The language and bullshitness of ‘a nearly unreadable paper’

Earlier today, the Retraction Watch mailing list highlighted a strange paper written by a V.M. Das disputing the widely accepted fact that our body clocks are regulated by the gene-level circadian rhythm. The paper is utter bullshit. Sample its breathless title: ‘Nobel Prize Physiology 2017 (for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm) is On Fiction as There Is No Molecular Mechanisms of Biological Clock Controlling the Circadian Rhythm. Circadian Rhythm Is Triggered and Controlled By Divine Mechanism (CCP – Time Mindness (TM) Real Biological Clock) in Life Sciences’.

The use of language here is interesting. Retraction Watch called the paper ‘unreadable’ in the headline of its post because that’s obviously a standout feature of this paper. I’m not sure why Retraction Watch is highlighting nonsense papers on its pages – watched by thousands every day for intriguing retraction reports informed by the reporting of its staff – but I’m going to assume its editors want to help all their readers set up their own bullshit filters. And the best way to do this, as I’ve written before, is to invite readers to participate in understanding why something is bullshit.

However, to what extent do we think unreadability is a bullshit indicator? And from whose perspective?

There’s no exonerating the ‘time mindness’ paper because those who get beyond the language are able to see that it’s simply not even wrong. But if you had judged it only by its language, you would’ve landed yourself in murky waters. In fact, no paper should be judged by how it exercises the grammar of the language its authors have decided to write it in. Two reasons:

1. English is not the first language for most of India. Those who’ve been able to afford an English-centred education growing up or hail from English-fluent families (or both) are fine with the language but I remember most of my college professors preferring Hindi in the classroom. And I assume that’s the picture in most universities, colleges and schools around the country. You only need access to English if you’ve also had the opportunity to afford a certain lifestyle (cosmopolitan, e.g.).

2. There are not enough good journals publishing in vernacular languages in India – at least not that I know of. The ‘best’ is automatically the one in English, among other factors. Even the government thinks so. Earlier this year, the University Grants Commission published a ‘preferred’ list of journals; only papers published herein were to be considered for career advancement evaluations. The list left out most major local-language publications.

Now, imagine the scientific vocabulary of a researcher who prefers Hindi over English, for example, because of her educational upbringing as well as to teach within the classroom. Wouldn’t it be composed of Latin and English jargon suspended from Hindi adjectives and verbs, a web of Hindi-speaking sensibilities straining to sound like a scientist? Oh, that recalls a third issue:

3. Scientific papers are becoming increasingly hard to read, with many scientists choosing to actively include words they wouldn’t use around the dinner table because they like how the ‘sciencese’ sounds. In time, to write like this becomes fashionable – and to not write like this becomes a sign of complacency, disinterest or disingenuousness.

… to the mounting detriment of those who are not familiar with even colloquial English in the first place. To sum up: if a paper shows other, more ‘proper’ signs of bullshit, then it is bullshit no matter how much its author struggled to write it. On the other hand, a paper can’t be suspected of badness if its language is off – nor can it be called bad as such if that’s all is off about it.

This post was composed entirely on a smartphone. Please excuse typos or minor formatting issues.

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That astrology workshop at the IISc

Couple caveats:

  1. I wrote this post on the night of October 28, before the workshop was cancelled on the morning of October 29. I haven’t bothered to change the tense because issuing this caveat at the top seemed simpler.
  2. A highly edited version of this post was published on The Wire on the morning of October 29. It’s about half as long as the post below, so if you’re looking for a TL;DR version, check that out.

A friend of mine forwarded this to me on October 28:

The poster for IIScAA's astrology workshop

I’m sure you can see the story writing itself: “IISc, a bastion of rational thinking and among the last of its kind in India, has capitulated and is set to host a workshop on astrology – a subject Karl Popper considered the prime example of how pseudoscience should be defined – on November 25. The workshop is being organised by the IISc Alumni Association, and will be conducted by M.S. Rameshaiah, who holds a BE in mechanical engineering from IISc and a PG diploma in patents law from NALSAR. He retired as a scientist from the National Aerospace Laboratories.”

But this is an old point. As R. Prasad, the science editor of The Hindu, wrote on his blog, an astrology workshop popping up somewhere in the country was only a matter of time, not possibility. What’s more interesting is why there’s a hullabaloo and who’s raising it. As the friend who forwarded the poster said, “Hope you guys carry this or put some pressure.”

Prasad’s conversation with Rameshaiah moves along the line of why this workshop has been organised – and this is the line many of us (including myself) would assume at first. IISc is one of India’s oldest modern research institutions. It wields considerable clout as a research and academic body among students, researchers and policymakers alike, and it has thus far remained relatively free of political interference. Its own faculty members do good science and are communicative with the media.

So all together, people who regularly preach the scientific temper and who grapple with scientific knowledge as if it existed in a vacuum like to do so on the back of socially important institutions like the IISc. It’s an easy way out to establish dignity – like how part-time writers often use quotable quotes as if they carry some authority.

The problem is, they don’t. And in the same way, it’s not entirely fair to use the IISc as a champion of the idea of success-through-rationalism because it’s an academic and research institution engaged in teaching its students about the sciences, and it doesn’t teach them by exclusion. It doesn’t teach them by describing what is not science but by inculcating what is.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is the primary issue with Rameshaiah’s workshop: calling astrology a “scientific tool” from within an institution that teaches students, and the people at large, about what science is. If it had been called just a “tool”, there wouldn’t have been (much of) a problem. By attaching the prefix of “science”, Rameshaiah is misusing the name of the IISc to bring credibility to his personal beliefs. The secondary issue is whether IISc stands to lose any credibility by association: of course it does.

