Why scientists should read more

The amount of communicative effort to describe the fact of a ball being thrown is vanishingly low. It’s as simple as saying, “X threw the ball.” It takes a bit more effort to describe how an internal combustion engine works – especially if you’re writing for readers who have no idea how thermodynamics works. However, if you spend enough time, you can still completely describe it without compromising on any details.

Things start to get more difficult when you try to explain, for example, how webpages are loaded in your browser: because the technology is more complicated and you often need to talk about electric signals and logical computations – entities that you can’t directly see. You really start to max out when you try to describe everything that goes into launching a probe from Earth and landing it on a comet because, among other reasons, it brings together advanced ideas in a large number of fields.

At this point, you feel ambitious and you turn your attention to quantum technologies – only to realise you’ve crossed a threshold into a completely different realm of communication, a realm in which you need to pick between telling the whole story and risk being (wildly) misunderstood OR swallowing some details and making sure you’re entirely understood.

Last year, a friend and I spent dozens of hours writing a 1,800-word article explaining the Aharonov-Bohm quantum interference effect. We struggled so much because understanding this effect – in which electrons are affected by electromagnetic fields that aren’t there – required us to understand the wave-function, a purely mathematical object that describes real-world phenomena, like the behaviour of some subatomic particles, and mathematical-physical processes like non-Abelian transformations. Thankfully my friend was a physicist, a string theorist for added measure; but while this meant that I could understand what was going on, we spent a considerable amount of time negotiating the right combination of metaphors to communicate what we wanted to communicate.

However, I’m even more grateful in hindsight that my friend was a physicist who understood the need to not exhaustively include details. This need manifests in two important ways. The first is the simpler, grammatical way, in which we construct increasingly involved meanings using a combination of subjects, objects, referrers, referents, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, gerunds, etc. The second way is more specific to science communication: in which the communicator actively selects a level of preexisting knowledge on the reader’s part – say, high-school education at an English-medium institution – and simplifies the slightly more complicated stuff while using approximations, metaphors and allusions to reach for the mind-boggling.

Think of it like building an F1 racecar. It’s kinda difficult if you already have the engine, some components to transfer kinetic energy through the car and a can of petrol. It’s just ridiculous if you need to start with mining iron ore, extracting oil and preparing a business case to conduct televisable racing sports. In the second case, you’re better off describing what you’re trying to do to the caveman next to you using science fiction, maybe poetry. The problem is that to really help an undergraduate student of mechanical engineering make sense of, say, the Casimir effect, I’d rather say:

According to quantum mechanics, a vacuum isn’t completely empty; rather, it’s filled with quantum fluctuations. For example, if you take two uncharged plates and bring them together in a vacuum, only quantum fluctuations with wavelengths shorter than the distance between the plates can squeeze between them. Outside the plates, however, fluctuations of all wavelengths can fit. The energy outside will be greater than inside, resulting in a net force that pushes the plates together.

‘Quantum Atmospheres’ May Reveal Secrets of Matter, Quanta, September 2018

I wouldn’t say the following even though it’s much less wrong:

The Casimir effect can be understood by the idea that the presence of conducting metals and dielectrics alters the vacuum expectation value of the energy of the second-quantised electromagnetic field. Since the value of this energy depends on the shapes and positions of the conductors and dielectrics, the Casimir effect manifests itself as a force between such objects.

Casimir effect, Wikipedia

Put differently, the purpose of communication is to be understood – not learnt. And as I’m learning these days, while helping virologists compose articles on the novel coronavirus and convincing physicists that comparing the Higgs field to molasses isn’t wrong, this difference isn’t common knowledge at all. More importantly, I’m starting to think that my physicist-friend who really got this difference did so because he reads a lot. He’s a veritable devourer of texts. So he knows it’s okay – and crucially why it’s okay – to skip some details.

I’m half-enraged when really smart scientists just don’t get this, and accuse editors (like me) of trying instead to misrepresent their work. (A group that’s slightly less frustrating consists of authors who list their arguments in one paragraph after another, without any thought for the article’s structure and – more broadly – recognising the importance of telling a story. Even if you’re reviewing a book or critiquing a play, it’s important to tell a story about the thing you’re writing about, and not simply enumerate your points.)

To them – which is all of them because those who think they know the difference but really don’t aren’t going to acknowledge the need to bridge the difference, and those who really know the difference are going to continue reading anyway – I say: I acknowledge that imploring people to communicate science more without reading more is fallacious, so read more, especially novels and creative non-fiction, and stories that don’t just tell stories but show you how we make and remember meaning, how we memorialise human agency, how memory works (or doesn’t), and where knowledge ends and wisdom begins.

There’s a similar problem I’ve faced when working with people for whom English isn’t the first language. Recently, a person used to reading and composing articles in the passive voice was livid after I’d changed numerous sentences in the article they’d submitted to the active voice. They really didn’t know why writing, and reading, in the active voice is better because they hadn’t ever had to use English for anything other than writing and reading scientific papers, where the passive voice is par for the course.

I had a bigger falling out with another author because I hadn’t been able to perfectly understand the point they were trying to make, in sentences of broken English, and used what I could infer to patch them up – except I was told I’d got most of them wrong. And they couldn’t implement my suggestions either because they couldn’t understand my broken Hindi.

These are people that I can’t ask to read more. The Wire and The Wire Science publish in English but, despite my (admittedly inflated) view of how good these publications are, I’ve no reason to expect anyone to learn a new language because they wish to communicate their ideas to a large audience. That’s a bigger beast of a problem, with tentacles snaking through colonialism, linguistic chauvinism, regional identities, even ideologies (like mine – to make no attempts to act on instructions, requests, etc. issued in Hindi even if I understand the statement). But at the same time there’s often too much lost in translation – so much so that (speaking from my experience in the last five years) 50% of all submissions written by authors for whom English isn’t the first language don’t go on to get published, even if it was possible for either party to glimpse during the editing process that they had a fascinating idea on their hands.

And to me, this is quite disappointing because one of my goals is to publish a more diverse group of writers, especially from parts of the country underrepresented thus far in the national media landscape. Then again, I acknowledge that this status quo axiomatically charges us to ensure there are independent media outlets with science sections and publishing in as many languages as we need. A monumental task as things currently stand, yes, but nonetheless, we remain charged.

Clarity and soundness

I feel a lot of non-science editors just switch off when they read science stuff.

A friend told me this earlier today, during yet another conversation about how many of the editorial issues that assail science and health journalism have become more pronounced during the pandemic (by dint of the pandemic being a science and health ‘event’). Even earlier, editors would switch off whenever they’d read science news, but then the news would usually be about a new study discussing something coffee could or couldn’t do to the heart.

While that’s worrying, the news was seldom immediately harmful, and lethal even more rarely. In a pandemic, on the other hand, bullshit that makes it to print hurts in two distinct ways: by making things harder for good health journalists to get through to readers with the right information and emphases, and of course by encouraging readers to do things that might harm them.

But does this mean editors need to know the ins and outs of the subject on which they’re publishing articles? This might seem like a silly question to ask but it’s often the reality in small newsrooms in India, where one editor is typically in charge of three or four beats at a time. And setting aside the argument that this arrangement is a product of complacency and not taking science news seriously more than resource constraints, it’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

For example, a political editor may not be able to publish incisive articles on, say, developments in the art world, but they could still help by identifying reliable news sources and tap their network to commission the right reporters. And if the organisation spends a lot more time covering political news, and with more depth, this arrangement is arguably preferable from a business standpoint.

Of course, such a setup is bound to be error-prone, but my contention is that it doesn’t deserve to be written off either, especially this year – when more than a few news publishers suddenly found themselves in the middle of a pandemic even as they couldn’t hire a health editor because their revenues were on the decline.

