Naturalism and Indians
#1
Congratulations to Ajita and other members of the team for this new initiative. What we need badly is an Indian TV channel on science. I can think of Prof. Yash Pal and Prof. Jayant Narlikar in India who are eminent scientists and who have a naturalistic worldview. They can certainly influence our government for the decision for starting a TV channel for science, but then our government is not free from all kinds of political and other influences. A private commercial TV channel is what I have in mind. For this we need a rich Indian or an NRI with rationalistic / naturalistic leanings.

Such a TV channel can be very effective in countering the influence of channels like Aastha or God TV.

Poor Sanal. He has been making heroic efforts to debunk superstitions etc. But usually he gets outnumbered 5 to 1 in any TV appearance.

Recently, both Sanal and Prof. Yash Pal came on a TV programme, but there were over 10 others opposing what they had to say. TV is a very powerful medium, and we should have an Indian channel promoting scientific values.
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#2
Couldn't agree more. Every weekend you see the regional channels dubbing popular Hollywood movies into regional languages and broadcasting them during semi-primetime. Dubbing a 2 hour movie with reasonably good lip-sync is not easy, however ludicrous the translated dialogues end up. I always wondered if the same channels would spend the time and effort to dub and broadcast an hour of say Horizon, or Nova or other scientific documentaries.

Perhaps the producers think that documentaries are not popular and won't get them ratings. But I think otherwise. If done right, documentaries and other scientific programs are an excellent way to promote scientific temper. I still remember when I got my first cable tv connection in Chennai long ago, kids from the neighboring apartment would throng around the tv to watch Discovery channel every night even though they couldn't understand properly. Imagine what a regional science channel could impart on such inquisitive minds!
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#3
The idea of a channel exclusively for Science is very appealing. I remember watching a program on DD(Metro?) as a kid called Eureka. It used to be a very interesting show, sort of like the Mythbusters program on Discovery. I distinctly remember one episode where they deconstructed Sai baba's Holy ash miracle by showing the chemical analysis of the produced ash, and demonstrating the trick(Prof Nayak has shown the same on the Secret Swami documentary). I performed the trick the next day in school and people very mighty impressed. That's when I stopped believing in Sai Baba's miracles and started losing my religion.

I am sharing this experience because you could say watching this show(I was in 4th or 5th standard) kind of set the ball rolling. And encouraging science and reason in this way will surely influence the kids positively.

Hopefully, we may find a rich benefactor to support this endeavor.. or perhaps some Scientific institution will volunteer its support and finances. But until then, we can start with the internet. I am thinking on the lines of a youtube channel for Nirmukta, with weekly podcasts of Myth Debunking(Prof Nayak?), interviews with scientists, (secular) history(Dr. Kamath?) and more.
"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" - Douglas Adams

http://dsriharsha.blogspot.com
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#4
(31-Mar-2010, 07:19 PM)dsriharsha Wrote: I am thinking on the lines of a youtube channel for Nirmukta, with weekly podcasts of Myth Debunking(Prof Nayak?), interviews with scientists, (secular) history(Dr. Kamath?) and more.

We have had a youtube channel for a year, but there was no organized approach. We didn't have the team together until a couple of months ago, when we formed the media network.

Here is the old channel: http://youtube.com/user/Nirmuktavideos

The Freethought Media Network Committee has had its first meeting last month. The next one will be in a few days. In view of the new team and approach, a new youtube account has been started. It is empty at the moment: http://youtube.com/user/NirmuktaTV

The video division of the committee will be working on planning and developing content for this channel. The committee will also put together a PR strategy. Please keep your suggestions coming, and if anyone is interested in joining us and helping with the work, there is a lot to be done and we can use a hand!
"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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#5
1. The importance of the internet is increasing exponentially, and nirmukta.net will naturally play an ever-increasing role in promoting free thought. But an Indian TV channel with the same objectives can play an additional and supplementary role, because a multi-pronged attack on irrational belief systems is needed.

2. Dubbing and telecasting of the existing good science programs from abroad into Indian languages will certainly help, but cannot be a substitute for what I am suggesting. There has to be a sustained hammering of the basics of what science is all about into the Indian psyche. And the whole thing has to be Indianized to be effective. The problem is: How to make science intelligible and interesting to the average Indian. My daughter and son are IT professionals, and rich. They are certainly literate. In fact, highly literate. But they are science-illiterate. How to motivate people like them to get interested in science?

3. It is good to debunk the claims of charlatans and pseudo-scientists. But imagine a typical, illiterate Indian who has just been told that the colour in that coconut is not because of any blood there. But is that enough to rid him of the fears of ghosts and angry deities and bad karmas in previous births?

