The press office

A press-officer friend recently asked me for pointers on how he could help journalists cover the research institute he now works at better. My response follows:

  1. Avoid the traditional press release format and use something like Axios’s. answer the key questions, nothing more. No self-respecting organisation is going to want to republish press releases. This way also saves you time.
  2. Make scientists from within the institute, especially women, members of minority groups and postdocs, available for comment – whether on their own research or on work by others. This means keeping them available (at certain times if need be) and displaying their contact information.
  3. If you’re going to publish blogs, it would be great if they’re on a CC BY or BY-SA (or even something a little more restrictive like CC BY NC ND) license so that interested news organisations can republish them. If you’re using the ND license, please ensure the copy is clear.
  4. Pictures are often an issue. If you could take some nice pics on your phone and post them on, say, the CC library on Flickr, that would be great. These can be pics of the institute, instruments, labs, important people, events, etc.

If you have inputs/comments for my friend and subscribe to this blog, simply reply to the email in your inbox containing this post and you’ll reach me.

To see faces where there are none

This week in “neither university press offices nor prestigious journals know what they’re doing”: a professor emeritus at Ohio University who claimed he had evidence of life on Mars, and whose institution’s media office crafted a press release without thinking twice to publicise his ‘findings’, and the paper that Nature Medicine published in 2002, cited 900+ times since, that has been found to contain multiple instances of image manipulation.

I’d thought the professor’s case would remain obscure because it’s evidently crackpot but this morning, articles from Space.com and Universe Today showed up on my Twitter setting the record straight: that the insects the OU entomologist had found in pictures of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover were just artefacts of his (insectile) pareidolia. Some people have called this science journalism in action but I’d say it’s somewhat offensive to check if science journalism still works by gauging its ability, and initiative, to countering conspiracy theories, the lowest of low-hanging fruit.

The press release, which has since been taken down. Credit: EurekAlert and Wayback Machine

The juicier item on our plate is the Nature Medicine paper, the problems in which research integrity super-sleuth Elisabeth Bik publicised on November 21, and which has a science journalism connection as well.

Remember the anti-preprints article Nature News published in July 2018? Its author, Tom Sheldon, a senior press manager at the Science Media Centre, London, argued that preprints “promoted confusion” and that journalists who couldn’t bank on peer-reviewed work ended up “misleading millions”. In other words, it would be better if we got rid of preprints and journalists deferred only to the authority of peer-reviewed papers curated and published by journals, like Nature. Yet here we are today, with a peer-reviewed manuscript published in Nature Medicine whose checking process couldn’t pick up on repetitive imagery. Is this just another form of pareidolia, to see a sensational result – knowing prestigious journals’ fondness for such results – where there was actually none?

(And before you say this is just one paper, read this analysis: “… data from several lines of evidence suggest that the methodological quality of scientific experiments does not increase with increasing rank of the journal. On the contrary, an accumulating body of evidence suggests the inverse: methodological quality and, consequently, reliability of published research works in several fields may be decreasing with increasing journal rank.” Or this extended critique of peer-review on Vox.)

This isn’t an argument against the usefulness, or even need for, peer-review, which remains both useful and necessary. It’s an argument against ludicrous claims that peer-review is infallible, advanced in support of the even more ludicrous argument that preprints should be eliminated to enable good journalism.

Authority, authoritarianism and a scicomm paradox

I received a sharp reminder to better distinguish between activists and experts irrespective of how right the activists appear to be with the case of Ustad, that tiger shifted from its original habitat in Ranthambore sanctuary to Sajjangarh Zoo in 2015 after it killed three people. Local officials were in favour of the relocation to make life easier for villagers whose livelihoods depended on the forest whereas activists wanted Ustad to be brought back to Ranthambore, citing procedural irregularities, poor living conditions and presuming to know what was best for the animal.

One vocal activist at the agitation’s forefront and to whose suggestions I had deferred when covering this story turned out to be a dentist in Mumbai, far removed from the rural reality that Ustad and the villagers co-habited as well as the opinions and priorities of conservationists about how Ustad should be handled. As I would later find out, almost all experts (excluding the two or three I’d spoken to) agreed Ustad had to be relocated and that doing so wasn’t as big a deal as the activists made it out to be, notwithstanding the irregularities.

I have never treated activists as experts since but many other publications continue to make the same mistake. There are many problems with this false equivalence, including the equation of expertise with amplitude, insofar as it pertains to scientific activity, for example conservation, climate change, etc. Another issue is that activists – especially those who live and work in a different area and who haven’t accrued the day-to-day experiences of those whose rights they’re shouting for – tend to make decisions on principle and disfavour choices motivated by pragmatic thinking.

