The journalist as expert

I recently turned down some requests for interviews because the topics of discussion in each case indicated that I would be treated as a scientist, not a science journalist (something that happened shortly after the Balakot airstrikes and the ASAT test as well). I suspect science and more so health journalists are being seen as important sources of information at this crucial time for four reasons (in increasing order of importance, at least as I see it):

1. We often have the latest information – This is largely self-explanatory except for the fact that since we discover a lot of information first-hand, often from researchers to whom the context in which the information is valid may be obvious but who may not communicate that, we also have a great responsibility to properly contextualise what we know before dissemination. Many of us do, many of us don’t, but either way both groups come across as being informed to their respective audiences.

2. We’re “temporary experts”.

3. We’re open to conversations when others aren’t – I can think of a dozen experts who could replace me in the interviews I described and do a better job of communicating the science and more importantly the uncertainty. However, a dozen isn’t a lot, and journalists and any other organisations committed to spreading awareness are going to be hard-pressed to find new voices. At this time, science/health journalists could be seen as stand-in experts: we’re up-to-date, we’re (largely) well-versed with the most common issues, and unlike so many experts we’re often willing to talk.

4. It would seem journalists are the only members of society who are synthesising different schools of thought, types of knowledge and stories of ground realities into an emergent whole. This is a crucial role and, to be honest, I was quite surprised no one else is doing this – until I realised the problem. Our scholastic and academic systems may have disincentivised such holism, choosing instead to pursue more and more specialised and siloised paths. But even then the government should be bringing together different pieces of the big picture, and putting them together to design multifaceted policies and inventions, but isn’t doing so. So journalists could be seen as the only people who are.

Now, given these reasons, is treating journalists as experts so bad?

It’s really not, actually. Journalism deserves more than to be perceived as an adjacent enterprise – something that attaches itself on to a mature substrate of knowledge instead of being part of the substrate itself. There are some journalists who have insightfully combined, say, what they know about scientific publishing with what they know about research funding to glimpse a bigger picture still out of reach of many scientists. There is certainly a body of knowledge that cannot be derived from the first principles of each of its components alone, and which journalists are uniquely privileged to discover. I also know of a few journalists who are better committed to evidence and civic duty than many scientists, in turn producing knowledge of greater value. Finally, insofar as knowledge is also produced through the deliberate opposition of diverse perspectives, journalists contribute every time they report on a preprint paper, bringing together multiple independent experts – sometimes from different fields – to comment on the paper’s merits and demerits.

But there are some issues on the flip side. For example, not all knowledge is emergent in this way, and more importantly journalists make for poor experts on average when what we don’t know is as important as what we know. And when lives are at stake, anyone who is being invited to participate in an interview, panel discussion or whatever should consider – even if the interviewer hasn’t – whether what they say could cause harm, and if they can withstand any social pressure to not be seen to be ignorant and say “I don’t know” when warranted. And even then, there can be very different implications depending on whether it’s a journalist or an expert saying “I don’t know”.

Even more importantly, journalists need to be recognised in their own right, instead of being hauled into the limelight as quasi-experts instead of as people who practice a craft of their own. This may seem like a minor issue of perception but it’s important to maintain the distinction between the fourth estate and other enterprises lest journalism’s own responsibilities become subsumed by those of the people and organisations journalists write about or – worse yet – lest they are offset by demands that society has been unable to meet in other ways. If a virologist can’t be found for an interview, a journalist is a barely suitable replacement, except if the conversation is going to be sharply focused on specific issues the journalist is very familiar with, but even then it’s not the perfect solution.

If a virologist or a holist (as in the specific way mentioned above) can’t be found, the ideal way forward would be to look harder for another virologist or holist, and in doing so come up against the unique challenges to accessing expertise in India. In this regard, if journalists volunteer themselves as substitutes, they risk making excuses for a problem they actually needed to be highlighting.

In defence of ignorance

Wish I may, wish I might
Have this wish, I wish tonight
I want that star, I want it now
I want it all and I don’t care how

Metallica, King Nothing

I’m a news editor who frequently uses Twitter to find new stories to work on or follow up. Since the lockdown began, however, I’ve been harbouring a fair amount of FOMO born, ironically, from the fact that the small pool of in-house reporters and the larger pool of freelancers I have access to are all confined to their homes, and there’s much less opportunity than usual to step out, track down leads and assimilate ground reports. And Twitter – the steady stream of new information from different sources – has simply accentuated this feeling, instead of ameliorating it by indicating that other publications are covering what I’m not. No, Twitter makes me feel like I want it all.

I’m sure this sensation is the non-straightforward product of human psychology and how social media companies have developed algorithms to take advantage of it, but I’m fairly certain (despite the absence of a personal memory to corroborate this opinion) that individual minds of the pre-social-media era weren’t marked by FOMO, and more certain that they were marked less so. I also believe one of the foremost offshoots of the prevalence of such FOMO is the idea that one can be expected to have an opinion on everything.

FOMO – the ‘fear of missing out’ – is essentially defined by a desire to participate in activities that, sometimes, we really needn’t participate in, but we think we need to simply by dint of knowing about those activities. Almost as if the brains of humans had become habituated to making decisions about social participation based solely on whether or not we knew of them, which if you ask me wouldn’t be such a bad hypothesis to apply to the pre-information era, when you found out about a party only if you were the intended recipient of the message that ‘there is a party’.

However, most of us today are not the intended recipients of lots of information. This seems especially great for news but it also continuously undermines our ability to stay in control of what we know or, more importantly, don’t know. And when you know, you need to participate. As a result, I sometimes devolve into a semi-nervous wreck reading about the many great things other people are doing, and sharing their experiences on Twitter, and almost involuntarily develop a desire to do the same things. Now and then, I even sense the seedling of regret when I look at a story that another news outlet has published, but which I thought I knew about before but simply couldn’t pursue, aided ably by the negative reinforcement of the demands on me as a news editor.

Recently, as an antidote to this tendency – and drawing upon my very successful, and quite popular, resistance to speaking Hindi simply because a misguided interlocutor presumes I know the language – I decided I would actively ignore something I’m expected to have an opinion on but there being otherwise no reason that I should. Such a public attitude exists, though it’s often unspoken, because FOMO has successfully replaced curiosity or even civic duty as the prime impetus to seek new information on the web. (Obviously, this has complicated implications, such as we see in the dichotomy of empowering more people to speak truth to power versus further tightening the definitions of ‘expert’ and ‘expertise’; I’m choosing to focus on the downsides here.)