For their part, then, publishers can help minimise errors by being clear about what editors are expected to do. For example, a newsroom can’t possibly do a great job of covering science developments in the country without a science editor; axiomatically, non-science editors can only be expected to do a superficial job of standing in for a science editor.

This said, the question still stands: What are editors to do specifically, especially those suddenly faced with the need to cover a topic they’re only superficially familiar with? The answer to this question is important not just to help editors but also to maintain accountability. For example, though I’ve seldom covered health stories in the past, I also don’t get to throw my hands up as The Wire‘s science, health and environment editor when I publish a faulty story about, say, COVID-19. It is a bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, but it’s not entirely unfair either: it’s the pandemic, and The Wire can’t not cover it!

In these circumstances, I’ve found one particular way to mitigate the risk of damnation, so to speak, quite effective. I recently edited an article in which the language of a paragraph seemed off to me because it wasn’t clear what the author was trying to say, and I kept pushing him to clarify. Finally, after 14 emails, we realised he had made a mistake in the calculations, and we dropped that part of the article. More broadly, I’ve found that nine times out of ten, even pushbacks on editorial grounds can help identify and resolve technical issues. If I think the underlying argument has not been explained clearly enough, I send a submission back even if it is scientifically accurate or whatever.

Now, I’m not sure how robust this relationship is in the larger scheme of things. For example, this ‘mechanism’ will obviously fail when clarity of articulation and soundness of argument are not related, such as in the case of authors for whom English is a second language. For another, the omnipresent – and omnipotent – confounding factor known as unknown unknowns could keep me from understanding an argument even when it is well-made, thus putting me at risk of turning down good articles simply because I’m too dense or ignorant.

But to be honest, these risks are quite affordable when the choice is between damnation for an article I can explain and damnation for an article I can’t. I can (and do) improve the filter’s specificity/sensitivity 😄 by reading widely myself, to become less ignorant, and by asking authors to include a brief of 100-150 words in their emails clarifying, among other things, their article’s intended effect on the reader. And fortuitously, when authors are pushed to be clearer about the point they’re making, it seems they also tend to reflect on the parts of their reasoning that lie beyond the language itself.

Journalistic entropy

Say you need to store a square image 1,000 pixels wide to a side with the smallest filesize (setting aside compression techniques). The image begins with the colour #009900 on the left side and, as you move towards the right, gradually blends into #1e1e1e on the rightmost edge. Two simple storage methods come to mind: you could either encode the colour-information of every pixel in a file and store that file, or you could determine a mathematical function that, given the inputs #009900 and #1e1e1e, generates the image in question.

The latter method seems more appealing, especially for larger canvases of patterns that are composed by a single underlying function. In such cases, it should obviously be more advantageous to store the image as an output of a function to achieve the smallest filesize.

Now, in information theory (as in thermodynamics), there is an entity called entropy: it describes the amount of information you don’t have about a system. In our example, imagine that the colour #009900 blends to #1e1e1e from left to right save for a strip along the right edge, say, 50 pixels wide. Each pixel in this strip can assume a random colour. To store this image, you’d have to save it as an addition of two functions: ƒ(x, y), where x = #009900 and y = #1e1e1e, plus one function to colour the pixels lying in the 50-px strip on the right side. Obviously this will increase the filesize of the stored function.

Even more, imagine if you were told that 200,000 pixels out of the 1,000,000 pixels in the image would assume random colours. The underlying function becomes even more clumsy: an addition of ƒ(x, y) and a function R that randomly selects 200,000 pixels and then randomly colours them. The outputs of this function R stands for the information about the image that you can’t have beforehand; the more such information you lack, the more entropy the image is said to have.

The example of the image was simple but sufficiently illustrative. In thermodynamics, entropy is similar to randomness vis-à-vis information: it’s the amount of thermal energy a system contains that can’t be used to perform work. From the point of view of work, it’s useless thermal energy (including heat) – something that can’t contribute to moving a turbine blade, powering a motor or motivating a system of pulleys to lift weights. Instead, it is thermal energy motivated by and directed at other impetuses.

As it happens, this picture could help clarify, or at least make more sense of, a contemporary situation in science journalism. Earlier this week, health journalist Priyanka Pulla discovered that the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had published a press release last month, about the serological testing kit the government had developed, with the wrong specificity and sensitivity data. Two individuals she spoke to, one from ICMR and another from the National Institute of Virology, Pune, which actually developed the kit, admitted the mistake when she contacted them. Until then, neither organisation had issued a clarification even though it was clear both individuals are likely to have known of the mistake at the time the release was published.

Assuming for a moment that this mistake was an accident (my current epistemic state is ‘don’t know’), it would indicate ICMR has been inefficient in the performance of its duties, forcing journalists to respond to it in some way instead of focusing on other, more important matters.

The reason I’m tending to think of such work as entropy and not work per se is such instances, whereby journalists are forced to respond to an event or action characterised by the existence of trivial resolutions, seem to be becoming more common.

It’s of course easier to argue that what I consider trivial may be nontrivial to someone else, and that these events and actions matter to a greater extent than I’m willing to acknowledge. However, I’m personally unable to see beyond the fact that an organisation with the resources and, currently, the importance of ICMR shouldn’t have had a hard time proof-reading a press release that was going to land in the inboxes of hundreds of journalists. The consequences of the mistake are nontrivial but the solution is quite trivial.

(There is another feature in some cases: of the absence of official backing or endorsement of any kind.)

So as such, it required work on the part of journalists that could easily have been spared, allowing journalists to direct their efforts at more meaningful, more productive endeavours. Here are four more examples of such events/actions, wherein the non-triviality is significantly and characteristically lower than that attached to formal announcements, policies, reports, etc.:

  1. Withholding data in papers – In the most recent example, ICMR researchers published the results of a seroprevalence survey of 26,000 people in 65 districts around India, and concluded that the prevalence of the novel coronavirus was 0.73% in this population. However, in their paper, the researchers include neither a district-wise breakdown of the data nor the confidence intervals for each available data-point even though they had this information (it’s impossible to compute the results the researchers did without these details). As a result, it’s hard for journalists to determine how reliable the results are, and whether they really support the official policies regarding epidemic-control interventions that will soon follow.
  2. Publishing faff – On June 2, two senior members of the Directorate General of Health services, within India’s Union health ministry, published a paper (in a journal they edited) that, by all counts, made nonsensical claims about India’s COVID-19 epidemic becoming “extinguished” sometime in September 2020. Either the pair of authors wasn’t aware of their collective irresponsibility or they intended to refocus (putting it benevolently) the attention of various people towards their work, turning them away from the duo deemed embarrassing or whatever. And either way, the claims in the paper wound their way into two news syndication services, PTI and IANS, and eventually onto the pages of a dozen widely-read news publications in the country. In effect, there were two levels of irresponsibility at play: one as embodied by the paper and the other, by the syndication services’ and final publishers’ lack of due diligence.
  3. Making BS announcements – This one is fairly common: a minister or senior party official will say something silly, such as that ancient Indians invented the internet, and ride the waves of polarising debate, rapidly devolving into acrimonious flamewars on Twitter, that follow. I recently read (in The Washington Post I think, but I can’t find the link now) that it might be worthwhile for journalists to try and spend less time on fact-checking a claim than it took someone to come up with that claim. Obviously there’s no easy way to measure the time some claims took to mature into their present forms, but even so, I’m sure most journalists would agree that fact-checking often takes much longer than bullshitting (and then broadcasting). But what makes this enterprise even more grating is that it is orders of magnitude easier to not spew bullshit in the first place.
  4. Conspiracy theories – This is the most frustrating example of the lot because, today, many of the originators of conspiracy theories are television journalists, especially those backed by government support or vice versa. While fully acknowledging the deep-seated issues underlying both media independence and the politics-business-media nexus, numerous pronouncements by so many news anchors have only been akin to shooting ourselves in the foot. Exhibit A: shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the start of demonetisation, a beaming news anchor told her viewers that the new 2,000-rupee notes would be embedded with chips to transmit the notes’ location real-time, via satellite, to operators in Delhi.

