Jayant Narlikar’s pseudo-defence of Darwin

Jayant Narlikar, the noted astrophysicist and emeritus professor at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, recently wrote an op-ed in The Hindu titled ‘Science should have the last word’. There’s probably a tinge of sanctimoniousness there, echoing the belief many scientists I’ve met have that science will answer everything, often blithely oblivious to politics and culture. But I’m sure Narlikar is not one of them.

Nonetheless, the piece IMO was good and not great because what Narlikar has written has been written in the recent past by many others, with different words. It was good because the piece’s author was Narlikar. His position on the subject is now in the public domain where it needs to be if only so others can now bank on his authority to stand up for science themselves.

Speaking of authority: there is a gaffe in the piece that its fans – and The Hindu‘s op-ed desk – appear to have glazed over. If they didn’t, it’s possible that Narlikar asked for his piece to be published without edits, and which could have either been further proof of sanctimoniousness or, of course, distrust of journalists. He writes:

Recently, there was a claim made in India that the Darwinian theory of evolution is incorrect and should not be taught in schools. In the field of science, the sole criterion for the survival of a theory is that it must explain all observed phenomena in its domain. For the present, Darwin’s theory is the best such theory but it is not perfect and leaves many questions unanswered. This is because the origin of life on earth is still unexplained by science. However, till there is a breakthrough on this, or some alternative idea gets scientific support, the Darwinian theory is the only one that should continue to be taught in schools.

@avinashtn, @thattai and @rsidd120 got the problems with this excerpt, particularly the part in bold, just right in a short Twitter exchange, beginning with this tweet (please click-through to Twitter to see all the replies):

Gist: the origin of life is different from the evolution of life.

But even if they were the same, as Narlikar conveniently assumes in his piece, something else should have stopped him. That something else is also what is specifically interesting for me. Sample what Narlikar said next and then the final line from the excerpt above:

For the present, Darwin’s theory is the best such theory but it is not perfect and leaves many questions unanswered. … However, till there is a breakthrough on this, or some alternative idea gets scientific support, the Darwinian theory is the only one that should continue to be taught in schools.

Darwin’s theory of evolution got many things right, continues to, so there is a sizeable chunk in the domain of evolutionary biology where it remains both applicable and necessary. However, it is confusing that Narlikar believes that, should some explanations for some phenomena thus far not understood arise, Darwin’s theories as a whole could become obsolete. But why? It is futile to expect a scientific theory to be able to account for “all observed phenomena in its domain”. Such a thing is virtually impossible given the levels of specialisation scientists have been able to achieve in various fields. For example, an evolutionary biologist might know how migratory birds evolved but still not be able to explain how some birds are thought to use quantum entanglement with Earth’s magnetic field to navigate.

The example Mukund Thattai provides is fitting. The Navier-Stokes equations are used to describe fluid dynamics. However, scientists have been studying fluids in a variety of contexts, from two-dimensional vortices in liquid helium to gas outflow around active galactic nuclei. It is only in some of these contexts that the Navier-Stokes equations are applicable; that they are not entirely useful in others doesn’t render the equations themselves useless.

Additionally, this is where Narlikar’s choice of words in his op-ed becomes more curious. He must be aware that his own branch of study, quantum cosmology, has thin but unmistakable roots in a principle conceived in the 1910s by Niels Bohr, with many implications for what he says about Darwin’s theories.

Within the boundaries of physics, the principle of correspondence states that at larger scales, the predictions of quantum mechanics must agree with those of classical mechanics. It is an elegant idea because it acknowledges the validity of classical, a.k.a. Newtonian, mechanics when applied at a scale where the effects of gravity begin to dominate the effects of subatomic forces. In its statement, the principle does not say that classical mechanics is useless because it can’t explain quantum phenomena. Instead, it says that (1) the two mechanics each have their respective domain of applicability and (2) the newer one must be resemble the older one when applied to the scale at which the older one is relevant.

Of course, while scientists have been able to satisfy the principle of correspondence in some areas of physics, an overarching understanding of gravity as a quantum phenomenon has remained elusive. If such a theory of ‘quantum gravity’ were to exist, its complicated equations would have to be able to resemble Newton’s equations and the laws of motion at larger scales.

But exploring the quantum nature of spacetime is extraordinarily difficult. It requires scientists to probe really small distances and really high energies. While lab equipment has been setup to meet this goal partway, it has been clear for some time that it might be easier to learn from powerful cosmic objects like blackholes.

