Comments on "Science Journalism Congress"

On the occasion of National Scientific Temper day (August 20), declared in remembrance of Dr Dabholkar, IMSc Chennai organized a 2-day session on "Communicating Science in a Changing India".

As a follower of science journalism in India, I followed the proceedings on youtube with interest. Here are some remarks on the sessions.

The good

I was hoping for someone would take such an initiative. I am glad that the conference of this nature was organized, for four reasons.

1. In a nascent field like science communication, it is important to leverage the "community" instead of fighting lone battles.

2. The interaction between scientists and journalists is critical for science communication. One can learn from each other. The interesting discussions on these themes in the workshop gave much fodder for thought.

3. Hopefully, in the long term, such initiatives leads to the creation of a "social norm", as Prof Gadagkar called it, that nudges scientists engage more with the public.

4. In a context, where the pseudoscience is using the modern means of communication to spread like wildfire, it is important to attain a critical mass to tame the pseudo-science. Workshops of this nature help in this regard.


Suggestions

1. The workshop focused mainly on scientists and journalists. It ignores a large section of people like rationalists, who are also playing an important role in combating superstition and dogma. I understand that this is the first time and hence not possible to accommodate everything. But, it would be great if the other sections of people are also invited to the panels. 

2. The science communication is mainly approached from a print media perspective. Call me a cynic, but I think that print media is not enough to make dents in the larger problem, especially when the anti-science are using television media big time.

In order to make significant dents, science communication should go big in the television media and also video form of communication. Only then we can capture the attention of a large audience.

Concerns

As I have been arguing since long, science communication in India is largely about communicating the latest developments in science to the public. This, I think, is just an information feeding mechanism from the perspective of public just like any other science textbook in school that feeds information. Merely reporting scientific discoveries doesn't enhance the questioning traits in people.

Thinking critically involves questioning, examination of evidence and revising one's beliefs. This doesn't happen, especially the last part involving revising one's beliefs, unless one is trained overtime to question and change their beliefs. Part of the scientists training is to be wrong several times that they are comfortable changing their priors.

Such ability to change beliefs can't be achieved with science reporting. It can only be achieved when people are forced to challenge their beliefs. While the nature of beliefs differs between people, for the purposes of efficiency, it is important to question the commonly held widespread false beliefs in the society.

For long, there has been an inhibition in both the scientist community and journalistic community to question such beliefs for the fear of offending the cultural and religious beliefs. As the late Prof Bhargava lamented, the Indian Science Academies didn't support his fight against Astrology. Though the situation is changing, as evidenced by the recent Astronomical Society's initiative to issue clarifications on the Lunar Eclipse, it isn't enough.

There are two specific problematic aspects about the current scenario.

1. Sadly, some scientists even think that having such false beliefs is not important as long as what they think is harmless. For instance, the director of a famous research institute commented in a panel discussion that astrology is harmless. This is the exactly the kind of attitude that hinders the science communication efforts. Even a brief examination of astrology as it is practised today tells you that astrology is anything but harmless. It plants the seed for the practice of believing in something without evidence, which is then a slippery slope.  Even materially, marriages are being broken due to this false belief and so on. 

All the other forms of science communication are useless as long as we presume that it's harmless to have false beliefs. It's extremely saddening to hear such remarks from the head of a premier research institute.

2. Scientists and Science Journalists are not addressing the core input that leads to a lack of scientific temper in people. It's the god-men using science sounding words to spread their woo. It is this kind of discourse that damages the critical thinking of people, especially considering their wide reach. 

Despite the popularity of many such unscientific explanations of the god-men, no scientist or science journalist has dared to take on them. Any other efforts to improve scientific temper without addressing this issue is only trying to band-aid the leakages without controlling the massive inflow!

In future, I wish to see take down of unscientific explanations of public figures.

Summary - Way forward

In short, the science-communication in India has to work on three aspects

1. Use video/television media on a large scale. Not just journalists, even scientists should take lead in creating video content in an entertaining manner, explaining the science to the general public - not just their discoveries but the science in general.

2. Science academies have to take a clear stand on widespread false beliefs like astrology, creationism, harmful effects of lunar eclipse etc., and issue statements opposing them. If the scientists themselves can't take a clear stance, how can we expect the people to do so?

3. Stem the spread of dogma by challenging the unscientific claims and explanations given by the public figures, be it politicians or god-men.

