The not-so-obvious obvious

If your job requires you to pore through a dozen or two scientific papers every month – as mine does – you’ll start to notice a few every now and then couching a somewhat well-known fact in study-speak. I don’t mean scientific-speak, largely because there’s nothing wrong about trying to understand natural phenomena in the formalised language of science. However, there seems to be something iffy – often with humorous effect – about a statement like the following: “cutting emissions of ozone-forming gases offers a ‘unique opportunity’ to create a ‘natural climate solution'”1 (source). Well… d’uh. This is study-speak – to rephrase mostly self-evident knowledge or truisms in unnecessarily formalised language, not infrequently in the style employed in research papers, without adding any new information but often including an element of doubt when there is likely to be none.

1. Caveat: These words were copied from a press release, so this could have been a case of the person composing the release being unaware of the study’s real significance. However, the words within single-quotes are copied from the corresponding paper itself. And this said, there have been some truly hilarious efforts to make sense of the obvious. For examples, consider many of the winners of the Ig Nobel Prizes.

Of course, it always pays to be cautious, but where do you draw the line before a scientific result is simply one because it is required to initiate a new course of action? For example, the Univ. of Exeter study, the press release accompanying which discussed the effect of “ozone-forming gases” on the climate, recommends cutting emissions of substances that combine in the lower atmosphere to form ozone, a compound form of oxygen that is harmful to both humans and plants. But this is as non-“unique” an idea as the corresponding solution that arises (of letting plants live better) is “natural”.

However, it’s possible the study’s authors needed to quantify these emissions to understand the extent to which ambient ozone concentration interferes with our climatic goals, and to use their data to inform the design and implementation of corresponding interventions. Such outcomes aren’t always obvious but they are there – often because the necessarily incremental nature of most scientific research can cut both ways. The pursuit of the obvious isn’t always as straightforward as one might believe.

The Univ. of Exeter group may have accumulated sufficient and sufficiently significant evidence to support their conclusion, allowing themselves as well as others to build towards newer, and hopefully more novel, ideas. A ladder must have rungs at the bottom irrespective of how tall it is. But when the incremental sword cuts the other way, often due to perverse incentives that require scientists to publish as many papers as possible to secure professional success, things can get pretty nasty.

For example, the Cornell University consumer behaviour researcher Brian Wansink was known to advise his students to “slice” the data obtained from a few experiments in as many different ways as possible in search of interesting patterns. Many of the papers he published were later found to contain numerous irreproducible conclusions – i.e. Wansink had searched so hard for patterns that he’d found quite a few even when they really weren’t there. As the British economist Ronald Coase said, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”

The dark side of incremental research, and the virtue of incremental research done right, stems from the fact that it’s non-evidently difficult to ascertain the truth of a finding when the strength of the finding is expected to be so small that it really tests the notion of significance or so large – or so pronounced – that it transcends intuitive comprehension.

For an example of the former, among particle physicists, a result qualifies as ‘fact’ if the chances of it being a fluke are 1 in 3.5 million. So the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which was built to discover the Higgs boson, had to have performed at least 3.5 million proton-proton collisions capable of producing a Higgs boson and which its detectors could observe and which its computers could analyse to attain this significance.

But while protons are available abundantly and the LHC can theoretically perform 645.8 trillion collisions per second, imagine undertaking an experiment that requires human participants to perform actions according to certain protocols. It’s never going to be possible to enrol billions of them for millions of hours to arrive at a rock-solid result. In such cases, researchers design experiments based on very specific questions, and such that the experimental protocols suppress, or even eliminate, interference, sources of doubt and confounding variables, and accentuate the effects of whatever action, decision or influence is being evaluated.

Such experiments often also require the use of sophisticated – but nonetheless well-understood – statistical methods to further eliminate the effects of undesirable phenomena from the data and, to the extent possible, leave behind information of good-enough quality to support or reject the hypotheses. In the course of navigating this winding path from observation to discovery, researchers are susceptible to, say, misapplying a technique, overlooking a confounder or – like Wansink – overanalysing the data so much that a weak effect masquerades as a strong one but only because it’s been submerged in a sea of even weaker effects.

Similar problems arise in experiments that require the use of models based on very large datasets, where researchers need to determine the relative contribution of each of thousands of causes on a given effect. The Univ. of Exeter study that determined ozone concentration in the lower atmosphere due to surface sources of different gases contains an example. The authors write in their paper (emphasis added):

We have provided the first assessment of the quantitative benefits to global and regional land ecosystem health from halving air pollutant emissions in the major source sectors. … Future large-scale changes in land cover [such as] conversion of forests to crops and/or afforestation, would alter the results. While we provide an evaluation of uncertainty based on the low and high ozone sensitivity parameters, there are several other uncertainties in the ozone damage model when applied at large-scale. More observations across a wider range of ozone concentrations and plant species are needed to improve the robustness of the results.

In effect, their data could be modified in future to reflect new information and/or methods, but in the meantime, and far from being a silly attempt at translating a claim into jargon-laden language, the study eliminates doubt to the extent possible with existing data and modelling techniques to ascertain something. And even in cases where this something is well known or already well understood, the validation of its existence could also serve to validate the methods the researchers employed to (re)discover it and – as mentioned before – generate data that is more likely to motivate political action than, say, demands from non-experts.

