Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication
One person recently asked me during a discussion on science communication the Q, 'what is the most difficult part of science communication according to your experience?'.
And this is my reply to him:
Yes, explaining the complex part of science in a layman's language is undoubtedly hard. But I can overcome this problem as I have gained some experience in dealing with it over the years. People I interact with also helped me in understanding what makes it difficult to follow the substance in science so that now I could negotiate it with hard work.
Providing authentic news is important too when there are conflicting and confusing reports flying all over the space. As I am scientifically trained, I can identify things that are faulty, misleading and papers that are attention seeking for the wrong reasons most of the time. Even if I read such articles on science sites, I don't trust them. Because some of the sites that deal with science are run by journalists and not by people of science. And even if they are run by scientists, if the scientists are attached to the political parties, economic establishments that fund their work, what they publish need not be accurate or authentic. Some sort of spinning occurs when these reports come into the public domain. You need a sharp eye and a very analytical mind to detect these frauds. I usually read original papers in peer-reviewed journals before posting them here. I try my best to keep away from such things if my instinct tells me the story need not be true. This again comes from training and experience.
However, telling people - especially my friends and relatives - that I just don't blindly accept and follow their baseless beliefs is the most difficult thing for me to do. I try my best to avoid situations that can lead to arguments but still explain things from my view anyway. Some try to understand, some don't. Some say my thoughts are very 'advanced', while others think I am arrogant because of my views based on rationality that deviate from the normal. Isn't obeying what your close circle of family, friends, culture, elders and well wishers tell you to do without asking questions a sign of a 'good' human being? :)
But my scientific training told me to ask questions. And not to believe and accept everything people say with closed eyes and mouth even if they are 'well experienced'. People might be older than I am. But the views originated from their culturally conditioned minds give me some difficulties to accept them. Some scientists too cannot overcome these problems posed by conditioned minds. But I think it is a must for a science communicator to think rationally and critically and overcome various conditioning problems and be neutral to do justice to his or her job. True scientists cannot tolerate cognitive dissonance ( science doesn't allow for the holding of two contradictory positions). They must choose the facts and stick to them. Should we cater to peoples' archaic or ancient views to maintain our friendships and relationships or to get into the good books of people who judge us? Can we be dishonest? Can we avoid the topic totally and allow delusions to flourish? Isn't that doing injustice to my chosen field?
Some of my friends' beliefs really shock me and make me think and understand their worlds too. As a science communicator, it is extremely hard to balance things - I mean sticking to my science at the same time understanding others' opinions to make them open their minds to scientific explanations. Recently one of my uncles read my article on Science and Spirituality (1). I know his beliefs differ from the view point of science. He couldn't say anything against it - for that matter none who read it could oppose it - that is the beauty of science - because my points are based on facts. I also knew my article created ripples in his mind as it deals with the problem in a rational way while his beliefs don't. But it made him think and unable to cope with the disturbance that was created by my article, whenever he comes to face to face with me now he just bends his head and avoids talking! He respects my views based on science and facts but at the same time he is unable to leave his beliefs ingrained in him since his childhood leading him to think he is making a mistake. I can understand that! I try to talk to him as normally as possible, avoiding the topic, putting him at ease.
Dealing with people's core beliefs, opinions based on their trusts is highly explosive. Several of my cousins and friends still think "Gangajal'' or water from the river Ganga brought from 'Kasi' or Varanasi is very pure and they drink it. Because their grandmothers and mothers told them this. When I try to tell them that river Ganga now is one of the highly polluted rivers in the country and the water brought from Kasi can cause health issues, they refuse to accept it and argue that the water is so pure that it can be stored for ever without it getting spoiled! No amount of evidence can change their minds! But I still try my best. I tell them to at least make the Ganga water pass through a water purifier before consuming it.
Another turbulent ground is alternative medicine. Like Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Avurveda and Unani. Alternative medicine, for many, is more a religion than a science. "Enlightening" people about the lack of evidence can actually be deeply offensive. Not only people who take medicines prescribed by 'doctors' practicing in these fields, even the latter too defend their fields very fiercely. Scientists will not say all the alternate medicines are bad, but some of them are. Most of them are untested scientifically. And there are several reports that say some of these medicines are harmful ( 2,3,4).
We ourselves had very bad experience with some of these medicines. My mother used to take several ayurvedic medicines prescribed by well qualified ayurvedic doctors for her knee problems. Some 15 years back she developed severe diabetes with her blood sugar levels going up to 500 - 600 mg/dL. The main stream doctors when consulted asked us about the medicines she was taking. When told about the ayurvedic medicines, they asked us to immediately stop using them. They told us some of them contain steroids that enhance the diabetic conditions several fold if people are vulnerable and genetically predisposed to them.
My sister consulted doctors who practice Homeopathy for her sciatic problem. Even after taking the medicines for six months, there wasn't any improvement in her condition. Only exercises and prescribed medicines from mainstream doctors could help her in the end to better her condition.
Several people ask me why there are colleges that still teach and train students in these alternate medical practices if they are not reliable. Yes, why? I tell them not all old medical systems are bad. Some of them are good too. But each one of the claims in these systems has to be tested scientifically and only when evidence clarifies that they are good, we can adopt and use them.
I think I 'win' most of the time because people fall silent very often unable to oppose my rational views properly. Whether they accept them or not is anybody's guess. But our friendships and relationships continue to flourish :)
What satisfies me the most is - my articles and talks will definitely make people think. They give them an alternative to deal with. And if their ways don't work, they follow mine and get convinced that these are the best ones!
But am I arrogant and argumentative?
I think knowing some facts and keeping quiet even if the world is suffering because of ignorance and misconceptions is the most destructive thing one can do to the society one lives in. It doesn't matter if people think I am arrogant or argumentative. I am going to put the facts before people. I am going to make them think. It is up to them to decide what to do next with the facts I bring to their view.
As a science communicator, it gives me tremendous satisfaction that I am doing my job in the way it should be done.
When I think about my own experience, I find it very surprising that after getting a Ph.D. in sciences, my entire view of the world has changed! Every belief, opinion, misconception I came across before that got a thorough analysis and almost all of them have been tossed out of the window!
But most of my colleagues still stick to their old beliefs.
Then what is the difference between the training I got and theirs? Even though some of them studied and did their research in the same university as I did, there is absolutely no change in them! The cultural, religious conditioning of their minds is absolute!
The difference, I think is 'my grandfather' who was a social reformer and his views have been fed to my father and from him, I got that radical analytical behaviour.
Your family, loved ones, culture, religion will definitely control and condition your mind. Scientific training gives courage up to some extent to overcome it. But if you are not strong enough to go against the tide and can ignore a tag of 'arrogant person', you will never change. Only a handful of people will have the courage to come out of the safety nets they are in to do this.
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