Necessity and sufficiency

With apologies for recalling horrible people early in the day: I chanced upon this article quoting Lawrence Krauss talking about his friend Jeffrey Epstein from April 2011, and updated in July 2019. Excerpt (emphasis added):

Renowned scientists whose research Epstein has generously funded through the years also stand by him. Professor Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist …, has planned scientific conferences with Epstein in St. Thomas and remained close with him throughout his incarceration. “If anything, the unfortunate period he suffered has caused him to really think about what he wants to do with his money and his time, and support knowledge,” says Krauss. “Jeffrey has surrounded himself with beautiful women and young women but they’re not as young as the ones that were claimed. As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.” Though colleagues have criticized him over his relationship with Epstein, Krauss insists, “I don’t feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it.”

Well, of course he felt raised by his friendship with Epstein. But more importantly, the part in bold is just ridiculous, and I hope Krauss was suitably slammed for saying such a stupid thing at the time.a It’s a subtle form of scientism commonly found in conversations that straddle two aggressively differing points of view – such as the line between believing and disbelieving the acts of a convicted sex offender or between right- and left-wing groups in India.

Data is good, even crucial, as the numerical representation of experimental proof, and for this reason often immutable. But an insistence on data before anything else is foolish because it presupposes that the use of the scientific method – implied by the production and organisation of data – is a necessary as well as sufficient condition to ascertain an outcome. But in truth, science is often necessary but almost never sufficient.

Implying in turn that all good scientists should judge everything by empirical evidence isn’t doing science or scientists any favours. Instead, such assertions might abet the impression of a scientist as someone unmoved by sociological, spiritual or artistic experiences, and science as a clump of methods all of which together presume to make sense of everything you will ever encounter, experience or infer. However, it’s in fact a body of knowledge obtained by applying the scientific method to study natural phenomena.

Make what you will of science’s abilities and limitations based on this latter description, and not Krauss’s insular and stunted view that – in hindsight – may have been confident in its assertion if only because it afforded Krauss a way to excuse himself. And it is because of people like him (necessity), who defer to scientific principles even as they misappropriate and misuse these principles to enact their defensive ploys, together with the general tendency among political shills to use overreaching rhetoric and exaggerated claims of harm (sufficiency), that the scientific enterprise itself takes a hit in highly polarised debates word-wars.

a. If Krauss insists on sticking to his scientistic guns, it might be prudent to remind him of counterfactual definiteness.

A sympathetic science

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

I posted the following tweet a short while ago:

With reference to this:

Which in turn was with reference to this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rationalists' eclipse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientism is not ‘nonsense’

The @realscientists rocur account on Twitter took a surprising turn earlier today when its current curator, Teresa Ambrosio, a chemist, tweeted the following:

If I had to give her the benefit of doubt, I’d say she was pointing this tweet at the hordes of people – especially Americans – whose conspiratorial attitude towards vaccines and immigrants is founded entirely on their personal experiences being at odds with scientific knowledge. However, Ambrosio wasn’t specific, so I asked her:

The responses to my tweet, encouraged in part by Ambrosio herself, were at first dominated by (too many) people who seemed to agree, broadly, that science is an apolitical endeavour that could be cleanly separated from the people who practice it and that science has nothing to do with the faulty application of scientific knowledge. However, the conversation rapidly turned after one of the responders called scientism “nonsense” – a stance that would rankle not just the well-informed historian of science but in fact so many people in non-developed nations where scientific knowledge is often used to legitimise statutory authority.

I recommend reading the whole conversation, especially if what you’re looking for is a good and sufficiently well-referenced summary of a) why scientism is anything but nonsense; b) why science is not apolitical; and c) how scientism is rooted in the need to separate science and the scientist.

The worst poem ever

I’m just a lousy science journalist, writing the worst poem ever.

How does feel to write a story and then, just like that, have everyone read it as well as be interested in reading it?

How would it feel to not have to hope quasi-desperately that a story does well after having spent hours – if not days – on it?

