Broken clocks during the pandemic

Proponents of conspiracy theories during the pandemic, at least in India, appear to be like broken clocks: they are right by coincidence, without the right body of evidence to back their claims. Two of the most read articles published by The Wire Science in the last 15 months have been the fact-checks of Luc Montagnier’s comments on the two occasions he spoke up in the French press. On the first, he said the novel coronavirus couldn’t have evolved naturally; the second, he insisted mass vaccination was a big mistake. The context in which Montagnier published his remarks evolved considerably between the two events, and it tells an important story.

When Montagnier said in April 2020 that the virus was lab-made, the virus’s spread was just beginning to accelerate in India, Europe and the US, and the proponents of the lab-leak hypothesis to explain the virus’s origins had few listeners and were consigned firmly to the margins of popular discourse on the subject. In this environment, Montagnier’s comments stuck out like a sore thumb, and were easily dismissed.

But when Montagnier said in May 2021 that mass vaccination is a mistake, the context was quite different: in the intervening period, Nicholas Wade had published his article on why we couldn’t dismiss the lab-leak hypothesis so quickly; the WHO’s missteps were more widely known; China’s COVID-19 outbreak had come completely under control (actually or for all appearances); many vaccine-manufacturers’ immoral and/or unethical business practices had come to light; more people were familiar with the concept and properties of viral strains; the WHO had filed its controversial report on the possible circumstances of the virus’s origins in China; etc. As a result, speaking now, Montagnier wasn’t so quickly dismissed. Instead, he was, to many observers, the man who had got it right the first time, was brave enough to stick his neck out in support of an unpopular idea, and was speaking up yet again.

The problem here is that Luc Montagnier is a broken clock – in the way even broken clocks are right twice a day: not because they actually tell the time but because the time is coincidentally what the clock face is stuck at. On both occasions, the conclusions of Montagnier’s comments coincided with what conspiracists have been going on about since the pandemic’s start, but on both occasions, his reasoning was wrong. The same has been true of many other claims made during the pandemic. People have said things that have turned out to be true but they themselves have always been wrong, whenever they have been wrong, because their particular reasons for something to be true were wrong.

That is, unless you can say why you’re right, you’re not right. Unless you can explain why the time is what it is, you’re not a clock!

Montagnier’s case also illuminates a problem with soothsaying: if you wish to be a prophet, it is in your best interests to make as many predictions as possible – to increase the odds of reality coinciding with at least one prediction in time. And when such a coincidence does happen, it doesn’t mean the prophet was right; it means they weren’t wrong. There is a big difference between these positions, and which becomes pronounced when the conspiratorially-minded start incorporating every article published anywhere, from The Wire Science to The Daily Guardian, into their narratives of choice.

As the lab-leak hypothesis moved from the fringes of society to the centre and came mistakenly to conflate possibility with likelihood (i.e. zoonotic spillover and lab-leak are two valid hypotheses for the virus’s origins but they aren’t equally likely to be true), the conspiratorial proponents of the lab-leak hypotheses (the ones given to claiming Chinese scientists engineered the pathogen as a weapon, etc.) have steadily woven imaginary threads between the hypothesis and Indian scientists who opposed Covaxin’s approval, the Congress leaders who “mooted” vaccine hesitancy in their constituencies, scientists who made predictions that came to be wrong, even vaccines that were later found to have rare side-effects restricted to certain demographic groups.

The passage of time is notable here. I think adherents of lab-leak conspiracies are motivated by an overarching theory born entirely of speculation, not evidence, and who then pick and choose from events to build the case that the theory is true. I say ‘overarching’ because, to the adherents, the theory is already fully formed and true, and that pieces of it become visible to observers as and when the corresponding events play out. This could explain why time is immaterial to them. You and I know that Shahid Jameel and Gagandeep Kang cast doubt on Covaxin’s approval (and not Covaxin itself) after the time we were aware that Covaxin’s phase 3 clinical trials were only just getting started in December, and before Covishield’s side-effects in Europe and the US came to light (with the attendant misreporting). We know that at the time Luc Montagnier said the novel coronavirus was made in a lab, last year, we didn’t know nearly enough about the structural biology underlying the virus’s behaviour; we do now.

The order of events matters: we went from ignorance to knowledge, from knowing to knowing more, from thinking one thing to – in the face of new information – thinking another. But the conspiracy-theorists and their ideas lie outside of time: the order of events doesn’t matter; instead, to these people, 2021, 2022, 2023, etc. are preordained. They seem to be simply waiting for the coincidences to roll around.

An awareness of the time dimension (so to speak), or more accurately of the arrow of time, leads straightforwardly to the proper practice of science in our day-to-day affairs as well. As I said, unless you can say why you’re right, you’re not right. This is why effects lie in the future of causes, and why theories lie in the causal future of evidence. What we can say to be true at this moment depends entirely on what we know at this moment. If we presume what we can say at this moment to be true will always be true, we become guilty of dragging our theory into the causal history of the evidence – simply because we are saying that the theory will come true given enough time in which evidence can accrue.

This protocol (of sorts) to verify the truth of claims isn’t restricted to the philosophy of science, even if it finds powerful articulation there: a scientific theory isn’t true if it isn’t falsifiable outside its domain of application. It is equally legitimate and necessary in the daily practice of science and its methods, on Twitter and Facebook, in WhatsApp groups, every time your father, your cousin or your grand-uncle begins a question with “If the lab-leak hypothesis isn’t true…”.

On the International Day of Light, remembering darkness

Today is the International Day of Light. According to a UNESCO note:

The International Day of Light is celebrated on 16 May each year, the anniversary of the first successful operation of the laser in 1960 by physicist and engineer, Theodore Maiman. This day is a call to strengthen scientific cooperation and harness its potential to foster peace and sustainable development.

While there are natural lasers, the advent of the laser in Maiman’s hands portended an age of manipulating light to make big advances in a variety of fields. Some applications that come immediately to mind are communications, laser-guided missiles, laser cooling and astronomy. I’m not sure why “the first successful operation of the laser” came to be commemorated as a ‘day of light’, but since it has, its association with astronomy is interesting.

Astronomers have found themselves collecting to protest the launch and operation of satellite constellations, notably SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s upcoming Project Kuiper, after the first few Starlink satellites interfered with astronomical observations. SpaceX has since acknowledged the problem and said it will reduce the reflectance of the satellites it launches, but I don’t think the problem has been resolved. Further, the constellation isn’t complete: thousands of additional satellites will be launched in the coming years, and will be joined by other constellations as well, and the full magnitude of the problem may only become apparent then.

