An apology of a justification

It seems clear now that the Academies responsible for the botched report on GM crops (my previous posts: [1, 2]) have no intention of making significant changes to the report, let alone retracting it. To recapitulate, the country’s top six academies of science, engineering and medicine prepared a report giving their opinion of GM crops, and in particular, of Bt Brinjal. They did this at the request of the Minister for Environment. The report entirely lacked references or any other justification for its numerous claims; it failed to list its authors; it failed to address many key issues, even ones that the Minister specifically raised in his own previous report; and nearly all of the section on Bt Brinjal turned out to be lifted from a previous article by P Ananda Kumar, National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology, Delhi. The minister duly smacked down the report and all hell broke loose.

Now, instead of an apology for this ham-fisted job, we get this.

One man can make an “impact”

Mohamed el Naschie, Egyptian mathematician, has been much discussed recently for his single-handed effort in taking a journal that he edits, “Chaos, Solitons and Fractals”, to the “top” of its field (according to the most widely-misused metric, the “impact factors” published by Thomson Scientific): it had an “impact factor” of well above 3 (that is, each of its articles was on average cited 3 times or more). And it was all because of him, because (1) he was the editor; (2) he published extensively in his own journal, and (3) he cited his own articles extensively. He is not alone in this: some similar cases are discussed in this preprint by Arnold and Fowler. There is also a blog devoted entirely to El Naschie’s achievements.

Belated action on scientific misconduct

Today’s Telegraph has a front-page article by T V Jayan on the Indian Academy of Sciences barring one of its fellows, Gopal Kundu, for three years for scientific misconduct.

Veronica Rodrigues 1953-2010

Veronica Rodrigues, senior professor at NCBS, Bangalore, passed away yesterday. An obituary by her colleague (and NCBS’s director), K VijayRaghavan, is here. It describes her remarkable career and personality perfectly. She will be missed.

I first met Veronica at a seminar in 2004, when I had just returned to India and only recently moved into biology. Her cancer lay in the future, and she was energetic and inspiring. More recently (since 2009), we talked about and worked together on some topics in Drosophila neurogenesis. At that time her cancer had already returned and she was very weak, but she was still very sharp and focussed on the problem. From what Vijay says, she remained that way until almost the end.

Is a Booker Prize winner necessarily a good writer?

Arundhati Roy is in the news again, thanks to the right-wing reaction to her (not new) statement that Kashmir is not an integral part of India. My colleague Rahul Basu savages her style while still criticising the threat of using sedition laws against her. Some days earlier, Harini praised Ms Roy for uniting the left and the right against her (and argued, also, that she makes a habit of piggybacking on other causes). Today, Nilanjana acknowledges the criticisms that Ms Roy is naive or simplistic, but says “you cannot doubt the intensity of her engagement.” She adds: “To ask, as we are now doing in India, for writers to stick to their writing is a little like asking investigative journalists to stick to their knitting.”

I don’t doubt her intensity, but I have a basic question: is Ms Roy, in fact, a good writer? It seems to be widely assumed that she is (the Booker Prize helped), and in fact, that she uses her enviable command of the English language to bamboozle her audience.

In my view, it’s exactly the opposite.

A good writer illuminates. Ms Roy is capable of writing thousands of words without adding any illumination to the topic (her trek through the Dantewada forests is a good example).

A good writer persuades skeptics. Lesser writers preach to the choir. Ms Roy, in fact, repels the choir. Some of the strongest criticisms of her writings have come from those who should, logically, be agreeing with her.

A good, provocative writer makes you question your own assumptions and beliefs. Ms Roy seems to make people want to tear their own hair out. That is not being provocative. That is being annoying.

Perhaps she is a prophet misunderstood in her own time. But I suspect not. I can’t think of a single thing she has said that hasn’t been said, earlier and better, by others. Her special knack seems to be saying it in a manner that would annoy and turn off the largest number of people. She is the very opposite of an articulate and persuasive spokesperson of a movement, which a good writer would be.