And Narlikar has done just that, among other things, in his career as a theoretical astrophysicist.

I don’t imagine he would say that classical mechanics is useless because it can’t explain the quantum, or that quantum mechanics is useless because it can’t be used to make sense of the classical. More importantly, should a theory of quantum gravity come to be, should we discard the use of classical mechanics all-together? No.

In the same vein: should we continue to teach Darwin’s theories for lack of a better option or because it is scientific, useful and, through the fossil record, demonstrable? And if, in the future, an overarching theory of evolution comes along with the capacity to subsume Darwin’s, his ideas will still be valid in their respective jurisdictions.

As Thattai says, “Expertise in one part of science does not automatically confer authority in other areas.” Doesn’t this sound familiar?

Featured image credit: sipa/pixabay.

We don’t have a problem with the West, we’re just obsessed with it

When you don’t write about scientific and technological research for its inherent wonderfulness but for its para-scientific value, you get stories born out of jingoism masquerading as a ‘science’ piece. Take this example from today’s The Hindu (originally reported by PTI):

A new thermal spray coating technology used for gas turbine engine in spacecraft developed by a Rajasthan-based researcher has caught the attention of a NASA scientist, an official said.

Expressing his interest in the research, James L. Smialek, a scientist from NASA wrote to Dr. Satish Tailor after it was published in the journal Ceramics International and Thermal Spray Bulletin, said S.C. Modi, the chairman of a Jodhpur-based Metallizing Equipment Company.

This story is in the news not because a scientist in Rajasthan (Tailor) developed a new and better spray-coating technique. It’s in the news because a white man* (Smialek) wrote to its inventor expressing his interest. If Smialek hadn’t contacted Tailor, would it have been reported?

The article’s headline is also a bit off: ‘NASA keen on India-made technology for spacecraft’ – but does Smialek speak for NASA the organisation? He seems to be a senior research scientist there, not a spokesperson or a senior-level decision-maker. Additionally, “India-made”? I don’t think so. “India-made” would imply that a cohesion of Indian institutions and laboratories are working to make and utilise this technology – whereas while we’re fawning over NASA’s presumed interest, the story makes no mention of ISRO. It does say CSIR and DRDO scientists are “equally” interested but to me “India-made” would also then beggar the question: “Why cut funding for CSIR?”

Next, what’s a little funny is that while the Indian government is busy deriding Western ‘cultural imports’ ruining our ‘pristine’ homegrown values, while Indian ministers are constantly given to doubting the West’s scientific methods, some journalists are using the West’s acknowledgment to recognise Indian success stories. Which makes me think if what we’re really doing is being obsessed with the West instead of working towards patching the West’s mistakes, insofar as they are mistakes, with our corrections (very broadly speaking).

The second funny thing about this story is that, AFAIK, scientists writing in one part of the world to those in other is fairly regular. That’s one of the reasons people publish in a journal – especially in one as specific as Ceramics International: so people who are interested in research on the same topic can know what their peers are up to. But by reporting on such incidents on a one-off basis, journalists run the risk of making cross-country communication look rare, even esoteric. And by imbibing the story with the quality of rareness, they can give the impression that Smialek writing to Tailor is something to be proud of.

It’s not something to be proud of for this reason simply because it’s an artificial reason. It’s a reason that doesn’t objectively exist.

Nonetheless, I will say that I’m glad PTI picked up on Tailor’s research at least because of this; akin to how embargoes are beacons pointing journalists towards legitimate science stories (although not all the time), validation can also come from an independent researcher expressing his interest in a bit of research. However, it’s not something to be okay with in the long-term – if only because… doesn’t it make you wonder how much we might not know about what researchers are doing in our country simply because Western scientists haven’t written to some of them?

*No offence to you, James. Many Indians do take take some things more seriously because white people are taking it seriously.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

Credit: xmex/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Dealing with plagiarism? Look at thy neighbour

Four doctors affiliated with Kathmandu University (KU) in Nepal are going to be fired because they plagiarised data in two papers. The papers were retracted last year from the Bali Medical Journal, where they had been published. A dean at the university, Dipak Shrestha, told a media outlet that the matter will be settled within two weeks. A total of six doctors, including the two above, are also going to be blacklisted by the journal. This is remarkably swift and decisive action against a problem that refuses to go away in India for many reasons. But I’m not an apologist; one of those reasons is that many teachers at colleges and universities seem to think “plagiarism is okay”. And for as long as that attitude persists, academicians are going to be able to plagiarise and flourish in the country.