Second, when some experts join forces with activists to render themselves or their possibly controversial opinions more visible, the journalist’s – and by extension the people’s – road to the truth becomes even more convoluted than it should be. Finally, of course, using activists in place of experts in a story isn’t fair to activists themselves: activism has its place in society, and it would be a disservice to depict activism as something it isn’t.

This alerts us to the challenge of maintaining a balancing act.

One of the trends of the 21st century has been the democratisation of information – to liberate it from technological and economic prisons and make it available and accessible to people who are otherwise unlikely to do so. This in turn has made many people self-proclaimed experts of this or that, from animal welfare to particle physics. And this in turn is mostly good because, in spite of faux expertise and the proliferation of fake news, democratising the availability of information (but not its production; that’s a different story) empowers people to question authority.

Indeed, it’s possible fake news is as big a problem as it is today because many governments and other organisations have deployed it as a weapon against the availability of information and distributed mechanisms to verify it. Information is wealth after all and it doesn’t bode well for authoritarian systems predicated on the centralisation of power to have the answers to most questions available one Google, Sci-Hub or Twitter search away.

The balancing act comes alive in the tension between preserving authority without imposing an authoritarian structure. That is, where do you draw the line?

For example, Eric Balfour isn’t the man you should be listening to to understand how killer whales interpret and exercise freedom (see tweet below); you should be speaking to an animal welfare expert instead. However, the question arises if the expert is hegemon here, furthering an agenda on behalf of the research community to which she belongs by delegitimising knowledge obtained from sources other than her textbooks. (Cf. scientism.)

This impression is solidified when scientists don’t speak up, choosing to remain within their ivory towers, and weakened when they do speak up. This isn’t to say all scientists should also be science communicators – that’s a strawman – but that all scientists should be okay with sharing their comments with the press with reasonable preconditions.

In India, for example, very, very few scientists engage freely with the press and the people, and even fewer speak up against the government when the latter misfires (which is often). Without dismissing the valid restrictions and reservations that some of them have – including not being able to trust many journalists to know how science works – it’s readily apparent that the number of scientists who do speak up is minuscule relative to the number of scientists who can.

An (English-speaking) animal welfare expert is probably just as easy to find in India as they might be in the US but consider palaeontologists or museologists, who are harder to find in India (sometimes you don’t realise that until you’re looking for a quote). When they don’t speak up – to journalists, even if not of their own volition – during a controversy, even as they also assert that only they can originate true expertise, the people are left trapped in a paradox, sometimes even branded fools to fall for fake news. But you can’t have it both ways, right?

These issues stem from two roots: derision and ignorance, both of science communication.

Of the scientists endowed with sufficient resources (including personal privilege and wealth): some don’t want to undertake scicomm, some don’t know enough to make a decision about whether to undertake scicomm, and some wish to undertake scicomm. Of these, scientists of the first type, who actively resist communicating research – whether theirs or others, believing it to be a lesser or even undesirable enterprise – wish to perpetuate their presumed authority and their authoritarian ‘reign’ by hoarding their knowledge. They are responsible for the derision.

These people are responsible at least in part for the emergence of Balfouresque activists: celebrity-voices that amplify issues but wrongly, with or without the support of larger organisations, often claiming to question the agenda of an unholy union of scientists and businesses, alluding to conspiracies designed to keep the general populace from asking too many questions, and ultimately secured by the belief that they’re fighting authoritarian systems and not authority itself.

Scientists of the second type, who are unaware of why science communication exists and its role in society, are obviously the ignorant.

For example, when scientists from the UK had a paper published in 2017 about the Sutlej river’s connection to the Indus Valley civilisation, I reached out to two geoscientists for comment, after having ascertained that they weren’t particularly busy or anything. Neither had replied after 48 hours, not even with a ‘no’. So I googled “fluvio-deltaic morphology”, picked the first result that was a university webpage and emailed the senior-most scientist there. This man, Maarten Kleinhans at the University of Utrecht, wrote back almost immediately and in detail. One of the two geoscientists wrote me a month later: “Please check carefully, I am not an author of the paper.”

More recently, the 2018 Young Investigators’ Meet in Guwahati included a panel discussion on science communication (of which I was part). After fielding questions from the audience – mostly from senior scientists already convinced of the need for good science communication, such as B.K. Thelma and Roop Malik – and breaking for tea, another panelist and I were mobbed by young biologists completely baffled as to why journalists wanted to interrogate scientific papers when that’s exactly why peer-review exists.

All of this is less about fighting quacks bearing little to no burden of proof and more about responding to the widespread and cheap availability of information. Like it or not, science communication is here to stay because it’s one of the more credible ways to suppress the undesirable side-effects of implementing and accessing a ‘right to information’ policy paradigm. Similarly, you can’t have a right to information together with a right to withhold information; the latter has to be defined in the form of exceptions to the former. Otherwise, prepare for activism to replace expertise.

