The circumstances in which scientists are science journos

On September 6, 2019, two researchers from Israel uploaded a preprint to the bioRxiv preprint server entitled ‘Can scientists fill the science journalism void? Online public engagement with two science stories authored by scientists’. Two news sites invited scientists to write science articles for them, supported by a short workshop at the start of the programme and then by a group of editors during the ideation and editing process. The two researchers tracked and analysed the results, concluding:

Overall significant differences were not found in the public’s engagement with the different items. Although, on one website there was a significant difference on two out of four engagement types, the second website did not have any difference, e.g., people did not click, like or comment more on items written by organic reporters than on the stories written by scientists. This creates an optimistic starting point for filling the science news void [with] scientists as science reporters.

Setting aside questions about the analysis’s robustness: I don’t understand the point of this study (insofar as it concerns scientists being published in news websites, not blogs), as a matter of principle. When was the optimism in question ever in doubt? And if it was, how does this preprint paper allay it?

The study aims to establish whether articles written by scientists can be just as successful – in terms of drawing traffic or audience engagement – as articles penned by trained journalists working in newsrooms. There are numerous examples that this is the case, and there are numerous other examples that this is not. But by discussing the results of their survey in a scientific paper, the authors seem to want to elevate the possibility that articles authored by scientists can perform well to a well-bounded result – which seems questionable at best, even if it is strongly confined to the Israeli market.

To take a charitable view, the study effectively reaffirms one part of a wider reality.

I strongly doubt there’s a specific underlying principle that suggests a successful outcome, at least beyond the mundane truism that the outcome is a combination of many things. From what I’ve seen in India, for example, the performance of a ‘performant article’ depends on the identity of the platform, the quality of its editors, the publication’s business model and its success, the writer’s sensibilities, the magnitude and direction of the writer’s moral compass, the writer’s fluency in the language and medium of choice, the features of the audience being targeted, and the article’s headline, length, time of publication and packaging.

It’s true that a well-written article will often perform better than average and a poorly written written article will perform worse than average, in spire of all these intervening factors, but these aren’t the only two states in which an article can exist. In this regard, claiming scientists “stand a chance” says nothing about the different factors in play and even less about why some articles won’t do well.

It also minimises editorial contributions. The two authors write in their preprint, “News sites are a competitive environment where scientists’ stories compete for attention with other news stories on hard and soft topics written by professional writers. Do they stand a chance?” This question ignores the publisher’s confounding self-interest: to maximise a story’s impact roughly proportional to the amount of labour expended to produce it, such as with the use of a social media team. More broadly, if there are fewer science journalists, there are also going to be fewer science editors (an event that precipitated the former will most likely precipitate the latter as well), which means there will also be fewer science stories written by anyone in the media.

Another issue here is something I can’t stress enough: science writers, communicators and journalists don’t have a monopoly on writing about science or scientists. The best science journalism has certainly been produced by reporters who have been science journalists for a while, but this is no reason to write off the potential for good journalism – in general – to produce stories that include science, nor to exclude such stories from analyses of how the people get their science news.

A simple example is environmental journalism in India. Thanks to prevalent injustices, many important nuggets of environmental and ecological knowledge appear in articles written by reporters working the social justice and political economics beats. This has an important lesson for science reporters and editors everywhere: not being employed full-time is typically a bitter prospect but your skills don’t have to manifest in stories that appear on pages or sections set aside for science news alone.

It also indicates that replenishing the workforce (even with free labour) won’t stave off the decline of science journalism – such as it is – as much as tackling deeper, potentially extra-scientific, issues such as parochialism and anti-intellectualism, and as a second step convincing both editors and marketers about the need to publish science journalism including and beyond considerations of profit.

Last, the authors further write:

This study examined whether readers reacted differently to science news items written by scientists as compared to news items written by organic reporters published on the same online news media sites. Generally speaking, based on our findings, the answer is no: audiences interacted similarly with both. This finding justifies the time and effort invested by the scientists and the Davidson science communication team to write attractive science stories, and justifies the resources provided by the news sites. Apparently if websites publish it, audiences will consume it.

An editor could have told you this in a heartbeat. Excluding audiences that consume content from niche outlets, and especially including audiences that flock to ‘destination’ sites (i.e. sites that cover nearly everything), authorship rarely ever matters unless the author is prominent or the publication highlights it. But while the Israeli duo has reason to celebrate this user behaviour, as it does, others have seen red.

