Caste, and science’s notability threshold

A webinar by The Life of Science on the construct of the ‘scientific genius’ just concluded, with Gita Chadha and Shalini Mahadev, a PhD scholar at HCU, as panellists. It was an hour long and I learnt a lot in this short time, which shouldn’t be surprising because, more broadly, we often don’t stop to question the conduct of science itself, how it’s done, who does it, their privileges and expectations, etc., and limit ourselves to the outcomes of scientific practice alone. The Life of Science is one of my favourite publications for making questions like these part of its core work (and a tiny bit also because it’s run by two good friends).

I imagine the organisers will upload a recording of the conversation at some point (edit: hopefully by Monday, says Nandita Jayaraj); they’ve also offered to collect the answers to many questions that went unanswered, only for lack of time, and publish them as an article. This was a generous offer and I’m quite looking forward to that.

I did have yet another question but I decided against asking it when, towards the end of the session, the organisers made some attempts to get me to answer a question about the media’s role in constructing the scientific genius, and I decided I’d work my question into what I could say. However, Nandita Jayaraj, one of The Life of Science‘s founders, ended up answering it to save time – and did so better than I could have. This being the case, I figured I’d blog my response.

The question itself that I’d planned to ask was this, addressed to Gita Chadha: “I’m confused why many Indians think so much of the Nobel Prizes. Do you think the Nobel Prizes in particular have affected the perception of ‘genius’?”

This query should be familiar to any journalist who, come October, is required to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for that year. When I started off at The Hindu in 2012, I’d cover these announcements with glee; I also remember The Hindu would carry the notes of the laureates’ accomplishments, published by the Nobel Foundation, in full on its famous science and tech. page the following day. At first I thought – and was told by some other journalists as well – that these prizes have the audience’s attention, so the announcements are in effect a chance to discuss science with the privilege of an interested audience, which is admittedly quite unusual in India.

However, today, it’s clear to me that the Nobel Prizes are deeply flawed in more ways than one, and if journalists are using them as an opportunity to discuss science – it’s really not worth it. There are many other ways to cover science than on the back of a set of prizes that simply augments – instead of in any way compensating for – a non-ideal scientific enterprise. So when we celebrate the Nobel Prizes, we simply valorise the enterprise and its many structural deformities, not the least of which – in the Indian context – is the fact that it’s dominated by upper-caste men, mostly Brahmins, and riddled with hurdles for scholars from marginalised groups.

Brahmins are so good at science not because they’re particularly gifted but because they’re the only ones who seem to have the opportunity – a fact that Shalini elucidated very clearly when she recounted her experiences as a Dalit woman in science, especially when she said: “My genius is not going to be tested. The sciences have written me off.” The Brahmins’ domination of the scientific workforce has a cascading set of effects that we then render normal simply because we can’t conceive of a different way science can be, including sparing the Brahmin genius of scrutiny, as is the privilege of all geniuses.

(At a seminar last year, some speakers on stage had just discussed the historical roots of India being so bad at experimental physics and had taken a break. Then, I overheard an audience member tell his friend that while it’s well and good to debate what we can and can’t pin on Jawaharlal Nehru, it’s amusing that Brahmin experts will have discussions about Brahmin physicists without either party considering if it isn’t their caste sensibility that prevents them from getting their hands dirty!)

The other way the Nobel Prizes are a bad for journalists indicts the norms of journalism itself. As I recently described vis-à-vis ‘journalistic entropy’, there is a sort of default expectation of reporters from the editorial side to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for their implicit newsworthiness instead of thinking about whether they should matter. I find such arguments about chronicling events without participating in them to be bullshit, especially when as a Brahmin I’m already part of Indian journalism’s caste problem.

Instead, I prefer to ask these questions, and answer them honestly in terms of the editorial policies I have the privilege to influence, so that I and others don’t end up advancing the injustices that the Nobel Prizes stand for. This is quite akin to my, and others’, older argument that journalists shouldn’t blindly offer their enterprise up as a platform for majoritarian politicians to hijack and use as their bullshit megaphones. But if journalists don’t recast their role in society accordingly, they – we – will simply continue to celebrate the Nobel laureates, and by proxy the social and political conditions that allowed the laureates in particular to succeed instead of others, and which ultimately feed into the Nobel Prizes’ arbitrarily defined ‘prestige’.

Note that the Nobel Prizes here are the perfect examples, but only examples nonetheless, to illustrate a wider point about the relationship between scientific eminence and journalistic notability. The Wire for example has a notability threshold: we’re a national news site, which means we don’t cover local events and we need to ensure what we do cover is of national relevance. As a corollary, such gatekeeping quietly implies that if we feature the work of a scientist, then that scientist must be a particularly successful one, a nationally relevant one.

And when we keep featuring and quoting upper-caste male scientists, we further the impression that only upper-caste male scientists can be good at science. Nothing says more about the extent to which the mainstream media has allowed this phenomenon to dominate our lives than the fact of The Life of Science‘s existence.

It would be foolish to think that journalistic notability and scientific eminence aren’t linked; as Gita Chadha clarified at the outset, one part of the ‘genius’ construct in Western modernity is the inevitability of eminence. So journalists need to work harder to identify and feature other scientists by redefining their notability thresholds – even as scientists and science administrators need to rejig their sense of the origins and influence of eminence in science’s practice. That Shalini thinks her genius “won’t be tested” is a brutal clarification of the shape and form of the problem.

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