One of the other reasons plagiarism is rampant in India is the language problem. As Praveen Chaddah, a former chairman of the University Grants Commission, has written, there is a form of plagiarism that can be forgiven – the form at play when a paper’s authors find it difficult to articulate themselves in English but have original ideas all the same. The unforgivable form is when the ideas are plagiarised as well. According to a retraction notice supplied by the Bali Medical Journal, the KU doctors indulged in plagiarism of the unforgivable kind, and were duly punished. In India, however, I’m yet to hear of an instance where researchers found to have been engaging in such acts were pulled up as swiftly as their Nepali counterparts were, or had sanctions imposed on their work within a finite period and in a transparent manner.

The production and dissemination of scientific knowledge should not have to suffer because some scientists aren’t fluent with a language. Who knows, India might already be the ‘science superpower’ everyone wants it to be if we’re able to account for information and knowledge produced in all its languages. But this does not mean India’s diversity affords it the license to challenge the use of English as the de facto language of science; that would be stupid. English is prevalent, dominant, even hegemonic (as K. VijayRaghavan has written). So if India is to make it to the Big League, then officials must consider doing these things:

  1. Inculcate the importance of communicating science. Writing a paper is also a form of communication. Teach how to do it along with technical skills.
  2. Set aside money – as some Australian and European institutions do1 – to help those for whom English isn’t their first, or even second, language write papers that will be appreciated for their science instead of rejected for their language (unfair though this may be).
  3. DO WHAT NEPAL IS DOING – Define reasonable consequences for plagiarising (especially of the unforgivable kind), enumerate them in clear and cogent language, ensure these sanctions are easily accessible by scientists as well as the public, and enforce them regularly.

Researchers ought to know better – especially the more prominent, more influential ones. The more well-known a researcher is, the less forgivable their offence should be, at least because they set important precedents that others will follow. And to be able to remind them effectively when they act carelessly, an independent body should be set up at the national level, particularly for institutions funded by the central government, instead of expecting the offender’s host institution to be able to effectively punish someone well-embedded in the hierarchy of the institution itself.

1. Hat-tip to Chitralekha Manohar.

Featured image credit: xmex/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Credit: Free-Photos/pixabay

On cancers, false balance and the judiciary

Climate change has for long been my go-to example to illustrate how absolute objectivity can sometimes be detrimental to the reliability of a news report. Stating that A said “Climate change is real” and that B replied “No, it isn’t” isn’t helping anyone even though it has voices from both sides of the issue. Now, I have a new example: cancer due to radiation from cellphone towers. (And yes, there seems to be a pattern here: false balance becomes a bigger problem when a popular opinion is on the verge of becoming unpopular thanks new scientific discoveries.)

This post was prompted by a New York Times article published January 5, 2018. Excerpt:

From 1991 to 2015, the cancer death rate dropped about 1.5 percent a year, resulting in a total decrease of 26 percent — 2,378,600 fewer deaths than would have occurred had the rate remained at its peak. The American Cancer Society predicts that in 2018, there will be 1,735,350 new cases of cancer and 609,640 deaths. The latest report on cancer statistics appears in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. The most common cancers — in men, tumours of the prostate; in women, breast — are not the most common causes of cancer death. Although prostate cancer accounts for 19 percent of cancers in men and breast cancer for 30 percent of cancers in women, the most common cause of cancer death in both sexes is lung cancer, which accounts for one-quarter of cancer deaths in both sexes.

This is a trend I’d alluded to in an earlier post: that age-adjusted cancer death rates in the US, among both men and women, have been on a steady downward decline since at least 1990 whereas, in the same period, the number of cellphone towers has been on the rise. More generally, scientific studies continue to fail to find a link between radio-frequency emissions originating from smartphones and cancers of the human body. Source: this study and this second study.

The simplest explanation remains that these emissions are non-ionising – i.e. when they pass through matter, they can excite electrons to higher energy levels but they can’t remove them entirely. In other words, they can cause temporary disturbances in matter but they can’t change its chemical composition. Some have also argued that cellphone radiation can heat up tissues in the body enough to damage them. This is ridiculous: apart from the fact that the human body is a champion at regulating internal heat, imagine what’s happening the next time you get a fever or if you go to Delhi in May.