Perhaps this entropy – i.e. the amount of journalistic work not available to deal with more important stories – is not only the result of a mischievous actor attempting to keep journalists, and the people who read those journalists, distracted but is also assisted by the manifestation of a whole industry’s inability to cope with the mechanisms of a new political order.

Science journalism itself has already experienced a symptom of this change when pseudoscientific ideas became more mainstream, even entering the discourse of conservative political groups, including that of the BJP. In a previous era, if a minister said something, a reporter was to drum up a short piece whose entire purpose was to record “this happened”. And such reports were the norm and in fact one of the purported roots of many journalistic establishments’ claims to objectivity, an attribute they found not just desirable but entirely virtuous: those who couldn’t be objective were derided as sub-par.

However, if a reporter were to simply report today that a minister said something, she places herself at risk of amplifying bullshit to a large audience if what the minister said was “bullshit bullshit bullshit”. So just as politicians’ willingness to indulge in populism and majoritarianism to the detriment of society and its people has changed, so also must science journalism change – as it already has with many publications, especially in the west – to ensure each news report fact-checks a claim it contains, especially if it is pseudoscientific.

In the same vein, it’s not hard to imagine that journalists are often forced to scatter by the compulsions of an older way of doing journalism, and that they should regroup on the foundations of a new agreement that lets them ignore some events so that they can better dedicate themselves to the coverage of others.

Featured image credit: Татьяна Чернышова/Pexels.

Poor journalism is making it harder for preprints

There have been quite a few statements by various scientists on Twitter who, in pointing to some preprint paper’s untenable claims, point to the manuscript’s identity as a preprint paper as well. This is not fair, as I’ve argued many times before. A big part of the problem here is bad journalism. Bad preprint papers are a problem not because their substance is bad but because people who are not qualified to understand why it is bad read it and internalise its conclusions at face value.

There are dozens of new preprint papers uploaded onto arXiv, medRxiv and bioRxiv every week making controversial arguments and/or arriving at far-fetched conclusions, often patronising to the efforts of the subject’s better exponents. Most of them (at least according to what I know of preprints on arXiv) are debated and laid to rest by scientists familiar with the topics at hand. No non-expert is hitting up arXiv or bioRxiv every morning looking for preprints to go crazy on. The ones that become controversial enough to catch the attention of non-experts have, nine times out of then, been amplified to that effect by a journalist who didn’t suitably qualify the preprint’s claims and simply published it. Suddenly, scores (or more) of non-experts have acquired what they think is refined knowledge, and public opinion thereafter goes against the scientific grain.

Acknowledging that this collection of events is a problem on many levels, which particular event would you say is the deeper one?

Some say it’s the preprint mode of publishing, and when asked for an alternative, demand that the use of preprint servers be discouraged. But this wouldn’t solve the problem. Preprint papers are a relatively new development while ‘bad science’ has been published for a long time. More importantly, preprint papers improve public access to science, and preprints that contain good science do this even better.

To making sweeping statements against the preprint publishing enterprise because some preprints are bad is not fair, especially to non-expert enthusiasts (like journalists, bloggers, students) in developing countries, who typically can’t afford the subscription fees to access paywalled, peer-reviewed papers. (Open-access publishing is a solution too but it doesn’t seem to feature in the present pseudo-debate nor does it address important issues that beset itself as well as paywalled papers.)

Even more, if we admitted that bad journalism is the problem, as it really is, we achieve two things: prevent ‘bad science’ from reaching the larger population and retain access to ‘good science’.

Now, to the finer issue of health- and medicine-related preprints: Yes, acting based on the conclusions of a preprint paper – such as ingesting an untested drug or paying too much attention to an irrelevant symptom – during a health crisis in a country with insufficient hospitals and doctors can prove deadlier than usual. But how on Earth could a person have found that preprint paper, read it well enough to understand what it was saying, and act on its conclusions? (Put this way, a bad journalist could be even more to blame for enabling access to a bad study by translating its claims to simpler language.)

Next, a study published in The Lancet claimed – and thus allowed others to claim by reference – that most conversations about the novel coronavirus have been driven by preprint papers. (An article in Ars Technica on May 6 carried this provocative headline, for example: ‘Unvetted science is fuelling COVID-19 misinformation’.) However, the study was based on only 11 papers. In addition, those who invoke this study in support of arguments directed against preprints often fail to mention the following paragraph, drawn from the same paper:

… despite the advantages of speedy information delivery, the lack of peer review can also translate into issues of credibility and misinformation, both intentional and unintentional. This particular drawback has been highlighted during the ongoing outbreak, especially after the high-profile withdrawal of a virology study from the preprint server bioRxiv, which erroneously claimed that COVID-19 contained HIV “insertions”. The very fact that this study was withdrawn showcases the power of open peer-review during emergencies; the withdrawal itself appears to have been prompted by outcry from dozens of scientists from around the globe who had access to the study because it was placed on a public server. Much of this outcry was documented on Twitter and on longer-form popular science blogs, signalling that such fora would serve as rich additional data sources for future work on the impact of preprints on public discourse. However, instances such as this one described showcase the need for caution when acting upon the science put forth by any one preprint.”

The authors, Maimuna Majumder and Kenneth Mandl, have captured the real problem. Lots of preprints are being uploaded every week and quite a few are rotten. Irrespective of how many do or don’t drive public conversations (especially on the social media), it’s disingenuous to assume this risk by itself suffices to cut access.

Instead, as the scientists write, exercise caution. Instead of spoiling a good thing, figure out a way to improve the reporting habits of errant journalists. Otherwise, remember that nothing stops an irresponsible journalist from sensationalising the level-headed conclusions of a peer-reviewed paper either. All it takes is to quote from a grossly exaggerated university press-release and to not consult with an independent expert. Even opposing preprints with peer-reviewed papers only advances a false balance, comparing preprints’ access advantage to peer-review’s gatekeeping advantage (and even that is on shaky ground).

In conversation with Sree Srinivasan

On May 1, I was hosted on a webinar by the American journalist Sree Srinivasan, along with Anna Isaac of The News Minute and Arunabh Saikia of Scroll.in. As part of his daily show on the COVID-19 crisis, hosted by Scroll.in, Srinivasan hosts a few people working in different areas, and they all chat about what they’re doing and how they’re dealing with everything that’s going on for about an hour. However, our episode, the 50th of the series, was a double feature: the first 60 minutes was a conversation among us journalists, and for the next 50 minutes or so, Srinivasan had on Aseem Chhabra to discuss the lives and work of Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor, who had passed away a few days earlier. The full video is available to view here as well as is embedded below.

I also transcribed the portion of the video where I spoke for two reasons. First, because I’d like to remember what I said, and writing helps me do that. Second, I’m a lousy speaker because I constantly lose my train of thought, and often swallow words that I really should have spoken out loud, often rendering what I’m saying difficult to piece together. So by preparing a transcript, pasted below, I can both clarify what I meant in the video as well as remember what I thought, not just what I said.

How would you grade Indian journalism at the moment, in these last two months, in terms of coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The mainstream English press has been doing okay, I guess, but even then to paint it all with the same brush is very difficult because there are also very different stories to cover at a time like this. For example, many social and political issues are being covered well by specific publications. Some others are addressing different aspects of this.

In fact, if I had to pick out one aspect that I could say we’re not doing enough about is in terms of the science itself. The coronavirus outbreak is a crisis, and a large part of it is rooted in health issues, in scientific issues – much like climate change, antimicrobial resistance, etc. A lot of journalists are doing a good job of covering how this outbreak has impacted our society, our economy, etc. but there’s actually very little going into understanding how the virus really works or how epidemiologists or virologists do what they do.

