The blog and the social media

Because The Wire had signed up to be some kind of A-listed publisher with Facebook, The Wire‘s staff was required to create Facebook Pages under each writer/editor’s name. So I created the ‘Vasudevan Mukunth’ page. Then, about 10 days ago, Facebook began to promote my page on the platform, running ads for it that would appear on people’s timelines across the network. The result is that my page now has almost as many likes as The Wire English’s Facebook Page: 320,000+. Apart from sharing my pieces from The Wire, I now use the page to share my blog posts as well. Woot!

Action on Twitter hasn’t far behind either. I’ve had a verified account on the microblogging platform for a few months now. And this morning, Twitter rolled out the expanded tweet character limit (from 140 to 280) to everyone. For someone to whom 140 characters was a liberating experience – a mechanical hurdle imposed on running your mouth and forcing you to think things through (though many choose not to) – the 280-char limit is even more so.

How exactly? An interesting implication discussed in this blog post by Twitter is that allowing people to think 280 characters at a time allowed them to be less anxious about how they were going to compose their tweets. The number of tweets hitting the character limit dropped from 9% during the 140-char era to 1% in the newly begun 280-char era. At the same time, people have continued to tweet within the 140-char most of the time. So fewer tweets were being extensively reworked or abandoned because people no longer composed them with the anxiety of staying within a smaller character limit.

But here’s the problem: most of my blog’s engagement had already been happening on the social media. As soon as I published a post, WordPress’s Jetpack plugin would send an email to 4brane’s 3,600+ subscribers with the full post, post the headline + link on Twitter and the headline + blurb + image + link on Facebook. Readers would reply to the tweet, threading their responses if they had to, and drop comments on Facebook. But on the other hand, the number of emails I’ve been receiving from my subscribers has been dropping drastically, as has the number of comments on posts.

I remember my blogging habit having taken a hit when I’d decided to become more active on Twitter because I no longer bore, fermented and composed my thoughts at length, with nuance. Instead, I dropped them as tweets as and when they arose, often with no filter, building it out through conversations with my followers. The 280-char limit now looks set to ‘scale up’ this disruption by allowing people to be more free and encouraging them to explore more complex ideas, aided by how (and how well, I begrudgingly admit) Twitter displays tweet-threads.

Perhaps – rather hopefully – the anxiety that gripped people when they were composing 140-char tweets will soon grip them as they’re composing 280-char tweets as well. I somehow doubt 420-char tweets will be a thing; that would make the platform non-Twitter-like. And hopefully the other advantages of having a blog, apart from the now-lost ‘let’s have a conversation’ part, such as organising information in different ways unlike Twitter’s sole time-based option, will continue to remain relevant.

Featured image credit: LoboStudioHamburg/pixabay.

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Some empathy for Treebeard’s privilege

There’s a line from The Two Towers (2002) that’s really stayed with me:

I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.

It’s spoken by Treebeard, the Ent, to one of Meriadoc/Peregrin when asked whose side he was on: Saruman’s or the Fellowship’s. At first glance, it seems a fair answer because nobody has been bothered about the plight of the Ents since Saruman set up shop at Isengard. On second thought, however, you wonder what good it did to anyone when they didn’t bother to make their voices heard. If you shied away from political participation when it mattered, is it any surprise that you were subsequently excluded from decisions that impact you? And then, on third, it becomes pertinent to ask why the onus is on a community that has been continuously disenfranchised to speak up and make itself count. And so forth.

There are many parallels here to conversations that are had in the news everyday. Neha Sinha’s latest piece for The Wire is founded on almost the same premise: In the film Newton, the forest of Dandakaranya, its being a proxy for ecological democracy practiced by the Gond tribe that inhabits it, and the security forces’ relationship with the flora stands in for Tolkien’s Ents. It is not on the Gond to stand up and be counted.

I digress. As the headline of this post suggests, I’m on Treebeard’s side to the extent that I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side. However, I’m not an Ent in Middle Earth; I’m a privileged upper-caste, upper-class English-speaking male – an acknowledgement that needs to be articulated because, even if I choose to be on nobody’s side and extricate myself from all proceedings, my privilege will get many things done for me. And the ‘proceedings’ I speak of is the news. I don’t have to keep myself abreast of all the political, financial, economic and judicial happenings in the country. As a journalist I might have to but as a citizen, I don’t. My skipping an important political development impacts – rather has impacted – my life as much as my bunking a class in engineering college has: not at all.

I don’t want to follow the news anymore. The bulk of it is faeces-flinging, from one side of the ideological aisle to the other. The bulk of it is mostly posturing unto the fulfilment of myopic goals, aimed at winning skirmishes but losing all sight of the war. And most of it is self-indulgent populism in that most news publishers print/publish what the people want to read; if this is not true, we’d be reading a lot more of non-mainstream writing (in English at least, the only language I read the news in). As I’ve said multiple times before, it’s important to sell. But on the flipside, I don’t see anyone even thinking about trying to sell something new. For example, as a recent dinner conversation with two friends concluded, where do you go to look for Indian literary journalism?

Of course, some news outlets – like The Wire (where I work) – are trying to move away from this featureset by ensuring that only the journalists at The Wire get to decide what to cover and what not to cover; the only other stakeholder in our enterprise is the reader, so axiomatically there are no business or political interests dictating our agenda. However, my specific ire is directed at a subset of what even The Wire has been trying to do, a subset that represents a perception of the news that no single news outlet can attempt to modify by itself. Specifically, I’m on no journalist’s side because no journalist is on my side – the side that believes that political journalism is not the raison d’être of the fourth estate.

