, whether on the news of the day or to engage in debates about their field of work. If you are an English-speaker with access to the internet and a smartphone, you are quite unlikely to have missed these conversations.

Most popular articles of 2019

The Sciences

  1. Poor Albert Einstein, His Wrong Theories and Post-Truths
  2. What Is Quantum Biology?
  3. If Scientists Don’t Speak out Today, Who Will Be Left to Defend Science Tomorrow?
  4. Why Scientists Are Confused About How Fast the Universe Is Expanding
  5. CSIR Lab? Work on Applied Research or Make do With Small Share of Funds

Health

  1. Why Everyone Around You Seems to Be Getting Cancer
  2. MCI Finally Updates MBBS Curriculum to Include Disability Rights and Dignity
  3. PM Modi is Worried About Population Explosion, a Problem Set to Go Away in 2021
  4. Bihar: Who is Responsible for the Death of 100 Children?
  5. What’s NEXT for the NMC Bill? Confusion.

Environment

  1. Extreme Events in the Himalayan Region: Are We Prepared for the Big One?
  2. A Twist in the Tale: Electric Vehicles Will Worsen India’s Pollution Crisis
  3. How Tamil Nadu Is Fighting in the First Attempt to Save a Sinking Island
  4. Why NGT Thinks Allahabad Is on the Verge of an Epidemic After Kumbh Mela
  5. But Why Is the Cauvery Calling?

Space

  1. NASA Briefly Stopped Working With ISRO on One Count After ASAT Test
  2. Senior ISRO Scientist Criticises Sivan’s Approach After Moon Mission Setback
  3. ISRO Doesn’t Have a Satisfactory Answer to Why It Wants to Put Indians in Space
  4. Chandrayaan 2 in Limbo as ISRO Loses Contact With Lander, History on Hold
  5. ISRO Delays Chandrayaan 2 Launch Again – But How Is Beresheet Involved?

Education

  1. NCERT to Drop Chapters on Caste Struggles, Colonialism From Class 9 History Book
  2. JNU: The Story of the Fall of a Great University
  3. Dear Students, Here’s How You Could Have Reacted to Modi’s Mockery of Dyslexia
  4. Can a Student’s Suicide Note Make Us Rethink the IIT Dream?
  5. NET Now Mandatory for Scheduled Caste Students to Avail Research Scholarship

Our choice

The state has become more involved with the R&D establishment, although these engagements have been frequently controversial. In such a time, with so many public institutions teetering on the brink, it is important we ensure science doesn’t become passively pressed into legitimising actions of the state but rather maintains a mutually beneficial relationship that also strengthens the democracy. It is not the prerogative of scientists alone to do this; we must all get involved because the outcomes of science belong to all of us.

To this end, we must critique science, scientists, their practices, our teachers and research administrators, forest officers, conservationists and environmental activists, doctors, nurses, surgeons and other staff, members of the medical industry, spaceflight engineers and space lawyers, rules that control prices and access, examinations and examiners, and so forth. We must question the actions and policies of everyone involved in this knowledge economy. Ultimately, we must ask if our own aspirations are in line with what we as a people expect of the world around us, and science is a part of that.

It would be remiss to not mention the commendable job some other publications have been doing vis-à-vis covering science in India, including The Hindu, The Telegraph, The Print, Mongabay, Indian Express, Dinamalar, etc. Their efforts have given us the opportunity to disengage once in a while from the more important events of the day to focus on stories that might otherwise have never been read.

This year, The Wire Science published stories that interrogated what duties academic and research institutions have towards the people whose tax-money funds them, that discussed more inclusivity and transparency because only a more diverse group of practitioners can ask more diverse questions, and that examined how, though science offers a useful way to make sense of the natural order, it doesn’t automatically justify itself nor is it entitled to the moral higher-ground.

The overarching idea was to ask questions about the natural universe without forgetting that the process of answering those questions is embedded in a wider social context that both supports and informs scientists’ practices and beliefs. There is no science without the scientists that practice it – yet most of us are not prepared to consider that science is as messy as every other human endeavour and isn’t the single-minded pursuit of truth its exponents often say it is.

In these fraught times, we shouldn’t forget that science guided only by the light of logic produces many of the reasons of state. The simplest way science communication can participate in this exercise, and not just be a mute spectator, is by injecting the scientist back into the science. This isn’t an abdication of the ideal of objectivity, even though objectivity itself has been outmoded by the advent of the irrational, majoritarian and xenophobic politics of nationalism. Instead, it is a reaffirmation that you can take science out of politics but that you can’t take politics out of science.