How would it feel to not slog and slog, telling yourself that you just need to be proud of covering a beat few others have chosen to?

“Good journalism can only emerge from being a good citizen” – but is there a way to tell what kind of citizenship is valuable and what kind not?

Of course, I’m also asking myself questions about why it is that I chose to be a journalist and then a science journalist.

The first one doesn’t have a short answer and it’s probably also too personal to be discussing on my blog. So let’s leave that for another day, or another forum.

Why science journalist? Because it’s like Kip Thorne has said: it was the pleasure of doing “something in which there was less competition and more opportunity to do something unique.”

When I tell people I’m a science journalist, a common response goes like this: “I’ve distanced myself from science and math since school”. And it goes with a smile. I smile, too.

Except I’m not amused. This mental block that many people have I’ve found is the Indian science journalist’s greatest enemy – at least it’s mine.

What makes it so great is that, to most people, it’s a class- and era-specific ‘survival skill’ they’ve adopted that has likely made their lives more enjoyable.

And we all know how hard it is give fucks about the wonders that unknown unknowns can hold. It’s impossible almost by definition.

Then there are also so many fucks demanded of us to be given to the human condition.

But Ed Yong’s tweet I will never forget, though I do wish I’d faved it: there’s so much more to science than what applies to being human.

Of course, there’s the other, much simpler reason I’m thinking all this, and so likelier to be true: I’m just a lousy science journalist, writing the worst poem ever.

Featured image credit: Pixel-mixer/pixabay.

 

The metaphorical transparency of responsible media

We in India often complain about how the media doesn’t care enough to cover science stories. But when we’re looking back and forward in time, we become blind to the media’s efforts.

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

I’d written a two-part essay (although they were both quite short; reproduced in full below) on The Wire about what science was like in 2016 and what we can look forward to in 2017. The first part was about how science journalism in India is a battle for relevance, both within journalistic circles and among audiences. The second was about how science journalism needs to be treated like other forms of journalism in 2017, and understood to be afflicted with the same ills that, say, political and business journalism are.

Other pieces on The Wire that had the same mandate, of looking back and looking forward, stuck to being roundups and retrospective analyses. My pieces were retrospective, too, but they – to use the parlance of calculus – addressed the second derivative of science journalism, in effect performing a meta-analysis of the producers and consumers of science writing. This blog post is a quick discussion (or rant) of why I chose to go the “science media” way.

We in India often complain about how the media doesn’t care enough to cover science stories. But when we’re looking back and forward in time, we become blind to the media’s efforts. And looking back is more apparently problematic than is looking forward.

Looking back is problematic because our roundup of the ‘best’ science (the ‘best’ being whatever adjective you want it to be) from the previous year is actually a roundup of the ‘best’ science we were able to discover or access from the previous year. Many of us may have walled ourselves off into digital echo-chambers, sitting within not-so-fragile filter bubbles and ensuring news we don’t want to read about doesn’t reach us at all. Even so, the stories that do reach us don’t make up the sum of all that is available to consume because of two reasons:

  1. We practically can’t consume everything, period.
  2. Unless you’re a journalist or someone who is at the zeroth step of the information dissemination pyramid, your submission to a source of information is simply your submission to another set of filters apart from your own. Without these filters, finding something you are looking for on the web would be a huge problem.

So becoming blind to media efforts at the time of the roundup is to let journalists (who sit higher up on the dissemination pyramid) who should’ve paid more attention to scientific developments off the hook. For example, assuming things were gloomy in 2016 is assuming one thing given another thing (like a partial differential): “while the mood of science news could’ve been anything between good and bad, it was bad” GIVEN “journalists mostly focused on the bad news over the good news”. This is only a simplistic example: more often than not, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can be replaced by ‘significant’ and ‘insignificant’. Significance is also a function of media attention. At the time of probing our sentiments on a specific topic, we should probe the information we have as well as how we acquired that information.

