I need to write what I’m going to to remind myself, and perhaps others, of a few things. In the last few weeks, it became important for me – as a member of the community of liberals in India – to give a fuck about the many lynchings throughout the country, typically perpetrated by Hindu mobs against Muslims and Dalits for producing, carrying, transporting or consuming beef. While neither being a Muslim/Dalit nor eating beef is illegal in India, as Mitali Saran so astutely pointed out on July 2, falling in either category has increasingly meant that its members should abide by the mob’s justice. To protest these lynchings, thousands of citizens in 10 cities across India participated in protests organised on June 28 and July 1. On June 29, after the first round of protests, the country’s prime minister for the first time denounced the lynch mobs. It felt like something had happened – although not as much as anyone would’ve liked.
In this environment, it was so easy to find relevance, to easily strike up conversations with people and opine on Twitter and my blog, and have it read and talked about. Now that things have subsided just a little, it feels to me as if I’m emerging from within a mist into an area of rarified air, where I can feel the struggle for relevance returning to me. I’m the science editor of The Wire, which – I’m no longer unsure of uttering – has a formidable science section (if you’re willing to ignore the ebb-and-flow nature of its publishing cycle). As much as I’m proud to be able to say this, I wish I could bring you inside my head and show you how difficult it is to maintain it. Here’s a preview.
(It’s a ramble. You’ve been warned. You don’t get to complain at the end that I’ve rambled.)
One of the biggest demands running a science section will make on you is to be excited from within, without external motivations, to be continuously awed by incremental advancements in research and discoveries because that is how science progresses. In a country whose news diet is fed by political and economic developments that move along as if they’re being chased by dogs, covering science sticks out like a sore thumb: it continues to move along at the pace at which it must; what makes this worse is that in order for science to remain popular as an intangible commodity – at par with the fervour with which political news is consumed, for example – it demands that the appreciation of it increase. How is that ever going to happen?
I’m writing this to remind myself that it is not just science-that-affects-the-people that counts even if these are the science stories that sell more than others. I’m writing this to remind myself that, in fact, it takes a certain problematic attitude to market science stories. For example, I have felt shame at having prostituted stories about LIGO-India by pointing it at chest-thumping jingoists who always have such a remarkable appetite for all the good things Indians have done. I’d like to remind myself that, when I feel depressed and worthless, I write stories about ISRO (usually critical) knowing full well that having that four-letter acronym in the headline is enough to propel a story into The Wire‘s daily most-reads. I’d like to remind myself that it often feels offensive to be committed to a story that you know isn’t going to perform well but that you’re going to have to do it anyway because it will hopefully benefit someone. I’d like to remind myself of how difficult it can be to be this way.
(At this point, I’m not sure how many will agree with me when I say that people with mental health issues shouldn’t get into science journalism without thinking twice – although this post hasn’t really been about getting people to like me.)
Brevity v. concision
To be perfectly honest – and I’m sorry in advance to those I think I’m going to offend – this abdication of science’s essence, of incrementalism more than anything else, is evident on both sides of the story: among readers as much as among producers. Newsrooms usually don’t introspect on why run-of-the-mill science stories don’t sell and how the can be made to, but this is hardly new. What is new, at least to me, is the surprising number of science writers and journalists obsessed with
- Science as it intersects with politics and policy, and
- Writing long-form pieces over shorter ones, especially about (1)
At this point, I couldn’t give less of a fuck for longer pieces, especially because they’re all the same: they’re concerned with science that is deemed to be worthy of anyone’s attention because it is affecting us directly. And I posit that they’ve kept us from recognising an important problem with science journalism in the country: it is becoming less and less concerned with the science itself; what has been identified as successful science journalism is simply a discussion – no matter how elaborate and/or nuanced – of how science impacts us. Instead, I’d love to read a piece reported over 5,000 words about molecules, experiments, ideas. That would be real science journalism, and really brave, too, for a writer to have been able to undertake such a thing.