One easy example is this business of testing kits. There’s a lot of controversy now about the serological tests that ICMR procured, probably at inflated prices, are not very accurate. The thing is, whenever you’re in a crisis like this and somebody’s rapidly developing kits – testing kits or ventilators or anything like that – there is always going to be a higher error rate.

Also, no test is 100% perfect. Every test is error-prone, including false positives and false negatives. But in this rush to make sure everything is covered, most of what is being elided – at least among organisations that are taking the trouble – is the science itself [of how tests are developed, why the errors are unavoidable, etc.]. That’s a significant blindspot.

But on the positive side of it, there is also a heightened awareness now of the need to understand how science works. We’ve been seeing this at The Wire, I don’t know if it applies to other organisations: there is a sort of demand… the engagement with science stories has increased. We’re using this opportunity to push out these stories, but the thing is we’re also hoping that once this pandemic ends and the crisis passes, this appreciation for science will continue, especially among journalists.

Apart from this, I don’t want to attempt any grading.

What is your reaction to the value of data journalism at this time?

The value of charts has been great, and there are lots of charts out there right now, projecting or contrasting different data-points. Just a few days ago we published a piece with something like 60 charts discussing the different rates of testing and positivity in all of India’s states.

But the problem with these charts – and there is a problem, that needs to be acknowledged – is that they tend to focus the conversation on the data itself. The issue with that is that they miss ground realities. [I’m not accusing the charts of stealing the attention so much as giving the impression, or supporting the takeaway, that the numbers being shown are all that matter.]

While data journalism is very important, especially in terms of bringing sense to the lots of numbers floating about, [it also feeds problematic narratives about how numbers are all that matter.] I recently watched this short clip on Twitter in which a bunch of people were crowded at a quarantine centre in Allahabad fighting for food. There was very little food available and I think they were daily-wage labourers. I think there is a lot being said about the value and virtues of data journalism and visualisations but I don’t think there is much being said at all – but definitely needs to be – about how data can’t ever describe the full picture.

Especially in India, and we’ve seen this recently with the implementation of the Aadhaar programme as well: even if your success rate with something is as high as 99%, 1% of India’s population is still millions of people [and it’s no coincidence that they already belong to the margins of society.] And this is something I’ve thus far not seen data stories capture. Numbers are good to address the big picture but they’ve been effectively counterproductive during this crisis in terms of distracting from the ground stories. [So even the best charts can only become the best stories if they’re complemented with some reporting.]

The Wire compiled a list of books to read during the lockdown, with recommendations by its staff. You recommended Dune by Frank Herbert. Why?

Dune to me was an obvious choice for [three] reasons. One is that Dune is set on a planet where you already see life in extremes, especially with the tribe of the Fremen, who play an important role in the plot. What really stayed with me about that book was its sort of mystic environmentalism, about how humans and nature are connected. The book explores this in a long-winded way, but that’s something we’ve seen a lot of these days in terms of zoonoses – [pathogens] that jump from animals to humans.

There’s also a lot of chatter these days about killing bats because they host coronaviruses. But all of that is rubbish. Humans are very deeply responsible for this crisis we’ve brought on ourselves in many ways.

This also alludes to what Anna Isaac mentioned earlier: what do you mean by normal? Yes, life probably will return to normal in India’s green zones next week, but the thing is, once this crisis ends, there’s still climate change, antimicrobial resistance and environmental degradation awaiting us that will bring on more epidemics and pandemics. Ecologists who have written for us have discussed this concept called ‘One Health’, where you don’t just discuss your health in terms of your body or your immediate environment but also in terms of your wider environment – at the ecosystem level.

Dune I think is a really good example of sci-fi that captures such an idea. And Dune is also special because it’s sci-fi, which helps us escape from our reality better, because sci-fi is both like and unlike.

The third reason it’s special is because the movie adaptation is coming out later this year, so it’s good to be ready. 😀

[When asked for closing remarks…]

When I started out being a journalist, I was quite pissed off that there wasn’t much going on in terms of the science coverage in India. So my favourite stories to write in the last eight years I’ve been a journalist have been about making a strong point about a lot of knowledge being out there in the world that seems like it’s not of immediate benefit or use [but is knowledge – and therefore worth knowing – nonetheless]. That’s how I started off being a science journalist.

My forte is writing about high-energy physics and astrophysics. Those are the stories I’ve really enjoyed covering and that’s the sort of thing that’s also lacking at the moment in the Indian journalism landscape – and that’s also the sort of coverage of science news we wanted to bring into the pandemic.

Here, I should mention that The Wire is trying to build what we hope will be the country’s first fully reader-funded, independent science news website. We launched it in February. We really want to put something together like the Scientific American of India. You can support that by donating at thewire.in/support. This is really a plea to support us to go after stories that we haven’t seen many others cover in India at the moment.

Right now, most stories are about the coronavirus outbreak but as we go ahead, we’d like to focus more and more on two areas: science/society and pure research, stuff that we’re finding out but not talking about probably because we think it’s of no use to us [but really that’s true only because we haven’t zoomed out enough].

The journalist as expert

I recently turned down some requests for interviews because the topics of discussion in each case indicated that I would be treated as a scientist, not a science journalist (something that happened shortly after the Balakot airstrikes and the ASAT test as well). I suspect science and more so health journalists are being seen as important sources of information at this crucial time for four reasons (in increasing order of importance, at least as I see it):

1. We often have the latest information – This is largely self-explanatory except for the fact that since we discover a lot of information first-hand, often from researchers to whom the context in which the information is valid may be obvious but who may not communicate that, we also have a great responsibility to properly contextualise what we know before dissemination. Many of us do, many of us don’t, but either way both groups come across as being informed to their respective audiences.

2. We’re “temporary experts”.

3. We’re open to conversations when others aren’t – I can think of a dozen experts who could replace me in the interviews I described and do a better job of communicating the science and more importantly the uncertainty. However, a dozen isn’t a lot, and journalists and any other organisations committed to spreading awareness are going to be hard-pressed to find new voices. At this time, science/health journalists could be seen as stand-in experts: we’re up-to-date, we’re (largely) well-versed with the most common issues, and unlike so many experts we’re often willing to talk.

4. It would seem journalists are the only members of society who are synthesising different schools of thought, types of knowledge and stories of ground realities into an emergent whole. This is a crucial role and, to be honest, I was quite surprised no one else is doing this – until I realised the problem. Our scholastic and academic systems may have disincentivised such holism, choosing instead to pursue more and more specialised and siloised paths. But even then the government should be bringing together different pieces of the big picture, and putting them together to design multifaceted policies and inventions, but isn’t doing so. So journalists could be seen as the only people who are.

Now, given these reasons, is treating journalists as experts so bad?

It’s really not, actually. Journalism deserves more than to be perceived as an adjacent enterprise – something that attaches itself on to a mature substrate of knowledge instead of being part of the substrate itself. There are some journalists who have insightfully combined, say, what they know about scientific publishing with what they know about research funding to glimpse a bigger picture still out of reach of many scientists. There is certainly a body of knowledge that cannot be derived from the first principles of each of its components alone, and which journalists are uniquely privileged to discover. I also know of a few journalists who are better committed to evidence and civic duty than many scientists, in turn producing knowledge of greater value. Finally, insofar as knowledge is also produced through the deliberate opposition of diverse perspectives, journalists contribute every time they report on a preprint paper, bringing together multiple independent experts – sometimes from different fields – to comment on the paper’s merits and demerits.

