The Sciences

Infinite in All Directions: Will an Indian Win the Ig Nobel Prize by 2035?

The ideas that win the Ig Nobel Prizes may not be the ones that change the world but they certainly stand for the even more important super-idea that changing the world shouldn't be our sole imperative.

This article is part of a weekly column called ‘Infinite in All Directions’, written by Vasudevan Mukunth, science editor. Subscribe to the newsletter format here.

Will an Indian win the Ig Nobel?

The 28th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony concluded yesterday, handing out 10 prizes to 38 recipients with institutional affiliations in 26 countries. There is one recipient with an affiliation in India, though I doubt anyone is keeping track. They should (John Barry for the reproductive medicine prize, see below). In fact, instead of endorsing the view that an Indian will a Nobel Prize by 2035, the Government of India should aspire to have an Indian win an Ig Nobel Prize within the next two decades if the intent is to target a prize at all.

Although there is an apparent sense of ridicule in the prizes’ premise, it is gentle and in fact uplifting. A government should aspire to help its country’s scientists win an Ig Nobel Prize because the government, at least some department of it, has tremendous influence on the national research culture and research priorities. In this framework, to win an Ig Nobel Prize would mean being able to work on what scientists deem worth their while. This in turn would require the presence of a research evaluation scheme that is fair, efficient and not very exacting, allowing scientists the time to work on projects that catch their fancy without consequence for their career advancement or other responsibilities.

This is, of course, a lofty ambition and requires changes in the resource makeup of Indian academia as much as the demographics and structural factors like evaluation schemes. Most of all, this requires time. But as I said, if the intention is to point the R&D guns of Indian scientists towards the achievement of winning a specific prize, it should be the Ig Nobel Prize. Nothing makes the case better than the citations for this year’s winners, so without further ado:

  • Medicine – “for using roller coaster rides to try to hasten the passage of kidney stones”
  • Anthropology – “for collecting evidence, in a zoo, that chimpanzees imitate humans about as often, and about as well, as humans imitate chimpanzees”
  • Biology – “for demonstrating that wine experts can reliably identify, by smell, the presence of a single fly in a glass of wine”
  • Chemistry – “for measuring the degree to which human saliva is a good cleaning agent for dirty surfaces”
  • Medical education – “for the medical report ‘Colonoscopy in the Sitting Position: Lessons Learned From Self-Colonoscopy'”
  • Literature – “for documenting that most people who use complicated products do not read the instruction manual”
  • Nutrition – “for calculating that the caloric intake from a human-cannibalism diet is significantly lower than the caloric intake from most other traditional meat diets”
  • Peace – “for measuring the frequency, motivation, and effects of shouting and cursing while driving an automobile”
  • Reproductive medicine – “for using postage stamps to test whether the male sexual organ is functioning properly”
  • Economics – “for investigating whether it is effective for employees to use Voodoo dolls to retaliate against abusive bosses”

It is not that scientists should or shouldn’t work on these kinds of studies alone. There should definitely be a modicum of accountability in terms of what the funds, a limited resource, earmarked for R&D are used for. But that said, being able to work on these kinds of studies shouldn’t be rendered entirely impossible either, at least in some centres of the country. For example, it would be questionable to require every research institution to undertake blue-sky research, but those centres that are equipped for it shouldn’t be disincentivised from doing so.

More generally: The ideas that win the Ig Nobel Prizes may not be the ones that change the world but they certainly stand for the even more important super-idea that changing the world shouldn’t be our sole imperative.

Update, September 15: Many readers have pointed out that Indians have won the the Ig Nobel Prize in the past: K.P. Sreekumar, L. Mahadevan for the wave patterns of flags and bedsheets, Chittaranjan Andrade for nose-picking at traffic junctions by Bangaloreans, among others. Let us celebrate them and the aspirations they stood for! Again, from 2018 to 2035, it doesn’t make sense to say an Indian will win a Nobel Prize, but if the intention is to have someone win a prize at all, maybe that prize should be the Ig Nobel.


Fact-checking in science journalism

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has helped produce a report on fact-checking in science journalism, and it is an eye-opening read. It was drafted by Deborah Blum and Brooke Borel; there is a nice summary here.

The standout findings for me, as a science editor working with journalists for a news publication in India, all had something to do with the fact that most people like to refer to the New Yorker model as the gold standard, and feed an implicit aspiration that that is the only way fact-checking must be done. But while the thoroughness and level of quality control exemplified by the New Yorker model are very high, the aspiration itself tends to be frequently unrealistic. The following lines from the report (paraphrased) support this view:

  • About half of all outlets surveyed for the report (mostly American) delegated fact-checking to the reporters, the editors or a combination of them
  • Fact-checkers in the US made anywhere from $15 to $75 an hour, with the average being $30; more importantly, fact-checkers cost money that publications may not always be able to afford. As one editor put it, “The difference made by incrementally-increased quality [due to fact-checking] is hard to quantify and hard to justify financially” – more so in India, where, for example, it has seemed increasingly evident that readers will not penalise a publication for working without a style guide.

