by Jose Sealtiel Cruz
I was a quizzer before I became a writer – a campus journalist – in high school. I would be pulled out from the normal ebb and flow of classes to undergo rigorous review sessions for whatever quiz bee was coming up. The lifestyle grew on me: I would stay in school after hours more than a good part of the student base would and be a common face for days or weeks at a time in faculty rooms, doing it for almost all subject areas school had to offer, especially the sciences. Teachers would usually trust me despite not having the best track record in bringing the school glory.
Perhaps this was why I wound up writing for the science section.
Improving in writing is a journey. I started out writing articles exclusively on what piques my interest; the science section became my personal space for there were not a lot of submissions to fill it up besides mine. This of course changed as my purview broadened and will continue to do so as I expose myself to more realities.
I would end up preparing last year’s winners on science writing in our city as an engineering freshman. They were an odd mix of students to be sent to the regional press conference: some had a glint in their eyes while others looked as if they were pulled out a day before the division meet and was asked to fill the missing spot; some seemed too young for the content I prepared. I whipped out all the ropes I learned as a budding science writer; I was hands-on in feeding them tips and pouring in information well after the day I trained them.
However, I cannot teach them how to love science, which is perhaps the most crucial trait they must possess.
This is expected in a society with an aversion to the nuances of science and that submits instantly to the (almost dogmatic) musings of “experts.” Budding campus science writers are told in the first minutes of their trainings that they must bridge the gap between the “secluded” science community and the masses in order for the latter to “love” science, or at the very least make science accessible.
This is problematic in all fronts. Let me explain.
Science writers are usually told that they must simplify science to make it palatable for the ordinary reader. A decent science writer must learn to strike the balance between simplifying information and dumbing it down (or if something must be simplified at all); between explaining and being plain condescending; and between entertaining and informative.
I usually digress on the last point, for articles made solely to entertain does not create a lasting impact – an article should provoke, for anything less would make the writing a poor PR stunt.
There is some logic to making science articles entertaining: the stereotype of science being distant (and divorced) from “reality” persists until today; that science is not meant to be understood by a layman. There is some truth to it: scientists use jargon that is convenient to use with those versed in their field of study but sounds archaic to an outsider.
The apparent need to write entertaining science-related media stands as the country drags on with a poor science culture. Curiosity is discouraged at an early age while subservience is valued: a child who asks a lot is called makulit and is asked to stop asking further; a pupil who does the same is considered a nuisance. Science is usually taught feeding information instead of encouraging discovery. College-level science courses are made to be egregious and discourages students from pursuing science-aligned degrees. Graduating in a science program is not rewarding – there are not as much lucrative career paths that starts with a science degree.
Depending on science writers and journalists to change this culture is shifting the problem away from those who need to solve it – a problem that runs deep, cycles, and compounds. For a culture that values drama over facts and emotions over objectivity, it is natural to rewrite otherwise heavy science articles with an entertaining spin.
This de facto style guide of writing articles, devoid of context and appeals to emotion, has dire consequences in the way Filipinos internalize news in a time when information spreads in seconds – especially in a time when news is untethered and veracity is questionable. Examples are out there: people flocking drugstores when news outlets publish an article about a “promising” drug when it is still undergoing clinical trials; being skeptical of vaccines as it contains a microchip or that they may end up dead (as in the Dengvaxia scare); and fearing 5G signals as it “causes cancer,” among multitudes of still-spreading scientific misinformation.
Society’s collective scientific illiteracy and misinformation gorge has taken a heavy toll which brought about a shift in the means science is delivered to the masses. This may have started as the country watched in horror as Yolanda ravaged the Visayas region in 2013: weather forecasts are now presented with simplicity and conciseness – and people recognized the relevance of weather forecasts and its impact on daily life.
We may be seeing such style of reportage again as the pandemic looms over society; however, more technical COVID-related discoveries tend to be relayed differently to, or sometimes mislead, the public. In a situation where knowledge spells the difference between life and lives lost, misinformation is genocide.
Science is intertwined with society, and it is beyond the ubiquity of technology and how science infiltrates our daily needs: our society’s future is paved by our attitude towards science, understanding science, and embracing a culture of science. Such culture does not always equate to engaging with general relativity and gobbling academic journals, it can be simply embracing the qualities of a scientific mind: critical, curious, and rational – for a scientific mind is difficult to sway by forces that appeal to emotions to push their agenda.
Science writers and journalists alone cannot create a paradigm shift of this magnitude. It should start with our rulers embracing the reality that science is crucial for progress; but our rulers seem keen to keep their citizens subservient to their whims.
To effect change, we need to bring science to society – and do so quickly.