But there are some issues on the flip side. For example, not all knowledge is emergent in this way, and more importantly journalists make for poor experts on average when what we don’t know is as important as what we know. And when lives are at stake, anyone who is being invited to participate in an interview, panel discussion or whatever should consider – even if the interviewer hasn’t – whether what they say could cause harm, and if they can withstand any social pressure to not be seen to be ignorant and say “I don’t know” when warranted. And even then, there can be very different implications depending on whether it’s a journalist or an expert saying “I don’t know”.

Even more importantly, journalists need to be recognised in their own right, instead of being hauled into the limelight as quasi-experts instead of as people who practice a craft of their own. This may seem like a minor issue of perception but it’s important to maintain the distinction between the fourth estate and other enterprises lest journalism’s own responsibilities become subsumed by those of the people and organisations journalists write about or – worse yet – lest they are offset by demands that society has been unable to meet in other ways. If a virologist can’t be found for an interview, a journalist is a barely suitable replacement, except if the conversation is going to be sharply focused on specific issues the journalist is very familiar with, but even then it’s not the perfect solution.

If a virologist or a holist (as in the specific way mentioned above) can’t be found, the ideal way forward would be to look harder for another virologist or holist, and in doing so come up against the unique challenges to accessing expertise in India. In this regard, if journalists volunteer themselves as substitutes, they risk making excuses for a problem they actually needed to be highlighting.

Avoiding ‘muddled science’ in the newsroom

On April 23, I was part of a webinar called ProtoCall, organised by Pro.to with the support of International Centre for Journalists and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. It happens once a week and is hosted by Ameya Nagarajan and Nayantara Narayanan. Every week there’s a theme which, together with the discussion around it, is picked to help non-science and non-health journalists cover the coronavirus pandemic. The session before the one I was part of discussed the role of data, the gaps in data and how journalists could help fill them. My session was entitled ‘How muddled science drives misinformation’, and my fellow panelists were Shruti Muralidhar and Shahid Jameel, neither of whom should need introduction on the pages of this blog.

Given a brief ahead of the session (available to read here), I prepared some notes for the conversation and which I’m pasting below in full. Note that the conversation itself panned out differently (as military historians have noted, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”), so you could watch the full video if you’re interested or read the transcript when it comes out. Both Shruti and Dr Jameel made some great points throughout the conversation, plus the occasional provocative opinion (by myself as well).

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1. Science journalists should continue to do what we’ve always had to do — empower our readers to decide for themselves based on what data they have available. Yes, this is a slow process, and yes, it’s tedious, but we shouldn’t have to adopt radical tactics now just because we haven’t been doing our job properly before. Introduce the relevant concept, theories, hypotheses, etc. as well as introduce how scientists evaluate data and keeping what in mind.

I can think of at least three doctors I’ve spoken to recently – all three of very good standing in the medical research community, and one is pro-lockdown, one is anti-lockdown, and one argues that there’s a time and place to impose a lockdown. This is a new virus for everybody and there is disagreement between doctors as well. But this doesn’t imply that some doctors are motivated by ideologies or whatever. It means the story here is that doctors disagree, period.

2. Because this is a new disease for everybody, be skeptical of every result, especially those that claim 100% certainty. No matter what anyone says, the only thing you can know with 100% certainty is that you cannot know anything with 100% certainty. This is a pandemic and suddenly everyone is interested in what scientific studies have to say, because people are desperately looking for hope and there will be a high uptake for positive news – no matter how misinformed or misguided.

But before everyone was interested in scientific studies, it was always the case that results from tests and experiments and such were never 100% accurate. They all had error rates, they were all contingent on replication studies, they were and are all works in progress. So no matter what a study says, you can very safely assume it has a caveat or a shortcoming, or a specific, well-defined context in which it is true, and you need to go looking for it.

3. It’s okay to take time to check results. At a time of such confusion and more importantly heightened risk, misinformation can kill. So take your time, speak to doctors and scientists. Resisting the pressure to publish quickly is important. If you’re on a hard deadline, be as conservative in your language as possible, just go with the facts – but then even facts are not entirely harmless. There are different facts pointing to different possibilities.

Amitabh Joshi said a couple years back at a talk that science is not about facts but about interpreting collections of facts. And scientists often differ because they’re interpreting different groups of facts to explain trends in the data. Which also means expertise is not a straightforward affair, especially in the face of new threats.

4. Please become comfortable saying “I don’t know”. I think those are some of the most important words these days. Too many people – especially many celebrities – think that the opposite of ‘true’ is ‘false’ and that the opposite of ‘false’ is ‘true’. But actually there’s a no man’s land in between called ‘I don’t know’, which stands for claims, data, etc. that we haven’t yet been able to verify yet.

Amitabh Bachchan recently recorded a video suggesting that the coronavirus is transmitted via human faeces and by flies that move between that faecal matter and nearby food items. The thing is, we don’t know if this is true. There have been some studies but obviously they didn’t specifically study what Amitabh Bachchan claimed. But saying ‘I don’t know’ here wouldn’t mean that the opposite of what Bachchan said is true. It would mean Bachchan was wrong to ascribe certainty to a claim that doesn’t presently deserve that certainty. And when you say you don’t know, please don’t attach caveats to a claim saying ‘it may be true’ or ‘it may be false’.

We need to get comfortable saying ‘we don’t know’ because then that’s how we know we need more research, and even that we need to support scientists, etc.

5. Generally beware of averages. Averages have a tendency to flatten the data, which is not good when regional differences matter.

6. Has there been a lot of science journalism of the pandemic in India? I’m not sure. A lot of explanations have come forth as background to larger stories about the technology, sampling/testing methods, governance, rights, etc. But I’ve seen very little of the mathematics, of the biology and research into the virus as such.

I don’t think this is a problem of access to scientists or availability of accessible material, which to my mind are secondary issues, especially from journalists’ point of view. Yes, you need to be able to speak to doctors and medical researchers, and many of them are quite busy these days and their priorities are very different. But also many, many scientists are sitting at home because of the lockdown and many of them are keen to help.

To me, it’s more a problem of journalists not knowing which questions to ask. For example, unless you know that something called a cytokine storm exists, to you it remains an unknown-unknown. So the bigger issue for me is that journalists shouldn’t expect to do a good job covering this crisis without knowing the underlying science. A cytokine storm is one example, but I’d say not many journalists are asking more important questions, from my point of view, about statistical methods, clinical trials, scientific publishing, etc. and I suspect it’s because they’re not aware these issues exist.

If you want to cover the health aspects like a seasoned health journalist would, there are obviously other things you’re going to have to familiarise yourself with, like pharmaceutical policy, clinical trials, how diseases are tracked, hospital administration, etc.

So I’d say learn the science/health or you’re going to have a tough time asking the right questions. You can’t expect to go into this thinking you can do a good job just by speaking to different doctors and scientists because sooner than later, you’re going to miss asking the right questions.

7. Three things have worked for The Wire Science, vis-à-vis working with freelancers and other editors.

First, there needs to be clear communication. For example, if you disagree with a submission, please take time out to explain what you think is wrong about it, because it often happens that the author knows the science very well but may just not have laid it out in a way that’s completely clear. This is also exhausting but in the long run it helps.

Second, set clear expectations. For example at The Wire Science, I insist on primary sources to all claims to the extent possible, so we don’t accidentally help magnify a dubious claim made by a secondary source. I don’t accept articles or comments on papers that have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal or in a legitimate preprint repository. And I insist that any articles based on scientific papers must carry an independent voice commenting on the merits and weaknesses of the study, even if the reporter hasn’t spoken to the paper’s authors themselves.

Interestingly enough, in our internal fact-check filters, these ‘clear expectations’ criteria act as pre-filters in the sense that if an article meets these three criteria, it’s also factually accurate more than 90% of the time. And because these criteria are fairly simple to define and identify in the article, anyone can check for them instead of just me.

