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.

Hard sci-fi

Come November, I will be at the Bangalore Literary Festival in conversation with Sri Lankan sci-fi author Navin Weeraratne. I am told Navin – “like you,” according to one of the organisers – is a proponent of hard sci-fi, the science fiction subgenre that draws upon legitimate scientific ideas and principles.

A less obsessive reader might not mind the difference, especially if the author’s invitation to suspend disbelief is smooth. But I draw a thick line between hard and soft sci-fi because science is more than, rather quite different from, technology, and I believe the ‘sci-fi’ label is warranted only if the principles of science are carried over as well, into everything from world-building to character-building. Heck, the act – and art – of deriving consequences from a finite set of first principles in a different universe and for a set of fictitious characters could be the point of a book in itself.

Soft sci-fi, on the other hand, is quite fond of inventing technologies to depict fantastic landscapes and cultures and is closer to fantasy fiction than to sci-fi.

Admittedly these are only lines in the sand but I believe the virtues of sci-fi could be extended to include many kinds of storytelling that the typical sci-fi author, usually dabbling in the softer parts of the subgenre, may not be inclined to explore.

Now, while I’ve expressed this view in public on a few occasions of late, I don’t know enough about the subgenre and its literary, historical and philosophical virtues – certainly not enough to speak to Navin Weeraratne on stage. The man has nine books to his name! Fortunately the event is over a month away and I have time to prepare. I dearly hope I don’t make a fool of myself onstage, in a room full of the ‘literary types’.

The mission that was 110% successful

Caution: Satire.

On October 2, Kailash S., the chairman of the Indian Wonderful Research Organisation (IWRO), announced that the Moonyaan mission had become a 110% success. At an impromptu press conference organised inside the offices of India Day Before Yesterday, he said that the orbiter was performing exceptionally well and that a focus on its secondary scientific mission could only diminish the technological achievement that it represented.

Shortly after the lander, carrying a rover plus other scientific instruments, crashed on the Moon’s surface two weeks ago, Kailash had called the mission a “90-95% success”. One day after it became clear Moonyaan’s surface mission had ended for good and well after IWRO had added that the orbiter was on track to be operational for over five years, Kailash revised his assessment to 98%.

On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, Kailash upgraded his score because despite the lander’s failure to touchdown, it had been able to descend from an altitude of 120 km to 2.1 km before a supposed thruster anomaly caused it to plummet instead of brake. “We have been analysing the mission in different ways and we have found that including this partially successful descent in our calculations provides a more accurate picture of Moonyaan’s achievement,” Kailash said to journalists.

When a member of a foreign publication prodded him saying that space doesn’t exactly reward nearness, Kailash replied, “I dedicate this mission to the Swachh Bharat mission, which has successfully ended open defecation in India today.” At this moment, Prime Minister A. Modern Nadir, who was sitting in front of him, turned around and hugged Kailash.

When another journalist, from BopIndia, had a follow-up question about whether the scientific mission of Moonyaan was relevant at all, Kailash responded that given the givens, the payloads onboard the orbiter had a responsibility to “work properly” or “otherwise they could harm the mission’s success and bring its success rate down to the anti-national neighbourhood of 100%”.

On all three occasions – September 7, September 22 and October 2 – India became the first country in the world as well as in history to achieve the success rates that it did in such a short span of time, in the context of a lunar mission. Thus, mission operators have their fingers crossed that the instruments won’t embarrass what has thus far been a historical technological performance with a corresponding scientific performance with returns of less than 110%.

Finally, while Moonyaan has elevated his profile, Kailash revealed his plan to take it even higher when he said the Heavenyaan mission would be good to go in the next 30 months. Heavenyaan is set to be India’s first human spaceflight programme and will aim to launch three astronauts to low-Earth orbit, have them spend a few days there, conducting small experiments, and return safely to Earth in a crew capsule first tested in 2014.

IWRO has already said it will test semi-cryogenic engines – to increase the payload capacity of its largest rocket so it can launch the crew capsule into space – it purchased from an eastern European nation this year. Considering all other components are nearly ready, including the astronauts who have managed with the nation’s help to become fully functioning adults, Heavenyaan is already 75% successful. Only 35% remains, Kailash said.

