Go where science takes you, even if it is infinite in all directions. Subscribe to the newsletter format here and get this column in your inbox every Saturday morning.
You can’t have all news items on the homepage all the time even though they might each deserve that place, nor can a single publication cover all the notable news in the world on a given day. But if given the chance, these are the stories I would have liked to showcase on my hypothetical homepage October 26 morning:
* Set aside the Nobel Prizes for a sec and look at the new kids on the block, the Fundamental Physics and the New Horizons prizes:
This has GOT to change. It is almost laughable – like no-one thought to look at the selection committee and say ‘oh right, no, we can’t actually do that for real’. pic.twitter.com/evdHClcWSR
— Jo Dunkley (@j_dunkley) October 18, 2018
Science is frequently understood as an enterprise engaged in the unearthing of new facts, or verification of older, supposed facts, through methods that strive to eliminate biases. Missing in this picture is the key role of interpretation itself: science lies in its facts but also in how those facts are interpreted together in various contexts. In turn, this requires us to view science as a knowledge-building enterprise for all of society, beyond just for a group of specialists.
* Explaining biotechnology in various Indian languages – “We, the iGEM IIT Madras team have started ‘The Language Project’ with the idea to make basic biotechnology concepts available to all. Knowledge about the research, applications, and findings in biotechnology is limited and not well known to a vast population. We aim to make the general public aware of basic ideas of genetics and synthetic biology and generate enthusiasm and interest towards this vast, fascinating field.” (Hat-tip to @IndSciComm)
* A satellite fleet to track all animals and insects – “Over the past few decades, tracking wildlife using radio collars and GPS transmitters has changed the way that researchers understand the behaviour of the animal kingdom. Using tags that communicate through satellite, mobile-phone and radio technology, scientists can follow everything from whales in the open ocean to jaguars beneath deep jungle cover. But the long-range movements of most of the world’s species remain invisible to researchers. Animals that weigh less than 100 grams can’t safely carry the smallest available satellite tags. That puts 75% of all bird and mammal species – and all insects – off limits to this kind of tracking. And the tags themselves cost thousands of dollars apiece, making wide-scale deployment a pricey proposition. Martin Wikelski hopes to change all that with his project: … he foresees a network of satellites devoted to following hundreds of thousands of animals in real time.”
* No conclusive evidence that eating organic foods reduces cancer risk – “Assessing the impact of any food type on health is riddled with difficulties, but measuring the effect of organic food poses even more problems. The main issue is that individuals who choose to eat organic food tend to share traits that go hand in hand with better health outcomes. For instance, people who eat the most organic food are also likely to be more physically active, less likely to smoke, have higher incomes, and be more likely to follow a relatively healthful diet than those who do not. … To muddy the waters further, organic produce covers a wealth of food groups: from fish to bacon to Swiss chard. Consequently, researchers may class someone who ate organic beef every day as eating a lot of organic produce. However, people now know that consuming high levels of red meat is a risk factor for colon cancer. Although this is an extreme example, it is easy to see how making sense of this type of data can be a minefield.”
* Purveyors of questionable medical services are using crowdfunding to get by – “It is universally accepted that one’s economic position influences one’s medical outcomes, which is grossly unfair. To its credit, the existence of medical crowdfunding at least offers the potential for some patients to cover costs that they would otherwise never have had the opportunity to cover. … [On the other hand] it also opens wide the door to quackery in the field of stem cells. Jeremy Snyder and coauthors detailed the frequency with which their list of 351 shady stem cell clinics appeared on the crowdfunding platforms GoFundMe and YourCaring. They found over 13,000 people donating $1.45 million to 408 campaigns to benefit these clinics. The campaigns sought a total of $7.43 million. … [We] can undoubtedly thank medical crowdfunding for exposing more people to the risks inherent in unregulated stem cell procedures.”
Piecing together stories published at disparate times and places but which have a theme or two in common.
1. Climate fear
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently published a report exhorting countries committed to the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5º by the end of this century. We have already warmed Earth’s surface by 1º C, leaving us with only 0.5º C to work with. As if this isn’t drastic enough, one study has also shown that if we’re not on track to this target in the next 12 years, then we’re likely to cross a point of no return and be unable to keep Earth’s surface from warming by 1.5º C.
In the last decade, the conversation on climate change passed by an important milestone – that of journalists classifying climate denialism as false balance. After such acknowledgment, editors and reporters simply wouldn’t bother speaking to those denying the anthropogenic component of global warming in pursuit of a balanced copy because denying climate change became wrongful. Including such voices wouldn’t add balance but in fact remove it from a climate story.