Those who continue to believe cellphone towers can damage our genes do so for a variety of reasons – including poor outreach and awareness efforts (although I’m told TRAI has done a lot of work on this front) and, more troublingly, the judiciary. By not ensuring that the evidence presented before them is held to higher scientific standards, Indian courts have on many occasions admitted strange arguments and thus pronounced counterproductive verdicts.

For example, in April 2017, the Supreme Court (of India) directed a BSNL cellphone tower in Gwalior be taken down after one petitioner claimed radiation from the structure had given him Hodgkin’s lymphoma. If the court was trying to err on the side of caution: what about the thousands of people now left with poorer connectivity in the area (and who are not blaming their ailments on cellphone tower radiation)?

This isn’t confined to India. In early 2017, Joel Moskowitz, a professor at the Berkeley School of Public Health, filed a suit asking for the state of California to release a clutch of documents describing cellphone safety measures. Moskowitz believes that cellphone radiation causes cancer, and that Big Telecom has allegedly been colluding with Big Government to keep this secret away from the public.

In December 2017, a state judge ruled in Moskowitz’s favour and directed the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to release a “Guidance on How to Reduce Exposure to Radiofrequency Energy from Cell Phones” – a completely unnecessary set of precautions that, by the virtue of its existence, reinforces a gratuitous panic. By all means, let those who believe in this drivel consume this drivel, but it shouldn’t have been at the expense of making a mockery of the court nor should it have been effected by pressing the CDPH’s reputation to endorse the persistence of pseudoscience. What a waste of time and money when we have bigger and more legitimate problems on our hands.

… which brings us to climate change and the perniciousness of false balance. On December 20, 2017, Times of India published an article titled ‘Can mobile phones REALLY increase the risk of brain cancer? Or is it too far-fetched?’. It quotes studies saying ‘yes’ as well as those saying ‘no’ but it doesn’t contain any attributions, citations or hyperlinks. Sample this:

Lab studies where animals are exposed to radio frequency waves suggest that as the waves are not that strong and cannot break the DNA, they cannot cause cancer. But some other studies claim that that they can damage the cells up to some level and this can support a tumour to grow.

It also contains ill-conceived language, for example by asking how radio-frequency waves become harmful before it goes on to ‘discuss’ whether they are harmful at all, or by saying the waves are “absorbed” in the human body. But most of all, it’s the intent to remain equivocal – instead of assuming a rational position based on the information and/or knowledge available on the subject – that’s really frustrating. This is no different from what the Californian judge did or what the SC of India did: not consider evidence of better quality while trying to please everyone.

Featured image credit: Free-Photos/pixabay.

Limitations of the Finkbeiner test

This post was republished on The Wire on January 8, 2018.

The Finkbeiner test, named for science writer Ann Finkbeiner, was created to check whether a profile of a female scientist published by a mainstream news outlet was produced in the first place because its subject was a woman. It’s a good check to make when writing about a professional scientist’s work; if you’re going to write the piece because the subject’s a woman and not because you think her work is awesome, then you run the risk of presenting the woman as extraordinary for choosing to be a scientist. However, more than being a good check, it could also be too subtle an issue to expect everyone to be conscious about – or to abide by.

As The Life of Science initiative has repeatedly discussed, there are many systemic barriers for India’s women in science, all the way from each scientist having had few role models to admire growing up to not being able to stay in academia because institutional policies as well as facilities fall short in being able to retain them. And apart from working towards making these deficiencies known to more people, women have also been leading the fight to patch them once and for all. As a result, talking about successful women scientists without also discussing what needed to fall into place for them could ring hollow – whereas the Finkbeiner test seeks to eliminate just such supposedly miscellaneous information.

For example, a 2015 report by Ram Ramaswamy and Rohini Godbole and a 2016 article by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj both stressed the need for affirmative action on part of the government so more women are retained in scientific pursuits at the higher levels. This means science journalism that focuses on a working woman scientist because she belongs to a particular gender and not on her scientific research at the outset becomes useful in the eyes of young scientists but also quickly fails the Finkbeiner test. Does this mean the piece becomes detrimental? I’d think not, especially because it would certainly serve the function of holding the people charged with instituting policy and infrastructural corrections accountable.

