Science and space take a back seat     

No journalist has questioned these experts on which part of the cow to stroke to increase brain power. Or that judges believe that peacocks procreate by drinking each others’ tears

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman K. Sivan (IANS)
Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman K. Sivan (IANS)

Ranjona Banerji

There are so many stories circling around India at this moment. What should one concentrate on? The damage being done to democracy in Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh? The manmade human rights disaster brewing in Assam and the North East? The systemic targeting of democratic and cultural institutions by a single-minded sectarian political agenda? Rising religious, social and cultural intolerance across society? An exponential increase in mob violence and discrimination since the BJP came to power? Or the spectacular collapse of the Indian economy and all the problems that brings along with it?

Journalism by its very nature, much as it supposedly “upsets” people who claim that all they want is a rosy picture, is about bad news. But governments often don’t like bad news. And when journalists pander to official needs, the biggest news of the day is that Prime minister Narendra Modi hugged a scientist.

ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 project was undeniably a moment of pride for India and its scientists, as people stayed up all night to watch the Vikram lander touch down on the Moon. But with the department of publicity and optics for the BJP and its Prime Minister (DoPOBPM) in charge of operations, the main focus of the moon landing was Modi and his greater glory. Sadly, as often happens, ISRO command lost touch with Vikram.

But since India’s space project was apparently about personal aggrandisement, the ISRO chief seemingly burst into tears and the PM consoled and hugged him. Aww, wasn’t that sweet. As images of the hug went all over the world, a little ghost of Indian journalism was heard to let out a sigh. Then as anti-nationalists got to work, it seemed that all was not what it seemed. The weep, the hug, that was all down to 10 points for Slytherin, sorry, the DoPOBPM, zero for journalism.

And since we are all about faux nationalism these days, the science of the moon landing got lost in the publicity blitz for Modi, for the weeping, the hugging, the consoling, the change of clothes, the joy of a humanitarian leader and whatever other instructions DoPOBPM had sent out.

If this is the level of national discourse about science and tech, it is hardly surprising that ministers can state with impunity that if you stroke a cow’s back, your cancer, blood pressure and so on can get cured.

Sadly, no journalist has questioned these experts on which part of the cow to stroke to increase brain power. Or that judges believe that peacocks procreate by drinking each others’ tears. Or that the PM believes that human head transplants and stem cell research existed in Vedic times. Or that most of the BJP believe that Indians invented space travel thousands of years ago.

It is even worse that journalists have no qualms about pushing these idiotic agendas. The “hug” was of no consequence, whether it was real and heart-felt or whether it was staged and fake. Exploratory science is full of mistakes, all of which lead to further advances.

Losing contact in space exploration is not unusual and not a matter of great national calamity. Why ISRO chief K Sivan burst into tears, if he really did, is astounding and that makes for a story in itself.

As of now, the moon lander has been found, as also often happens in such adventures. Communication may well be restored and science will undoubtedly benefit. If not, there are lessons to be learnt.

Space exploration in the early days was often about one-upmanship between the USA and the USSR. Many earth orbits later, there has been cooperation between once warring nations. For India to be part of the space community is a matter of great pride. Why do we have to reduce it to great stupidity?

As several people have pointed out, the lack of science journalists in India’s media houses has been glaringly visible. The intellectual heft of our newsrooms has been consistently diminishing not because journalists are getting stupider but that newsroom bosses and media house owners would rather cater to the lowest common denominator. This is not a new trend, but the gross stupidity of that thinking comes home to roost at times like this.

Am waiting for stories now about how dogs have started to bay at the moon more than before to celebrate Modi’s greatness.

No? Too stupid even for you? Are you really sure?

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