Rigour of scientific method is not for every decision in life

The well-known rationalist-atheist-humanist Babu Gogineni (BG) participated in Bigg Boss 2 Telugu reality show. The show starts with 16 members confined to a house without connection to the outside world. One person is eliminated from the house every week.  So, each week, participants nominate 1 or 2 people who they think should be eliminated from the house. Every weekend, the host of the show interacts with the participants and questions their decisions.

In one such week, BG nominates Y for elimination after hearing some bad things about Y from X. The host questioned BG saying - You don't believe in God, you need proof for that. How did you then believe Y's comments on X? What proof did you have? (paraphrased). In other words, the host is implying that when it comes to nomination decision, BG is being hypocritical by not employing the same standards of rigour that BG demands from those making supernatural claims.

Several versions of this argument are usually used as a criticism against those advocating scientific method. They go along the lines of - do you use the scientific method for every decision in life? What evidence did you use before deciding to love your parents/wife? If the answer is no, it follows that the science or evidence advocates cannot demand evidence from others in any aspect because the evidence advocates themselves are not using evidence in every decision of life.

In short, by illustrating the lack of applicability of scientific evidence to some aspects, they attempt to carve out space where evidence should not be applicable, and finally put all their superstitions in that space, insulating it from demands of evidence.

How to become a GOOD Theoretical physicist?

I receive many questions on Quora on how to become a good theoretical physicist from school students. I often end up pointing them to some resources that I know. I admit that those are not comprehensive answers.

This problem is no more. I came across this wonderful site http://www.goodtheorist.science/ by Nobel Prize-winning Physicist Gerard't Hooft [h/t Sean Caroll]

Please go ahead and enjoy the site. I browsed through it. It seems to be an excellent resource.

An important milestone in understanding the Origin of Life

Charles Darwin's famous Theory of Evolution gave us the theory of how a unicellular organism can evolve into complex creatures as humans, which was substantiated by monumental evidence since then. Before Darwin, people perplexed by the complexity of life took refuge in the intelligent design by a higher power as a reason for the complex life. Darwin's theory conclusively proved that an intelligent design is not necessary for the complexity to emerge.

The debates on life didn't end there. While Darwin could explain the evolution from unicellular organism to complex creatures, the question still remained - how did the first living organism get created from non-living material?

Several experiments have been conducted to explore this question, the famous one being the Miller-Urey experiment in the 1950s. In this experiment, Miller-Urey simulated the conditions of early earth and checked for the resulting chemical reaction. They reported the formation of amino acids, which are essential components for living cells. Several variations of this experiment have been conducted until now and the work is still in progress.

A new experiment by the researchers at the University of Cambridge sheds further light on the question of the origin of life from non-living material.

The unique insight of the theory behind the experiment is that UV light is essential for causing the chemical reactions that can lead to living cells. The carbon from meteorites hit the earth with Nitrogen causing a rain of Cyanide (CN). Hydrogen Cyanide in presence of UV light reacted with elements on earth to result in "building blocks of RNA".

They tested it as follows:

1. It turns out that the temperature of our Sun is in the appropriate range for the UV light emission. Many stars in the universe are too cold to emit UV light. This is a test for the availability of UV light in our solar system.

2. Researchers conducted two sets of experiments on Cyanide - one in the absence of UV light and the other in presence of UV light. The experiment conducted in the absence of UV light led to an inert compound while the one conducted in the presence of UV light yielded amino acids and nucleotides, which are essential building blocks of living cells.

These two findings suggest, there's a significant probability that early life has emerged through this mechanism.

The final test for this theory is to look for planetary systems whose star emits UV light, and further look for planets in those systems with water. If there's a trace of life in these planets, then we have a reasonable answer for the puzzle behind the emergence of life from non-living material.

There's an important lesson in this for us - As I argued in one of my earlier posts "The validity of God explanation", invoking God as a reason for things that we don't understand is not only logically invalid but also hinders the scientific progress. If everyone settled for the explanation that complex life is the result of human evolution, we wouldn't have had Darwin's Theory of evolution. Similarly, if we settle for the explanation that intelligent design is the reason for the emergence of life from non-living material, we wouldn't have had insights that the above experiment generated.

Explanations that invoke "intelligent design" as a reason behind things that we don't understand hinder our scientific progress. We all should be wary of this, before invoking such explanations.

Question Everything. Shed Dogma. Embrace Science.