4. Consider astrology. Unless a persons has understood the basics of probability theory and terms like ‘level of confidence’, what hope is there that he will really take you seriously when you tell him that a particular astrological prediction turned out to be wrong, and that therefore there is no basis for all similar claims as well. Any number of people are there to tell him that the Panditji predicted this and that, and it turned out to be correct. One of my younger colleagues in a premier scientific establishment was getting frustrated because he was not getting a post-doctoral offer from abroad. Somebody told him about a famous Baba at Ujjain who made accurate predictions. The fellow went to him, and was told that the lines on his hand indicated that he will be in a foreign land in less than three months. Horror of horrors: It turned out to be a correct prediction! The reputation of the Baba got a boost.

5. Science has to permeate our lives very thoroughly, and that requires a sustained exposure. TV can play that role like nothing else can. And what we need is not a rich Indian benefactor, but a rich Indian entrepreneur who is already an out and out naturalist.

6. Religion sells on TV because it fulfils a need. Naturalism has to be made into a saleable commodity. That requires imagination and commitment. One has to convince the viewer that there is a need to shun supernaturalism, and therefore a need to adopt naturalism. And this must be done in an entertaining manner, and in a simple, intelligible language.

7. In the kind of TV channel I have in mind, eminent scientists will be induced to come and defend their life philosophy. I do not see that happening at present. What we have at present is ‘respect for all religions.’ And rationalists are scoffed at. That must change. The internet somehow does not foot that bill, at least not yet.
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#6
(01-Apr-2010, 03:24 PM)Vinod Wadhawan Wrote: 1. The importance of the internet is increasing exponentially, and nirmukta.net will naturally play an ever-increasing role in promoting free thought. But an Indian TV channel with the same objectives can play an additional and supplementary role, because a multi-pronged attack on irrational belief systems is needed.

Actually, the two are not so mutually exclusive, especially taking into consideration the future. The proposed Freethought Media Network should not be confused with nirmukta.net, nor am I talking about the internet alone. We are initiating a comprehensive strategy to promote freethought using all media sources at our disposal. Nirmukta already has plans for a TV channel. But we are forming the organization first to build a team. There is certainly a need for a multi-pronged attack on irrationality. In fact, the Nirmukta Media Committee has discussed ideas not only for a TV channel, but also for a network of reporters, photographers, producers, writers, CGI experts, artists, musicians and filmmakers. The focus is on multimedia, not on any one type of media.

The future in mind, TV and internet will become interchangeable within the next 10-15 years, with production of programming becoming decentralized. The individual will become more powerful than ever before, and the biggest media ventures will be the ones with the most intricately connected social networks.

Quote:2. Dubbing and telecasting of the existing good science programs from abroad into Indian languages will certainly help, but cannot be a substitute for what I am suggesting. There has to be a sustained hammering of the basics of what science is all about into the Indian psyche. And the whole thing has to be Indianized to be effective. The problem is: How to make science intelligible and interesting to the average Indian. My daughter and son are IT professionals, and rich. They are certainly literate. In fact, highly literate. But they are science-illiterate. How to motivate people like them to get interested in science?

I think you are asking the most important questions here, but I don't think "hammering of the basics of what science is all about into the Indian psyche" is the right solution. In fact, I would suggest that this is already the problem. To get people motivated about science, science must become "cool". It means that kids must be considered popular in school because they like science, and that popular culture should place a high value on science. The best way to accomplish this is to use the power of celebrity and pop culture. We can have Indianized science shows, but they must both entertaining as well as educational. Instead of doing what we want the kids to do, we must adapt science to what kids are already into. For example, we need science-based video games that teach kids to think critically, not instructions that they receive passively.

Quote:3. It is good to debunk the claims of charlatans and pseudo-scientists. But imagine a typical, illiterate Indian who has just been told that the colour in that coconut is not because of any blood there. But is that enough to rid him of the fears of ghosts and angry deities and bad karmas in previous births?

There is a certain caricature of the debunking rationalist who does his trick and leaves, and I suppose much of the brief footage out there, including much of what's on popular TV, adds to that impression. However, Narendra Nayak's work can never be replaced by a TV show. I've heard detailed reports of how he deals with local people, how he takes their questions and superstitions and demonstrates the lack of magic, and how he provides alternative explanations that are naturalistic. One of our members is currently documenting him for her PhD thesis, and the footage will go into a documentary. According to her, the way Narendra connects with people has to be seen to be understood.

Quote:7. In the kind of TV channel I have in mind, eminent scientists will be induced to come and defend their life philosophy. I do not see that happening at present. What we have at present is ‘respect for all religions.’ And rationalists are scoffed at. That must change. The internet somehow does not foot that bill, at least not yet.

On this point I have a huge disagreement. Before I explain, let me clarify that certainly many individual minds will be influenced by good science programming. But no number of scientists on TV is going to make the general public start thinking rationally enough to make a difference. In fact, I don't think the general public will ever care about such a show, and certainly, most scientists don't seem to care about what people think. More importantly, very few scientists care about what the people with media and public relations experience think. Of course it's not their job to, but those are the facts on the ground.

