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God, scientists and the wired world

By: Tessa R. Salazar, December 8th, 2012 01:04 AM

Inquirer Science and Health recently interviewed social scientist, medical anthropologist and veterinary doctor Michael L. Tan, Inquirer’s “Pinoy Kasi” columnist, who was recently elected to the membership of the prestigious National Academy of Science and Technology.

NAST is the country’s highest recognition and advisory body in matters related to science and technology. It is the scientific body providing meaningful incentives to those engaged in scientific and technological research, as well as recognizing outstanding achievements in technology and sciences. As the highest advisory body on science and technology, NAST is proactive on legislative matters and in giving advice to the government on issues related to S&T. One of NAST’s main functions is to be able to bring science and technology closer to the lives of the Filipino.

Inquirer Science asked Tan: In a wired world, what would religion play in a society where people hold a different kind of “tablet”? His reply: “God is a good idea, helping to tame people. I wish though we can be good for goodness’ sake, rather than wanting to be rewarded with heaven or because we’re afraid of hell. As a scientist, I despair with the way religion today warps people’s minds. I get very vicious letters from religionists when I write about evolution, or when I defend family planning, or when I wrote that typhoons and storms aren’t divine punishment (especially for the Reproductive Health Bill!).”

He added: “I’ve even been attacked for declaring that ghosts are created by humans and society. One time when I wrote about the importance of psychology, a reader wrote and said the Bible is very clear in explaining that mental imbalance is the product of Satan!

“I always remind students that religions—Islam and Christianity—did nurture the sciences in earlier times. Yes, there was the persecution of Galileo, and of Darwin, but it was also in European universities—which were largely handled by the religious—that gave a home to the sciences,” Tan quipped.

Scientists’ obstacles

According to NAST, the main obstacles a scientist faces are: limited support for research; unavailability of supplies, equipment and other facilities for research; and lack of public appreciation of what science can and cannot do.

NAST said: “In spite of these handicaps, local scientists had been able to undertake quality research and solve many scientific problems. It is probably because of these outstanding accomplishments of some Filipino scientists that government appropriations for research have been increasing during the last 10 years. For example, grants in aid or research grants are available for the different councils of DOST, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Furthermore, private entities have begun to support research projects both for basic and applied sciences.”

Tempting offers abroad

According to NAST, “It can be tempting to any scientist to work abroad for the simple reason that a lot of better opportunities are offered overseas. However, if one is seeking to help his/her fellow countrymen alleviate societal problems through S&T initiatives, he/she may opt to stay in the country. NAST members have a moral obligation to serve their countrymen, even with the most tempting opportunities of working abroad.”

“There have been offers (for work abroad), including very generous ones, but scientists, especially anthropologists, love challenges, unraveling mysteries of nature and human behavior, and the Philippines has never been lacking in the challenges,” Tan revealed.

He explained: “Pessimists look at the Philippines and Filipinos and say in despair, ‘What a mess!’ I try to be more optimistic and say, ‘Amazing, this mess, with all the wonderful contradictions and tensions and craziness.’ Modern science recognizes something called fuzzy logic, deciphering the nuances and gray areas of the world around us.”

A pesco-vegetarian, Tan said: “I was originally vegetarian in the States (1980s), then came home and found it hard to maintain a purely vegetarian diet because Filipinos are so carnivorous. My diet is based on ethics, avoiding cruelty to living creatures. I rarely eat fish and do so only because I don’t want to inconvenience hosts at parties or at meetings. Sometimes they don’t even serve fish and that’s where I just keep quiet and starve!”

Indeed, a scientist’s life decisions are sometimes based on faith, or fuzzy logic, if you will.

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