Nitin Gadkari, tomato chutney and blood

There is a famous comedy scene in Tamil cinema, starring the actors Vadivelu and ‘Bonda’ Mani. Those who understand Tamil should skip this awkward retelling – intended for non-Tamil speakers, to the video below and the post after. Vadivelu has blood all over his face due to an injury when ‘Bonda’ Mani walks up to him and asks why he’s got tomato chutney all over his face. Vadivelu looks stunned, and punches ‘Bonda’ Mani on the nose. Mani reaches a finger to his nose to find blood and cries out that he’s bleeding. Then Vadivelu asks, “If I have red stuff on my face it’s tomato chutney, but on your face it’s blood, eh?”

It would seem Vadivelu spoke what he did for many millions of us today wondering how exactly the Indian government designed its unique response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. One of the centrepieces of its response has been to punish journalists, by shutting them down or in many cases slapping them with nothing less than sedition charges, when journalists are critical of the government or seem to be asking uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, pseudoscientific claims that can directly cause harm, what with us being in the middle of a health emergency, are let off without so much as a slap on the wrist when they’re pronounced by journalists in pro-right-wing newsrooms or – as it often happens – by ministers in the government itself.

Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister of road transport and highways, has told NDTV that he believes the novel coronavirus was not natural and that it was made in a lab. Another BJP member, this one a state-level office-bearer, had some time back said something similarly idiotic, prompting a rare rebuke from Union minister Prakash Javadekar. But I doubt Javadekar is going to mete the same treatment out to Gadkari – his equal, so to speak – in public, and it’s what’s in the public domain that matters. So if there’s red stuff all over a journalist’s face, it’s tomato chutney, even if it’s actually blood. But on a minister’s face, it’s always blood even when it’s actually tomato chutney. And the government and its foot-soldiers have conditioned themselves as well as >30% of the country to follow this rule.

Second, NDTV is also complicit in the ignorance, irresponsibility and recklessness on display here because its report simply says Gadkari said what he did, without so much as a note mentioning that he’s wrong. The reason is that what Gadkari, Javadekar – who recently vowed to “expose” those who ranked India poorly in press-freedom indices – and their colleagues, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, have done is hack journalism, at least journalism as it used to be practiced, with editors and reporters stubborn about not taking sides.

This culture of journalism was valid when, simply put, all political factions advanced equally legitimate arguments. And according to Modi et al, his government and colleagues are also advancing arguments that are as legitimate as – often if not more legitimate than – those in the opposition. But there’s often plain and simple evidence that these claims are wrong, often rooted in scientific knowledge (which is why Modi et al have been undermining “Western science” from the moment they assumed power in 2014). Journalists can’t treat both sides as equals anymore – whether they be the Left and the Right, the conservatives and the liberals or the progressives and the dogmatists – because one side, whether by choice or fate, has incorporated pseudoscience into its political ideals.

Now, sans a note that Gadkari is really spouting rubbish and that we have enough evidence to reject the idea that it was human-made and accept that it evolved naturally[1], NDTV is not – as it may believe – staying neutral as much as being exploited by Gadkari as a way to have his words amplified. NDTV is effectively complicit, bringing Gadkari’s unqualified nonsense to millions of its readers, many of them swayed as much by the authority and political beliefs of the claimant as others are by the weight or paucity of evidence.

Indeed, the news channel may itself be consciously playing to both sides: (i) those who know exactly why the minister and others who make such claims are wrong, joined increasingly by unthinkers who need to and do say fashionable things without understanding why what they’re saying is right (often the same people that place science in wrongful opposition to religion, social science and/or tradition); and (ii) the allegedly disenfranchised folks paranoid about everything that isn’t Indian and/or homegrown, and have since become unable to tell cow urine from a medicinal solution.

[1] I read some time ago that Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say to god if he died and came face to face with an almighty creator. Russell, a famous skeptic of various religious beliefs, apparently said he would accuse god of not providing enough evidence of the latter’s existence. I don’t know if this story is true but Russell’s argument, as claimed, makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? In the context of Gadkari’s comment, and Luc Montagnier’s before him, complete evidence differs significantly from sufficient evidence., and it’s important to account for sufficiency in arguments concerning the novel coronavirus as well. For example, the people who believe the novel coronavirus originated in a lab are called conspiracy theorists not because they have an alternative view – as they often claim in defence – but because most of their arguments use the fallacy of the converse: that if there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove the virus evolved in nature, it must have originated in a lab. Similarly, I and many others are comfortable claiming the virus evolved naturally because there is sufficient evidence to indicate that it did. For the same reason, I also think I and many others can be proven wrong only if new information emerges.