In fact, the American mathematician Marc Abrahams, known much more for founding and awarding the Ig Nobel Prizes, identified this purpose of research as one of three possible reasons why people might try to “quantify the obvious” (source). The other two are being unaware of the obvious and, of course, to disprove the obvious.

A meeting with the PSA’s office

The Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) organised a meeting with science communicators from around India on January 27, in New Delhi. Some of my notes from the meeting are displayed below, published with three caveats.

First, my notes are not to be treated as the minutes of the meeting; I only jotted down what I personally found interesting. Some 75% of the words in there are part of suggestions and recommendations advanced by different people; the remainder are, broadly, observations. They appear in no discernible order not because I jumbled them up but because participants offered both kinds of statements throughout. The meeting itself lasted for seven or so hours (including breaks for lunch and tea), so every single statement was also accompanied by extensive discussion. Finally, I have temporarily withheld some portions because I plan to discuss them in additional blog posts.

Second, the meeting followed the Chatham House Rules, which means I am not at liberty to attribute statements uttered during the course of the meeting to their human originators. I have also not identified my own words where possible not because I want to hide but because, by virtue of these ideas appearing on my blog, I take full responsibility (but not authorship) for their publicisation.

Third, though the meeting was organised by the Office of the PSA, its members were not the only ones of the government present at the meeting. Representatives of some other government-affiliated bodies were also in attendance. So statements obviously uttered by a government official – if any do come across that way – are not necessarily attributable to members of the Office of the PSA.

“We invest a lot in science, we don’t use it imaginatively enough.”

Three major science related issues:

  1. Climate change
  2. Dramatic consequences of our growth on biodiversity
  3. B/c of these two, how one issues addresses sustainable development
  • Different roles for journalists within and without the government
  • Meeting is about what each one of us can do — but what is that?
  • Each one of us can say “I could do better if only you could better empathise with what I do”
  • Need for skill-sharing events for science journalists/communicators
  • CSIR’s National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources has a centre for science and media relations, and a national science library
  • Indian Council of Medical Research has a science communication policy but all press releases need to be okayed by health minister!
  • Knowledge making is wrapped up in identity
  • Regional language communicators don’t have access to press releases, etc. in regional languages, nor access to translators
  • Department of Science and Technology and IIT Kanpur working on machine-translations of scientific content of Wikipedia
  • Netherlands Science Foundation published a book compiling public responses to question ‘what do you think of science?’
  • In the process of teaching kids science, you can also get them to perform science and use the data (e.g. mapping nematode density in soil using Foldscope)
  • Slack group for science communicators, channels divided by topic
  • Leaders of scientific bodies need to be trained on how to deal with journalists, how to respond in interviews, etc.
  • Indian Space Research Organisation, Defence R&D Organisation and Department of Atomic Energy need to not be so shut off! What are they hiding? If nothing to hide, why aren’t they reachable?
  • Need structural reforms for institutional research outreach — can’t bank on skills, initiative of individual science communicators at institutes to ensure effective outreach
  • Need to decentralise PR efforts at institutions
  • People trained in science communication need to find jobs/employment
  • Pieces shortlisted for AWSAR award could be put on a CC BY-ND license so news publications can republish them en masse without edits
  • Please hold meetings like this at periodic intervals, let this not be a one-time thing
  • Issues with covering science: Lack of investment, few people covering science, not enough training opportunities, not enough science communication research in India
  • Need local meet-ups between journalists and scientists to get to know each other, facilitated by the government
  • Outreachers needn’t have to be highly regarded scientists, even grad students can give talks — and kids will come to listen
  • Twitter is an elite platform — science communicators that need to stay in touch need to do more; most science communicators don’t know each other!
  • Can we host one edition of the World Conference of Science Journalists in India?
  • What happened to the Indian Science Writers’ Association?
  • Today the mind is not without fear! The political climate is dire, people can’t freely speak their minds without fear of reprisal — only obvious that this should affect science journalism also
  • ISRO is a darling of the media, the government and the masses but has shit outreach! Rs 10,000 crore being spent on Gaganyaan but the amount of info on it in the public domain is poop.
  • CSIR’s Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology is very open and accessible, director needs to be kept in the loop about some press interaction but that’s it; perhaps the same template can be recreated in other institutes?
  • Outreach at scientific institutions is a matter of trust: if director doesn’t trust scientists to speak up without permission, and if PR people don’t respond to emails or phone calls, impression is that there is no trust within the institute as well as that the institute would like journalists to not be curious
  • People trained in science communication (informally also) need a place to practice their newfound skills.
  • Private sector industry is in the blindspot of journalists
  • People can more easily relate to lived experiences; aesthetically pleasing (beautiful-looking) stories are important
  • Most people have not had access to the tools of science, we need to build more affordable and accessible tools
  • Don’t attribute to malfeasance what can be attributed to not paying attention, incompetence, etc.
  • Journalistic deep-dives are good but lack of resources to undertake, not many publications do it either, except maybe The Wire and Caravan; can science communicators and the government set up a longform mag together?
  • Create a national mentorship network where contact details of ‘mentors’ are shared and mentees enrolled in the programme can ask them questions, seek guidance, etc.
  • Consider setting up a ‘science media centre’ — but can existing and functional models in Australia and the UK be ported to India without facing any issues?
  • Entities like IndiaBioscience could handle biology research outreach for scientific institutes in, say, the South India region or Bangalore region with some support from the government. That would be better than an SMC-from-scratch.
  • Consider including science communication in government’s new draft Scientific Social Responsibility policy and other S&T innovation policies
  • Allocate a fixed portion of funding for research for public outreach and communication (such as 2%)
  • Need more formal recognition for science communication researchers within scientific institutions; members currently stuck in a limbo between outreach office and scientists, makes it difficult to acquire funds for work
  • Support individual citizen science initiatives
  • Need better distinction between outreach groups and press offices — we don’t have a good press office anywhere in the country! Press officers encourage journalistic activity, don’t just promote institute’s virtues but look out for the institute as situated in the country’s overall science and society landscape
  • Any plans to undertake similar deliberations on philosophy of science (including culture of research, ethics and moral responsibilities)?
  • Scientific institutions could consider hosting journalists for one day a month to get to know each other
  • What’s in it for the scientist to speak to a journalist about their work? Need stronger incentives — journalists can provide some of that by establishing trust with the scientist, but can journalists alone provide incentives? Is it even their responsibility?
  • Consider conducting a ‘scientific temper survey’ to understand science literacy as well as people’s perceptions of science — could help government formulate better policies, and communicators and journalists to better understand what exactly their challenges are
  • Need to formulate specific guidelines for science communication units at scientific research institutions as well as for funding agencies
  • Set up fellowships and grants for science communicators, but the government needs to think about attaching as few strings as possible to such assistance
  • Need for more government support for regional and local newspapers vis-à-vis covering science, especially local science
  • Need to use multimedia – especially short videos, podcasts illustrations and other aids – to communicate science instead of sticking to writing; visuals in particular could help surmount language barrier right away

