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Analysis Op-eds Science

Science prizes, wealth location and social signals

One count on which I almost always find myself to be an outlier in India is my opinion that the Nobel Prizes and their derivatives belong in the gutter. But while many people in other countries share this opinion of the Nobel Prizes, and often put their weight behind advancing this view, there are very few people who focus on similar issues with Indian prizes.

For example, I just sent my colleagues at The Wire a note suggesting that we desist where and when possible to play up notions like eminence, vis-à-vis scientists, and not associate anything but the quality of one’s work with their success. My concern had been prompted by a PTI copy advertising the fact that scientists, “including from MIT, Stanford University and Harvard University in the US”, had been awarded the 2020 Infosys Prizes.

My congratulations to the laureates for doing good work, irrespective of what they’ve won for it – but let’s consider what we’re celebrating here, really. We’re talking about a jury of well-known scholars coming together to consider a list of 200+ nominations and somehow picking only a half-dozen ‘winners’, and to those winners awarding a pure gold medal, a certificate and $100,000, or around Rs 74 lakh.

Most mediapersons pay attention to the Infosys Prizes because of the substantial purse, and when we do pay attention, what are we looking at? We’re looking at a lot of money going to a group of people who already have a good job and access to funds, especially in the name of a job well done that quite likely happened in the first place by virtue of having a good job and access to funds. The Infosys Prizes are in effect heaping more privilege on already privileged scientists.

Consider this year’s laureates, for example. Three of them – Hari Balakrishnan, Sourav Chatterjee and Raj Chetty – have full-time jobs at three of the world’s most well-endowed universities. Rajan Sankaranarayanan is a chief scientist at CCMB Hyderabad and runs his own lab. The sole female laureate this year, historian Prachi Deshpande, is at CSSS Kolkata and used to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. Arindam Ghosh is an associate professor at IISc Bangalore, again with his own lab. I can’t comment on the relative fortunes of Sankaranarayanan, Deshpande and Ghosh (although at least one other person from CCMB and six others from IISc have won Infosys Prizes, speaking to the localisation of resources and opportunities). But these are all scholars who have, as some might say, settled – scholars who have been able to sidestep or surmount, as the case may be, the numerous barriers to finding success and renown as an Indian scientist.

The case of Balakrishnan seems particularly curious (vis-à-vis the prize-giving entity, not Balakrishnan or any of the other laureates): he is a chair professor at MIT and the CTO at a six-person startup with $500 million in funding.

As an offshoot of what I said earlier, it is not unjust to reward people who have done good work – but too often we do so to the exclusion of those who lack the opportunities to begin doing good work in the first place. For example, instead of Balakrishnan, Chatterjee and Chetty, the prizes could have been awarded to three accomplished scientists working in India. And I argue that we need to reapply this criterion and select even other laureates who are yet to settle, so that we may ultimately expand the possibility of there being more successful scientists in future. Ultimately, we do need more successful scientists, not more laureates.

Of course, it isn’t implicitly wrong for any individual or entity to gift a large sum of money to anyone or any other entity (but perhaps it is bad in some cases). The wrongness arises when the money becomes part of a deleterious idea – such as that excellent scientists are men and/or that they succeeded by working alone. Thanks to their reputation, the Nobel Prizes are the foremost examples of this problem. As I wrote in The Wire recently:

That the prizes’ prestige is a construct, and not an innate attribute, matters because constructs represent intent. The construct of prestige or reputation surrounding the Nobel Prizes exists by reinforcing the beliefs and myths that some experts (in the relevant topics) held in order to maintain their privileges, to secrete away their power and perpetuate the status quo. That is, their intention here was to preserve the idea, and even glamourise it by attaching a purse of SEK 10 million (Rs 8.24 crore) with each Nobel Prize (no strings attached), that individuals make inventions and discoveries, and that men were always better at science than women, and more so than people of other genders.