For another example, I’ve learned from several The Life of Science profiles that one reason many of the women who have become successful scientists with faculty-level positions were backed up by supportive families and partners. One profile in particular – of Mayurika Lahiri – stood out because it discussed her research as a cancer biologist as well as her achievement in setting up a full-fledged daycare centre in IISER Pune. However, the Finkbeiner test penalises an article on a woman scientist if it discusses her spouse’s occupation, her childcare arrangements or the fact that she could be a role model.

Two notes at this point. First: Some women might not like to be characterised in a way that the Finkbeiner test says they shouldn’t be characterised as. In such cases, the journalist must and will respect their choice. Second: To be fair to The Life of Science, the Finkbeiner test is intended only for mainstream publications and not specialist projects. At the same time, this caveat could come off as short-sighted because it aspires to make a stronger distinction between changes that remain to be effected for (India’s) women in science to have it as good as its men already do and the outcomes of those changes that have been implemented well. Persistence with the former results in the latter; the latter encourages the former to continue.

In countries where women receive more institutional support than they do in India, it’s possible to expect meaningful insights to arise out of applying the Finkbeiner test to all mainstream profiles of women in science. In other countries, the test could be altered such that,

  1. A discussion of women’s needs is treated on an equal footing with their science instead of having to ignore one or the other – This way, writers will have an opportunity to make sure their readers don’t take the pervasiveness of the conditions that helped women succeed for granted while also highlighting that their work in and of itself is good, and
  2. Profiles of male scientists include questions about what they’re doing to make science a non-problematic pursuit for people of other (or no) genders, if only to highlight that men often have a mission-critical role to play in this endeavour.

Featured image credit: bones64/pixabay.

‘Mantra sciences’ is just poor fantasy

I don’t know how the author of a piece in the Times of India managed to keep a straight face when introducing a school based on Vedic rituals that would “show the way” to curing diseases like cancer. Even the more honest scientific studies that are regularly accompanied by press releases proclaiming “the paper is a step in the right direction of curing cancer” tend to be unreliable thanks to institutional and systemic pressures to produce sensational research. But hey, something written many thousands of years ago might just have all the answers – at least according to Jaya Dava, the chairperson of the Rajasthan Sanskrit Academy. Excerpt:

Proposed in 2005, the Rajasthan government’s research institute to study the science of ancient Hindu texts, the first-of-its-kind in the country, is all set become operational soon. On Monday, the Research Institute of Mantra Sciences (RIMS) or the Rajasthan Mantra Pratishtan, under the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University (JRRSU), called for applications from eligible candidates for various posts, including that of teachers. The then education minister, Ghanshyam Tiwari, had first proposed the institute in 2005. While presenting the concept, inspired by ‘Manusmriti’, the ancient Hindu book of law, Tiwari had quoted a verse from the text, ‘Sarvam vedaat prasiddhyati’ (Every solution lies in Vedas), in the state assembly.

So the RIMS is being set up to further the ideals enshrined in the Manusmriti, the document that supposedly also talks about the caste system and how anyone trapped in it has doomed all their descendants to never being able to escape from its dystopian rules. Second: apart from having been mooted by a state’s education minister, the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University is a state institution utilising public taxes for its operation. Don’t the people get a say in what kind of magic-practising institutions their government is allowed to set up? Hogwarts was at least entertaining and nicely written.

I’m just anguished about the Hindutva brigade’s poor imagination when it comes to epic fantasy. For example, according to Dava, “reciting verses such as ‘Achutaya Namaha’, ‘Anantaya Namaha’ and ‘Govindaya Namaha’ have helped in treating cancer patients.” Helped in what way? If we had a quantifiable measure that other people could try to replicate, we’d be working towards having an internally consistent system of magic – but no.

Also, in a world without cancer, is anybody even thinking about the numerous emergent possibilities? For starters, by 2020, we’re going to have $150 billion left unspent because cancer drugs are going to be useless. And India’s B-grade film industries are going to have to come up with new ways to make forlorn ex-lovers spurt blood and die. And David Bowie and Alan Rickman would still be alive. And chanting hippies would be the new millionaire oncologists. The possibilities are endless. More, according to Rajendra Prasad Mishra, who headed RIMS for a decade from 2006,

“The answer as to how a simple line drawn by Lord Ram prevented the mighty king Ravana from crossing over lies in Vedic science. This ancient wisdom, if discovered, can safeguard India from our enemies by drawing lines across the borders. The chanting of mantras, with the right diction, pronunciation and by harnessing cosmic energy, can help in condensing vapours and bringing rain. This can solve the major problem of water scarcity.”