In financial terms, Heavenyaan is more than 10-times bigger than Moonyaan. Considering there has been some speculation that the latter’s lander couldn’t complete its descent because mission operators hadn’t undertaken sufficiently elaborate tests on Earth that could have anticipated the problem, observers have raised concerns about whether IWRO will skip tests and cut corners for Heavenyaan as well as for future interplanetary missions.

When alerted to these misgivings, Nadir snatched the mic and said, “What is testing? I will tell you. Testing is ‘T.E.S.T.’. ‘T’ stands for ‘thorough’. ‘E’ for ‘effort’. ‘S’ for ‘sans’. ‘T’ for ‘testing’. So what is ‘test’? It is ‘thorough effort sans testing’. It means that when you are building the satellite, you do it to the best of your ability without thinking about the results. Whatever will happen will happen. This is from the Bhagavad Gita. When you build your satellite to the best of your ability, why should you waste money on testing? We don’t have to spend money like NASA.”

Nadir’s quip was met with cheers in the hall. At this point, the presser concluded and the journalists were sent away to have tea and pakodas*.

*Idea for pakodas courtesy @pradx.


What’s the point of sweating to compose a good argument when the reader doesn’t exist who will rebut it instead of nosing around to figure out who penned it and going after them instead?

This is a question worth asking but the answer is even more important. When faced with an audience addicted to ad hominem and whatboutery, you rage against them, you surrender and lay down your weapons, you keep hammering your arguments out in the hope that one day you will be understood or you simply walk away, never to lift your finger over a keyboard again – at least not to compose anything that will eventually end up as some mouth-breather’s toilet paper.

Rage, it is commonly acknowledged, and the desire to exert control over things that cannot be controlled that underlies such passion is not tenable. Surrender and submission are equally misguided, not to mention privileged, positions. So what is left is your commitment to your intellect and your industry and the implication is that you must keep going on and on.

I think it’s hard to define some things that don’t simply embody a fixed definition as much as encompass a set of circumstances that together carry a certain quality. Fortitude is one such, and I don’t know what fortitude itself is considering what it represents can vary drastically depending on the circumstances.

But here, now, fortitude would seem to be this radioactive mix of persistence, a willingness to skirt the edge of insanity (according to Einstein’s definition), the constant belief that one is right at the risk of being wrong every now and then, and of course the mental clarity and determination to enter this fortress of conviction at the right moments and leave at others without inadvertently leaving parts of yourself behind on either side.

If only it were a drug.

The alleged politicisation of science

“Don’t politicise X” has become the defence of choice for a class of scientists and public intellectuals in India whose class and caste privilege utterly blinds them to various inequities in the practice of science – as privilege is wont to do – and who labour with the presumption that these inequities, should they miraculously become aware of a few, don’t affect what new knowledge is produced and how it affects relationships predicated on a power imbalance in the wider society.

Consider a simple example: men and women are equally capable of being good scientists, but there aren’t many women the further down the academic pipeline you go because they have been driven out by their male colleagues’ and supervisors’ sexism and misogyny. As a result, a lot of modern scientific research simply collects the results of questions that men asked and questions that the same or other men answered. This problem impoverishes the scientific undertaking by depriving it of the insights and sensibilities of a significant section of society.

The way ahead from here should not be to ‘normalise’ things because the normal has come to mean the preservation of the status quo, in terms of protecting men and safeguarding their domains as temples of patriarchy; there can be progress only with near-constant struggle and pushback, and among non-male scientists as well as non-male workers, together with their male colleagues and peers, in all endeavours of modernity. It would in turn be impossible for such a historic movement to be non-political or apolitical.

A part of the problem is rooted in the demonisation of politics, at least the label itself. ‘To politicise’ has come to mean to infuse an endeavour with partisanship where there has thus far been harmony, with incentives that suppress intelligent decision-making with the simpler algorithms of populism. However, when such harmony and intelligence are products of oppression, they must go.

A male PI’s contention that women in the lab will “distract” men – as the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt said – or that they are unlikely to be available to run experiments owing to menstruation or pregnancy should prompt us to reexamine how labs are organised, the rights and freedoms of female lab-workers, and how the university frames the relationship between labour and research, and not have us considering if women should be allowed to work in labs at all. In a different context, many Indians on discussion forums and social media platforms have recently become fond of demanding that I, or anyone else, “shouldn’t politicise space”. But space has become interesting and lucrative only because it has been politicised.

