Caste, and science’s notability threshold

A webinar by The Life of Science on the construct of the ‘scientific genius’ just concluded, with Gita Chadha and Shalini Mahadev, a PhD scholar at HCU, as panellists. It was an hour long and I learnt a lot in this short time, which shouldn’t be surprising because, more broadly, we often don’t stop to question the conduct of science itself, how it’s done, who does it, their privileges and expectations, etc., and limit ourselves to the outcomes of scientific practice alone. The Life of Science is one of my favourite publications for making questions like these part of its core work (and a tiny bit also because it’s run by two good friends).

I imagine the organisers will upload a recording of the conversation at some point (edit: hopefully by Monday, says Nandita Jayaraj); they’ve also offered to collect the answers to many questions that went unanswered, only for lack of time, and publish them as an article. This was a generous offer and I’m quite looking forward to that.

I did have yet another question but I decided against asking it when, towards the end of the session, the organisers made some attempts to get me to answer a question about the media’s role in constructing the scientific genius, and I decided I’d work my question into what I could say. However, Nandita Jayaraj, one of The Life of Science‘s founders, ended up answering it to save time – and did so better than I could have. This being the case, I figured I’d blog my response.

The question itself that I’d planned to ask was this, addressed to Gita Chadha: “I’m confused why many Indians think so much of the Nobel Prizes. Do you think the Nobel Prizes in particular have affected the perception of ‘genius’?”

This query should be familiar to any journalist who, come October, is required to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for that year. When I started off at The Hindu in 2012, I’d cover these announcements with glee; I also remember The Hindu would carry the notes of the laureates’ accomplishments, published by the Nobel Foundation, in full on its famous science and tech. page the following day. At first I thought – and was told by some other journalists as well – that these prizes have the audience’s attention, so the announcements are in effect a chance to discuss science with the privilege of an interested audience, which is admittedly quite unusual in India.

However, today, it’s clear to me that the Nobel Prizes are deeply flawed in more ways than one, and if journalists are using them as an opportunity to discuss science – it’s really not worth it. There are many other ways to cover science than on the back of a set of prizes that simply augments – instead of in any way compensating for – a non-ideal scientific enterprise. So when we celebrate the Nobel Prizes, we simply valorise the enterprise and its many structural deformities, not the least of which – in the Indian context – is the fact that it’s dominated by upper-caste men, mostly Brahmins, and riddled with hurdles for scholars from marginalised groups.

Brahmins are so good at science not because they’re particularly gifted but because they’re the only ones who seem to have the opportunity – a fact that Shalini elucidated very clearly when she recounted her experiences as a Dalit woman in science, especially when she said: “My genius is not going to be tested. The sciences have written me off.” The Brahmins’ domination of the scientific workforce has a cascading set of effects that we then render normal simply because we can’t conceive of a different way science can be, including sparing the Brahmin genius of scrutiny, as is the privilege of all geniuses.

(At a seminar last year, some speakers on stage had just discussed the historical roots of India being so bad at experimental physics and had taken a break. Then, I overheard an audience member tell his friend that while it’s well and good to debate what we can and can’t pin on Jawaharlal Nehru, it’s amusing that Brahmin experts will have discussions about Brahmin physicists without either party considering if it isn’t their caste sensibility that prevents them from getting their hands dirty!)

The other way the Nobel Prizes are a bad for journalists indicts the norms of journalism itself. As I recently described vis-à-vis ‘journalistic entropy’, there is a sort of default expectation of reporters from the editorial side to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for their implicit newsworthiness instead of thinking about whether they should matter. I find such arguments about chronicling events without participating in them to be bullshit, especially when as a Brahmin I’m already part of Indian journalism’s caste problem.

Instead, I prefer to ask these questions, and answer them honestly in terms of the editorial policies I have the privilege to influence, so that I and others don’t end up advancing the injustices that the Nobel Prizes stand for. This is quite akin to my, and others’, older argument that journalists shouldn’t blindly offer their enterprise up as a platform for majoritarian politicians to hijack and use as their bullshit megaphones. But if journalists don’t recast their role in society accordingly, they – we – will simply continue to celebrate the Nobel laureates, and by proxy the social and political conditions that allowed the laureates in particular to succeed instead of others, and which ultimately feed into the Nobel Prizes’ arbitrarily defined ‘prestige’.

Note that the Nobel Prizes here are the perfect examples, but only examples nonetheless, to illustrate a wider point about the relationship between scientific eminence and journalistic notability. The Wire for example has a notability threshold: we’re a national news site, which means we don’t cover local events and we need to ensure what we do cover is of national relevance. As a corollary, such gatekeeping quietly implies that if we feature the work of a scientist, then that scientist must be a particularly successful one, a nationally relevant one.

And when we keep featuring and quoting upper-caste male scientists, we further the impression that only upper-caste male scientists can be good at science. Nothing says more about the extent to which the mainstream media has allowed this phenomenon to dominate our lives than the fact of The Life of Science‘s existence.

It would be foolish to think that journalistic notability and scientific eminence aren’t linked; as Gita Chadha clarified at the outset, one part of the ‘genius’ construct in Western modernity is the inevitability of eminence. So journalists need to work harder to identify and feature other scientists by redefining their notability thresholds – even as scientists and science administrators need to rejig their sense of the origins and influence of eminence in science’s practice. That Shalini thinks her genius “won’t be tested” is a brutal clarification of the shape and form of the problem.