As a result, the world seems to be filled with gas-bags, some so bloated I wonder why they don’t just float up and fuck off. And I’ve learnt that the hardest part of the antidote is to utter the words that FOMO has rendered most difficult to say: “I don’t know”.

A few days ago, I was chatting with The Soufflé when he invited me to participate in a discussion about The German Ideology that he was preparing for. You need to know that The Soufflé is a versatile being, a physicist as well as a pluripotent scholar, but more importantly The Soufflé knows what most pluripotent scholars don’t: that no matter how much one is naturally gifted to learn this or that, knowing something needs not just work but also proof of work. I refused The Soufflé’s invitation, of course; my words were almost reflexive, eager to set some distance between myself and the temptation to dabble in something just because it was there to dabble. The Soufflé replied,

I think it was in a story by Borges, one of the characters says “Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he will be.” 🙂

To which I said,

That was when the world was simpler. Now there’s a perverse expectation that everyone should have opinions on everything. I don’t like it, and sometimes I actively stay away from some things just to be able to say I don’t want to have an opinion on it. Historical materialism may or may not be one of those things, just saying.

Please bear with me, this is leading up to something I’d like to include here. The Soufflé then said,

I’m just in it for the sick burns. 😛 But OK, I get it. Why do you think that expectation exists, though? I mean, I see it too. Just curious.

Here I set out my FOMO hypothesis. Then he said,

I guess this is really a topic for a cultural critic, I’m just thinking out loud… but perhaps it is because ignorance no longer finds its antipode in understanding, but awareness? To be aware is to be engaged, to be ‘caught up’ is to be active. This kind of activity is low-investment, and its performance aided by social media?

If you walked up to people today and asked “What do you think about factory-farmed poultry?” I’m pretty sure they’d find it hard to not mention that it’s cruel and wrong, even if they know squat about it. So they’re aware, they have possibly a progressive view on the issue as well, but there’s no substance underneath it.

Bingo.

We’ve become surrounded by socio-cultural forces that require us to know, know, know, often sans purpose or context. But ignorance today is not such a terrible thing. There are so many people who set out to know, know, know so many of the wrong ideas and lessons that conspiracy theories that once languished on the fringes of society have moved to the centre, and for hundreds of millions of people around the world stupid ideas have become part of political ideology.

Then there are others who know but don’t understand – which is a vital difference, of the sort that The Soufflé pointed out, that noted scientist-philosophers have sensibly caricatured as the difference between the thing and the name of the thing. Knowing what the four laws of thermodynamics or the 100+ cognitive biases are called doesn’t mean you understand them – but it’s an extrapolation that social-media messaging’s mandated brevity often pushes us to make. Heck, I know of quite a few people who are entirely blind to this act of extrapolation, conflating the label with the thing itself and confidently penning articles for public consumption that betrays a deep ignorance (perhaps as a consequence of the Dunning-Kruger effect) of the subject matter – strong signals that they don’t know it in their bones but are simply bouncing off of it like light off the innards of a fractured crystal.

I even suspect the importance and value of good reporting is lost on too many people because those people don’t understand what it takes to really know something (pardon the polemic). These are the corners the push to know more, all the time, often even coupled to capitalist drives to produce and consume, has backed us to. And to break free, we really need to embrace that old virtue that has been painted a vice: ignorance. Not the ignorance of conflation nor the ignorance of the lazy but the cultivated ignorance of those who recognise where knowledge ends and faff begins. Ignorance that’s the anti-thing of faff.

Avoiding ‘muddled science’ in the newsroom

On April 23, I was part of a webinar called ProtoCall, organised by Pro.to with the support of International Centre for Journalists and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. It happens once a week and is hosted by Ameya Nagarajan and Nayantara Narayanan. Every week there’s a theme which, together with the discussion around it, is picked to help non-science and non-health journalists cover the coronavirus pandemic. The session before the one I was part of discussed the role of data, the gaps in data and how journalists could help fill them. My session was entitled ‘How muddled science drives misinformation’, and my fellow panelists were Shruti Muralidhar and Shahid Jameel, neither of whom should need introduction on the pages of this blog.

Given a brief ahead of the session (available to read here), I prepared some notes for the conversation and which I’m pasting below in full. Note that the conversation itself panned out differently (as military historians have noted, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”), so you could watch the full video if you’re interested or read the transcript when it comes out. Both Shruti and Dr Jameel made some great points throughout the conversation, plus the occasional provocative opinion (by myself as well).

§

1. Science journalists should continue to do what we’ve always had to do — empower our readers to decide for themselves based on what data they have available. Yes, this is a slow process, and yes, it’s tedious, but we shouldn’t have to adopt radical tactics now just because we haven’t been doing our job properly before. Introduce the relevant concept, theories, hypotheses, etc. as well as introduce how scientists evaluate data and keeping what in mind.

I can think of at least three doctors I’ve spoken to recently – all three of very good standing in the medical research community, and one is pro-lockdown, one is anti-lockdown, and one argues that there’s a time and place to impose a lockdown. This is a new virus for everybody and there is disagreement between doctors as well. But this doesn’t imply that some doctors are motivated by ideologies or whatever. It means the story here is that doctors disagree, period.

2. Because this is a new disease for everybody, be skeptical of every result, especially those that claim 100% certainty. No matter what anyone says, the only thing you can know with 100% certainty is that you cannot know anything with 100% certainty. This is a pandemic and suddenly everyone is interested in what scientific studies have to say, because people are desperately looking for hope and there will be a high uptake for positive news – no matter how misinformed or misguided.

But before everyone was interested in scientific studies, it was always the case that results from tests and experiments and such were never 100% accurate. They all had error rates, they were all contingent on replication studies, they were and are all works in progress. So no matter what a study says, you can very safely assume it has a caveat or a shortcoming, or a specific, well-defined context in which it is true, and you need to go looking for it.

3. It’s okay to take time to check results. At a time of such confusion and more importantly heightened risk, misinformation can kill. So take your time, speak to doctors and scientists. Resisting the pressure to publish quickly is important. If you’re on a hard deadline, be as conservative in your language as possible, just go with the facts – but then even facts are not entirely harmless. There are different facts pointing to different possibilities.

Amitabh Joshi said a couple years back at a talk that science is not about facts but about interpreting collections of facts. And scientists often differ because they’re interpreting different groups of facts to explain trends in the data. Which also means expertise is not a straightforward affair, especially in the face of new threats.

4. Please become comfortable saying “I don’t know”. I think those are some of the most important words these days. Too many people – especially many celebrities – think that the opposite of ‘true’ is ‘false’ and that the opposite of ‘false’ is ‘true’. But actually there’s a no man’s land in between called ‘I don’t know’, which stands for claims, data, etc. that we haven’t yet been able to verify yet.