“Politics,” according to Wikipedia, “is a set of activities associated with the governance of a country or an area.” In this regard, it should seem impossible for any endeavour, no matter how small or fleeting, to remain untouched by the influence of the politics of the people undertaking the endeavour. Caste-based and gender-based discrimination are obvious manifestations of this truism in Indian society; for another, consider the following snippet from an article I (first) published in July. It summarises the extent to which public policy influences the possible trajectories of scientific careers in India:

Consider a scientist from the developing world. Let’s say he is a male, English-speaking middle-class Brahmin so we can set aside the ceaseless discrimination the scientific community’s non-malenon-Hindu/non-upper-castenon-heterosexualIndian-language-speaking members face for the sake of our discussion. The picture has already been oversimplified. This scientist has access to some instruments, a few good labs, not many good mentors, irregular funding, not enough travel grants, subpar employment prospects, insufficient access to journals, lives in a polluted city with uneven public transport, rising costs of living, less water to spare and rising medical bills. If at this juncture we reinstate the less privileged Indian in this matrix, it becomes a near-chaotic picture of personal, social, economic and political problems. Even then, it is still only the substrate upon which international inequities – such as access to samples from other parts of India and the world, information published in journals that libraries can’t afford or exclusion from the editorial boards of scientific journals – will come to bear. Finally, there is the climate crisis and its discomfiting history.

For a less obvious example: Chandrayaan 2 has been widely touted as a technological as well as scientific mission. However, in the lead up to the mission’s launch on July 22 as well as after the unfortunate events of September 7, ISRO’s focus as well as that of the people and most journalists has remained on the mission’s technological aspects. In fact, ISRO chairman K. Sivan declared on September 22 that the mission had been a 98% success when its scientific phase had barely begun – that is, that Chandrayaan 2’s scientific mission constitutes only 2% of the whole thing.

As bizarre as this sounds, these proclamations are in line with ISRO’s relatively poor track record of executing sophisticated scientific missions. This should force us to confront the political economics of science administration in India – whereby those in power have become increasingly unwilling to fund non-applied research thanks to the rising influence of populist politics and its predilection for short-term gains. This is in addition to the relationships central and state-level funding agencies have with the receivers of their money, how such money is distributed between elite and non-elite institutes, and how nationalism shields ISRO from backlash as it centralises authority and further limits public outreach.

There are many other examples to illustrate that there is no such thing as the politicisation of X inasmuch as there is either the acknowledgment of this truth or its denial. But if you are still grasping for an out, there is one. There are two broad ways to divide the public perception of what politics is: the kind concerned with the principles by which we govern ourselves as a peaceful and productive society, and the kind concerned with maximising media exposure and perpetuating the inefficiencies of bureaucracy.

The influence of the former is inescapable by design and must be guided by reason and debate; the influence of the latter is regrettable and must be rejected for its small-mindedness at every opportunity. If one takes a charitable view of those fond of saying “don’t politicise X”, one would hope that they are speaking of politics of the second variety: the dirty realpolitik and its Machiavellian ambitions. But a less charitable, and an arguably more justified, view suggests that many scientists – in India at least – lack an appreciation of the politics of principles, a politics of social justice if you will.

Indeed, it is curious that many of them, together with many non-scientists as well, often prefer a more scientistic outlook, whereby the traditionally imagined ‘scientific’ disciplines and the knowledge these endeavours supply are considered to be incontestably superior to alternatives derived from, say, sociological studies or even paralogical systems like religion and traditional beliefs. To quote the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, “Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding.” (Source: Against Method, fourth ed., p. 223.)

But modern society considers politicisation to be a greater threat than scientism whereas historians of science brim with anecdotes about how the scientific endeavour remains constantly on the cusp of being weaponised in the absence of political safeguards that regulate its practice. The ongoing nationalist project to debase non-scientific research typifies this; to quote from an older post on this blog:

… the left has been painted as anti-fact and the right [as being guided] by righteous logic when in fact this is the result of the deeper dismissal of the validity of the social sciences and humanities, which have served throughout history to make facts right and workable in their various contexts. The right has appropriated the importance of quantitative measures – and that alone – and brandishes it like a torch. … And by attacking the validity of the social sciences and humanities, the left has effectively had the rug pulled out from under its feet, and the intellectual purpose of its existence delegitimised.

Not all of us may fully appreciate how we got here, but there is no question that we are indeed here – and that the way forward must be cognisant of, if not entirely critical of, the alleged politicisation of science and the political agendas of the perpetrators of this idea.