Nonetheless, astronomers’ opposition to such projects brought the idea of the night sky as a shared commons into the public spotlight. Just like arid lands, butterfly colonies and dense jungles are part of our ecological commons, and plateaus, shelves and valleys make up our geological commons, and so on – all from which the human species draws many benefits, an obstructed view of the night sky and the cosmic objects embedded therein characterise the night sky as a commons. And as we draw tangible health and environmental benefits from terrestrial commons, the view of the night sky has, over millennia, offered humans many cultural benefits as well.

However, this conflict between SpaceX, etc. on one hand and the community of astronomers on the other operates at a higher level, so to speak: its resolution in favour of astronomers, for example, still only means – for example – operating fewer satellites or satellites at a higher altitude, avoiding major telescopes’ fields of view, painting the underside with a light-absorbing substance, etc. The dispute is unlikely to have implications for the night sky as a commons of significant cultural value. If it is indeed to be relevant, the issue needs to become deep enough to accommodate, and continue to draw the attention and support of academics and corporations for, the non-rivalrous enjoyment of the night sky with the naked eye, for nothing other than to write better poems, have moonlight dinners and marvel at the stars.

As our fight to preserve our ecological commons has hardened in the face of a state bent on destroying them to line the pockets of its capital cronies, I think we have also started to focus on the economic and other tangible benefits this commons offers us – at the cost of downplaying a transcendental right to their sensual enjoyment. Similarly, we shouldn’t have to justify the importance of the night sky as a commons beyond saying we need to be able to enjoy it.

Of course such an argument is bound to be accused of being disconnected from reality, that the internet coverage Starlink offers will be useful for people living in as-yet unconnected or poorly connected areas – and I agree. We can’t afford to fight all our battles at once if we also expect to reap meaningful rewards in a reasonably short span of time, so let me invoke a reminder that the night sky is an environmental resource as well: “Let us be reminded, as we light the world to suit our needs and whims,” a 2005 book wrote, “that doing so may come at the expense of other living beings, some of whom detect subtle gradations of light to which we are blind, and for whom the night is home.”

More relevant to our original point, of the International Day of Light, astronomy and the night sky as a commons, a study published in 2016 reported the following data:

According to the study paper (emphasis added):

The sky brightness levels are those used in the tables and indicate the following: up to 1% above the natural light (0 to 1.7 μcd/m2; black); from 1 to 8% above the natural light (1.7 to 14 μcd/m2; blue); from 8 to 50% above natural nighttime brightness (14 to 87 μcd/m2; green); from 50% above natural to the level of light under which the Milky Way is no longer visible (87 to 688 μcd/m2; yellow); from Milky Way loss to estimated cone stimulation (688 to 3000 μcd/m2; red); and very high nighttime light intensities, with no dark adaption for human eyes (>3000 μcd/m2; white).

That is, in India, ‘only’ a fifth of the population experiences a level of light pollution that obscures the faintest view of the Milky Way – but in Saudi Arabia, at the other end of the spectrum, nearly 92% of the population is correspondingly unfortunate (not that I presume they care).

DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600377
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600377

While India has a few red dots, it is green almost nearly everywhere and blue nearly everywhere, lest we get carried away. Why, in March this year, Dorje Angchuk, an engineer at the Indian Astronomical Observatory in Hanle who has come to be celebrated for his beautiful photographs of the night sky over Ladakh, tweeted the following images that demonstrate how even highly localised light pollution, which may not be well-represented on global maps, can affect the forms and hues in which the night sky is available to us.

The distribution of colours also reinforces our understanding of cities as economic engines – where more lights shine brighter and, although this map doesn’t show it, more pollutants hang in the air. The red dots over India coincide roughly with the country’s major urban centres: New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai. Photographs of winter mornings in New Delhi show the sky as an orange-brown mass through which even the Sun is barely visible; other stars are out of the question, even after astronomical twilight.

But again, we’re not going to have much luck if our demands to reduce urban emissions are premised on our inability to have an unobstructed view of the night sky. At the same time we must achieve this victory: there’s no reason our street lamps and other public lighting facilities need to throw light upwards, that our billboards need to be visible from above, etc., and perhaps every reason for human settlements – even if they aren’t erected around or near optical telescopes – to turn off as many lights as they can between 10 pm and 6 am. The regulation of light needs to be part of our governance. And the International Day of Light should be a reminder that our light isn’t the only light we need, that darkness is a virtue as well.

Being apolitical doesn’t mean politics doesn’t exist

A few years ago, we had a writer who would constantly pitch articles to us about how the Indian government should be doing X, Y or Z in the fight against this or that disease. Their submissions grew quickly tiresome, and then wholly ridiculous when, in one article (well before the pandemic), they wrote that “the government should distribute good-quality masks for TB patients to use”. That the government should do this is a banal truism. But to make this recommendation over and over risks hiding from sight the fact that the government probably isn’t doing it not because it doesn’t know it should be done but because it has decided that what it is doing is more important, more necessary.

I find myself contending with many similar articles today. It is people’s right to express themselves, especially on counts on which the Indian government has dropped the ball via-à-vis the country’s COVID-19 epidemic. But to repeat recommendations that are often staring most of us in our faces I fear could be harmful – by only reminding us of what needs to be done but hasn’t been, over and over, is an act that deepens the elision and then the forgetting of the real reason why it hasn’t been done.

This doesn’t mean reminders are redundant; to the contrary, there is important value in repetition, so that we may not lose sight of which outcomes are ultimately desirable. But in tandem, we also need to start acknowledging what could be standing in the way and contemplating honestly whether what we’re advocating for could surmount that barrier. (This issue is also of a piece with the one about processes and outcomes – whereby some commentators stress on what the outcomes can or should be but have nothing to say about the processes that will get us there.)

For example, what happened to the rapid self-administered COVID-19 tests that many scientists in India developed last year? A reporter with an appetite for a small investigation could speak to the researchers, university administrators, the DST or the DBT as the case may be, and finally to officials in the Union health ministry, and weave together a story about where exactly in this pipeline of translation from the lab to the market the product vanished. There is value in knowing this but it is not paramount value. It is on equal footing with the view, from the perch of the political economy of public healthcare, that the Modi government is unlikely to okay the widespread use of such tests because many Indian states, especially BJP strongholds like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, are widely underreporting cases and deaths, and a state-managed project to suppress this data is easier to do with centralised testing facilities instead of freely distributed rapid tests whose results can also be quickly crowdsourced.