Amitabh Bachchan recently recorded a video suggesting that the coronavirus is transmitted via human faeces and by flies that move between that faecal matter and nearby food items. The thing is, we don’t know if this is true. There have been some studies but obviously they didn’t specifically study what Amitabh Bachchan claimed. But saying ‘I don’t know’ here wouldn’t mean that the opposite of what Bachchan said is true. It would mean Bachchan was wrong to ascribe certainty to a claim that doesn’t presently deserve that certainty. And when you say you don’t know, please don’t attach caveats to a claim saying ‘it may be true’ or ‘it may be false’.

We need to get comfortable saying ‘we don’t know’ because then that’s how we know we need more research, and even that we need to support scientists, etc.

5. Generally beware of averages. Averages have a tendency to flatten the data, which is not good when regional differences matter.

6. Has there been a lot of science journalism of the pandemic in India? I’m not sure. A lot of explanations have come forth as background to larger stories about the technology, sampling/testing methods, governance, rights, etc. But I’ve seen very little of the mathematics, of the biology and research into the virus as such.

I don’t think this is a problem of access to scientists or availability of accessible material, which to my mind are secondary issues, especially from journalists’ point of view. Yes, you need to be able to speak to doctors and medical researchers, and many of them are quite busy these days and their priorities are very different. But also many, many scientists are sitting at home because of the lockdown and many of them are keen to help.

To me, it’s more a problem of journalists not knowing which questions to ask. For example, unless you know that something called a cytokine storm exists, to you it remains an unknown-unknown. So the bigger issue for me is that journalists shouldn’t expect to do a good job covering this crisis without knowing the underlying science. A cytokine storm is one example, but I’d say not many journalists are asking more important questions, from my point of view, about statistical methods, clinical trials, scientific publishing, etc. and I suspect it’s because they’re not aware these issues exist.

If you want to cover the health aspects like a seasoned health journalist would, there are obviously other things you’re going to have to familiarise yourself with, like pharmaceutical policy, clinical trials, how diseases are tracked, hospital administration, etc.

So I’d say learn the science/health or you’re going to have a tough time asking the right questions. You can’t expect to go into this thinking you can do a good job just by speaking to different doctors and scientists because sooner than later, you’re going to miss asking the right questions.

7. Three things have worked for The Wire Science, vis-à-vis working with freelancers and other editors.

First, there needs to be clear communication. For example, if you disagree with a submission, please take time out to explain what you think is wrong about it, because it often happens that the author knows the science very well but may just not have laid it out in a way that’s completely clear. This is also exhausting but in the long run it helps.

Second, set clear expectations. For example at The Wire Science, I insist on primary sources to all claims to the extent possible, so we don’t accidentally help magnify a dubious claim made by a secondary source. I don’t accept articles or comments on papers that have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal or in a legitimate preprint repository. And I insist that any articles based on scientific papers must carry an independent voice commenting on the merits and weaknesses of the study, even if the reporter hasn’t spoken to the paper’s authors themselves.

Interestingly enough, in our internal fact-check filters, these ‘clear expectations’ criteria act as pre-filters in the sense that if an article meets these three criteria, it’s also factually accurate more than 90% of the time. And because these criteria are fairly simple to define and identify in the article, anyone can check for them instead of just me.

Third, usually the flow of information and decisions in our newsroom is top-down-ish (not entirely top-down), but once the pandemic took centerstage, this organisation sort of became radial. Editors, reporters and news producers all have different ideas for stories and I’ve been available as a sort of advisor, so before they pursue any story, they sometimes come to me to discuss if they’re thinking about it the right way.

This way automatically prevents a lot of unfeasible ideas from being followed up. Obviously it’s not the ultimate solution but it covers a lot of ground.

8. The urgency and tension of a pandemic can’t be an excuse to compromise on quality and nuance. And especially at a time like now, misinformation can kill, so I’m being very clear with my colleagues and freelancers that we’re going to take the time to verify, that I’m going to resist the temptation to publish quickly. Even if there’s an implicit need to publish stuff quickly since the pandemic is evolving so fast, I’d say if you can write pieces with complexity and nuance, please do.

The need for speed arises, at least from what I can see, in terms of getting more traffic to your site and which in turn your product, business and editorial teams have together decided is going to be driven by primacy – in terms of being seen by your readers as the publication that puts information out first. So you’re going to need to have a conversation with your bosses and team members as well about the importance at a time like this of being correct over being fast. The Wire Science does incur a traffic penalty as a result of going a bit slower than others but it’s a clear choice for us because it’s been the lesser price to pay.

In fact, I think now is a great time to say to your readers, “It’s a pandemic and we want to do this right. Give us money and we’ll stop rushing for ads.”

Full video:

Time and the pandemic

There is this idea in physics that the fundamental laws of nature apply the same way for processes moving both forwards and backwards in time. So you can’t actually measure the passage of time by studying these processes. Where does our sense of time, rather the passage of time, come from then? How do we get to tell that the past and future are two different things, and that time flows from the former to the latter?

We sense time because things change. Clock time is commonly understood to be a way to keep track of when and how often things change but in physics, time is not the master: change doesn’t arise because of time but time arises because of change. So time manifests in the laws of nature through things that change in time. One of the simplest such things is entropy. Specifically, the second law of thermodynamics states that as time moves forward, the entropy of an isolated system cannot decrease. Entropy thus describes an arrow of time.

This is precisely what the pandemic is refusing to do, at least as seen through windows set at the very back of a newsroom. Many reporters writing about the coronavirus may have the luxury of discovering change, and therefore the forward march of time itself, but for someone who is somewhat zoomed out – watching the proceedings from a distance, as it were – the pandemic has only suffused the news cycle with more and more copies of itself, like the causative virus itself.

It seems to me as if time has stilled. I have become numb to news about the virus, which I suspect is a coping mechanism, like a layer of armour inserted between a world relentlessly pelting me with bad news and my psyche itself. But the flip side of this protection is an inability to sense the passage of time as well as I was able before.

My senses are alert to mistakes of fact, as well as mostly of argument, that reporters make when reporting on the coronavirus, and of course to opportunities to improve sentence construction, structure, flow, etc. But otherwise, and thanks in fact to my limited engagement with this topic, it feels as if I wake up every morning, my fingers groaning at the prospect of typing the words “lockdown”, “coronavirus”, “COVID-19”, “herd immunity” and whatever else1. And since this is what I feel every morning, there is no sense of change. And without change, there is no time.

