Introduction to today’s Guest Opinion Piece
The primary problem Indian naturalists face is lack of access to suitable information and knowledge about their own biodiversity.
Very often, this knowledge exists but is locked up in the minds and notes of experts. The common man is denied access to the fruits of research, very often most of which has been funded by public money. Among the many inequalities in India, a de facto caste system separates those involved in science from those interested in science.
Since this blog has by its licensing voted clearly and categorically for open science, I had the privilege of requesting Shyamal, a practitioner of making science open and accessible to all, to comment on this. Being a friend, he has obliged.
Ashwin asked me to write about my rationale in contributing to science articles on Wikipedia and with some reluctance I have decided to try and articulate some of my reasons and it turns out that the linking ideas are more tortuous than I had first imagined.
Trying to think about how one acts requires an “out of one’s mind” experience! Probably the reason for the craziness of philosophers and the unreadability of their writings.
In the genre of unreadable French philosophy are ideas from a French scholar named Bruno Latour, whose obfuscated writings have even prompted academic practical jokes (see Sokal affair), but some secondary interpretations of whose work are enlightening. Latour is a philosopher who has looked at science critically, a discipline that many would imagine is well-defined and not in need of any further thought.
Having been on several Indian campuses that ostensibly deal with science, I have often wondered if there was something completely faulty in the foundations.
India is perhaps unique in having a constitution that prescribes a “scientifc temper” as the duty of every citizen. This is dangerous country to tread on, especially when one does not have the required “clout”, academic or otherwise and even more so when most professional Indian scientists lead double lives, with even biologists (who in some other countries top in atheism) holding strong religious views, believing in miracles and praying that their papers get published. It would seem as if religious hierarchies are reflected in the hierarchies of science.
Indeed, questioning scientists is often made to look like blasphemy. When a scientist/ex-president touts the idea of linking rivers, it has be a “scientifically sound” idea right? Wrong, scientific ideas are always open to question and the scientific legitimacy/authority of an idea does not automatically transfer to all ideas produced by the same person.
Linus Pauling, one of the rare individuals to have received two Nobel prizes, had ideas on prolonging life that are today considered cranky. It is worth examining some ideas on science and breaking some myths. Latour suggests that real progress in science can only be made by breaking hierarchies and boundaries.
Thor Heyerdahl on 'boundaries'..
Samuel Johnson - poet, essayist, moralist, biographer, editor and lexicographer...
A famous quotation by Samuel Johnson, best known for his pioneering work in creating a dictionary of the English language, says –
“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries”.
While Isaac Newton said (supposedly during one of his rare moments of modesty, but also disputed by some scholars who claimed he was mocking Hooke) that
“If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants”
Latour essentially clubs the ideas in these two quotes into what he terms as black-boxes, ideas that are used as founding principles to develop other ideas and the networks of links between ideas and their authors. He suggests that scientists gain legitimacy in their writings in journals by providing these linking ideas by citing other sources and stating in effect that-
“if you find me wrong, you are probably finding something wrong in all these others that I quote”.
This kind of legitimacy gain by garnering support is seen in many areas of scientific research. In others, one needs merely to be be descriptive, placing the facts and assuring the reader that the way the facts were gathered is “verifiable” and “repeatable“. Verifiability and repeatability are key to making scientific facts what they are.
Suppose, one heard that “Cherrapunji has the highest rainfall in India” – how does one determine if it was correct ? To determine if that claim was correct, one would actually have to measure rainfall in a uniform way in all parts of the country, but we do not measure the rainfall at every point and secondly we do not know if the man who makes the measurement in Cherrapunji is actually doing it right. (If I remember right, Alexander Frater found the local government guest-house cook in charge of taking the rain measurements and noted that he used used kitchen utensils to transfer water from the rain gauge into a measuring cylinder).
And yet despite the lack of “accuracy” it seems like the readings are “verifiable” in that if one took the water out of the rain gauge and poured it into a measuring cylinder onself, it would probably be the same as what our “cook” produces.
To a large extent, a lot of research data that is “verifiable” or “repeatable” is not actually verified or repeated as it is beyond the needs or means of most.
Now our governments tell us that they spent X million on developing Y which is supposedly good for all the people concerned. All of a sudden we have the Right to Information Act and we expect our government to tell us how they are spending the X million. None of this information is probably “verifiable” but the provision of that information gives us some “faith” in the path taken.