Quite a few authors of articles (many of them scientists) also like to say that we shouldn’t politicise the pandemic. They ignore, deliberately or otherwise, the fact that all pandemics are political by default. By definition, a pandemic is an epidemic of the same disease occurring in multiple geographically distinct regions at the same time. Governments have to get involved to manage them. Pandemics are not, and should never be, carte blanche for scientists to assume power, their prescriptions to assume primacy and their priorities to assume importance – by default. This can only lead to tunnel vision that is blind to problems, and in fact solutions, that arise from social and political compulsions.

Instead, it would be much more valuable if scientists, and in fact any expert in any field, could admit the politically motivated parts of a government’s response to its local epidemic instead of forcing everyone else to work around their fantasies of separation – and even better if they could join the collaborative efforts to develop solutions instead of trying to solve it like a science problem.

Anthony Fauci demonstrates this same… attitude (for lack of a better word), in an interview to Indian Express. When asked how he might respond to India’s crisis, he said:

The one thing I don’t want to do and I hope it doesn’t turn out this way, is to get involved in any sort of criticism of how India has handled the situation because then it becomes a political issue and I don’t want to do that since I’m a public health person and I’m not a political person.

It just seems to me that, right now, India is in a very difficult and desperate situation. I just got off, in preparation for this interview, I watched a clip from CNN… it seems to me it’s a desperate situation. So when you have a situation like that you’ve got to look at the absolute immediate.

I mean, first of all, I don’t know if India has put together a crisis group that would meet and start getting things organised. I heard from some of the people in the street bringing their mothers and their fathers and their sisters and their brothers searching for oxygen. They seem to think there really was not any organisation, any central organisation.

When asked about what India should do towards getting more people vaccinated:

You’ve got to get supplies. You’ve got to make contractual arrangements with the various companies that are out there in the world.

😑 And what about the fact that the US didn’t just advance-book the doses it needed but hoarded enough to vaccine its population thrice over, and blocked a petition by India and South Africa, and some other countries, to release the patents on US-made vaccines to increase global supply?

Fauci’s answers are, again, a reminder of which outcomes are or ought to be ultimately desirable – what goals we should be working towards – but simply repeating this needs to stop being a virtue. Fauci, like many others before him, doesn’t wish to consider why we’re not on the path to achieving these outcomes despite fairly common knowledge of their existence. He may not be a political person but being apolitical doesn’t mean politics isn’t involved. The bulk of India’s response to its COVID-19 epidemic has been driven by political strategy. Is the idea that even the ideal part science can play in this enterprise is decidedly finite so off-putting?

And even if there is a legitimate aspiration to expand the part science should be allowed to play in pandemic governance, scientists need to begin by convincing political institutions – and not attempt to seize power. They may be tempted to, as we all are, because our current national government seems to think accountability is blasphemy, and without being accountable it has stopped speaking for the people of the country, even those who put it in power. Nonetheless, the fruits of scientific work need to be democratic, too.

I would also contend that Fauci complicates the picture by implying that there can be a clean separation of political and scientific issues on this matter; many scientists in India and perhaps too many people in India have an elevated opinion of Fauci, to the point of considering his words to be gospel. As one friend put it recently, “Unbelievable – the idea that a single white man is the foremost disease epidemiologist in the world” (emphasis in the original). “How do people say it with a straight face?”

This post isn’t intended to disparage Fauci, even if our exalted opinion of him deserves to be taken down a few notches. Instead, I hope it highlights how Fauci nicely demonstrates a deceptively trivial prejudice against politics that, I could argue, helped land India in its latest disaster. Even when he pitches, for example, that India should lock itself down for a few weeks – instead of a few months like it did last year – he is at liberty to ignore the aftermath. We are not. Does that mean a lockdown shouldn’t come to be? No. But if he accommodated the political in his considerations, will it mean a man of his smarts will be able to meaningfully contemplate what the problem could really be? Maybe.

Featured image: Former US President Donald Trump, VP Mike Pence and NIAID director Anthony Fauci at a press briefing at the White House on April 16, 2020. Credit: Public domain.

COVID-19, AMR and India

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that India is today the site of the world’s largest COVID-19 outbreak and the world’s most prominent source of antimicrobial resistant (AMR) pathogens, a.k.a. ‘superbugs’. The former fiasco is the product of failures on multiple fronts – including policy, infrastructure, logistics, politics and even ideology, before we need to consider faster-spreading variants of the novel coronavirus. I’m not sure of all the factors that have contributed to AMR’s burgeoning in India; some of them are irrational use of broad-spectrum antibiotics, poor public hygiene, laws that disprivilege ecological health and subpar regulation of hospital practices.

But all this said, both the second COVID-19 wave and the rise of AMR have benefited from being able to linger in the national population for longer. The longer the novel coronavirus keeps circulating in the population, the more opportunities there are for new variants to appear; the longer pathogens are exposed repeatedly to antimicrobial agents in different environments, the more opportunities they have to develop resistance. And once these things happen, their effects on their respective crises are exacerbated by the less-than-ideal social, political and economic contexts in which they manifest.

Again, I should emphasise that if these afflictions have been assailing India for such a long time and in increasingly stronger ways, it’s because of many distinct, and some overlapping, forces – but I think it’s also true that the resulting permission for pathogens to persist, at scale to boot, makes India more vulnerable than other countries might be to problems of the emergent variety. And given the failures that give rise to this vulnerability, this can be one hell of a vicious cycle.

Exporting risk

I’m torn between admitting that our cynicism about scientists’ solutions for the pandemic is warranted and the palliative effects of reading this Reuters report about seemingly nothing more than the benevolence of richer nations not wasting their vaccine doses:

Apart from all the other transgressions – rather business as usual practices – that have transpired thus far, this is one more testimony to all those instances of insisting “we’re all in this together” being just platitudes uttered to move things along. And if it weren’t enough already that poorer nations must make do with the leftovers of their richer counterparts that ordered not as many doses as they needed but as many as would reassure their egos (a form of pseudoscience not new to the western world), the doses they’re going to give away have been rejected for fear of leading to rare but life-threatening blood clots. To end the pandemic, what kills you can be given away?

On the NASEM report on solar geoengineering

A top scientific body in the US has asked the government to fund solar geoengineering research in a bid to help researchers and policymakers know the fullest extent of their options to help the US deal with climate change.

Solar geoengineering is a technique in which sunlight-reflecting aerosols are pumped into the air, to subtract the contribution of solar energy to Earth’s rapidly warming surface.

The technique is controversial because the resulting solar dimming is likely to affect ecosystems in a detrimental way and because, without the right policy safeguards, its use could allow polluting industries to continue polluting.