The Infosys Prizes, as also the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize and the Swarnajayanti Fellowships in India, are different only in scale, not in spirit. They seem disinterested in addressing any of the issues, and seem keener on getting media attention. (By making this point, I hope I’m being clear that the media’s attitude towards the constitution of ‘news’ is also part of the problem.)

This year’s Infosys Prize laureates include only one woman; in all, 22% of laureates are women, fewer still if the social sciences are left out. And the prizes have only ever been awarded to individuals. This is disappointing because the prizes can do so much more by virtue, again, of the amount of money in play.

For example, the prize-giving foundation could give ‘senior’ laureates a citation, a certificate, etc., and split the purse into smaller chunks and award each one to promising young scientists, or those who are likely to have a hard time breaching science’s ‘in’ groups without good fortune. This could help separate the prizes’ extant wealth- and virtue-signalling from the distinction-signalling – as well as greatly expand some of the foundation’s other initiatives that directly help students.

I recently wrote with regard to the announcement of this year’s Swarnajayanti Fellowships, in mid-November, that resource constraints encourage us to think that only a few people can be selected for an award every time that award is given out. This in turn leads to the question about which candidates should be left out from the final pool of winners. And this question is to begin with singly misguided, becoming doubly misguided when it is used as a defence against questions about why so few women are awarded important recognitions, and triply misguided when the resource constraints are made-up, a fiction of funders and administrators to retain power.

Instead, we must demand more material wealth and supply it at the springboards of where young and/or struggling scientists take off. These scientists plus some other groups (incl. those from marginalised sections of society, those who need to learn the English language, even those who promise to stay in India for a decade, etc.) are in my view the only ‘segments’ that have justifiable need for not-insubstantial sums of money. Beyond this point, we can be generous with immaterial rewards for those who do good work and may no longer need the money.

Categories
Op-eds Science

When deGrasse Tyson pulled a Pinker

Since this post was published, an upward-edited version has been republished on The Wire.

Twitter is, among other things, that place on the internet where people fight over the tips of icebergs. There is often the presumption that what ends up on Twitter has been thought through and carefully condensed to fit into the arbitrary 280-character limit, but then again, there is also ample evidence to the contrary: many of its users get caught up in the tips that they think that’s all there is. These possibilities cast a dark shadow on Twitter’s claim to represent reality. More often than not, it is its own world, and has nothing to do with the world around it except that it collects the worst opinions from there unto itself. Last night Neil deGrasse Tyson joined in:

deGrasse Tyson has been one of those people calling attention to how what we’re reading about science on the web is often just a pinhole-sized snapshot of a more glorious thing lying hidden from view – just like an iceberg. Reading him, you’d think that when he says stuff about astronomy and cosmology, he’s not losing any context and that he’s simply presenting what he can in 280 characters on the microblogging platform. Then again, the tweet above appears to be evidence to the contrary: a tweet that seems to presume to contain all the arguments and histories of the five issues it mentions in (exactly) 280 characters and which, in one fell swoop, dismisses all the outrage of the political left.

It certainly gets my goat that the left has been painted as anti-fact and that the right is 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 even as the world burns below.

For example, As Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation and VP of strategy of the Oslo Freedom Forum, recently wrote in the New Republic, “dictators love development statistics” because “they’re an easily faked way to score international points”. Excerpt:

From the development initiatives of Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Gates, to Tony Blair’s despotic partnerships or Tom Friedman championing Chinese autocracy in The New York Times, the last two decades have seen political concerns repeatedly sidelined by development statistics. The classic defence of dictatorship is that without the messy constraints of free elections, free press, and free protests, autocrats can quickly tear down old cities to build efficient new ones, dam rivers to provide electricity, and lift millions out of poverty. The problem with using statistics to sing the praises of autocracy is that collecting verifiable data inside closed societies is nearly impossible. From Ethiopia to Kazakhstan, the data that “proves” that an authoritarian regime is doing good is often produced by that very same regime.

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. We’re still talking about deGrasse Tyson’s tweet because, in his view, it seems facts are all there is, that data alone should settle the debate but that emotions are unnecessarily stretching it out. Thousands of other tweets swirl around it in response, telling him that he’s right even though the left will eat him alive for it.