At the same time, the stories that emerge from this premise aren’t entirely immune to the incremental nature of scientific progress. We often have to march in step with the gentle rate at which scientists invent and/or discover things, and the similar pace at which the improvements among them are available to everyone everywhere. This fact offers one downside and one up: it is harder for our output to be noticed in the din of the news, but by staying alert to how little pieces of information from diverse lines of inquiry – both scientific and otherwise, especially from social science – can team up with significant consequence, we are better able to anticipate how stories will evolve and affect the world around them.

We hope you will continue to read, share and comment on the content published by The Wire Science. We have also been publicising articles from other publications and by bloggers we found interesting and have been reproducing (if available) on our website and on our social media platforms in an effort to create an appreciation of science stories beyond the ones we have been able to afford.

On this note: please also donate a sum comfortable to you to support our work. Even an amount as little as Rs 200 will go a long way.

The Wire
December 26, 2019

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.

My country is burning. Why should I work?

A few days ago, I found asking myself the following question: My country is burning, why should I work? I ended up with some (admittedly inchoate) thoughts, delineated below.

I’m trying to fight off this abject helplessness I’m feeling and edit some science articles, and failing. I’m not able to justify to myself why I shouldn’t drop everything and rush to Delhi (at this time, the violence at Jamia Milia Islamia is about to peak). At the same time, deep in my heart and mind, I know there must be some reason to persevere with what one likes to do and is interested in doing instead of rushing to the frontlines at every sign of trouble.

Somewhere in this maze of thoughts, there is sure to be an illustrative story about duty and country – about the insidious diminishment of one endeavour in favour of another. Yes, we must resist the forces of tyranny and fascism, but there is less and less freedom to choose any forms of resistance other than pouring out on the streets, raising your hands and shouting slogans.

I have nothing against peaceful protest but I have everything against how other forms of protest have been rendered less useful, or entirely meaningless, largely by the same entity whose institutional violence instigated these protests in the first place. This isn’t a question of convenience but of effectiveness: If many of us are out protesting on the street, how many among us are there because other forms of resistance no longer work?

With notable exceptions, the press these days comprises organisations ranging from supine to malicious. Democratic institutions, like many lower courts, various government bodies and even the executive, have been press-ganged into the national government’s majoritarian agenda. The polarisation has become so sharp and the political opposition so negligible that it seems nearly impossible to counter India’s extreme-right politics with anything but politics of other extremes.

In such a time, what does it mean to focus on science communication? To be abundantly clear: I don’t mean focusing on science communication – or any endeavour not apparently connected to the maintenance of a democracy – instead of protesting. I mean joining a protest in the morning, and editing science articles in the evening. That is, where in your work lies the justification to do what you’re doing, simply because you’ve always liked doing it, and which empowers you the same way a resistance movement empowers its participants (at least if you believe you shouldn’t have to protest in order to express your participation and involvement in the country’s wellbeing)?

There is a terribly clichéd example from a previous era: that of starving children in Africa. But in that case, resolution was very easy to access. More recently and closer home, every time ISRO launches satellites to the Moon and Mars, some people in India complain that the country should focus on fixing smaller problems first. Here, too, the road to clarity is evident, if somewhat meandering, taking recourse through economic principles, technological opportunities and (thankfully) a bit of common sense.

However, going from science communication to resisting fascism seems more difficult than usual, although I refuse to admit it’s impossible. There must be a way.

A friend recently told me, “The onslaught on science and reason is part of the fascist agenda, too, and that must be resisted.” Indeed! This is an important perspective… but somehow it also seems insufficient because – again – the tunnel from ‘critical thinking’ to ‘healthy democracy’ has caved in. The one from ‘curious about the world’ to ‘healthy democracy’ is not even on the map, as if we are forgetting that the right to information is one of the foundational principles of a functional democracy, and that science since the early 20th century at least has been one of the dominant ways to obtain such information.

At a colloquium in August last year, Raghavendra Gadagkar, the noted ecologist at IISc, Bengaluru, described two periods that background the practice of science communication: wartime, when it is deployed with uncommon urgency and specificity of purpose, often to beat back a troublesome claim or belief, and peacetime, when it narrates various kinds of stories united only broadly in theme and often in pedagogic form.

The issue is with peacetime science communication and its perceived relevance. In India at least, the simplistic notions that the fascist narrative often reduces more nuanced arguments to present themselves to the typical reader in too many ways for scientists and its communicators to grapple by themselves. When they do, it’s most likely during wartime, and their – our – heightened effectiveness during these episodes of engagement, such as it is, could mislead us into believing science communication is effective and necessary, at least as gauged by quantitative metrics.