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) released its report on March 25. It describes three solar geoengineering strategies: stratospheric aerosol injection (described above), marine cloud brightening and cirrus cloud thinning.

“Although scientific agencies in the US and abroad have funded solar-geoengineering research in the past, governments have shied away from launching formal programmes in the controversial field,” Nature News reported. In addition, “Previous recommendations on the subject by elite scientific panels in the US and abroad have gone largely unheeded” – including NASEM’s own 2015 recommendations.

To offset potential roadblocks, the new report requests the US government to setup a transparent research administration framework, including a code of conduct, an open registry of researchers’ proposals for studies and a fixed process by which the government will grant permits for “outdoor experiments”. And to achieve these goals, it recommends a dedicated allocation of $100-200 million (Rs 728-1,456 crore).

According to experts who spoke to Nature News, Joe Biden being in the Oval Office instead of Donald Trump is crucial: “many scientists say that Biden’s administration has the credibility to advance geoengineering research without rousing fears that doing so will merely displace regulations and other efforts to curb greenhouse gases, and give industry a free pass.”

This is a significant concern for many reasons – including, notably, countries’ differentiated commitments to ensuring outcomes specified in the Paris Agreement and the fact that climate is a global, not local, phenomenon.

Data from 1900 to 2017 indicates that US residents had the world’s ninth highest carbon dioxide emissions per capita; Indians were 116th. This disparity, which holds between the group of large developed countries and of large developing countries in general, has given rise to demands by the latter that the former should do more to tackle climate change.

The global nature of climate is a problem particularly for countries with industries that depend on natural resources like solar energy and seasonal rainfall. One potential outcome of geoengineering is that climatic changes induced in one part of the planet could affect outcomes in a faraway part.

For example, the US government sowed the first major seeds of its climate research programme in the late 1950s after the erstwhile Soviet Union set off three nuclear explosions underground to divert the flow of a river. American officials were alarmed because they were concerned that changes to the quality and temperature of water entering the Arctic Ocean could affect climate patterns.

For another, a study published in 2007 found that when Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, it spewed 20 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide that cooled the whole planet by 0.5º C. As a result, the amount of rainfall dropped around the world as well.

In a 2018 article, Rob Bellamy, a Presidential Fellow in Environment at the University of Manchester, had also explained why stratospheric aerosol injection is “a particularly divisive idea”:

For example, as well as threatening to disrupt regional weather patterns, it, and the related idea of brightening clouds at sea, would require regular “top-ups” to maintain cooling effects. Because of this, both methods would suffer from the risk of a “termination effect”: where any cessation of cooling would result in a sudden rise in global temperature in line with the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If we hadn’t been reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in the background, this could be a very sharp rise indeed.

A study published in 2018 had sought to quantify the extent of this effect – a likely outcome of, say, projects losing political favour or funding. The researchers created a model in which humans pumped five million tonnes of sulphur dioxide a year into the stratosphere for 50 years, and suddenly stopped. One of the paper’s authors told The Wire Science at the time: “This would lead to a rapid increase in temperature, two- to four-times more rapid than climate change without geoengineering. This increase would be dangerous for biodiversity and ecosystems.”

Prakash Kashwan, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut and a senior research fellow of the Earth System Governance Project, has also written for The Wire Science about the oft-ignored political and social dimensions of geoengineering.

He told the New York Times on March 25, “Once these kinds of projects get into the political process, the scientists who are adding all of these qualifiers and all of these cautionary notes” – such as “the steps urged in the report to protect the interests of poorer countries” – “aren’t in control”. In December 2018, Kashwan also advised caution in the face of scientific pronouncements:

The community of climate engineering scientists tends to frame geoengineering in certain ways over other equally valid alternatives. This includes considering the global average surface temperature as the central climate impact indicator and ignoring vested interests linked to capital-intensive geoengineering infrastructure. This could bias future R&D trajectories in this area. And these priorities, together with the assessments produced by eminent scientific bodies, have contributed to the rise of a de facto form of governance. In other words, some ‘high-level’ scientific pronouncements have assumed stewardship of climate geoengineering in the absence of other agents. Such technocratic modes of governance don’t enjoy broad-based social or political legitimacy.

For now, the NASEM report “does not in any way advocate deploying the technology, but says research is needed to understand the options if the climate crisis becomes even more serious,” according to Nature News. The report itself concludes thus:

The recommendations in this report focus on an initial, exploratory phase of a research program. The program might be continued or expand over a longer term, but may also shrink over time, with some or all elements eventually terminated, if early research suggests strong reasons why solar geoengineering should not be pursued. The proposed approaches to transdisciplinary research, research governance, and robust stakeholder engagement are different from typical climate research programs and will be a significant undertaking; but such efforts will enable the research to proceed in an effective, societally responsive manner.

Matthew Watson, a reader in natural hazards at the University of Bristol, had discussed a similar issue in conversation with Bellamy in 2018, including an appeal to our moral responsibilities the same way ‘geoengineers’ must be expected to look out for transnational and subnational effects:

Do you remember the film 127 Hours? It tells the (true) story of a young climber who, pinned under a boulder in the middle of nowhere, eventually ends up amputating his arm, without anaesthetic, with a pen knife. In the end, he had little choice. Circumstances dictate decisions. So if you believe climate change is going to be severe, you have no option but to research the options (I am not advocating deployment) as broadly as possible. Because there may well come a point in the future where it would be immoral not to intervene.

The Wire Science
March 30, 2021

Defending philosophy of science

From Carl Bergstrom’s Twitter thread about a new book called How Irrationality Created Modern Science, by Michael Strevens:

The Iron Rule from the book is, in Bergstrom’s retelling, “no use of philosophical reasoning in the mode of Aristotle; no leveraging theological or scriptural understanding in the mode of Descartes. Formal scientific arguments must be sterilised, to use Strevens’s word, of subjectivity and non-empirical content.” I was particularly taken by the use of the term ‘individual’ in the tweet I’ve quoted above. The point about philosophical argumentation being an “individual” technique is important, often understated.

There are some personal techniques we use to discern some truths but which we don’t publicise. But the more we read and converse with others doing the same things, the more we may find that everyone has many of the same stand-ins – tools or methods that we haven’t empirically verified to be true and/or legitimate but which we have discerned, based on our experiences, to be suitably good guiding lights.

I discovered this issue first when I read Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method many years ago, and then in practice when I found during reporting some stories that scientists in different situations often developed similar proxies for processes that couldn’t be performed in their fullest due to resource constraints. But they seldom spoke to each other (especially across institutes), thus allowing an ideal view of how to do something to crenellate even as almost every one did that something in a similarly different way.