Third, usually the flow of information and decisions in our newsroom is top-down-ish (not entirely top-down), but once the pandemic took centerstage, this organisation sort of became radial. Editors, reporters and news producers all have different ideas for stories and I’ve been available as a sort of advisor, so before they pursue any story, they sometimes come to me to discuss if they’re thinking about it the right way.

This way automatically prevents a lot of unfeasible ideas from being followed up. Obviously it’s not the ultimate solution but it covers a lot of ground.

8. The urgency and tension of a pandemic can’t be an excuse to compromise on quality and nuance. And especially at a time like now, misinformation can kill, so I’m being very clear with my colleagues and freelancers that we’re going to take the time to verify, that I’m going to resist the temptation to publish quickly. Even if there’s an implicit need to publish stuff quickly since the pandemic is evolving so fast, I’d say if you can write pieces with complexity and nuance, please do.

The need for speed arises, at least from what I can see, in terms of getting more traffic to your site and which in turn your product, business and editorial teams have together decided is going to be driven by primacy – in terms of being seen by your readers as the publication that puts information out first. So you’re going to need to have a conversation with your bosses and team members as well about the importance at a time like this of being correct over being fast. The Wire Science does incur a traffic penalty as a result of going a bit slower than others but it’s a clear choice for us because it’s been the lesser price to pay.

In fact, I think now is a great time to say to your readers, “It’s a pandemic and we want to do this right. Give us money and we’ll stop rushing for ads.”

Full video:

There is more than one thunder

Sunny Kung, a resident in internal medicine at a teaching hospital in the US, has authored a piece in STAT News about her experience dealing with people with COVID-19, and with other people who deal with people with COVID-19. I personally found the piece notable because it describes a sort of experience of dealing with COVID-19 that hasn’t had much social sanction thus far.

That is, when a socio-medical crisis like the coronavirus pandemic strikes, the first thing on everyone’s minds is to keep as few people from dying as possible. Self-discipline and self-sacrifice, especially among those identified as frontline healthcare and emergency services workers, become greater virtues than even professional integrity and the pursuit of individual rights. As a result, these workers incur heavy social, mental and sometimes even physical costs that they’re not at liberty to discuss openly without coming across as selfish at a time when selflessness is precariously close to being identified as a fundamental duty.

Kung’s piece, along with some others like it, clears and maintains a precious space for workers like her to talk about what they’re going through without being vilified for it. Further, I’m no doctor, nurse or ambulance driver but ‘only’ a journalist, so I have even less sanction to talk about my anxieties than a healthcare worker does without inviting, at best, a polite word about the pandemic’s hierarchy of priorities.

But as the WHO itself has recognised, this pandemic is also an ‘infodemic’, and the contagion of fake news, misinformation and propaganda is often deadly – if not deadlier – than the effects of the virus itself. However, the amount of work that me and my colleagues need to do, and which we do because we want to, to ensure what we publish is timely, original and verified often goes unappreciated in the great tides of information and data.

This is not a plea for help but an unassuming yet firm reminder that:

  1. Emergency workers come in different shapes, including as copy-editors, camerapersons and programmers – all the sort of newsroom personnel you never see but which you certainly need;
  2. Just because it’s not immediately clear how we’re saving lives doesn’t mean our work isn’t worth doing, or that it’s easy to do; and
  3. Saving lives is not the only outcome that deserves to be achieved during a socio-medical crisis.

A lot of what a doctor like Kung relates to, I can as well – and again, not in an “I want to steal your thunder” sort of way but as if this is a small window through which I get to shout “There are many thunders” sort of way. For example, she writes,

Every night during the pandemic I’ve dreaded showing up to work. Not because of fear of contracting Covid-19 or because of the increased workload. I dread having to justify almost every one of my medical decisions to my clinician colleagues.

Since the crisis began, I’ve witnessed anxiety color the judgement of many doctors, nurses, and other health care workers — including myself — when taking care of patients.

Many of us simply want to make sure we’re doing the right thing and to the best of our ability, that to the extent possible we’re subtracting the effects of fatigue and negligence from a situation rife with real and persistent uncertainty. But in the process, we’re often at risk of doing things we shouldn’t be doing.

As Kung writes, doctors and nurses make decisions out of fear – and journalists cover the wrong paper, play up the wrong statistic, quote the wrong expert or pursue the wrong line of inquiry. Kung also delineates how simply repeating facts, even to nurses and other medical staff, often fails to convince them. I often go through the same thing with my colleagues and with dozens of freelancers every week, who believe ‘X’ must be true and want to anticipate the consequences of ‘X’ whereas I, being more aware of the fact that the results of tests and studies are almost never 100% true (often because the principles of metrology themselves impose limits on confidence intervals but sometimes because the results depend strongly on the provenance of the input data and/or on the mode of publishing), want to play it safe and not advertise results that first seed problematic ideas in the minds of our readers but later turn out to be false.

So they just want to make sure, and I just want to make sure, too. Neither party is wrong but except with the benefit of hindsight, neither party is likely to be right either. I don’t like these conversations because they’re exhausting, but I wouldn’t like to abdicate them because it’s my responsibility to have them. And what I need is for this sentiment to simply be acknowledged. While I don’t presume to know what Kung wants to achieve with her article, it certainly makes the case for everyone to acknowledge that frontline medical workers like her have issues that in turn have little to do with the fucking virus.

In yet another reminder that the first six months (if not more) of 2020 will have been the worst infodemic in history, I can comfortably modify the following portions of Kung’s article…

They were clearly disgruntled about my decision not to transfer Mr. M to the ICU. I tried to reassure them by providing evidence, but I could still feel the tension and fear. The nurses wanted another M.D. to act as an arbiter of my decision but were finally convinced after I cited the patient’s stable vital signs, laboratory results, and radiology findings.

Everyone in the hospital is understandably on edge. Uncertainty is everywhere. Our hospital’s policies have been constantly changing about who we should test for Covid-19 and when we should wear what type of protective personal equipment. Covid-19 is still a new disease to many clinicians. We don’t know exactly which patients should go to the ICU and which are stable enough to stay on the regular floor. And it is only a matter of time before we run out of masks and face shields to protect front-line health care workers. …

As a resident in internal medicine and a future general internist, it is my duty to take care of these Covid-19 patients and reassure them that we are here to support them. That’s what I expect to do for all of my patients. What I did not expect from this pandemic is having to reassure other doctors, nurses, and health care workers about clinical decisions that I would normally never need to justify. …

There is emerging literature on diagnosing and treating Covid-19 patients that is easily accessible to physicians and nurses, but some of them are choosing to make their medical decisions based on fear — such as pushing for unnecessary testing or admission to the hospital, which may lead to overuse of personal protective equipment and hospital beds — instead of basing decisions on data or evidence. …

… thus:

The freelancer was clearly disgruntled about my decision not to accept the story for publication. I tried to reassure them by providing evidence, but I could still feel the tension and resentment. The freelancer wanted another editor to act as an arbiter of my decision but was finally convinced after I cited the arguments’ flaws one by one.

Every reporter is understandably on edge. Uncertainty is everywhere. Our newsroom’s policies have been constantly changing about what kind of stories we should publish, using what language and which angles we should avoid. Covid-19 is still a new disease to many journalists. We don’t know exactly which stories are worth pursuing and which are stable enough to stay on the regular floor. And it is only a matter of time before we run low on funds and/or are scooped. …

As a science editor, it is my duty to look out for my readers and reassure them that we are here to support them. That’s what I expect to do for all of my readers. What I did not expect from this pandemic is having to reassure other reporters, editors, and freelancers about editorial decisions that I would normally never need to justify. …

There is emerging literature on diagnosing and treating Covid-19 patients that is easily accessible to reporters and editors, but some of them are choosing to make their editorial decisions to optimise for sensationalism or speed — such as composing news reports based on unverified claims, half-baked data, models that are “not even wrong” or ideologically favourable points of view, which may lead readers to under- or overestimate various aspects of the pandemic — instead of basing decisions on data or evidence. …

More broadly, I dare to presume frontline healthcare workers already have at least one (highly deserved) privilege that journalists don’t, and in fact have seldom had: the acknowledgment of the workload. Yes, I want to do the amount of work I’m doing because I don’t see anyone else being able to do it anytime soon (and so I even take pride in it) but it’s utterly dispiriting to be reminded, every now and then, that the magnitude of my commitment doesn’t just languish in society’s blindspot but is often denied its existence.