1. I mean no offence to those suffering the pandemic’s, and the lockdown’s, brutal health, economic, social, cultural and political consequences.

I would desperately like to lose my armour. The bad news will never stop coming but I would still like to get back to bad news that I got into journalism to cover, the bad news that I know what to do about… to how things were before, I suppose.

Oh, I’m aware of how illogical this line of introspection is, yet it persists! I believe one reason is that the pandemic is a passing cloud. It leapt out of the horizon and loomed suddenly over all of us, over the whole world; its pall is bleak but none of us doubts that it will also pass. The pandemic will end – everybody knows this, and this is perhaps also why the growing desperation for it to dissipate doesn’t feel misplaced, or unjustified. It is a cloud, and like all clouds, it must go away, and therefrom arises the frustration as well: if it can go away, why won’t it?

Is it true that everything that will last for a long time also build up over a long time? Climate change, for example, doesn’t – almost can’t – have a single onset event. It builds and builds all around us, its effects creeping up on us. With each passing day of inaction, there is even less that we can do than before to stop it; in fact, so many opportunities have been squandered or stolen by bad actors that all we have left to do is reduce consumption and lower carbon emissions. So with each passing day, the planet visits us with more reminders of how we have changed it, and in fact may never have it back to the way it once was.

Almost as if climate change happened so slowly, on the human scale at least, that it managed to weave itself into our sense of time, not casting a shadow on the clock as much as becoming a part of the clock itself. As humankind’s grandest challenge as yet, one that we may never fully surmount, climate change doesn’t arise because of time but time arises because of climate change. Perhaps speed and surprise is the sacrifice that time demands of that which aspires to longevity.

The pandemic, on the other hand, likely had a single onset… right? At least it seems so until you realise the pandemic is in fact the tip of the proverbial iceberg – the thing jutting above the waterline, better yet the tip of the volcano. There is a complicated mess brewing underground, and out of sight, to which we have all contributed. One day the volcano shoots up, plastering its surroundings with lava and shooting smoke and soot kilometres into the air. For a time, the skies are a nuclear-winter grey and the Sun is blotted out. To consider at this time that we could stave off all future eruptions by pouring tonnes of concrete into the smouldering caldera would be folly. The pandemic, like magma, like the truth itself, will out. So while the nimbuses of each pandemic may pass, all the storm’s ingredients will persist.

I really hope the world, and I do mean the world, will heed this lesson as the novel coronavirus’s most important, if only because our sense of time and our expectations of what the passage of time could bring need to encompass the things that cause pandemics as much as they have come to encompass the things that cause Earth’s climate to change. We’ve become used to thinking about this outbreak, and likely the ones before it, as transitory events that begin and end – but really, wrapped up in our unrelenting yearning for the pandemic to pass is a conviction that the virus is a short-lived, sublunary creature. But the virus is eternal, and so our response to it must also transform from the mortal to the immortal.

Then again, how I wish my mind submitted, that too just this once, to logic’s will sans resistance. No; it yearns still for the pandemic to end and for ‘normal’ to recommence, for time to flow as it once did, with the promise of bringing something new to the threshold of my consciousness every morning. I sense there is a line here between the long- and the short-term, between the individual and the collective, and ultimately between the decision to change myself and the decision to wait for others before I do.

I think, as usual, time will tell. Heh.

There is more than one thunder

Sunny Kung, a resident in internal medicine at a teaching hospital in the US, has authored a piece in STAT News about her experience dealing with people with COVID-19, and with other people who deal with people with COVID-19. I personally found the piece notable because it describes a sort of experience of dealing with COVID-19 that hasn’t had much social sanction thus far.

That is, when a socio-medical crisis like the coronavirus pandemic strikes, the first thing on everyone’s minds is to keep as few people from dying as possible. Self-discipline and self-sacrifice, especially among those identified as frontline healthcare and emergency services workers, become greater virtues than even professional integrity and the pursuit of individual rights. As a result, these workers incur heavy social, mental and sometimes even physical costs that they’re not at liberty to discuss openly without coming across as selfish at a time when selflessness is precariously close to being identified as a fundamental duty.

Kung’s piece, along with some others like it, clears and maintains a precious space for workers like her to talk about what they’re going through without being vilified for it. Further, I’m no doctor, nurse or ambulance driver but ‘only’ a journalist, so I have even less sanction to talk about my anxieties than a healthcare worker does without inviting, at best, a polite word about the pandemic’s hierarchy of priorities.

But as the WHO itself has recognised, this pandemic is also an ‘infodemic’, and the contagion of fake news, misinformation and propaganda is often deadly – if not deadlier – than the effects of the virus itself. However, the amount of work that me and my colleagues need to do, and which we do because we want to, to ensure what we publish is timely, original and verified often goes unappreciated in the great tides of information and data.

This is not a plea for help but an unassuming yet firm reminder that:

  1. Emergency workers come in different shapes, including as copy-editors, camerapersons and programmers – all the sort of newsroom personnel you never see but which you certainly need;
  2. Just because it’s not immediately clear how we’re saving lives doesn’t mean our work isn’t worth doing, or that it’s easy to do; and
  3. Saving lives is not the only outcome that deserves to be achieved during a socio-medical crisis.

A lot of what a doctor like Kung relates to, I can as well – and again, not in an “I want to steal your thunder” sort of way but as if this is a small window through which I get to shout “There are many thunders” sort of way. For example, she writes,

Every night during the pandemic I’ve dreaded showing up to work. Not because of fear of contracting Covid-19 or because of the increased workload. I dread having to justify almost every one of my medical decisions to my clinician colleagues.

Since the crisis began, I’ve witnessed anxiety color the judgement of many doctors, nurses, and other health care workers — including myself — when taking care of patients.

Many of us simply want to make sure we’re doing the right thing and to the best of our ability, that to the extent possible we’re subtracting the effects of fatigue and negligence from a situation rife with real and persistent uncertainty. But in the process, we’re often at risk of doing things we shouldn’t be doing.

As Kung writes, doctors and nurses make decisions out of fear – and journalists cover the wrong paper, play up the wrong statistic, quote the wrong expert or pursue the wrong line of inquiry. Kung also delineates how simply repeating facts, even to nurses and other medical staff, often fails to convince them. I often go through the same thing with my colleagues and with dozens of freelancers every week, who believe ‘X’ must be true and want to anticipate the consequences of ‘X’ whereas I, being more aware of the fact that the results of tests and studies are almost never 100% true (often because the principles of metrology themselves impose limits on confidence intervals but sometimes because the results depend strongly on the provenance of the input data and/or on the mode of publishing), want to play it safe and not advertise results that first seed problematic ideas in the minds of our readers but later turn out to be false.