Looking forward without paying attention to how the media will likely deal with science is less apparently problematic because of the establishment of the ideal. For example, to look forward is also to hope: I can say an event X will be significant irrespective of whether the media chooses to cover it (i.e., “it should ideally be covered”); when the media doesn’t cover the event, then I can recall X as well as pull up journalists who turned a blind eye. In this sense, ignoring the media is to not hold its hand at the beginning of the period being monitored – and it’s okay. But this is also what I find problematic. Why not help journalists look out for an event when you know it’s going to happen instead of relying on their ‘news sense’, as well as expecting them to have the time and attention to spend at just the right time?

Effectively: pull us up in hindsight – but only if you helped us out in foresight. (The ‘us’ in this case is, of course, #notalljournalists. Be careful with whom you choose to help or you could be wasting your time.)


Part I: Why Independent Media is Essential to Good Science Journalism

What was 2016 like in science? Furious googling will give you the details you need to come to the clinical conclusion that it wasn’t so bad. After all, LIGO found gravitational waves; an Ebola vaccine was readied; ISRO began tests of its reusable launch vehicle; the LHC amassed particle collisions data; the Philae comet-hopping mission ended; New Horizons zipped past Pluto; Juno is zipping around Jupiter; scientists did amazing (but sometimes ethically questionable) things with CRISPR; etc. But if you’ve been reading science articles throughout the year, then please take a step back from everything and think about what your overall mood is like.

Because, just as easily as 2016 was about mega-science projects doing amazing things, it was also about climate-change action taking a step forward but not enough; about scientific communities becoming fragmented; about mainstream scientific wisdom becoming entirely sidelined in some parts of the world; about crucial environmental protections being eroded; about – undeniably – questionable practices receiving protection under the emotional cover of nationalism. As a result, and as always, it is difficult to capture what this year was to science in a single mood, unless that mood in turn captures anger, dismay, elation and bewilderment at various times.

So, to simplify our exercise, let’s do that furious googling – and then perform a meta-analysis to reflect on where each of us sees fit to stand with respect to what the Indian scientific enterprise has been up to this year. (Note: I’m hoping this exercise can also be a referendum on the type of science news The Wire chose to cover this year, and how that can be improved in 2017.) The three broad categories (and sub-categories) of stories that The Wire covered this year are:

GOOD BAD UGLY
Different kinds of ISRO rockets – sometimes with student-built sats onboard – took off Big cats in general, and leopards specifically, had a bad year Indian scientists continued to plagiarise and engage in other forms of research misconduct without consequence
ISRO decided to partially privatise PSLV missions by 2020 The JE/AES scourge struck again, their effects exacerbated by malnutrition The INO got effectively shut down
LIGO-India collaboration received govt. clearance; Indian scientists of the LIGO collaboration received a vote of confidence from the international community PM endorsed BGR-34, an anti-diabetic drug of dubious credentials Antibiotic resistance worsened in India (and other middle-income nations)
We supported ‘The Life of Science’ Govt. conceived misguided culling rules India succumbed to US pressure on curtailing generic drugs
Many new species of birds/animals discovered in India Ken-Betwa river linkup approved at the expense of a tiger sanctuary Important urban and rural waterways were disrupted, often to the detriment of millions
New telescopes were set up, further boosting Indian astronomy; ASTROSAT opened up for international scientists Many conservation efforts were hampered – while some were mooted that sounded like ministers hadn’t thought them through Ministers made dozens of pseudoscientific claims, often derailing important research
Otters returned to their habitats in Kerala and Goa A politician beat a horse to its death Fake-science-news was widely reported in the Indian media
Janaki Lenin continued her ‘Amazing Animals’ series Environmental regulations turned and/or stayed anti-environment Socio-environmental changes resulting from climate change affect many livelihoods around the country
We produced monthly columns on modern microbiology and the history of science We didn’t properly respond to human-wildlife conflicts Low investments in public healthcare, and focus on privatisation, short-changed Indian patients
Indian physicists discovered a new form of superconductivity in bismuth GM tech continues to polarise scientists, social scientists and activists Space, defence-research and nuclear power establishments continued to remain opaque
/ Conversations stuttered on eastern traditions of science /

