An attempt at setting the information balance right

The problem is not that there is too much information, but that there is too little of the right kind

In his brilliant book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson shows through many examples how history often credits the wrong person. They show how being in the right place at the right time or publishing your ideas in the right publication so that the right people notice them is some times more important than having the idea.

For instance, today the great astronomer Edward Hubble is credited to have discovered that we live in an ever-expanding universe. However, it was an astronomer with the cheerily intergalactic name Vesto Slipher who should have got the credit.

PSM_V31_D740_Carl_Wilhelm_Scheele
Carl Scheele (Credit: Wikimedia)

Or take the example of Carl Scheele, a Swedish chemist, who discovered eight new elements—oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine, fluorine, manganese, barium, molybdenum and tungsten—and received credit for none of them. His work was either overlooked or made it late to publication after someone else had made the same discovery independently. The credit instead went to chemists of the English-speaking world.

And, if you’re still not convinced, try Josiah Willard Gibbs, who Bryson calls the “most brilliant person that most people have never heard of”. Between 1875 and 1878 he produced a series of papers on the thermodynamic principles of nearly everything but published them in the Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Science, a journal that “managed to be obscure even in Connecticut”. Although Gibbs was recognised later in life, most of the work he did remained hidden for too long at great cost to the scientific enterprise.

Information games

The reason I am telling you all this is not just because it is interesting, but also because there is a lesson we can learn from these examples. All three scientists who got scooped lived in the age when information was scarce and the fastest it travelled was at the speed of a moving vehicle. 

We live in the age of information excess and the fastest it travels is the fastest it will ever travel (ie at the speed of light). However, we are still stuck with one problem that those gentlemen of the 19th century faced and perhaps it has become worse—who receives what information matters even more today. With the internet throwing up interesting things on our screens every day, are we getting the information we really need?

I’ll explain the problem with two examples. The first comes from how we learn history. This came to my attention during my first months in Oxford. Ask any non-Indian what they thought about British colonisation of India and you got a view that was quite different to what I was taught in school in India.

Partisan views

Most people acknowledged that there was imperial excess. They bemoaned the human cost of the partition between India and Pakistan, for instance. But they, particularly British friends, also praised how the British gave Indians railways, law and order, the English language, and, some even suggested, the Indian identity. Most importantly, they saw Indian independence as British leaving India. This was a time, one said, that Britain was relinquishing control of other colonies too following the troubles that World War II had caused for Britain domestically.

Sardar Patel. Credit: Govt of India
Sardar Patel. Credit: Govt of India

This wasn’t what I was taught in school. Indian textbooks glorify the independence struggle, it seemed. I was surrounded by some of the smartest people I had ever met, and instead of questioning them I had to go back and read history. What I realised soon though was that neither my British friends nor I had quite the balanced view that one ought to have of this important period in world history.

I wasn’t expecting my British friends to know about Mangal Pandey or Bhagat Singh, but I thought they would be aware of the Quit India Movement and Jallianwallah Bagh massacre. That they would recognise the importance of the role of freedom fighters, such as Sardar Patel, in accelerating India’s independence. Equally, I suspect my British friends thought I should have more appreciation for the things the British left in India.

The point here is that where the information came from changed how people viewed the world. In this case the topic was a well-studied period of history, and so I was able to educate myself enough to get a balanced view. But what about more recent events?

History’s value

In The Sceptical Patriot, Sidin Vadukut analysed history textbooks used by Indian kids today. He found that none of them devote any space to post-Independence period. Beyond a little bit on the Indian constitution, there is nothing about the wars with Pakistan and China or about the Naxal movement, which is considered the greatest threat to India’s internal security.

Why should Indian kids learn about this stuff? Vadukut’s story might give you an answer:

Sometime in 2002 or 2003, a group of Japanse Hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, visited Chennai. The city was a stop on what I think was a global tour to promote peace and condemn nuclear weapons. They decided to visit a primary school and tell the students why the idea of nuclear weapons was a bad one.

I read about the school visit in one of the local newspapers. I don’t recall which one, and no amount of searching online has thrown up the original news report. But the broad details of what happened are seared into my mind.

After the presentation, the Hibakusha asked the children:  should countries go to war? No, they all said in chorus. Should countries use nuclear weapons? No. Should India use nuclear weapons? Never. What if the enemy is Pakistan? Oh, Pakistan is a special case, the kids said, we should totally nuke them.

Every time I retell this story at a public forum, there is an explosion of laughter followed by an awkward silence.

