Politics

Backstory: For the Indian Media, Science Is Pretty Pictures

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

backstory

One of the more intriguing factoids that emerged from the recent Lokniti-CSDS-KAS survey of young Indians was that for most of them religion takes precedence over science. What is also the case in these incredible times is that science itself has acquired religious resonances.

Just a few weeks ago, the distinguished alumnus of Baroda’s M.S. University, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009, felt constrained to advise his old alma mater to refrain from attributing to figures of religious scriptures the discoveries that belong to modern science, such as nuclear technology, airplanes and cosmetic surgery, in the diary that the university was bringing out for 2017. His advice was politely given short shrift to, which indicates how far down the road this institution had travelled from the days it had nurtured a love of science in the mind of a young Ramakrishnan.

Come to think of it, not much science or mathematics as disciplines trickle into mainstream media today and what little is there is mostly in the form of pretty pictures and quasi-science infographics. While health and wellness click bait rule the net, there is very little of the spirit that drove physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, in the early years of post-independent India, to set up Jnan o Bijnan, a science magazine for the aam Bengali.

If All India Radio set up “science cells” in several of its stations, newspaper houses had once invested in first-rate science journals and supplements on popular science for children. The magazine, Down to Earth, that Anil Agarwal set up in 1991, had a significant science and data component. Some of these efforts continue to this day, despite the odds, but somewhere the broader vision that founded and fuelled them seems to have fled our firmament. This, ironically, at a time when it is most needed – when spurious claims made by godmen are embraced as living truths even as rationalists end up murdered.

In that sense the consistent science coverage that has become one of the distinguishing features of The Wire is going against the flow and needs to be noticed. As a true blue arts-and-literature type, I cannot claim to comprehend a lot of the science that is on offer. As for mathematics, which in its pure form is so abstract that it escapes into the ether, it is a subject that I had gratefully left behind with school and a stern maths teacher, thin as a ruler and almost numbered likewise. But even I cannot but occasionally embark on the little voyages of discovery that make up the science newsletters regularly put out on this platform.

This time (‘Infinite in All Directions: From Copernicus to Clockwork, the Role of Math in Completeness’, April 3), there was this interesting vignette on what it would be like for humankind to colonise other planets – for salubriousness, this would possibly be a toss-up between Mars and the moon Titan! There was also a razor sharp dissection of a News18 infographic on the food preferences of 21 Indian states, in terms of vegetarianism/non-vegetarianism. The point being made was that the best infographics need to “give a clear and accurate impression of the truth as represented by the numbers as quickly as possible.” A combination of accuracy, immediacy and comprehension keeping the lay person in mind, quite apart from attractive visualisation, is the idea.

These attributes, incidentally, are also useful for any science coverage that aims to strike a chord. Of course, science being this multi-faceted, multi-layered, multi-disciplinary thing will speak in different voices to different audiences. While the content put out by The Wire needs to appeal to, and be taken seriously, by peers in various disciplines, there is also scope for pieces pitched at what was once termed as the “popular” level. The Wire’s science editor would have to figure this one out but there could be hints on how to go about this in the articles already put out.

Pegging scientific concerns to current affairs is one way to go. The piece on Trump’s climate change denialism and its impact on federal funding for research is a case in point (‘Throttling Climate Science, Trump Style’, April 6). The interview with outgoing secretary for the AYUSH ministry, Ajit M. Sharan, is also a good example of how this can be done (‘‘As of Now the Standards for Licensing Proprietary AYUSH Drugs Are Pretty Lax’’, April 1). Since the 2017 budget raised outlays for this ministry by 8% and provided it a princely sum of almost Rs 1,500 crore, it is important to get a sense of the social benefits, or lack of it, of this move. If we were to read between the lines of the interview (Sharan, it must be said, did an able job defending his ministry), it would appear that, apart from bolstering tourism, Ayurveda finds itself in a cul-de-sac. There are few “world-class” Ayurveda hospitals; marketing Ayurvedic drugs is “very difficult”; there is resistance from Ayurvedic practitioners to clinical trials; the efficacy of the government’s inspection and surveillance regime is “debatable”; as of now “standards for licensing proprietary drugs are pretty lax”. All this begs the question, is the large corpus earmarked for the Ayush ministry driven by considerations other than the breakthroughs it can achieve in the world of health. That would seem to be the case.

