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Perspectives On Communicating Science

Read time: 10 mins
Illustration : Purabi Deshpande/ Research Matters

On the 20th and 21st of August 2018, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, organised a workshop on “Science, Journalism, Media: Communicating Science in a Changing India”, which was attended by about one hundred attendees. These included India's well-known scientists, science journalists, science communicators and aspiring science writers. Gubbi Labs was also invited to share our experiences in science communication so far.

This article is a brief summary of the discussions that transpired over the course of the two days along with some opinions and observations. For a detailed list of the panel topics and the panellists, please see here. The live tweets of the event are curated here, thanks to the team from NCBS and the videos of the workshop are available here.

The workshop was structured as a series of panel discussions, with each panel having four to six panellists and a moderator. In each session, each of the panellists spoke for a few minutes followed by questions and comments from the audience which the panellists could respond to.

During the first session, on what scientists want from journalists, it was argued that this is a slightly provocative question because on the one hand, asking pilots what they want from journalists would be absurd, while on the other hand, asking politicians what they want from journalists and asking journalists to follow that advice would be dangerous! So where exactly do scientists lie on this spectrum?

It was also pointed out that the aim of inculcating a “scientific temper” that is often widely proclaimed, including in the Constitution of the Republic of India, is not a purely technical matter of communication but has “socio-political” facets which determine what people believe and trust. This is a very pertinent point that is often missed or side-stepped by both scientists and science journalists in the face of the dominant discourse around science communication as being about conveying science to the public in an understandable manner.

There was also discussion about whether journalists should solely report science carried out in India or expand their horizons to report on scientific research elsewhere. The argument for focusing on Indian science is that Indian scientists receive relatively little coverage otherwise while the case for writing on world science is that it would provide more comprehensive coverage of scientific developments worldwide.

The second session titled, “Opinions differ on the shape of the Earth: Balance vs Accuracy” seemed to lack focus, perhaps because the topic wasn’t clearly stated. One panellist opined on the inclusivity of panels as a form of balance. Another panellist claimed that journalism originated with the Gazette de France in 1632 under the patronage of Louis XIII, and that nothing of that sort existed earlier. This claim is controversial, to say the least, even if one were to disregard journalism in antiquity. In fact, the word “gazette” likely owes its origin to the fact that a news bulletin published by the Republic of Venice cost one gazetta, a unit of currency. Similar publications are known to have existed in Ming China too.

R. Prasad, Science Editor of The Hindu giving his views on what has now become a controversial question.

The question of whether science journalists should report on pre-prints of papers posted on websites like arXiv.org was discussed. It was argued that peer-review is not a magic bullet, and therefore it is legitimate to report on research reported in pre-prints. While I have nothing against coverage of research reported in pre-prints, I feel that debating its merits prior to publication is premature. In short, publication in a peer-reviewed journal is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a research result to be considered well established and therefore worthy of debate. I have discussed my views on this topic in detail here.

It was felt that journalists should avoid “false balance,” i.e. giving equal coverage to opposing points of view, although substantial evidence supports one point of view over the other. On the other hand, it could be argued that granting equal time and opportunity to both sides is not a judgement about the quality of the arguments, but is merely offering an opportunity for the audiences to hear all cases and examine the evidence before reaching conclusions. In my view, failure to present and discuss the evidence objectively is a much greater danger than providing time for arguments unsupported by evidence.

The post-lunch session was opened by a discussion about, “Ancient Indian Aviation Technology: Pseudoscience in the media and from the government.” The Popperian notion of science based on empirical falsifiability was posed as the dividing line between science and pseudo-science. This view of science, although nearly universal among science writers particular from America, is not as well established among philosophers of science. While the Popperian view of science was well explained, there was no discussion of its limitations or challenges to it from various quarters, not just Kuhn in the twentieth century, but also others before Popper who set other kinds of criteria, starting as far back as Alhazen and Bacon.

One of the panellists argued against “scientism” by which the speaker meant the misapplication of scientific method and criteria to situations where they were apparently inapplicable. For example, it was argued that while scientific tests exist for mainstream medicine (pejoratively referred to as “allopathy”), no such tests exist for alternative medicine. This view was vigorously challenged during the discussion with the counterpoint that the effectiveness of any medication was testable through clinical trials or observational studies regardless of its origin or any metaphysics that went with it. It was not entirely clear which of these were the panellist’s own views as opposed to the views expressed in an editorial in a science publication that he was discussing. Finally, it was argued that falsifiability is a difficult concept to convey to the general public, a view that I find very difficult to agree with as it appears to be no more complex than other philosophical and scientific concepts that are generally conveyed.

There was a rather bizarre suggestion to create a repository of all the achievements and knowledge of ancient India to combat the ever-growing claims that some scientific principle or technology existed in ancient India.

