When was the last time you saw a science show or documentary on a Pakistani television channel? It is a serious question. There was a time when an effort was made to popularise science in Pakistan. In General Zia’s time when Pakistan Television was the only network catering to the viewers’ needs, I recall that documentaries translated into Urdu were aired every weekend. This is how I first came across Carl Sagan’s Cosmos – which would lead me to his books and leave me with a lifelong enthusiasm for science and science fiction.
Make no mistakes. There always were compromises. I remember in a documentary about the origin of the universe when it came to the big bang theory a voiceover artist hastened to slip in that this for us was Kun Fayakun (God’s command for the universe to come into being). You know my views on mixing religion with science. It invariably harms religion in the long run. It is in the nature of science to challenge what it believes today which leads it to abandon old positions by the speed of light. It may sound convenient to you today but tomorrow you will not want your religion to be associated with outdated or redundant scientific assumptions.
But the broader point here is that an effort was made to draw attention to science. That does not seem to be the case anymore. Five years ago, a Pakistani scientist working abroad approached me with a proposal for a pop-science show. I took it to my boss who had the powers to greenlight such projects. I vividly remember the extreme prejudice with which this project was rejected. Science apparently was not for the Pakistani television audience.
I bring up the matter because we badly need critical thought in our society today. While no nation can expect to progress without a significant investment in STEM education and that cannot happen without students who enjoy these subjects, the story does not end here. In the past two decades, you must have noticed that our society is a fertile ground for conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. This must have gone on for time immemorial but recently given the onslaught of the new media and theatre of the absurd that accompanies it, we have witnessed a spike in misinformation. In the age of Covid and other superbugs, this becomes an existential threat. Ignoring cautionary tales from the US to India will only come at a grave cost. And to be honest we have been lucky. India, the US, and many other parts have far better knowledge infrastructures. In these emotionally intense times if pseudoscience, paranoia, and superstition can wreak havoc on them think what kind of tragedy would have befallen us had the virus spread exponentially in this society.
Back to pop science. Growing up I recall many science magazines in Urdu that were available at the newspaper stalls. Nothing extraordinary. Stuff mostly lifted and translated from a number of western scientific magazines but still something to feed the curious minds who did not have access to English content. Now even when I look, I don’t find such accessible content. I am not claiming that no such magazine exists. But I have not come across any and if there is one it certainly is not that widely available.
Let me now remind you of the times we live in. We have around 50 news channels in this country. A host of FM radio stations. Countless newspapers and magazines. This piece is being written on a handheld mobile device that would have looked like magic or unrealistic science fiction in my childhood. As per a statement by the PTA in April this year, a hundred million Pakistanis now use broadband internet. Then look at the websites hosting free content online. There are boundless platforms online to host free video, audio, text, and image content. Then each smartphone houses several free apps that can provide you live streaming content from cloud services. Think how many resources are we squandering away. Now think what a revolution we could cause in the educational sector if we were to make optimum use of these gifts.
Then you will come across the lamest of all lame excuses. There is no market for such content. That people do not read anymore. They don’t have the patience to sit through a long documentary. Forgive me for asking when was the last time you tried. TV series take time to garner attention and gain traction and momentum. Even if an executive allows you to air such content it is to make the above-mentioned point rather than to create appetite and consequently, such pilots are killed in infancy. Also, why haven’t we come across one-minute TikTok videos to popularise science?
Then there is the matter of approach. If you think people are not watching your content, have you checked if you are doing it right? If you subscribe to a cable service, I am sure you must have come across the channels operated by Virtual University. In their admirable haste to make the content remind of the classroom lectures the creators forget that television is a visual medium and if you look at one face, no matter how attractive, for an extended period you are unlikely to escape the soporific effects of the said programme. If a lecturer insists that his voice be accompanied by his image on the screen then at the very least you can use the picture-in-picture functionality to shrink the talking head to a corner and use the remaining screen real estate to air eye-catching and corresponding visuals.
Likewise, the books. In my travels to the rural and underdeveloped parts across the country, I haven’t come across a single town or moderately sized village where I have failed to find a bookstall or two that are still happily selling or renting out books. People still read them. We have just used it as an excuse to abandon printing quality content. And junk literature is replacing it.
Here is another book test. Even those who cannot read or will not read can use the audio versions. Go to any of the online app stores. Just search and see how many Indian/Hindi audiobook apps you find there. Now try finding one with Urdu content. You are unlikely to find a single one. Why? Because we just don’t want to do it.
And this one breaks my heart. Science fiction. We have many entertainment channels. Have you come across a single decent attempt to create a science fiction show? Or even a translated one? Why not?
If this is simply about market economics then there shouldn’t be a big problem for the state to incentivise the sector. At all three tiers of government endowment funds and awards can be created to support the creation of quality scientific content. Subsidies, tax breaks, even emoluments can be instituted to inspire people. There is a perfectly beautiful and effective message of critical thinking out there. We are just failing to convey it to our people. This sorry state of affairs cannot go on for long.