This isn’t a call (muted though it is) to eradicate political journalism. I’m saying that political journalism is a necessary but not sufficient component of the practice of journalism. Granted, the national polity is the ultimate seat of all power in the country, the Well of Eternity from which all life on Azeroth flows. But to prioritise the coverage of it over many other topics is, to me, a quiet surrender. Journalists flock to it because it’s easy to score ‘hits’ with; you draw blood by covering politics, and ‘change the world’ therewith, because the blood flows thick and fast there. But when was the last time news organisations attempted to draw blood from suppressed veins? To put it in less sanguine terms: when was the last time news organisations tried to investigate parts of our reality where power festers but not ostentatiously?

To me, in many ways, this is the physical world and the natural laws that govern it, the world where groups of people called scientists undertake expeditions – intellectually and otherwise – to unravel the foundations of civilisation as well as destiny. Science journalism is only another vantage point, just the way politics and business are vantage points, from which to survey our lives. However, to ignore one in favour of the Others simply because the Others are easier to communicate, easier to resonate with, is a copout. In fact, I believe that the blood flows thick and fast in cis-/peri-science matters as well; many simple don’t know where to look nor are interested.

Some also argue that science by itself won’t suffice to effect change, that it has to be coupled with policy, i.e. with an outside-in gaze. However, this is mostly the view of science from politics’ point of view, whereby political considerations influence our engagement with science. What is lacking is the other way round: where, for example, there is a public debate about why people who clean the toilets in a household can’t also cook in the same household, where a confrontation is encouraged between the chemistry of disinfectants and the socio-cultural beliefs rooted in caste traditions – instead of sidelining scientific knowledge to the margins.

This clause I’ve marked in italics is an indictment of the media, not of anyone else, because the media space is where it is the most lacking. Where activists and their allies on the ground might be going from door to door explaining how disinfectants work to the uninitiated, where educationists and young schoolchildren will be teaching each other about the deleterious effects of burning sulphur-laden firecrackers during Deepavali, most journalists have briefly cited this or that bit of research and moved on to discuss the social, cultural, political, etc. implications. In other words, it’s not that scientific knowledge alone must dictate our public life; that would be disastrous. It’s that, at least in my opinion, science gets less space than it truly deserves in the way we compose, and consume, our news.

Instead, our ideas of ‘newness’ within the context of journalism, at least in India, have become boxed in. ‘New media’ has become limited to the use of unfamiliar mediums to communicate the same thing we were communicating before in new ways. From what I’ve seen, there is a vanishing amount of introspection in most newsrooms about why we cover news the way we do, how the invention of different communication technologies influenced that decision, and what parts of the hitherto sidelined topics do new technologies open up.

If we don’t ask this question more often of ourselves as journalists, I fear political news is going to remain the mainstay of mainstream journalism in India, a traffic-hogging bully that shoves other, possibly more meaningful points of view down.

Featured image: Treebeard in ‘The Two Towers’. Source: YouTube.

Talking scicomm at NCBS – II

I was invited to speak to the students of the annual science writing workshop conducted at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, for the second year (first year talk’s notes here).

Some interesting things we discussed:

1. Business of journalism: There were more questions from this year’s batch of aspiring science writers about the economics of online journalism, how news websites grow, how much writers can expect to get paid, etc. This is heartening: more journalists at all levels should be aware of, and if possible involved in, how their newsrooms make their money. Because if you retreat from this space, you cede space for a capitalist who doesn’t acknowledge the principles and purpose of journalism to take over. If money has to make its way into the hands of journalists – as it should, for all the work that they’re doing – only journalists can also ensure that it’s clean.

2. Conflicts of interest: The Wire has more to lose through conflicts of interests in a story simply because there are more people out there looking to bring it down. So the cost of slipping up is high. But let’s not disagree that being diligent on this front always makes for a better report.

3. Formulae: There is no formula for a good science story. A story itself is good when it is composed by good writing and when it is a good story in the same way we think of good stories in fiction. They need to entertain without betraying the spirit of their subject, and – unlike in fiction – they need to seek out the truth. That they also need to be in the public interest is something I’m not sure about, although only to the extent that it doesn’t compromise the rights of any other actor. This definition is indeed vague but only because the ‘public interest’ is a shape-shifting entity. For example, two scholars having an undignified fight over some issue in the public domain wouldn’t be in the public interest – and I would deem it unfit for publication for just that reason. At the same time, astronomers discovering a weird star billions of lightyears away may not be in the public interest either – but that wouldn’t be enough reason to disqualify the story. In fact, a deeper point: when the inculcation of scientific temper, adherence to the scientific method and financial support for the performance of science are all deemed to not be in the public interest, then covering these aspects of science by the same yardstick will only give rise to meaningless stories.

4. Representation of authority: If two scientists in the same institute are the only two people working on a new idea, and if one of them has published a paper, can you rely on the other’s opinions of it? I wouldn’t – they’re both paid by the same institution, and it is in both their interests to uphold the stature of the institution and all the work that it supports because, as a result, their individual statures are upheld. Thankfully, this situation hasn’t come to be – but something similar has. Most science journalists in the country frequently quote scientists from Bangalorean universities on topics like molecular biology and ecology because they’re the most talkative. However, the price they’re quietly paying for this is by establishing that the only scientists in the country worth talking about apropos these topics are based out of Bangalore. That is an injustice.

5. Content is still king: You can deck up a page with the best visuals, but if the content is crap, then nothing will save the package from flopping. You can also package great content in a lousy-looking page and it will still do well. This came up in the context of a discussion on emulating the likes of Nautilus and Quanta in India. The stories on their pages read so well because they are good stories, not because they’re accompanied by cool illustrations. This said, it’s also important to remember that illustrations cost quite a bit of money, so when the success of a package is mostly the in the hands of the content itself, paying attention to that alone during a cash-crunch may not be a bad idea.

GM crops, etc.