For example, in December 2018, the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal published a paper by an Oxford University physicist named Jamie Farnes advancing a fanciful solution to the dark matter and dark energy problems. The paper was eventually widely debunked by scientists and science journalists alike but not before hundreds, if not thousands, of people were taken by an article in The Conversation that seemed to support the paper’s conclusions. What many of them – including some scientists – didn’t realise was that The Conversation often features scientists writing articles about their own work, and didn’t know the problem article had been written by Farnes himself.

So even if the preprint study skipped articles written by scientists about their own work, the duos’s “build it and they will come” inference is not generalisable, especially if – for another example – someone else from Oxford University had written favourably about Farnes’s paper. I regularly field questions from young scientist-writers baffled as to why I won’t publish articles that quote ‘independent’ scientists commenting on a study they didn’t participate in but which was funded, in part or fully, by the independent scientists’ employer(s).

I was hoping to neatly tie my observations together in a conclusion but some other work has come up, so I hope you won’t mind the abrupt ending as well as that, in the absence of a concluding portion, you won’t fall prey to the recency effect.

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.

The invitations

First, I was invited to speak at a science communication meeting in X in November. Next, I was invited to host an event at Y around the same date. Then I was invited to speak at Z on the same date. Since I’d already been to a few science communication meetings similar to the one in X, I figured Y was more important, so I declined to come. But when the Z invitation arrived, I found it was more important since it was a national event, so I declined Y. Finally, the Z event’s organisers put me on a manel; when I refused to participate, they rescinded their invitation. Now I was available again but I couldn’t go to X or Y because when I turned them down, I had nominated others in my stead and they had confirmed their participation.

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.

This image of Mars was taken in October 24, with MOM taking advantage of its elliptical orbit to capture the planet’s breadth. Credit: ISRO

Review: ‘Mission Mangal’ (2019)

This review assumes Tanul Thakur’s review as a preamble.

There’s the argument that ISRO isn’t doing much by way of public outreach and trust in the media is at a low, and for many people – more than the most reliable sections of the media can possibly cover – Bollywood’s Mission Mangal could be the gateway to the Indian space programme. That we shouldn’t dump on the makers of Mission Mangal for setting up an ISRO-based script and Bollywoodifying it because the prerogative is theirs and it is not a mistake to have fictionalised bits of a story that was inspirational in less sensationalist ways.

And then there is the argument that Bollywood doesn’t function in a vacuum – indeed, anything but – and that it should respond responsibly to society’s problems by ensuring its biographical fare, at least, maintains a safe distance from problematic sociopolitical attitudes. That while creative freedom absolves artists of the responsibility to be historians, there’s such a thing as not making things worse, especially through an exercise of the poetic license that is less art and more commerce.

The question is: which position does Mission Mangal justify over the other?

I went into the cinema hall fully expecting the movie to be shite, but truth be told, Mission Mangal hangs in a trishanku swarga between the worlds of ‘not bad’ and ‘good’. The good parts don’t excuse the bad parts and the bad parts don’t drag the good parts down with them. To understand how, let’s start with the line between fact and fiction.

Mission Mangal‘s science communication is pretty good. As a result of the movie’s existence, thousands more people know about the gravitational slingshot (although the puri analogy did get a bit strained), line-of-sight signal transmission, solar-sailing and orbital capture now. Thousands more kind-of know the sort of questions scientists and engineers have to grapple with when designing and executing missions, although it would pay to remain wary of oversimplification. Indeed, thousands more also know – hopefully, at least – why some journalists’ rush to find and pin blame at the first hint of failure seems more rabid than stringent. This much is good.

However, almost everyone I managed to eavesdrop on believed the whole movie to be true whereas the movie’s own disclaimer at the start clarified that the movie was a fictionalised account for entertainment only. This is a problem because Mission Mangal also gets its science wrong in many places, almost always for dramatic effect. For just four examples: the PSLV is shown as a two-stage rocket instead of as a four-stage rocket; the Van Allen belt is depicted as a debris field instead of as a radiation belt; solar radiation pressure didn’t propel the Mars Orbiter Mission probe on its interplanetary journey; and its high-gain antenna isn’t made of a self-healing material.

More importantly, Mission Mangal gets the arguably more important circumstances surrounding the science all wrong. This is potentially more damaging.

