Monday, January 15, 2018

[Second Opinion] Reflections on a flat earth

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the protagonist, Jose Arcadio Buendia, becomes obsessed with astronomical knowledge and devotes countless days and  nights observing the sky. In one of the most memorable scenes in the book, he emerges from his seclusion and announces to the public that the world is round, like an orange.

The people react with ridicule, thinking that he had lost all reason. It was only after the wise gypsy Melquiades returned that Buendia was vindicated, praised as a man who independently discovered something already known outside their village.

Today we consider it a given that the world is round, but very few of us can actually offer impromptu proof of it. Of course, there are pictures, but suppose you were to be transported to ancient Egypt. Can you convince the pharaohs that the world is round, without reviewing college physics?

This is one of modernity’s paradoxes: We know a lot, but much of it is second-hand knowledge. We know that we’re made up of cells, molecules and atoms, but few of us have actually looked through an electron microscope. The DNA in our imagination is but an illustration—a representation that bears little resemblance to the real DNA.

I have no problem with this epistemology (that is, how we know what we know), because that’s the foundation of our modern, specialized society. I don’t need to know how microchips work, but I can use a laptop. I’ve never seen them myself, but I believe in the existence of Uranus and Neptune.
But while the specialization of knowledge has benefited us greatly, our detachment from the original means of knowing what we know — i.e., through direct observation—means that knowledge itself has become a matter of trust, and that we can easily be misled into believing, or disbelieving, anything.

One example is the idea that the earth is flat. Though the ancients have long postulated that the earth is a sphere, this did not enter mainstream thinking until the Middle Ages, and by the time Magellan’s fleet circumnavigated the planet there was little doubt about its shape and size. The definitive moment, of course, was when human beings finally saw Earth away from it — that is, when satellites and astronauts reached space.

Today, however, some people — including Shaquille O’Neil and Kyrie Irving — still believe that the earth is flat. When a PhD student in Tunisia submitted a dissertation defending this “worldview,” It caused an outcry in the Arab world. “How does one explain such stunning ignorance of basic astronomy, coupled with such brashness and insolence — rejecting Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, Hubble, and everything in science?” one writer wondered.

An important requisite of these beliefs is their rootedness in people’s mistrust of the “establishment”: Just like moon-landing conspiracists, flat-earth adherents claim that world governments and hegemons, aided by academics and the “biased media,” are hiding the planet’s nature to perpetuate their domination.

A second requisite for the formation of unscientific beliefs is a community that believes them. When you have other people believing the same things that you do, you feel affirmed, making you firmer in your convictions. The PhD student was mocked by academics (her submission was rejected), but she may find community among those who interpret the Quran in a certain way. In turn, she provides them with a scientific vocabulary by which to legitimate their beliefs. This brings us to a third requisite: “expert” legitimacy.

All of these came to the fore during the solar eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017, which believers took as evidence — not a refutation — of a flat earth. Again, we saw narratives of conspiracy (the moon and sun are “Nasa holograms”), the use of expert-sounding or arcane language (i.e., “Zetetic astronomy”), as well as an entire community affirming such beliefs.

I’m sure Earth wouldn’t mind if some humans think it is flat, and to a certain extent, neither should we. But what of the far more dangerous things people are believing?

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

[Second Opinion] Rediscovering our maritime consciousness

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

ABOARD THE SULTAN SIN SULU — Here I am on a balangay, with the crew of coast guard personnel led by veteran adventurer Fred Jamili piloting us across Manila Bay. Today’s trip will be quite short but this wooden watercraft — an exact replica of the ones excavated in Butuan — is actually capable of making overseas journeys. From Maimbung, Sulu, where it was built, it has sailed to Manila via Basilan, Zamboanga, Dumaguete, and Bacolod.

Next year, if all goes according to plan, this same boat will set off for China.

What the “Kaya ng Pinoy” team is doing is quite extraordinary for our time, but in the past, such feats would have been commonplace. As expedition leader Art Valdez reminded me, people from Butuan and Sulu are documented to have sailed to China long before the coming of Magellan. One balangay found in Butuan was dated to 320 CE.

Astoundingly, the boats were built without blueprints. And, as with other Austronesian peoples, navigation was done by an instinctive knowledge of trade winds, ocean currents, and celestial bodies.
Today, however, we seem to have lost our maritime consciousness. We see this in the fact that many Filipinos don’t even know how to swim. Emergency physician Ted Esguerra, also onboard, laments that eight Filipinos drown every day and many of these deaths could have been avoided with basic swimming skills.

We also see this in the neglect of our waterways. William Henry Scott wrote that in pre-Hispanic Philippines, “communities were connected, not separated, by water.” Today, even as we struggle with land transport issues, waterways are neglected, even treated as dumps for both domestic and  industrial waste. Related to this is our lack of concern for our nautical borders — the same attitude that led President Duterte to dismiss Sandy Cay as a mere “sandbar.”

