Penman No. 286: Bringing Science to the People

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Penman for Monday, January 15, 2018

 

JUST BEFORE the Christmas break, I had a chance to speak to three different groups—the local media in Iloilo, the Philippine Genome Center in UP, and the Philippine Information Agency—about popularizing technical information, of the kind produced by academic and government institutions, especially in their research.

This has been one of my lifelong advocacies, being a frustrated scientist who, as a PSHS graduate, traded Industrial Engineering for English at UP. I figured that the next best thing I could do for science was to help scientists let people know about their work, given that, as I often point out, we lack a scientific culture—a rationalist mindset—in this country.

I told them that one of our worst mistakes has been the fact that we have largely left national policy to the politicians, the priests, the lawyers, the soldiers, and the merchants. Scientists have had little say—and artists even less—in the running of this country and in plotting its direction. We may canonize our boxing champions and beauty queens—and even elect them senator—while our National Scientists and National Artists languish in obscurity and indifference.

Bringing science into the national discourse becomes even more important when we consider the information environment in which we live today—an environment of fake news, alternative facts, and post-truths, an environment where loud and forceful opinion (often expressed in tweets and Facebook posts) seems to take precedence over quiet facts and careful inquiry, and where “likes” and “retweets” take the place of scientific verification. Throw in superstition, ideology, racism, sexism, and a recipe of other political, social, and cultural factors, and you are going to have a very hard time figuring out where the truth lies at the bottom of a very murky pot.

That’s why we have to bring science within the grasp of ordinary citizens, not only to educate but to empower them, because ignorance disempowers. People fear what they cannot understand, and there are those who will deliberately confuse the arguments and make them incomprehensible to people so they can be more easily misled and driven to false conclusions. Those who deny the Holocaust and climate change are not merely expressing an opinion, as they of course are free to do; but they are also enabling destructive processes that could result in social and physical catastrophe for others.

People—even media—often mistake science for numbers, gadgets, laboratories, and incomprehensible formulas, but we have to remember that—through the scientific method—it’s really a way of looking at the world and making things happen, guided by reason, observation, and experimentation. In other words, it’s a guide to making choices.

A few years ago, there was—and indeed there continues to be—a raging controversy over GMOs or genetically modified organisms and their possible impact on our food, our health, and our economy. When scientists at the University of the Philippine Los Baños tried to propagate a GMO variety of eggplant they called Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) talong, they met with fierce resistance from some civil-society groups who warned that UPLB was in the pocket of a big multinational firm to promote a product that could only have disastrous effects on Filipinos.

Despite the strenuous efforts of the UPLB scientists to prove that Bt talong was safe, did not require harmful pesticides, and would bring tremendous economic benefits to Filipino farmers, opponents succeeded in securing a Supreme Court order to stop field testing on Bt talong. The order was met with profound dismay from the scientific community, and while it was later reversed on a technicality, the episode showed how contentious and how political such seemingly simple matters as which eggplant to plant and to eat could be.

Today, once again, we have a controversy brewing in the media, around the issue of Dengvaxia vaccine, said to have been given to huge numbers of Filipino children without adequate safety testing. So the question is, was it a scam meant to enrich a corrupt few, or just sloppy science? Or is there a reason beyond public safety for raising this issue now?

There have been and will be many more, and much larger, public debates that will engage both science and politics in this country. Some may strike at the core of some of our most deeply held beliefs and presumptions. Can the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant be safely rehabilitated and utilized? Can we use modern incinerators to solve our waste problems? Is there really such a thing as responsible mining, and how can it be undertaken?

Will we simply believe the politicians, the activists, the bankers, and the generals, or should we rely on science to establish the truth, whatever the consequences of the truth may be?

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(Photos from http://www.up.edu.ph)

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