There’s a lot of popular interest in space stuff in India these days. One big reason is that ISRO has undertaken a clump of high-profile missions that have made for easy mass communication. For example, it’s easier to sell why Chandrayaan 2 is awesome than to sell the AstroSat or the PSLV’s fourth-stage orbital platform. However, Mission Mangal sells the Mars Orbiter Mission by fictionalising different things about it to the point of being comically nationalistic.

The NASA hangover is unmistakable and unmistakably terrible. Mission Mangal‘s villain, so to speak, is a senior scientist of Indian origin from NASA who doesn’t want the Mars Orbiter Mission to succeed – so much so that the narrative often comes dangerously close to justifying the mission in terms of showing this man up. In fact, there are two instances when the movie brazenly crosses the line: to show up NASA Man, and once where the mission is rejustified in terms of beating China to be the first Asian country to have a probe in orbit around Mars. This takes away from the mission’s actual purpose: to be a technology-demonstrator, period.

This brings us to the next issue. Mission Mangal swings like a pendulum between characterising the mission as one of science and as one of technology. The film’s scriptwriters possibly conflated the satellite design and rocket launch teams for simplicity’s sake, but that has also meant Mission Mangal often pays an inordinate amount of attention towards the mission’s science goals, which weren’t very serious to begin with.

This is a problem because it’s important to remember that the Mars Orbiter Mission wasn’t a scientific mission. This also shows itself when the narrative quietly, and successfully, glosses over the fact that the mission probe was designed to fit a smaller rocket, and whose launch was undertaken at the behest of political as much as technological interests, instead of engineers building the rocket around the payload, as might have been the case if this had been a scientific mission.

Future scientific missions need to set a higher bar about what they’re prepared to accomplish – something many of us easily forget in the urge to thump our chests over the low cost. Indeed, Mission Mangal celebrates this as well without once mentioning the idea of frugal engineering, and all this accomplishes is to cast us as a people who make do, and our space programme as not hungering for big budgets.

This, in turn, brings us to the third issue. What kind of people are we? What is this compulsion to go it alone, and what is this specious sense of shame about borrowing technologies and mission designs from other countries that have undertaken these missions before us? ‘Make in India’ may make sense with sectors like manufacturing or fabrication but whence the need to vilify asking for a bit of help? Mission Mangal takes this a step further when the idea to use a plastic-aluminium composite for the satellite bus is traced to a moment of inspiration: that ISRO could help save the planet by using up its plastic. It shouldn’t have to be so hard to be a taker, considering ISRO did have NASA’s help in real-life, but the movie precludes such opportunities by erecting NASA as ISRO’s enemy.

But here’s the thing: When the Mars Orbiter Mission probe achieved orbital capture at Mars at the film’s climax, it felt great and not in a jingoistic way, at least not obviously so. I wasn’t following the lyrics of the background track and I have been feeling this way about missions long before the film came along, but it wouldn’t be amiss to say the film succeeded on this count.

It’s hard to judge Mission Mangal by adding points for the things it got right and subtracting points for the things it didn’t because, holistically, I am unable to shake off the feeling that I am glad this movie got made, at least from the PoV of a mediaperson that frequently reports on the Indian space progragge. Mission Mangal is a good romp, thanks in no small part to Vidya Balan (and as Pradeep Mohandas pointed out in his review, no thanks to the scriptwriters’ as well as Akshay Kumar’s mangled portrayal of how a scientist at ISRO behaves.)

I’m sure there’s lots to be said for the depiction of its crew of female scientists as well but I will defer to the judgment of smarter people on this one. For example, Rajvi Desai’s review in The Swaddle notes that the women scientists in the film, with the exception of Balan, are only shown doing superfluous things while Kumar gets to have all the smart ideas. Tanisha Bagchi writes in The Quint that the film has its women fighting ludicrous battles in an effort to portray them as being strong.

Ultimately, Mission Mangal wouldn’t have been made if not for the nationalism surrounding it – the nationalism bestowed of late upon the Indian space programme by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the profitability bestowed upon nationalism by the business-politics nexus. It is a mess but – without playing down its problematic portrayal of women and scientists – the film is hardly the worst thing to come of it.

