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.