So they just want to make sure, and I just want to make sure, too. Neither party is wrong but except with the benefit of hindsight, neither party is likely to be right either. I don’t like these conversations because they’re exhausting, but I wouldn’t like to abdicate them because it’s my responsibility to have them. And what I need is for this sentiment to simply be acknowledged. While I don’t presume to know what Kung wants to achieve with her article, it certainly makes the case for everyone to acknowledge that frontline medical workers like her have issues that in turn have little to do with the fucking virus.

In yet another reminder that the first six months (if not more) of 2020 will have been the worst infodemic in history, I can comfortably modify the following portions of Kung’s article…

They were clearly disgruntled about my decision not to transfer Mr. M to the ICU. I tried to reassure them by providing evidence, but I could still feel the tension and fear. The nurses wanted another M.D. to act as an arbiter of my decision but were finally convinced after I cited the patient’s stable vital signs, laboratory results, and radiology findings.

Everyone in the hospital is understandably on edge. Uncertainty is everywhere. Our hospital’s policies have been constantly changing about who we should test for Covid-19 and when we should wear what type of protective personal equipment. Covid-19 is still a new disease to many clinicians. We don’t know exactly which patients should go to the ICU and which are stable enough to stay on the regular floor. And it is only a matter of time before we run out of masks and face shields to protect front-line health care workers. …

As a resident in internal medicine and a future general internist, it is my duty to take care of these Covid-19 patients and reassure them that we are here to support them. That’s what I expect to do for all of my patients. What I did not expect from this pandemic is having to reassure other doctors, nurses, and health care workers about clinical decisions that I would normally never need to justify. …

There is emerging literature on diagnosing and treating Covid-19 patients that is easily accessible to physicians and nurses, but some of them are choosing to make their medical decisions based on fear — such as pushing for unnecessary testing or admission to the hospital, which may lead to overuse of personal protective equipment and hospital beds — instead of basing decisions on data or evidence. …

… thus:

The freelancer was clearly disgruntled about my decision not to accept the story for publication. I tried to reassure them by providing evidence, but I could still feel the tension and resentment. The freelancer wanted another editor to act as an arbiter of my decision but was finally convinced after I cited the arguments’ flaws one by one.

Every reporter is understandably on edge. Uncertainty is everywhere. Our newsroom’s policies have been constantly changing about what kind of stories we should publish, using what language and which angles we should avoid. Covid-19 is still a new disease to many journalists. We don’t know exactly which stories are worth pursuing and which are stable enough to stay on the regular floor. And it is only a matter of time before we run low on funds and/or are scooped. …

As a science editor, it is my duty to look out for my readers and reassure them that we are here to support them. That’s what I expect to do for all of my readers. What I did not expect from this pandemic is having to reassure other reporters, editors, and freelancers about editorial decisions that I would normally never need to justify. …

There is emerging literature on diagnosing and treating Covid-19 patients that is easily accessible to reporters and editors, but some of them are choosing to make their editorial decisions to optimise for sensationalism or speed — such as composing news reports based on unverified claims, half-baked data, models that are “not even wrong” or ideologically favourable points of view, which may lead readers to under- or overestimate various aspects of the pandemic — instead of basing decisions on data or evidence. …

More broadly, I dare to presume frontline healthcare workers already have at least one (highly deserved) privilege that journalists don’t, and in fact have seldom had: the acknowledgment of the workload. Yes, I want to do the amount of work I’m doing because I don’t see anyone else being able to do it anytime soon (and so I even take pride in it) but it’s utterly dispiriting to be reminded, every now and then, that the magnitude of my commitment doesn’t just languish in society’s blindspot but is often denied its existence.

Obviously very little of this mess is going to be cleaned up until the crisis is past its climax (although, like ants on a Möbius strip, we might not be able to tell which side of the problem we’re on), at which point the world’s better minds might derive lessons for all of us to learn from. At the same time, the beautiful thing about acknowledgment is that it doesn’t require you to determine, or know, if what you’re acknowledging is warranted or not, whether it’s right or wrong, even as the acknowledgment itself is both right and warranted. So please do it as soon as you can, if only because it’s the first precious space journalists need to clear and maintain.

Remembering the ‘Game of Life’

The English mathematician John Horton Conway passed away last week, due to COVID-19. He was 82. I’m afraid my memory of him doesn’t do him justice because, if nothing else, Conway resented that many people knew him only for inventing the ‘Game of Life’. But I spent hundreds of hours in my high-school days playing with this strange ‘game’.

The ‘Game of Life’ is a cellular automaton (in Conway’s words: a “no-player never-ending game”). You start with a grid of blank cells on a dark screen. You click a cell to ‘activate’ it, whereupon it would turn white. Once you’ve activated all the cells you need, you start the simulation. At this point, the game applies a simple set of rules to the cells (quoting verbatim from Wikipedia):

Any [active] cell with two or three [active] neighbours survives. Any dead cell with three [active] neighbours becomes [an active] cell. All other [active] cells die in the next generation. Similarly, all other dead cells stay dead.

Every time the simulator applies these rules is called a step; based on your initial configuration, you could see how your system of cells evolves over hundreds or thousands of steps. If you positioned and activated the right arrangement of cells, you could even make beautiful things happen. And as anyone familiar with the ‘game’ will tell you, ‘beautiful’ is a vast understatement. The simplest example of repetitive patterns is the ‘oscillator’:

Credit: JokeySmurf/Wikimedia Commons

More complex examples include the ‘puffer’:

Credit: Simpsons contributor/Wikimedia Commons

… the ‘spaceship’:

Credit: Simpsons contributor/Wikimedia Commons

… and the ‘gun’:

Credit: Simpsons contributor/Wikimedia Commons

Some users have built other automata that truly boggle the mind:

(If you’d like to play, you’re looking for Golly.)

Physicists, biologists and computer scientists have gleaned many insights into the evolution of patterns, the emergence of complexity and principles of self-organisation by playing the ‘Game of Life’. Imagine: Three simple rules, such wonderful possibilities; why can’t similar patterns emerge in systems we think are chaotic but are actually naturally capable of evolving order? The game is also Turing-complete.

Not surprisingly, the ‘Game of Life’ has overtaken all of Conway’s other work. But by at least one account, Conway was unhappy that this was the state of affairs – that most people didn’t know of, say, the abstract mathematical games he invented, his work in combinatorial game theory and his use of advanced geometry to figure out how best to pack signals into a fibre-optic cable, and were fixated on the ‘Game of Life’ instead.