A very common example of this is scientists evaluating papers based on the ‘prestigiousness’ and/or impact factors of the journals the papers are published in, instead of based on their contents – often simply for lack of time and proper incentives. As a result, ideas like “science is self-correcting” and “science is objective” persist as ideals because they’re products of applying the Iron Rule to the process of disseminating the products of one’s research.

But “by turning a lens on the practice of science itself,” to borrow Bergstrom’s words, philosophies of science allow us to spot deviations from the prescribed normal – originating from “Iron Rule Ecclesiastics” like Richard Dawkins – and, to me particularly, revealing how we really, actually do it and how we can become better at it. Or as Bergstrom put it: “By understanding how norms and institutions create incentives to which scientists respond …, we can find ways to nudge the current system toward greater efficiency.”

(It is also gratifying a bit to see the book as well as Bergstrom pick on Lawrence Krauss. The book goes straight into my reading list.)

A tale of vortices, skyrmions, paths and shapes

There are many types of superconductors. Some of them can be explained by an early theory of superconductivity called Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer (BCS) theory.

In these materials, vibrations in the atomic lattice force the electrons in the material to overcome their mutual repulsion and team up in pairs, if the material’s temperature is below a particular threshold (very low). These pairs of electrons, called Cooper pairs, have some properties that individual electrons can’t have. One of them is that all Cooper pairs together form an exotic state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate, which can flow through the material with much less resistance than individuals electrons experience. This is the gist of BCS theory.

When the Cooper pairs are involved in the transmission of an electric current through the material, the material is an electrical superconductor.

Some of the properties of the two electrons in each Cooper pair can influence the overall superconductivity itself. One of them is the orbital angular momentum, which is an intrinsic property of all particles. If both electrons have equal orbital angular momentum but are pointing in different directions, the relative orbital angular momentum is 0. Such materials are called s-wave superconductors.

Sometimes, in s-wave superconductors, some of the electric current – or supercurrent – starts flowing in a vortex within the material. If these vortices can be coupled with a magnetic structure called a skyrmion, physicists believe they can give rise to some new behaviour previously not seen in materials, some of them with important applications in quantum computing. Coupling here implies that a change in the properties of the vortex should induce changes in the skyrmion, and vice versa.

However, physicists have had a tough time creating a vortex-skyrmion coupling that they can control. As Gustav Bihlmayer, a staff scientist at the Jülich Research Centre, Germany, wrote for APS Physics, “experimental studies of these systems are still rare. Both parts” of the structures bearing these features “must stay within specific ranges of temperature and magnetic-field strength to realise the desired … phase, and the length scales of skyrmions and vortices must be similar in order to study their coupling.”

In a new paper, a research team from Nanyang Technical University, Singapore, has reported that they have achieved just such a coupling: they created a skyrmion in a chiral magnet and used it to induce the formation of a supercurrent vortex in an s-wave superconductor. In their observations, they found this coupling to be stable and controllable – important attributes to have if the setup is to find practical application.

A chiral magnet is a material whose internal magnetic field “typically” has a spiral or swirling pattern. A supercurrent vortex in an electrical superconductor is analogous to a skyrmion in a chiral magnet; a skyrmion is a “knot of twisting magnetic field lines” (source).

The researchers sandwiched an s-wave superconductor and a chiral magnet together. When the magnetic field of a skyrmion in the chiral magnet interacted with the superconductor at the interface, it induced a spin-polarised supercurrent (i.e. the participating electrons’ spin are aligned along a certain direction). This phenomenon is called the Rashba-Edelstein effect, and it essentially converts electric charge to electron spin and vice versa. To do so, the effect requires the two materials to be in contact and depends among other things on properties of the skyrmion’s magnetic field.

There’s another mechanism of interaction in which the chiral magnet and the superconductor don’t have to be in touch, and which the researchers successfully attempted to recreate. They preferred this mechanism, called stray-field coupling, to demonstrate a skyrmion-vortex system for a variety of practical reasons. For example, the chiral magnet is placed in an external magnetic field during the experiment. Taking the Rashba-Edelstein route means to achieve “stable skyrmions at low temperatures in thin films”, the field needs to be stronger than 1 T. (Earth’s magnetic field measures 25-65 µT.) Such a field could damage the s-wave superconductor.

For the stray-field coupling mechanism, the researchers inserted an insulator between the chiral magnet and the superconductor. Then, when they applied a small magnetic field, Bihlmayer wrote, the field “nucleated” skyrmions in the structure. “Stray magnetic fields from the skyrmions [then] induced vortices in the [superconducting] film, which were observed with scanning tunnelling spectroscopy.”

Experiments like this one reside at the cutting edge of modern condensed-matter physics. A lot of their complexity resides in scientists being able to closely control the conditions in which different quantum effects play out, using similarly advanced tools and techniques to understand what could be going on inside the materials, and to pick the right combination of materials to use.

For example, the heterostructure the physicists used to manifest the stray-field coupling mechanism had the following composition, from top to bottom:

  • Platinum, 2 nm (layer thickness)
  • Niobium, 25 nm
  • Magnesium oxide, 5 nm
  • Platinum, 2 nm

The next four layers are repeated 10 times in this order:

  • Platinum, 1 nm
  • Cobalt, 0.5 nm
  • Iron, 0.5 nm
  • Iridium, 1 nm

Back to the overall stack:

  • Platinum, 10 nm
  • Tantalum, 2 nm
  • Silicon dioxide (substrate)

The first three make up the superconductor, the magnesium oxide is the insulator, and the rest (except the substrate) make up the chiral magnet.

It’s possible to erect a stack like this through trial and error, with no deeper understanding dictating the choice of materials. But when the universe of possibilities – of elements, compounds and alloys, their shapes and dimensions, and ambient conditions in which they interact – is so vast, the exercise could take many decades. But here we are, at a time when scientists have explored various properties of materials and their interactions, and are able to engineer novel behaviours into existence, blurring the line between discovery and invention. Even in the absence of applications, such observations are nothing short of fascinating.

Applications aren’t wanting, however.

quasiparticle is a packet of energy that behaves like a particle in a specific context even though it isn’t actually one. For example, the proton is a quasiparticle because it’s really a clump of smaller particles (quarks and gluons) that together behave in a fixed, predictable way. A phonon is a quasiparticle that represents some vibrational (or sound) energy being transmitted through a material. A magnon is a quasiparticle that represents some magnetic energy being transmitted through a material.

