On unscientific journalism and sensational storytelling


The author of this blog-post is Subrato Banerjee, who is currently a fellow at the Indian Statistical Institute and a brainstormer at Outline India. Subrato is also a columnist with the Financial Express.

It is deadly close to impossible to publish an article on the existing state of journalism in a newspaper, specifically when the content entails a ‘conflict of interest’. It is interesting that power has been largely possessed by those who could generate or influence public opinion. In this sense, the media today is perhaps, as strong as the Church that was responsible for the downfall of the Alexandrian intellectual life. This was marked by the death of Hypatia (the Hellenistic philosopher known for her work on conic sections and her skills with astronomy) on the charges of heresy under the influence of Cyril, the powerful Pope of Alexandria. Cyril, also known as the Pillar of Faith, would perhaps now celebrate, for the miasma of intellectual deficiency displayed then, has found its way into our times through the media which in turn, prides in preserving its effects. The only difference is that what was known as ‘heresy’ then is today neatly subsumed under what is called ‘conflict of interest’. This outlet, therefore, seems to be perfect to execute the scientist’s duty.

Why is public opinion important? If you are an average Indian, you would know Jagjit Singh more than Mehdi Hassan; or Newton more than Gauss; or Beethoven more than Bach. To an expert in the field of ghazals, however, Mehdi Hassan is a greater name (although, perhaps, marginally); to one in the field of mathematics, Gauss is a greater contributor; and to one in music, Bach is the more difficult composer to play convincingly. But, nevertheless, Jagjit Singh is known to bring ghazal-singing to the masses; that Newton was a man of power is unquestionable given how he dealt with Leibnitz and Chaloner; and Beethoven, apart from his compositions, is also remembered for his association with Archduke Rudolph and Napoleon’s family specifically when the latter was on his political high. The former in each comparison above, were more closely associated with the public … and we all know that the fundamental element of public opinion is … well, the public.
The existing knowledge of the public is largely determined by what has travelled through time to this generation. As Stephen Gould correctly points out in an introductory note to Galileo’s famous Dialogue (between the two chief world systems), “standard college courses in Victorian literature invariably include Charles Dickens and George Eliot (as they should), but almost invariably exclude Thomas Henry Huxley and Charles Lyell, who wrote just as well, albeit in the different genre of science.” We know which two of the last four names are known by the general public. In a nutshell, the public’s opinion is based on its knowledge … and the public’s knowledge is what it remembers. Unfortunately, such a realisation has led to the sensationalising of stories that otherwise hold no significant matter (if it is sensationalised, people remember it more). This is what I’d like to term as unscientific presentation of both written and video content. Of the latter, one is frequently reminded by the Indian news channel that produces ‘breaking news’ throughout any given day. In this article, I primarily focus on the former. Let me provide two interesting instances: First, a certain news story titled “The Inflation of Life – Cost of Raising a Child Has Soared” (May 2012) and second, a story published in certain newspaper titled “Doctoral Colloquium a great success, say organisers at IIM Ahmedabad” (January 2011).
In the first story, the author claims that “the cost of raising a child from birth to age 17 has surged 25% over the last 10 years (in the USA).” When I asked for an opinion of a journalism instructor here in India, her response was that she knew of this obvious soaring even before reading this story. A quick evaluation demands attention here: simple math will show that the above figure translates to a rise of only 2.5% year-on-year (and even lesser if one were to account for compounding). Now compare these figures with the annual inflation rates in India during 2002-12. It will become apparent that the only thing that has soared and surged is the journalism instructor’s inability to observe the nuances. If this evidence isn’t enough, then it’ll help to point out that she had once previously asked me to show her a globe because she didn’t believe me when I said that latitudes and longitudes intersect at ninety degrees.
I have nothing against people of literature and I acknowledge that she is well read in the same … but her education in literature is only as scientific as Pope Cyril’s formal (Christian) education in Biblical studies … and stay assured, Cyril was equally well-read, if not more (the consequences of which have been well-established in the opening paragraph itself). For all I know, she’ll probably thank me later for counting her in a capacity equalling that of a Pope in this article.
I will now come to the second story, in which I have myself been misquoted by the author. My talk at IIM Ahmedabad covered how despite being 55,000 in number (which is good enough to qualify for perfect competition), auto-rickshaw drivers in Delhi behaved like discriminating monopolists (players who can charge different prices to different consumers for the exact same product – for the exact same journey, i.e. with identical starting and destination places, any two individuals would invariably pay different (negotiated) fares to the auto driver). When I explained this paradox to the author on her request, she went on to write that too many players in a given market, according to me, is paradoxical in itself (Unable to understand why she inferred this), and added that this directed me to my (then) current research.
I just want to convey that the general public must be very careful about, and frequently question, what it reads before forming an opinion, given the quality of the media content today. I’m happy that some of the great minds of our time have engaged in popular writing for the masses (books by Hawking, Penrose and Kaku on topics in physics; those by Levitt and McMillan on topics in business and economics etc.) and have guaranteed content of quality. I may have in this article, inadvertently hinted on my preference for reading non-fiction over fiction. I should clarify that I have nothing against the latter … it’s just that I feel that newspapers aren’t the best outlet for fiction.