This isn’t entirely fair, of course: it’s hard to look past the game’s deceptive simplicity and profound designs, but I’m not going to argue with him now. R.I.P., Conway.

‘Science alone triumphs’: A skeptic annotates

An article entitled ‘Science alone triumphs: Providing a true picture of the world, only science can help India against coronavirus’, penned by a Jayant Sinha, appeared on the Times of India‘s editorials page on April 8, 2020. My annotated reading of the article follows…

As the coronavirus continues its deadly spread around the world, it is only science that protects us. Many different scientists and experts are responding to the global challenge…

A sweeping statement that suggests whatever science can protect for us are the only things worth protecting. Obvious exceptions include social security, access to food and other essential supplies, protection against discrimination and stigma, and of course individual rights. The author quite likely does not intend to imply that one’s biological safety is more important than any of these other attributes, but that’s what the words imply.

… Their deep technical expertise, honed through years of education and practice, keeps us from falling into the abyss.

A bit too florid but okay.

Ultimately, it is the practice of science – developing new ideas, testing them against hard evidence, replicating them successfully, scaling them up, and then further improving them through honest feedback – that drives all of them.

It’s quite heartening to have a lawmaker acknowledge these aspects of the scientific method, esp. a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, but these exact are also curious at this time. The Indian Council of Medical Research has allowed frontline health workers to consume hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic against COVID-19 with flimsy (if that) evidence to support the drug’s efficacy and safety. Where are the tests, leave alone the replication studies?

This is the quintessential scientific method, the unrelenting search for truth.

More than 99% of the article’s readers are unlikely to notice a difference between the scientific method and the search for truths (I prefer using the plural), but it exists: the scientific method is a way to acquire new knowledge about the natural universe. The nature of the quest depends on the practitioner – the scientist.

What science tells us about coronavirus infections has reached everyone. People are wearing masks, washing their hands, and avoiding crowds. Yet most people I meet are stumped by questions such as: What is a virus? How does it actually spread? How does your body fight the coronavirus? Why do some people die from the virus? This indeed is the great paradox of our times.

Truly!

Even as science becomes more vital, fewer and fewer people understand and appreciate it. As a child who loved science, as a young man trained in engineering, and as a technocrat who believes in analytical reasoning and hard evidence, I find this hard to accept.

I’m not sure if the author means he does not understand why this paradoxical engagement with science persists but I have some ideas:

  1. Science is becoming increasingly more specialised, and a lot of what we learn from the cutting edge these days cannot be communicated to anyone without at least 18 years of education.
  2. Most people think they understand science when they really mean they’re familiar with its commonest precepts and scientists’ pronouncements. Their knowledge is still only based on faith: that, for example, the new coronavirus spreads rapidly but not why so, freeing them to use scientific knowledge in unscientific narratives.

(Reason: because the virus’s spike proteins have evolved to establish stronger bonds with the ACE2 receptor protein produced by cells in the respiratory tract, compared to the spike proteins of the closely related SARS virus, as well as the ability to attach, albeit less strongly, to another protein – furin – produced by all cells in the body.)

To change this state of affairs, we must focus on four key areas. … We are afflicted by too much quackery and superstition.

Is this article really a dog-whistle? The author is the BJP MP from Hazaribagh (Jharkhand) so there is some comfort – no matter how fleeting – that the BJP is not completely devoid of appreciation for science. However, I’m curious how often the author has brought these issues up with other BJP lawmakers, including the prime minister himself, who have frequently issued a stream of nonsense that undermines a scientific understanding of the world. The answer wouldn’t affect what we should or shouldn’t take away from this piece, but this not uncommon practice of speaking sense in some fora but shutting up in others is annoying, especially when the speaker wields some power.

… Of course, mythology has immense power to shape people’s beliefs, but it must be acknowledged that it is only science that can solve our material problems.

Well said… I think. Can’t be a 100% sure.

While there is certainly much wisdom in age-old practices, it is primarily because there is a genuine scientifically proven cause-and-effect relationship that underlies these practices.

No. Specifically, causality – nor any of the properties we associate with modern science – is not a precondition for traditional wisdom, beliefs and rituals, nor is it meaningful to attempt to validate such wisdom, beliefs and rituals using filters developed to qualify scientific theories of the natural universe. Science and tradition (in many contexts) are born of and seek to fulfil different purposes. Additionally, science alone does not empower – traditional practices do as well (look no further than tribal groups that have been stewarding many of India’s forests for centuries) – and science abandoned by the guiding hand of social forces has often become an instrument of disempowerment.

… In short, we would all be much better off if we shifted some of our time and resources away from blind faith and towards a better scientific understanding of the world.

This is very true. Faith has its place in the world (more so than some might like to acknowledge); outside this finite domain, however, it’s a threat.

Second, our children must learn honestly about science. There is no ‘Western’ concept of science taught in schools which should then be negated at home. Science is universal – just look up the path-breaking research conducted by SN Bose, or CV Raman, or S Chandrasekhar. The pure scientific truth that they discovered holds true everywhere, even in the deep cosmos.

💯 A diversity in the choice of names (by gender or by caste, for example) would have been better.

Teachers and parents must tell children that science is the pursuit of truth and provides a true picture of the world.

As the children grow up, can we encourage our teachers and parents to communicate more nuanced ideas of what science is and why it was invented?

… We should not demand obedience from our children, rather we should encourage them to probe all that we do. …

Again, is this article really a dog-whistle?

Third, we must revere our scientists and technologists.

Never revere another human. Never assume anyone is closed off to (constructive) criticism, particularly when they deserve it. Obviously there’s a time and place (including absurd advice like “don’t berate a surgeon in the middle of a surgery”), but when such opportunities arise don’t let reverence stop you.

It is through their efforts that we flourish today.

Brian Josephson won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1973 for predicting the Josephson effect but he also supported the “water memory” hypothesis that claimed to make sense of homeopathic remedies. Giving scientists the keys to running the world is not guaranteed to produce the desired results.

… Even our start-up culture tends to value the business celebrity, not so much the tech nerd. …

The author is probably thinking of celebrity tech nerds, the Bezoses and the Jobses. “Nerds” and “geeks” in general have become more popular and their culture more socially and commercially profitable.