I leave it to you to weigh each of these types of stories as you see fit. For me – as a journalist – science in the year 2016 was defined by two parallel narratives: first, science coverage in the mainstream media did not improve; second, the mainstream media in many instances remained obediently uncritical of the government’s many dubious claims. As a result, it was heartening on the first count to see ‘alternative’ publications like The Life of Science and The Intersection being set up or sustained (as the case may be).

On the latter count: the media’s submission paralleled, rather directly followed, its capitulation to pro-government interests (although some publications still held out). This is problematic for various reasons, but one that is often overlooked is that the “counterproductive continuity” that right-wing groups stress upon – between traditional wisdom and knowledge derived through modern modes of investigation – receives nothing short of a passive endorsement by uncritical media broadcasts.

From within The Wire, doing a good job of covering science has become a battle for relevance as a result. And this is a many-faceted problem: it’s as big a deal for a science journalist to come upon and then report a significant story as finding the story itself in the first place – and it’s as difficult to get every scientist you meet to trust you as it is to convince every reader who visits The Wire to read an article or two in the science section per visit. Fortunately (though let it not be said that this is simply a case of material fortunes), the ‘Science’ section on The Wire has enjoyed both emotional and financial support. To show for it, we have had the privilege of overseeing the publication of 830 articles, and counting, in 2016 (across science, health, environment, energy, space and tech). And I hope those who have written for this section will continue to write for it, even as those who have been reading this section will continue to read it.

Because it is a battle for relevance – a fight to be noticed and to be read, even when stories have nothing to do with national interests or immediate economic gains – the ideal of ‘speaking truth to power’ that other like-minded sections of the media cherish is preceded for science journalism in India by the ideals of ‘speaking’ first and then ‘speaking truth’ second. This is why an empowered media is as essential to the revival of that constitutionally enshrined scientific temperament as are productive scientists and scientific institutions.

The Wire‘s journalists have spent thousands of hours this year striving to be factually correct. The science writers and editors have also been especially conscientious of receiving feedback at all stages, engaging in conversations with our readers and taking prompt corrective action when necessary – even if that means a retraction. This will continue to be the case in 2017 as well in recognition of the fact that the elevation of Indian science on the global stage, long hailed to be overdue, will directly follow from empowering our readers to ask the right questions and be reasonably critical of all claims at all times, no matter who the maker.

Part II: If You’re Asking ‘What To Expect in Science in 2017’, You Have Missed the Point

While a science reporter at The Hindu, this author conducted an informal poll asking the newspaper’s readers to speak up about what their impressions were of science writing in India. The answers, received via email, Twitter and comments on the site, generally swung between saying there was no point and saying there was a need to fight an uphill battle to ‘bring science to everyone’. After the poll, however, it still wasn’t clear who this ‘everyone’ was, notwithstanding a consensus that it meant everyone who chanced upon a write-up. It still isn’t clear.

Moreover, much has been written about the importance of science, the value of engaging with it in any form without expectation of immediate value and even the usefulness of looking at it ‘from the outside in’ when the opportunity arises. With these theses in mind (which I don’t want to rehash; they’re available in countless articles on The Wire), the question of “What to expect in science in 2017?” immediately evolves into a two-part discussion. Why? Because not all science that happens is covered; not all science that is covered is consumed; and not all science that is consumed is remembered.

The two parts are delineated below.

What science will be covered in 2017?

Answering this question is an exercise in reinterpreting the meaning of ‘newsworthiness’ subject to the forces that will assail journalism in 2017. An immensely simplified way is to address the following factors: the audience, the business, the visible and the hidden.