The RLV-TD on its way to the SDSC ahead of its May 23 test launch. Source: ISRO

No Space Age for us

There’s a 500-word section on the Wikipedia page for the NASA Space Shuttle that describes the markings on the programme’s iconic orbiter vehicle (OV). Specifically, it talks about where the words ‘NASA’ and ‘USA’ appeared on the vehicle’s body, if there were any other markings, as well as some modifications to how the flag was positioned. Small-time trivia-hunters like myself love this sort of thing because, whether in my imagination or writing, being able to recall and describe these markings provides a strong sense of character to the OV, apart from making it more memorable to my readers as well as myself.

These are the symbols in our memories, the emblem of choices that weren’t dictated by engineering requirements but by human wants, ambitions. And it’s important to remember that these signatures exist and even more so to remember them because of what they signify: ownership, belonging, identity.

Then again, the markings on an OV are a part of its visual identity. A majority of humans have not seen the OV take off and land, and there are many of us who can’t remember what that looked like on TV either. For us, the visual identity and its attendant shapes and colours may not be very cathartic – but we are also among those who have consumed information of these fascinating, awe-inspiring vehicles through news articles, podcasts, archival footage, etc., on the internet. There are feelings attached to some vague recollections of a name; we recall feats as well as some kind of character, as if the name belonged to a human. We remember where we were, what we were doing when the first flights of iconic missions took off. We use the triggers of our nostalgia to personalise our histories. Using some symbol or other, we forge a connection and make it ours.

This ourness is precisely what is lost, rather effectively diluted, through the use of bad metaphors, through ignorance and through silence. Great technology and great communication strive in opposite directions: the former is responsible, though in only an insentient and mechanistic way, for underscoring the distance – technological as much as physical – between starlight and the human eye that recognises it; the latter hopes to make us forget that distance. And in the absence of communication, our knowledge becomes clogged with noise and the facile beauty of our machines; without our symbols, we don’t see the imprints of humanity in the night sky but only our loneliness.

Such considerations are far removed from our daily lives. We don’t stop (okay, maybe Dennis Overbye does) to think about what our journalism needs to demand from history-making institutions – such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – apart from the precise details of those important moments. We don’t question the foundations of their glories as much as enquire after the glories themselves. We don’t engender the creation of sanctions against long-term equitable and sustainable growth. We thump our chests when probes are navigated to Mars on a Hollywood budget but we’re not outraged when only one scientific result has come of it. We are gratuitous with our praise even when all we’re processing are second-handed tidbits. We are proud of ISRO’s being removed from bureaucratic interference and, somehow, we are okay with ISRO giving access only to those journalists who have endeared themselves by reproducing press releases for two decades.

There’s no legislation that even says all knowledge generated by ISRO lies in the public domain. Irrespective of it being unlikely that ISRO will pursue legal action against me, I do deserve the right to use ISRO’s findings unto my private ends without anxiety. I’m reminded every once in a while that I, or one of my colleagues, could get into trouble for reusing images of the IRNSS launches from isro.gov.in in a didactic video we made at The Wire (or even the image at the top of this piece). At the same time, many of us are proponents of the open access, open science and open knowledge movements.

We remember the multiwavelength astronomy satellite launched in September 2015 as “India’s Hubble” – which only serves to remind us how much smaller the ASTROSAT is than its American counterpart. How many of you know that one of the ASTROSAT instruments is one of the world’s best at studying gamma-ray bursts? We discover, like hungry dogs, ISRO’s first tests of a proto-RLV as “India’s space shuttle”; when, and if, we do have the RLV in 2030, wouldn’t we be thrilled to know that there is something wonderful about it not just of national provenance but of Indian provenance, too?

Instead, what we are beginning to see is that India – with its strapped-on space programme – is emulating its predecessors, reliving jubilations from a previous age. We see that there is no more of an Indianess in them as much as there is an HDR recap of American and Soviet aspirations. Without communication, without the symbols of its progress being bandied about, without pride (and just a little bit of arrogance thrown in), it is becoming increasingly harder through the decades for us – as journalists or otherwise – to lay claim to something, a scrap of paper, a scrap of attitude, that will make a part of the Space Age feel like our own.

At some point, I fear we will miss the starlight for the distance in between.

Update: We are more concerned for our machines than for our dreams. Hardly anyone is helping put together the bigger picture; hardly anyone is taking control of what we will remember, leaving us to pick up on piecemeal details, to piece together a fragmented, disjointed memory of what ISRO used to be. There is no freedom in making up your version of a moment in history. There needs to be more information; there need to be souvenirs and memorabilia; and the onus of making them needs to be not on the consumers of this culture but the producers.