There’s been a flurry of stories in my inbox since India’s GEAC cleared a variety of GM mustard, developed by Monsanto, for commercial utilisation in India. It’s an important step, bringing a potentially valuable – as well as potentially damaging – crop closer to being introduced in the market. However, thanks to disasters associated with previous GM foodcrop introductions like Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, the introduction of GM mustard isn’t going to go down smoothly. Then again, if a writer doesn’t want GM mustard to be introduced, then the burden of proof is on her to convince me, or any reader for that matter, either that GM mustard is bound to fail as a crop or that it is being introduced in a manner that’s become typical of the Indian government: through half-measures and seldom in a way that suggests the state is ready to face all possible consequences, especially the adverse ones.

On the other hand, how does it make sense to grate against Bt cotton and Bt brinjal in order to discourage the introduction of GM mustard? Doing so suggests an immensely pessimistic determinism, an assumption that we will never produce the perfect genetically modified crop. Notwithstanding Monsanto’s transgressions in the past, I do think that GM is the future – it has to be to keep feeding a planet of more than 7,000,000,000. And apart from optimising food storage and transportation, the demand for food is bound to grow with more people coming out of poverty. To insist at this point to switch to organic farming, which involves methods that may be locally sustainable but doesn’t have the mass-production capacity of conventional agriculture that this world has become addicted to, en masse and abandon GM options is nothing but foolish.

Yes, we make mistakes, and yes, we’re faced with some very difficult choices, but let’s start making decisions that go beyond the local ecology and local impact – not by abdicating local economies and people but by doing all of this in a way that no one loses out. Again, not going to be easy. I’m not sure anything in this sphere can be. Finally, yes, I’m aware that I’m speaking from a position of privilege; I stand by my comments. Oh, one more thing: The Wire‘s science section has also imposed a moratorium on non-reported GM pieces. I’m really keen on taking the conversation forward, not drowning a platform with The Wire‘s import in volleys exchanged between pro- and anti-GM camps.

Featured image credit: PublicDomainPictures/pixabay.

If Nautilus is so good, why is it doing so bad?

From UndarkAward-winning Nautilus enters rough waters

For all the good news and accolades, however, murmurings within the science writing community suggest that not all is well at Nautilus. Rumors of delayed or entirely absent payments to the magazine’s fleet of freelance contributors have reached a crescendo, as have complaints that editorial staff continue to solicit work knowing that the publication may not be able to make good on promised fees. One Nautilus freelancer, who asked to remain anonymous because thousands of dollars in fees are still pending, received a note a few months ago directly from the magazine’s publisher and editorial director, John Steele, offering assurances that the funds — which were for a feature that the magazine published last year — would be on their way by the end of January. That deadline came and went without payment, the freelancer said, and follow-up emails to Nautilus have not changed things.

How translatable are Nautilus‘s troubles to the theatre of Indian journalism? By itself, Nautilus is one of the best science magazines out there. While many have gushed about its awesome content, I like their pieces best when they stick to the science. When they wander into culture and philosophy, I find they lack the kind of depth common to writing published by 3 Quarks Daily, The Baffler and Jacobin. Its illustrations however are undeniably wonderful. Multiple reports have suggested that Nautilus’s online traffic is booming and that its print editions have been well-received. So what happened?

In some ways, Nautilus‘s origins are reminiscent of The Wire‘s. The former’s launch was enabled by a $5 million grant (over three years) from the Templeton foundation. The latter launched on its own steam –  with $10,000 (Rs 6 lakh) and bucketloads of goodwill – but a $600,000 grant (i.e. Rs 3.95 crore, over one year) from the Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF) in its second year has allowed it to scale up considerably.

While grants to media start-ups are definitely awesome, they are likely to be accompanied by expectations of growth that the grant alone won’t be able to ensure. In such cases, a majority of the grant can’t be used to fuel growth as much as to keep the company alive long enough for it to conceive and implement an alternate business model that will then fuel growth. If the Templeton foundation set such targets for Nautilus, then I suspect the magazine screwed up here somewhere.

Second: by Undark‘s own estimates, Nautilus has burned through over $10 million in three years. That’s a lot of money and it makes me wonder if it took on too much too soon. Again, I don’t know how far off the mark I am here because I don’t know what the agreement between Nautilus and Templeton was. But if it had anything to do with Nautilus being unable to sustain growth, I wouldn’t be surprised. While the magazine comes across as a great idea, some things are possible only beyond a certain scale. For example, it’s possible that Nautilus would be better off if it had 140,000 people paying it $15 a month to read the print editions; that’s $2.1 million a year. And the profits can be maximised – and reinvested to solicit more, better writing – if, for the first one or two years, they cut back on the illustrations. It’s always more important to pay for what you’ve used*. It helps build long-lasting relationships.

The cutting-down-on-illustrations bit wouldn’t be so bad because, as we’ve learnt from The Wire, if the writing is good and the reporting and analysis substantial, a publication will do well even without bells and whistles. But if the writing lacks depth, then no amount of tinkering with anything else on the site will help. I agree that Nautilus was going for something more than what most science writing outlets had to offer, but my sense is that the magazine wanted to offer more from day one when it might not have been possible.

Additionally, staying above water for long enough to have a sustainable, over-the-horizon business model of your liking has another important implication: independence.

I’m not privy to the grant agreement between Templeton and Nautilus. The one between The Wire and IPSMF does not contain any requirement, specification or clause that prevents The Wire from publishing anything that it deems appropriate. On the other hand, notwithstanding the terms of Nautilus‘s relationship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is apparently in talks to ‘absorb’ the magazine, the magazine has not found a way to become completely independent yet. To be sure, it’s not that Nautilus and AAAS won’t get along, or that Nautilus‘s content will become untrustworthy, but that nothing beats a journalistic publication being fully independent. To perfectly comprehend the benefits of this model, I recommend reading the story of De Correspondent.

This is also The Wire‘s aspiration: not paywalls as much as a reader-contributes model in which we produce what our readers allow us to and trust us to.