Billions of dollars of wealth has been created by writing great code, developing insanely good products, creating clever new financial solutions, and establishing entirely new scientific approaches. …

Many of these “insanely good products” have also progressively eroded democracy. To quote Jacob Silverman in The Baffler (at length, hoping Silverman doesn’t mind):

The fundamental underlying problem is the system of economic exchange we’re dealing with, which is sometimes called surveillance capitalism. It’s surveillance capitalism that, by tracking and monetizing the basic informational content of our lives, has fueled the spectacular growth of social media and other networked services in the last fifteen years. Personal privacy has been annihilated, and power and money have concentrated in the hands of whoever owns the most sophisticated machine to collect and parse consumer data. Because of the logic of network effects—according to which services increase in value and utility as more people use them—a few strong players have consolidated their control over the digital economy and show little sign of surrendering it.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For years, tech executives and data scientists maintained the pose that a digital economy run almost exclusively on the parsing of personal data and sensitive information would not only be competitive and fair but would somehow lead to a more democratic society. Just let Facebook and Google, along with untold other players large and small, tap into the drip-drip of personal data following you around the internet, and in return you’ll get free personalized services and—through an alchemy that has never been adequately explained—a more democratized public sphere.

While these promises provided the ideological ballast for the tech revolution of the last decade or two, they turned out to be horribly wrong. There is nothing neutral, much less emancipatory, about our technological systems or the data sloshing through them. They record and shape the world in powerful, troubling ways. The recent clutch of stories, including in the New York Times and the Guardian, about Cambridge Analytica, the favored data firm of the Trump campaign, provides a humbling example of how personal data can be used to manipulate voter populations. This essential truth has been known at least since 2012, when a University of California-San Diego study found that a few nudges on Facebook appreciably increased voter turnout. From there, it’s only a small jump to isolating and bombarding millions of potential Trump voters with customized appeals, as Cambridge Analytica did.

In the final analysis, the author’s association of “scientific approaches” with technological triumphalism is just a very good reminder that “scientific approaches” don’t have morals built-in.

Finally, we must massively strengthen our scientific institutions. … The hard work of science gets done in these places and they must be among the best in the world.

Without specifying how ‘best’ or even ‘better’ needs to be measured, the task of strengthening institutes is at risk of being hijacked by the single-minded pursuit of better scores on ranking tables.

… Our best diaspora scientists should be provided generous support to come back to India and set up their research labs. Top scientific institutions must be granted the autonomy to govern themselves, hire the best faculty, attract great students from around the world, and pursue the best research. …

I once picked a fight with a scientist after he submitted a piece arguing that the Government of India should improve the supply of masks and other PPE to tame India’s tuberculosis burden. He couldn’t understand why I was opposed to publishing the piece, insisting he was “saying the rights things – the things that need to be said.” Here’s the thing: no one disagrees, and the dialogue has in fact moved leaps and bounds ahead. So while it may be the right thing to say, I’m not sure it needs to be said – much less deserves a thousand words. Put differently: You’re a minister, try moving the needle!

To that end, I have introduced a private members bill to grant IIM-level autonomy to the IITs that have been selected as institutions of eminence.

Okay… Is this what the article was about: to build support for your Bill? According to PRS, fewer than 4% of private members’ Bills were even discussed during the 14th Lok Sabha (i.e. Modi’s first term as prime minister). Why not build support within the party and introduce it as a government Bill?

Our civilisation is marked by its unending quest for knowledge, … The Mundaka Upanishad enlightens us: Satyameva Jayate – Truth alone triumphs. Our republic is based on this eternal principle.

Seriously, STAHP. 😂

How does a fan work?

Everywhere I turn, all the talk is about the coronavirus, and it’s exhausting because I already deal with news of the coronavirus as part of my day-job. It’s impossible to catch people having conversations about anything else at all. I don’t blame them, of course, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.

I must admit I relished the opportunity to discuss some electrical engineering and power-plant management when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nine-minute power shutdown event on April 5. So now, to take a break from public health and epidemiology, as well as to remember that a world beyond the coronavirus – and climate change and all the other Other Problems out there – exists, I’ve decided to make sense of how a fan works.

Yes, a household fan, of the kind commonly found in houses in the tropics that have electricity supply and whose members have been able to afford the few thousand rupees for the device. The fan’s ubiquity is a testament to how well we have understood two distinct parts of nature: electromagnetic interactions and fluid flow.

When you flick the switch, a fan comes on, turning about faster and faster until it has reached the speed you’ve set on the regulator, and a few seconds later, you feel cooler. This simple description reveals four distinct parts: the motor inside the fan, the regulator, the blades and the air. Let’s take them one at a time.

The motor inside the fan is an induction motor. It has two major components: the rotor, which is the part that rotates, and the stator, which is the part that remains stationary. All induction motors use alternating current to power themselves, but the rotor and stator are better understood using a direct-current (DC) motor simply because these motors are simpler, so you can understand a lot about their underlying principles simply by looking at them.

Consider an AA battery with a wire connecting its cathode to its anode. A small current will flow through the wire due to the voltage provided by the battery. Now, make a small break in this wire and attach another piece of wire there, bent in the shape of a rectangle, like so:

Next, place the rectangular loop in a magnetic field, such as by placing a magnet’s north pole to one side and a south pole to another:

When a current flows through the loop, it develops a magnetic field around itself. The idea that ‘like charges repel’ applies to magnetic charges as well (borne out through Lenz’s law; we’ll come to that in a bit), so if you orient the external magnetic field right, the loop’s magnetic field could repel it and exert a force on the wire to flip over. And once it has flipped over, the repelling force goes away and the loop doesn’t have to flip anymore.

But we can’t have that. We want the loop to keep flipping over, since that’s how we get rotational motion. We also don’t want the loop to lose contact with the circuit as it flips. To fix both these issues, we add a component called a split-ring commutator at the junction between the circuit and the rectangular loop.

Credit: http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/magnetic/comtat.html

The commutator consists of two separate pieces of copper attached to the loop. Each piece brushes against a block of graphite connected to the circuit. When the loop has flipped over once, the commutator ensures that it’s still connected to the circuit. However, the difference is that the loop’s endpoints now carry current in the opposite direction, producing a magnetic field oriented the other way. But because the loop has flipped over, the new field is still opposed to the external field, and the loop is forced to flip once more. This way, the loop keeps rotating.

Our DC motor is now complete. The stator is the external magnetic field, because it does not move; the rotor is the rectangular loop, because it rotates.

A DC electric motor with a split-ring commutator (light blue). The green arrows depict the direction of force exerted by the magnetic field on the current carrying loop. Credit: Lookang/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

In an induction motor, like in a DC motor, the stator is a magnet. When a direct current is passed through it, the stator generates a steady magnetic field around itself. When an alternating current is passed through it, however, the magnetic field itself rotates because the current is constantly changing direction.