Losing sight of the agricultural finish line

In The Guardian, Joanna Blythman pokes an important pin into the frustrating but unsurprisingly durable bubble of vegan cuisine and the low-hanging fruits of ethical eating:

These days it’s fashionable to eulogise plant foods as the secret for personal health and sound stewardship of our planet. But in the process of squaring up to the challenge of climate breakdown, we seem to have forgotten that plant foods too can be either badly or well produced. … As long as we demonise animal foods and eulogise plant foods, any prospect of a natural food supply is shattered. We are left to depend for sustenance on the tender mercies of the techno-food corporations that see a little green V and the word “plant” as a formula for spinning gold from straw through ultra-processing.

Hopefully – though I hope for far too much here! – her article will sufficiently puncture the global elite’s bloated righteousness over eating healthy, especially vegan and/or organic, in order to save the planet, when in fact it’s just another instance of doing the bare and suspiciously photogenic minimum to personally feel better.

My own grouse is directed at tech-driven agricultural targets that speak about the producer and the consumer as if there was nothing in between, such as R&D, processing, storage, supply, distribution and trade, all in turn resting on a wider substrate of political-economic issues. The defensive technologist and/or investor might say, “You have got to start somewhere,” but innovators frequently start by targeting a demographic for which the situation might never been too late, instead of the people for whom it already is. Even then, their rhetoric also quickly forgets how misguided and off-target their ambitions are, leave alone losing sight of the problemy problems in desperate need of resolution.

I do think vertical farms are an interesting idea but I also think their wealthy investors and wealthy publicists have made a habit of horribly overestimating the extent to which these contraptions are going to be part of the solution – which in turn has contributed to a widespread sense of complacency among the elite and blinded them to the need for more better and radical changes to the status quo.

Sure, pesticides suck; I am also familiar with accounts that describe how the world produces enough but wastes too much, the tactics of companies like Monsanto; and I recognise agriculture is arguably the oldest human activity contributing to global heating. However, most narratives that provide the counter-view, and some of which also offer supplementary alternatives, gloss over important features of modern agriculture like scale and cost-effectiveness, enabled in turn by the various -icides, as well as the ways in which it is enmeshed in the economies of the developing world.

Ideas like indoor farming have become increasingly trendy of late: just two startups in the US raised $300 million as of last year but their products seem to cater only to upper-class westerners content with a salad-centric diet, seemingly mindless of the millions in third-world countries grossly underprepared to deal with climate change, water shortage, undernourishment and deepening economic inequality at the same time. (Not to mention: the more it costs to produce something, the more it is going to cost to buy without subsidies.)

For many – if not most – of India’s children, eggs are often the sole affordable source of protein. As an elite, upper-caste Indian, I have both privilege and responsibility to change my lifestyle to reduce my as well as others’ carbon footprints1; but in addition, to what extent could I be expected to fight against non-free-range egg production in the absence of guarantees about alternative sources – including lab-grown ones – when ultimately human welfare is our shared concern?

1. I can reduce others’ carbon footprints by reducing the amount of materials I consume to maintain my lifestyle.

The midday meal programme for instance feeds more than 100 million children, with the per-plate cooking cost ranging from Rs 4 to Rs 7; each plate in turn needs to have 12-20 grams of protein. We know pesticide-fed agriculture works because (together with government subsidies) it makes these costs possible, not when it does not damage the world in whatever other ways.

More broadly, there is a limit to which concerns for the climate have the leeway to supersede crop and cattle-meat production in India when the government will not sufficiently protect members of these sectors, often belonging to the more marginalised sections of society, from poverty, insolvency, suicide and death. Axiomatically, “breakthroughs in the development of food” will not move the climate-action needle until they provide alternate livelihoods, upgrade storage and distribution infrastructure, improve access to capital and insurance, and retool the public distribution system – a slew of upstream and downstream changes whose complexity towers over the technological options we currently have on offer.