I suspect that this disregard of our maritime culture also seeps into our everyday choices—from the sports we play to the food we eat. Unlike the Japanese who have elevated sushi to haute cuisine, many Filipinos still consider seafood inferior to meat. When I was on Babuyan Claro island, our Ibatan hosts apologized for the food they were about to serve, before showing up with huge lobsters.
All these considered, our land-oriented world view — partly a legacy of the continental-minded Spaniards and Americans — has led to diminished appreciation of our country and our place in the world.

Of course, our maritime culture lives on among our seafarers — known as the world’s best — as well as in coastal communities like that on Babuyan Claro, where the people have 10 different words for sea conditions, such as “abkas” for breaking waves and “lomanlana” for smooth waters, which fortunately greeted us through much of the 11-hour boat ride from Claveria via Calayan Island.
It also lives on, to a certain extent, among our divers, marine biologists, surfers, dragon boat paddlers, and many others who have explored our islands and developed an intimacy with the sea. Because they have learned to appreciate our marine beauty and biodiversity, they know what is at stake in protecting them.

How can we make the rest of the nation feel the same way? “First of all, we need to overcome our fear of the water,” says Russ Tabuniar-Jamili, a crew member of the Sultan Sin Sulu, recalling how even she was discouraged from going swimming as a child. “But where do we even start? Some people don’t even want to join us aboard because they don’t want to get dark!”

One place to begin is right where we are: the balangay itself. “It anchors us to who we are as an island people,” says Everest climber Carina Dayondon, another crew member, as the winds propel us across the bay. By restoring the balangay to its proper place in our history and presenting it as a living, tangible, seaworthy vessel, perhaps more Filipinos will be reminded that the waters around us are waiting to be embraced and explored.

And perhaps some of us will realize, at long last, that while our archipelagic nature may have held us back as a nation, it can be also our strength — if only we can rediscover and reclaim our maritime consciousness.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

[Second Opinion] Is ‘Myers-Briggs’ the new horoscope?

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

ISTJ, ISFP, ENFP, ENTJ… If you’re wondering what those four-letter acronyms in people’s social media profiles are, they’re personality types under the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Developed by the mother-and-daughter team of Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers based on ideas of Carl Jung, it’s actually been around for decades, but has grown in popularity only recently.

The MBTI’s 16 personality types are based on four dichotomies. The first is about “Attitudes” and classifies people under E (Extraversion) or I (Introversion). The second is about “Perceiving Functions”: either S (Sensing) or N (Intuition). The third looks at how people make judgments — either T (Thinking) or F (Feeling). And the fourth is whether one is J (Judging) or P (Perceiving) in the way one relates to the outside world.

According to its proponents, each personality type has distinct characteristics: ENFPs “enjoy new ideas and challenges, value inspiration” and ISFPs “enjoy adventure, skilled at understanding how mechanical things work.”

With that chart as starting point, companies have taken to using the tool in human resource management and team-building activities. And many authors have used it to make various inferences about one’s personal life, from “Here’s the Kind of Relationship Each Myers-Briggs Type Thrives In” to “The Myers-Briggs Types And Whether Or Not They Need A Hug.”

Much has also been written about the MBTI and career choices: A CNBC article claims that ISTJs make good chefs, ISFPs good jewelers, and ENTJs good physicians. Interestingly, though, within the medical profession, some works (and career guidance manuals) suggest that ENTJs make good OB-GYNs, ISFPs good anesthesiologists, and ENTJs themselves good neurologists and cardiologists.
But despite this wealth of literature, the MBTI has been critiqued by psychologists as having little or no scientific basis. Some find the idea that people belong to dichotomies (i.e., introvert vs extrovert) highly problematic (Jung himself said people fall somewhere in between). Others point out that it does not account for cultural differences or other personality traits.

Then there are questions of reliability and utility: A study done by Prof. David Pittenger, for instance, found that 50 percent of people who retook the test after five weeks ended up in a different personality category. Pittenger also found “no evidence to show a positive relation between MBTI type and success within an occupation.”

Meanwhile, defenders say it’s the overuse and misuse of the MBTI that’s problematic, but the test itself, when properly administered and correctly interpreted, is valid and reliable.

Regardless of its scientific basis, what can explain its appeal?

The first is that it contributes to people’s sense of identity. This is particularly important in our “postmodern age,” when many no longer identify with religions, ideologies, or even their line of work. Having a vocabulary by which to articulate one’s personality can contribute to what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls “identity projects.”

The second is it affirms people—and this is where the similarity with horoscopes lie. As Brian Dunning wrote, the MBTI, like horoscopes, are popular “because they virtually always tell people just what they want to hear, using phrases that most people generally like to believe are true, like ‘You have a lot of unused potential.’” If you read the descriptions of the 16 MBTI types, they’re all positive—and any of them could make you feel better about yourself.

Personally, I find (over)reliance on the MBTI, particularly by employers, disconcerting; Myers herself warned against using it to screen job applicants. But I wouldn’t worry too much about the way people use it in their everyday lives. Just as people gamely participate in Facebook quizzes that “reveal” one’s previous reincarnation—or “Game of Thrones” character—people can look for their horoscopes or personality types without necessarily subscribing to their full implications.

As Arthur C. Clarke could very well have said, “I don’t believe in Myers-Briggs. I’m an ENTJ — and we’re skeptical.”

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: