Tag Archives: scientific temper

K. Sivan in Tirumala. Source: YouTube

First temple, then launchpad?

ISRO chairman K. Sivan is free to worship and worship any deity he bloody well wants ; that’s his right. But it’s not entirely comforting when you think back about all the chairpersons ISRO has had – all men, all Hindus – who have made offerings at temples to “take ISRO to new heights” or similar.

Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the people’s right to any religion but Article 51AH, which asks people to cultivate a scientific temper, calls into question why those who are leaders of a national space industry have reason to leave anything about the missions they are responsible for in the hands of an “almighty” being.

Another thing that bothers me about ISRO’s supplicants-in-chief is also something that bothers me about the day-to-day practice of theism: attributing successes to the work of a deity instead of to the hard work and convictions of regular, whether or not particularly skilled, people (and elements of the natural universe). In the same vein, every time Sivan, K. Radhakrishnan, G. Madhavan Nair or K. Kasturirangan visited a temple – and all of them have – one felt as if ‘their ISRO’ itself was subject to the benevolence of a deity.

… and what has thus far only been upper-caste Hindu deities, an indictment of the lack of diversity at ISRO, in turn an echo of the lack of diversity within the space sector. Call me a cynic but I’m sure the RSS and its ilk would have given a more outrageous fuck had the chairperson been Muslim/Christian or of a lower caste. And I’m sure sections of the media would’ve lapped this up with extortionate delight.

But what irks me most of all is that these men are leaders. Millions of people look up to them, whether for guidance or for inspiration. Many of them are children – and a part of what they’re hearing is that some things at ISRO work out only if a god deigns it.

Irrespective of their being public figures, ISRO’s chairpersons are, “subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part” … “equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion” . But because they are also public figures, which allows me to be concerned about what they’re up to, ISRO’s leaders who pay temple visits to “pray for ISRO” also have a duty to openly clarify the following:

  1. Why they are praying “for ISRO”
  2. If smart, hard and/or ethical work is a component of ISRO’s success
  3. Whether they or their beliefs have been the source of any discomfort within the organisation…

… every time they make a temple visit and then speak to the press.

Public displays of Hinduism, signalling ISRO as an organisation benefiting from Hindu benevolence, and shifting the focus away from hard scientific labour to the blessing of gods – all of these are messages with potential for malevolence, and public figures like ISRO chiefs have been legitimising them by communicating them.

Like I said before, Sivan can follow any religion he bloody well wants, but in a politico-religious climate like ours, people – whether public figures or not – must interrogate the meaning of various forms of public participation more before engaging with them. They need to be smarter about what they say and how they act in public. It’s not rocket science.

Featured image source: YouTube.

Caution: This piece contains a lot of mentions of the word 'jargon'.

When writing one of my first pieces for The Hindu, I remember being called out for using a lot of jargon. While the accusation itself may have been justified, the word my supervisor chose as an example of the problem was surprising: “refraction”. He wanted me to spell it out in 10 words or so (because we were already running out of print-space). When I couldn’t, he launched into a long tirade.

It’s easy to spell out the what of refraction in 10 words – just refer to a prism. But if you’ve to understand the why, you’ll end up somewhere in the vicinity of quantum mechanics. At the same time, there are some everyday concepts in our lives that are easier understood the way they appear to be than in terms of what they actually are. This is where I’d draw the line of jargon. While everything can be technically simplified to the predictions of a complicated theory like quantum mechanics, jargon is that which isn’t at its simplest in the most pragmatic sense.

Clearly, this line lies in different places for different people because it can be moved by specialized knowledge. Writing in Nature or Science, I can take for granted that my audience will understand concepts like resonance or Feynman diagrams. Writing in The Hindu, on the other hand, all I can take for granted is reflection and, hopefully, refraction. Then again, these are publications who (ought to) know what their target audience is like. So I ask: If you were writing for a billion people, where would you assume the line is?

To me, the line would be at the statistical mode.

What irks me is that – in India at least – the statistical mode for different topics lies at incomparably different places. For example, I would be able to get away with ‘repo rate’ and ‘tortfeasor’ but not ‘morbidity’. My first impression was to somehow peg the difference to the well-established lack of scientific temper. But then I realized what the bigger problem was: news publications in the country are in a state of denial about lacking the scientific temper themselves, and consistently refuse to subject financial and legal news to the same scrutiny and the same wariness with which science news is treated.