Fighting climate change is, among other things, about replacing unsustainable practices with sustainable alternatives without sacrificing human development. However, the most popular media and business narratives have given this ambition a Malthusian twist to suggest it is about saving the planet at all costs – and not out of desperation but sheer ignorance, albeit with the same consequences. The dietary movements that promote organic farming, anti-meat diets and, quite terribly, genetically modified foods among the rich are part of this rhetoric. The technologies they bank on are frequently riddled with hypocrisies, most of all concerning external costs, and their strategies are restricted to regimens with their own well-established economies of profitability, such as keto, paleo, detox, etc., over anaemic, stunted, malnourished, etc.

The story here is quite similar to that of electric vehicles. If you are driving an electric scooter in India today, you are still far from helping cut emissions because coal is still the biggest source of power in the country. So without undertaking efforts to produce cleaner power (an endeavour fraught with its own problems), all you have done is translocated your share of the emissions away from the city where you are driving the scooter and to the faraway power plant where more coal is being burnt to provide the power you need. Your purchase may have been a step in the right direction but celebrating that would be as premature as getting to Kathmandu and tweeting you are on your way to the top of Mt Everest.

Claiming to be on the path to resolving the world’s food crisis by putting food on the plate of the already well-fed is similarly laughable.

Atoms within atoms

It’s a matter of some irony that forces that act across larger distances also give rise to lots of empty space – although the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. The force of gravity, for example, can act across millions of kilometres but this only means two massive objects can still influence each across this distance instead of having to get closer to do so. Thus, you have galaxies with a lot more space between stars than stars themselves.

The electromagnetic force, like the force of gravity, also follows an inverse-square law: its strength falls off as the square of the distance – but never fully reaches zero. So you can have an atom with a nucleus of protons and neutrons held tightly together but electrons located so far away that each atom is more than 90% empty space.

In fact, you can use the rules of subatomic physics to make atoms even more vacuous. Electrons orbit the nucleus in an atom at fixed distances, and when an electron gains some energy, it jumps into a higher orbit. Physicists have been able to excite electrons to such high energies that the atom itself becomes thousands of times larger than an atom of hydrogen.

This is the deceptively simple setting for the Rydberg polaron: the atom inside another atom, with some features added.

In January 2018, physicists from Austria, Brazil, Switzerland and the US reported creating the first Rydberg polaron in the lab, based on theoretical predictions that another group of researchers had advanced in October 2015. The concept, as usual, is far simpler than the execution, so exploring the latter should provide a good sense of the former.

The January 2018 group first created a Bose-Einstein condensate, a state of matter in which a dilute gas of particles called bosons is maintained in an ultra-cold container. Bosons are particles whose quantum spin takes integer values. (Other particles called fermions have half-integer spin). As the container is cooled to near absolute zero, the bosons begin to collectively display quantum mechanical phenomena at the macroscopic scale, essentially becoming a new form of matter and displaying certain properties that no other form of matter has been known to exhibit.

Atoms of strontium-84, -86 and -88 have zero spin, so the physicists used them to create the condensate. Next, they used lasers to bombard some strontium atoms with photons to impart energy to electrons in the outermost orbits (a.k.a. valence electrons), forcing them to jump to an even higher orbit. Effectively, the atom expands, becoming a so-called Rydberg atom[1]. In this state, if the distance between the nucleus and an excited electron is greater than the average distance between the other strontium atoms in the condensate, then some of the other atoms could technically fit into the Rydberg atom, forming the atom-within-an-atom.

[1] Rydberg atoms are called so because many of their properties depend on the value of the principal quantum number, which the Swedish physicist Johannes Robert Rydberg first (inadvertently) described in a formula in 1888.

Rydberg atoms are gigantic relative to other atoms; some are even bigger than a virus, and their interactions with their surroundings can be observed under a simple light microscope. They are relatively long-lived, in that the excited electron decays to its ground state slowly. Astronomers have found them in outer space. However, Rydberg atoms are also fragile: because the electron is already so far from the nucleus, any other particles in the vicinity, even a weak electromagnetic field or a slightly warmer temperature could easily knock the excited electron out of the Rydberg atom and end the Rydberg state.

Some clever physicists took advantage of this property and used Rydberg atoms as sensitive detectors of single photons of light. They won the Nobel Prize for physics for such work in 2011.

However, simply sticking one atom inside a Rydberg atom doth not a Rydberg polaron make. A polaron is a quasiparticle, which means it isn’t an actual particle by itself, as the –on suffix might suggest, but an entity that scientists study as if it were a particle. Quasiparticles are thus useful because they simplify the study of more complicated entities by allowing scientists to apply the rules of particle physics to arrive at equally correct solutions.

This said, a polaron is a quasiparticle that’s also a particle. Specifically, physicists describe the properties and behaviour of electrons inside a solid as polarons because as the electrons interact with the atomic lattice, they behave in a way that electrons usually don’t. So polarons combine the study of electrons and electrons-interacting-with-atoms into a single subject.

Similarly, a Rydberg polaron is formed when the electron inside the Rydberg atom interacts with the trapped strontium atom. While an atom within an atom is cool enough, the January 2018 group wanted to create a Rydberg polaron because it’s considered to be a new state of matter – and they succeeded. The physicists found that the excited electron did develop a loose interaction with the strontium atoms lying between itself and the Rydberg atom’s nucleus – so loose that even as they interacted, the electron could still remain part of the Rydberg atom without getting kicked out.

