The state of science reporting in our media

Barring few publications, the quality of science section in our newspapers, given that it exists, is abysmal. Some might even add the quality of any section in most newspapers is abysmal. Probably this has to do more with the quality of the training of journalists than the ability or willingness of papers to find spaces in science section. Since the public sympathy is on the side of science and newspapers — who seems to be for the educated class and by the educated class –, newspapers are somewhat obliged to find space for science in its pages.

What I find more disturbing than this lack of appetite for science is the kind of science reporting is being encouraged by readers. First, we don’t expect a common reader to appreciate the significance of basic research. Without proper initiation, they won’t understand how improvements made in graph theory or Boolean function optimization will make their communication more reliable and their digital electronics faster and efficient. Or how better understanding of ‘calcium signaling’ in cells help making better medicines.

In the past I used to think, after a fashion, that a poor country like ours should not invest much in pure research. Later I noticed that how money invested in semiconductor research some 80 years ago by a country far far away have replaced the kerosene lamps in my village by rechargeable LED bulbs. Even though electricity supply is still as bad as it used to be, the house are lit for much longer and much better. This is something we need to remind ourselves again and again.

I don’t understand — actually I do but don’t want to shout it out — our narcissist obsession with “Indian born scientist who did A and B in US/Europe” over “a scientist who did A and B” in science. The most read stories in science section seems to be about some Indian guy who is doing something in US and Europe. What they do, I believe, must be fancy and very important both for their host country and science and technology in general. And given the conditions here and support of society and institutes there, it is most likely that one can do such things only in EU and US. Given that, it makes work done by our scientists is more worthy of our attention – even when we find it bit lacking. It is depressing to note that even the best of the work done our scientists at home were ignored. If you don’t trust me just check how much coverage was given to AKS primality test. This is one of the few examples I can think of. I often asked student who come from Delhi University if they have heard of Andre Beteille, and almost every-time they draw a blank.

Over the time, I have become more inclined to believe that main problem besetting our research and teaching community is more of morals and than of money. And if our media can improve the former a little, that would be a great deal of service to science in this country.

Rally against sexual harassment @NCBS Bagalore

wp-1465880241389.jpgPhoto credit: Priyanka Runwal

Some 150 Students, staff, and some faculty member of NCBS Bangalore recently held a silent rally against sexual harassment in the  neighbourhood of  NCBS Bangalore. The aim of the rally were:

  • Safe public spaces. Freedom for everyone to walk around at any time in day and night.
  • Encourage people to report incidents when they are happening and to take a security escort to do so.
  • Awareness that such incidents are happening around us and will not be tolerated.
  • Involve local community. Get more and more people involved so that they support victims when witnessing such incidents.
  • Encourage people to use public spaces so that anti-social elements do not monopolize them.
  • Popularise measures that are already in place at NCBS.
  • Inform civil authorities. Maintenance of public spaces such as improving street lighting and increased police patrol in sensitive areas.
  • Continue to work on a safer neighbourhood:
  • Organize martial arts courses at NCBS that are open to public.
  • Remove garbage in the streets to make this place look well maintained.

We covered some neighbourhood of NCBS Bangalore where most of the incidents were reported. We also took signatures to be handed over to local police to increase patrolling. But most importantly, we also get the local community to get involved. As it is well know, the harasser is usually a person who does not have deep roots in the community, not easy to track or identify, often does not commit his acts in own neighbourhood.

If this helps more people to speak up and report, intervene and stop harassment when they are happening in our neighbourhood, I’ll call it a success. In any case, one aim was to instil confidence and reduce the fear among the people that we stand with them and ready to help them should the need arise. They are not alone. Our sympathies are with them. This won’t be much, but it will be something.

NOTE on media coverage:

Various newspaper covered the rally. There were various distortions in coverage. Rally did not march to police station. We only did it in the neighbourhood of the campus. Also there is no case of sexual harassment on the campus. People who are involved in these incidents were not drunk either etc. etc.. The Hindu did least distorted reporting on the issue; and managed to get the basic point of being a “awareness rally” to the foreground.

Admission interviews at NCBS Bangalore

Every year, last week of May, NCBS conducts interviews for admission to our Ph.D. and Integrated Ph.D. program. If you are invited to the interview, this post is for you. This is not an official post, I am writing it as a student who went through it.

You should report at the campus by 7:45 am (I know this is too early and cruel). To reach the campus, you can use auto/cab. There is shuttle service between IISc and NCBS but it won’t be of any help in early morning. Food is not a problem for you or your parents. If you can’t report at campus by early morning, do contact people given in your brochure/information sheet/email. 

There will be volunteers to help you throughout the interview process. You’ll get to know them during your orientation. Catch any of them, ask anything; they will sort most of your problems.

Interview process consists of two stages for both Ph.D. and Int. Ph.D. candidates. Results are usually announced post dinner at the end of last interview day. Try to be calm during the process, it helps your chances.

Interviews will be in your area of expertise. You really don’t have to prepare for it. People are interested how you think about scientific problems and not how much you know (which is always useful). The interviewers will not have access to your marks-sheets etc, you won’t be judged according to grades or your performance in written test. They will start afresh; it all based on interview from now on.

