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Knowledge without barriers: Dissecting science illiteracy among Filipinos

Despite their immense capacity to generate knowledge, the Sciences tend to be devalued or misunderstood; the vast array of complex concepts and unfamiliar terminologies have made these subject matters appear inaccessible to those outside the scientific community.

With the overwhelming amount of information available, it is easy to be misled by hearsays, exaggerations, and even seemingly well-constructed statements that are actually not grounded in scientific evidence. At the minimum, this could cause confusion among people and leave them forming misguided opinions—thinking the Earth is flat, for example—but in extreme cases, it could devolve into potentially harmful behaviors such as denying the existence of climate change, disavowing support for vaccination, or taking unproven drugs to treat a viral infection.

Easier said than done, however, is attaining science literacy, which requires not only an understanding of the scientific concepts but also honed critical thinking skills and the ability to engage in reasonable, evidence-based discussions about Science.

On access

Biology Department Associate Professor Dr. Chona Abeledo attributes the rampant science illiteracy in the country to three main factors—“lack of education, limited exposure to Science beyond the classroom, and [a] general distrust in the Science.”

In June 2018, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that roughly nine percent of the Filipino youth aged six to 24 years old are out of school. “Given that the majority, if not all, of the exposure to Science of the general population in the Philippines is through [formal schooling], an ever-increasing percentage are not exposed to it,” Abeledo points out.

At the international level, it is coming to light that the current public education system is not effectively equipping Filipino students with the skills and knowledge requisite of their age. In the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Philippines ranked dead last in all three areas of assessment—Reading, Mathematics, and Science. This is all despite the Philippines allocating, in many cases, a larger amount of its gross domestic product on education than higher-ranking countries in the assessment.

What this might point to is hard to say, but it shows that the quality of a nation’s educational system cannot be fully attributed to how much it spends on its students. Differences in culture, ideology, and infrastructure can greatly affect how a country’s students perform, and in turn their chance at achieving science literacy. However, the assessment itself has issues of its own, at the core of which is its unavailability in Filipino, the language spoken and read with the greatest fluency in the nation.

Further, Science is practiced and taught in a language—English—that is not easily comprehended by many Filipinos, contributing to the discipline being perceived as overly complicated. As such, even those who finish their schooling may not fully appreciate Science and the principles it attempts to instill. Science outreach, after all, has tended to be directed to those already with resources, rather than pervading the sectors needing greater exposure to the field.

Exposure outside the classroom, most prominently through various media, is also integral in normalizing talking about Science and thinking through Science in the public consciousness. This is hindered, however, by the limited availability of local programming that tackles Science-related topics in recent years. Even the prominent educational television shows from abroad have evidently regressed in terms of “quality” and “production value”, ending up with “programs that most people do not enjoy,” Abeledo remarks.

This lack of engaging media, she believes, has turned many away from exploring the Science beyond the formal educational setting. Subscription fees for television media, published research, and even news articles further compromise learning accessibility, especially for the marginalized.

Molding belief systems

Public expressions of doubt over the legitimacy of scientific findings have caused widespread skepticism and a general distrust toward science. Abeledo reasons that many public figures “find it easier to distrust Science than believe in it,” adding that “communicators in the anti-Science propaganda are more eloquent than scientists themselves.”

While the aversion to Science may arise out of a direct intent to mislead, more often it is the contextual and cultural factors that greatly contribute to scientific illiteracy. In a 2018 study, for example, Purdue University researchers found that whenever a given audience is presented scientific findings that are in conflict with a deeply held religious belief, they tend to skew toward the explanations provided by the latter.

Indeed, many become apprehensive about changing their views when presented with alternative evidence. Abeledo weighs in on the matter, “Another possible reason why educated people remain science illiterates is because of a tendency to treat Science like some kind of religion or philosophy that you can choose not to subscribe to…[which] degrades scientific facts to the level of opinion.”

Clarifying the purpose

Emphasizing the need to “communicate emphatically about the merits of new scientific developments”, Abeledo reveals that there is a growing community of Science advocates, professionals, and journalists gradually attempting to address science illiteracy in the country.

“Significant strides in social media”, she attests, are making headway, especially with the increased creation of infographics and publicity materials—some of which have even been translated to Filipino and other local languages.

These efforts to increase accessibility and foster inclusivity may eventually help individuals not only to understand scientific concepts, but also to be empowered to make important decisions and behavioral changes anchored in Science-backed evidence.

On a larger scale, Abeledo hopes that science literacy would lead to “fact-based” policymaking—implementing key programs that can address prevailing societal concerns, such as improving the healthcare system or pursuing sustainable energy alternatives.

“Science does not explain everything. But the beauty of Science is it gives us the discipline to verify facts and not be swayed by fake news; to trust existing evidence and avoid bias; and to prioritize effectively and impersonally,” she concludes.

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