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.

Looking for gemstones in the gutter

Just the other day, I’d mentioned to a friend that Steven Pinker was one of those rare people whose ideas couldn’t be appreciated by proxy, such as through the opinions of other authority figures, but had to be processed individually. This is because Pinker has found as much support as he has detraction – from Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True on the one hand to P.Z. Myers’s Pharyngula on the other. As an aspiring rationalist, it’s hard for me to place Pinker on the genius-lunatic circle because it’s hard to see how his own ideas are self-consistent, or how all of his ideas sit on a common plane of reason.

2013 article Pinker wrote in The New Republic only added to this dilemma. The article argued that science was not an enemy of the humanities, with Pinker trying to denounce whatever he thought others thought “scientism” stood for. He argued that ‘scientism’ was not the idea that “everything is about science”, rather a commitment to two ideals: intelligibility and that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard”. This is a reasonable elucidation necessary to redefine the role and place of science in today’s jingoistic societies.

However, Pinker manages to mangle the rest of the article with what I hope (but can’t really believe to be) was pure carelessness – even though this is also difficult to believe because we all seem to have this fixation at the back of our minds that Pinker is a smart man. He manages to define everything he thinks is in this world worth defining from the POV of natural science alone. Consider these lines:

Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.

Pinker has completely left out subjects like sociology and anthropology in his definition of the world and the values its people harbour. Though he acknowledges that “scientific facts don’t by themselves dictate values”, he’s also pompous enough to claim scientific reasoning alone has undermined human sacrifice, witch hunts, etc. Then why is it that senior ISRO officials, who are well-educated rocket scientists, offer rocket models at temples before upcoming launches? Why is it that IT employees who migrate from Chennai and Bangalore to California still believe that the caste system is an idea worth respecting?

He continues:

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.

This seems to make logical sense… until you pause and wonder if that’s how people actually think. Did we decide to take control of our own welfare because “the laws governing the universe lack purpose”? Of course not. I’m actually tempted to argue that the laws governing the universe have been stripped of the ability to govern anthropic matters because we decided to take control of our welfare.

In fact, Pinker imputes the humanities and social sciences with intentions most institutions that study them likely don’t have. He also appropriates the ideas of pre-18th-century thinkers into the fold of science when it would’ve been wrong to do so: Hume, Leibniz and Kant (to pick only those philosophers whose work I’m familiar with) were not scientists. In fact, somehow, the one person who would’ve been useful to appropriate for the purposes of Pinker’s argument was left out: Roger Bacon. Then, deeper into the piece, there’s this:

The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

With sweeping statements like these, Pinker leaves his head vulnerable to being bitten off (like here). At the same time, his conception of “scientism” burns bright like a gemstone lying in the gutter. Why can’t you be more clear cut like the gem, Pinker, and make it easier for all of us to get the hang of you? Can I trust in your definition of ‘scientism’ or should I wonder how you came upon it given the other silly things you believe? (Consider this: “The definitional vacuum [of what ‘scientism’ means] allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of ‘queer’ and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.” When was ‘queer’ ever a pejorative among gender/sexuality rights activists?) Oh, why are you making me think!

As I languished in the midst of this quandary and contemplated doing some actual work to get to the bottom of the Pinker puzzle, I came upon a review of his book Enlightenment Now (2018) authored by George Monbiot, whom I’ve always wholeheartedly agreed with. Here we go, I thought, and I wasn’t disappointed: Monbiot takes a clear position. In a bristling piece for The Guardian, Monbiot accuses Pinker of cherry-picking data and, in a few instances, misrepresenting facts to reach conclusions more favourable to his worldview, as a result coming off as an inadvertent apologist for capitalism. Excerpt:

Pinker suggests that the environmental impact of nations follows the same trajectory, claiming that the “environmental Kuznets Curve” shows they become cleaner as they get richer. To support this point, he compares Nordic countries with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It is true that they do better on indicators such as air and water quality, as long as you disregard their impacts overseas. But when you look at the whole picture, including carbon emissions, you discover the opposite. The ecological footprints of Afghanistan and Bangladesh (namely the area required to provide the resources they use) are, respectively, 0.9 and 0.7 hectares per person. Norway’s is 5.8, Sweden’s is 6.5 and Finland, that paragon of environmental virtue, comes in at 6.7.

Pinker seems unaware of the controversies surrounding the Kuznets Curve, and the large body of data that appears to undermine it. The same applies to the other grand claims with which he sweeps through this subject. He relies on highly tendentious interlocutors to interpret this alien field for him. If you are going to use people like US ecomodernist Stewart Brand and the former head of Northern Rock Matt Ridley as your sources, you need to double-check their assertions. Pinker insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.