Featured image: Union minister Nitin Gadkari, 2014. Credit: Press Information Bureau.

The virus beyond biology

A perfectly agreeable suggestion on first glance, especially since it provides an opportunity for a quick rebuke when faced with such conspiratorial, often xenophobic claims. But on a second or third reading, you find the problem (apart from Harari’s habitual oversimplification): insinuating that your interlocutor is an idiot is only going to have them dig their heels in further, possibly even change tack to accuse you of being a snob that is out of touch with the masses. And that would probably be right.

Not nearly everything about the new coronavirus outbreak pertains to basic biology. For example, understanding the SEIR model used to predict the spread of the virus does not require me to know anything about the virus’s tropism or the human body’s defence mechanisms. Instead, I simply need to know the model applies and then, based on the model’s predictions, I become qualified to comment on how the virus might spread (as long as I adhere to the principles Gautam Menon outlined). More broadly, knowing how a virus works is incidental, and deferring to the facts of biology – or any branch of scientific enquiry for that matter – as a way to qualify them to comment meaningfully about the world is patronising. Don’t trust theories if they don’t make sense to you, period, but at the same time ensure your own knowledge of biology is good enough to separate good evidence from bad.

Speaking of evidence – and perhaps even more importantly – these arguments when they do happen are founded not on the availability of facts but on a deliberate decision to ignore or at least suspect them, and instead reach for those claims that reinforce preexisting beliefs. The way to argue with such claimants is to not. Failing that, you’re unlikely to engage them with evidence alone, even less change their minds, without having to change your own conviction that the middle ground lies not in the realm of science and reason but somewhere in the overlap of socio-politics and ultimately emotions.

For coronavirus claims, there is a world between true and false

In high school, you must have learnt about Boolean algebra, possibly the most fascinating kind of algebra for its deceptive ease and simplicity. But thanks to its foundations in computer science, Boolean algebra – at least as we it learnt in school – is fixated with ‘true’ and ‘false’ states but not with the state of ‘don’t know’ that falls in between. This state may not have many applications as regards the functioning of logic gates but in the real world, it is quite important, especially when the truth threatens to be spun out of control.

Amitabh Bachchan recently published a video in which he delivered a monologue claiming that when a fly alights on human faeces containing traces of the new coronavirus, flies off and then alights on some food, the food could also be contaminated by the same virus. The Wire Science commissioned a fact-check from Dr Deepak Natarajan, a reputed (and thankfully opinionated) cardiologist in New Delhi. In his straightforward article, Dr Natarajan presents evidence from peer-reviewed papers to argue that while we know the new coronavirus does enter the faeces of an infected person, we don’t know anything about whether the virus remains viable, or capable of precipitating an infection. Second, we know nothing of the participation of flies either.

The thing to remember here is that, during a panic – or in a pre-panic situation that constantly threatens to devolve into a panic – society as such has an unusually higher uptake capacity for information that confirms their biases irrespective of whether it is true. This property, so to speak, amplifies the importance of ‘not knowing’.

Thanks to scientism, there is a common impression among many experts and most non-experts that science has, or could have, the answers to all questions that could ever be asked. So when a scientist says she does not know something, there is a pronounced tendency among some groups of people – particularly, if not entirely, those who may not be scientistic themselves but believe science itself is scientistic – to assume the lack of an answer means the absence of an answer. That is, to think “If the scientist does not have an answer, then the science does not have an answer”, rather than “If the scientist does not have an answer, then the science does not have an answer yet” or even “If the scientist does not have an answer yet, she could have an answer later“.

This response at a time of panic or pre-panic forces almost all information to be classified as either ‘true’ or ‘false’, precluding the agency science still retains to move towards a ‘true’ or ‘false’ conclusion and rendering their truth-value to be a foregone conclusion. That is, we need evidence to say if something is true – but we also need to understand that saying something is ‘not true’ without outright saying it is ‘false’ is an important state of the truth itself.

It also forces the claimant to be more accountable. Here is one oversimplified but nonetheless illustrative example: When only ‘true’ and ‘false’ exist, any new bit of information has a 50% chance of being in one bin or the other. But when ‘not true/false’ or ‘don’t know’ is in the picture, new information has only a 33% chance of assuming one of the truth values. Further, the only truth value based on which people should be allowed to claim something is true is ‘true’. ‘False’ has never been good enough but ‘don’t know’ is not good enough either, which means that before we subject a claim to a test, it has a 66% chance of being ‘not true’.