If you are from different background such as physics, computer science of engineering, they will ask you general question which is easy to understand (why plants have flowers/fruits?). For goodness sake, don’t just say random things if you don’t know the answer.  Do not throw any jargon at them in guise of an answer. Try to answer logically and in simple terms — from the first principle . Or ask them to ask another question if you feel clueless.

Rule and Person

To a bird’s-eye view, different human societies look similar in some aspects and different in some others. A closer look can reveal some similarities and differences to be more  stronger while others to be more superficial than they appear to be on the surface.

Institutions are of fundamental importance to all societies: a simpler and small scale society has fewer, joint-family, panchayat or some equivalent, temple or a small religious shrine; while a complex one have many, hospital, school, university, court, parliament, temples/mosques/churches etc. To have a closer look at differences and similarities, one can compare how social life is organized around institutions in different societies.

In the extent to which societies are governed by rule or person, in traditional societies based on agriculture, personal factors counts for almost everything. People are able to take finer personal distinctions in their businesses and other day-to-day work. In these societies, personal links can be used (or misused) for practically any purpose; and a certain sense of security is provided by the existence of such links. Now there are whole areas of life in complex industrial societies where such links are in principle irrelevant.

In complex industrial societies, social life is influenced greatly if not mainly by institutions. Here institutions are organized around impersonal rules. The treatment in hospital, admission to schools, services from police and courts are few examples of such arrangement. In these institutions, if someone needs to get something done which he is entitled to, there should not be any need on his part to have any personal links with people in these institutes.

In Indian villages based on agriculture, people are accustomed to getting thing done through persons rather than rule. To say this is not necessarily to pass a moral judgement. When society is small and everyone knows everyone, such arrangement is both proper and expedient. A lot of problems, related to both corruption and efficiency, can appear without any tangible solution when these links are used in places where norms are defined differently.

Those who live in large cities depends on many public utilities and services. And in principle, they are so organized to serve each citizen irrespective of personal consideration. There are rules of procedure according to which any citizen is entitled to make claim on certain service. But in practice, nobody seriously believes in rules alone. In cases when rules do not work for him at all, or do not work quickly enough, he tries to reach out to someone in right quarters through relative or friends, or friends of a relative. Those who have no relative or friends (‘connections’ as they are called) felt left out in cold. But it is just amazing, how just almost everyone in our society is able to activate ‘connection’ of some consequence.

It should be obvious to all of us that we are in a period of transition. Though majority of people still live in small agrarian societies, they are increasingly coming in contact with different sort of institutions they are not accustomed to, where personal connection should or ought to count for little. In such phase of transitions, people often suffer the worst of both systems: he can not be sure if personal ‘connections’ will be sufficient, nor he can trust the appropriate system of rules.

In cities, especially for young people, the moral universe associated with it is both confusing and intractable. This could cause a sort of psychological stress which is rarely seen in villages. When an old person (not only in rural India) pays a bribe or uses his family connections to get something done, he is not burdened by moral questions involved related propriety of following rules and norms. For him, such is the way of life — an ordinary and normal thing to do. He would give you a lecture about “art of living” if you point out the impropriety on his part. Younger people, and perhaps some among old too, do not always pay bribes or use family/friendly connections for their personal gain at the cost of someone else without a sense of moral ambivalence and indignation. The “queue” is one such place where such behaviour can be easily observed: when someone gets a cut from a friend or relative, he takes it, often with an embarrassing smile or a show of arrogance, but the same person turn self-righteous and morally indignant when he sees others taking “cut” at his disadvantage.

More than often, rules are defined vaguely which allows those who enforce them to use their personal discretion rather freely if not arbitrarily. Different rules or different interpretations of them are applied on “case to case” basis. And many times rules are bypassed all together. Many wonder how people in a country where substantial population is still illiterate get things done in a system with a plethora of rules. In the face of confusion, people get accustomed to bypassing or breaking the rules, especially when a person of some consequence is available at their disposal. Those who are responsible for making rules simpler or less confusing rarely loose sleep over it. Perhaps they believe the people are used to such situations and have ways to deal with it.

Problem of corruption or inefficiency can easily grow to alarming proportion in such environment for it is easy for people in position of power to manipulate the system for their own personal gain by colluding with others. One can always find someone in Indian offices who really mastered the art of manipulating rules and finding loopholes in them. Such people are seen with both envy and admiration.

No doubt that a system is bound to be efficient when rules and procedures are followed by most, if not all.  The personal favours which we are so used to receiving and granting can not have the same moral right in modern institutions as in the traditional order. Moreover, a typical Indian overvalues his convenience above most things, and following rules always cost some convenience. He would not mind doing his part in undermining rules as long as it is convenient to him.  A large proportion of our people do not, or perhaps can not, appreciate  what rules are for. But there are many among us who probably know what they are and why we need them. It is doubtful that over the time, as we progress more towards a modern society, even they will develop a moral commitment towards them?