What De Correspondent‘s trajectory highlights is the development of a way to more efficiently translate emotional appreciation to material appreciation. Evidently, De Correspondent‘s model requires its readers to have a measure of trust in its production sense, ethics and values. If its readers paid $X, then $X worth of content will be produced (assuming overheads don’t increase as a consequence); if its readers paid $2X, then it will scale up accordingly. And it is this trust that Nautilus could have built if it had gone slower in the first few years and then bloomed. But with AAAS, or anyone else, acquiring Nautilus, and there being no word of the magazine planning to do things differently, it’s either going to be more of the same or it expects to secure a large funding boost.

And it is for all these reasons that I can connect with Paul Raeburn’s comment on the Undark article:

Nautilus has burned through … some $10 million in foundation grants in five years. But that’s just the foundation funding. Nautilus is also, in effect, being subsidized by writers and illustrators who work for it without pay. We can only guess, but it seems likely that the pay that never went to contributors amounts to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies for Nautilus. It’s time we recognized that many online publications – Undark not among them – are being subsidized by writers. And we should stop subsidizing them.

(Paul Raeburn and Charlie Petit founded the erstwhile Knight Science Journalism Tracker, now subsumed by Undark. Also, and of no relevance whatsoever, Petit once quoted my blog on the pages of KSJT.)

Such persistent subsidies will only postpone the finding of a good solution or the meeting of a tragic end, neither of which is good for anyone publishing stories worth reading. At the same time, writers should be understanding of the fact that independent media initiatives are in their infancy – on top of operating in a region with its own economic and professional troubles (I can’t emphasise this enough). This doesn’t mean they should be okay with not being paid; on the contrary. They should expect to be paid for all services provided but they should expect reasonable amounts. One freelancer I’d once sounded out for a story asked for $1 a word. This might be okay in the US and in the UK/Europe, but Rs 64 a word in India has no bearing to ground realities. Of course, I do laud the freelancer for having been able to secure such rates in the past (in other countries) as well as for valuing his own work so highly.

The Wire publishes about 300 original articles a month (excluding in-house content). The average length of each article is around 1,500 words. Some of our contributors write for us pro bono because they recognise the value of what we are trying to do and our constraints – and because the response they receive is gratifying. But assuming we had to pay for everything we ran, this means commissioning costs Rs 22.5 lakh a month if we pay Rs 5 a word and Rs 90 lakh a month if we pay Rs 20 a word. Excluding these numbers, The Wire needs X readers to pay Rs Y each a year to cover its running costs (with X estimated as conservatively and Y as liberally as possible). Including these numbers, The Wire will need 1.45X to 42X readers (for Rs 5 to Rs 20 a word) to pay Rs Y each a year. Now, IPSMF + donations from readers has allowed us to expand our audience to up to about 8.5X. But do you see how far afield we will have to go to be able to pay Rs 20 a word and break even (let alone turn a profit)?

In fact, not just us: this applies to all news publishers in India considering a reader-pays model, whether the start-up funds come from philanthropy or angel investors. This is the essential conflict that manifests itself in different garbs, forcing publishers to display crappy advertisements and/or publish ‘trending’ dumpsterfire. As the search for the holy grail of sustainable, high-quality journalism continues, the bottom line seems to be: Pay better, get better in return.

*Except when writers insist on waiving the fees because they can afford to.

The metaphorical transparency of responsible media

Featured image credit: dryfish/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I’d written a two-part essay (although they were both quite short; reproduced in full below) on The Wire about what science was like in 2016 and what we can look forward to in 2017. The first part was about how science journalism in India is a battle for relevance, both within journalistic circles and among audiences. The second was about how science journalism needs to be treated like other forms of journalism in 2017, and understood to be afflicted with the same ills that, say, political and business journalism are.

Other pieces on The Wire that had the same mandate, of looking back and looking forward, stuck to being roundups and retrospective analyses. My pieces were retrospective, too, but they – to use the parlance of calculus – addressed the second derivative of science journalism, in effect performing a meta-analysis of the producers and consumers of science writing. This blog post is a quick discussion (or rant) of why I chose to go the “science media” way.

We in India often complain about how the media doesn’t care enough to cover science stories. But when we’re looking back and forward in time, we become blind to the media’s efforts. And looking back is more apparently problematic than is looking forward.

Looking back is problematic because our roundup of the ‘best’ science (the ‘best’ being whatever adjective you want it to be) from the previous year is actually a roundup of the ‘best’ science we were able to discover or access from the previous year. Many of us may have walled ourselves off into digital echo-chambers, sitting within not-so-fragile filter bubbles and ensuring news we don’t want to read about doesn’t reach us at all. Even so, the stories that do reach us don’t make up the sum of all that is available to consume because of two reasons:

  1. We practically can’t consume everything, period.
  2. Unless you’re a journalist or someone who is at the zeroth step of the information dissemination pyramid, your submission to a source of information is simply your submission to another set of filters apart from your own. Without these filters, finding something you are looking for on the web would be a huge problem.

So becoming blind to media efforts at the time of the roundup is to let journalists (who sit higher up on the dissemination pyramid) who should’ve paid more attention to scientific developments off the hook. For example, assuming things were gloomy in 2016 is assuming one thing given another thing (like a partial differential): “while the mood of science news could’ve been anything between good and bad, it was bad” GIVEN “journalists mostly focused on the bad news over the good news”. This is only a simplistic example: more often than not, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can be replaced by ‘significant’ and ‘insignificant’. Significance is also a function of media attention. At the time of probing our sentiments on a specific topic, we should probe the information we have as well as how we acquired that information.

Looking forward without paying attention to how the media will likely deal with science is less apparently problematic because of the establishment of the ideal. For example, to look forward is also to hope: I can say an event X will be significant irrespective of whether the media chooses to cover it (i.e., “it should ideally be covered”); when the media doesn’t cover the event, then I can recall X as well as pull up journalists who turned a blind eye. In this sense, ignoring the media is to not hold its hand at the beginning of the period being monitored – and it’s okay. But this is also what I find problematic. Why not help journalists look out for an event when you know it’s going to happen instead of relying on their ‘news sense’, as well as expecting them to have the time and attention to spend at just the right time?