Amitabh Bachchan’s mistake was to conflate ‘don’t know’ and ‘true’ without considering the possibility of ‘not true’, and has thus ended up exposing his millions of followers on Twitter to claims that are decidedly not true. As Dr Natarajan said, silence has never been more golden.

A science for the non-1%

David Michaels, an epidemiologist and a former US assistant secretary of labour for occupational safety and health under Barack Obama, writes in the Boston Review:

[Product defence] operations have on their payrolls—or can bring in on a moment’s notice—toxicologists, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, risk assessors, and any other professionally trained, media-savvy experts deemed necessary (economists too, especially for inflating the costs and deflating the benefits of proposed regulation, as well as for antitrust issues). Much of their work involves production of scientific materials that purport to show that a product a corporation makes or uses or even discharges as air or water pollution is just not very dangerous. These useful “experts” produce impressive-looking reports and publish the results of their studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals (reviewed, of course, by peers of the hired guns writing the articles). Simply put, the product defence machine cooks the books, and if the first recipe doesn’t pan out with the desired results, they commission a new effort and try again.

Members of the corporate class have played an instrumental role in undermining trust in science in the last century, and Michaels’s exposition provides an insightful glimpse of how they work, and why what they do works. However, the narrative Michaels employs, as illustrated above, treats scientists like minions – a group of people that will follow your instructions but will not endeavour to question how their research is going to be used as long as, presumably, their own goals are met – and also excuses them for it. This is silly: the corporate class couldn’t have done what it did without help from a sliver of the scientific class that sold its expertise to the highest bidder.

Even if such actions may have been more the result of incompetence than of malice, for too long have scientists claimed vincible ignorance in their quasi-traditional tendency to prize unattached scientific progress more than scientific progress in step with societal aspirations. They need to step up, step out and participate in political programmes that deploy scientific knowledge to solve messy real-world problems, which frequently fail and just as frequently serve misguided ends (such as – but sure as hell not limited to – laundering the soiled reputation of a pedophile and convicted sex offender).

But even so, even as the scientists’ conduct typifies the problem, the buck stops with the framework of incentives that guides them.

Despite its connections with technologies that powered colonialism and war, science has somehow accrued a reputation of being clean. To want to be a scientist today is to want to make sense of the natural universe – an aspiration both simple and respectable – and to make a break from the piddling problems of here and now to the more spiritually refined omnipresent and eternal. However, this image can’t afford to maintain itself by taking the deeply human world it is embedded in for granted.

Science has become the reason for state simply because the state is busy keeping science and politics separate. No academic programme in the world today considers scientific research to be at par with public engagement and political participationa when exactly this is necessary to establish science as an exercise through which, fundamentally, people construct knowledge about the world and then ensure it is used responsibly (as well as to demote it from the lofty pedestal where it currently lords over the social sciences and humanities). Instead, we have a system that encourages only the production of knowledge, tying it up with metrics of professional success, career advancement and, most importantly, a culture of higher educationb and research that won’t brook dissent and tolerates activist-scientists as lesser creatures.

a. And it is to the government’s credit that political participation has become synonymous with electoral politics and the public expression of allegiance to political ideologies.

b. Indeed, the problem most commonly manifests as a jaundiced impression of the purpose of teaching.

The perpetuators of this structure are responsible for the formation and subsequent profitability of “the strategy of manufacturing doubt”, which Michaels writes “has worked wonders … as a public relations tool in the current debate over the use of scientific evidence in public policy. … [The] main motivation all along has been only to sow confusion and buy time, sometimes lots of time, allowing entire industries to thrive or individual companies to maintain market share while developing a new product.”

To fight the vision of these perpetuators, to at least rescue the fruits of the methods of science from inadvertent ignominy, we need publicly active scientists to be the rule, not the exceptions to the rule. We need structural incentives to change to accommodate the fact that, if they don’t, this group of people will definitely remain limited to members of the upper class and/or upper castes. We need a stronger, closer marriage of science, the social sciences, business administration and policymaking.

To be sure, I’m neither saying the mere presence of scientists in public debates will lead to swifter solutions nor that the absence of science alone in policymaking is responsible for so many of the crises of our times – but that their absence has left cracks so big, it’s quite difficult to consider if they can be sealed any other wayc. And yes, the world will slow down, the richer will become less rich and economic growth will become more halting, but these are all also excuses to maintain a status quo that has only exploited the non-1% for two centuries straight.

c. Michaels concludes his piece with a list of techniques the product-defence faction has used to sow doubt and, in the resulting moments of vulnerability, ‘sell science’ – i.e. techniques that represent the absence of guiding voices.

