Two outstretched hands, one white and one black, reaching for each other from diagonal ends of the screen.

Sci-fi past the science

There’s an interesting remark in the introductory portion of this article by Zeynep Tufekci (emphasis added):

At its best, though, science fiction is a brilliant vehicle for exploring not the far future or the scientifically implausible but the interactions among science, technology and society. The what-if scenarios it poses can allow us to understand our own societies better, and sometimes that’s best done by dispensing with scientific plausibility.

Given the context, such plausibility is likely predicated on the set of all pieces of knowledge minus the set of the unknown-unknown. This in turn indicates a significant divergence between scientific knowledge and knowledge of human society, philosophies and culture as we progress into the future, at least to the extent that there is a belief in the present that scientific knowledge already trails our knowledge of the sociological and political components required to build a more equitable society.

This is pithy and non-trivial at the same time: pithy because the statement reaffirms the truism that science in and of itself lacks the moral centrifuge to separate good from bad, and non-trivial because it refutes the technoptimism that guides Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, (the late) Paul Allen, etc.

If you superimposed this condition on sci-fi the genre, it becomes clear that Isaac Asimov’s and Arthur Clarke’s works – which the world’s tech billionaires claim to have been inspired by in their pursuit of interplanetary human spaceflight, as Tufekci writes – were less about strengthening the role of science and technology in our lives and more about rendering it transparent, so we can look past the gadgets and the gadgetry towards the social structures they’re embedded in.

In effect, Tufekci continues:

Science fiction is sometimes denigrated as escapist literature, but the best examples of it are exactly the opposite.

She argues in her short article, more of a long note, that this alternative reading of sci-fi and its purpose could encourage the billionaires to retool their ambitions and think about making life better on Earth. Food for thought, especially at the start of a new decade when there seems to be a blanket lien to hope – although I very much doubt the aspirations of Musk, Bezos and others were nurtured about such a simple fulcrum.

Retrospective: The Wire Science in 2019

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

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

Most popular articles of 2019

The Sciences

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

Health

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

Environment

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

Space

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

Education

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

Our choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wire
December 26, 2019

Credit: OpenClipart-Vectors/pixabay

To understand #NotInMyName

Note: This blog has moved to drizzly.org (it’s been in the works for a while). If you’d already signed up to receive updates from strangeness.co, you’ll continue to receive them via a daily MailChimp email. If not, you can sign up here to receive updates from Drizzly.

Shivam Vij published this on June 27. Excerpt:

[Liberals] still romanticise their days at the JNU campus in the ’80s – what an innocent time it was. The still think their marches and slogans will Bring Down Fascism. The people who will march today, feeling self-important about fighting the good fight, don’t understand they are actually helping Hindutva. The more you make a campaign out of Hindutva obsessions – cows, meat, Muslims – these keywords become the central agenda of politics.

Liberals think they can take on Hindutva on its turf and defeat it. That this is not possible should be obvious after the experience since Babri. The only way Hindutva could be defeated is to change the keywords of political discourse from the ones Hindutva wants – cows, meat, Muslims – to the ones it is more apologetic about, such as violence against Dalits, farmers’ agitations, the distress faced by small traders due to demonetisation and GST.

Ashley Tellis rebutted with this on June 28. Excerpt:

[Vij] contradicts himself right off the bat by pointing to the rise of attacks on Muslims since the BJP came to power and then spends the rest of the article telling us that we should not use the word Muslim at all as that is rising to the click-baiting of the BJP. He teaches us that we must give up the words ‘cows, meat and Muslims’ and replace them with ‘Dalit, farmer, small trader.’ It is the stupidest piece of advice ever given by a journalist to anyone. But then, journalists like Vij tend to be the stupidest people around. So perhaps he should take this advice himself and not write articles about protests that according to him have nothing to do with Dalits, farmers and small traders.

I’m coming into this issue as someone who’s not ignorant as much as has embarrassing trouble understanding the syntax and language of such issues. Earlier yesterday, I’d had my doubts about #NotInMyName and asked a friend about them. At first he seemed dismissive (calling my concerns “wooly”) but after some badgering, he answered them one by one (I had nine questions). By not attacking my observations and explaining to me where I was wrong, he has gained an ally (irrespective of how much that means to him or his causes). But how Tellis has replied to Vij I think will make it harder for anyone who is simply looking for answers to take a stronger position in public debates, and to approach him with their doubts.