On the other hand, an electron is said to be a particle, not a quasiparticle – as are neutrinos, photons, Higgs bosons, etc.

Now and then physicists abstract packets of energy as particles in order to simplify their calculations.

(Aside: I’m aware of the blurred line between particles and quasiparticles. For a technical but – if you’re prepared to Google a few things – fascinating interview with condensed-matter physicist Vijay Shenoy on this topic, see here.)

We understand how these quasiparticles behave in three-dimensional space – the space we ourselves occupy. Their properties are likely to change if we study them in lower or higher dimensions. (Even if directly studying them in such conditions is hard, we know their behaviour will change because the theory describing their behaviour predicts it.) But there is one quasiparticle that exists in two dimensions, and is quite different in a strange way from the others. They are called anyons.

Say you have two electrons in an atom orbiting the nucleus. If you exchanged their positions with each other, the measurable properties of the atom will stay the same. If you swapped the electrons once more to bring them back to their original positions, the properties will still remain unchanged. However, if you switched the positions of two anyons in a quantum system, something about the system will change. More broadly, if you started with a bunch of anyons in a system and successively exchanged their positions until they had a specific final arrangement, the system’s properties will have changed differently depending on the sequence of exchanges.

This is called path dependency, and anyons are unique in possessing this property. In technical language, anyons are non-Abelian quasiparticles. They’re interesting for many reasons, but one application stands out. Quantum computers are devices that use the quantum mechanical properties of particles, or quasiparticles, to execute logical decisions (the same way ‘classical’ computers use semiconductors). Anyons’ path dependency is useful here. Arranging anyons in one sequence to achieve a final arrangement can be mapped to one piece of information (e.g. 1), and arranging anyons by a different sequence to achieve the same final arrangement can be mapped to different information (e.g. 0). This way, what information can be encoded depends on the availability of different paths to a common final state.

In addition, an important issue with existing quantum computers is that they are too fragile: even a slight interaction with the environment can cause the devices to malfunction. Using anyons for the qubits could overcome this problem because the information stored doesn’t depend on the qubits’ existing states but the paths that they have taken there. So as long as the paths have been executed properly, environmental interactions that may disturb the anyons’ final states won’t matter.

However, creating such anyons isn’t easy.

Now, recall that s-wave superconductors are characterised by the relative orbital angular momentum of electrons in the Cooper pairs being 0 (i.e. equal but in opposite directions). In some other materials, it’s possible that the relative value is 1. These are the p-wave superconductors. And at the centre of a supercurrent vortex in a p-wave superconductor, physicists expect to find non-Abelian anyons.

So the ability to create and manipulate these vortices in superconductors, as well as, more broadly, explore and understand how magnet-superconductor heterostructures work, is bound to be handy.

The Nanyang team’s paper calls the vortices and skyrmions “topological excitations”. An ‘excitation’ here is an accumulation of energy in a system over and above what the system has in its ground state. Ergo, it’s excited. A topological excitation refers to energy manifested in changes to the system’s topology.

On this subject, one of my favourite bits of science is topological phase transitions.

I usually don’t quote from Wikipedia but communicating condensed-matter physics is exacting. According to Wikipedia, “topology is concerned with the properties of a geometric object that are preserved under continuous deformations, such as stretching, twisting, crumpling and bending”. For example, no matter how much you squeeze or stretch a donut (without breaking it), it’s going to be a ring with one hole. Going one step further, your coffee mug and a donut are topologically similar: they’re both objects with one hole.

I also don’t like the Nobel Prizes but some of the research that they spotlight is nonetheless awe-inspiring. In 2016, the prize was awarded to Duncan Haldane, John Kosterlitz and David Thouless for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”.

David Thouless in 1995. Credit: Mary Levin/University of Washington

Quoting myself from 2016:

There are four popularly known phases of matter: plasma, gas, liquid and solid. If you cooled plasma, its phase would transit to that of a gas; if you cooled gases, you’d get a liquid; if you cooled liquids, you’d get a solid. If you kept cooling a solid until you were almost at absolute zero, you’d find substances behaving strangely because, suddenly, quantum mechanical effects show up. These phases of matter are broadly called quantum phases. And their phase transitions are different from when plasma becomes a gas, a gas becomes a liquid, and so on.

A Kosterlitz-Thouless transition describes a type of quantum phase transition. A substance in the quantum phase, like all substances, tries to possess as low energy as possible. When it gains some extra energy, it sheds it. And how it sheds it depends on what the laws of physics allow. Kosterlitz and Thouless found that, at times, the surface of a flat quantum phase – like the surface of liquid helium – develops vortices, akin to a flattened tornado. These vortices always formed in pairs, so the surface always had an even number of vortices. And at very low temperatures, the vortices were always tightly coupled: they remained close to each other even when they moved across the surface.

The bigger discovery came next. When Kosterlitz and Thouless raised the temperature of the surface, the vortices moved apart and moved around freely, as if they no longer belonged to each other. In terms of thermodynamics alone, the vortices being alone or together wouldn’t depend on the temperature, so something else was at play. The duo had found a kind of phase transition – because it did involve a change in temperature – that didn’t change the substance itself but only a topological shift in how it behaved. In other words, the substance was able to shed energy by coupling the vortices.

Reality is so wonderfully weird. It’s also curious that some concepts that seemed significant when I was learning science in school (like invention versus discovery) and in college (like particle versus quasiparticle) – concepts that seemed meaningful and necessary to understand what was really going on – don’t really matter in the larger scheme of things.

Reimagining science, redux

This article on Founding Fuel has some great suggestions I thought, but it merits sharing with a couple caveats.

First, in narratives about making science “easier to do”, commentators give science-industry linkages more play than science-society ones. This has been true in the past and continues to be. We remember and periodically celebrate the work of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar and M. Visveshwaraya, but not with nearly equal fanfare that of, say, Yash Pal or the members of the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme.

In public dialogues about making the work of scientists more relevant, writers and TV panellists often touch on spending more money to setup larger, better supplied labs and improving ties between the labs and industry, where research is translated into product or service. Spending more on science is necessary, as is the need to support collaborations, regularise funding and grant-giving, improve working conditions for teachers, etc.

More broadly, I acknowledge that the problem is that there isn’t enough good science happening in the country, that the author is recommending various ways in which science-industry linkages and tweaks within the science ecosystem can both change this for the better, and that science-society linkages are unlikely to be of help on this front. However, could this be because we’re asking the wrong question?