Scientific research takes the same route. Bruno Latour takes a huge step and brings in the thesis that politics and science are indistinguishable and suggests that there is convergent path. A guiding implicit principle in both politics and science is an inherent “equality” in the abilities of individuals.
What does any of this mean for people who are interested in biodiversity?
Most of us look at our natural world, but as “non-experts” we take it for granted that
(1) “experts” know everything
(2) as a “non-expert” one cannot contribute much to “expert” knowledge.
There are the fortunate few who are in a good position, for instance, to identify species based on their experience, access to collections, literature and other knowledgeable people. Some of these people have made that knowledge more widely accessible by digesting it into guide books. Field guides and other such literature enable further knowledge gathering by recruiting new observers who aid in refining information on distribution, knowledge on life-history and so on.
This kind of “democratization” of knowledge however can be seen by some “professionals” as undermining their expertise or monopoly.
Knowledge monopolies have been and will continue to be destroyed; Google Earth lets me find my way around, search for addresses of shops. At one level, there is nothing new in Google Earth, the underlying data is merely held locked up by the Survey of India, ISRO and the local telephone directories. Put them all together, make it cheaply accessible, leaving people to help themselves and the results are incredible.
Governments on the other hand are not even able to share information between their departments, a recent road underpass construction in Bangalore which was supposed to be done in a record 48 hours ended up taking two months because nobody could warn the roads departments of the water pipes and telephone wires that stood in their way!
While Governments often complain of the ways that such information can be misused, museum experts tend to point out that the lay public are unqualified to use knowledge.
This kind of circular reasoning has helped knowledge hierarchies sustain themselves and it seems that the flattening trend that has been introduced by Internet based ideas such as Google Earth, Wikipedia and The Internet Archive will have increasingly greater effects on the daily life of individuals and if Governments allow it, greater efficiency in governance.
Someone recently posted a photograph of a moth from Texas and based on a minimal education in entomology and access to information on websites I was able to identify it to down to the species level, something that one simply cannot do for an Indian species because our experts (Where are they? Where does one find one?) probably expect formal letters requesting identification or perhaps even payments.
A lack of pro-activeness, plain laziness or wilful refusal to divulge information? Hard to tell, but “good science” is not just about a publication record but about making the path to knowledge more accessible and open to all and nothing is gained by obfuscating the path or by sanctimonious claims to knowledge that has been “revealed” to a select few.
Indeed it is hard to understand why the Zoological Survey of India, the Botanical Survey of India, and the Bombay Natural History Society, all of which receive public funds from the Ministry of Environment and Forests should not scan and make its library and specimen collections publicly available. In the meantime, as individuals, one can do their bit by sharing their daily learning and adding a drop of knowledge into the ocean.
Last week I happened on a beautiful and common cockroach. My one-time advisor Professor C A Viraktamath kindly identified it as a ”Therea petiveriana” and a little bit of browsing allowed me to put together whatever little appeared to be known about it on
Now you should not trust any bit of information on that page, but the bits of information on that page can be followed up to the original sources and maybe some of the information that has been published in the cited journals will be found to be incorrect. These corrections should be published in a suitable journal and that Wikipedia page should then be corrected by providing a citation to the newly published research.
That to me is the process of making science visible.
Are Indian scientists interested?
* Pearson, D. L. and J. A. Shetterly. 2006. How do published field guides influence interactions between amateurs and professionals in entomology? American Entomologist 52: 246-2.
* Pearson, D. L. and Cassola, Fabio. 2007. Are we doomed to repeat history? A model of the past using tiger beetles (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae) and conservation biology to anticipate the future.
Journal of Insect Conservation, Volume 11, Number 1 / March, 2007 (Copy available on request from the butterflydiaries).
* Kristine L. Callis, Lindsey R. Christ, Julian Resasco, David W. Armitage, Jeremy D. Ash, Timothy T. Caughlin, Sharon F. Clemmensen, Stella M. Copeland, Timothy J. Fullman, Ryan L. Lynch, Charley Olson, Raya A. Pruner, Ernane H.M. Vieira-Neto, Raneve West-Singh, Emilio M. Bruna (2009) Improving Wikipedia: educational opportunity and professional responsibility. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24(4):177-179.
Walk the talk! Some of the images by Shyamal made for use freely by anyone! (Free license - CC SA 3.0 ).
Find a list of images already made and to be made by Shyamal here. His contributions to Wikipedia? Here!