I realise that Tellis is fully within his rights to call Vij ‘stupid’, as well as that the fight against Hindutva fascists is as sensitive as it is crucial and in which no one will spare anyone else any inches (either in newspaper columns or political estate). I also realise that Vij is an experienced journalist and whose views should have been debated as such (instead of by disparaging all journalistic commentary). For example, by discussing why he sees it fit to make an overly specialised point about strategies when #NotInMyName is really about concerned citizens speaking out against a particularly insidious motivation for murder, as well as the murders themselves, as a collective for the first time. However, a very important intra-communal unity is at stake here: the more vicious public debates we have, the more it will seem like a ‘conversation’ cordoned off to those masses for whom an awareness of social and political issues is only just budding. It places quite the cost on being uninformed (not being ignorant) that those who would like to be informed might not deserve (and it can’t be that everyone’s undeserving of it!). And when this cost is already so high, when the specialised language of the social sciences is already so hard to decipher for an outsider, Tellis’s – and Vij’s and others’ – level of incivility only makes things worse. This isn’t to say Vij wasn’t saying disagreeable things – but only that there’s a way to dismiss them, and how Tellis did it seemed less that and more… spectacle.

As my friend Akhil told me, “To me, the tone and argument of Shivam Vij’s article seems more problematic than Tellis’s response. Of course Tellis could have countered it better than firing off a rant, but who encourages Tellis’s style of writing and who benefits from it explains why such messy debates exist and there’s little we can do about it. Vij wrote a piece lacking substance, but controversial enough to generate traffic, saying things just for the sake of saying things. I’m not sure he wanted a meaningful debate in the first place.And I’m sure Tellis didn’t want a scholarly debate at all because he found the very premise of the arguments ridiculous.” All this also prompts the consideration: Tellis v. Vij, and Tellis v. Rajamani (salvo, return), both played out on the pages of journalism websites (Huffington Post, News Minute and Sify). Should these websites, or any others for that matter, have also been responsible for first introducing the issue (not just as a staid news report like Business Standard did but also in the form of a very important debate playing out between scholars – Vij may not have been one but Rajesh Rajamani  and Tellis both are), through which readers could be appraised not just of the overarching narrative of fascists v. liberals but also that of how scholars are choosing to frame – or not frame – their relationship with #NotInMyName? I think so.

More Akhil: “Either we can enjoy lengthy theoretical debates on the internet or physically make our presence felt. A healthy cultural of debate is always desirable, but when the intent is malicious and counterproductive to actual efforts to make things better in such desperate times, it’s difficult to hold back angst in the interest of civility. The onus is of course on the editors of the websites to present the debate in such a manner that serves a more important purpose (to give the audience diverse perspectives) rather than to run clickbait rant that eventually leaves little space for critical engagement.”


My friend’s answers, in case anyone’s interested:

1. Who is the campaign for? Whose attention will the attendees be clamouring for?

For the bulk of Indians (or Hindus, more precisely), whose silence in the face of the BJP’s majoritarianism is providing space for the lynchers and killers.

2. How will (anyone) participating in #NotInMyName help the oppressed minorities?

Oppressed minorities will feel hugely relieved and reassured by a good turnout across the country. I would say the overall size is what will reassure them more than individual names or faces.

3. Doesn’t the name ‘#NotInMyName’ feel more like an abdication than a protest?

The crimes are being committed in the name of ‘nation’, ‘Hinduism’, ‘Bharat mata’, ‘Indian values’, etc., so it is important for people to say, “Sorry, you don’t have exclusive rights to define what is Indian, what is Hindu, what are Hindu values, etc.”

4. Saba Dewan, the filmmaker whose Facebook post snowballed into the #NotInMyName protests, told Business Standard, “We want to convey that whatever is happening in the society is not happening in our name; I do not approve of it.” Why do we presume those who are perpetrating the lynchings care what the urban, upper-class, upper-caste observers think?

Those who are perpetrating may not care but the puppet masters who have created a culture of impunity, who control the police and whose own statements have encouraged the lynch mentality, DO CARE – especially about what the urban, upper-class-upper-caste thinks.

5. Are the campaign’s organisers making any efforts to actively involve minorities in a meaningful way? And is there a way to do this without turning it into a spectacle?

I think the idea is really to ensure Hindus turn out in the largest possible numbers. I suspect people are sending the call to Muslim friends as a kind of solidarity message but to Hindu friends in order to ensure they turn up.

6. The protests are set to be held in 11 cities: New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Trivandrum, Kochi, Patna, Lucknow, London, Toronto. According to an IndiaSpend analysis, cows-related violence since 2014 hasn’t happened in any of these cities but in usually rural areas outside them.

This is a solidarity event so it doesn’t matter where cow-related violence took place.

7. What does the ‘name’ in #NotInMyName stand for? If it denotes religious orders and/or caste, then why does it appear to be an exclusively upper-caste mobilisation?