The first two are closely linked. As print publications are shrinking and digital publications growing, a consideration of distribution channels online can’t ignore the social media – specifically, Twitter and Facebook – as well as Google News. This means that an increasing number of younger readers are available to target, which in turn means covering science in a way that interests this demographic. Qualities like coolness and virality will make an item immediately sellable to marketers whereas news items rich with nuance and depth will take more work.

Another way to address the question is in terms of what kind of science will be apparently visible, and available for journalists to easily chance upon, follow up and write about. The subjects of such writing typically are studies conducted and publicised by large labs or universities, involving scientists working in the global north, and often on topics that lend themselves immediately to bragging rights, short-lived discussions, etc. In being aware of ‘the visible’, we must be sure to remember ‘the invisible’. This can be defined as broadly as in terms of the scientists (say, from Latin America, the Middle East or Southeast Asia) or the studies (e.g., by asking how the results were arrived at, who funded the studies and so forth).

On the other hand, ‘the hidden’ is what will – or ought to – occupy those journalists interested in digging up what Big X (Pharma, Media, Science, etc.) doesn’t want publicised. What exactly is hidden changes continuously but is often centred on the abuse of privilege, the disregard of those we are responsible for and, of course, the money trail. The issues that will ultimately come to define 2017 will all have had dark undersides defined by these aspects and which we must strive to uncover.

For example: with the election of Donald Trump, and his bad-for-science clique of bureaucrats, there is a confused but dawning recognition among liberals of the demands of the American midwest. So to continue to write about climate change targeting an audience composed of left-wingers or east coast or west coast residents won’t work in 2017. We must figure out how to reach across the aisle and disabuse climate deniers of their beliefs using language they understand and using persuasions that motivate them to speak to their leaders about shaping climate policy.

What will be considered good science journalism in 2017?

Scientists are not magical creatures from another world – they’re humans, too. So is their collective enterprise riddled with human decisions and human mistakes. Similarly, despite all the travails unique to itself, science journalism is fundamentally similar to other topical forms of journalism. As a result, the broader social, political and media trends sweeping around the globe will inform novel – or at least evolving – interpretations of what will be good or bad in 2017. But instead of speculating, let’s discuss the new processes through which good and bad can be arrived at.

In this context, it might be useful to draw from a blog post by Jay Rosen, a noted media critic and professor of journalism at New York University. Though the post focuses on what political journalists could do to adapt to the Age of Trump, its implied lessons are applicable in many contexts. More specifically, the core effort is about avoiding those primary sources of information (out of which a story sprouts) the persistence with which has landed us in this mess. A wildly remixed excerpt:

Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim. Seek and accept offers to speak on the radio in areas of Trump’s greatest support. Make common cause with scholars who have been there. Especially experts in authoritarianism and countries when democratic conditions have been undermined, so you know what to watch for— and report on. (Creeping authoritarianism is a beat: who do you have on it?). Keep an eye on the internationalization of these trends, and find spots to collaborate with journalists across borders. Find coverage patterns that cross [the aisle].

And then this:

[Washington Post reporter David] Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. … He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe.

Transparency is going to matter more than ever in 2017 because of how the people’s trust in the media was eroded in 2016. And there’s no reason science journalism should be an exception to these trends – especially given how science and ideology quickly locked horns in India following the disastrous Science Congress in 2015. More than any other event since the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party to the centre, and much like Trump’s victory caught everyone by surprise, the 2015 congress really spotlighted the extent of rational blight that had seeped into the minds of some of India’s most powerful ideologues. In the two years since, the reluctance of scientists to step forward and call bullshit out has also started to become more apparent, as a result exposing the different kinds of undercurrents that drastic shifts in policies have led to.

So whatever shape good science journalism is going to assume in 2017, it will surely benefit by being more honest and approachable in its construction. As will the science journalist who is willing to engage with her audience about the provenance of information and opinions capable of changing minds. As Jeff Leek, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, quoted (statistician Philip Stark) on his blog: “If I say just trust me and I’m wrong, I’m untrustworthy. If I say here’s my work and it’s wrong, I’m honest, human, and serving scientific progress.”