That is, what science and industry can do for each other becomes relevant if what we’re seeking is the growth of science, as defined by some parameters (number of citations, number of patents, etc.), as an enterprise in and of itself – as if its fortunes and outcomes weren’t already yoked to other societal endeavours. Growth for growth’s sake. Science-society linkages become relevant on the other hand when the parameters are, say, research and academic liberties, extent of public participation, distribution of opportunities, freedom from government interference, etc. – when quantitative growth is both difficult and more aligned with nation-building.

Ultimately, we don’t need a science that becomes easier to do at the expense of not thinking about whether it needs to be done, or done differently. This is not a veiled comment against ‘blue sky’ research, which must continue, but is directed against ‘black sky’ research – which goes on to pollute our air and water, drills forestland for oil, dams rivers and destabilises ecosystems without thought for the consequences.

Nevertheless, in a system designed increasingly to incentivise working with the private sector, to self-finance one’s work through patents and other licenses, and to translate research into arbitrarily defined “useful” things, such thinking can only become more penalised, more unfavourable. And the science that is rolled into technologies will only be industry friendly, which in the current political climate means Ambani- and/or Adani-friendly, to the detriment of everyone else, especially those on the bottom rungs of society.

Second, the article’s author uses Nobel Prize-winning work to describe presumably the extent of what is possible when faculty members at an institute work together or when researchers collaborate with their younger peers. But in the process he frames ‘collaborations that produce Nobel Prizes’ as desirable. This is a problem because doing so overlooks collaborations that didn’t win Nobel Prizes, because laureates are often white men (non-white, non-cis-men may not be able to ‘breach’ such ‘in-groups’ because of structural factors even as solutions to break these barriers are ignored in favour of a flatter ‘prize-winning’ one), and because “Nobel-Prize-winning collaborations” is an oxymoron.

The last is easiest to see: the prizes are awarded only to three people at a time whereas the author himself quotes a study that found that the number of authors per scientific paper increased from 3.2 to 4.4 in 1996-2015.

As a corrective of sorts, to infuse deliberations prompted by the Founding Fuel article with what a focus on industry-oriented development leaves out, let me quote at length from an essay Mukund Thattai published with The Wire three years ago, exploring the existence of “an Indian way of doing science” (emphases mine):

There is a strong case to fund science for the same reason we fund the arts or sport. Science is a cultural activity: it reveals unexpected beauty in the everyday; it captures the imagination of children; it attempts to answer some of humanity’s biggest questions about where we came from. Moreover, scientific ideas can be a potent component of the process by which society arrives at collective decisions about the future. Among the strongest reasons a resource-limited country such as India should fund curiosity-driven science is that the nature of future crises cannot be predicted.

It is impossible to micromanage the long-term research agenda, so the only hope is to cast a wide net. A broad and deep scientific community is a valuable resource that can be called upon to give its inputs on a variety of issues. They cannot be expected to always deliver a solution but can be expected to provide the best possible information available at any time. In this consultative process, it is crucially important to not privilege scientific experts over other participants in the discussion.

… Science thrives within a diversity of questions and methods, a diversity of institutional environments, and a diversity of personal experiences of individual scientists. In the modern era, the practice of science has moved to a more democratic mode, away from the idea of lone geniuses and towards a collective effort of creating hypotheses and sharing results. Any tendency toward uniformity and career professionalisation dilutes and ultimately destroys this diversity. As historian of science Dhruv Raina describes it, a science that is vulnerable to the “pressures of government” is “no longer an open frontier of critical activity”. Instead, science must become “social and reflexive”.

Ideas and themes must bubble up from the broadest possible community. In India, access to such a process is limited by the accident of one’s mother tongue and social class, and this must change. Anyone who wants to should have the opportunity to understand what scientists are doing. Ultimately, this must involve not only scientists but also social scientists, historians, philosophers, artists and communicators – and the public at large.

… Is there such a thing as an “Indian way” of doing science? Science in the abstract is said to transcend national boundaries. In practice it is strongly influenced by local experiences and local history. Unfortunately, even as national missions have faded to the background, they have been replaced by an imitation of Western fashions. It has become common to look to high-profile journals and conferences as arbiters of questions worth asking. This must stop. The key to revitalising Indian science is the careful choice of rich questions. These questions could be driven by new national missions that bring the excitement of a collective effort. Or they could be inspired by observing the complex interactions of the world immediately around us.

There is a great deal of scholarship and scientific inquiry that can arise from the study of India’s traditional knowledge systems. The country’s enormous biodiversity and human genetic diversity are an exciting and bottomless source of scientific puzzles and important secrets. Such questions would allow for a deeper two-way engagement with India’s people. This is not to say Indian scientists cannot work on internationally important problems – quite the opposite. The scientific community in India, working within their own unique contexts, could become the source of important problems that anyone in the world would be excited to work on.

… The internationalisation of science is an important goal in and of itself. While it stimulates cross-fertilisation of ideas and pushes up standards within science, it also creates opportunities for broader global discussions and engagements. The unfortunate hurdles which curtail the ability of Indian academics and students to travel abroad, and the enormous difficulty foreign academics face in obtaining necessary permissions to visit their colleagues in India, serve no purpose. In spite of all this, there is a healthy trend towards stronger international links.

Academic scientists have long played dual roles as teachers and researchers. Within India, science has a remarkably broad appeal. Public science talks are standing-room-only affairs, and famous scientists receive the kind of adulation typically reserved for movie stars. Students across the country are excited about science. Many aspire to become scientists themselves.

Historically, engineering and medical colleges have attracted scientifically-minded students, but this is changing. The Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research have now been running undergraduate programs for over a decade in cities across India. These institutions are to science what the IITs are to engineering, attracting some of the brightest students each year. Science programs within public universities have not fared as well, and must seize every opportunity to reinvent themselves. A science curriculum based not on dry facts but on the history and process of discovery can form the base of a broad education, in conjunction with the humanities and the arts.

Anti-softening science for the state

The group of ministers (GoM) report on “government communication” has recommended that the government promote “soft topics” in the media like “yoga” and “tigers”. We can only speculate what this means, and that shouldn’t be hard. The overall spirit of the document is insecurity and paranoia, manifested as fantasies of reining in the country’s independent media into doing the government’s bidding. The promotion of “soft” stories is in line with this aspiration – “soft” here can only mean stories that don’t criticise the government, its actions or policies, and be like ‘harmless entertainment’ for a politically inert audience. It’s also no coincidence that the two examples on offer of such stories skirt the edges of health and environmental journalism; other examples are sure to include reports of scientific discoveries.