You see, the right is the data and the left is the “soft science”, which – Quillette would have you believe – might as well be a synonym for ‘non-data’ and nonsense. And the only challenge the right is prepared to brook, or pretends to be prepared to brook, is numbers: those symbols that work one digit at a time, one character at a time, but which putatively contain everything you need to know about something, no further explanation required. This exaltation of mathematical logic, and Boolean algebra and lambda calculus, we’ve already seen before in the revanchist politics of the ‘New Atheist’ movement, and perhaps more recently when a Silicon Valley dude announced he had rediscovered history.

Anyway, right now, I, nor anyone else, don’t have – shouldn’t have – just numbers to rebut deGrasse Tyson’s argument because that’s not all there is. But I personally feel compelled to try to come up with something concise if only to see what I come up with, and it’s this: deGrasse Tyson is pulling a Steven Pinker*. The first three numbers on the list in his tweet have been on a downward trend for quite some time thanks to a) pharmaceutical innovation, b) increasing awareness of and sensitivity about what those issues actually stand for, and c) policies that open new avenues of treatment and legislation that deters casualties. (However, trends in disease mortality are currently being ‘disrupted’ by the rise of antimicrobial resistance, climate change and – lest we forget – the lopsided effects of these stressors on already-stressed economies.) The fourth number, despite being about accidents and not wilful acts of malice actuated by the availability of guns, has also been on the decline (except for a relatively small spike in absolute numbers in 2016):

Credit: Dennis Bratland/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Pinker is relevant here because of his disingenuous conclusion that the world is becoming a better place, and that cognitive biases are to blame for the left’s unwillingness to acknowledge that. His analyses are problematic because, especially in the domain of environmental action, they provide snapshots of the full picture – as if he’s content to work with the tips of icebergs. For example, consider the following excerpt from a rebuttal by George Monbiot to Pinker’s claim that countries become cleaner as they get richer, in the latter’s 2018 book Enlightenment Now:

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.

David Bell, a historian of science, took aim at a different portion of the book, in which Pinker appeared to be blind to the efforts of people who had fought, struggled and bent the arc of justice to serve them, instead labouring with the presumption that people should stop complaining because life has just automatically become better:

Did Enlightenment forms of reasoning and scientific inquiry lie behind modern biological racism and eugenics? … Not at all, Pinker assures us. That was just a matter of bad science. … 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 … 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.

deGrasse Tyson, it would seem, has fallen prey to a similar bout of snapshotism: he has cherry-picked one moment in history where the number of gun-deaths (per 48 hours) is lower than the number of deaths due to medical errors, flu, suicide and car accidents, all shorn of the now-denounced context that humankind and all its broken systems are trying to improve them.

What his tweet, which presumes to be the entire iceberg in some people’s worldview when in fact it is only the tip, fails to say is that America is doing little to nothing to prevent more gun deaths from happening, and in fact whose political establishment has often condoned the deleterious cultures of white nationalism and “involuntary celibacy” that powers it. If deGrasse Tyson had compared the effects of gun deaths on the conscience of a nation with the global failure to make polluters pay, with rising income inequality, with the decreasing resilience to pandemics in the developing world or with nationalism+xenophobia, he’d have been closer to the truth of it: We don’t have to be ashamed of deaths due to medical errors, fly, suicide and car accidents, but we do have to be ashamed of mass murders.

*deGrasseTyson also falls prey to a bit of the “poverty first, Moon/Mars next” fallacy in assuming that if there are multiple problems, they must be solved one after another even if the resources exist for us to tackle some or all of them in parallel.

Categories
Life notes Scicomm

Some notes on empiricism, etc.

