Developing A “Science Culture” – Now Na!

Developing A “Science Culture” – Now Na!

(Keynote, 2011 National Conference, Philippine Physics Society, held at Silliman University, April 6-7, 2011)

Ben S. Malayang III | Silliman University


Two weeks ago, a Singaporean academic told of an old story about how a boy saved the people of his coastal village. One early morning, the boy had risen up well ahead of everybody to work on the ripening rice farm of his village that was on a hill outside the village. Of course, as it is among Asians, the rice farm was very dear and valuable to the people of the village. From its elevated height on the hill, the boy could see well far out into the sea, and he saw a huge tsunami cresting up and speeding toward the village. The boy knew that there was no more time for him to run back down to the village to warn everyone and get them to run to safetyup the hill. And so what was he to do? In despair, the boy burned the ripening rice and when the villagers saw their rice field burning – the only rice they would have for the months ahead – they all rushed up the hill to put down the fire. They lost their rice, but they saved their lives.

What is the moral of this story? I understood it this way: sometimes there would be moments in our lives when we need to drop and lose some things we hold very dear, in order for us to survive and continue to live.

Such moment is now na! Our country and the world are today facing complex problems that threaten our survival. The specter of a rampaging inflation driven by escalating food and fuel prices, happening at a time when there is so much political unrest and conflict in many places in the world, when old institutions are being turned upside down and the familiar is no longer familiar, and there is much restiveness on the earth’s crust and in our climate, we need to better put our acts together and make good and correct decisions that will allow us to face the changing realities of our time.

Just think about it:

Rising food prices is bad enough. Combining it with rising fuel prices make for a bunch of very bad hombres! They feed on each other and as they soar, people could lose their cool and unrest could turn communities into widening cesspools of violence and death.

But how are we to solve the problems of rapidly rising food and fuel prices when in the places where we grow our food and get our fuels there are wars and revolutions going on? In the Philippines, our bigger farms are in Mindanao, in northern, central and southern Luzon, and in Panay, Leyte and Samar in the Visayas.  In these places, we have active rebellions and insurgencies. In the Middle East where we get most of the world’s oil, governments are tumbling down like Jack and Jill on the hill.

The familiar is no longer familiar. The big advocates of capitalism in Europe and the Americas are failing in their capitalist ventures. The big enemies of capitalism like Communist China, Russia and Vietnam, are the ones succeeding and now emerging as the world’s big or more successful capitalist economies.

And, of course, there is the restlessness of our earth. Earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, altered seasons, severe weather disturbances – all these threaten lives & properties & make life terribly more difficult to live.

There seem to be not much we can do to reverse our fortunes. They are a product of our long pattern of greed and avarice that had been driving us to get as much as we can from God’s creation, but hardly returning back any. We are farming hills when we should have kept their forests, building nuclear reactors and big polluting factories in coastlines when we should have made sure that God’s fishes are safe, and we put more money on building war machines to keep us safe from God’s other people, when we might have put more energy on keeping peace among ourselves.

But one thing we can do: to recognize and put faith on what God had endowed us as human beings, and these are the gifts of our two abilities to care &to reason.

We have not been made by our Creator God to be so devoid of soul and spirit so as to care not with what happens to our neighbors. Humans that we are, we possess so much ability to make mistakes, and yet we also possess the ability to feel the pains and joys of others, and get disturbed by injustices and misfortunes suffered by many. And God had bestowed on us the ability to reason, to use the immense power of the mind to understand what we are, what we have, and what we might do. These two – to care and to reason – are powerful endowments from God that we humans might use to in turn bestow God’s love and grace on those suffering in our world and on the sufferings of our world.

This is the reason why we’re here today. We’re here because we seek to explore how the power of physics might be turned to cure the ailments of our world, and how physics as an exercise of reason may be best used to care for and restore what Dr. Tony Oposa, a great Filipino environmental lawyer, would refer to as the “vital organs of our earth” (our land, seas, and air) upon which many of our people depend for life and living.

We expect that you will be focusing your attention on such concerns in physics like optics, magnetism, thermodynamics, hydraulics, quanta, kinetics and plasma. But I wish to leave you today a challenge, which, to me, would do or undo the success of your endeavors. And this is the challenge of building up in our society, among our people, a robust and functioning “science culture”.

“Science culture” has been among the public advocacies of many of our foremost Filipino scientists and educators including, among them, Dr. Ricardo Gloria (former Science and Education Secretary), Dr. William Padolina (also a former Science Secretary and now Deputy Director of the International Rice Research Institute), Dr. Emil Javier (also former Science Secretary, former UP President, and President of the National Academy of Science and Technology), the late Dr. Lediviña Cariño, and our own Dr. Angel Alcala.

What is “science culture”? I see it as not much about what it is but more about how it is. It is about how we live our individual and collective lives in a manner that fully avails of the twin human powers to care and to reason.

“Science culture”happens and evolves into a way of life when:

We act on the basis of the best evidence we have, but recognizing as well, with care, that others may be acting more out of feelings and tastes rather than evidence. It is about always insisting on basing one’s actions on what is reasonable and objective, but giving reasonable space and allowance for those who may need to sometime abandon reason to give sway to subjective emotions and to self-interest.

We accept evidence based on the best data, but carefully admitting that the data could be wrong, or the reason for seeking them could have been based on the wrong assumptions or models, or that they have been improperly acquired even in the face of the best intentions. It is about accepting as best evidence only those carefully considered with the best reasoning, yet also caring that others may be wrong about how they reason. It is also about accepting as evidence what might seem the best today but which may prove wrong and incorrect tomorrow.

We insist on the truth and acting based on the truth, yet accepting that for many the truth can be hard to accept.

Building up a science culture can be difficult because it is about overcoming our fundamental fears of truth. But we must do it. Like the boy in our story, we must burn our fears in order to free us from our dangers. We must abandon our cherished tendencies to act on whims and unverified rumors, to free us from the tsunami of ignorance or gullibility. We must have a strong and robust science culture in order to better survive our future.

This is what I believe: God-given reason driven by God-given love, and God-given capacity to do good science anchored on our equally God-given ability to care for others and for our environment, are inherently fundamental expressions of our being deeply creatures of a loving and redeeming God.

And so, Physicists of the Philippines: I implore you, be God’s people –now na!