Our effectiveness depends on two things: the circumstances and the culture. The circumstances of communication are in our hands, such as the language, topic, presentation, etc. Subversive, small-minded politics erodes the culture, reducing the extent to which good science communication is in demand and pushing its place in the public conversation to the margins. Scicomm in this scenario becomes an esoteric specialisation treated with special gloves in the newsroom and as an optional extra by the readership.

This in turn is why if science communication, or communication of any sort, is to be effective during wartime, it must be kept up during peacetime as well. More specifically, science writers, reporters, editors and communicators of all hues should help in the fight against rhetoric that would reduce a multifaceted issue into a unidimensional one, that would flatten the necessary features of scientific progress into technological questions. We need to preserve the value of good science communication in peacetime as well. But thanks to the unfortunate sensationalist tendencies of journalism, often (but not always) motivated by commerce, such resistance will require more strength and imagination than is apparent.

One battle at a time.

Irrespective of whether you have joined the protests, you must at all other times – through your work, actions and words – keep authoritarian narratives at bay. And it’s because these modes of resistance have been annulled that a physical protest, one of whose strengths lies in numbers, which in turn renders it immutably visible, has become the most viable and thus the dominant display of opposition.

Standing in this moment and looking back at the last few years, some of us (depending on where our ideological, political and moral axes intersect) see a landscape mutilated by the slow violence of right-wing nationalism, and the Citizenship Amendment Act as the absolute last straw. I, a science communicator, am protesting every day – beyond the protests themselves – by reviving the formerly straightforward connections from curiosity and critical thinking to a plural, equitable, just and secular democracy.

The circumstances in which scientists are science journos

On September 6, 2019, two researchers from Israel uploaded a preprint to the bioRxiv preprint server entitled ‘Can scientists fill the science journalism void? Online public engagement with two science stories authored by scientists’. Two news sites invited scientists to write science articles for them, supported by a short workshop at the start of the programme and then by a group of editors during the ideation and editing process. The two researchers tracked and analysed the results, concluding:

Overall significant differences were not found in the public’s engagement with the different items. Although, on one website there was a significant difference on two out of four engagement types, the second website did not have any difference, e.g., people did not click, like or comment more on items written by organic reporters than on the stories written by scientists. This creates an optimistic starting point for filling the science news void [with] scientists as science reporters.

Setting aside questions about the analysis’s robustness: I don’t understand the point of this study (insofar as it concerns scientists being published in news websites, not blogs), as a matter of principle. When was the optimism in question ever in doubt? And if it was, how does this preprint paper allay it?

The study aims to establish whether articles written by scientists can be just as successful – in terms of drawing traffic or audience engagement – as articles penned by trained journalists working in newsrooms. There are numerous examples that this is the case, and there are numerous other examples that this is not. But by discussing the results of their survey in a scientific paper, the authors seem to want to elevate the possibility that articles authored by scientists can perform well to a well-bounded result – which seems questionable at best, even if it is strongly confined to the Israeli market.

To take a charitable view, the study effectively reaffirms one part of a wider reality.

I strongly doubt there’s a specific underlying principle that suggests a successful outcome, at least beyond the mundane truism that the outcome is a combination of many things. From what I’ve seen in India, for example, the performance of a ‘performant article’ depends on the identity of the platform, the quality of its editors, the publication’s business model and its success, the writer’s sensibilities, the magnitude and direction of the writer’s moral compass, the writer’s fluency in the language and medium of choice, the features of the audience being targeted, and the article’s headline, length, time of publication and packaging.

It’s true that a well-written article will often perform better than average and a poorly written written article will perform worse than average, in spire of all these intervening factors, but these aren’t the only two states in which an article can exist. In this regard, claiming scientists “stand a chance” says nothing about the different factors in play and even less about why some articles won’t do well.

It also minimises editorial contributions. The two authors write in their preprint, “News sites are a competitive environment where scientists’ stories compete for attention with other news stories on hard and soft topics written by professional writers. Do they stand a chance?” This question ignores the publisher’s confounding self-interest: to maximise a story’s impact roughly proportional to the amount of labour expended to produce it, such as with the use of a social media team. More broadly, if there are fewer science journalists, there are also going to be fewer science editors (an event that precipitated the former will most likely precipitate the latter as well), which means there will also be fewer science stories written by anyone in the media.

Another issue here is something I can’t stress enough: science writers, communicators and journalists don’t have a monopoly on writing about science or scientists. The best science journalism has certainly been produced by reporters who have been science journalists for a while, but this is no reason to write off the potential for good journalism – in general – to produce stories that include science, nor to exclude such stories from analyses of how the people get their science news.