Of course, there’s only so much one can do if the political class isn’t receptive to one’s ideas – but we must begin somewhere, and what better place to begin than at the knowledgeable place?

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.

New management at Nautilus

When an email landed in my inbox declaring that the beleaguered science communication magazine Nautilus would be “acquired by ownership group of super-fans”, I thought it was going to become a cooperative. It was only when I read the extended statement that I realised the magazine was undergoing a transformation that wasn’t at all new to the global media landscape.

A super-group of investors has come to Nautilus‘s rescue, bearing assurances that publisher John Steele repeats in the statement without any penitence for having stiffed its contributors for months on end, in some cases for over a year, for pieces already published: “Together we will work even harder to expand the public’s knowledge and understanding of fundamental questions of scientific inquiry, as well as their connection to human culture.” Steele also appears to be blind to the irony of his optimism when the “craven shit-eating” of private equity just sunk the amazing Deadspin (to quote from a suitably biting obituary by Alex Shephard).

The statement doesn’t mention whether the new investment covers pending payments and by when. In fact, the whole statement is obsessed with Nautilus‘s commitment to science in a tone that verges on cheerleading – and now and then crosses over too – which is bizarre because Nautilus is a science communication magazine, not a science magazine, so its cause, to use the term loosely, is to place science in the right context and on occasion even interrogate it. But the statement mentions an accompanying public letter entitled ‘Science Matters’. According to Steele,

The letter is a public commitment by the Nautilus team, its staff, advisors, and its contributors; leading thinkers, researchers, teachers, and businesspeople; and the public at large to tirelessly advance the cause of science in America and around the world.

Huh?

By itself such commitments don’t bode well (they’re awfully close to scientism) but they assume a frightening level of plausibility when read together with the list of investors. The latter includes Larry Summers, his wife Elisa New, and Nicholas White. One of the others, Fraser Howie, is listed as an “author” but according to his bio in the Nikkei Asian Review, “He has worked in China’s capital markets since 1992.” His authorship probably refers to his three books but they’re all about the Chinese financial system.

Everyone here is a (white) capitalist, most of them men. Call me cynical but something about this doesn’t sit well. For all the details in the statement of the investors’ institutional affiliations, it’s hard to imagine them sitting around a table and agreeing that Nautilus needs to be critical of, instead of sympathetic to, science – especially since the takeover will also transform the magazine from a non-profit to a for-profit endeavour.

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.

Authority, authoritarianism and a scicomm paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The alleged politicisation of science

“Don’t politicise X” has become the defence of choice for a class of scientists and public intellectuals in India whose class and caste privilege utterly blinds them to various inequities in the practice of science – as privilege is wont to do – and who labour with the presumption that these inequities, should they miraculously become aware of a few, don’t affect what new knowledge is produced and how it affects relationships predicated on a power imbalance in the wider society.

Consider a simple example: men and women are equally capable of being good scientists, but there aren’t many women the further down the academic pipeline you go because they have been driven out by their male colleagues’ and supervisors’ sexism and misogyny. As a result, a lot of modern scientific research simply collects the results of questions that men asked and questions that the same or other men answered. This problem impoverishes the scientific undertaking by depriving it of the insights and sensibilities of a significant section of society.

The way ahead from here should not be to ‘normalise’ things because the normal has come to mean the preservation of the status quo, in terms of protecting men and safeguarding their domains as temples of patriarchy; there can be progress only with near-constant struggle and pushback, and among non-male scientists as well as non-male workers, together with their male colleagues and peers, in all endeavours of modernity. It would in turn be impossible for such a historic movement to be non-political or apolitical.

A part of the problem is rooted in the demonisation of politics, at least the label itself. ‘To politicise’ has come to mean to infuse an endeavour with partisanship where there has thus far been harmony, with incentives that suppress intelligent decision-making with the simpler algorithms of populism. However, when such harmony and intelligence are products of oppression, they must go.

A male PI’s contention that women in the lab will “distract” men – as the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt said – or that they are unlikely to be available to run experiments owing to menstruation or pregnancy should prompt us to reexamine how labs are organised, the rights and freedoms of female lab-workers, and how the university frames the relationship between labour and research, and not have us considering if women should be allowed to work in labs at all. In a different context, many Indians on discussion forums and social media platforms have recently become fond of demanding that I, or anyone else, “shouldn’t politicise space”. But space has become interesting and lucrative only because it has been politicised.