Here’s to a great 2017! 🙌🏾

TIFR's superconductor discovery: Where are the reports?

Most news publications in India didn’t report on an exciting and significant discovery made by physicists from TIFR, Mumbai. Why not?

Featured image: The Meissner effect: a magnet levitating above a superconductor. Credit: Mai-Linh Doan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

On December 2, physicists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) announced an exciting discovery: that the metal bismuth becomes a superconductor at a higher temperature than predicted by a popular theory. Granted the theory has had its fair share of exceptions, the research community is excited about this finding because of the unique opportunities it presents in terms of learning more, doing more. But yeah, even without the nuance, the following is true: that TIFR physicists have discovered a new form of superconductivity, in the metal bismuth. I say this as such because not one news outlet in India, apart from The Wire, reported the discovery, and it’s difficult to say it’s because the topic was too hard to understand.

This was, and is, just odd. The mainstream as well as non-mainstream media in the country are usually quick to pick up on the slightest shred of legitimate scientific work and report it widely. Heck, many news organisations are also eager to report on illegitimate research – such as those on finding gold in cow urine. After the embargo on the journal paper lifted at 0030 hrs, I (the author of the article on The Wire) remained awake to check if the story had turned out okay – specifically, to check if anyone had any immediate complaints about its contents (there were two tweets about the headline and they were quickly dealt with). But then I ended up staying awake until 4 am because, as much as I looked on Google News and on other news websites, I couldn’t find anyone else who had written about it.

Journal embargoes aren’t new, nor is it the case that journalists in India haven’t signed up to receive embargoed material. For example, the multiple water-on-Mars announcements and the two monumental gravitational-waves discoveries were all announced via papers in the journal Science, and were covered by The Hindu, The Telegraph, Times of India, Indian Express, etc. And Science also published the TIFR paper. Moreover, the TIFR paper wasn’t suppressed or buried in the embargoed press releases that the press team at Science sends out to journalists a few days before the embargo lifts. Third, the significance of the finding was evident from the start; these were the first two lines of the embargoed press release:

Scientists from India report that pure Bismuth – a semimetal with a very low number of electrons per given volume, or carrier concentration – is superconducting at ultralow temperatures. The observation makes Bismuth one of the two lowest carrier density superconductors to date.

All a journalist had to do was get in touch with Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the lead author of the paper as well as the corresponding author, to get a better idea of the discovery’s significance. From my article on The Wire:

“People have been searching for superconductivity in bismuth for 50 years,” Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the leader of the TIFR group, told The Wire. “The last work done in bismuth found that it is not superconducting down to 0.01 kelvin. This was done 20 years ago and people gave up.”

So, I’m very curious to know what happened. And since no outlets apart from The Wire have picked the story up, we circle back to the question of media coverage for science news in India. As my editor pointed out, the major publications are mostly interested in stuff like an ISRO launch, a nuclear reactor going critical or an encephalitis outbreak going berserker when it comes to covering science, and even then the science of the story itself is muted while the overlying policy issues are played up. This is not to say the policies are receiving undeserving coverage – they’re important, too – but only that the underlying science, which informs policy in crucial ways, isn’t coming through.

And over time this disregard blinds us to an entire layer of enterprise that involves hundreds of thousands of our most educated people and close to Rs 2 lakh crore of our national expenditure (total R&D, 2013).

TIFR’s superconductor discovery: Where are the reports?

Most news publications in India didn’t report on an exciting and significant discovery made by physicists from TIFR, Mumbai. Why not?

Featured image: The Meissner effect: a magnet levitating above a superconductor. Credit: Mai-Linh Doan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

On December 2, physicists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) announced an exciting discovery: that the metal bismuth becomes a superconductor at a higher temperature than predicted by a popular theory. Granted the theory has had its fair share of exceptions, the research community is excited about this finding because of the unique opportunities it presents in terms of learning more, doing more. But yeah, even without the nuance, the following is true: that TIFR physicists have discovered a new form of superconductivity, in the metal bismuth. I say this as such because not one news outlet in India, apart from The Wire, reported the discovery, and it’s difficult to say it’s because the topic was too hard to understand.

