Penman No. 206: Keeping Faith with Science

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Penman for Monday, July 4, 2016

 

 

IT’S GRADUATION season, and in a departure from tradition, the College of Science at the University of the Philippines invited a humanist—yours truly—to deliver the commencement speech before its graduates last June 26. In my opening, I adverted to my stillborn ambition to become a scientist at the Philippine Science High School. Herewith, some excerpts from my talk:

This isn’t really about me, but about how people like me once had a dream like yours, of working in a lab wearing a white coat, finding Nobel-prizewinning solutions to global hunger and disease—in other planets if not this one. I never did become a scientist or an engineer, but I like to think that I’m still doing science—through creative writing.

Within my own field, I often find myself arguing for the importance of being able to adopt a rationalist outlook, of grounding our artistic judgments and perceptions on a concrete appreciation of our economic, social, and political realities. I’ve always urged my creative writing students to take an active interest in history, technology, business, and public policy as a means of broadening their vision and enriching their material as writers.

I like to think that I continue to have—as Edward Hubble told the Caltech graduating class in 1938, “a healthy skepticism, suspended judgement, and disciplined imagination.”

To be honest, I didn’t know that quote until I read it in an excellent commencement speech delivered just two weeks ago, also at Caltech, by the neurosurgeon and public-health researcher Dr. Atul Gawande, who reminded the graduating class that despite the demonstrated power and beneficence of scientific thinking, science today is under attack from many fronts—from pseudoscientists, from politicians, from all kinds of pundits claiming that climate change is rubbish, that vaccines are bad for your babies, that all GMOs are harmful, and that guns keep people safe. Dr. Gawande even titled his talk “The Mistrust of Science,” and pointed to the emergence of alternative “cultural domains” eager to advance their own agenda at the expense of scientific scrutiny and analysis.

This is not to suggest that science is infallible—it would not be science if it were—but rather that science, in all of its negotiability, has become a political football, especially among the impressionable and uninformed. In our recent experience, for example, statistical surveys and voting machines were wholeheartedly embraced when they favored certain candidates, and torn apart when they did not.

More than ten years ago, I shared with another graduating class an observation that sadly remains true if not even truer today: a disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education—yes, who needs algebra?—when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway. And while we’re at it, let’s dispense with values, with decency, heck, with the law itself, because none of those things really worked, did they?

It is easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest—the may pinag-aralan, as we are called in our barangays—because we are too easily co-opted by the powers that be. Ferdinand Marcos had probably the best Cabinet in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs; but in the end, even they could do little against their President and his excesses.

In a sense, therefore, we are all culpable and complicit in creating this monster of the anti-intellectual. Call it, if you will, the revenge of the flunkers (among whom I suppose I could be counted)—if accomplished academics can be employed by despots and crooks against the people, then the people can hardly be faulted for distrusting them.

For us UP graduates, the seductions of power will always be there. Power and wealth are also very interesting games to play, and few play them better than UP alumni—the power side more than the wealth, as I suspect that Ateneans and La Sallians are better at making money than we are.

But even these can put you out of touch. I have had friends in Malacañang and Makati who seem to have lost all sense of life, thought, and feeling on the street, beyond what their own commissioned surveys tell them. Worse, they seem to have lost touch with their old, honest, self-critical selves. They forgot all about Sophocles and poetry and mystery and music you can’t buy at Amazon. They see politics not as the opportunity to serve the people but to keep themselves in power. They take the law not as a means of dispensing justice, but as an inconvenience, an obstacle in the way of their popularity. Indeed a drug menace threatens our society, but there is still no drug more potent and more dangerous than power and its abuse.

We—scientists and artists—have to work together to find and to deploy an antidote to this creeping cynicism, to this wholesale surrender of sense and sensibility at the altar of political expediency and popularity. We may work in different ways, but we are both bound by our quest for the truth—which you approach by fact, and we approach by fiction.

You graduates of the UP College of Science have an additional responsibility: to keep faith with your mission and to hold true to your dream, not just for yourself and your family, but for your country and your people. Hold fast to science as a means not just of expanding the frontiers of knowledge, but also of using that knowledge to improve Filipino lives.

We know that science is often a long-term investment with no immediate and tangible benefits, and we can only hope that politicians can respect that, and can trust physicists searching for subatomic particles like the Higgs boson simply because, well, they’re there, somewhere, and could help us understand the universe better. We need brilliant young minds like that of a Nima Arkani-Hamed, exploring supersymmetry, or a Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman mathematician ever to win a Fields Medal.

But we also need scientists who can relate more directly and more immediately to society—scientists who can work for peace, for social transformation, for empowering the poor and the weak, scientists in the service of the Filipino. We need scientists with ambition and vision, but also with conscience and humility.

Let me return in closing to some words from Dr. Gawande: “Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.”

I stand here to attest that even those like me who once dreamed of becoming scientists but chose another path in life know this to be true. In these times, when popular sentiment and demagoguery pose grave threats to reason and to the imagination, we need to remember to keep faith with science, as well as with art, to pursue our work despite and within an environment clouded over by politics, in this hour of great moral confusion. By continuing our work, we assert our freedom and our indomitable humanity.

Science and freedom go indispensably together. Science liberates the mind, and without freedom—without a society and a government open to new and contrarian ideas—knowledge cannot prosper. Science must help light the way forward in the resolution of key national issues. Is there proof that the death penalty really works as a deterrent to crime? Should all mining really be banned? Are nuclear plants and incinerators necessarily harmful? The answers may not always be pleasant or agree with our own beliefs, but only science will yield the truest ones.

 

 

 

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