Science is closely related to the Indian state in many ways. The current government in particular, in power since 2014, has been promoting application-oriented R&D (a bias especially visible in budgetary allocations); encouraging ill-prepared research facilities to self-finance; privileging certain private interests (esp. the Reliance and Adani groups) vis-à-vis natural resources like coal, coastal zones and spectrum allocations; pillaging India’s ecological commons for industrialisation; promoting pseudoscience (which further disempowers those closer to society’s margins); interfering at universities by appointing vice-chancellors friendly to the ruling party (and if that doesn’t work, jailing students on ridiculous charges that include dissent); curtailing academic freedom; and hounding after scientists and institutions that threaten its preferred narratives.

With this in mind, it’s important for science journalism outlets and science journalists to not become complicit – inadvertently or otherwise – in the state project to “soften” science, and start reporting, if they aren’t already, on issues with a closer eye on their repercussions on the wider society. The idea that science journalism can or should be objective the way science is is nonsensical because the idea that science is an objective enterprise is nonsensical. The scientific method is a technique to obtain information about the natural universe while steadily subtracting the influence of human biases and other limitations. However, what scientists choose to study, how they design their studies and what is ultimately construed to be knowledge are all deeply human enterprises.

On top of this, science journalism is driven by journalists’ sense of good and bad: We write favourably about the former and argue against the latter. We write about some telescope unravelling a long-standing cosmogonic problem and also publish an article calling out homeopathy’s bullshit. We write a scientific paper that uses ingenious methods to prove its point and also call out Indian academia as an unsafe space for queer-trans people.

Some have advanced a defence that simply focusing on “good science” can inculcate in the audience a sense of what is “worthy” and “desirable” while denying “bad science” the platform and publicity it seeks. This is objectionable on two counts.

First, who decides what is “worthy”? For example, some scientists, especially in the ‘senior’ cadre and the more influential and/or powerful for it, make this choice by deferring to the wisdom of scientific journals, chosen according to their impact factors, and what the journals have deemed worthy of publishing. But abiding by this heuristic only means we continue to participate in and extend the lifetime of the existing ways of knowledge production that privilege white scientists, male scientists and richer scientists – and sensational positive results on topics that the scientists staffing the journals’ editorial boards would like to focus on.

Second, being limited to goodness at a time when badness abounds is bad, at least severely tone-deaf (but I’m disinclined to be so charitable). Very broadly, that science is inherently amoral is a pithy factoid by this point. There have been far too many incidents in history for anyone to still be able to overlook, in good faith, the fact that science’s prescriptions unguided by human morals and values are quite likely to lead to humanitarian disasters. We may even be living through one such. Scientists’ rapid and successful development of new vaccines against a new pathogen was followed by a global rush to acquire enough doses. But the world’s industrial and economic powers have ensured that the strongest among them have enough to vaccine their entire populations more than once, have blocked petitions at global fora to loosen patents on these vaccines to expand manufacturing and distribution, have forced desperate countries to purchase doses at prices higher than those for developed blocs like the EU, and have allowed corporate behemoths to make monumental profits even as they force third-world nations to pledge sovereign assets to secure supplies. It’s fallacious to claim scientific labour makes the world a better place when the fruits of such labour must still be filtered, like so much else, through the capitalist sieve.

There are many questions for the science journalist to consider here: why have some communities in certain countries been affected more than others? Why is there so little data on the vaccines’ consequences for pregnant women? Do we know enough to discuss the pandemic’s effects on women? Why, at a time when so many scientists and engineers were working to design new ventilators, was there no unified standard to ensure usability? If the world has demonstrated that it’s possible to design, test, manufacture and administer vaccines against a new virus in such a short time, why have we been waiting so long for effective defences against neglected tropical diseases? How do the racial, gender and ethnic identifies of clinical trials affect trial outcomes? Is it ethical for countries that hosted vaccine clinical trials to get the first doses? Should we compulsorily prohibit patents on drugs, therapies and devices important to ending pandemics? If so, what might the consequences be for drug development? And what good is a vaccine if we can’t also ensure all the world’s 7.x billion people can be vaccinated simultaneously?

The pandemic isn’t a particularly ‘easy’ example either. For example, if the government promises to develop new supercomputers, who can use them and what problems will they be used to solve? How can we improve the quality and quantity of research conducted at institutes funded by state governments? Why do so many scientists at public universities plagiarise scientific papers? On what basis are the winners of the S.S. Bhatnagar Award chosen? Should we formally do away with subscription-funded scientific journals in favour of open-access publishing, overlay journals and post-publication peer-review? Is methane really a “clean fuel” even though its extraction and transportation will impose a considerable dirty cost? Why can’t we have more GM foods in the market even though the science is ‘good’? Is it worthwhile to invest Rs 10,000 crore in a human spaceflight programme that lacks long-term vision? And so forth.

Simply focusing on “good science” at our present time is not enough. I also reject the argument that it’s not for science journalists to protect or defend science simply because science, whatever it’s interpreted to mean, is not the preserve of scientists. As an enterprise rooted in its famous method, science is a tool of empowerment: it encourages discovery and deliberation; I’m not sure if it’s fair to say it encourages dissent as well but there is evidence that science can accommodate it without resorting to violence and subjugation.

It’s not for nothing that I’m more comfortable holding up an aspirin tablet for someone with a headache than a jar of leaves from the Patanjali Ayurved stable: being able to know how and why something works is power in the same way knowing how the pharmaceutical industry manipulates markets, how to file an RTI application, what makes an FIR valid or invalid, what the election commission’s model code of conduct stipulates or what kind of land a mall can be built on is power. All of it represents control, especially the ability to say ‘no’ and mean it.

This is ultimately what the GoM report fantasises about – and what the present government desires: the annulment of individual and institutional resistance, one subset of which is the neutralisation of science’s ability to provoke questions about atoms and black holes as much as about the circumstances in which scientists study them, about the nature, utility and purpose of knowledge, and the relationships between science, capital and the state.


In January 2020, the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India organised a meeting with science journalists and communicators from around the country to discuss what the two parties could do for each other. Us journalists and communicators aired a lot of grievances during the meeting as well as suggestions on fixing long-standing and/or particularly thorny problems (some notes here).

In light of the government’s renewed attention on curbing press freedom and ludicrous suggestions in the report, such as one by S. Gurumurthy that the news should be a “mixture of truth and untruth”, I’m not sure where that leaves the PSA’s plans for future consultation nor – considering parts of the report seemingly manufactured consent – whether good-faith consultation will be possible going ahead. I can only hope that members of this community at least evoke and keep the faith.