A simple example is environmental journalism in India. Thanks to prevalent injustices, many important nuggets of environmental and ecological knowledge appear in articles written by reporters working the social justice and political economics beats. This has an important lesson for science reporters and editors everywhere: not being employed full-time is typically a bitter prospect but your skills don’t have to manifest in stories that appear on pages or sections set aside for science news alone.

It also indicates that replenishing the workforce (even with free labour) won’t stave off the decline of science journalism – such as it is – as much as tackling deeper, potentially extra-scientific, issues such as parochialism and anti-intellectualism, and as a second step convincing both editors and marketers about the need to publish science journalism including and beyond considerations of profit.

Last, the authors further write:

This study examined whether readers reacted differently to science news items written by scientists as compared to news items written by organic reporters published on the same online news media sites. Generally speaking, based on our findings, the answer is no: audiences interacted similarly with both. This finding justifies the time and effort invested by the scientists and the Davidson science communication team to write attractive science stories, and justifies the resources provided by the news sites. Apparently if websites publish it, audiences will consume it.

An editor could have told you this in a heartbeat. Excluding audiences that consume content from niche outlets, and especially including audiences that flock to ‘destination’ sites (i.e. sites that cover nearly everything), authorship rarely ever matters unless the author is prominent or the publication highlights it. But while the Israeli duo has reason to celebrate this user behaviour, as it does, others have seen red.

For example, in December 2018, the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal published a paper by an Oxford University physicist named Jamie Farnes advancing a fanciful solution to the dark matter and dark energy problems. The paper was eventually widely debunked by scientists and science journalists alike but not before hundreds, if not thousands, of people were taken by an article in The Conversation that seemed to support the paper’s conclusions. What many of them – including some scientists – didn’t realise was that The Conversation often features scientists writing articles about their own work, and didn’t know the problem article had been written by Farnes himself.

So even if the preprint study skipped articles written by scientists about their own work, the duos’s “build it and they will come” inference is not generalisable, especially if – for another example – someone else from Oxford University had written favourably about Farnes’s paper. I regularly field questions from young scientist-writers baffled as to why I won’t publish articles that quote ‘independent’ scientists commenting on a study they didn’t participate in but which was funded, in part or fully, by the independent scientists’ employer(s).

I was hoping to neatly tie my observations together in a conclusion but some other work has come up, so I hope you won’t mind the abrupt ending as well as that, in the absence of a concluding portion, you won’t fall prey to the recency effect.

The press office

A press-officer friend recently asked me for pointers on how he could help journalists cover the research institute he now works at better. My response follows:

  1. Avoid the traditional press release format and use something like Axios’s. answer the key questions, nothing more. No self-respecting organisation is going to want to republish press releases. This way also saves you time.
  2. Make scientists from within the institute, especially women, members of minority groups and postdocs, available for comment – whether on their own research or on work by others. This means keeping them available (at certain times if need be) and displaying their contact information.
  3. If you’re going to publish blogs, it would be great if they’re on a CC BY or BY-SA (or even something a little more restrictive like CC BY NC ND) license so that interested news organisations can republish them. If you’re using the ND license, please ensure the copy is clear.
  4. Pictures are often an issue. If you could take some nice pics on your phone and post them on, say, the CC library on Flickr, that would be great. These can be pics of the institute, instruments, labs, important people, events, etc.

If you have inputs/comments for my friend and subscribe to this blog, simply reply to the email in your inbox containing this post and you’ll reach me.

The invitations

First, I was invited to speak at a science communication meeting in X in November. Next, I was invited to host an event at Y around the same date. Then I was invited to speak at Z on the same date. Since I’d already been to a few science communication meetings similar to the one in X, I figured Y was more important, so I declined to come. But when the Z invitation arrived, I found it was more important since it was a national event, so I declined Y. Finally, the Z event’s organisers put me on a manel; when I refused to participate, they rescinded their invitation. Now I was available again but I couldn’t go to X or Y because when I turned them down, I had nominated others in my stead and they had confirmed their participation.

Authority, authoritarianism and a scicomm paradox

I received a sharp reminder to better distinguish between activists and experts irrespective of how right the activists appear to be with the case of Ustad, that tiger shifted from its original habitat in Ranthambore sanctuary to Sajjangarh Zoo in 2015 after it killed three people. Local officials were in favour of the relocation to make life easier for villagers whose livelihoods depended on the forest whereas activists wanted Ustad to be brought back to Ranthambore, citing procedural irregularities, poor living conditions and presuming to know what was best for the animal.

One vocal activist at the agitation’s forefront and to whose suggestions I had deferred when covering this story turned out to be a dentist in Mumbai, far removed from the rural reality that Ustad and the villagers co-habited as well as the opinions and priorities of conservationists about how Ustad should be handled. As I would later find out, almost all experts (excluding the two or three I’d spoken to) agreed Ustad had to be relocated and that doing so wasn’t as big a deal as the activists made it out to be, notwithstanding the irregularities.