(In the report, the newspaper model “does not employ fact-checkers, per se. Instead, the accuracy of the story lies mostly with the journalist. Many newspaper journalists have their own systems for double-checking facts in their stories… – for example, checking the piece line-by-line and cross-referencing to original sources. In the newspaper model all stories also go through editors, who push back on iffy claims and look for other holes in sourcing or logic. Rather than going line-by-line and checking all the facts, the editor is looking for potential problems. Finally, the story will go through the copy desk, where copy editors will check for style and grammar. At some publications, copy editors do an abbreviated fact check, confirming facts against written sources, although they don’t typically re-interview people who appear in the story.”)

  • Editors use who use the newspaper model go by a ‘sniff test’, where they stay alert for facts or phrasing that sounds problematic, controversial, etc.
  • The Wire Science uses the newspaper model (although I am the ‘editor’ and the ‘copy desk’ both) and, relative to publications in the West, I can’t help but wonder from time to time – even if irrationally so – if the work that we are doing is somehow poorer in quality. But reading of the names of publications that employ the same model has provided overwhelming validation: “Ars Technica, Sky at Night Magazine, Chemical & Engineering News, … Environmental Health News, Gizmodo, Nature Medicine, Newsweek (both print and online), NOVA Next, PBS NewsHour, Quartz, Retraction Watch, Science, Science News for Students, Vox (except features), and the Washington Post, as well as digital-only stories from Sierra, and Smithsonian.”

(At The Wire Science, once an article is submitted, one of three workflows kicks in. If I am not familiar with the article’s topic: I check it for clarity and flow, forward it to an independent topical expert who can comment on its technical details, and proceed to edit it together with the author. If I am familiar with the article’s topic: I check it for clarity and flow, perform a ‘sniff test’ fact-check, and proceed to edit it together with the author. If the article is in long-form: I check it for clarity and flow, forward one copy to an independent topical expert who can comment on its technical details, one copy to an independent fact-checker, and finally edit it together with the author.)

  • Fact-checking has been on the decline but it is not as easy as attributing it to the rise of digital publishing. In fact, the divide between print and digital newsrooms  vis-a-vis fact-checking is much less strong than between news and long-form publishing.
  • Some 61% of publications that had a fact-checker did not provide written guidelines and 57% did not provide training for the person in that position
  • Most editors “don’t allow anyone to share unpublished materials – whether an entire story or a short excerpt – with sources during a fact check”; The Wire Science treads the same line for the most part
  • It is easier to correct an article post-publication in digital form than in print form. But most people forget that the digital medium aids preservation and reproducibility, i.e. a captured screenshot can last for many years more than a piece of paper bearing some words.

A concluding note from my end: Facts are important, but in science journalism, we are also often in the business of uncertainty and exploration – realms of endeavour in which facts are, more often than not, contingent. So fact-checking itself must not fetishise precision, especially when there might be an advantage in dangling doubt from a well-constructed web of contingencies, as much as give facts room to move and breathe freely.


The sounds of science

Do you remember the sound of a telephone ringing in the early 1990s? That polyphonic ringtone so reminiscent of the life of that decade…

Do you remember the sound of using a telephone in the 1990s? The flat noises the cheap plastic buttons on the interface made when you pushed on them, the wound-up cord flopping over the wooden table, the clackety-clack of the switch when you plunged it into the chassis, wondering why you couldn’t hear a voice on the other side, the closing allegro of the handset coming to rest, almost surely time for you to stop eavesdropping on the teacher-parent phone call.

In case you were wondering, science has everything to do with these sounds, noises and other music – as much as it had everything to do with why telephones and other such devices were in your house in the first place. However, while their underlying principles are carefully recorded in the scientific literature and preserved for decades, while our encounters with their designs is memorialised in trends and encoded in interfaces of the future, the sounds find refuge only in our memories, where they slowly fade away.

We must endeavour to preserve them better because they embody a cultural experience of our carefully, ergonomically crafted world. They are the inadvertent, nonetheless persistent, products of an older scientific vision that only saw far enough to say every person must be able to speak to every other person almost instantaneously. The vision did not anticipate the sound but the sound is what defined our day-to-day engagement with it.

This is what a project, called ‘Conserve the Sound’, has been trying to do. Funded by the Film and Media Foundation NRW, Germany, it is:

… an online museum for vanishing and endangered sounds. The sound of a dial telephone, a walkman, a analog typewriter, a pay phone, a 56k modem, a nuclear power plant or even a cell phone keypad are partially already gone or are about to disappear from our daily life.

Almost all the products featured on their site – from tabletop ventilators to the engines of the Junkers Ju 52 aircraft – are of German origin but that does not diminish the nostalgia trip. Why, use the site long enough and browse through enough sounds you recognise, and you might soon be tempted to sample ones that you never got the chance to hear growing up.


Update: This column was corrected on September 17, 2018, to state that K.P. Sreekumar – and not Raman Sukumar as was stated earlier – had won an Ig Nobel Prize.