A trip to Nelliampathi

Last week we went to Kerala for a wedding. The place of wedding was near to Palakkad. Palkkad can be a good base for further trekking. It has many lodges and costly hotels (whichever you prefer). From here, one can take a bus to Nelliampathi village. It takes approximately 2.5 hours to reach the village. Last bus from the village to Palakkad is at 5:30 pm; so plan accordingly. There is small eating place at the bus-stop which is pretty good, and they don’t over-charge you for anything. bus The hike through tea plantation was awesome. tea You can also take jeep from the village to go into the reserved forest. Inside the forest, you are not suppose to walk on foot; but we did for a little while anyway ;-). intothewild jkeep If you are visiting during monsoon (July – December), do carry rain-jacket and extra socks; extra of almost everything drench-able. And heed my warning about leaches and rarely appearing scorpion. leach rain scorpion

Poverty of philosophy

The mind of a man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beam of things should reflect according to their true incidence: nay, it is rather like a enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture. — Francis Beacon

Prof. Andre Beteille — whom I owe a great deal of intellectual debt — wrote once that the aim of intellectual pursuit is to scratch the surface of confusion caused by experience and observation. He wrote this as a social scientist, being fully aware of the fact that curiosity of a social scientist about a society is not the same thing as the curiosity of a mathematician about numbers. Nonetheless, I find this claim to be extremely rich about the general nature of intellectual pursuit.

Is “scratching the surface of confusion caused by experience and observation” is the purpose of a branch of natural science, or, if I may be too bold, of all sciences? This seems to be a good aim but I’d not push it too far for such a claim brings “subjectivity” and “subject” into foreground while claiming very little for the non-subjective part of  scholarship, namely methods and routines which each branch of natural sciences has discovered and perfected over time.

It is useful here to draw a thin line between Science and Scholarship [1]. Science is a pursuit of “reality”. It has methods which are to be mastered and perfected in a  workshop before one can strike on one’s own. I am not denying the place of intuitions in science, but I believe that there should not be a large scope of personal virtuosity in science as there is in Jazz or Indian classical music. If a branch of  natural sciences allows personal virtuosity and intuitions to take over methods and procedures of  laboratory and workshop, it only says the such a branch of science has not matured enough. To summarize, mimicking Max Weber one can claim that while Science is  “a slow boring of hard boards”, scholarship is flexible enough to accommodate other sort of intellectual adventures, including the useless and harmless one.

If we agree on that the purpose of science is to scratch the surface of reality than I have serious issues with philosophy of which there seems to be a great variety. Some branches of philosophies have turned into well established branches of science. It has been said that what was once known as “Natural philosophy” is now called physics. I wish to comment on the “field view” of philosophy which I find around me, rather than its “book view” which is very hard to grasp unless one is initiated or on its fertility to produce natural sciences in long run.

First, the scope of methods, facts, and arguments of science must be universal or universal enough. By X being universal I mean that X should not give a different result or lead to different conclusion, if applied correctly, merely because different persons are working with them or they were applied at a different times. Universalism does not seem to be a trait of much of philosophy, specially Indian philosophy.  Moreover, it is not always clear if understanding reality is the ultimate aim of philosophy. I am not suggesting that Philosophy, Indian or non-Indian, should adopt a different framework or approach; or metaphysics is not worthy of our attention. But the existing framework tends to undervalue if not ignore the “principle of reality” which is or ought to be held sacred by science.

Second, scientists study or at least suppose to study reality as it exists. A philosopher will not be a philosopher if he does not create alternatives of reality.  If philosophy is glamorized as a guiding force for humanity, it has to be said that it can easily turn into an impediment of understanding of reality. May be I am not philosophically musical, but to me, philosophy is confusing at best and misleading at worst. It is in the nature of human mind to mislead others, not always unknowingly. And philosophy offers vast opportunity to mislead others and oneself.

Third, newness in science and scholarship is not created because one has a strong desire to do so, and life of great many people will become better by its existence.  Philosophy does not seem to have such constraints. One can freely build and refute theories to his liking. Philosophy can be a healthy recluse from the harsh, tiring, boring and unpredictable world of scientific pursuit but it can easily turn into an opium of intellectuals, especially for those whom the pursuit of science and scholarship seems to be endlessly tiring and fruitless. To them, Philosophy seems to offer vast opportunities for that intellectual art of squaring the circle.

As for me Philosophy seems to offer options to choose without giving too much about what costs are involved in each choice. This is definitely better than having no choice but I’d rather turn to Sociology, Biology or Psychology  when I feel confused about my condition.

References

  1. Mind over matter, Andre Beteille, The Little Magazine, Middle class, http://www.littlemag.com/midclass/. Available only in print.
  2. “The problem of universals in Indian philosophy”, Dravida Raja Ram, Motilal Banarisidas. This is one of those rare book which deals with a general problem in philosophy rather than giving a general introduction. For a general introduction to Indian philosophy, See “Indian philosophy Vol 1.”, S. Radhakrishnan. On these lines, also see an informal essay by A. K. Ramanujam, “Is there an Indian way of thinking”.
  • Dilawar