In effect, since the Rydberg atom and the strontium atoms inside it influence each other’s behaviour, they altogether made up one larger complicated assemblage of protons, neutrons and electrons – a.k.a. a Rydberg polaron.

Being on the NSI podcast

Narayan Prasad, the CEO of SatSearch, hosts a popular podcast called NewSpace India. Every episode, he hosts one person and they talk about something related to the Indian and international space programmes. I was the guest for the episode published January 17, available to listen here (on, in which NP and I discussed India’s space journalism scene and ISRO’s public outreach policies.

Addendum: Where I’m talking about the comparisons between Jonathan McDowell and T.S. Kelso in the West and members of the ISRO subreddit, I repeatedly come back to the ‘not enough information’ bit. But later, I realised I should’ve added that McDowell and Kelso, and others, were probably encouraged to pursue their hobbies by access to knowledge and freely available information whereas India’s space-sleuths, so to speak, seem to be prompted more by the lack of information and knowledge about the national spaceflight programme.

So the former is a productive exercise whereas the latter is compensatory, and whose members’ efforts can be spared – or put to better use in other directions – if only ISRO spoke up more.

Another thing is that I may have overstated the extent to which I’m willing to forgive ISRO its PR fumbles because it’s an outreach noob. I meant to say that if ISRO can be cut any kind of slack, it would have to be on this front alone – but even then not much, and certainly not to any extent that would cede enough room for it to engage in the sort of coverup exercise it did with the CY-2 fiasco in September 2019.

NP is among the most knowledgable members of India’s space science and spaceflight communities, and has consulted for ISRO as well as a number of private companies on policy, strategy and business. I regularly follow his articles and his podcast, and I recommend you do too if you want to get a handle on the ins and outs of India’s modern spaceflight endeavour. The podcast is also available on Apple, Spotify and other platforms.

Science v. tech, à la Cixin Liu

A fascinating observation by Cixin Liu in an interview in Public Books, to John Plotz and translated by Pu Wang (numbers added):

… technology precedes science. (1) Way before the rise of modern science, there were so many technologies, so many technological innovations. But today technology is deeply embedded in the development of science. Basically, in our contemporary world, science sets a glass ceiling for technology. The degree of technological development is predetermined by the advances of science. (2) … What is remarkably interesting is how technology becomes so interconnected with science. In the ancient Greek world, science develops out of logic and reason. There is no reliance on technology. The big game changer is Galileo’s method of doing experiments in order to prove a theory and then putting theory back into experimentation. After Galileo, science had to rely on technology. … Today, the frontiers of physics are totally conditioned on the developments of technology. This is unprecedented. (3)

Perhaps an archaeology or palaeontology enthusiast might have regular chances to see the word ‘technology’ used to refer to Stone Age tools, Bronze Age pots and pans, etc. but I have almost always encountered these objects only as ‘relics’ or such in the popular literature. It’s easy to forget (1) because we have become so accustomed to thinking of technology as pieces of machines with complex electrical, electronic, hydraulic, motive, etc. components. I’m unsure of the extent to which this is an expression of my own ignorance but I’m convinced that our contemporary view of and use of technology, together with the fetishisation of science and engineering education over the humanities and social sciences, also plays a hand in maintaining this ignorance.

The expression of (2) is also quite uncommon, especially in India, where the government’s overbearing preference for applied research has undermined blue-sky studies in favour of already-translated technologies with obvious commercial and developmental advantages. So when I think of ‘science and technology’ as a body of knowledge about various features of the natural universe, I immediately think of science as the long-ranging, exploratory exercise that lays the railway tracks into the future that the train of technology can later ride. Ergo, less glass ceiling and predetermination, and more springboard and liberation. Cixin’s next words offer the requisite elucidatory context: advances in particle physics are currently limited by the size of the particle collider we can build.

(3) However, he may not be able to justify his view beyond specific examples simply because, to draw from the words of a theoretical physicist from many years ago – that they “require only a pen and paper to work” – it is possible to predict the world for a much lower cost than one would incur to build and study the future.

Plotz subsequently, but thankfully briefly, loses the plot when he asks Cixin whether he thinks mathematics belongs in science, and to which Cixin provides a circuitous non-answer that somehow misses the obvious: science’s historical preeminence began when natural philosophers began to encode their observations in a build-as-you-go, yet largely self-consistent, mathematical language (my favourite instance is the invention of non-Euclidean geometry that enabled the theories of relativity). So instead of belonging within one of the two, mathematics is – among other things – better viewed as a bridge.

The mad world

Kate Wagner writes in The Baffler:

What makes industrial landscapes unique is that they fascinate regardless of whether they’re operating. The hellish Moloch of a petrochemical refinery is as captivating as one of the many abandoned factories one passes by train, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean, though, that all industrial landscapes are created equal. Urban manufacturing factories are considered beautiful—tastefully articulated on the outside, their large windows flooding their vast internal volumes with light; they are frequently rehabilitated into spaces for living and retail or otherwise colonized by local universities. The dilapidated factory, crumbling and overgrown by vegetation, now inhabits that strange space between natural and man-made, historical and contemporary, lovely and sad. The power plant, mine, or refinery invokes strong feelings of awe and fear. And then there are some, such as the Superfund site—remediated or not—whose parklike appearance and sinister ambience remains aesthetically elusive.

