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Upholding science in the disinformation age

By PATRICIA MANARANG Published Jan 13, 2023 5:00 am

There’s this sort of elusiveness that surrounds science. Science looks scary because there are so many things you don’t know and so many things that need to be explained and understood. Using formulas to calculate a certain value, measuring chemicals for experiments, and interpreting data for analysis are just some of the things that terrified me as a student.

When I entered university, I realized just how large the gap was between scientific knowledge and the public’s understanding. From the environmental impacts of dolomite to the effects of Ivermectin, there’s just so much information out there that we don’t know how to comprehend fully. When these issues were being discussed on a national scale, those with science backgrounds were in disbelief at how the public and the government were handling it. The implications of misinformation could be life-threatening.

In the Philippines, our lack of science literacy is a huge problem that we need to recognize. This goes hand in hand with our struggle in science communication, which is the act of communicating scientific facts in a way that the public can understand. It doesn’t take being an expert in the field to become science literate. It just takes the primary science education taught in schools and logical thinking.

Young STAR sat down with Kami Navarro, a science communicator, to learn more.

When I asked Kami what the state of science literacy and communication was in the Philippines, she said: “There are national surveys in other countries that test scientific knowledge on a regular basis. But in the Philippines, these surveys aren't regularly done. We have international surveys that we participate in that look at the performance of grade school and high school in different subjects. Our results aren’t great.”

Science communicator Kami Navarro wants to make liking science cool.

he results of worldwide surveys such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that Filipino students rank exceptionally low in science, among other subjects. Kami attributes this to a lack of facilities and qualified teachers.

But science communicators also face a lack of opportunities here, and usually, the work is contractual. There isn’t a lot of training for this skill in local science education either, which results in scientists being able to communicate easily with each other, but finding it difficult explaining complex subjects to the general public.

A 2014 report stated that there has only been one scientific laboratory in 10 schools across some regions, and three in 10 are in National Capital Region (NCR). Some teachers are also forced to teach outside their expertise or make do with the limited resources they’re given. This has resulted from a lack of funds to support basic science education, as most Philippines don’t see the sciences as key to improving our lives.

The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has always been the target of budget cuts, particularly its Research and Development branches, which affects the numerous projects under them. Without research, it becomes difficult for policymakers to make informed decisions that can solve social issues.

I asked Kami how science literacy affects our government and politics.

“It would be nice to have policymakers who appreciate the expertise of scientists to make smart decisions backed by science, for the betterment of Filipinos,” she said. “However, there have been instances where high-ranking officials have been condescending towards scientists and researchers, or they’d give their input even without proper knowledge, especially during the pandemic.” It didn’t help that government officials would say one thing, while science experts would say something completely different. “Our science literacy isn’t good in the first place, which makes the public confused,” she says.

The evolutionary aspect of science is something that lawmakers also fail to grasp, Kami says. Research constantly evolves; what you know one day as fact can be displaced the next day by a new discovery. Policymakers usually need to make decisions immediately, but they’re at odds with scientists who stress that nothing in science is absolute and that change is part of the scientific process. It’s also important to remember that science literacy isn’t just important on a large scale, but also on an individual level as well.

So what is the importance of being science literate to most citizens?

“For the average person,” Kami says, “they don’t realize that what they experience can be addressed by having a science-backed response. For instance, disasters or strange weather events, or traffic and public transport. There’s also (a lot of) science there. When you know science, you can make better decisions. When PAGASA tells us to evacuate, do you stay or leave? Do you get vaccinated or not? Do you wear masks or not?”

Everything is ultimately shaped by scientific observation and data, Kami points out, even the things we don’t think twice about. For example, navigation applications such as Google Maps and Waze are based on science, but people don’t really think of them as an application of science. Learning how to appreciate and understand the science behind things makes us better citizens and smarter people.

There are some initiatives that are trying to improve science literacy and communication in the Philippines, although most are still in the early development stages. Pinoy Scientists, an online initiative that Kami co-founded, features different Filipino researchers and scientists on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Their goal is to provide role modeling to students who come from similar backgrounds.

“People think that scientists just stay in the lab, but they are just like everyone else,” she says, which is why the featured profiles also include the scientists’ hobbies aside from their research. The role models also come from various fields, showing aspirants that these careers exist and that Filipinos can be successful in them.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Kami Navarro (@scikam)

STEM+PH by UNILAB Foundation is also active in promoting the sciences to the youth through programs. One is STEMKonek, a platform that supplies mentors and resources to interested students. Another initiative is FlipScience, a website dedicated to STEM-related news. Run by Filipinos, these programs aim to encourage fellow Filipinos to get into the sciences through interesting articles and podcasts. A lot of these programs are aimed at the youth, who can help improve science literacy in the country.

So how can the youth do their part in making the Philippines more science-literate?

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Kami Navarro (@scikam)

“When you’re young, you’re still very curious,” Kami concludes. “The youth can share that love and curiosity, especially on TikTok and Facebook. The Philippines is the world’s social media capital, after all. What young prospective science communicators can do is apply their knowledge of popular media and virality to counter misinformation through viral video-making, meme knowledge, the use of slang terms, et cetera.”

Through fact-checked, well-researched posts online, Kami says the youth can “make science enthusiasts more visible, and make liking science cool.”