Effectively: pull us up in hindsight – but only if you helped us out in foresight. (The ‘us’ in this case is, of course, #notalljournalists. Be careful with whom you choose to help or you could be wasting your time.)


Part I: Why Independent Media is Essential to Good Science Journalism

What was 2016 like in science? Furious googling will give you the details you need to come to the clinical conclusion that it wasn’t so bad. After all, LIGO found gravitational waves; an Ebola vaccine was readied; ISRO began tests of its reusable launch vehicle; the LHC amassed particle collisions data; the Philae comet-hopping mission ended; New Horizons zipped past Pluto; Juno is zipping around Jupiter; scientists did amazing (but sometimes ethically questionable) things with CRISPR; etc. But if you’ve been reading science articles throughout the year, then please take a step back from everything and think about what your overall mood is like.

Because, just as easily as 2016 was about mega-science projects doing amazing things, it was also about climate-change action taking a step forward but not enough; about scientific communities becoming fragmented; about mainstream scientific wisdom becoming entirely sidelined in some parts of the world; about crucial environmental protections being eroded; about – undeniably – questionable practices receiving protection under the emotional cover of nationalism. As a result, and as always, it is difficult to capture what this year was to science in a single mood, unless that mood in turn captures anger, dismay, elation and bewilderment at various times.

So, to simplify our exercise, let’s do that furious googling – and then perform a meta-analysis to reflect on where each of us sees fit to stand with respect to what the Indian scientific enterprise has been up to this year. (Note: I’m hoping this exercise can also be a referendum on the type of science news The Wire chose to cover this year, and how that can be improved in 2017.) The three broad categories (and sub-categories) of stories that The Wire covered this year are:

GOOD BAD UGLY
Different kinds of ISRO rockets – sometimes with student-built sats onboard – took off Big cats in general, and leopards specifically, had a bad year Indian scientists continued to plagiarise and engage in other forms of research misconduct without consequence
ISRO decided to partially privatise PSLV missions by 2020 The JE/AES scourge struck again, their effects exacerbated by malnutrition The INO got effectively shut down
LIGO-India collaboration received govt. clearance; Indian scientists of the LIGO collaboration received a vote of confidence from the international community PM endorsed BGR-34, an anti-diabetic drug of dubious credentials Antibiotic resistance worsened in India (and other middle-income nations)
We supported ‘The Life of Science’ Govt. conceived misguided culling rules India succumbed to US pressure on curtailing generic drugs
Many new species of birds/animals discovered in India Ken-Betwa river linkup approved at the expense of a tiger sanctuary Important urban and rural waterways were disrupted, often to the detriment of millions
New telescopes were set up, further boosting Indian astronomy; ASTROSAT opened up for international scientists Many conservation efforts were hampered – while some were mooted that sounded like ministers hadn’t thought them through Ministers made dozens of pseudoscientific claims, often derailing important research
Otters returned to their habitats in Kerala and Goa A politician beat a horse to its death Fake-science-news was widely reported in the Indian media
Janaki Lenin continued her ‘Amazing Animals’ series Environmental regulations turned and/or stayed anti-environment Socio-environmental changes resulting from climate change affect many livelihoods around the country
We produced monthly columns on modern microbiology and the history of science We didn’t properly respond to human-wildlife conflicts Low investments in public healthcare, and focus on privatisation, short-changed Indian patients
Indian physicists discovered a new form of superconductivity in bismuth GM tech continues to polarise scientists, social scientists and activists Space, defence-research and nuclear power establishments continued to remain opaque
/ Conversations stuttered on eastern traditions of science /

I leave it to you to weigh each of these types of stories as you see fit. For me – as a journalist – science in the year 2016 was defined by two parallel narratives: first, science coverage in the mainstream media did not improve; second, the mainstream media in many instances remained obediently uncritical of the government’s many dubious claims. As a result, it was heartening on the first count to see ‘alternative’ publications like The Life of Science and The Intersection being set up or sustained (as the case may be).

On the latter count: the media’s submission paralleled, rather directly followed, its capitulation to pro-government interests (although some publications still held out). This is problematic for various reasons, but one that is often overlooked is that the “counterproductive continuity” that right-wing groups stress upon – between traditional wisdom and knowledge derived through modern modes of investigation – receives nothing short of a passive endorsement by uncritical media broadcasts.

From within The Wire, doing a good job of covering science has become a battle for relevance as a result. And this is a many-faceted problem: it’s as big a deal for a science journalist to come upon and then report a significant story as finding the story itself in the first place – and it’s as difficult to get every scientist you meet to trust you as it is to convince every reader who visits The Wire to read an article or two in the science section per visit. Fortunately (though let it not be said that this is simply a case of material fortunes), the ‘Science’ section on The Wire has enjoyed both emotional and financial support. To show for it, we have had the privilege of overseeing the publication of 830 articles, and counting, in 2016 (across science, health, environment, energy, space and tech). And I hope those who have written for this section will continue to write for it, even as those who have been reading this section will continue to read it.

Because it is a battle for relevance – a fight to be noticed and to be read, even when stories have nothing to do with national interests or immediate economic gains – the ideal of ‘speaking truth to power’ that other like-minded sections of the media cherish is preceded for science journalism in India by the ideals of ‘speaking’ first and then ‘speaking truth’ second. This is why an empowered media is as essential to the revival of that constitutionally enshrined scientific temperament as are productive scientists and scientific institutions.

The Wire‘s journalists have spent thousands of hours this year striving to be factually correct. The science writers and editors have also been especially conscientious of receiving feedback at all stages, engaging in conversations with our readers and taking prompt corrective action when necessary – even if that means a retraction. This will continue to be the case in 2017 as well in recognition of the fact that the elevation of Indian science on the global stage, long hailed to be overdue, will directly follow from empowering our readers to ask the right questions and be reasonably critical of all claims at all times, no matter who the maker.