One line from my education years that I think will always stick with me was uttered, perhaps in throwaway fashion, by an excellent teacher nonetheless moving on to a larger point: “Ugliness is marked by erasure.” Wagner’s lines above suggest our need for beauty extends even to landmarks of peacetime disaster, such as abandoned factories, railway stations, refineries, etc. because their particular way of being broken and dead contains stories, and lessons, that a pile of collapsed masonry or a heap of trash would not. Apparently there is a beauty in the way they have failed, contained in features of their architecture and design that have managed to rise, or stay, above the arbitrary chaos of unorganised disaster. They are, in other words, haunted by the memory of control.

But as Wagner walks further down this path, in search of the origins of our sense of the picturesque, I’d like to turn back – to an older piece in The Baffler, by J.C. Hallman in September 2016, that questioned the role and purpose of tradition and the influence of scholarship in creating art (as in paintings and stuff). His subject was ‘art brut’, “variously translated as ‘raw,’ ‘rough,’ or ‘outsider’ art” and which stresses “that the work of individual, untutored practitioners trumps all the usual conventions of artistic legacy-building, including the analytic categories of art criticism.” After a helpful prelude – “I prefer dramatic chronicles of the shift from ignorance to knowledge, from innocence to experience” – Hallman elaborates:

… [the painters’] stories … seem calculated to undermine the steady commercial march of art as depicted in high-end auction catalogs[.] In lieu of a stately succession of movements, schools, and styles, art brut gives us an array of butchers and scientists and soldiers and housewives who suddenly went crazy and then produced huge bodies of work—most often for discrete periods of time, three years or eight years or fourteen years—before falling silent and eking out the rest of their isolated, artless lives.

He then draws from the notes of Jean Dubuffet, the French painter, and William James, the American psychologist, to make the case that if only we sidestepped the need for art to be in conversation with other art and/or to respond to this or that perspective on human reality, we could be awakened to shapes, arrangements and layouts that exist beyond what we have been able to explain, and reveal a picture unadulterated by the humans need for control and meaning.

Could this idea be extended to Wagner’s “infrastructural tragedy” as well? That is, whereas a factory embodies the designs foisted by dynamic relationships between demand and supply, and motivated by the storied ambitions of industrialism – and its abandonment the latter’s myopia, hubris and impermanence – what does a structure whose pillars and trusses have been spared the burden of human wants look like? It’s likely such a structure doesn’t exist: no point imposing the violence of our visions upon the world when those visions are empty.

But like the art brut auteurs in Hallman’s exposition, I’m drawn to the question as an ardent world-builder by what I find to be its enigmatic challenge. Just as the brutists’ madness slashed away at the web of method clouding their visions, what questions must the world-builder – the ultimate speculator – ask herself to arrive at a picture whose elements all lie outside anthropogenic considerations as well as outside nature itself? I suppose I am asking if, through this or a similar exercise, it would be possible for the human to arrive at the alien. Well, would it?1

1. This proposition, and the sense that its answer could lurk somewhere in the bounded cosmology of my psyche, inspires in my mind and consciousness an anxiety and trepidation I have thus far experienced only when faced with H.R. Giger’s art.

Free speech at the outer limits

On January 12, Peter W. Wood, president of an American organisation called the National Association of Scholars (NAS), wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal against attempts by one individual to prevent NAS from organising a conference on science’s reproducibility crisis.

As it turns out, the individual – Leonid Teytelman – has been fighting to highlight the fact that the conference is an attempt to use “the issue of scientific reproducibility as a Trojan horse to undermine trust in climate change research” (source), and that Wood’s claim to “hold to a rigorous standard of open-mindedness on controversial issues” extends only so far as upholding his own views, using the rest of his diatribe on the WSJ to slap down Teytelman’s contentions as an unfortunate byproduct of “cancel culture”.

We’ve all heard of this trope and those of us on Twitter are likely to have been part of one at some point in our lives. The reason I bring this up now is that Wood’s argument and WSJ’s willingness to offer itself as a platform together recall an important but largely unacknowledged reason tropes like this one continue to play out in public debates.

A friend recently expressed the same problem in a different conversation – that of India’s Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964. These rules discourage government employees from commenting on government policies, schemes, etc. to the press without their supervisors’ okay or participating in political activities, and those who disobey them could be suspended from duty. However, public opposition to India’s new Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, has been so pronounced that there appears to be renewed public acknowledgment of the idea that the right to protest is a fundamental right, even if the Constitution doesn’t explicitly encode it as such.

So after the government sought to use the CCS Rules to prevent its staff from participating in protests against itself, the Tripura high court ruled that simply showing up at protests doesn’t constitute a ‘political activity’ nor does it cede sufficient ground for suspension, dismissal, arrest, etc. This was obviously heartening news – but there was a catch.

As my friend, who is also a government employee, said, “Civil servants becoming openly political is harmful for the country. Then one doesn’t even have to maintain a façade of neutrality, and the government can’t run if it is busy quelling open rebellion in offices.” That is, to maintain a democracy, its outermost borders must be organised in a non-democratic system – a loose, but not unrecognisable, analogue of the argument that free speech and the slice of freedom it stands for cannot be absolute.

