Sunday, January 13, 2013

Science left behind in a society where science never took off! I

Dr Jose Rizal in the 13th chapter of his “El Filibusterismo” “The Class in Physics” describes the state of science education in late 19th Century Spanish Philippines. The Physics classroom cum laboratory at the University of Santo Tomas, then the Philippines’ only centre of advanced learning, was equipped with the latest teaching and research lab equipment but according to Rizal was hardly ever used for the intended purpose. In fact Rizal satirically writes that only the janitor and the doorman who out of curiosity, played with the instruments, ever benefited or learned science from the investment on those pieces of lab equipment.

A closer reading of Rizal beyond the satire shows the state of science in a society that places a greater importance on superstition and a perverse kind of Catholicism.

Rizal writes a damning indictment in the last paragraph of the chapter

He who weighs the value of a second and has ordained for His creatures as an elemental law progress and development, He, if He is just, will demand a strict accounting from those who must render it, of the millions of intelligences darkened and blinded, of human dignity trampled upon in millions of His creatures, and of the incalculable time lost and effort wasted! And if the teachings of the Gospel are based on truth, so also will these have to answer—the millions and millions who do not know how to preserve the light of their intelligences and their dignity of mind, as the master demanded an accounting from the cowardly servant for the talent that he let be taken from him.”

Science according to Rizal is necessary for society’s advancement simply because it is a search for truth. The truth shown by science is determined by experimentation and objective (scientific) realism. And that truth should liberate Filipino society from superstition, blind religion, ideology, discrimination and oppression. All of these are in the progressive agenda.

However a recent book  “Science Left Behind” (Public Affairs Books, 2012) by microbiologist Dr Alex B Berezow and Hank Campbell, editor of Science 2.0, examines the rise of anti-Science ideologies in the progressive movement. The authors argue that when the progressive movement abandoned empiricism for more relativistic ideologies, science was left aside and thus we have “scientific” controversies on animal rights, genetically modified (GM) food, rejection of vaccines stem cell research, reproductive health, alternative medicine among others.

But before we tackle this abandonment of empiricism and rationalism that according to the authors came in the wake of the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962. Silent Spring is a milestone in the history of science, technology and society when progressives abandoned rationalism and empiricism became radical environmentalists working for the realization of a natural utopia, restored in its pristine form. This is a myth, a construct similar to that what Freethinkers claim for what Roman Catholic Church believes is the truth about human societies. But I shall come to that later.

The anti-science ideas held by postmodern progressives can be summarized in four points according to Berezow and Campbell

1.     Everything natural is good
2.     Everything unnatural is bad
3.     Unchecked science and progress will destroy us
4.     Science is only relative anyway

This idea of naturalness is rooted in postmodern relativism in which science is just one idea among others that none of them should have none of the preeminence it should have in discourse. This is a radical departure from the position held by Dr Rizal who maintained the objective validity of scientific reasoning (scientific realism) and that without it society will fail to advance.

This book is aimed at an American readership and specifically deals with science and politics in the United States. However it may be applicable to the debates on science, environment and population in the Philippines. Filipino progressives have largely borrowed progressive agendas from the West mainly from the United States and are now in the process of articulating this to varying degrees of success in the Filipino context. Perhaps the articulation of progressive ideas is most successful in the issue of climate change and resource use management that many Filipinos have now a concept of how to mitigate the impact of climate change or the negative effects of using plastic bags. Local governments nationwide have implemented no plastic bags ordinances. Do these policies translated to law have scientific basis?

It is a buzzword among the Filipino science community that public policy should be “science based”. While this sound like a sexy mantra and may get money from the government science agencies, the fact remains that public policy cannot be 100% based on science alone. When science is made into public policy, it is translated and with it the ideology or the political expediency of the moment gets mixed in. Science tests hypotheses with rigor and lets the data speak for itself. Politics on the other hand thrives on subjective truth. Thus there is a need to insulate science from ideology driven politicians, ministers of religion, Freethinkers, activists and advocates. Science should be free to speak for itself and science policy should be driven by data above anything else.

What has happened in late 20th century America and has seen its full flowering under the Obama presidency is that postmodern progressives have successively dominated the public discourse on science with their ideologically driven relativistic positions. This is also the case in the Philippines when progressives have hijacked the discourse on two major issues that have major consequences for national development, mining and population management.

I will focus on these two issues since they are national in scope and unlike animal rights or stem cell research or even genetically modified food which are issues for certain demographic sectors but not the whole nation.

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