Good writing is an atom

The act of writing well is like an atom, or the universe. There is matter but it is thinly distributed, with lots of empty space in between. Removing this seeming nothingness won’t help, however. Its presence is necessary for things to remain the way they are and work just as well. Similarly, writing is not simply the deployment of words. There is often the need to stop mid-word and take stock of what you have composed thus far and what the best way to proceed could be, even as you remain mindful of the elegance of the sentence you are currently constructing and its appropriate situation in the overarching narrative. In the end, there will be lots of words to show for your effort but you will have spent even more time thinking about what you were doing and how you were doing it. Good writing, like the internal configuration of a set of protons, neutrons and electrons, is – physically speaking – very little about the labels attached to describe them. And good writing, like the vacuum energy of empty space, acquires its breadth and timelessness because it encompasses a lot of things that one cannot directly see.

One-track mind on a flight

The air hostess I just paid 300 rupees to mistook the 100-rupee note for a 50, and realised her mistake only when I asked her for the change. She said she’d give it to me later because she didn’t have a 50 on her. Okay, I said tentatively, expecting her to give me an ‘I owe you’ slip as well so she wouldn’t forget. She didn’t, and moved on to serve the next row of passengers.

I was suddenly disappointed and anxious and nervous. Questions fired in my head. Would she remember? How would she remember? When was later? There was no record of the transaction that I could access, so what if she simply blows me off later? Would she and the other hostesses judge me for being so particular about a 50? An hour passed and I did remind her, mouthing ‘50’ when our eyes met with a half dozen rows between us. I will give it to you later, she repeated, and looked away.

I had been reading a book before lunch; now I couldn’t concentrate and began to play a game on my phone to distract myself. Over time, I wondered if ‘I owe you’ slips were devised for those who owe money to remember that they did, and to whom, or if they were also meant to reassure those who were owed money that they had a record of the transaction as proof that they were, in fact, owed money.

Actions that are repeated often set up expectations; if they were originally instituted to ensure the party that provided a service did so consistently and reliably, it is inevitable that those who receive the service understand that things are going according to plan, so to speak. In my case, receiving an ‘I owe you’ slip would have implied that I would be able to collect the money later with no further effort on my part. When the slip wasn’t forthcoming, I no longer knew what I would have to do to get the money back.

I am an anxious and fussy traveller and, usually, a fan of IndiGo’s services because of their rhythm-like consistency. But on this occasion, though the hostess or anyone else may not have realised, an apparently trivial deviation broke the routine.

The matter was resolved only shortly before the flight began its descent. The hostess came up to me and handed me my 50. I smiled in acknowledgment but she quickly walked away. It seemed like I was the only passenger owed change among the rows she had served. Repetitive processes are double edged; to illustrate, was I owed an ‘I owe you’ slip less or more for being the only passenger who needed it?

(One thing I have started to find annoying about travelling on an IndiGo flight is that the number of minutes for which there are announcements over the speakers seems to be increasing. I haven’t undertaken a count yet — I will on the next occasion — but from what I could discern, IndiGo has increased the amount of self-advertising. It doesn’t just do well, it also talks about doing well, like an airborne self-help guru.

Many flight service providers do this these days. But if I remember correctly, IndiGo started the practice, as if in keeping with our times where actions are meaningless without pictographic and/or videographic proofs published on social media platforms. Funnily, this also extends to the pilot telling us today that he and his copilot took a slightly circuitous route to our destination to avoid a stormy patch “only for the sake of the safety of our precious passengers”. How kind of you.)

Chandrayaan 2 and the Left

Since after September 7, when the Vikram lander of the Chandrayaan 2 mission failed to touchdown on the lunar surface, many writers and thinkers on the political left have been adopting a stance of the mission I find hard to stomach. Their arguments can be summed up thus: that CY-2’s mission is half-assed and should have been decided through a better process (did you know Gaganyaan also makes this mistake but in a bigger way?), that it meant much to those disenfranchised in Kashmir and Assam, that is yet another sign of journalism’s kowtowing to the powers that be that journalists aren’t about asking the financial implications of Vikram’s failure, and that the public rhetoric surrounding the mission was intent on wrapping it up as a gift to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Points 1 and 2 are completely agreeable: there is no doubt that while a lot of people are celebrating CY-2’s overall partial success as an achievement of ISRO and its frugal engineering philosophy, they are also overlooking that it doesn’t present any major scientific achievements, lacks a clear vision about the mission’s purpose, and – as Swami Agnivesh discussed – their own ignorance of these two factors. Second, I have no doubt that the mission meant much to those suffering due to the communications blockade in Kashmir and the consequences of the NRC in Assam.