To quote from Laurie Penny’s timeless essay published in 2018, “Civility” – and its logics – “will never defeat fascism” or, presumably, its precursors. Freedom has borders and they are arbitrary by design, erected to keep some actors out even if those on the inside may agitate for unlimited freedom for everyone, and aspire to change their opponents’ minds through reason and civil conduct alone. The borders prevent harm to others and keep people from instigating violence – as the first amendment to the Indian Constitution, under Article 19(2), reminds us – and they just as well entitle us to refuse to debate those who won’t play by the same rules we do.

The liberal democrat’s conceit in this regard is two-pronged: first, that all issues can be resolved through reason (not limited to or necessarily including science), debate and civil conduct alone; second (this one more of a self-imposed penance), that one is obligated to engage in debate, and more generally that to disengage – from debate or from public life – is to abdicate one’s duties as a citizen. So the option to refuse to engage in debate might offend the liberal democrat’s commitment to free speech – for herself as well as others – but this ignores the fact that free speech itself can be productive or liberating only within the borders of democracy and not beyond its outer limits, where the fascists lurk.

And unless we imbibe these limitations and accept the need to disengage or boycott when necessary, we will remain trapped in our ever-expanding but never-breaking circular arguments and argumentative circles.

In the present case, Teytelman tried to expose the NAS as a threat to public trust in climate science but failed, thanks in large part to the WSJ’s ill-founded decision to offer itself as a broadcast channel for Wood’s tantrum. Perhaps Teytelman has more fight left in him, perhaps others do too, but the time will come when the appeals to reason alone will have to cease, and more direct and pragmatic means, equipped especially to disrupt the theatre of fascistic behaviour – part of which is the conflation of ignorance and knowledge and often manifests in the press as ‘he said, she said’ – will have to assume centerstage. (I.e. The WSJ can’t solve the problem by next inviting Teytelman to write a one-sided piece.)

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is a more pertinent example. Goop trades in specious ‘alternatives’ to treat made-up diseases. But in spite of what one professor of law and public health acknowledged to be “immediate and widespread … backlash by health-care professionals and science-advocates”, and what many science journalists celebrated as inspirational examples of good communication, the company is set to launch its own Netflix show (more of an infomercial) on January 24. Note that as of December 2019, Netflix had 158 million paying subscribers.

It’s time to stop playing nice, and to stop playing this as individuals. Instead, science communicators – especially those committed to beating back the tentacular arms of pseudoscience and organised disempowerment (à la organised religion) – should respond as a community. While one group continues to participate in debates if only to pull some of the more undecided people away from ‘evil in the guise of good’, another must demand that the video-streaming platform cancel its deal with Goop.

(We could also organise a large-scale boycott of Goop’s products and services but none of the buyers and sellers here seem to want to change their minds.)

Responding this way is of course much harder than simply calling for violence, and quite painful to acknowledge the grossly disproportionate amount of effort we need to dedicate relative to the amount of time Paltrow probably spent coming up with Goop’s products. And in the end, we may still not succeed, not to mention invite similar protests from members of the opposite faction to our doorsteps – but I believe this is the only way we can ever succeed at all, against Goop, NAS and anything else.

But most of all, to continue to engage in debates alone at this time would be as responsible a thing to do as playing fiddle while the world burns.

Google Docs: A New Hope

I suspect the Google Docs grammar bot is the least useful bot there is. After hundreds of suggestions, I can think of only one instance in which it was right. Is its failure rate so high because it learns from how other people use English, instead of drawing from a basic ruleset?

I’m not saying my grammar is better than everyone else’s but if the bot is learning from how non-native users of the English language construct their sentences, I can see how it would make the suggestions it does, especially about the use of commas and singular/plural referents.

Then again, what I see as failure might be entirely invisible to someone not familiar with, or even interested in, punctuation pedantry. This is where Google Docs’s bot presents an interesting opportunity.

The rules of grammar and punctuation exist to assist the construction and inference of meaning, not to railroad them. However, this definition doesn’t say whether good grammar is simply what most people use and are familiar with or what is derived from a foundational set of rules and guidelines.

Thanks to colonialism, imperialism and industrialism, English has become the world’s official language, but thanks to their inherent political structures, English is also the language of the elite in postcolonial societies that exhibit significant economic inequality.

So those who wield English ‘properly’ – by deploying the rules of grammar and punctuation the way they’re ‘supposed’ to – are also those who have been able to afford a good education. Ergo, deferring to the fundamental ruleset is to flaunt one’s class privilege, and to expect others to do so could play out as a form of linguistic subjugation (think The New Yorker).

On the other hand, the problem with the populist ontology is that it encourages everyone to develop their own styles and patterns based on what they’ve read – after all, there is no one corpus of popular literature – that are very weakly guided by the same logic, if they’re guided by any logic at all. This could render individual pieces difficult to read (or edit).

Now, a question automatically arises: So what? What does each piece employing a different grammar and punctuation style matter as long as you understand what the author is saying? The answer, to me at least, depends on how the piece is going to find itself in the public domain and who is going to read it.

