Vol. XLI No. 52 December 24, 2017

When Will TV Anchors Learn that Science is not the Science Channel?

Prabir Purkayastha

THERE is something wrong with leaders of a political party, when they seek legitimacy for their beliefs from the promo of an American TV show.  A set of senior BJP ministers – Sushma Swaraj, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Piyush Goyal – rushed to tell the people that the myth of Lord Rama building a bridge to Lanka, has now been “vindicated” by science; or the TV channel called Science.

The BJP’s troll brigade and various Fake News websites went to town celebrating the “proof” of Lord Rama’s existence, and his miracle of constructing the Ram Setu. The charge was led by certain TV channels – Times Now, Republic TV and Zee TV among others – who have specialised in opposition bashing. Rahul Shiv Shankar, the chief editor of Times Now, in his faux Arnab style, presenting the Hard Facts, went hysterical on how the UPA and the Congress “lied” in their affidavit on the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal project that there was no historical evidence for the string of rocks and shoals linking India to Sri Lanka being a man-made structure.  The TV anchor Rahul asked Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader, what will he say, now that “Science” has spoken through the Science Channel?

All this was happening on the day before the casting of votes in the second phase of the Gujarat elections, and supposedly after the stopping of all election campaigning there. The last fling of a desperate BJP afraid of losing the Gujarat verdict?  The descent into anything goes politics, where the Pakistan bogey can be brought out, even if it means dragging the former PM Manmohan Singh into the Pakistan meddling in Gujarat elections canard? And certain TV channels joining the troll brigade of the BJP, if not leading the pack in this last throw of the dice in Gujarat?

Of course, we need to remember that facts do not become “hard” because a TV show is called Hard Facts.  Or promo in a TV channel does not become science, merely because it is called the Science Channel. A lesson lost on the BJP leaders and their followers.

As is now routine, the troll TV channels do not go back on their false claims. They rely on the short memory of the viewers, and the new “sensational news” that they will trot out, replacing the old: the earth shaking news that Rahul Gandhi went to see the latest episode of Star Wars in a movie hall.

The disclaimers from the scientists on the Science Channel TV show, saying that they had said no such thing as was being claimed in the Indian media, was not reported, barring a few exceptions. The only change in the narrative, was that the Ram Setu myth being “truth”, disappeared from the media within a day.

What is the Science Channel and what was the show which proved the existence of Lord Rama and his “miracle” of building a bridge stretching over 30 kilometres in the sea, a supra-human feat even today?

The Science Channel show is called What on Earth, a show that uses satellite images and builds stories on them: from Loch Ness Monster to a mysterious triangle in the Australian out backs. Quite often, such images are tagged onto existing myths, such as King Arthur, Minotaur, Goliath, Dracula. An example is their show on the Minotaur’s Lair on November 28, 2017. The blurb on the show reads, “A strange lake in Transylvania is the home of an abandoned village and a terrifying secret.” The conclusion in all such episodes, and yes this series has been running for four years, is after breathlessly examining a satellite image of this lake and the village for the 40 minutes of the episode, and a number of commercial breaks in between for the ads, the mundane conclusion is, no it is not the Minotaur’s lair. This is simply the hype to get your eyeballs and attract the ads. That is how TV channels pay their bills.

After the TV and social media blitz on the latest discovery of science in the Science Channel on the Ram Setu, or the Adam’s Bridge as it is also called, I went through a couple of their episodes. One was on the Loch Ness Monster. It showed a satellite image of a “strange beast” in the depth of the lake Loch Ness. Could this finally be the proof that the Loch Ness Monster truly exists? If it was indeed the Loch Ness monster, how could it survive alone in the lake? Was it thousands of years old? Were there more of these in the hidden depths? What could it be? WHAT COULD IT BE? And every time you thought the anchors were about to provide the answer, they would take a commercial break, and start over again.

In the final few minutes of the show, an image processing expert explains that when such images are taken, they go through digital image processing, where multiple raw images are merged, and “noise” that blur or distort the image, is taken out so that we get a much better final image than the raw image. In this particular case, a boat that created a large wake in the lake, “disappeared” because of this image processing, and left us with only the image of the wake. To put it in technical terms, the Loch Ness monster in this image, was simply an artefact of image processing.

This was similar to another episode I watched. There is a giant shadow over earth! Could it be a massive space craft like the one we saw in the movie Independence Day? Could it be a huge swarm of insects?  WHAT COULD IT BE? And again the tame explanation: it is the shadow of the moon!

Not that the Science Channel gives us wrong science. They take simple satellite images, and build a show around it by tagging it onto existing myths. And then hype it as they did with the Ram Setu. For some of the reviewers on the web, this show is complete nonsense and a waste of time. For the scientists, who are presumably paid for the episodes, it is an “interesting” way to have a stimulating discussion on science. If you have wasted 40 minutes learning from “science” – or the Science Channel – that the moon casts its shadow on the earth, you may conclude the show What on Earth is What the H!#l or Why on Earth did I waste 40 minutes of my life?

We have stopped expecting that the BJP leaders will behave responsibly when it comes to myths. For them, myths, or our “collective memory”, are true history and have to be privileged over any scientific or archeological evidence. This is what even their historians, including the chairman of ICHR, YS Rao believes. This is the Loony School of Hindutva History: Pushpak Rath as aircraft, 100 Kauravas from one Gandhari egg as genetic engineering, the elephant head on Ganesha’s body as superior cosmetic surgery, and more such insanities. We have stopped being surprised when our ministers including the PM turn up in Science Congresses, and spout this arrant nonsense.

But what about our journalists? After the social media and Times Now started their chant on the Science has spoken on Lord Rama and found UPA, the Congress, the Leftists, the pseudo secularists guilty of critical thinking, all (or at least most) of the channels and news sites of our leading lights of journalism simply followed suit. Not one thought to check the credentials of the Science Channel or the What on Earth show. For them Science is now the Science Channel, presumably History is the History Channel! Did not they have even one science reporter, let alone a science editor or producer? Could not they ask a marine geologist or a marine archeologist of repute?

I have been tracking this particular myth that pops up every few years. Sometimes it is NASA said, or somebody else said, this time Science has said via TV. It is always somebody from the US who pronounces that the Ram Setu could be man-made, and we start the cycle science versus nonsense again.

This time, the desperation of the BJP historians was that they were willing to accept the Lord Rama was only 4,000 years as per the Science Channel story. So in order to accept that Lord Rama, through his super human powers built the land bridge, they were willing to sacrifice his antiquity of 1.75 million years, long before homo sapiens inhabited the earth. Anything to restart the Ram Mandir and the Ayodhya campaign. After all, this could be the centre piece of the 2019 elections, now that the Vikas plank has foundered in Gujarat.