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Rancour is no substitute for due diligence

When I referred to the article “How genetics is settling the Aryan migration debate” (June 17, 2017) by Tony Joseph in my column “Sting journalism is not investigative journalism”, I had no inkling that the article would become a subject of debate. All criticisms against the article flow from a rejoinder written by Anil Kumar Suri, a materials scientist.

These reproaches are akin to what the editors of the literary magazine Granta said about the state of the British literature in the 1970s, which was “neither remarkable nor remarkably interesting” and had “a steady, uninspired sameness, a predictable, even if articulate prattling of predictable predicaments.”

I use two tools, which are related to each other but also remain independent, to evaluate criticisms against this newspaper: editorial judgment and due diligence. Editorial judgment informs a newspaper whether something is worth publishing. Editors try to get an affirmative answer to a set of questions. Does it have a public interest component? Is it relevant? Is it pushing the boundaries of our understanding? Once an idea crosses the editorial judgment threshold, editors commission the story. They then deploy due diligence to scan the copy for journalistic rigour before it is put out in the public domain. The public interest component of Mr. Joseph’s article is self-evident and, hence, my inquiry is going to be only about due diligence.

Objections to Tony Joseph’s article

Let us look at some of the key elements of Mr. Suri’s counterargument. One, its exploration starts from the premise that Gyaneshwer Chaubey, among the 32 authors of the study which Mr. Joseph cites in his article, “was shocked by the drift of the article that appeared eventually, and was extremely disappointed at the spin Joseph had placed on his work, and that his opinions seemed to have been selectively omitted by Joseph”. However, there is not a single direct quote from Dr. Chaubey in Mr. Suri’s article to validate his disapproval of the study. Further, the idea of not being happy with the drift of the story does not prove or disprove any of the arguments of the 2015 study on R1a haplogroup. A close reading of Mr. Suri’s article does not throw up a single specific objection of Dr. Chaubey either to the study of which he is a part, or to the extensive interview with Peter Underhill that was cited in Mr. Joseph’s article.

Mr. Joseph was prudent to go through the chronological order of the ongoing research in genetics to map the human migration and stick to only respected, peer-reviewed journals. He takes care to mention that most of the significant papers, prior to 2010, did not have the same findings. The focus of his article is about the avalanche of new data that compelled many scientists to change their opinions. This includes Dr. Underhill himself.

The crux of Mr. Joseph’s argument lies in Dr. Underhill’s assertion that there is no comparison between the kind of data available in 2010 and now. “Then, it was like looking into a darkened room from the outside through a keyhole with a little torch in hand; you could see some corners but not all, and not the whole picture. With whole genome sequencing, we can now see nearly the entire room, in clearer light,” was the direct quote from Dr. Underhill’s interview to Mr. Joseph.

Mr. Joseph’s interview with Priya Moorjani of the Harvard Medical School holds another key to understand the evolving nature of this discipline, and the breakthroughs that have happened over the last few years. It is important to remember this section of Mr. Joseph’s article: “She [Priya Moorjani] also said the authors of the new study had access to ancient West Eurasian samples ‘that were not available when we published in 2013’, and that these samples had provided them additional information about the sources of ANI ancestry in South Asia.”

I am not going into the apparent contradiction of the critics, who accepted the initial deductions that could not prove the migration into South Asia, and now question the very idea of this scientific endeavour. However, I have no reservation is saying that one cannot cite earlier papers, when the discipline was at its formative phase, to disprove the contemporary findings when the discipline has become robust with substantial amount of additional data and analytical tools. This repudiates the basic rules that govern science and knowledge production.

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Printable version | Sep 9, 2021 3:29:25 PM |

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