By Sopan Joshi
‘Have you studied science? No? Not even a B Sc?’ Not an uncommon eventuality for a reporter who needs a scientist’s help. It is followed by a look of disapproval on the scientist’s face, telling the reporter the discussion is not going to last too long or provide the answers he needs.
A lot of scientists do not like to discuss science with non-scientists, which is not at all surprising. The world of science is built around peer review and empirical experimentation. Journalists and storytellers are external to it. Besides, some well-known science reporters have an education in science and a great familiarity with that world. That is how the latest developments get reported in the media.
The real tragedy in Indian journalism, though, is the absence of science in reporting the non-scientific world. For example, sports reporters seldom talk about aerodynamics of a swinging cricket ball, or the swerve of a football after a free kick. Reports on drought seldom move the focus away from the human tragedy to the hydrology of the region. Travel writing does not bring us up to speed on the geology of a tourism hotspot that makes it unique.
Which is a shame, because science can help us better understand everything; throw sharp beams of light in the dark corners of our imagination. The Indian media, though, has relegated science to the weekly science supplement, or to the reporting of the latest technological innovations. The tyranny of technology is rampant, because it places the world of innovation in the everyday world. Even if it is not the immediate world of the reader, it is often a world the reader aspires to, and hence, can imagine it.
Technology is sexy, its impact immediate. A better gadget, a new health treatment, an environment-friendly car, a robot that can cook. The products of technology – no matter how outlandish – are guaranteed human interest. In a media environment heavily tilted in favour of circulation numbers and TRP statistics, technology is a low-hanging fruit that is accessed regularly.
Science, in contrast, is abstract. It is knowledge that has no immediate use to the reader. The annual summer rush to vacation in the Himalaya has nothing to do with plate tectonics. The Indian plate colliding with the Asian plate to create the world’s tallest mountains, sending the ocean floor 3 km up in the sky to form the highest plateau called Tibet, may all seem very dramatic. But it does not create the packaged happiness that consumers need in their summer vacations.
Advertisers know this better than anybody else. They do not advertise in publications that do not make the story immediate to the readers (more accurate to call them consumers). With a glut of publications and TV news channels, there is severe competition of the limited advertising budgets in the corporate world. Science is a casualty in this race to the bottom.
The Hindi media is the leader in this race. There is virtually no writing on science in Hindi publications, or programming in Hindi TV news channels. Science gets eliminated by design. There is a great emphasis on short write-ups and programmes. But to make the abstract knowledge of science relevant to the readers requires explanation. The material typically does not have ready references in the everyday world. It takes a while to bring the narrative to the science, even if a writer uses everyday idiom. Which by itself is not an easy task.
The world of science has developed a great bias towards English. The research comes from the English-speaking world, so the idiom is culturally English. The Hindi readership is not familiar with this idiom. For example, imagine the words required to explain plate tectonics in Hindi. For most scientific terms, there are translations in Hindi. But those translations mean nothing to the average reader. In fact, they mean very little to even the students of science. Because they are never used outside the classroom.
Each writer has to negotiate this problem on his terms, given his limitations. In my experience, using the metaphor of labour is useful. So, in a Hindi article on the world of computers, I have used the metaphor of carpentry to explain the nuance of a graphical user interface. To talk about the relationship between an operating system and computing software, I have found myself using the image of railway tracks and trains running on them. To talk about climate change and its impact on the monsoon, I have drawn from Hindu customs and mythology.
While this makes the material more accessible to a wider readership, it also dumbs down the narrative. One gets the feeling that there is no room for the beauty of complexity. Since there is very little written on science in the Hindi media, one also regrets the absence of a peer group. When you are struggling with a choice of words, because you cannot think of words and phrases that can convey the meaning accurately and interestingly, you need peers to bounce off ideas, get feedback.
Then there is the search for editors who are willing to humour science – given the media atmosphere, indulge is a closer term. How do you convince a copy-editor to not chop out a critical explanation because he/she needs ever shorter pieces? I have had an editor publish a badly cut article because of an advertisement that arrived late at night. Such problems are not that frequent in the English media, in which editors still have a little more say in the running of the publication than their Hindi counterparts.
The real reason to write in Hindi, though, is the reader. If one manages to put together good material into a good narrative, the readers respond with the kind of love one never gets from the English readership. Just like abuses hurt more when delivered in the mother tongue, appreciation is sweeter too in the first language. The Hindi reader does want more in what he reads. Will the writers and editors show some imagination and courage?