In fact, if you are yet to watch the film but are going to, try imagining you are in the late 1990s and that Mission Mangal is a half-gritty, endearing-in-parts sci-fi flick about a bunch of Hindi-speaking people in Bangalore trying to launch a probe to Mars. However, if you – like me – are unable to leave reality behind, watch it, enjoy it, and then fact-check it.

Miscellaneous remarks

  1. Mission Mangal frequently attempts to assuage the audience that it doesn’t glorify Hinduism but these overtures are feeble compared to the presence of a pundit performing religious rituals within the Mission Control Centre itself. Make no mistake, this is a Hindu film.
  2. Akshay Kumar makes a not-so-eccentric entrance but there is a noticeable quirk about him that draws the following remark from a colleague: “These genius scientists are always a little crazy.” It made me sit up because these exact words have been used to exonerate the actions of scientists who sexually harassed women – all the way from Richard Feynman (by no means the first) to Lawrence Krauss (by no means the last).

Anita Nair and Anil Ananthaswamy talking about narrative non-fiction at the Bangalore International Centre, July 29, 2019.

Anil Ananthaswamy in conversation with Anita Nair

I attended an event at the Bangalore International Centre yesterday, Anita Nair in conversation with Anil Ananthaswamy about narrative non-fiction. Anil spoke for 45-55 minutes about what it was like to write his first book, The Edge of Physics (2010), and the different kinds of decisions he had to make as the narrator to keep the book interesting and engaging. Then Anita and Anil had a conversation for 30 minutes about the challenges of constructing narratives in fiction and non-fiction, followed by a short Q&A.

I quite enjoyed the evening because, though it was the third or maybe fourth time I have heard Anil speak about his books, the highlight every time has been the questions people have asked about them and his answers. This occasion was no different; in fact, Anita – who is an accomplished writer of fiction (whose books have been translated into 31 languages, as I and others in the audience discovered yesterday) – was particularly engaging. She was able to focus on the differences and the overlaps between the two kinds of exercises that I personally found illuminating.

The following are some of my notes from their conversation, together with my takes:

§ When Anita asked Anil how he chooses what to write, he said his decisions are almost always driven by curiosity. I thought that is a wonderful place to be in if you are a non-fiction writer: to have the liberty to pursue the stories that interest you, beyond considerations of marketability and the economics of feature-publishing. Anil has been a science journalist for two decades and there is little surprise as to how he got to this place. Nonetheless, his comment merits thinking about how writers and journalists balance the pull of their curiosity with the push(back) of the more pragmatic aspects of their vocation.

§ A quote about science writing from Tim Bradford, former science editor of The Guardian, that Anil recalled: “Never overestimate what the reader knows, never underestimate the reader’s intelligence”. In other words, the difference between you and your readers is simply the amount of information; if presented right, they likely possess the cognitive and intellectual faculties to process it.

§ Anil mentioned (in response to an audience-member’s question, I think) that all three of his books are geared towards making the reader understand what the major unanswered questions (in the respective fields: cosmology, neuroscience, quantum mechanics) are and aren’t concerned with providing a resolution at the end. He had already mentioned towards the close of his talk that he is principally concerned with the bigger picture and getting a grip on where we all come from, etc., but I have never asked him if he consciously set out to write books like this or if the books simply reflect his own curiosity-driven pursuit to understand our universe, so to speak.

Edit: I asked him over email and he said, “I think it’s more a reflection of my own pursuit – the topics that interest me seem to be those for which we are at the cusp of some understanding.”

§ Through Two Doors At Once, Anil’s third book, tracks how our understanding of quantum mechanics evolved by examining multiple iterations of a single experiment created over 200 years ago. Late last year, I prepared to excerpt a few pages from the book for The Wire Science when I realised that this was harder to do the farther I got away from the first chapter (final excerpt here). This was because of the book’s extremely linear narrative; the superlative is warranted because each chapter builds on concepts carefully erected in the previous one, so it would have been nearly impossible for you to start the book from the tenth chapter and understand what was going on. This is partly due to the counterintuitive and complicated nature of quantum mechanics and partly to the author’s decision to frame the narrative around one experiment.

Anil pointed out yesterday that this was in contrast to both The Edge of Physics and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2016), his second book, which follow what I like to call the radial narrative: each chapter begins at the centre of a circle and moves along the radius towards the circumference. But the next chapter doesn’t begin at the circumference; it begins at the centre again, reasserting the theme of the book and moving along another tack to a different point on the circumference. This way, it is possible for the reader to open the book on chapter 10 and understand what is going on; the author is less railroaded and has more room to explore different interpretations of the book’s theme; and editors like me have more portions to consider excerpting from.