Part II: If You’re Asking ‘What To Expect in Science in 2017’, You Have Missed the Point

While a science reporter at The Hindu, this author conducted an informal poll asking the newspaper’s readers to speak up about what their impressions were of science writing in India. The answers, received via email, Twitter and comments on the site, generally swung between saying there was no point and saying there was a need to fight an uphill battle to ‘bring science to everyone’. After the poll, however, it still wasn’t clear who this ‘everyone’ was, notwithstanding a consensus that it meant everyone who chanced upon a write-up. It still isn’t clear.

Moreover, much has been written about the importance of science, the value of engaging with it in any form without expectation of immediate value and even the usefulness of looking at it ‘from the outside in’ when the opportunity arises. With these theses in mind (which I don’t want to rehash; they’re available in countless articles on The Wire), the question of “What to expect in science in 2017?” immediately evolves into a two-part discussion. Why? Because not all science that happens is covered; not all science that is covered is consumed; and not all science that is consumed is remembered.

The two parts are delineated below.

What science will be covered in 2017?

Answering this question is an exercise in reinterpreting the meaning of ‘newsworthiness’ subject to the forces that will assail journalism in 2017. An immensely simplified way is to address the following factors: the audience, the business, the visible and the hidden.

The first two are closely linked. As print publications are shrinking and digital publications growing, a consideration of distribution channels online can’t ignore the social media – specifically, Twitter and Facebook – as well as Google News. This means that an increasing number of younger readers are available to target, which in turn means covering science in a way that interests this demographic. Qualities like coolness and virality will make an item immediately sellable to marketers whereas news items rich with nuance and depth will take more work.

Another way to address the question is in terms of what kind of science will be apparently visible, and available for journalists to easily chance upon, follow up and write about. The subjects of such writing typically are studies conducted and publicised by large labs or universities, involving scientists working in the global north, and often on topics that lend themselves immediately to bragging rights, short-lived discussions, etc. In being aware of ‘the visible’, we must be sure to remember ‘the invisible’. This can be defined as broadly as in terms of the scientists (say, from Latin America, the Middle East or Southeast Asia) or the studies (e.g., by asking how the results were arrived at, who funded the studies and so forth).

On the other hand, ‘the hidden’ is what will – or ought to – occupy those journalists interested in digging up what Big X (Pharma, Media, Science, etc.) doesn’t want publicised. What exactly is hidden changes continuously but is often centred on the abuse of privilege, the disregard of those we are responsible for and, of course, the money trail. The issues that will ultimately come to define 2017 will all have had dark undersides defined by these aspects and which we must strive to uncover.

For example: with the election of Donald Trump, and his bad-for-science clique of bureaucrats, there is a confused but dawning recognition among liberals of the demands of the American midwest. So to continue to write about climate change targeting an audience composed of left-wingers or east coast or west coast residents won’t work in 2017. We must figure out how to reach across the aisle and disabuse climate deniers of their beliefs using language they understand and using persuasions that motivate them to speak to their leaders about shaping climate policy.

What will be considered good science journalism in 2017?

Scientists are not magical creatures from another world – they’re humans, too. So is their collective enterprise riddled with human decisions and human mistakes. Similarly, despite all the travails unique to itself, science journalism is fundamentally similar to other topical forms of journalism. As a result, the broader social, political and media trends sweeping around the globe will inform novel – or at least evolving – interpretations of what will be good or bad in 2017. But instead of speculating, let’s discuss the new processes through which good and bad can be arrived at.

In this context, it might be useful to draw from a blog post by Jay Rosen, a noted media critic and professor of journalism at New York University. Though the post focuses on what political journalists could do to adapt to the Age of Trump, its implied lessons are applicable in many contexts. More specifically, the core effort is about avoiding those primary sources of information (out of which a story sprouts) the persistence with which has landed us in this mess. A wildly remixed excerpt:

Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim. Seek and accept offers to speak on the radio in areas of Trump’s greatest support. Make common cause with scholars who have been there. Especially experts in authoritarianism and countries when democratic conditions have been undermined, so you know what to watch for— and report on. (Creeping authoritarianism is a beat: who do you have on it?). Keep an eye on the internationalization of these trends, and find spots to collaborate with journalists across borders. Find coverage patterns that cross [the aisle].

And then this:

[Washington Post reporter David] Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. … He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe.

Transparency is going to matter more than ever in 2017 because of how the people’s trust in the media was eroded in 2016. And there’s no reason science journalism should be an exception to these trends – especially given how science and ideology quickly locked horns in India following the disastrous Science Congress in 2015. More than any other event since the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party to the centre, and much like Trump’s victory caught everyone by surprise, the 2015 congress really spotlighted the extent of rational blight that had seeped into the minds of some of India’s most powerful ideologues. In the two years since, the reluctance of scientists to step forward and call bullshit out has also started to become more apparent, as a result exposing the different kinds of undercurrents that drastic shifts in policies have led to.

So whatever shape good science journalism is going to assume in 2017, it will surely benefit by being more honest and approachable in its construction. As will the science journalist who is willing to engage with her audience about the provenance of information and opinions capable of changing minds. As Jeff Leek, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, quoted (statistician Philip Stark) on his blog: “If I say just trust me and I’m wrong, I’m untrustworthy. If I say here’s my work and it’s wrong, I’m honest, human, and serving scientific progress.”

Here’s to a great 2017! 🙌🏾

The nomenclature of uncertainty

The headline of a Nature article published on December 9 reads ‘LIGO black hole echoes hint at general relativity breakdown’. The article is about the prediction of three scientists that, should LIGO find ‘echoes’ of gravitational waves coming from blackhole-mergers, then it could be a sign of quantum-gravity forces at play.

It’s an exciting development because it presents a simple and currently accessible way of probing the universe for signs of phenomena that show a way to unite quantum physics and general relativity – phenomena that have been traditionally understood to be outside the reach of human experiments until LIGO.