But conveniently, this wisdom is considered “lost” and has to be “found” at a great cost to a lot of people while the people doing the finding look like they’re doing something when they’re really, really not. Maybe its writers wrote it when they were 20, looked back at it when they were 40, figured it was a lot of tosh and chucked it into the Saraswati. I’ve no issues with magic myself, in fact I love fantasy fiction and constantly dream of disappearing into one, but I sure as hell don’t want to exist in a realm with infinite predictability shoved down everyone’s throats.

Notice also how people are completely okay with trusting someone else who says it’s a good idea to invest a lot of money in a scheme to make sense of which very few people are supposed to possess the intellectual resources, a risk they’re willing to take anyway because it might just them more powerful – while they actively stay away from cryptocurrencies like bitcoins because they suspect it might be a Ponzi scheme? Indeed, the powers that be must be vastly more resourceful in matters of the intellect than I to be able to resolve this cosmic cognitive dissonance.

Featured image credit: stuarthampton/pixabay.

Politics inside SESAME

I’ve been following the story of the SESAME collaboration in the Middle East since I first heard about it seven years ago, and was really thrilled when its synchrotron achieved first light in November 2017. I wrote about the significance of the occasion for The Wire‘s ‘The Year in Hope’ series of piece about uplifting moments in 2017. Excerpt:

It’s the largest experiment (in terms of investment and participation) to have brought together scientists from Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. These are states that hardly – if at all – see eye to eye, making this collaboration particularly remarkable. …

Gihan Kamel, an Egyptian scientist who has been with SESAME since August this year, told Times Higher Education, “Basically, we are scientists, we are not politicians. We don’t care about politics inside SESAME at all.” Such an outlook is inspiring because it ensures scientific knowledge is not forfeited even in a region as constantly overwrought as the Middle East.

That’s an interesting thing for Kamel to say because it suggests SESAME’s scientists are shielded from their respective politics when they’re working together on the synchrotron. Considering the tensions that often prevail on the outside, such working conditions must be blissful – but also affording the collaboration a measure of privilege that runs the risk of turning counterproductive. This is akin to saying scientists must be able to stay in their ivory towers without being forced to think about proletarian concerns.

For example, in the case of the Middle Eastern collaboration, saying “We don’t care about politics inside SESAME at all” is to forego an impressive opportunity for intellectuals from warring nations to sit down around a table and discuss physics as well as the road to peace. Something may come of it or nothing at all – but it’s obvious that it would be useful to try, and trying entails an acknowledgment that the collaboration’s members must care about the politics when inside SESAME as well.

Featured image: Beam steering, focusing and monitoring equipment at the SESAME research centre in Jordan. Credit: iaea_imagebank/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

'Lots of people don't know lots of things'

You might have seen news channels on the television (if you do at all, in fact) flash a piece of information repeatedly on their screens. News presenters also tend to repeat things they’ve said 10 or 15 minutes before and on-screen visuals join in this marquee exercise. I remember being told in journalism school that this is done so people who have tuned in shortly after a piece of news has been ‘announced’ to catch up quickly. So say some news item is broken at 8 pm; I can tune in at 8.10 pm and be all caught up by 8.15 pm.

Of course, this has become a vestigial practice in the age of internet archiving technologies and platforms like Facebook and Google ‘remembering’ information forever, but would’ve been quite useful in a time when TV played a dominant role in information dissemination (and when news channels weren’t going bonkers with their visuals).

I wonder if this ’15 minutes’ guideline – rather a time-based offset in general – applies to reporting on science news. Now, while news is that which is novel, period, it’s not clear whom it’s novel for. For example, I can report on a study that says X is true. X might’ve been true for a large number of scientists, and perhaps people in a different country or region, for a long time but it may not be for the audience that I’m writing for. Would this mean X is not news?

Ultimately, it comes down to two things.

First: Lots of people don’t know lots of things. So you can report on something and it will be news for someone, somewhere. However, how much does it cost to make sure what you’ve written reaches that particular reader? Because if the cost is high, it’s not worth it. Put another way, you should regularly be covering news that has the lowest cost of distribution for your publication.