But with the world inexorably thundering towards warming Earth’s surface by at least 1.5º C, and with such warming also expected to have drastic consequences for civilisation as we know it, I wonder if and when optimism will also become pulled under the false balance umbrella.
There were a few articles earlier this year about whether or not we ought to use the language of fear to spur climate action from people and governments alike. David Biello had excerpted the following line from a new book on the language of climate change in a review for the New York Times: “I believe that language can lessen the distance between humans and the world of which we are a part; I believe that it can foster interspecies intimacy and, as a result, care.” But what tone should such language adopt?
A September 2017 study noted:
… the modest research evidence that exists with respect to the use of fear appeals in communicating climate change does not offer adequate empirical evidence – either for or against the efficacy of fear appeals in this context – nor would such evidence adequately address the issue of the appropriateness of fear appeals in climate change communication. … It is also noteworthy that the language of climate change communication is typically that of “communication and engagement,” with little explicit reference to targeted social influence or behaviour change, although this is clearly implied. Hence underlying and intertwined issues here are those of cogent arguments versus largely absent evidence, and effectiveness as distinct from appropriateness. These matters are enmeshed within the broader contours of the contested political, social, and environmental, issues status of climate change, which jostle for attention in a 24/7 media landscape of disturbing and frightening communications concerning the reality, nature, progression, and implications of global climate change.
An older study, from 2009, had it that using the language of fear wouldn’t work because, according to Big Think‘s break down, it could desensitise the audience, prompt the audience to trust the messenger less over time and trigger either self-denial or some level of nihilism. What else would you do if you’re “confronted with messages that present risks” that you, individually, can do nothing to mitigate? Most of all, it could distort our (widely) shared vision of a “just world”.
On the other hand, just the necessary immediacy of action suggests we should be afraid lest we become complacent. We need urgent and significant action in both the short- and long-terms and across a variety of enterprises. Fear also sells. It is always in demand irrespective of whether a journalist is selling it, or a businessman or politician. It is easy, sensational, grabs eyeballs and can be effortlessly communicated. That is how you have the distasteful maxim “If it bleeds, it leads”.
In light of these concerns, it is odd that so many news outlets around the world (including The Guardian and The Washington Post) are choosing to advertise the ’12-year-deadline to act’ bit. A deadline is only going to make people more anxious and less able to act. Further, it is odder that given the vicious complexities associated with making climate-related estimates, we are even able to pinpoint a single point of no return instead of identifying a time-range at some point within which we become doomed. And third, I would even go so far as to question the ‘doomedness’ itself because I don’t know if it takes inflections – points after which we lose our ability to make predictions – into account.
Nonetheless, as we get closer to 2030 – the year that hosts the point of no return – and assuming we haven’t done much to keep Earth’s surface warming by 1.5º C by the century’s close, we are going to be in neck-deep in it. At this point, would it still be fair for journalists, if not anyone else, to remain optimistic and communicate using the language of optimism? Second, will optimism on our part be taken seriously considering, at that point, the world will find out that Earth’s surface is going to warm by 1.5º C irrespective of everyone else’s hopes?
Third: how will we know if optimistic engagement with our audience is even working? Being able to measure this change, and doing so, is important if we are to reform journalism to the extent that newsrooms have a financial incentive to move away from fear-mongering and towards more empathetic, solution-oriented narratives. A major reason “If it bleeds, it leads” is true is because it makes money; if it didn’t, it would be useless. By measuring change, calculating their first-order derivatives and strategising to magnify desirable trends in the latter, newsrooms can also take a step back from the temptations of populism and its climate-unjust tendencies.
Climate change journalism is inherently political and as susceptible to being caught between political fault-lines as anything else. This is unlikely to change until the visible effects of anthropogenic global warming are abundant and affecting day-to-day living (of the upper caste/upper class in India and of the first world overall). So between now and then, a lot rests on journalism’s shoulders; journalists as such are uniquely situated in this context because, more than anyone else, we influence people on a day-to-day basis.
Apropos the first two questions: After 2030, I suspect many people will simply raise the bar, hoping that some action can be taken in the next seven decades to keep warming below 2º C instead of 1.5º C. Journalists will make up both the first and last lines of defence in keeping humanity at large from thinking that it has another shot at saving itself. This will be tricky: to inspire optimism and prompt people to act even while constantly reminding readers that we’ve messed up like never before.
To this end, journalists should also be regularly retrained – say, once every five years – on where climate science currently stands, what audiences in different markets feel about it and why, and what kind of language reporters and editors can use to engage with them. If optimism is to remain effective further into the 21st century, collective action is necessary on the part of journalists around the world as well – just the way, for example, we recognise certain ways to report stories of sexual assault, data breaches, etc.