This was, and is, just odd. The mainstream as well as non-mainstream media in the country are usually quick to pick up on the slightest shred of legitimate scientific work and report it widely. Heck, many news organisations are also eager to report on illegitimate research – such as those on finding gold in cow urine. After the embargo on the journal paper lifted at 0030 hrs, I (the author of the article on The Wire) remained awake to check if the story had turned out okay – specifically, to check if anyone had any immediate complaints about its contents (there were two tweets about the headline and they were quickly dealt with). But then I ended up staying awake until 4 am because, as much as I looked on Google News and on other news websites, I couldn’t find anyone else who had written about it.

Journal embargoes aren’t new, nor is it the case that journalists in India haven’t signed up to receive embargoed material. For example, the multiple water-on-Mars announcements and the two monumental gravitational-waves discoveries were all announced via papers in the journal Science, and were covered by The Hindu, The Telegraph, Times of India, Indian Express, etc. And Science also published the TIFR paper. Moreover, the TIFR paper wasn’t suppressed or buried in the embargoed press releases that the press team at Science sends out to journalists a few days before the embargo lifts. Third, the significance of the finding was evident from the start; these were the first two lines of the embargoed press release:

Scientists from India report that pure Bismuth – a semimetal with a very low number of electrons per given volume, or carrier concentration – is superconducting at ultralow temperatures. The observation makes Bismuth one of the two lowest carrier density superconductors to date.

All a journalist had to do was get in touch with Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the lead author of the paper as well as the corresponding author, to get a better idea of the discovery’s significance. From my article on The Wire:

“People have been searching for superconductivity in bismuth for 50 years,” Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the leader of the TIFR group, told The Wire. “The last work done in bismuth found that it is not superconducting down to 0.01 kelvin. This was done 20 years ago and people gave up.”

So, I’m very curious to know what happened. And since no outlets apart from The Wire have picked the story up, we circle back to the question of media coverage for science news in India. As my editor pointed out, the major publications are mostly interested in stuff like an ISRO launch, a nuclear reactor going critical or an encephalitis outbreak going berserker when it comes to covering science, and even then the science of the story itself is muted while the overlying policy issues are played up. This is not to say the policies are receiving undeserving coverage – they’re important, too – but only that the underlying science, which informs policy in crucial ways, isn’t coming through.

And over time this disregard blinds us to an entire layer of enterprise that involves hundreds of thousands of our most educated people and close to Rs 2 lakh crore of our national expenditure (total R&D, 2013).

Psych of Science: Hello World

Hello, world. 🙂 I’m filing this post under a new category on Is Nerd called Psych of Science. A dull name but it’ll do. This category will host my personal reflections on the science in the stories I’ve written or read and, more importantly, of the people in those stories.

I decided to create this category after the Social Psychology replications incident. While it was not a seminal episode, reading and understanding the kind of issues faced by authors of the original paper and the replicators really got me thinking about the psychology of science. It wasn’t an eye-opening incident but I was surprised by how interested I was in how the conversation was going to play out.

Admittedly, I’m a lousy people person, and that especially comes across in my writing. I’ve always been interested in understanding how things work, not how people work. This is a discrepancy I hope will be fixed during my stint at NYU, which I’m slated to attend this fall (2014). In the meantime, and after if I get the time, I’ll leave my reflections here, and you’re welcome to add to it, too.

Can science and philosophy mix constructively?

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

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

A true theory

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

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

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

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

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

This wasn’t the case.

Gaps in our knowledge

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

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

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

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

Efficient descriptions

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

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

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

Exchange of knowledge

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

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

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

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

Liberation of philosophical reasoning

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

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

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

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

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

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