Here are my reasons:
Firstly, such a national TV channel can only work as long as there is sufficient demand, and it follows that if there is sufficient demand the TV executives are already watching the market. There is no indication of either. Mainstream TV is not driven by normative goals like bettering the scientific knowledge of the public. It is driven by studying what people want to watch and providing them with fresh content to keep them watching, in order to generate ad revenue. The costs of operation are prohibitive. Secondly, there are science channels in the US, and these are pay channels that only a select few can afford, primarily because there is so little demand that the executives cannot make programming unless they charge their elite audience more for it. This runs counter to the idea that such a channel will have broad reach. My third reason is that such a science channel will make little difference in how most people think about religion or god, because people are experts at partitioning their thinking. As it is, this is the reason why we have so many Indian scientists who believe in god. If even the scientists are being irrational, how would the general public watching the show become trained to think rationally?

Many of us growing up may have got our first taste of science on TV, and we still do occasionally watch a good show now and then, but how many of us actually go to the TV for our science news today? More importantly, what are those studying social behavior telling us about how kids are behaving when it comes to their media habits? The days of Doordharshan and UGC programming are long gone. Any approach that attempts to make people sit down and have your philosophy explained to them is simply not going to work. Today the audience wants a completely different level of engagement. Even those interested in watching science on TV will most often rather watch an episode of Nova or Mythbusters rather than watch a scientist talk about his philosophy. This is because these shows compete successfully with the entertainment models of the day. So, although a science channel can create a storm in the minds of a few inquisitive people, there are huge limitations to this approach when it comes to reaching out to create cultural change. At the fundamental level, there is one major point that we need to remember. It is this:

In the marketplace of ideas, an idea has little merit for its truth value alone. An idea will succeed better if it can embed itself into popular culture.

So what we need is a social, cultural and political movement. This means organizing people. This means having a means of communicating with people. This is where the internet comes in.

Unlike the TV, the internet can be an interactive medium. More importantly, it enables horizontal communication, something that TV doesn't. The exponential growth in connectivity between people will create new technologies and establish new models of information exchange in the coming years. The primary mode of information exchange will be between individuals, not top-down as is seen in passive media like TV.

The scientists and freethinkers in countries like the US have already used this networking very effectively.

Without the internet there wouldn't be a freethought movement in the US, but with the internet the American freethought movement is the largest and most provocative force for reason in the world today. This movement is kept active by the networking of hundreds of thousands of atheists and freethinkers organizing using the internet every day. This movement has become fairly politically powerful, with even representation at the UN. A number of recent court rulings brought on by the activism of people who co-ordinated online have favored atheists. This sort of activism is actually making a real difference, and none of this would have been possible without the internet. I am confident that, at least in the cities, this model will follow in India over the next few years. It will have its own flavor, but there must be a populist activism element to the organizing. What I am saying, in brief, is that it is activism and organizing people into proactive groups that will usher in the scientifically literate generation, not simply feeding people information.

In essence, it is the internet and not TV that has made it OK for people to come out and say that they are atheists. Mainstream TV is limited by the fact that it caters to the lowest denominator. Thankfully, that model of mass media is set to be swallowed up by the internet. User-generated content and global and localized action networks will replace the old means of influencing public thought.

Meanwhile, there is nothing wrong in trying to get a science channel going. It will at least produce good content for our community to enjoy and become informed about. It will also give scientists a forum to showcase their research.

I am not saying that we don't need a science channel. I'm saying that a TV channel can only be a small part of our media strategy going forward. A channel for science alone will have a small select audience, of which I would be an enthusiastic part. But if we are going to reach out to the mainstream, and if we have the money to produce good quality programming, then instead of a dedicated science channel that produces content for a small minority of Indians, I would focus on producing exciting mainstream TV shows that attempts to change the public mindset about scientists. We need shows that make science "cool" in the mainstream. This is if we want to actually create a change in the mass consciousness of people. If we want to simply preach to the choir, then a dedicated science show with science programming by scientists would be sufficient.

A few examples:
A reality show with a TV crew following Narendra Nayak around on his debunkings, training workshops and demonstrations would make much more exciting TV than watching a scientist talk about his philosophy. Such a show could even appear on a mainstream channel. A team of young actors with science backgrounds who go around testing and debunking old-wives tales and old Indian myths would probably get much higher ratings than a scientist on TV talking about his/her science. A silly TV sitcom like The Big Bang Theory will influence many more people to become interested in science. In the US, these shows like the Mythbusters and TBBT that are designed to reach out to a popular audience are on mainstream TV channels and have brought more kids to science than the dedicated science channels that produce excellent programming for a select subsection of the population. Again, this is because of the nature of the new media, where ideas are only appreciated if they have a culturally appealing element to them.

This is the media environment we live in.
"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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