I had a really good time guesting on The Explainer with Manuel L. Quezon III on ABSCBN News ANC last Tuesday evening. (The episode is in replay throughout the week at various times of the day and night, so you can still try to catch it in case you missed a good one.) The topic was time and the calendar, but upon my suggestion MLQ3 was good enough to allow a little broader, scientific view of the topic. Instead of concentrating on "history" which takes up just a tiny sliver composed of a couple of thousand years before and after the Christian Lord Jesus Christ, we talked about "Deep Time" instead, meaning to say the stuff that happened during the entire 4.5 billion year history of the Earth. The basic question we tackled was basically the matter of how old things really are (very ancient!) and how we know it for real (radioactive dating methods using the Carbon-14 and Uranium-lead radiometric systems). But the real emphasis was on the history of life on earth in general, as we know it from the fossil record, which has the suggestion of periodic mass extinctions of up to 99% of all known living species during particularly catastrophic events of the last quarter of a billion years or so. I described one theory to explain this apparent periodicity in the possibility that our sun belongs to a binary star system, like ten percent of the observable stars in the Milky Way galaxy. It's quite remarkable of course that an observation made by paleontologists should result in a testable hypothesis for modern day astronomers, since the apparent 25-26 million year periodicity of the mass extinctions implies (from Kepler's Laws) that a putative "Nemesis" or binary star partner of the sun, would lie in an orbit within about one light year of the sun. I understand a number of observatories have an active search going for Nemesis. MLQ3 and I also touched briefly on the issue of global warming during the show, which of course has been attributed to human activities, such as fossil fuel burning. However, the INCONVENIENT TRUTH is that unlike religious or ideological "truth" scientific truths often begin as testable, falsifiable hypotheses that have survived all or most of the conceivable scientific tests designed to prove them wrong. This is in sharp contrast to religious or ideological "truths" which are often claims or assertions that CANNOT by their logical construction be proven false, and whose truth is ultimately a matter of pure faith. In the particular case of Global Warming ala Al Gore, it is most remarkable to me that MLQ3 called my possible alternative explanation for it "almost a heresy" (I mentioned recent reports that ALL the Solar System's planets may be warming up, suggesting something to do with the Sun, or dare I say, an unseen companion star!) If it is a "heresy" it would be to question an alleged "truth" about ... the WEATHER!
Regular readers of Philippine Commentary are of course aware that this writer is a physicist, though a recent award for the blog gave it "Best in the Socio-political category". But I do believe that a rigorous scientific and mathematical mind-set is cruicial to understanding society and politics in our present day. I should mention several areas that have been of primary concern to me recently and which I expect must receive even greater attention going forward:
(1) The public opinion surveys continue to produce a lot of ignorant and propagandistic reportage and analysis. Even the public opinion pollsters themselves at SWS and Pulse Asia are given to producing unscientific surveys and ideological interpretations of their results, even as they continue to do quite excellent scientific work in areas like voter preference polls. The reason seems to be a lack of appreciation for the fact that the techniques used in scientific polls may be applicable but not effective when surveying certain types of questions, like self-rated poverty and hunger, where there is no election or other independent objective event or process by which their results can be validated. This has resulted in headline-grabbing results that can't be verified but are readily believed by the gullible or whoever finds them useful as propaganda or just to make a point. The Hunger survey has certainly produced these results and I have blogged about them often in the last few months. As it stands, it is claimed that one in five families is hungry, or so the now conventional wisdom goes. This is to me an outrageous claim, for in most other free and open societies such an atrocious situation would almost certainly have produced revolution by now. My own explanations have not been politically correct, since I've lately been noticing the vicious addictions of Filipinos to alcohol, drugs, gambling, prostitution and other food-consuming and hunger-causing habits. It's more than just "abject poverty" and "graft and corruption, though these are no doubt causes also. A list of posts on hunger is here.
(2) The topic MLQ3 and i were discussing, Global Warming, has not yet come in for a lot of discussion here at Philippine Commentary, but I promise it will in the immediate future. Mediamatters has a round up of skeptical views on man-made global warming. On The Explainer, I that the Sun, a thermonuclear furnace right next to the Earth, may have more to do with the phenomenon than what we, as a small bit of protein slime on the Earth, may be doing with gases and refrigerators.
(3) Environmental issues are much in need of a scientific attitude and scrutiny. Instead we have activists and ideologues taking center stage, probably encouraged by that Oscar award won by Al Gore. But pseudoscience in this area will probably get us into a lot of trouble rather than out of it, because the issues involved are deeply scientific in nature, and their solutions are bound to be scary when dreamt up by pseudoscientific ideologues and "advocates" of all kinds:
reen is the new yellow in journalism and commentary here in the Philippines, as elsewhere. Greenpeace "Southeast Asia Campaigner" Von Hernandez has a priceless media asset in RINA JIMENEZ DAVID who must be a personal friend of his because she often quotes verbatim from the environmental lobby group's briefing materials and press releases as if they were dispatches from NASA or the World Health Organization. As the paper's self-proclaimed expert on the environment, health and reproductive issues, Rina has recently been ringing the alarum bells over the possibility that we have been eating genetically-engineered (GE) rice which --gasp!-- are being sold in the bigger supermarkets in the Philippines (and by the way, throughout the United States).
(4) Two health-related issues are coming up in which we certainly need the help of knowledgeable experts, rather than the professional protesters and issue-calumnists. These are the Cheap Medicines Bill of Mar Roxas (which I predict will cause a flood of cheap, but fake medicines as the viajeras take advantage of a law that does not build in any regulatory safeguards in a bid to circumvent intellectual property laws or at least create huge loopholes that will allow such circumvention. To the detriment of the Public, of course and the benefit of smugglers used to the predilection of Pinoys for fake DVDs and "designer goods." The other big issue coming up is Bird Flu. Here a solid public appreciation on the management of medical epidemics is not being built up by the works of the anti-GMO crowd, who are really teaching the public a rather unscientific form of skepticism based on ideological and political goals having little to do with Science or Medicine, as such.
(5) Finally, the matter of nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism underlies much of the really scary international debates ongoing. Public understanding of these issues in the Philippines is almost nil, thanks to the usual curmudgeons and paleoliberals who see everything as the fault of America for discovering and possessing nuclear weapons, as if just mentioning "Hiroshima" were 'nuff said about the matter.
I guess the point I was trying to explain last Tuesday was this: that Science really does matter in a world full of delusion and propaganda.
(6) If there is one issue that has not been big in the Philippines of a scientific nature it is that of "Intelligent Design". Of course the reason it is not big here is the fact that CREATIONISM has not really been overthrown in the archipelago in favor of the more conventional explanations of Darwin and evolutionary biology. It was really for the purpose of opening up the whole area however, that I suggested to Manolo the topic of mass extinctions seen in the fossil record, just to make the public aware that there IS a fossil record and that an awful lot of things can be deduced from it. In this area, I am strongly inspired by, and strongly recommend the reading of Richard Dawkins recent book, The God Delusion. His basic argument against Intelligent Design is remarkable. He asserts that the I.D. reasoning is self-refuting! And it can be stated both wittily and with brevity. If something so irreducibly complex exists (like an eye or a wing) that an Intelligent Designer (or creator) is necessary to explain their existence, surely, so does the Intelligent Designer. Which brings back the original mystery that, however, was already resolved by Darwin himself in The Origin of the Species. By the way, Philippine Commentary will be participating in the upcoming Darwin Day celebrations being conducted worldwide in honor of the 150th anniversary of the book's publication in 2009.