“Politics,” according to Wikipedia, “is a set of activities associated with the governance of a country or an area.” In this regard, it should seem impossible for any endeavour, no matter how small or fleeting, to remain untouched by the influence of the politics of the people undertaking the endeavour. Caste-based and gender-based discrimination are obvious manifestations of this truism in Indian society; for another, consider the following snippet from an article I (first) published in July. It summarises the extent to which public policy influences the possible trajectories of scientific careers in India:

Consider a scientist from the developing world. Let’s say he is a male, English-speaking middle-class Brahmin so we can set aside the ceaseless discrimination the scientific community’s non-malenon-Hindu/non-upper-castenon-heterosexualIndian-language-speaking members face for the sake of our discussion. The picture has already been oversimplified. This scientist has access to some instruments, a few good labs, not many good mentors, irregular funding, not enough travel grants, subpar employment prospects, insufficient access to journals, lives in a polluted city with uneven public transport, rising costs of living, less water to spare and rising medical bills. If at this juncture we reinstate the less privileged Indian in this matrix, it becomes a near-chaotic picture of personal, social, economic and political problems. Even then, it is still only the substrate upon which international inequities – such as access to samples from other parts of India and the world, information published in journals that libraries can’t afford or exclusion from the editorial boards of scientific journals – will come to bear. Finally, there is the climate crisis and its discomfiting history.

For a less obvious example: Chandrayaan 2 has been widely touted as a technological as well as scientific mission. However, in the lead up to the mission’s launch on July 22 as well as after the unfortunate events of September 7, ISRO’s focus as well as that of the people and most journalists has remained on the mission’s technological aspects. In fact, ISRO chairman K. Sivan declared on September 22 that the mission had been a 98% success when its scientific phase had barely begun – that is, that Chandrayaan 2’s scientific mission constitutes only 2% of the whole thing.

As bizarre as this sounds, these proclamations are in line with ISRO’s relatively poor track record of executing sophisticated scientific missions. This should force us to confront the political economics of science administration in India – whereby those in power have become increasingly unwilling to fund non-applied research thanks to the rising influence of populist politics and its predilection for short-term gains. This is in addition to the relationships central and state-level funding agencies have with the receivers of their money, how such money is distributed between elite and non-elite institutes, and how nationalism shields ISRO from backlash as it centralises authority and further limits public outreach.

There are many other examples to illustrate that there is no such thing as the politicisation of X inasmuch as there is either the acknowledgment of this truth or its denial. But if you are still grasping for an out, there is one. There are two broad ways to divide the public perception of what politics is: the kind concerned with the principles by which we govern ourselves as a peaceful and productive society, and the kind concerned with maximising media exposure and perpetuating the inefficiencies of bureaucracy.

The influence of the former is inescapable by design and must be guided by reason and debate; the influence of the latter is regrettable and must be rejected for its small-mindedness at every opportunity. If one takes a charitable view of those fond of saying “don’t politicise X”, one would hope that they are speaking of politics of the second variety: the dirty realpolitik and its Machiavellian ambitions. But a less charitable, and an arguably more justified, view suggests that many scientists – in India at least – lack an appreciation of the politics of principles, a politics of social justice if you will.

Indeed, it is curious that many of them, together with many non-scientists as well, often prefer a more scientistic outlook, whereby the traditionally imagined ‘scientific’ disciplines and the knowledge these endeavours supply are considered to be incontestably superior to alternatives derived from, say, sociological studies or even paralogical systems like religion and traditional beliefs. To quote the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, “Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding.” (Source: Against Method, fourth ed., p. 223.)

But modern society considers politicisation to be a greater threat than scientism whereas historians of science brim with anecdotes about how the scientific endeavour remains constantly on the cusp of being weaponised in the absence of political safeguards that regulate its practice. The ongoing nationalist project to debase non-scientific research typifies this; to quote from an older post on this blog:

… the left has been painted as anti-fact and the right [as being guided] by righteous logic when in fact this is the result of the deeper dismissal of the validity of the social sciences and humanities, which have served throughout history to make facts right and workable in their various contexts. The right has appropriated the importance of quantitative measures – and that alone – and brandishes it like a torch. … And by attacking the validity of the social sciences and humanities, the left has effectively had the rug pulled out from under its feet, and the intellectual purpose of its existence delegitimised.

Not all of us may fully appreciate how we got here, but there is no question that we are indeed here – and that the way forward must be cognisant of, if not entirely critical of, the alleged politicisation of science and the political agendas of the perpetrators of this idea.