To make sure I wasn’t making a mistake, I went through all of Coyne’s posts written in support of Pinker. It would seem that while there’s much to admire in his words, especially those concerning his area of expertise – psycholinguistics – Pinker either falls short when articulating his worldview or, more likely, the moment he steps out of his comfort zone and begins addressing the humanities, goes cuckoo. Coyne repeatedly asserts that Pinker is a classic progressive liberal who’s constantly misunderstood because he refuses to gloss over matters of political correctness that the authoritarian left doesn’t want you to discuss. But it’s really hard to stand by him when – like Monbiot says about Enlightenment Now – he’s accused of misrepresenting rape statistics in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).

Anyway, the Princeton historian David Bell also joined in with a scathing review for The Nation, where he called Enlightenment Now a 20-hour TED talk pushing history as having been “just so” instead of acknowledging the many people’s movements and struggles that deliberately made it so.

Pinker’s problems with history are compounded even further as he tries to defend the Enlightenment against the many scholarly critics who have pointed, over the centuries, to some of its possible baleful consequences. Did Enlightenment forms of reasoning and scientific inquiry lie behind modern biological racism and eugenics? Behind the insistence that women do not have the mental capacity for full citizenship? Not at all, Pinker assures us. That was just a matter of bad science.

Indeed, it was. But Pinker largely fails to deal with the inconvenient fact that, at the time, it was not so obviously bad science. The defenders of these repellent theories, used to justify manifold forms of oppression, were published in scientific journals and appealed to the same standards of reason and utility upheld by Pinker. “Science” did not by itself inevitably beget these theories, but it did provide a new language and new forms of reasoning to justify inequality and oppression and new ways of thinking about and categorizing natural phenomena that suggested to many an immutable hierarchy of human races, the sexes, and the able and disabled. The later disproving of these theories did not just come about because better science prevailed over worse science. It came about as well because of the moral and political activism that forced scientists to question data and conclusions they had largely taken for granted.

It seems Pinker may not be playing as fast and loose with facts, philosophy and the future as sci-fi writers like Yuval Noah Harari (whose Homo Deus is the reason I’ve not read historical surveys since; I recommend John Sexton’s takedown) have, but he’s probably just as bad for riding a cult of personality that has brought, and continues to bring, him an audience that will listen to him even though he’s a psycholinguist monologuing about Enlightenment philosophy. And what’s more, all the reviews I can find of Enlightenment Now have different versions of the same complaints Monbiot and Bell have made.

So I’m going to wilfully succumb to two of the cognitive biases Pinker says blinkers our worldview and makes things seem more hopeless than they are – availability and negativity – and kick Enlightenment Now off my todo list.

In sum: what keeps Pinker au courant is his optimism. If only it weren’t so misinformed in its fundamentals…

Hat-tip to Omair Ahmad for flagging the New Republic article. Featured image: Steven Pinker. Credit: sfupamr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Taking the ringdown route to understanding the humans of science

What follows is an attempt to process and understand Cassandra Willyard’s post on Last Word on Nothing, about her preferring the humanised stories of science over the stories of the science itself (“Physics writers, this is how you nab the physics haters — human emotion”; my previous post on this is here). He words have been weighing on my mind – as they have been on others’ – because of the specific issues that they explored: humanising the process of science, and to be able to look at all science stories through the humanised lens. By humanising the process of science, it’s not that the science takes a backseat; instead, the centrepiece of the story is the human. Creating such stories is obviously not a problem for/to anyone. The problems come to be when, per the second issue, people start obsessing over such stories.

At this point, I’m not speaking for anyone but myself; nor is my post written in the usual upside-down pyramid style, rather the other way round. Second: I deviate significantly from Willyard’s post’s demesne because I’m just following my thoughts-current on the subject. I’m tempted to use a metaphor: that of the ringdown, the phase when two blackholes that have merged settle down into a stable, unified shape.

I

By virtue of not being about people, or humans in general, science stories without the human component are a hard-sell. Willyard’s right when she says that humans are interested in stories about other humans – but I think what she’s taking for granted here is that humans being interested only in stories about other humans is fair. It’s definitely tenable, but is it fair? The sense of fairness in this context emerges from the idea that it’s not okay for us to consume – while we’re alive the one time we are – only that which immediately affects us. Instead, we must make room for the truly wonderful, and identify and appreciate the kinds of beauty that transcend utility, that would be beautiful from all points of view and not just our own.

If such appreciation had been shared by all consumers of journalism, then producing pure-science stories would be a breeze. But in reality, it’s anything but. This is why advocating for the persistent humanisation of science is almost offensive: humanised science sells very well; it does not need a shot in the arm, nor a platform like Last Word on Nothing, to help its cause. It is an economically privileged form of science journalism that has no right to complain.

To be sure, Willyard is neither calling for the persistent humanisation of science nor is she complaining that humanised stories of science are not the norm. That said, however, I feel that she is downplaying the importance of non-humanised science stories from a very pragmatic perspective: her grounds are that they’re not emotional enough – which suggests she’s saying that emotions are important. Why? Emotions are easy to market; emotions are easy tools of interpersonal communication, especially ones that can transcend language, culture and enterprise.

