ASI’s note to Financial Exp. over eclipse article is naïve

The public outreach arm of the Astronomical Society of India has written to the Financial Express expressing concern over their August 7 article, which advised people to fast during a lunar eclipse. The ASI called the article “anti-science”, requested that FE print a clarification and finally give them room to write an article about the science of eclipses. The full note is available to read here.

I’m glad that the ASI reached out to FE and offered their help to set things right instead of simply condemning FE or demanding that it retract the article. However, this may not be enough.

Consider the following paragraph from their note:

We are disappointed to find that a prestigious national paper like yours deems it fit to publish an article exhorting people to not eat during an eclipse, in this day and age. We wish you had checked with any science institution in the country before publishing such an article. Your own newspaper had published articles praising the science education and communication work done by the late Professors Yash Pal and Pushpa Bhargava merely a week ago. To go against this spirit in the same week by publishing such an article that is blatantly anti-science in nature, without even talking to scientists about it, is very sad indeed.

Frankly, apart from a few (that I can count off on the fingers of one hand), every other MSM publication in India has little or no sense of balance when it comes to science communication. The point in publishing an article asking people to fast during eclipses, bathe right after in cold water with their clothes on or claim that a planet could slam into Earth sometime this year and kill us all is not a matter of education.

Education requires taking responsibility for a group of people and conscientiously empowering them. What newspapers like FE are doing is simply capitalising on demand. If one section of the audience is interested in knowing more about which rituals to follow during an eclipse, FE & co. will give them what they want. That’s where the traffic is.

This is why it’s important to understand the business of journalism, especially if you’re a science writer because science journalism is among the most screwed-over areas of journalism in the country. If you fix the business – for example if you provide FE an incentive to publish au fait science stories that’s stronger than the incentive to generate more traffic (and presumably earn money by pleasing advertisers) – you will immediately have more room for good science journalism.

However, such an incentive is very difficult to provide because the profit–by-volume way has an almost complete stranglehold over Indian MSM today. And it’s important to remember that it’s not all bad. Yes, it forces editors to acquiesce every now and then (if not more often) to their business/financial interests, but it’s also what’s keeping most of Indian journalism that’s published on the internet alive. It’s one thing to say FE should grow a conscience but quite another to expect them to live off of it. It’s very difficult.

So a group like the ASI expecting a publication like FE to have “checked with any science institution in the country before publishing such an article” misses the point. ‘Checking with scientists’ makes for a boring story that’s also very difficult to sell. And FE was irresponsible for having given superstition such a big stage. But my point is that I’m reluctant to be angry with the article’s author or editor beyond this because the underlying problem is quite something else.

I admit I will be surprised if FE allows the scientists to write an article about the “beautiful natural events” that eclipses are – but I will be way, way more surprised if they print the clarification, and even more surprised if they retract their original article. Better yet for FE for both articles to live on their pages with equal levels of qualification (i.e. none).

It’s like the politician Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who funds Republic TV, said in an interview,

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