If editors really wanted to take responsibility for their content, they wouldn’t let repo rate go through the press, or tortfeasor, or short fine leg, or Brent crude, or fiscal deficit*, or the history of the BJP**. However, they have let these bits of information go through without any apprehensions that they might be misunderstood or not understood at all. And by doing so, they have engendered an invisible reading culture that enforces the notion that these words don’t require further explanation, that these words shouldn’t be jargon – rather, wouldn’t be jargon if not for the reader’s ignorance.

In this culture, business and politics news (henceforth: fin-pol) can be for the least common denominators among all readers while science news… well, science news isn’t for everyone, is it? While the editors have misguidedly but efficiently dejargonized fin-pol news, with the effect that while fin-pol content is considered conventional, science news is still asked to be delivered sandwiched between layers of didactic material.

Another problem – this one more subtle and less prevalent – is that fin-pol reporters can often bank on historical knowledge while science reporters, word for word, remain constrained by the need to break down jargon. In other words, the fin-pol writer can assume the reader knows what he/she is talking about but ‘Feynman diagrams’ have to be repeatedly laid out unless the article is explicitly specified as being one in a series.

*If I can’t use ‘refraction’, you can’t use ‘fiscal deficit’.
**If you refuse to learn from sources other than the media as to who MSR Dev is, I refuse to let myself be persecuted for not learning from sources other than the media as to who SP Mukherjee was.

Curious Bends – Lack of scientific temper, Sikkim's gamble, disappearing rare fauna and more

1. Will the most advanced Indian state’s gamble payoff?

“Sikkim’s own energy needs of 409 megawatts (MW) were met by 2012, and Chamling already sells 175 MW of extra power to India’s power-starved northern grid. If all 26 hydel projects come on stream, Sikkim should generate 4,190 MW of electricity. But there are a few problems.” (7 min read, indiaspend.com)

2. India has the cheapest flights in the world

“India’s airline industry is a mess. Taxes are sky-high, infrastructure is poor and profit margins are razor thin. A string of carriers have gone out of business, and many others are struggling to stay afloat. Yet the big winners might be price-conscious consumers — and any carrier strong enough to survive the price wars that have made India the cheapest place to fly on Earth.” (3 min read, cnn.com)

3. Scientific temper? No, thanks.

“I persuaded Professor Nurul Hasan, then Education Minister, to have the following clause included in Article 51A in the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution in 1976: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of Indian “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform.” But India has not produced any Nobel Prize winner in science in the last 85 years – largely because of the lack of a scientific environment in the country, of which scientific temper would be an important component.” (5 min read, thehindu.com)

+ The author, Puspha Bhargava, is the founder-director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad, and chairman of the Southern Regional Centre of Council for Social Development.

4. Why India’s healthcare remains abysmal

“The reason India’s healthcare indicators remain abysmal is not just a question of money (after all, ours is one of the fastest growing economies). The problem is a persistent rash of doublespeak that denies the people a coherent healthcare system. While successive governments have committed to various goals, no government programme has yet focused on the three most important problems facing India’s health at once: a mismanaged regulatory climate, corruption, and the caste system.” (5 min read, scroll.in)

5. India’s rare faunas are disappearing faster than scientists can discover them

“At the World Parks Congress in Sydney in October, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said their information on the biodiversity that the Western Ghats contained was “deficient” and cautioned that the region was under tremendous pressure from population within and without, from untrammelled resource extraction, residential and recreational development and large-scale hydroelectric projects. “We must know all that exists there before it goes extinct,” says Vasudevan. “Not that we’re not we’re doing much to prevent that.”” (4 min read, qz.com)

Chart of the week

“The 2014 general elections were estimated to be India’s most expensive—and the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) broke the bank on the way to its biggest ever election victory. In all, the BJP spent Rs 714.28 crore ($115 million) on the 2014 general election campaign. But its worth remembering that this is only what the parties declare before the Election Commission—and that India’s election campaigns are awash with black money, booze and other persuasive items.” More on Quartz.

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