§ My favourite part of the conversation was when Anita and Anil were springboarding off of the ideas discussed in his second book, The Man Who Wasn’t There, which examines how – to rephrase Anil – the body and the mind work together to construct the sense of self. Anil does this with a quest through different neurocognitive conditions that affect the mind in unique ways, providing insights into where the person’s sense of ‘I’ could be located in the brain.

I should mention here that this was an interesting passage of conversation but, for the same reason, one in which my neurons were going berserk and I don’t clearly remember how one part connected to another now. However, I do know that the following things were discussed:

  • Anita said that this journey of discovery (in Anil’s book) parallels her own when she is writing a novel. As the work of writing the book progresses, Anita the author gets more and more into the character’s skin so that she can write convincingly about the character’s actions and motivations. However, this process can be uniquely painful when the character molests a child, for example; according to Anita, it felt worse when she was able to make the transition from herself to her character, the child-molester, and slip back out almost effortlessly.
  • This was related to a question about the narrative growing its own legs and, every now and then, leading the author away in unintended directions. Anil said that in his case, it was a factor of how much reporting he had done. That is, the more knowledge and perspectives he had available, the more ideas he could explore in the same story. He also said that such narrative drift (my words) is more likely to happen in fiction than in non-fiction.

This is fascinating. It probably happens more with fiction because the rationale is that it is easier to invent than to infer, and because reality offers to railroad the author in non-fiction. However, narrative drift may not necessarily be more likely in fiction-writing. This is because, in my view, fiction also places a bigger premium on the author’s self-imposed limitations on inventiveness, since Occam’s razor applies equally to both forms of writing. And with fiction, unrestrained inventiveness imposes a greater cost on the story’s readability and even interestingness than unrestrained inference imposes on non-fiction-writing. I am curious to know, therefore, the different causes of narrative drift in fiction and (long-form) non-fiction – assuming there are differences – and how much time authors spend working against them.

Next courses of action: Read The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Cut-Like Wound.

Diversifying into other beats

I delivered my annual talk AMA at the NCBS science writing workshop yesterday. While the questions the students asked were mostly the same as last year (and the year before that), I also took the opportunity to request them to consider diversifying into other subjects. Most, if not all, journalists entering India’s science journalism space every year want to compose stories about the life sciences and/or ecology. As a result, however, while there are numerous journalists to write about issues in these areas, there are fewer than a handful to deal with developments in all the other ones – from theoretical particle physics to computer science to chemical engineering.

This gives the impression to the consumers of journalism that research in these areas isn’t worth writing about or, more perniciously, that developments in these areas aren’t to be discussed (and debated, if need be) in the public domain. And this in turn contributes to a vicious cycle, where “there no stories about physics” and “there is no interest in publishing stories about physics” successively keep readers/editors and the journalists, resp., at bay.

However, from an editor’s perspective, the problem has an eminently simple solution: induct and then publish reporters producing work on research on these subjects. This doesn’t always have to be of newly minted producers but could also benefit from existing ones actively diversifying into beats other than their first choices over the course of a few years.

This sort of diversification doesn’t happen regularly but if it does, it could also benefit younger journalists who are looking to make their presence felt. For example, it’s easier to stand out from the crowd writing about, say, semiconductor fabrication than about ecological research (although this isn’t to say one is more important than the other). When more such writing is produced, editors also stand to gain because they can offer readers a more even coverage of research in the country instead of painting a lopsided picture.

One might argue that there needs to be demand from readers as well, but the relationship between editors and readers isn’t a straightforward demand-supply contest. If that were the case, the news would have become synonymous with populist drivel a long time ago. Instead, it’s more about progressively creating newer interests in the longer run that are a combination of informative and interesting. Put one way, this means the editor should be able to bypass the ‘interestedness indicator’ once in a while to publish stories that readers didn’t know they needed (such as The Wire‘s piece on quantum biology earlier this month).

Such a thing obviously wouldn’t be possible without journalists pitching stories other than what they usually do, and of course editors who have signalled that they are willing to take such risks.

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.

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.

