Definitions


Writing

I have been writing as a matter of habit since 2003, when I started my first diary. I continued the habit through three years of school after that, six years of college and seven years of work – and it still goes on.

However, why I write has changed. When I started my first blog in 2008, for example, I began writing to communicate ideas in physics that fascinated me. When I remodelled my blog in 2012, I began writing to opine about the news of the day. After I started getting more active on Twitter in 2016, I began writing to please an audience. This might sound crass but in many ways, it has served me well. For example, I have learnt a lot about why good writing alone can at best only be half of the publishing process.

Nonetheless, I also noticed that I was forgetting how to write for myself – an essential part of my habit that I had been taking for granted in its formative years and the consequences of whose erosion I began to experience only after it was mostly gone.

If you read my posts and enjoy them, I will be glad, but I will not stop writing if you stop reading. My apologies if this endeavour offends your sensibilities as a reader; that is not my intent. I simply wish to rediscover what it means to write irrespective of the commercial value of ideas that such writing expresses. I should clarify that this exercise isn’t as virtuous as it might seem, if at all: the writing habit was once therapeutic and I would like if it were so once again.

Complexity

I work in journalism, as a science editor, but I am a communicator at heart.

The idea of complexity has always been fascinating. As someone who thinks and learns through the act of writing, I have been able to surmount different complicated topics in different ways. As a communicator of physics research, I have encountered two broad kinds of complexity: intricacy and inherent complexity. Intricacy is best imagined as a dense cluster of information that simply takes time to disentangle, but can be disentangled and laid out by the repetitive application of some kind of clarificatory process. Inherent complexity is relatively more inescapable in that its clarification is not a question of tedium but of intelligence.

For example, the Large Hadron Collider is a very large machine composed of millions of (relatively) tiny parts. Its operators have much less uncertainty about the machine’s performance than a casual observer would expect because they understand how all the parts work together. However, understanding how the brain – a far smaller organ – performs its functions takes a nasty combination of neurology, electrochemistry, quantum mechanics and knowledge of emergent properties to appreciate, and even then not fully.

I have loathed inherent complexity because it defies my personal expectation that reality is intricate, not complex. This would seem to be an irrational position to assume because humans are neither materially nor biologically equipped to naturally engage with the different energies and spatiotemporal scales at which the universe manifests itself. However, writing is another beast entirely, and its practice affords us a variety of opportunities, each employing a different ratio of faith to education, to understand why things happen. By writing, and writing as often as I can, the idea has taken root in my mind that there is almost always a continuous and smooth line connecting every phenomenon and the first principles at the bottom.

The exceptions have almost always concerned quantum mechanics and the social sciences; stories embedded in the latter have been particularly formidable. But I remain convinced — to the chagrin of not a few physicists and social scientists — that communication needn’t have to be unfaithful to reality, that it is wholly possible to communicate inherent complexity while staying faithful to the truth, to reality itself. I will always refuse to believe, for example, that excruciatingly twisted sentences such as this are required to communicate the idea it bears, that it is simply not a case of subpar communication.

However, I will admit, as I have after discovering this short essay by Daniel Sarewitz in 2013, that we surmount inherent complexity with faith instead of knowledge more often than we’d like to believe. But I will also say that as long as we remain cognisant of this behaviour as well as the lines at which faith ends and knowledge begins, we also keep ourselves available to grapple with the implicit claims of inherent complexity without lying to ourselves. Isn’t such confrontation the ultimate point of it all?

Rheopexy

Most fluids are thixotropic: they become less viscous the longer they experience shearing forces (which you can impart by simply shaking the bottle the fluid is in). However, not all fluids exhibit this property; on a rare occasion, you might come across a rheopectic fluid: they become more viscous the longer they experience shearing forces. The technical term for this property is rheopecty, or rheopexy. Researchers expect rheopectic fluids to be useful in body armour and as lubricants. In fact, synovial fluid – a naturally occurring rheopectic fluid – lubricates synovial joints in mammals, in which it is the most common joint type.

This blog doesn’t pay tribute to rheopexy but draws inspiration from its symbolism. I am a slow thinker (and subscribe to Derek Sivers’s thoughts on the subject). This attribute doesn’t bode well for me as a reporter because I am bad at composing rebuttals on the spot; however, it doesn’t interfere with my duties as an editor. More importantly, my tendency to go slow often works to my advantage when I am presented with sensitive, potentially nuanced issues. Like a startled rheopectic fluid, I become disinclined to go with the flow, and stubbornly resist the progression of deductions until I – and my interlocutors – have been able to distill a reasonable position.

However, unlike a rheopectic fluid, which is always rheopectic, I am not; sometimes, and frequently after having concluded an interview or having published an article, I find that I didn’t challenge an idea enough. There is still a switch I need to flip irrespective of the advantages bestowed by my naturally slow thinking, and it isn’t that this switch needs to be destroyed: it’s simply not healthy to be overtly deliberative about everything (like Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place). Instead, I need to get to the point where I always flip the switch ‘on’ or ‘off’ at the right time, and to my mind, unifying my writing habit – and the advantages this habit has brought – with this endeavour makes perfect sense.

Rational technics

What is rational technics? On January 21, 1963, the American philosopher and historian Lewis Mumford delivered a speech in New York city entitled ‘Authoritarian and Democratic Technics’. Shortly after the start, Mumford says in the speech:

My thesis, to put it bluntly, is that from late neolithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable. If I am right, we are now rapidly approaching a point at which, unless we radically alter our present course, our surviving democratic technics will be completely suppressed or supplanted, so that every residual autonomy will be wiped out, or will be permitted only as a playful device of government, like national ballotting for already chosen leaders in totalitarian countries.

In the same vein, ‘rational technics’ I thought was a good way to describe the intended outcome of my process of interrogating the world’s events and its peoples’ beliefs. I studied engineering and have been a science journalist for almost a decade. I have also read more than my fair share about the history and philosophy of science, have written on these topics, as well as on particle physics, condensed matter physics, climate change, conservation, public health, drug policy, scientific publishing, academic misconduct, knowledge access, pseudoscience and issues of science and society. I think I understand science, and I also think that most people have trouble seeing beyond its uppermost layer – of discoveries and inventions that (supposedly) serve society, of the sophistication and the oft-self-proclaimed inaccessibility. Science is much more than that, and definitely more complicated.

By taking a closer look at the outcomes of scientific work and the ways in which they interact with the rest of society, I wish to expose the rational technics – the system of rules and technologies by which rationalism and scientism impose themselves, and the ways in which these impositions are flawed (they’re always less than objective), if not pernicious.