Opinion Op Ed 16 Mar 2016 Why science needs jo ...
The writer, a renowned astrophysicist, is professor emeritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune University. He was Cambridge University’s Senior Wrangler in Maths in 1959.

Why science needs journalism

Published Mar 16, 2016, 1:19 am IST
Updated Mar 16, 2016, 1:19 am IST
Most scientists work in government or private labs and are periodically promoted.
Local and national awards for popularisation of science will certainly help in raising its popularity. Representational image
 Local and national awards for popularisation of science will certainly help in raising its popularity. Representational image

Sage Narada from Hindu mythology may be considered the father of journalism. Always on the move, he took special pleasure in conveying to Person A what he considered relevant news for him or her. Like his modern counterparts, he would derive special pleasure if the event reported by him caused the maximum turmoil. It’s not hard to imagine the following dialogue between him and Lord Vishnu, the one of the Trinity whose job it is to ensure that the world created by Lord Brahma (the first of the Trinity) continues to function without any major problem.

Lord Vishnu asks Narada if everything is going well. Narada says, “Sir, barring one factor, everything is fine, thanks to your careful attention. The disturbing aspect is that my successors are failing in their duty of informing people of what is going on.”

This reply surprises Vishnu who points out how different TV channels are all the time putting out “Breaking News”. But Narada shakes his head and says, “Breaking nonsense, Sir! While running after such items which are often hyped out of proportion, they miss the real solid chunk of information which is so crucial to human existence and well-being. They stay away from any news of scientific or technological nature.”

Vishnu laughs and says, “Because they are conditioned to think that these are difficult subjects that are hard to understand.” Narada says, “Ironically, science and technology (S&T) are the major forces today on which human society functions. Today’s journalists and media people in general owe it to the society to alert them to anything significant taking place in the field of science and technology.”

Leaving these two to sort it out, let’s turn to the crucial issue — that S&T are an important part of today’s human existence. Nobody will deny this. That they lead to the creation of new concepts that lead to improvements in human standard of living, too, nobody will deny. Important also are ways, sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle, in which these changes occur.

But understanding and identifying these ways is only a part of the story. More importantly, we need to control them. Alvin Toffler, in his book Future Shock, highlighted the uncontrolled expansion of S&T. So can we compare the present situation with that of a diner eating in a restaurant whose menu is unlimited and the diner is invited to eat what he likes for a stipulated fixed price? With a lot of dishes stacked on the buffet table, the diner may be tempted to try as many as possible. The situation is worsened by the circumstance that new dishes keep appearing on the table! Obviously a diner not observing self-control may find himself having to cope with an upset stomach the following day.

Narada’s worry may be understood in this context. Unless we exercise self-control in using the “gifts” brought by S&T, we may find plenty to regret the following day. And to do so we need to understand, if not all, then at least the important implications of these gifts. If an invention is seen as advantageous in one sector, can it create an unpleasant reaction in another? Are production methods of an apparently advantageous product likely to create unacceptable pollution? Or, will excessive use of the product exhaust some vital natural resource?

There may be smug satisfaction today that we have created an ultimate weapon that will hold our enemy in check. But tomorrow’s situation may find us facing that weapon from the wrong end. This list can go on and on, but what has been stated here is sufficient to alert the society to the dangers to its very existence. This is where one needs the help of science journalism.

The media no doubt has the material resources to collect and distribute information on topics relating to S&T. At present there is shortage of those who can spot and identify such issues in S&T and who will do their own homework to assess their relevance to public interest. In short, we need persons familiar with science, who after spotting an issue can have a go at getting to know its relevance to the present-day society and, last but not the least, who can follow up the details through various information sources, including, of course, consultations with scientists themselves. In short, an independent mediaperson in science has to evolve in many directions.

This picture takes into consideration friendships between science journalists and scientists, which no doubt helps in the process of information collection and assessment. All too often a typical ivory tower scientist prefers isolation, arguing that interaction will be a waste of time which is better spent thinking about research, or that the layman, that is the mediaperson, will not gain anything since this work is complicated, or the scientist does not feel competent enough to explain the technical aspects of his work to a layman.

This is a major hurdle to the satisfactory growth of science journalism. A change in the mindset of a typical productive scientist has to be brought about. How? There are several ways. Local and national awards for popularisation of science will certainly help in raising its popularity. Most scientists work in government or private labs and are periodically promoted. Amongst the various criteria for evaluation, there may be one of science popularisation.

Workshops and schools with occasional national and international conferences can help generate interest amongst laymen to undertake popularisation of science. Indeed, aren’t each of these programmes being tried? The answer to this question is, “Yes, but not forcefully enough and not often enough.” The National Science Day does provide a stimulus but the dialogue between scientists and the lay person should not be limited to Science Day. It should be regular and deeper.

 

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