Beating pseudoscience at the ISC

The following notes are specifically about VijayRaghavan’s post. My overall reaction to the stupidity on display at the ISC is recorded here.

At a conference at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in August 2018, K. VijayRaghavan said that the media pays disproportionate attention to the pseudoscience that goes down at every Indian Science Congress, more so than legitimate science itself. This is a fair observation – but probably at odds with what journalism is expected to do.

Pseudoscience at the science congress receives more attention because it deviates from the normal. The science at the science congress is a muddle of technical discussions interspersed with popular talks and announcements. It’s a popular festival that thousands of school and college students attend across four or five days. This is certainly worth a report, and many outlets do publish such reports.

But when a scientist or a lawmaker says something nonsensical on stage, to an audience of hundreds, it’s a breach of professional conduct on multiple levels and that’s why it’s also news: not because it’s sensational but because it’s something we as a society constantly work to prevent. And when it does come to pass, it’s the media’s responsibility to help find out why – whether through reports or debates.

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VijayRaghavan also mentions this issue in a blog post he wrote about the Indian Science Congress, on January 5. (The Wire republished it in full, here.) Excerpt:

A few [of the talks at the congress] are superb, some good, many unremarkable and few, usually one or two, outright preposterous. The last part gets disproportionate national and global attention.

And he sees this as a problem:

This [media] attention stays over the year, till the next congress, assigned to the #pseudoscience bin. It is a fascinating reflection of our mindset that this bin is taken to be emblematic of scientists and to be an official endorsement [by the govt. of such utterances].

I think this conclusion underestimates the country’s English readership and overlooks the science congress’s own reputation among many as a flawed event. Anyway:

Someone … asked me how one (presumably the government) could give a platform to such preposterous talks at the science congress. Well, the organisers rightly don’t have a filter and the government rightly has no role in the matter. Scientists say what they say, and if they talk nonsense, they will feel the heat from the community.

It was news to me that the Government of India has such a small role in organising the congress – even though it’s an appointment on every prime minister’s calendar, its website is hosted on the government domain (.nic.in), and – as Rahul Siddharthan pointed out – claims to be under “DST, MST, GoI”.

So while it’s good that VijayRaghavan, as a government official, has said that the government doesn’t endorse the congress’s speeches, that in turn prompts the question whether it should, in fact, assume a bigger role.

VijayRaghavan writes that the government “rightly” doesn’t have control over how the congress is organised or what its speakers do/don’t say. This may be fair in the literal sense but given that it’s always inaugurated by the prime minister, it doesn’t look nice – whether to the minister or the rest of the country – when so much pseudoscientific drivel emerges during its course.

If the government did play a bigger role, it may be able to better curate the talks and use the occasion to discuss issues of national importance. (I suggest ditching the Nobel laureates and inviting winners of national prizes instead.) In fact, if it does so through some of the more efficient scientist-officers in its ranks, including VijayRaghavan, then it could also serve to minimise bureaucratic interference.

But if it’s reluctant to do so, the MST should at least consider having some general oversight over the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA), at whose feet the “pseudoscience at the congress” blame ultimately lies.

(And I don’t think suggesting that the government – through DST, DBT, DAE and/or MoES – co-organise the congress with the ISCA and other scientists is precarious. If it seems so [as it did to me], it’s probably because the incumbent government doesn’t inspire much trust 😄.)

It’s worth repeating that the government can distance itself from the event as much as it wants but the congress gives the appearance of having official sanction. And even if it doesn’t, it’s the largest event of its kind in the country and which also invites foreign participation. It affects the people reading about it because of the prime minister’s presence, and the school and college students attending it simply because it advertises itself as a confluence of scholastic intellect.

Of course, the ideal situation would be for the scientific community at large to assume responsibility for it. But given that that’s not likely to happen thanks to the congress’s near-zero currency, limited accessibility, a general academic culture of focusing on one’s work and a profusion of other responsibilities, it’s an opportunity for others to step in and make a difference. It’s undeniable that some process isn’t working the way it should be, letting the congresses play out as they have in the last few years, and need(s) to be pulled up for it.

Can the science academies be the ones to do this? I doubt it. VijayRaghavan calls them “very vocal” in his post but I disagree. They have issued statements of protest in the past but not nearly as often as they should’ve. Those who were present at the conference at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences will also remember that VijayRaghavan pulled up the science academies then for staying quiet on the day’s most contentious issues.

My last note vis-à-vis VijayRaghavan’s post is perhaps the most straightforward of the lot. He writes:

The Science Congress has an overall theme each year, There is a wide range of topics that are covered in the talks. A group of scientists, chosen by the ISCA, requests applications to speak and chooses speakers. Once chosen there is no censorship on what the person actually speaks.

Quality-controlling the talks to be given at the congress is not the same as censorship. Everybody enjoys the freedom of expression but the freedom vanishes when people want to present non-facts as facts. So keeping talks like that of G.N. Rao (the Andhra University VC who said Indians had stem-cell tech millennia ago) from happening would not be censorship. In fact, it would ensure that the audience – especially the students – is exposed only to discourse of a certain quality.

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One more response to the post I found worth highlighting:

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