However, through all their arguments, it is also evident that the left is not interested in retrieving the Indian space programme out of the shroud of patriotism around it and press it once more into serving the needs of people and society. It is true that Modi’s politics has transformed endeavours that once used to be relatively more transparent and well-meaning into things worthy of skepticism and derision, but to extend this to dismissing the space programme itself would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Further, to claim if the money spent on CY-2 could be better used to address food security or healthcare, as The Wire’s public editor did in her piece, may have been a legitimate argument until the late 1990s but today, when the Centre has a budgeted outlay of Rs 27 lakh crore, it is entirely ass-backwards. If the government is not spending more on healthcare, it is not for want of Rs 978 crore spread out over eight years.

The last thing I want to do is make excuses for the government, but when you wonder if sending rockets to the Moon stung those without food or electricity – I have no doubt that it did, and I am sure such exercises render these affected people more cynical about what the state is prepared to do for them. But if the suggestion here is that the state should not have launched rockets and instead concentrated its efforts on ensuring food security, that would be an instance of excusing a government that is clearly equipped to do many things at once but won’t.

Scientific fact? Not good enough to be true.

Last week in India: Two scientists who coauthored two papers, along with many others from India as well as abroad, have spoken out against the conclusions of those papers even as they refused to distance themselves from their findings. As bizarre as this sounds, it may have happened because the two scientists were not prepared to weather the government’s potential backlash towards the paper’s conclusions, or they wish to ingratiate themselves to the ruling dispensation. Either way, their obeisance to the official party line is fascinating proof that the scientific enterprise – for all its promises of benevolence as well as objectivity – doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally determine how its discoveries will be digested by society at large.

As C.P. Rajendran wrote, ethical obligations demand that the duo have their names removed from the papers, but how would ethics matter to someone prepared to publicly dispute the conclusions of studies that he has painstakingly helped construct? These men, particularly Vasant Shinde, have more than sullied the people’s impression of science itself; they have lent their authority to news publications that have wrongly reported (examples here, here, here and here) the papers’ findings to feed a political narrative whose triumphalism has already rendered many other tenets and conclusions of scientific research unreliable.

The scientists haven’t only contravened the truth-value of an idea they helped move closer to the truth, but have, in the process, handed a dozen more bricks to the nationalist mason as he builds his theatre of the absurd. Now what prevents a person from anticipating two truths in the future pertaining to, say, the ability of homeopathic medicines to cure cancer or an archaeological quest for the mythical river Saraswati – one delivered by the paper and its robust methods designed to negate the influence of cognitive biases and the other by the paper’s authors at a press conference, in the presence of journalists who simply don’t know to expect better?

The fight over ISRO

My report about ISRO’s ’90-95%’ success claim vis-à-vis Chandrayaan 2 had precisely three kinds of response, split 49%, 49% and 2%.

One 49% group went like this:

The other 49% went like this:

The remainder, which constituted meaningful engagement, was virtually residual.

To add to this, K. Sivan has brought a new thing about him in his position as ISRO chairman, which is to issue loose statements where his predecessors have been a lot more careful and considered. In 2018, he said ISRO would look for He-3 on the Moon – a claim that has since been thoroughly debunked. Last weekend, he said Chandrayaan 2 was a 95% success, which was eminently debunkable.

Makes one wonder if what one is doing is useful at all – but before this thought process hand-holds one down into a pit of self-deprecation, various temptations take over: confounding factors (that there could be a lot of people out there who appreciate your work but don’t tell you about it), trolls and their tendencies (such as compulsive, knee-jerk responses to tweets from a particular account), even doubts about what people use Twitter for (meaningful engagement v. mobilising political forces to affect outcomes offline).

That said, the popular rhetoric swirling around Chandrayaan 2 indicates that ISRO has finally been subsumed by the jingoists’ circus – where addled onlookers gather either to applaud or deride launches, trans-orbital manoeuvres and interplanetary journeys and, at the crack of imaginary whips, descend into a brawl over who can be a greater moron for love of the country. One can only hope, after being shoved to the back as a metaphorical wuss, that this rot hasn’t taken root within the organisation itself.