Media Overkill

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
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A study that expands our knowledge of evolution is being pitched as an overthrow of Darwin even by media outlets such as the BBC.

Recently, reporting on the International Conference of Mathematics, I had a chance to see some local reporters from Hyderabad question the world’s leading mathematicians. One of them got up and asked why India was not patenting Vedic Mathematics while the US had done so. This odd invention of facts left everyone dumbfounded, but a senior Indian mathematician got up and said Vedic Mathematics was so much nonsense. The reporter’s piece the next day bemoaned the ignorance of these mathematicians, while saying nothing about the Fields Medals. 

Strangely, such ignorance of science isn’t confined to the local media. A recent report by a science reporter of the BBC stated, “Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution.’’ The report went on to describe an excellent piece of work published in Biology Letters, and said, “The new study proposes that really big evolutionary changes happen when animals move into empty areas of living space, not occupied by other animals. For example, when birds evolved the ability to fly, it opened up a vast range of new possibilities not available to other animals. Suddenly the skies were quite literally the limit, triggering a new evolutionary burst. Similarly, the extinction of the dinosaurs left areas of living space wide open, giving mammals their lucky break.’’ 

But the fact is, competition drives species to increasing fitness, and as each species evolves it changes the landscape. A simple case is that of flight. When flight evolved it changed the landscape. The very meaning of fitness changed. But the same process that drove evolution before drove it in the changed circumstances. The same argument holds true for the change in fitness landscape because of the extinction of dinosaurs. Perhaps, like the Supreme Court of India insists on a degree in law for reporters, science should be reported only by those who understand it.