2. IISc SH case
The Internal Complaints Committee at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, is undertaking enquiries into a complaint filed by a student against one of its faculty members, identified in news reports thus far only as an esteemed scientist in an engineering department.
The institute’s policy of dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace includes a clause, among other common provisions, that protects the privacy of the complainant and the respondent even after the committee has completed its enquiries and recommended a course of action to the employer. It also prevents the disclosure of the nature of this recommendation and what the employer chooses to do. Finally, the policy also overrides provisions in the RTI Act, thus rendering it (almost) impossible to identify the defendant even after the investigation has been completed.
Notwithstanding anything contained in the Right to Information Act, 2005, the contents of the Complaint made under this Policy, the identity and addresses of the Aggrieved woman/ , respondent and witnesses, any information relating to the conciliation and inquiry proceedings, recommendations of the IC and the action taken by an employer under this Policy, shall not be published, communicated, or made known to the public, press or media in any manner; Provided that any information may be disclosed/disseminated for securing justice to the victim of sexual harassment without disclosing the name, identity or any other particulars vis-a-vis the aggrieved woman/victim/complainant and witnesses.
This is certainly odd because, as Shuba Desikan wrote in The Hindu, “In the age of active voices on social media, this reluctance of the directors to communicate the situation to the media is … not just going to give rise to speculation, but it is also part of the suffocating stranglehold of patriarchal values that protects perpetrators, even alleged ones.”
Additionally, as an institute of significant standing and which attracts and trains some of the best scientific talent in India, IISc’s policy of silence – and the sanctions it threatens upon those who violate it – compels students to repose their faith in the institutional due process while also staving off public accountability. Let’s not forget that naming and shaming, for all of its suspected flaws, was the central instrument of action in the recent and ongoing #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, reminding society at large that there is no need to put up with due process should it fail as much as it actually has. In the end, IISc has a responsibility to provide a safe living and working environment to its students, and opening up about the identities of offending scientists as well as about what it is doing to address the situation can only leave the institute better off.
Sciencey things people are trying to do that are out of the ordinary in some way.
* Female penises and male vaginas – “The team that won the 2017 Ig Nobel Biology Prize for discovering a female penis, and a male vagina, in a cave insect has published a new paper, reporting a further discovery about the body parts of that insect. … The team explains: ‘In dry caves of southeastern Brazil, live a group of insects named Neotrogla that are perhaps best known because the egg-producing females have penises while the sperm-producing males have vaginas. The sex roles of these Brazilian cave insects are also reversed: females compete over the males, who in turn are selective of their female partners…'”
* Lighting up a city from space – “China is to launch a fake ‘moon’ into space that it hopes will illuminate one of the country’s biggest cities. Officials in Chengdu, a city of 14 million people in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan, announced plans to place a satellite in orbit by 2020 capable of reflecting sunlight onto its streets at night, claiming it will be bright enough to entirely replace street lights. The satellite would use a reflective coating to direct light to illuminate an area on earth of up to 50 square miles, according to Wu Chunfeng, chairman of the city’s Aerospace Science and Technology Microelectronics System Research Institute. The launch follows a similar project in 1999 when Russian researchers planned to use orbiting mirrors to light up cities in Siberia, hoping it would be a cheaper alternative to electric lighting.”
Some interesting articles from around the web.
* Meet the Trembling Giant, the world’s largest organism. He is dying. – A forest of 47,000 aspen trees in Utah has common DNA, making it the single largest organism on Earth. Called the Trembling Giant, the trees in the forest are connected through a complex underground network of roots. New trees are born asexually, from sprouts emerging from the roots. However, the Trembling Giant isn’t doing very well. A new study found that the forest is dying faster than it is regenerating, with most causes traceable to human activities in its neighbourhood and, of course, climate change.
* Lawrence Krauss retires from his university position – but only to test veracity of allegations against him – “Lawrence Krauss, a well-known theoretical physicist at Arizona State University, announced Sunday he is retiring from the school after an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. A Buzzfeed News story earlier this year contained allegations of inappropriate comments and behaviour from multiple women. After the story, ASU put Krauss on paid administrative leave and began an investigation. An ASU dean had recommended Krauss be fired. … Krauss said his choice to retire was spurred by Arizona Board of Regents regulations that would only allow him to ‘directly test the credibility of my accusers or the veracity of their claims’ if he first agreed to be dismissed. He wasn’t willing to do so.”