I would love even more to read a 1,000-word news report on molecules, experiments and ideas. I want more reporters to struggle with introducing, explaining and dissecting them in a thousand words (here’s a challenge) because pieces of this length, more than anything else, allow editors to commission them more often, on a broader variety of things, and present them to the audience more frequently. Instead, a long-form story takes weeks to produce and can’t be paid for more than twice or thrice a month (unless you’re very-well-funded). And most of all, I fear that in seeking the glory that comes with stringing together 5,000-10,000 words with cogency and concision, reporters are forgetting the place of brevity as well.
I’m writing to remind myself that it’s okay to be selfish and that this entails the taking of two steps. First: to recognise, and help others recognise, that humankind’s scientificinvestigation of the natural universe – by which I mean the use of a certain method improved over millennia of study – forms a substantial portion of the materials of our cognition, sustenance and advance. Second: to recognise, and help others recognise, that science, as in the use of certain methods to elucidate the truth of something, ought not to give any fucks about being of relevance to us. While this may seem obvious to some, I don’t think enough of us have internalised this to the extent that we ought to. Consider the following example.
I’m writing this post to remind myself that it’s okay to want to write only about particle physics because that’s all I’m interested in reading. That it’s okay to want to write only about this even if I don’t have any strength to hope – that quantum chromodynamics will save the lives of Dalits, that Feynman diagrams will help repeal AFSPA, that the LHC will accelerate India’s economic growth, that the philosophies of fundamental particles will lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. I’m writing this post to remind myself – and anyone else willing to listen – that I haven’t been presented with any evidence whatsoever to purchase my faith in the possibility that the obscurities of particle physics will help humans in any way other than to enlighten them, that there is neither reward nor sanction in anxiously bookending every articulation of wonder with the hope that we will find a way to make money with all of our beliefs, discoveries and perceptions, that we will cure poverty, eliminate terrorism and conquer other worlds with it.
I may be a romantic fool to think so but we haven’t been in wonder freely. We should.
A fourth culture
The division of our culture is making us more obtuse than we need be: we can repair communications to some extent: but, as I have said before, we are not going to turn out men and women who understand as much of our world as Piero della Francesca did of his, or Pascal, or Goethe. With good fortune, however, we can educate a large proportion of our better minds so that they are not ignorant of imaginative experience, both in the arts and in science, nor ignorant neither of the endowments of applied science, of the remediable suffering of most of their fellow humans, and of the responsibilities which, once they are seen, cannot be denied.
– Charles Percy Snow, 1963
In the imagination of a developing nation, however, a marriage between the two cultures has translated into more of a constant, droning yearning, almost like a waterfall, where thinkers and doers alike expend their potential energy in attempts to make their scientific endeavours cascade into political relevance. It doesn’t feel like an equitable union – but more like the desperation to reconcile with a hegemon. In the 58 years since Snow’s famous Rede lecture, many public intellectuals have assessed why Snow’s Utopian vision of the world didn’t come true by 2000 like he had said it would; even others have stepped forward to identify a third culture – apart from the science types and the literary types. In the 1960s, Snow said it could be the social scientists. In the 2000s, a science journalist named Peter Dizikes claimed that the literary agent John Brockman had “promoted the notion of a ‘third culture’ to describe scientists – notably evolutionary biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists – who are ‘rendering visible the deeper meanings in our lives’ and superseding literary artists in their ability to ‘shape the thoughts of their generation.'”
However, all three cultures seem to exclude those enterprises that don’t seek to better the human condition, as if there could be nothing loftier than pandering to the needs of humanity alone.
(Perhaps this obsession is fuelled by the conviction that without humans, the universe itself would not be able to contemplate itself, that without the technologies (which are, by definition, scientific knowledge applied to the benefit of humankind) and without the social and political organisation that has allowed me to access them, I wouldn’t be able to contemplate my own duties in a post-two-cultures world. But this sort of an argument is neither here nor there.)
Time to start the day. First item on the todo list: “Edit article about whales”.
Featured image credit: raczi25/pixabay.
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