Alternating current has three phases. The stator of an induction motor is really a ring of electromagnets, divided into three groups, each subtending an angle of 120º around the stator. When the three-phase current is passed through the stator, each phase magnetises one group of magnets in sequence. So as the phases alternate, one set of magnets is magnetised at a time, going round and round. This gives rise to the rotating magnetic field. (In a DC motor, the direction of the direct current is mechanically flipped – i.e. reoriented through space by 180º degrees – so the flip is also of 180º at a time.)

A stator of ringed electromagnets produces a rotating magnetic field as a sum of magnetic vectors from three phase coils. Caption and credit: Mtodorov_69/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The rotor in an induction motor consists of electrical wire coiled around a ring of steel. As the stator’s magnetic field comes alive and begins to rotate, the field ‘cuts’ across the coiled wire and induces a current in them. This current in turn produces a magnetic field coiled around the wires, called the rotor’s magnetic field.

In 1834, a Russian physicist named Heinrich Emil Lenz found that magnetic fields also have their own version of Newton’s third law. Called Lenz’s law, it states that if a magnetic field ‘M’ induces a current in a wire, and the current creates a secondary magnetic field ‘F’, M and F will oppose each other.

Similarly, the stator’s magnetic field will repel the rotor’s magnetic field, causing the former to push on the latter. This force in turn causes the rotor to rotate.

We’ve got the fan started, but the induction motor has more to offer.

The alternating current passing through the stator will constantly push the rotor to rotate faster. However, we often need the fan to spin at a specific speed. To balance the two, we use a regulator. The simplest regulator is a length of wire of suitably high resistance that reduces the voltage between the source and the stator, reducing the amount of power reaching the stator. However, if the fan needs to spin very slowly, such a regulator will have to have very high resistance, and in turn will produce a lot of heat. To overcome this problem, modern regulators are capacitors, not resistors. And since resistance doesn’t vary smoothly while capacitance does, capacitor regulators also allow for smooth speed control.

There is another downside to the speed. At no point can the rotor develop so much momentum that the stator’s magnetic field no longer induces a useful current in the rotor’s coils. (This is what happens in a generator: the rotor becomes the ‘pusher’, imparting energy to the stator that then feeds power into the grid.) That is, in an induction motor, the rotor must rotate slower than the stator.

Finally, the rotor itself – made of steel – cannot become magnetised from scratch. That is, if the steel is not at all magnetised when the stator’s magnetic field comes on, the rotor’s coils will first need to generate enough of a magnetic field to penetrate the steel. Only then can the steel rotor begin to move. This requirement gives rise to the biggest downside of induction motors: each motor consumes a fifth of the alternating current to magnetise the rotor.

Thus, we come to the third part. You’ve probably noticed that your fan’s blades accumulate dust more along one edge than the other. This is because the blades are slightly and symmetrically curved down in a shape that aerodynamics engineers call aerofoils or airfoils. When air flows onto a surface, like the side of a building, some of the air ‘bounces’ off, and the surface experiences an equal and opposite reaction that literally pushes on the surface. The rest of the air drags on the surface, akin to friction.

Airfoils are surfaces specifically designed to be ‘attacked’ by air such that they maximise lift and minimise drag. The most obvious example is an airplane wing. An engine attached to the wing provides thrust, motoring the vehicle forward. As the wing cuts through the air, the air flows over the wing’s underside, generating both lift and drag. But the wing’s shape is optimised to extract as much lift as possible, to push the airplane up into the air.

Examples of airfoils. ULM stands for ultralight motorised aircraft. Credit: Oliver Cleynen/Wikimedia Commons

Engineers derive this shape using two equations. The first – the continuity equation – states that if a fluid passes through a wider cross-section at some speed, it will subsequently move faster through a narrower cross section. The second – known as Bernoulli’s principle – stipulates that all times, the sum of a fluid’s kinetic energy (speed), potential energy (pressure) and internal energy (the energy of the random motion of the fluid’s constituent molecules) must be constant. So if a fluid speeds up, it will compensate by, say, exerting lower pressure.

So if an airfoil’s leading edge, the part that sweeps into the air, is broader than its trailing edge, the part from which the air leaves off, the air will leave off faster while exerting more lift. A fan’s blades, of course, can’t lift so to conserve momentum the air will exit with greater velocity.

When you flick a switch, you effectively set this ingenious combination of electromagnetic and aerodynamic engineering in motion, whipping the air about in your room. However, the fan doesn’t cool the air. The reason you feel cooler is because the fan circulates the air through your room, motivating more and more air particles to come in contact with your warm skin and carry away a little bit of heat. That is, you just lose heat by convection.

All of this takes only 10 seconds – but it took humankind over a century of research, numerous advancements in engineering, millions of dollars in capital and operational expenses, an efficient, productive and equitable research culture, and price regulation by the state as well as market forces to make it happen. Such is the price of ubiquity and convenience.

The virus beyond biology

A perfectly agreeable suggestion on first glance, especially since it provides an opportunity for a quick rebuke when faced with such conspiratorial, often xenophobic claims. But on a second or third reading, you find the problem (apart from Harari’s habitual oversimplification): insinuating that your interlocutor is an idiot is only going to have them dig their heels in further, possibly even change tack to accuse you of being a snob that is out of touch with the masses. And that would probably be right.

Not nearly everything about the new coronavirus outbreak pertains to basic biology. For example, understanding the SEIR model used to predict the spread of the virus does not require me to know anything about the virus’s tropism or the human body’s defence mechanisms. Instead, I simply need to know the model applies and then, based on the model’s predictions, I become qualified to comment on how the virus might spread (as long as I adhere to the principles Gautam Menon outlined). More broadly, knowing how a virus works is incidental, and deferring to the facts of biology – or any branch of scientific enquiry for that matter – as a way to qualify them to comment meaningfully about the world is patronising. Don’t trust theories if they don’t make sense to you, period, but at the same time ensure your own knowledge of biology is good enough to separate good evidence from bad.

Speaking of evidence – and perhaps even more importantly – these arguments when they do happen are founded not on the availability of facts but on a deliberate decision to ignore or at least suspect them, and instead reach for those claims that reinforce preexisting beliefs. The way to argue with such claimants is to not. Failing that, you’re unlikely to engage them with evidence alone, even less change their minds, without having to change your own conviction that the middle ground lies not in the realm of science and reason but somewhere in the overlap of socio-politics and ultimately emotions.