The details of the pre-print paper the three scientists uploaded on arXiv were covered by a number of outlets, including The Wire. And The Wire‘s and Forbes‘s headlines were both questions: ‘Has LIGO already discovered evidence for quantum gravity?’ and ‘Has LIGO actually proved Einstein wrong – and found signs of quantum gravity?’, respectively. Other headlines include:

  • Gravitational wave echoes might have just caused Einstein’s general theory of relativity to break down – IB Times
  • A new discovery is challenging Einstein’s theory of relativity – Futurism
  • Echoes in gravitational waves hint at a breakdown of Einstein’s general relativity – Science Alert
  • Einstein’s theory of relativity is 100 years old, but may not last – Inverse

The headlines are relevant because: Though the body of a piece has the space to craft what nuance it needs to present the peg, the headline must cut to it as quickly and crisply as possible – while also catching the eye of a potential reader on the social media, an arena where all readers are being inundated with headlines vying for attention.

For example, with the quantum gravity pre-print paper, the headline has two specific responsibilities:

  1. To be cognisant of the fact that scientists have found gravitational-wave echoes in LIGO data at the 2.9-sigma level of statistical significance. Note that 2.9 sigma is evidently short of the threshold at which some data counts as scientific evidence (and well short of that at which it counts as scientific fact – at least in high-energy physics). Nonetheless, it still presents a 1-in-270 chance of, as I’ve become fond of saying, an exciting thesis.
  2. To make reading the article (which follows from the headline) seem like it might be time well spent. This isn’t exactly the same as catching a reader’s attention; instead, it comprises catching one’s attention and subsequently holding and justifying it continuously. In other words, the headline shouldn’t mislead, misguide or misinform, as well as remain constantly faithful to the excitement it harbours.

Now, the thing about covering scientific developments from around the world and then comparing one’s coverage to those from Europe or the USA is that, for publications in those countries, what an Indian writer might see as an international development is in fact a domestic development. So Nature, Scientific American, Forbes, Futurism, etc. are effectively touting local accomplishments that are immediately relevant to their readers. The Wire, on the other hand, has to bank on the ‘universal’ aspect and by extension on themes of global awareness, history and the potential internationality of Big Science.

This is why a reference to Einstein in the headline helps: everyone knows him. More importantly, everyone was recently made aware of how right his theories have been since they were formulated a century ago. So the idea of proving Einstein wrong – as The Wire‘s headline read – is eye-catching. Second, phrasing the headline as a question is a matter of convenience: because the quasi-discovery has a statistical significance of only 2.9 sigma, a question signals doubt.

But if you argued that a question is also a cop-out, I’d agree. A question in a headline can be interpreted in two ways: either as a question that has not been answered yet but ought to be or as a question that is answered in the body. More often than not and especially in the click-bait era, question-headlines are understood to be of the latter kind. This is why I changed The Wire copy’s headline from ‘What if LIGO actually proved Einstein wrong…’ to ‘Has LIGO actually proved Einstein wrong…’.

More importantly, the question is an escapism at least to me because it doesn’t accurately reflect the development itself. If one accounts for the fact that the pre-print paper explicitly states that gravitational-wave echoes have been found in LIGO data only at 2.9 sigma, there is no question: LIGO has not proved Einstein wrong, and this is established at the outset.

Rather, the peg in this case is – for example – that physicists have proposed a way to look for evidence of quantum gravity using an experiment that is already running. This then could make for an article about the different kinds of physics that rule at different energy levels in the universe, and what levels of access humanity has to each.

So this story, and many others like it in the past year that all dealt with observations falling short of the evidence threshold but which have been worth writing about simply because of the desperation behind them, have – or could have – prompted science writers to think about the language they use. For example, the operative words/clause in the respective headlines listed above are:

  • Nature – hint
  • IB Times – might have just caused
  • Futurism – challenging
  • Science Alert – hint
  • Inverse – may not

Granted that an informed skepticism is healthy for science and that all science writers must remain as familiar with this notion as with the language of doubt, uncertainty, probability (and wave physics, it seems). But it still is likely the case that writers grappling with high-energy physics have to be more familiar than others, dealing as the latest research does with – yes – hope and desperation.

Ultimately, I may not be the perfect judge of what words work best when it comes to the fidelity of syntax to sentiment; that’s why I used a question for a headline in the first place! But I’m very interested in knowing how writers choose and have been choosing their words, if there’s any friction at all (in the larger scheme) between the choice of words and the prevailing sentiments, and the best ways to deal with such situations.

PS: If you’re interested, here’s a piece in which I struggled for a bit to get the words right (and finally had to resort to using single-quotes).

Featured image credit: bongonian/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

TIFR’s superconductor discovery: Where are the reports?

Featured image: The Meissner effect: a magnet levitating above a superconductor. Credit: Mai-Linh Doan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

On December 2, physicists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) announced an exciting discovery: that the metal bismuth becomes a superconductor at a higher temperature than predicted by a popular theory. Granted the theory has had its fair share of exceptions, the research community is excited about this finding because of the unique opportunities it presents in terms of learning more, doing more. But yeah, even without the nuance, the following is true: that TIFR physicists have discovered a new form of superconductivity, in the metal bismuth. I say this as such because not one news outlet in India, apart from The Wire, reported the discovery, and it’s difficult to say it’s because the topic was too hard to understand.

This was, and is, just odd. The mainstream as well as non-mainstream media in the country are usually quick to pick up on the slightest shred of legitimate scientific work and report it widely. Heck, many news organisations are also eager to report on illegitimate research – such as those on finding gold in cow urine. After the embargo on the journal paper lifted at 0030 hrs, I (the author of the article on The Wire) remained awake to check if the story had turned out okay – specifically, to check if anyone had any immediate complaints about its contents (there were two tweets about the headline and they were quickly dealt with). But then I ended up staying awake until 4 am because, as much as I looked on Google News and on other news websites, I couldn’t find anyone else who had written about it.