The Indian upper middle class is largely upper caste so it may appear that this is an upper caste mobilisation, in the same way rallies for LGBTQIA+, FoE, media freedom, etc. issues do.

8. Isn’t there a difference between Muslims using the phrase ‘Not In My Name’ to speak out against ISIS’s brand of Islam, or Americans using it to speak out against their government using their money to fund the War Against Terrorism, and privileged people marching under the banner to decry lynchings perpetrated in the name of preserving the same socio-religious order whose benefits they enjoy?

All of these cases are different. The anti-ISIS protests come from genuine Muslim revulsion against ISIS but also the pressure in Western society for the participants to dissociate from Islamic extremism.

Americans against War on Terror is similar to the Indian protest today, where people in whose name bad things are done (war on terror, attacks on minorities) tell the rulers to STFU. Sure, the rulers can say, “You STFU, you are enjoying the privileges of being American (cheap oil, etc.)” – or Hindu – but that is neither here nor there as an argument.

9. To the people saying “not in my name”: what do you usually lend your name to?

The answer is obvious: just look at the petitions we have carried on The Wire over the past two years by pretty much the same set of folks doing today’s mobilisation: justice for Rohith Vemula, Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, support of FoE, etc. etc.

Featured image credit: OpenClipart-Vectors/pixabay.

Did Facebook cheat us?

'I don't want to live on this planet anymore' meme. Image: superbwallpapers.com
You might want to rethink that.

No.

There were some good arguments on this topic, swinging between aesthetic rebuttals to logical deconstructions. Here are four I liked:

1. Tal Yarkoni, Director of the Psychoinformatics Lab at University of Texas, Austin, writes on his blog,

“… it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s nothing intrinsically evil about the idea that large corporations might be trying to manipulate your experience and behavior. Everybody you interact with–including every one of your friends, family, and colleagues–is constantly trying to manipulate your behavior in various ways. Your mother wants you to eat more broccoli; your friends want you to come get smashed with them at a bar; your boss wants you to stay at work longer and take fewer breaks. We are always trying to get other people to feel, think, and do certain things that they would not otherwise have felt, thought, or done. So the meaningful question is not whether people are trying to manipulate your experience and behavior, but whether they’re trying to manipulate you in a way that aligns with or contradicts your own best interests. The mere fact that Facebook, Google, and Amazon run experiments intended to alter your emotional experience in a revenue-increasing way is not necessarily a bad thing if in the process of making more money off you, those companies also improve your quality of life. I’m not taking a stand one way or the other, mind you, but simply pointing out that without controlled experimentation, the user experience on Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. would probably be very, very different–and most likely less pleasant.”

2. Yarkoni’s argument brings us to these tweets.

https://twitter.com/pmarca/status/483024580554932224

Didn’t get it? Chris Dixon explains.

I didn’t spot these tweets. TechCrunch did, and it brings up the relevant comparison with A/B testing. A/B testing is a technique whereby web-designers optimize user experience engineers by showing different layouts to different user groups, then decide on the best layout depending how which users responded to which layouts. Like Dixon asks, is it okay if it’s done all the time on sites that want to make money by giving you a good time?

You’d argue that we’ve signed up to be manipulated like that, not like this – see #4. Or you’d argue this was different because Facebook was just being Facebook – but the social scientists weren’t being ethical. This is true. To quote from the TechCrunch piece,

A source tells Forbes’ Kashmir Hill it was not submitted for pre-approval by the Institutional Review Board, an independent ethics committee that requires scientific experiments to meet stern safety and consent standards to ensure the welfare of their subjects. I was IRB certified for an experiment I developed in college, and can attest that the study would likely fail to meet many of the pre-requisites.

3. The study that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which it appears not many have read. It reports a statistically significant result that emotions are contagious over Facebook. But as Yarkoni demonstrates, its practical significance is minuscule:

… the manipulation had a negligible real-world impact on users’ behavior. To put it in intuitive terms, the effect of condition in the Facebook study is roughly comparable to a hypothetical treatment that increased the average height of the male population in the United States by about one twentieth of an inch (given a standard deviation of ~2.8 inches).

4. Facebook’s Terms of Service – to quote:

We use the information we receive about you in connection with the services and features we provide to you and other users like your friends, our partners, the advertisers that purchase ads on the site, and the developers that build the games, applications, and websites you use. For example, in addition to helping people see and find things that you do and share, we may use the information we receive about you:

… for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.

IMO, the problems appear to be:

  1. The social scientists didn’t get informed consent from the subjects of their experiments.
  2. What a scientific experiment is is not clearly defined in Facebook’s ToS – and defining such a thing will prove very difficult and is likely never to be implemented.

To-do: Find out more about the IRB and its opinions on this experiment.