I have never treated activists as experts since but many other publications continue to make the same mistake. There are many problems with this false equivalence, including the equation of expertise with amplitude, insofar as it pertains to scientific activity, for example conservation, climate change, etc. Another issue is that activists – especially those who live and work in a different area and who haven’t accrued the day-to-day experiences of those whose rights they’re shouting for – tend to make decisions on principle and disfavour choices motivated by pragmatic thinking.

Second, when some experts join forces with activists to render themselves or their possibly controversial opinions more visible, the journalist’s – and by extension the people’s – road to the truth becomes even more convoluted than it should be. Finally, of course, using activists in place of experts in a story isn’t fair to activists themselves: activism has its place in society, and it would be a disservice to depict activism as something it isn’t.

This alerts us to the challenge of maintaining a balancing act.

One of the trends of the 21st century has been the democratisation of information – to liberate it from technological and economic prisons and make it available and accessible to people who are otherwise unlikely to do so. This in turn has made many people self-proclaimed experts of this or that, from animal welfare to particle physics. And this in turn is mostly good because, in spite of faux expertise and the proliferation of fake news, democratising the availability of information (but not its production; that’s a different story) empowers people to question authority.

Indeed, it’s possible fake news is as big a problem as it is today because many governments and other organisations have deployed it as a weapon against the availability of information and distributed mechanisms to verify it. Information is wealth after all and it doesn’t bode well for authoritarian systems predicated on the centralisation of power to have the answers to most questions available one Google, Sci-Hub or Twitter search away.

The balancing act comes alive in the tension between preserving authority without imposing an authoritarian structure. That is, where do you draw the line?

For example, Eric Balfour isn’t the man you should be listening to to understand how killer whales interpret and exercise freedom (see tweet below); you should be speaking to an animal welfare expert instead. However, the question arises if the expert is hegemon here, furthering an agenda on behalf of the research community to which she belongs by delegitimising knowledge obtained from sources other than her textbooks. (Cf. scientism.)

This impression is solidified when scientists don’t speak up, choosing to remain within their ivory towers, and weakened when they do speak up. This isn’t to say all scientists should also be science communicators – that’s a strawman – but that all scientists should be okay with sharing their comments with the press with reasonable preconditions.

In India, for example, very, very few scientists engage freely with the press and the people, and even fewer speak up against the government when the latter misfires (which is often). Without dismissing the valid restrictions and reservations that some of them have – including not being able to trust many journalists to know how science works – it’s readily apparent that the number of scientists who do speak up is minuscule relative to the number of scientists who can.

An (English-speaking) animal welfare expert is probably just as easy to find in India as they might be in the US but consider palaeontologists or museologists, who are harder to find in India (sometimes you don’t realise that until you’re looking for a quote). When they don’t speak up – to journalists, even if not of their own volition – during a controversy, even as they also assert that only they can originate true expertise, the people are left trapped in a paradox, sometimes even branded fools to fall for fake news. But you can’t have it both ways, right?

These issues stem from two roots: derision and ignorance, both of science communication.

Of the scientists endowed with sufficient resources (including personal privilege and wealth): some don’t want to undertake scicomm, some don’t know enough to make a decision about whether to undertake scicomm, and some wish to undertake scicomm. Of these, scientists of the first type, who actively resist communicating research – whether theirs or others, believing it to be a lesser or even undesirable enterprise – wish to perpetuate their presumed authority and their authoritarian ‘reign’ by hoarding their knowledge. They are responsible for the derision.

These people are responsible at least in part for the emergence of Balfouresque activists: celebrity-voices that amplify issues but wrongly, with or without the support of larger organisations, often claiming to question the agenda of an unholy union of scientists and businesses, alluding to conspiracies designed to keep the general populace from asking too many questions, and ultimately secured by the belief that they’re fighting authoritarian systems and not authority itself.

Scientists of the second type, who are unaware of why science communication exists and its role in society, are obviously the ignorant.

For example, when scientists from the UK had a paper published in 2017 about the Sutlej river’s connection to the Indus Valley civilisation, I reached out to two geoscientists for comment, after having ascertained that they weren’t particularly busy or anything. Neither had replied after 48 hours, not even with a ‘no’. So I googled “fluvio-deltaic morphology”, picked the first result that was a university webpage and emailed the senior-most scientist there. This man, Maarten Kleinhans at the University of Utrecht, wrote back almost immediately and in detail. One of the two geoscientists wrote me a month later: “Please check carefully, I am not an author of the paper.”