Journal embargoes aren’t new, nor is it the case that journalists in India haven’t signed up to receive embargoed material. For example, the multiple water-on-Mars announcements and the two monumental gravitational-waves discoveries were all announced via papers in the journal Science, and were covered by The Hindu, The Telegraph, Times of India, Indian Express, etc. And Science also published the TIFR paper. Moreover, the TIFR paper wasn’t suppressed or buried in the embargoed press releases that the press team at Science sends out to journalists a few days before the embargo lifts. Third, the significance of the finding was evident from the start; these were the first two lines of the embargoed press release:

Scientists from India report that pure Bismuth – a semimetal with a very low number of electrons per given volume, or carrier concentration – is superconducting at ultralow temperatures. The observation makes Bismuth one of the two lowest carrier density superconductors to date.

All a journalist had to do was get in touch with Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the lead author of the paper as well as the corresponding author, to get a better idea of the discovery’s significance. From my article on The Wire:

“People have been searching for superconductivity in bismuth for 50 years,” Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the leader of the TIFR group, told The Wire. “The last work done in bismuth found that it is not superconducting down to 0.01 kelvin. This was done 20 years ago and people gave up.”

So, I’m very curious to know what happened. And since no outlets apart from The Wire have picked the story up, we circle back to the question of media coverage for science news in India. As my editor pointed out, the major publications are mostly interested in stuff like an ISRO launch, a nuclear reactor going critical or an encephalitis outbreak going berserker when it comes to covering science, and even then the science of the story itself is muted while the overlying policy issues are played up. This is not to say the policies are receiving undeserving coverage – they’re important, too – but only that the underlying science, which informs policy in crucial ways, isn’t coming through.

And over time this disregard blinds us to an entire layer of enterprise that involves hundreds of thousands of our most educated people and close to Rs 2 lakh crore of our national expenditure (total R&D, 2013).

‘Infinite in All Directions’, a science newsletter

At 10 am (IST) every Monday, I will be sending out a list of links to science stories from around the web, curated by significance and accompanied by a useful blurb, as a newsletter. If you’re interested, please sign up here. If you’d like to know more before signing up, read on.

It’s called Infinite in All Directions – a term coined by Freeman Dyson for nothing really except the notion behind this statement from his book of the same name: “No matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness and memory.”

I will be collecting the links and sending the newsletter out on behalf of The Wire, whose science section I edit. And so, you can trust the links to not be to esoteric pieces (which I’m fond of) but to pieces I’d have liked to have covered at The Wire but couldn’t.

More than that, the idea for the newsletter is essentially a derivative of a reading challenge a friend proposed a while ago: wherein a group of us would recommend books for each other to read, especially titles that we might not come upon by ourselves.

Some of you might remember that a (rather, the same) friend and I used to send out the Curious Bends newsletter until sometime last year. The Infinite in All Directions newsletter will be similarly structured but won’t necessarily be India-centric. In fact, a (smaller than half) section of the newsletter may even be consistently skewed toward the history and philosophy of science. But you can trust that the issues will all be contemporary.

Apart from my ‘touch’ coming through with the selection, I will also occasionally include my take on some topics (typically astro/physics). You’re welcome to disagree (just be nice) – all replies to the newsletter will land up in my inbox. You’re also more than welcome to send me links to include in future issues.

Finally: Each newsletter will not have a fixed number of links – I don’t want to link you to pieces I myself haven’t been able to appreciate. At the same time, there will be at least five or so links. I think The Wire alone puts out that many good stories each week.

I hope you enjoy reading the newsletter. As with this blog, Infinite in All Directions will be a labour of love. Please share it with your friends and anybody who might be interested in such a service. Again, here is the link to subscribe.

Calling 2015

It might still be too soon to call it but 2015 was a great year, far better than the fiasco 2014 was. Ups and downs and all that, but what ups they were have been. I thought I’d list them out just to be able to put a finger on all that I’ve dealt with and been dealt with.

Ups

  1. Launched The Wire (only Siddharth and Vignesh know my struggle at 5 am on May 11 to get the domain mapped properly)
  2. Wrote a lot of articles, and probably the most in a year about the kind of stuff that really interests me (history of science, cosmology, cybersec)
  3. Got my reading habit back (somewhat)
  4. Found two awesome counselors and a psychologist, absolutely wonderful people
  5. … who helped me get a great handle on my depression and almost completely get rid of it
  6. Managed to hold on to a job for more than four months for the first time since early 2014 (one of the two companies that hired me in between is now shut, so not my fault?)
  7. Didn’t lose any of my friends – in fact, made six really good new ones!
  8. Didn’t have to put up with a fourth The Hobbit movie (I’m sure Tauriel’s lines would’ve had Tolkien doing spinarooneys in his grave)

and others.

Downs

  1. Acquired an addiction
  2. Didn’t have a Tolkien story releasing on the big screen 10 days before my birthday)
  3. Grandpa passed away (though I don’t wish he’d stayed on for longer either – he was in a lot of pain before he died) as did an uncle
  4. Chennai floods totalled my Macbook Pro (and partially damaged my passport)
  5. Stopped sending out the Curious Bends newsletter
  6. My vomit-free streak ended after eight years
  7. Still feel an impostor
  8. Didn’t discover any major fantasy series to read (which sucks because Steven Erikson publishes one book only every two years)

and others.

Lots to look forward to in 2016; five things come immediately to mind:

  • Move to Delhi
  • Continue contributing to The Wire
  • Visit a world-renowned particle accelerator lab
  • Await, purchase and devour Erikson’s new book (Fall of Light, book #2 of the Kharkhanas Trilogy)
  • Await new Planck and LHC data (kind of a big deal when you’re able to move away from notions of nerdiness or academic specialisation and toward the idea that the data will provide you – a human – a better idea of the cosmos that surrounds you, that is you)