Friends no more

Growing up, watching Friends was a source of much amusement and happiness. Now, as a grownup, I can’t watch a single episode without deeply resenting how the show caricatures all science as avoidable and all scientists as boring. The way Monica, Rachael, Phoebe, Chandler and Joey respond to Ross’s attempts to tell them something interesting from his work or passions always provokes strong consternation and an impulse to move away from him. In one episode, Monica condemns comet-watching to be a “stupid” exercise. When Ross starts to talk about its (fictitious) discoverer, Joey muffles his ears, screams “No, no, no!” and begins banging on a door pleading to be let out. Pathetic.

This sort of reaction is at the heart of my (im)mortal enemy: the Invisible Barrier that has erupted between many people and science/mathematics. These people, all adults, passively – and sometimes actively – keep away from numbers and equations of any kind. The moment any symbols are invoked in an article or introduced in a conversation, they want to put as much distance as possible between them and what they perceive to be a monster that will make them think. This is why I doubly resent that Friends continues to be popular, that it continues to celebrate the deliberate mediocrity of its characters and the profound lack of inspiration that comes with it.

David Hopkins wrote a nice piece on Medium a year ago about this:

I want to discuss a popular TV show my wife and I have been binge-watching on Netflix. It’s the story of a family man, a man of science, a genius who fell in with the wrong crowd. He slowly descends into madness and desperation, lead by his own egotism. With one mishap after another, he becomes a monster. I’m talking, of course, about Friends and its tragic hero, Ross Geller. …

Eventually, the Friends audience — roughly 52.5 million people — turned on Ross. But the characters of the show were pitted against him from the beginning (consider episode 1, when Joey says of Ross: “This guy says hello, I wanna kill myself.”) In fact, any time Ross would say anything about his interests, his studies, his ideas, whenever he was mid-sentence, one of his “friends” was sure to groan and say how boring Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that nobody cares. Cue the laughter of the live studio audience. This gag went on, pretty much every episode, for 10 seasons. Can you blame Ross for going crazy?

He goes on to say that Friends in fact portended a bad time for America in general and that the show may have even precipitated it – a period of remarkable anti-intellectualism and consumerism. But towards the end, Hopkins says we must not bully the nerds, we must protect them, because “they make the world a better place” – a curious call given that nerds are also building things like Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, Uber, etc., services that, by and large, have negatively disrupted the quality of life for those not in the top 1%. These are nerds that first come to mind when we say they’re shaping the world, doing great things for it – but they’re not. Instead, these are really smart people either bereft of social consciousness or trapped in corporate assemblages that have little commitment to social responsibilities outside of their token CSR programmes. And together, they have only made the world a worse place.

But I don’t blame the nerd, if only because I can’t blame anyone for being smart. I blame the Invisible Barrier, which is slowly but surely making it harder for people embrace technical knowledge before it has been processed, refined, flavoured and served on a platter. The Barrier takes many shapes, too, making it harder to hunt down. Sometimes, it’s a scientist who refuses to engage with an audience that’s interested in listening to what she has to say. Sometimes, it’s a member of the audience who doesn’t believe science can do anything to improve one’s quality of life. But mostly, rather most problematically, the Barrier is a scientist who thinks she’s engaging with an enthusiast but is really not, and a self-proclaimed enthusiast who thinks she’s doing her bit to promote science but is really not.

This is why we have people who will undertake a ‘March for Science’ once a year but not otherwise pressure the government to make scientific outreach activities count more towards their career advancement or demand an astrology workshop at a research centre be cancelled and withdraw into their bubbles unmindful of such workshops being held everywhere all the time. This is why we have people who will mindlessly mortgage invaluable opportunities to build research stations against a chance to score political points or refuse to fund fundamental research programmes because they won’t yield any short-term benefits.

Unfortunately, these are all the people who matter – the people with the power and ability to effect change on a scale that is meaningful to the rest of us but won’t in order to protect their interests. The Monicas, Rachaels, Phoebes, Chandlers and Joeys of the world, all entertainers who thought they were doing good and being good, enjoying life as it should be, without stopping to think about the foundations of their lives and the worms that were eating into them. The fantasy that their combined performance had constructed asked, and still asks, its followers to give up, go home and watch TV.

Fucking clowns.

Featured image: A poster of the TV show ‘Friends’: (L-R) Chandler, Rachael, Ross, Monica, Joey and Phoebe. Source: Warner Bros.