Obviously very little of this mess is going to be cleaned up until the crisis is past its climax (although, like ants on a Möbius strip, we might not be able to tell which side of the problem we’re on), at which point the world’s better minds might derive lessons for all of us to learn from. At the same time, the beautiful thing about acknowledgment is that it doesn’t require you to determine, or know, if what you’re acknowledging is warranted or not, whether it’s right or wrong, even as the acknowledgment itself is both right and warranted. So please do it as soon as you can, if only because it’s the first precious space journalists need to clear and maintain.

Science journalism, expertise and common sense

On March 27, the Johns Hopkins University said an article published on the website of the Centre For Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP), a Washington-based think tank, had used its logo without permission and distanced itself from the study, which had concluded that the number of people in India who could test positive for the new coronavirus could swell into the millions by May 2020. Soon after, a basement of trolls latched onto CDDEP founder-director Ramanan Laxminarayan’s credentials as an economist to dismiss his work as a public-health researcher, including denying the study’s conclusions without discussing its scientific merits and demerits.

A lot of issues are wound up in this little controversy. One of them is our seemingly naïve relationship with expertise.

Expertise is supposed to be a straightforward thing: you either have it or you don’t. But just as specialised knowledge is complicated, so too is expertise.

Many of us have heard stories of someone who’s great at something “even though he didn’t go to college” and another someone who’s a bit of a tubelight “despite having been to Oxbridge”. Irrespective of whether they’re exceptions or the rule, there’s a lot of expertise in the world that a deference to degrees would miss.

More importantly, by conflating academic qualifications with expertise, we risk flattening a three-dimensional picture to one. For example, there are more scientists who can speak confidently about statistical regression and the features of exponential growth than there are who can comment on the false vacua of string theory or discuss why protein folding is such a hard problem to solve. These hierarchies arise because of differences in complexity. We don’t have to insist only a virologist or an epidemiologist is allowed to answer questions about whether a clinical trial was done right.

But when we insist someone is not good enough because they have a degree in a different subject, we could be embellishing the implicit assumption that we don’t want to look beyond expertise, and are content with being told the answers. Granted, this argument is better directed at individuals privileged enough to learn something new every day, but maintaining this chasm – between who in the public consciousness is allowed to provide answers and who isn’t – also continues to keep power in fewer hands.

Of course, many questions that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic have often stood between life and death, and it is important to stay safe. However, there is a penalty to think the closer we drift towards expertise, the safer we become — because then we may be drifting away from common sense and accruing a different kind of burden, especially when we insist only specialised experts can comment on a far less specialist topic. Such convictions have already created a class of people that believes ad hominem is a legitimate argumentative ploy, and won’t back down from an increasingly acrimonious quarrel until they find the cherry-picked data they have been looking for.

Most people occupy a less radical but still problematic position: even when neither life nor fortune is at stake, they claim to wait for expertise to change one’s behaviour and/or beliefs. Most of them are really waiting for something that arrived long ago and are only trying to find new ways to persist with the status quo. The all-or-nothing attitude of the rest – assuming they exist – is, simply put, epistemologically inefficient.

Our deference to the views of experts should be a function of how complex it really is and therefore the extent to which it can be interrogated. So when the topic at hand is whether a clinical trial was done right or whether the Indian Council of Medical Research is testing enough, the net we cast to find independent scientists to speak to can include those who aren’t medical researchers but whose academic or vocational trajectories familiarised them to some parts of these issues as well as who are transparent about their reasoning, methods and opinions. (The CDDEP study is yet to reveal its methods, so I don’t want to comment specifically on it.)

If we can’t be sure if the scientist we’re speaking to is making sense, obviously it would be better to go with someone whose words we can just trust. And if we’re not comfortable having such a negotiated relationship with an expert – sadly, it’s always going to be this way. The only way to make matters simpler is by choosing to deliberately shut ourselves off, to take what we’re hearing and, instead of questioning it further, running with it.

This said, we all shut ourselves off at one time or another. It’s only important that we do it knowing we do it, instead of harbouring pretensions of superiority. At no point does it become reasonable to dismiss anyone based on their academic qualifications alone the way, say, Times of India and OpIndia have done (see below).

What’s more, Dr Giridhar Gyani is neither a medical practitioner nor epidemiologist. He is academically an electrical engineer, who later did a PhD in quality management. He is currently director general at Association of Healthcare Providers (India).

Times of India, March 28

Ramanan Laxminarayanan, who was pitched up as an expert on diseases and epidemics by the media outlets of the country, however, in reality, is not an epidemiologist. Dr Ramanan Laxminarayanan is not even a doctor but has a PhD in economics.

OpIndia, March 22

Expertise has been humankind’s way to quickly make sense of a world that has only been becoming more confusing. But historically, expertise has also been a reason of state, used to suppress dissenting voices and concentrate political, industrial and military power in the hands of a few. The former is in many ways a useful feature of society for its liberating potential while the latter is undesirable because it enslaves. People frequently straddle both tendencies together – especially now, with the government in charge of the national anti-coronavirus response.

An immediately viable way to break this tension is to negotiate our relationship with experts themselves.

Dehumanising language during an outbreak

It appears the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has begun local transmission in India, i.e. infecting more people within the country instead of each new patient having recently travelled to an already affected country. The advent of local transmission is an important event in the lexicon of epidemics and pandemics because, at least until 2009, that’s how the WHO differentiated between the two.

As of today, the virus has become locally transmissible in the world’s two most populous countries. At this juncture, pretty much everyone expects the number of cases within India to only increase, and as it does, the public healthcare system won’t be the only one under pressure. Reporters and editors will be too, and they’re likely to be more stressed on one front: their readers.

For example, over the course of March 4, the following sentences appeared in various news reports of the coronavirus:

The Italian man infected 16 Italians, his wife and an Indian driver.

The infected techie boarded a bus to Hyderabad from Bengaluru and jeopardised the safety of his co-passengers.

Two new suspected coronavirus cases have been reported in Hyderabad.

All 28 cases of infection are being monitored, the health ministry has said.

Quite a few people on Twitter, and likely in other fora, commented that these lines exemplify the sort of insensitivity towards patients that dehumanises them, elides their agency and casts them as perpetrators – of the transmission of a disease – and which, perhaps given enough time and reception, could engender apathy and even animosity towards the poorer sick.

The problem words seem to include ‘cases’, ‘burden’ and ‘infected’. But are they a problem, really? I ask because though I understand the complaints, I think they’re missing an important detail.

Referring to people as if they were objects only furthers their impotency in a medical care setup in which doctors can’t be questioned and the rationale for diagnoses is frequently secreted – both conditions ripe for exploitation. At the same time, the public part of this system has to deal with a case load it is barely equipped for and whose workers are underpaid relative to their counterparts in the private sector.