The Wire published a story about the ‘atoms of Acharya Kanad‘ (background here; tl;dr: Folks at a university in Gujarat claimed an ancient Indian sage had put forth the theory of atoms centuries before John Dalton showed up). The story in question was by a professor of philosophy at IISER, Mohali, and he makes a solid case (not unfamiliar to many of us) as to why Kanad, the sage, didn’t talk about atoms specifically because he was making a speculative statement under the Vaisheshika school of Hindu philosophy that he founded. What got me thinking were the last few lines of his piece, where he insists that empiricism is the foundation of modern science, and that something that doesn’t cater to it can’t be scientific. And you probably know what I’m going to say next. “String theory”, right?

No. Well, maybe. While string theory has become something of a fashionable example of non-empirical science, it isn’t the only example. It’s in fact a subset of a larger group of systems that don’t rely on empirical evidence to progress. These systems are called formal systems, or formal sciences, and they include logic, mathematics, information theory and linguistics. (String theory’s reliance on advanced mathematics makes it more formal than natural – as in the natural sciences.) And the dichotomous characterisation of formal and natural sciences (the latter including the social sciences) is superseded by a larger, more authoritative dichotomy*: between rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism prefers knowledge that has been deduced through logic and reasoning; empiricism prioritises knowledge that has been experienced. As a result, it shouldn’t be a surprise at all that debates about which side is right (insofar as it’s possible to be absolutely right – which I don’t think everwill happen) play out in the realm of science. And squarely within the realm of science, I’d like to use a recent example to provide some perspective.

Last week, scientists discovered that time crystals exist. I wrote a longish piece here tracing the origins and evolution of this exotic form of matter, and what it is that scientists have really discovered. Again, a tl;dr version: in 2012, Frank Wilczek and Alfred Shapere posited that a certain arrangement of atoms (a so-called ‘time crystal’) in their ground state could be in motion. This could sound pithy to you if you were unfamiliar with what ground state meant: absolute zero, the thermodynamic condition wherein an object has no energy whatsoever to do anything else but simply exist. So how could such a thing be in motion? The interesting thing here is that though Shapere-Wilczek’s original paper did not identify a natural scenario in which this could be made to happen, they were able to prove that it could happen formally. That is, they found that the mathematics of the physics underlying the phenomenon did not disallow the existence of time crystals (as they’d posited it).

It’s pertinent that Shapere and Wilczek turned out to be wrong. By late 2013, rigorous proofs had showed up in the scientific literature demonstrating that ground-state, or equilibrium, time crystals could not exist – but that non-equilibrium time crystals with their own unique properties could. The discovery made last week was of the latter kind. Shapere and Wilczek have both acknowledged that their math was wrong. But what I’m pointing at here is the conviction behind the claim that forms of matter called time crystals could exist, motivated by the fact that mathematics did not prohibit it. Yes, Shapere and Wilczek did have to modify their theory based on empirical evidence (indirectly, as it contributed to the rise of the first counter-arguments), but it’s undeniable that the original idea was born, and persisted with, simply through a process of discovery that did not involve sense-experience.

In the same vein, much of the disappointment experienced by many particle physicists today is because of a grating mismatch between formalism – in the form of theories of physics that predict as-yet undiscovered particles – and empiricism – the inability of the LHC to find these particles despite looking repeatedly and hard in the areas where the math says they should be. The physicists wouldn’t be disappointed if they thought empiricism was the be-all of modern science; they’d in fact have been rebuffed much earlier. For another example, this also applies to the idea of naturalness, an aesthetically (and more formally) enshrined idea that the forces of nature should have certain values, whereas in reality they don’t. As a result, physicists think something about their reality is broken instead of thinking something about their way of reasoning is broken. And so they’re sitting at an impasse, as if at the threshold of a higher-dimensional universe they may never be allowed to enter.

I think this is important in the study of the philosophy of science because if we’re able to keep in mind that humans are emotional and that our emotions have significant real-world consequences, we’d not only be better at understanding where knowledge comes from. We’d also become more sensitive to the various sources of knowledge (whether scientific, social, cultural or religious) and their unique domains of applicability, even if we’re pretty picky, and often silly, at the moment about how each of them ought to be treated (Related/recommended: Hilary Putnam’s way of thinking).

*I don’t like dichotomies. They’re too cut-and-dried a conceptualisation.