More recently, the 2018 Young Investigators’ Meet in Guwahati included a panel discussion on science communication (of which I was part). After fielding questions from the audience – mostly from senior scientists already convinced of the need for good science communication, such as B.K. Thelma and Roop Malik – and breaking for tea, another panelist and I were mobbed by young biologists completely baffled as to why journalists wanted to interrogate scientific papers when that’s exactly why peer-review exists.

All of this is less about fighting quacks bearing little to no burden of proof and more about responding to the widespread and cheap availability of information. Like it or not, science communication is here to stay because it’s one of the more credible ways to suppress the undesirable side-effects of implementing and accessing a ‘right to information’ policy paradigm. Similarly, you can’t have a right to information together with a right to withhold information; the latter has to be defined in the form of exceptions to the former. Otherwise, prepare for activism to replace expertise.

Review: ‘Mission Mangal’ (2019)

This review assumes Tanul Thakur’s review as a preamble.

There’s the argument that ISRO isn’t doing much by way of public outreach and trust in the media is at a low, and for many people – more than the most reliable sections of the media can possibly cover – Bollywood’s Mission Mangal could be the gateway to the Indian space programme. That we shouldn’t dump on the makers of Mission Mangal for setting up an ISRO-based script and Bollywoodifying it because the prerogative is theirs and it is not a mistake to have fictionalised bits of a story that was inspirational in less sensationalist ways.

And then there is the argument that Bollywood doesn’t function in a vacuum – indeed, anything but – and that it should respond responsibly to society’s problems by ensuring its biographical fare, at least, maintains a safe distance from problematic sociopolitical attitudes. That while creative freedom absolves artists of the responsibility to be historians, there’s such a thing as not making things worse, especially through an exercise of the poetic license that is less art and more commerce.

The question is: which position does Mission Mangal justify over the other?

I went into the cinema hall fully expecting the movie to be shite, but truth be told, Mission Mangal hangs in a trishanku swarga between the worlds of ‘not bad’ and ‘good’. The good parts don’t excuse the bad parts and the bad parts don’t drag the good parts down with them. To understand how, let’s start with the line between fact and fiction.

Mission Mangal‘s science communication is pretty good. As a result of the movie’s existence, thousands more people know about the gravitational slingshot (although the puri analogy did get a bit strained), line-of-sight signal transmission, solar-sailing and orbital capture now. Thousands more kind-of know the sort of questions scientists and engineers have to grapple with when designing and executing missions, although it would pay to remain wary of oversimplification. Indeed, thousands more also know – hopefully, at least – why some journalists’ rush to find and pin blame at the first hint of failure seems more rabid than stringent. This much is good.

However, almost everyone I managed to eavesdrop on believed the whole movie to be true whereas the movie’s own disclaimer at the start clarified that the movie was a fictionalised account for entertainment only. This is a problem because Mission Mangal also gets its science wrong in many places, almost always for dramatic effect. For just four examples: the PSLV is shown as a two-stage rocket instead of as a four-stage rocket; the Van Allen belt is depicted as a debris field instead of as a radiation belt; solar radiation pressure didn’t propel the Mars Orbiter Mission probe on its interplanetary journey; and its high-gain antenna isn’t made of a self-healing material.

More importantly, Mission Mangal gets the arguably more important circumstances surrounding the science all wrong. This is potentially more damaging.

There’s a lot of popular interest in space stuff in India these days. One big reason is that ISRO has undertaken a clump of high-profile missions that have made for easy mass communication. For example, it’s easier to sell why Chandrayaan 2 is awesome than to sell the AstroSat or the PSLV’s fourth-stage orbital platform. However, Mission Mangal sells the Mars Orbiter Mission by fictionalising different things about it to the point of being comically nationalistic.

The NASA hangover is unmistakable and unmistakably terrible. Mission Mangal‘s villain, so to speak, is a senior scientist of Indian origin from NASA who doesn’t want the Mars Orbiter Mission to succeed – so much so that the narrative often comes dangerously close to justifying the mission in terms of showing this man up. In fact, there are two instances when the movie brazenly crosses the line: to show up NASA Man, and once where the mission is rejustified in terms of beating China to be the first Asian country to have a probe in orbit around Mars. This takes away from the mission’s actual purpose: to be a technology-demonstrator, period.

This brings us to the next issue. Mission Mangal swings like a pendulum between characterising the mission as one of science and as one of technology. The film’s scriptwriters possibly conflated the satellite design and rocket launch teams for simplicity’s sake, but that has also meant Mission Mangal often pays an inordinate amount of attention towards the mission’s science goals, which weren’t very serious to begin with.