Second: Lots of people don’t know lots of things. So you can report on something and it will be news for someone, somewhere. And if the bulk of your audience is a subset of the group of people described above, then what you’re reporting will always likely be new, and thus news. As things stand, most Indians still needs to catch up on basic science. Scientists aren’t off the hook either: many of them may know the divergence of a magnetic field is always zero but attribute this statement’s numerous implications to a higher power.

So, through science journalism, there are many opportunities to teach as well as inform, particularly in that order. And a commitment to these opportunities implies that I will also be writing and publishing reports that are newsy to my readers but not to people in other parts of the world, of a different demographic, etc.

Featured image credit: mojzagrebinfo/pixabay.

Similar DNA

From an article in Times Now News:

Comparing Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Union Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan on Wednesday said both have a similar “DNA” and share a passion for scientific research.

I’m sure I’m interpreting this too literally but when the national science minister makes a statement saying two people share similar DNA, I can’t help but wonder if he knows that the genome of any two humans is 99.9% the same. The remaining 0.1% accounts for all the difference. Ergo, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has DNA similar to Rahul Gandhi, me and you.

That said, I refuse to believe a man who slashed funding for the CSIR labs by 50% (and asked them to make up for it – a princely sum of Rs 2,000 crore – in three years by marketing their research), who claims ancient Indians surgically transplanted animal heads on humans, whose government passively condones right-wing extremism fuelled by irrational beliefs, whose ministries spend crores of rupees on conducting biased investigations of cow urine, and whose bonehead officials have interfered in the conduct of autonomous educational institutions even knows how scientific research works, let alone respects it.

Vardhan himself goes on to extol Vajpayee as the man who suffixed ‘jay vigyan‘ (‘Hail science’) to the common slogan ‘Jay jawan, jay kisan‘ (‘Hail the soldier, hail the farmer’) and, as an example of his contribution to the scientific community, says that the former PM made India a nuclear state within two months of coming to power. Temporarily setting aside the fact that it takes way more than two months to build and test nuclear weapons, it’s also disturbing that Vardhan thinks atom bombs are good science.

Additionally, Modi is like Vajpayee according to him because the former keeps asking scientists to “alleviate the sufferings of the common man” – which, speaking from experience, is nicespeak for “just do what I tell you and deliver it before my term is over”.

English as the currency of science's practice

K. VijayRaghavan, the secretary of India’s Department of Biotechnology, has written a good piece in Hindustan Times about how India must shed its “intellectual colonialism” to excel at science and tech – particularly by shedding its obsession with the English language. This, as you might notice, parallels a post I wrote recently about how English plays an overbearing role in our lives, and particularly in the lives of scientists, because it remains a language many Indians don’t have to access to get through their days. Having worked closely with the government in drafting and implementing many policies related to the conduct and funding of scientific research in the country, VijayRaghavan is able to take a more fine-grained look at what needs changing and whether that’s possible. Most hearteningly, he says it is – only if we had the will to change. As he writes:

Currently, the bulk of our college education in science and technology is notionally in English whereas the bulk of our high-school education is in the local language. Science courses in college are thus accessible largely to the urban population and even when this happens, education is effectively neither of quality in English nor communicated as translations of quality in the classroom. Starting with the Kendriya Vidyalayas and the Nayodya Vidyalayas as test-arenas, we can ensure the training of teachers so that students in high-school are simultaneously taught in both their native language and in English. This already happens informally, but it needs formalisation. The student should be free to take exams in either language or indeed use a free-flowing mix. This approach should be steadily ramped up and used in all our best educational institutions in college and then scaled to be used more widely. Public and private colleges, in STEM subjects for example, can lead and make bi-lingual professional education attractive and economically viable.

Apart from helping students become more knowledgeable about the world through a language of their choice (for the execution of which many logistical barriers spring to mind, not the least of which is finding teachers), it’s also important to fund academic journals that allow these students to express their research in their language of choice. Without this component, they will be forced to fallback to the use of English, which is bound to be counterproductive to the whole enterprise. This form of change will require material resources as well as a shift in perspective that could be harder to attain. Additionally, as VijayRaghavan mentions, there also need to be good quality translation services for research in one language to be expressed in another so that cross-disciplinary and/or cross-linguistic tie-ups are not hampered.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.