There are branches of science that are intrinsically “popular”, and a lot of media content on wildlife falls in this category. Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, the Australian television series, ‘Skippy the Bush Kangaroo’, enjoyed traction even in the Soviet Union. A feature like ‘Scientists Find the Play-Calls of a New Zealand Parrot Species Are “Infectious”‘ (April 3) would entice a smile from the most flinty-eyed reader.

‘The Life of Science’ series on women scientists, which won a Laadli Award this year and is being supported by The Wire, is another terrific way to invest human interest in science. These stories are riveting accounts of women scientists pursuing excellence under bruising conditions. I like the way arcane specialist information is folded into personal history in a readable manner in these features. In the latest one (‘How an Astronomer Is Trying to Solve Mysteries From Far-Off Galaxies’, April 2), we learn about Seema Pooranchand probing ultra-luminous galaxies with her feet firmly planted in the terra firma of a “somewhat dingy office room” in the University of Hyderabad. Pooranchand has had to cope with an interrupted academic career, the inevitable double shift, abusive behaviour from strangers after late night sessions in the lab and having to lug an insanely heavy research instrument around.

These are science stories with a human face and they bring the discipline out of the cloistered spaces of labs and seminar rooms.

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Looking out for conversations between writers and readers and between readers themselves, I found serious engagement with a piece that argued that the Hindu majority has failed to raise its voice against the BJP’s conscious communal polarisation (‘Where Are India’s Dissenting Hindus?’, April 12). While the first response to it posited that this was the case because the “dissenters among the majority community are too frightened or timid to speak out against the hate mongers”, another reader begged to differ, maintaining that “our collective moral compass has stopped working.” Interesting conversation and, as in the best discussions, it is open-ended.

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The article written by The Wire team on developments at the premier Tata Institute of Social Sciences (‘Tata Institute of Social Sciences Terminates Contracts of 25 Faculty Members in One Stroke’, March 25) drew a welter of responses. Several respondents criticised it for being biased in holding the TISS management responsible for the dismissals ostensibly with the intention to end the possibility of a teachers’ association being formed. One professor criticised the lack of “even a proforma attempt to contact the Institute for its side of the story”. This, it was argued by another writer, was particularly egregious because it “skirted around the real reasons for these dismissals” – the unsavoury role of the UGC and the withdrawal of support from four state governments. A former student, trying to make sense of why TISS acted the way it did, cast the issue against the backdrop of the systematic dismantling of social research centres across the country, including of course JNU, and the drastic cutting down on its PhD enrollments. He added that “the quest to thin down left leaning ideology in academia will only have drastic negative consequences on the development of a nation like India.”

The important question is where, if at all, did The Wire piece go wrong. While it is difficult often to get quotes on record in fraught and polarised situations, the lack of a response from the TISS administration on these dismissals certainly did undermine the credibility of the report. But to accuse the story of being “full of unverified speculation”, as one response did, is unfair because there can be nothing speculative about the fact that 25 professors were, one fine day, simultaneously issued termination letters signed by the TISS registrar, even before funding for their programmes was officially discontinued by the UGC. So while it is true that the external environment is hostile, as indicated by the “crackdown on JNU students and teachers and the recent case of confrontation between students and ABVP in DU”, there can, as one response put it, be “no prizes for understanding the changed mindset of educational institutions across the country that are cowering under the constant gaze of Big Brother watching from Delhi.” The fact is, as another reader argued, “independent-minded teachers are under attack everywhere…The present dispensation expects teachers to be propaganda agents.”

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When did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visit Bangladesh? Alert reader B.M. Jain wants The Wire to double check the month and year of former Singh’s visit to Bangladesh. Its story, ‘India and Bangladesh Sign 22 Agreements, Discuss Water Sharing’ (April 9), stated that the visit took place in January 2010, when in fact it wasn’t until September 2011 that the former prime minister visited Dhaka.