This is a problem because it’s important to remember that the Mars Orbiter Mission wasn’t a scientific mission. This also shows itself when the narrative quietly, and successfully, glosses over the fact that the mission probe was designed to fit a smaller rocket, and whose launch was undertaken at the behest of political as much as technological interests, instead of engineers building the rocket around the payload, as might have been the case if this had been a scientific mission.

Future scientific missions need to set a higher bar about what they’re prepared to accomplish – something many of us easily forget in the urge to thump our chests over the low cost. Indeed, Mission Mangal celebrates this as well without once mentioning the idea of frugal engineering, and all this accomplishes is to cast us as a people who make do, and our space programme as not hungering for big budgets.

This, in turn, brings us to the third issue. What kind of people are we? What is this compulsion to go it alone, and what is this specious sense of shame about borrowing technologies and mission designs from other countries that have undertaken these missions before us? ‘Make in India’ may make sense with sectors like manufacturing or fabrication but whence the need to vilify asking for a bit of help? Mission Mangal takes this a step further when the idea to use a plastic-aluminium composite for the satellite bus is traced to a moment of inspiration: that ISRO could help save the planet by using up its plastic. It shouldn’t have to be so hard to be a taker, considering ISRO did have NASA’s help in real-life, but the movie precludes such opportunities by erecting NASA as ISRO’s enemy.

But here’s the thing: When the Mars Orbiter Mission probe achieved orbital capture at Mars at the film’s climax, it felt great and not in a jingoistic way, at least not obviously so. I wasn’t following the lyrics of the background track and I have been feeling this way about missions long before the film came along, but it wouldn’t be amiss to say the film succeeded on this count.

It’s hard to judge Mission Mangal by adding points for the things it got right and subtracting points for the things it didn’t because, holistically, I am unable to shake off the feeling that I am glad this movie got made, at least from the PoV of a mediaperson that frequently reports on the Indian space progragge. Mission Mangal is a good romp, thanks in no small part to Vidya Balan (and as Pradeep Mohandas pointed out in his review, no thanks to the scriptwriters’ as well as Akshay Kumar’s mangled portrayal of how a scientist at ISRO behaves.)

I’m sure there’s lots to be said for the depiction of its crew of female scientists as well but I will defer to the judgment of smarter people on this one. For example, Rajvi Desai’s review in The Swaddle notes that the women scientists in the film, with the exception of Balan, are only shown doing superfluous things while Kumar gets to have all the smart ideas. Tanisha Bagchi writes in The Quint that the film has its women fighting ludicrous battles in an effort to portray them as being strong.

Ultimately, Mission Mangal wouldn’t have been made if not for the nationalism surrounding it – the nationalism bestowed of late upon the Indian space programme by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the profitability bestowed upon nationalism by the business-politics nexus. It is a mess but – without playing down its problematic portrayal of women and scientists – the film is hardly the worst thing to come of it.

In fact, if you are yet to watch the film but are going to, try imagining you are in the late 1990s and that Mission Mangal is a half-gritty, endearing-in-parts sci-fi flick about a bunch of Hindi-speaking people in Bangalore trying to launch a probe to Mars. However, if you – like me – are unable to leave reality behind, watch it, enjoy it, and then fact-check it.

Miscellaneous remarks

  1. Mission Mangal frequently attempts to assuage the audience that it doesn’t glorify Hinduism but these overtures are feeble compared to the presence of a pundit performing religious rituals within the Mission Control Centre itself. Make no mistake, this is a Hindu film.
  2. Akshay Kumar makes a not-so-eccentric entrance but there is a noticeable quirk about him that draws the following remark from a colleague: “These genius scientists are always a little crazy.” It made me sit up because these exact words have been used to exonerate the actions of scientists who sexually harassed women – all the way from Richard Feynman (by no means the first) to Lawrence Krauss (by no means the last).

Anil Ananthaswamy in conversation with Anita Nair

I attended an event at the Bangalore International Centre yesterday, Anita Nair in conversation with Anil Ananthaswamy about narrative non-fiction. Anil spoke for 45-55 minutes about what it was like to write his first book, The Edge of Physics (2010), and the different kinds of decisions he had to make as the narrator to keep the book interesting and engaging. Then Anita and Anil had a conversation for 30 minutes about the challenges of constructing narratives in fiction and non-fiction, followed by a short Q&A.

I quite enjoyed the evening because, though it was the third or maybe fourth time I have heard Anil speak about his books, the highlight every time has been the questions people have asked about them and his answers. This occasion was no different; in fact, Anita – who is an accomplished writer of fiction (whose books have been translated into 31 languages, as I and others in the audience discovered yesterday) – was particularly engaging. She was able to focus on the differences and the overlaps between the two kinds of exercises that I personally found illuminating.