So there are two distinct issues to be addressed here:

  1. Of an astrology workshop being hosted by the IISc AA, and
  2. Of an astrology workshop in general

The second issue is arguably more interesting because the first issue seems concerned only with chasing an astrology workshop outside the premises of a research institution. And once it is chased out, can we be sure that the same people will be concerned, especially meaningfully, about quelling all astrology workshops everywhere? I’m not so sure.

Of an astrology workshop in general

While the readers of this blog will agree, as I do, that astrology is not a science, can we agree that it is a “tool”? Again, while the readers of this blog will claim that it is a pseudoscience that, in Popper’s (rephrased) words, “destroyed the testability of their theory in order to escape falsification”, it also bears asking why faith in astrology persists in the first place.

Is it because people have not been informed it’s a pseudoscience or is it because there is no record of their religious beliefs – in which one’s faith in astrology is also embedded – having let them down in the last many generations? To put it in Popper’s terms, astrology may not be falsifiable but how many people are concerned with its falsifiability to begin with?

Many people of the community to which I belong believe in astrology. They are Brahmins, quite well to do, ranging in affluence from the upper middle class to the upper class. Many of them have held positions of power and influence, and many of the same people believe that the alignment of the stars in the sky influences their fortunes. Falsifiability is, to them, an intellectual exercise that doesn’t add to their lives. Astrological beliefs and the actions thus inspired, on the other hand, get them through their days and leave them feeling better about themselves.

Where I see Rameshaiah’s workshop inflicting real damage is not among such people, who can afford to lose some of their money and not have to give a damn. Where the problem comes to be is with subaltern communities – from whom astrology has the potential to siphon limited resources and misappropriate their means to ‘status’ mobility (e.g., according to Prasad, Rameshaiah is charging Rs 2,000 per person for the two-day workshop). Additionally, how such beliefs infiltrate these communities is also worth inspecting. For example, astrology is the stranglehold of Brahmins – and to liberate Dalits from the idea that astrology is a valid method of anything is, in a sense, a fight against casteism.

In the Indian socio-economic system, it’s easier to sink to the bottom than to rise to the top. In such a system, rationalism, some principles from the Bhagavad Gita and hope alone won’t cut it if you’re trying to swim upstream simply because of the number of institutional barriers in your way (especially if you’re also of a lower caste). Consider the list of things to which your access is highly limited: education, credit, housing, sanitation, employment, good health, etc. In this scenario, is it any surprise that no one is concerned about falsification as long as it promises a short way out to the upper strata of society?

Ultimately, and in the same vein, what will be more effective in eliminating belief in astrology is not eliminating astrology itself as much as eliminating one’s vulnerability to it. To constantly talk about eradicating beliefs in pseudoscientific ideas from society is to constantly ignore why these ideas take root, to constantly ignore why scientific ideas don’t inspire confidence – or to constantly assume that they do. On the last count, I’m sure many reasons will spring to mind, among them our education, bureaucracy, politics, culture, etc; pseudoscience only exists in their complex overlap.

This is all the more reason to stop fixating on Rameshaiah’s conducting the workshop and divert our attention to who has decided to attend and why. This is not an IISc course; it’s a workshop organised by the institution’s alumni association and as such is not targeted at scientists (in case the question arose as to why would a layperson approach a scientist for astrological advice). In fact, we’re only questioning the presence of an astrology workshop in the midst of a scientific research institution. We’re not questioning why astrology workshops happen in the first place; we must.

Because if you push Rameshaiah down, then someone else like him is going to pop up in a difference place. This is a time when so many of us seem smart enough to ask questions like “What will air filters do when you’re not addressing the source of pollution” or “Why are you blaming women for putting up lists willy-nilly accusing men of sexual harassment when you realise that due process is a myth in many parts of India and reserved for the privileged where it isn’t”. In much the same way, why isn’t it sensible to ask why people believe in astrology instead of going hammer and tongs with falsification?

Featured image credit: geralt/pixabay.

Impoverishing science by its association with divisive social issues

Instead of insuring them against the vagaries of the seasons, the latest offering from the Ministry of Agriculture is a suggestion that farmers think their seeds into producing more. Agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh said on September 15 that the government was going to put its weight behind ‘Yogic farming’. “The idea behind Yogic farming is to empower the seeds with the help of positive thinking. We should enhance the potency of seeds by rays of parmatma shakti,Indian Express quoted Singh as saying.

With that, the minister gives himself – as well as his cohort of administrators – a powerful excuse to hide behind when things go wrong: unfalsifiability (which defies testability). If Singh had said farmers ought to acquaint themselves with Yogic farming in order to make themselves feel better, it would’ve been different, and quite in line with the invasive ways in which the government wants to participate in personal self-help. However, in choosing to intervene with an instrument of human welfare, Singh and his ministry have crossed a line, and that in itself is an oddity.

Consider GMO regulation in the country and how it’s at odds with environmental regulations: there is not enough of the socio-political in the processes of the former and too much administrative interference in the latter, especially thanks torepeated subversions of technical expertise of late. Matters on which there is a semblance of scientific consensus are challenged with redundant consultative processes to deplete the science and replace it with public confusion. On the other hand, pseudoscience is used to distract from matters in which public participation is heaving but on which no administrative consensus exists. As a result science, and pseudoscience for its sake, is increasingly becoming associated with divisive social issues (either by its presence out of context or enforced absence).

And on a separate note, Singh’s uttering such a comment isn’t entirely surprising, either. Didn’t he say in July 2015 that 1,400 farmers had died not because of debt or crop failures but because of impotency and love failures?