In my view, it is much more important to combat false scientific claims than fanciful, false claims about the history of science. Perhaps this point would be easier to appreciate if one considers an example well separated from present-day India in time and space. With the benefit of hindsight, few would take issue with the proposition that combating eugenics was of greater importance than countering false claims that Einstein plagiarised his work in inter-war central Europe.

The next session was about why there are so few women and minorities in science. This was perhaps the least well-conducted session of the day.

It was argued that “manels” (men-only panels) were to be called out and avoided. This is undoubtedly true if one were to be selecting jury panels from among the general public where both genders are roughly equal in number. But surely, if the panel is being selected from among a population that is already heavily gender-weighted, the issue to be addressed lies elsewhere, and not in the selection of the panel. In these circumstances, if there were to be affirmative action in panel selection without any other action, the underlying issues would remain unaddressed, and even less visible than before.

There was no discussion about minorities, which in the Indian context presumably was meant to refer to religious minorities. The stated reason was that the chair of the panel did not feel comfortable discussing issues relating to minorities as she did not belong to a minority group. In my view, this should have been communicated to the organisers in advance who could have then made alternative or additional arrangements. Furthermore, issues of representation of “oppressed nationalities” and “disadvantaged communities” was not even sought to be discussed. The same can be said of the vexed question of whether disadvantage should be located in individual circumstances or group identity or some combination of the two.

Following the workshop, some participants have expressed the view that sexual harassment in academia was not discussed at all (see here and here for more). The issue of sexual harassment was not raised in any of the panel discussions, but there were a few remarks and questions from the audience.

The final session of the first day, which sought perspectives from institutions, funders and policymakers, was dominated by criticism of the Indian science academies. This appeared to be taking off from a previous discussion that the author was not a part of, so it was difficult to make anything of it. There was an interesting suggestion of three-fold publication where scientists publish all research thrice over, once in peer-reviewed journals for fellow experts as is done presently, once for a somewhat more general audience but within the broader field and one final time for the general public. This would inevitably entail a substantial reduction in per capita output, but it was argued that it would come with an increase in quality.

The second day began with a discussion about what science journalists want from scientists, the topic of the first session of the first day, turned on its head. Journalists wanted scientists to be accessible and respond to queries in a timely fashion in addition to playing a more significant role in critiquing the work of other scientists. It was clarified that government rules do not prohibit scientists from talking to journalists about their work, but it was argued that directors of some institutes interpret the rules in a manner that prevents effective communication between scientists and journalists. Clearly, there is a need for a quick redressal mechanism in case journalists seek information, and directors of institutes block their requests citing government rules.

The second session was about communicating science in Indian languages. It was argued, persuasively, that contrary to the plaudits and at times glamour that accrues to English language science journalists, those working in Indian languages face greater difficulties and often bear the brunt of attacks on scientific temper and even physical attacks. Nevertheless, a substantial fraction of the Indian population is not conversant in English, and therefore science communication in Indian languages can have greater reach and effect. It was pointed out that journalists should not alienate themselves from the public and posit “the public” as a distinct category, but recognise that they too are part of the public. Some interesting examples of successful science journalism in Indian languages were exhibited. As very few people are conversant in multiple Indian languages, publicising such examples in English can enable others to follow suit in their own Indian languages.

The largest panel of the workshop discussing science communication in Indian languages.

The post-lunch session was about tackling stereotypes about science and scientists. There are many kinds of common stereotypes about science and scientists, and it was argued that scientists and science journalists must combat them. While false stereotypes, like science being about creating “dirty smells in a laboratory”, can and should be debunked, it is more difficult to deal with stereotypes that are generalisations drawn from normal behaviour, but perhaps misapplied as universals. For example, the stereotype that science journalists with PhDs are failed scientists may be right on average, but it does not mean that every such individual is a failed scientist. Nevertheless, it has a detrimental effect on science PhDs who would like to consider a career in journalism.

The session on “Science as Storytelling” set up a lively debate between those who argued that conveying scientific information in narrative form creates the illusion of understanding and others who contended that stories could help make science more interesting to those who may not otherwise be interested in science, and that they could always consult more technical sources if they wished to learn more.

Spoorthy Raman, Managing Editor of Gubbi Labs telling the story of science.

The final session on “Opportunities in Science and Science Journalism: Where are the jobs, the students and the teachers?” seemed to raise more questions than provide answers. It was generally agreed that opportunities are few and far between for aspiring and existing science journalists. At the same time, it was recognised that easy access to content creation on social media and electronic media means that those who do not need to derive an income from it can easily publicise their opinions and analyses.

In summary, it was a delightful two-day conference, perhaps one of the most enjoyable I have ever been to. The format of panel discussions greatly facilitated this and was best suited to the nature of topics discussed. I only wish the final session was left free for open discussion of all issues raised earlier amongst all participants with a moderator in place.