As a result, a doctor seeing 10- or 20-times as many patients as they’ve been trained and supported to will inevitably precipitate some amount of dehumanisation, and it could in fact help medical workers cope with circumstances in which they’re doing all they can to help but the patient suffers anyway. So dehumanisation is not always bad.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the word ‘dehumanise’ and the attitude ‘dehumanise’ can and often do differ. For example, Union home minister Amit Shah calling Bangladeshi immigrants “termites” is not the same as a high-ranking doctor referring to his patient in terms of their disease, and this doctor is not the same as an overworked nurse referring to the people in her care as ‘cases’. The last two examples are progressively more forgivable because their use of the English language is more opportunistic, and the nurse in the last example may not intentionally dehumanise their patients if they knew what their words meant.

(The doctor didn’t: his example is based on a true story.)

Problematic attitudes often manifest most prominently as problematic words and labels but the use of a word alone wouldn’t imply a specific attitude in a country that has always had an uneasy relationship with the English language. Reporters and editors who carefully avoid potentially debilitating language as well as those who carefully use such language are both in the minority in India. Instead, my experiences as a journalist over eight years suggest the majority is composed of people who don’t know the language is a problem, who don’t have the time, energy and/or freedom to think about casual dehumanisation, and who don’t deserve to be blamed for something they don’t know they’re doing.

But by fixating on just words, and not the world of problems that gives rise to them, we risk interrogating and blaming the wrong causes. It would be fairer to expect journalists of, say, the The Guardian or the Washington Post to contemplate the relationship between language and thought if only because Western society harbours a deeper understanding of the healthcare system it originated, and exported to other parts of the world with its idiosyncrasies, and because native English speakers are likelier to properly understand the relationship between a word, its roots and its use in conversation.

On the other hand, non-native users of English – particularly non-fluent users – have no option but to use the words ‘case’, ‘burden’ and ‘infected’. The might actually prefer other words if:

  • They knew that (and/or had to accommodate their readers’ pickiness for whether) the word they used meant more than what they thought it did, or
  • They knew alternative words existed and were equally valid, or
  • They could confidently differentiate between a technical term and its most historically, socially, culturally and/or technically appropriate synonym.

But as it happens, these conditions are seldom met. In India, English is mostly reserved for communication; it’s not the language of thought for most people, especially most journalists, and certainly doesn’t hold anything more than a shard of mirror-glass to our societies and their social attitudes as they pertain to jargon. So as such, pointing to a reporter and asking them to say ‘persons infected with coronavirus’ instead of ‘case’ will magically reveal neither the difference between ‘case’ or ‘infected’ the scientific terms and ‘case’ or ‘infected’ the pejoratives nor the negotiated relationship between the use of ‘case’ and dehumanisation. And without elucidating the full breadth of these relationships, there is no way either doctors or reporters are going to modify their language simply because they were asked to – nor will their doing so, on the off chance, strike at the real threats.

On the other hand, there is bound to be an equally valid problem in terms of those who know how ‘case’ and ‘infected’ can be misused and who regularly read news reports whose use of English may or may not intend to dehumanise. Considering the strong possibility that the author may not know they’re using dehumanising language and are unlikely to be persuaded to write differently, those in the know have a corresponding responsibility to accommodate what is typically a case of the unknown unknowns and not ignorance or incompetence, and almost surely not malice.

This is also why I said reporters and editors might be stressed by their readers, rather their perspectives, and not on count of their language.


A final point: Harsh Vardhan, the Union health minister and utterer of the words “The Italian man infected 16 Italians”, and Amit Shah belong to the same party – a party that has habitually dehumanised Muslims, Dalits and immigrants as part of its nationalistic, xenophobic and communal narratives. More recently, the same party from its place at the Centre suspected a prominent research lab of weaponising the Nipah virus with help from foreign funds, and used this far-fetched possibility as an excuse to terminate the lab’s FCRA license.

So when Vardhan says ‘infected’, I reflexively, and nervously, double-check his statement for signs of ambiguity. I’m also anxious that if more Italian nationals touring India are infected by SARS-CoV-2 and the public healthcare system slips up on control measures, a wave of anti-Italian sentiment could follow.

The difficulty of option ‘c’

Can any journalist become a science journalist? More specifically, can any journalist become a science journalist without understanding the methods of scientific practice and administration? This is not a trivial question because not all the methods of science can be discovered or discerned from the corresponding ‘first principles’. That is, common sense and intelligence alone cannot consummate your transformation; you must access new information that you cannot derive through inductive reasoning.

For example, how would you treat the following statement: “Scientists prove that X causes Y”?

a. You could take the statement at face-value

b. You could probe how and why scientists proved that X causes Y

c. You could interrogate the claim that X causes Y, or

d. You could, of course, ignore it.

(Option (d) is the way to go for claims in the popular as well as scientific literature of the type “Scientists prove that coffee/wine/chocolate cause your heart to strengthen/weaken/etc.” unless the story you’re working on concerns the meta-narrative of these studies.)

Any way, choosing between (a), (b) and (c) is not easy, often because which option you pick depends on how much you know about how the modern scientific industry works. For example, a non-science journalist is likely to go with (a) and/or (b) because, first, they typically believe that the act of proving something is a singular event, localised in time and space, with no room for disagreement.

This is after all the picture of proof-making that ill-informed supporters of science (arguably more than even supporters of the ideal of scientism) harbour: “Scientists have proved that X causes Y, so that’s that,” in the service of silencing inconvenient claims like “human activities aren’t causing Earth’s surface to heat up” or like “climate geoengineering is bad”. I believe that anthropogenic global warming is real and that we need to consider stratospheric aerosol injections but flattening the proof-making exercise threatens to marginalise disagreements among scientists themselves, such as about the extent of warming or about the long-term effects on biodiversity.

The second reason (a) and (b) type stories are more common, but especially (a), follows from this perspective of proofs: the view that scientists are authorities, and we are not qualified to question them. As it happens, most of us will never be qualified enough, but question them we can thanks to four axioms.

First, science being deployed for the public good must be well understood in much the same way a drug that has been tested for efficacy must also be exculpated of deleterious side-effects.

Second, journalists don’t need to critique the choice of reagents, animal models, numerical methods or apparatus design to be able to uncover loopholes, inconsistencies and/or shortcomings. Instead, that oppositional role is easily performed by independent scientists whose comments a journalist can invite on the study.

Third, science is nothing without the humans that practice it, and most of the more accessible stories of science (not news reports) are really stories of the humans practising the science.

Fourth, organised science – hot take: like organised religion – is a human endeavour tied up with human structures, human politics and human foibles, which means as much of what we identify as science lies in the discovery of scientific knowledge as in the way we fund, organise, disseminate and preserve that knowledge.

These four allowances together imply that a science journalist is not a journalist familiar with advanced mathematics or who can perform a tricky experiment but is a journalist trained to write about science without requiring such knowledge.

§

Anyone familiar with India will recognise that these two principal barriers – a limited understanding of proof-making and the view of scientists as authority figures – to becoming a good science journalist are practically seeded by the inadequate school-level education system. But they are also furthered by India’s prevailing political climate, especially in the way a highly polarised society undermines the role of expertise.

Some people will tell you that you can’t question highly trained scientists because you are not a highly trained scientist but others will say you’re entitled to question everything as a thinking, reasoning, socially engaged global citizen.

As it happens, these aren’t opposing points of view. It’s just that the left and the right have broken the idea of expertise into two pieces, taking one each for themselves, such that the political left is often comfortable with questioning facts like grinding bricks to unusable dust while the political right will treat all bricks the same irrespective of the quality of clay; the leftist will subsequently insist that quality control is all-important whereas the rightist will champion the virtues of pragmatism.

In this fracas to deprive expertise either of authority or of critique, or sometimes both, the expert becomes deconstructed to the point of nonexistence. As a result, the effective performance of science journalism, instead of trying to pander equally to the left’s and the right’s respective conceptions of the expert, converges on the attempt to reconstruct expertise as it should be: interrogated without undermining it, considered without elevating it.

Obviously, this is easier said, and more enjoyably said, than done.

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.