The amount of information in a message, American engineer-mathematician Claude Shannon realised, is closely associated with its uncertainty. Shannon’s pioneering work on information theory follows from the simple insight that the more surprising a message is, the more information it carries. If you get a text message saying ‘the sun will set around 6 pm this evening’, you are likely to ignore it. But if the message reads ‘expect heavy snowfall tonight’, you would be jolted into attention.
That’s because it is almost certain that the sun will set in the evening, but the chances of snowfall in India anywhere south of the Himalayas are almost zero.
That’s why bad news makes headlines. Conversely, we should start worrying if good news is considered headline-worthy. That’s why most of what was reported about the 106th Indian Science Congress last week was about ancient Indians possessing stem-cell technology and the need to rename gravitational waves as Modi waves. As Roshni Chakrabarty, a journalist covering the Congress, wrote there were ‘hundreds of mind-blowing, groundbreaking lectures’ but what caught public attention were the two making outlandish claims.