A part of my indignation towards her post emerges from this endpoint: the axiomatic inference that that which lacks emotions is unimportant, and that such a suggestion disparages an entire branch of science communication that seeks to explore science without simultaneously exploring the human condition. What also contributes to my sentiment being what it is is the fact that Willyard is a science journalist – she’s one of us – and for her to make such distinctions, for her to declare such preferences without also exploring their underlying economics, feels like she’s being either myopic or selfish.

(I must clarify that though I’ve used big words like ‘selfish’, I’m feeling them in a more diluted form.)

II

Humanised science is almost populist as well. In India, many newsrooms publish such stories without having to call it science, and they don’t. They’re disguised as ‘science and society’, ‘science policy’, ‘higher education’, ‘public administration’, etc. You, my reader, consume these kinds of science stories regularly, without having to be lured into the copy or being given extra incentives. You’re definitely interested.

… except for one small genre of the whole thing: pure science, the substrate on which all else that you’re reading about is founded, but which has over time become sidelined, ostracised into the ‘Other’, the freak show reserved for nerds and geeks, the thing which scares you without making you question that fear. (“I’m scared of math! I gave up working with numbers a long time ago.” Why the actual fuck? “No idea. I see an equation and I’m just scared.”)

The reason I’m so riled up (which I didn’t realise until I began writing this sentence – and that’s why I write this blog) was something I recently discussed with my friend O.A. at a party organised by The Wire. That was when I’d first heard about C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ essay, which O.A. mentioned in the context of a spate of news reports discussing hydrological issues in agriculture.

O.A. said, “People don’t understand how water works in agriculture. I read something about someone trying to estimate how much water a crop uses in a season and then, with that information, trying to determine how much water we’re losing across our borders when we export that crop to other countries. The whole method is so stupid.” (This conversation happened a few months ago, so I’m rephrasing/paraphrasing.)

It really is stupid: evaluating agriculture – even when at the level of a single crop sown in one reason in a single acre of land – in terms of just one of the resources it utilises makes no sense. Moreover, the water used to grow a crop does not rest in the produce; it seeps into the soil, runs off, evaporates, it reenters our local ecosystems in so many ways. What made this ‘analysis’ stupider was that (a) it appeared in a leading business daily and (b) the analyst was a senior bureaucrat of some kind.

O.A. went on to describe a fundamental disconnection between the language of India’s policymakers and the language of India’s farmers and labourers, a disconnection he said was only symptomatic of the former’s broad-brushstroke ideas being so far removed from the material substance of the enterprises they were responsible for regulating. He then provided some other examples: fuel subsidies for fishermen, petroleum distribution, solar power grid-feeding, etc.

This kind of disconnection comes to be when you know more about the logistics of a product or service than about how its physical nature defines its abilities and limitations. And more often than not, investigations of this physical nature neither require nor benefit from having their ‘stories’ humanised. There are so many natural wonders that populate the world we engage with, that have quietly but surely revolutionised our lives in many ways, whose potential to enhance–

III

Fuck, there I go, thinking about the universe in terms of humans. I concede that it’s a very fine line to inhabit – exploring our universe without thinking about humans… Maybe I should just get it out of my system: without understanding how the universe works, we as a species cannot hope to forever improve our quality of life; and, disconcertingly, this includes the act of being awed by natural beauty! It’s like Joey’s challenge to Phoebe in Friends: “There are no selfless acts.”

BUT we first do need to understand how the universe works in non-human, non-utilitarian terms. Asking if such a thing is even possible is a legitimate question but I also think that’s a separate conversation. We consume the pure science that we do because it’s what caught someone else’s fancy, it’s what a scientific journal is pushing in our faces, it’s what a scientist is thinking about in a well-funded research lab in the First World. There are many biases to overcome before we can truly claim to be in the presence of unadulterated/unmitigated beauty, before we can have that conversation about whether objective beauty really exists. However, the way to begin would be by acknowledging these biases exist and working to overcome them.

To those asking why should we at all – I’d have said “we should because I think so, and it’s up to you to trust me or not”, but I don’t because a lot of science writers around the world feel the same way, which means we have something in common. I don’t know what this something is but, thanks to the wellspring of responses Willyard’s post received, I know that I must find out.

Finally, I know that Willyard’s post doesn’t preclude all these possibilities. It simply asks that we get those uninterested in physics to give a damn by using the humans of physics as a conduit of interestingness. After all, the human condition may be a vanishingly small part of the cosmic condition that we partake of, that we have used to construct civilisation, and everything else out there may be cold, cold space – but humans are the way the universe examines itself.

My reservations exist in a very specific context: that of science journalism in India, specifically the India of pseudoscience, fake news, caste conflicts and broken education. In this context, I’m constantly anxious about becoming a selloff – a writer who gives up someday and trades his conviction in the power of pure science to help us think more clearly about our fraught communities and governments off in exchange for easy career progression.

fin.

Featured image: A simulation showing a binary blackhole pair (as seen by a nearby observer) spiralling around each other before they merge. Credit: Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes Lensing/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.