Absence of proper facts

This brings me to the second example, which is closer to me—science journalism. The media landscape of the west is changing. The old media houses are losing audience and revenue at such a pace that it feels like a crisis. The first to lose their jobs in such cases tend to be specialist journalists such as those covering science, environment and health. Sometimes the sections live on, but they shrink in size and depth. The reporting gets done by general reporters instead.

There have been some positive changes with new media organisations trying to fill the gap. And despite all that, even with shrinking newsrooms, western media’s science coverage remains so much better than Indian media’s. A survey I did a few years ago of Indian newspapers gives the same results today—proper science reporting doesn’t exist.

This is a problem. Most of the time if you come across a science story in Indian newspapers, it happens to be one from an international wire service, such as AP, Reuters or The Guardian. Despite the international nature of science, Indian readers are fed the writing of western journalists. The stories become less relevant and thus less interesting. While the hard-science stories are still somewhat valuable, those about the environment, health or even technology aren’t.

This matters because policy depends on the quality of information that decision-makers get. One more example from Vadukut’s book makes that case absolutely clear. In March 2008, Daggubati Purandeswari, the then minister of state for human resource development, when talking about India’s education system, parroted “facts” about Indians abroad, which had been forwarded in a hoax chain email.

“Sir, as rightly pointed out by the honourable member, our students have been placed very well globally. For example 12% scientists in the United States are Indians. We have 38% if the doctors in the US who are again Indians. 36% of NASA scientists are again Indians. So, the students are doing very well, and they are reaching places which again reflects on the quality of education that is being provided to our children in the country.”

All of these “facts” can be easily verified as being false, but the honourable MP did not think she needed to do that. Her words were then reported in Times of India the next day as “facts”. And that is how facts get made up.

Science suffers

That aside, had there been good science journalists writing about the achievements of scientists in India, perhaps Daggubati would not have relied on information from dodgy sources. India’s premier institutes, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, never figure in the world university rankings. From the information available to the minister today, she won’t be able to figure out whether the absence of IITs in such rankings says something about the poor quality of research or the lack of communication of that research.

There is also another side to this story. In my time at Oxford, whenever there was a paper published in an Indian or Chinese journal, I was explicitly advised not to give it too much value. The suggestion was that research in these journals was not reliable, which in other words means that the researchers were making up data.

This kind of opinion may have been formed by experience. But mostly this opinion was the result of western media reporting negative science stories emerging from China and India, which make academics wary of trusting such research. This, I believe, must lead to missing out on genuinely good research being produced in these countries.

The solution, of course, is one that will require change from the big editorial houses. In my conversations with Indian journalists, I’ve been told many times that there is thirst for good science content but no publication is ready to provide it.

A different solution that a friend and I are pursuing is to collate good science stories from around the web that have their focus on the other side of the world. While this doesn’t solve the need for more science reporting, at least it provides a central place to find good content related to India. Some of it exists, but sadly it tends not to be at one place but spread across different publications. (You can sign up for our newsletter here.)

Those gentlemen in the 19th century suffered personal loss because key information didn’t reach the right audience. Today’s tragedy is the same but the reason is different—key information is not reaching the right audience because either there is too much information and very poor filters or there aren’t enough people to collect and present the information that is so desperately needed.

Lead image: teresaling. Thanks to Deeksha Sharma and Vasudevan Mukunth for reading drafts of this post.

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3 thoughts on “An attempt at setting the information balance right”

  1. Very well articulated. This is a big problem. Media, whether print, digital or televised have become businesses themselves which certain vested interests such as politicians and corporates use for their own purposes. As far as I know a lot of people start reading mostly when there is a need which is incorrigible.

    For instance, take the elections. Imagine most of us do take the pain to be as informed as possible but end up making decisions based on some form of news which we might not even be legitimate. In this scenario, people themselves don’t take the effort to understand the other side (Nowadays it really takes effort!). Once these opinions or views get entrenched, they are hard to re-mould, even slightly. Politicians and corporates should not be encouraged to invest in something such as the media which is the only source of information about any subject to millions.

    But yeah your article does talk about other mediums through which information flows, but largely I see a lazy populace out there, who do not have the time nor the patience to understand a subject whole-heartedly and are comfortable with tagline journalism or superficiality.

    1. You’re right. Journalism in India has a real problem. The only thing I don’t agree with is that people are lazy. As a journalist, I have to think about this every day. We can’t expect people to put in the effort. It is the job of journalists to provide information in a way that is accessible. Being an informed citizen is their duty, but if it takes more than the necessary effort to do get there then it’s not the citizen’s fault but that of journalists.

  2. A good, well thought out and presented article..I think the way the media and the press present information based on what viewer ratings or ads will generate precludes information of real value.

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