For example, I don’t think anyone would notice if I published such erratic pieces on my blog (although I don’t) – but people will if such pieces show up in a newspaper or a magazine, because newsrooms enforce certain grammatical styles for consistency. Such consistency ensures that:

  1. Insofar as grammar must assist inference, consistent patterns ensure a regular reader is familiar with the purpose the publication’s styleguide serves in the construction of sentences and paragraphs, which in turn renders the symbols more useful and invisible at the same time;
  2. The writers, while bringing to bear their own writing styles and voices, still use a ‘minimum common’ style unique to and associated with the publication (and which could ease decision-making for some writers); and
  3. The publication can reduce the amount of resources expended to train each new member of its copy-editing team

Indeed, I imagine grammatical consistency matters to any professional publication because of the implicit superiority of perfect evenness. But where it gets over the top and unbearable is when its purpose is forgotten, or when it is effected as a display of awareness of, or affiliation to, some elite colonial practice.

Now, while we can agree that the populist definition is less problematic on average, we must also be able to recognise that the use of a ‘minimum common’ remains a good idea if only to protect against the complete dilution of grammatical rules with time. For example, despite the frequency with which it is abused, the comma still serves at least one specific purpose: to demarcate clauses.

In this regard, the Google Docs bot could help streamline the chaos. According to the service’s support documentation, the bot learns its spelling instead of banking exclusively on a dictionary; it’s not hard to extrapolate this behaviour to grammar and syntactic rules as well.

Further, every time you reject the bot’s suggested change, the doc displays the following message: “Thanks for submitting feedback! The suggestion has been automatically ignored.” This isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that the bot doesn’t learn. For one, the doc doesn’t display a similar message when a suggestion is accepted. For another, Google tracks the following parameters when you’re editing a doc:

customer-type, customer-id, customer-name, storageProvider, isOwner, editable, commentable, isAnonymousUser, offlineOptedIn, serviceWorkerControlled, zoomFactor, wasZoomed, docLocale, locale, docsErrorFatal, isIntegrated, companion-guest-Keep-status, companion-guest-Keep-buildLabel, companion-guest-Tasks-status, companion-guest-Tasks-buildLabel, companion-guest-Calendar-status, companion-guest-Calendar-buildLabel, companion-expanded, companion-overlaying-host-content, spellGrammar, spellGrammarDetails, spellGrammarGroup, spellGrammarFingerprint

Of them, spellGrammar is set to true and I assume spellGrammarFingerprint corresponds to a unique ID.

So assuming further that it learns through individual feedback, the bot must be assimilating a dataset in the background within whose rows and columns an ‘average modal pattern’ could be taking shape. As more and more users accept or reject its suggestions, the mode could become correspondingly more significant and form more of the basis for the bot’s future suggestions.

There are three problems, however.

First, if individual preferences have diverged to such an extent as to disfavour the formation of a single most significant modal style, the bot is unlikely to become useful in a reasonable amount of time or unless it combines user feedback with the preexisting rules of grammar and composition.

Second, Google could have designed each bot to personalise its suggestions according to each account-holder’s writing behaviour. This is quite possible because the more the bot is perceived to be helpful, the likelier its suggestions are to be accepted, and the likelier the user is to continue using Google Docs to compose their pieces.

However, I doubt the bot I encounter on my account is learning from my feedback alone, and it gives me… hope?

Third: if the bot learns only spelling but not grammar and punctuation use, it would be – as I first suspected – the least useful bot there is.

Necessity and sufficiency

With apologies for recalling horrible people early in the day: I chanced upon this article quoting Lawrence Krauss talking about his friend Jeffrey Epstein from April 2011, and updated in July 2019. Excerpt (emphasis added):

Renowned scientists whose research Epstein has generously funded through the years also stand by him. Professor Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist …, has planned scientific conferences with Epstein in St. Thomas and remained close with him throughout his incarceration. “If anything, the unfortunate period he suffered has caused him to really think about what he wants to do with his money and his time, and support knowledge,” says Krauss. “Jeffrey has surrounded himself with beautiful women and young women but they’re not as young as the ones that were claimed. As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.” Though colleagues have criticized him over his relationship with Epstein, Krauss insists, “I don’t feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it.”

Well, of course he felt raised by his friendship with Epstein. But more importantly, the part in bold is just ridiculous, and I hope Krauss was suitably slammed for saying such a stupid thing at the time.a It’s a subtle form of scientism commonly found in conversations that straddle two aggressively differing points of view – such as the line between believing and disbelieving the acts of a convicted sex offender or between right- and left-wing groups in India.

Data is good, even crucial, as the numerical representation of experimental proof, and for this reason often immutable. But an insistence on data before anything else is foolish because it presupposes that the use of the scientific method – implied by the production and organisation of data – is a necessary as well as sufficient condition to ascertain an outcome. But in truth, science is often necessary but almost never sufficient.

Implying in turn that all good scientists should judge everything by empirical evidence isn’t doing science or scientists any favours. Instead, such assertions might abet the impression of a scientist as someone unmoved by sociological, spiritual or artistic experiences, and science as a clump of methods all of which together presume to make sense of everything you will ever encounter, experience or infer. However, it’s in fact a body of knowledge obtained by applying the scientific method to study natural phenomena.

Make what you will of science’s abilities and limitations based on this latter description, and not Krauss’s insular and stunted view that – in hindsight – may have been confident in its assertion if only because it afforded Krauss a way to excuse himself. And it is because of people like him (necessity), who defer to scientific principles even as they misappropriate and misuse these principles to enact their defensive ploys, together with the general tendency among political shills to use overreaching rhetoric and exaggerated claims of harm (sufficiency), that the scientific enterprise itself takes a hit in highly polarised debates word-wars.

a. If Krauss insists on sticking to his scientistic guns, it might be prudent to remind him of counterfactual definiteness.