The following are some of my notes from their conversation, together with my takes:

§ When Anita asked Anil how he chooses what to write, he said his decisions are almost always driven by curiosity. I thought that is a wonderful place to be in if you are a non-fiction writer: to have the liberty to pursue the stories that interest you, beyond considerations of marketability and the economics of feature-publishing. Anil has been a science journalist for two decades and there is little surprise as to how he got to this place. Nonetheless, his comment merits thinking about how writers and journalists balance the pull of their curiosity with the push(back) of the more pragmatic aspects of their vocation.

§ A quote about science writing from Tim Bradford, former science editor of The Guardian, that Anil recalled: “Never overestimate what the reader knows, never underestimate the reader’s intelligence”. In other words, the difference between you and your readers is simply the amount of information; if presented right, they likely possess the cognitive and intellectual faculties to process it.

§ Anil mentioned (in response to an audience-member’s question, I think) that all three of his books are geared towards making the reader understand what the major unanswered questions (in the respective fields: cosmology, neuroscience, quantum mechanics) are and aren’t concerned with providing a resolution at the end. He had already mentioned towards the close of his talk that he is principally concerned with the bigger picture and getting a grip on where we all come from, etc., but I have never asked him if he consciously set out to write books like this or if the books simply reflect his own curiosity-driven pursuit to understand our universe, so to speak.

Edit: I asked him over email and he said, “I think it’s more a reflection of my own pursuit – the topics that interest me seem to be those for which we are at the cusp of some understanding.”

§ Through Two Doors At Once, Anil’s third book, tracks how our understanding of quantum mechanics evolved by examining multiple iterations of a single experiment created over 200 years ago. Late last year, I prepared to excerpt a few pages from the book for The Wire Science when I realised that this was harder to do the farther I got away from the first chapter (final excerpt here). This was because of the book’s extremely linear narrative; the superlative is warranted because each chapter builds on concepts carefully erected in the previous one, so it would have been nearly impossible for you to start the book from the tenth chapter and understand what was going on. This is partly due to the counterintuitive and complicated nature of quantum mechanics and partly to the author’s decision to frame the narrative around one experiment.

Anil pointed out yesterday that this was in contrast to both The Edge of Physics and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2016), his second book, which follow what I like to call the radial narrative: each chapter begins at the centre of a circle and moves along the radius towards the circumference. But the next chapter doesn’t begin at the circumference; it begins at the centre again, reasserting the theme of the book and moving along another tack to a different point on the circumference. This way, it is possible for the reader to open the book on chapter 10 and understand what is going on; the author is less railroaded and has more room to explore different interpretations of the book’s theme; and editors like me have more portions to consider excerpting from.

§ My favourite part of the conversation was when Anita and Anil were springboarding off of the ideas discussed in his second book, The Man Who Wasn’t There, which examines how – to rephrase Anil – the body and the mind work together to construct the sense of self. Anil does this with a quest through different neurocognitive conditions that affect the mind in unique ways, providing insights into where the person’s sense of ‘I’ could be located in the brain.

I should mention here that this was an interesting passage of conversation but, for the same reason, one in which my neurons were going berserk and I don’t clearly remember how one part connected to another now. However, I do know that the following things were discussed:

  • Anita said that this journey of discovery (in Anil’s book) parallels her own when she is writing a novel. As the work of writing the book progresses, Anita the author gets more and more into the character’s skin so that she can write convincingly about the character’s actions and motivations. However, this process can be uniquely painful when the character molests a child, for example; according to Anita, it felt worse when she was able to make the transition from herself to her character, the child-molester, and slip back out almost effortlessly.
  • This was related to a question about the narrative growing its own legs and, every now and then, leading the author away in unintended directions. Anil said that in his case, it was a factor of how much reporting he had done. That is, the more knowledge and perspectives he had available, the more ideas he could explore in the same story. He also said that such narrative drift (my words) is more likely to happen in fiction than in non-fiction.

This is fascinating. It probably happens more with fiction because the rationale is that it is easier to invent than to infer, and because reality offers to railroad the author in non-fiction. However, narrative drift may not necessarily be more likely in fiction-writing. This is because, in my view, fiction also places a bigger premium on the author’s self-imposed limitations on inventiveness, since Occam’s razor applies equally to both forms of writing. And with fiction, unrestrained inventiveness imposes a greater cost on the story’s readability and even interestingness than unrestrained inference imposes on non-fiction-writing. I am curious to know, therefore, the different causes of narrative drift in fiction and (long-form) non-fiction – assuming there are differences – and how much time authors spend working against them.

Next courses of action: Read The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Cut-Like Wound.