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Categorized | Meet a Freethinker

Meet A Freethinker: Ria Caringal

No two freethinkers are exactly alike; a group of freethinkers contains a great diversity of perspectives, so there is no one, official perspective shared among all of them. This makes the freethought community a truly vibrant source of ideas and opinions!

In this light, Meet a Freethinker is our series featuring freethinkers of all backgrounds and perspectives. We want to introduce you guys to the people who make up the proverbial melting pot of this growing movement.

Our next freethinker is Ria Caringal. She studied molecular biology and biotechnology at UP Diliman and, with some buddies, got the FF university chapter there up and running in 2010. She is currently in the US helping the military fight diarrhea. In her spare time she runs Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science round-up post, and is also currently making her way through all the Bond films.

1) How would you define a freethinker?

Being a freethinker is being able to evaluate things regardless of who said it or how ‘common knowledge’ it seems to be. So, in a sense, freethinkers are folks for whom “because I said so!” isn’t enough. Especially when the ones saying that are institutions built on dogma, authority, and tradition.

I learned this the hard way. When I was a kid I would beg my dad to buy me Hershey’s chocolate bars. He said chocolates taste awful and made a sour face. And I believed him. Whole-heartedly. A freethinkerly Ria would have demanded evidence and peer review. Never again, dad. Never again.

2) What belief system do you subscribe to?

I’m an atheist. I realized that I disagreed with a lot of the church’s teachings regarding homosexuality, contraception, divorce, sexuality, roles of women etc. and I realized that I can’t keep calling myself Catholic while also simultaneously ignoring official Catholic doctrine. That’s just… disingenuous. So I left.

After that, and after learning about other religions, it became easy to see how religion could have started as a way to explain natural events (earthquakes are caused by the gods oil-wrestling! making Maria Makiling cry results in typhoons!), and then got infused with philosophy on how to live a good life, and then myths and traditional customs piled on top of it, politics and power got involved too, and then everything got WAYYYY out of hand.

As for proofs and miracles, this clip sums it up for me:

From the movie The Messenger: The story of Joan of Arc (1999, dir. Luc Besson). Joan is imprisoned and starts questioning her motives.

No doubt that religion played an important role in the past when it came to uniting communities and preserving social order. I just think that we’ve outgrown that phase; we can be good without the threat of hellfire or the promise of heavenly riches.

3) What was the funniest or most interesting reaction you got from a person after you told him or her that you were a freethinker?

People aren’t generally aware of what a freethinker is (“thinking freely lulz?!”). But when I say I’m an atheist I mostly get “Oh…” and then an awkward pause in conversation. But I once got a high-five from a co-worker and fellow atheist! That was fun.

4) In what way has being part of a freethinking community benefited you?

It is AWESOME. This is a community that I can really say are my people.

Not only do we share the same levels of geekery, we are also angry about the same shit and are actively doing something about it. Blog posts and creative demonstrations are all fun means to get public discourse going, which hopefully leads to a more fair, more vigilant, and generally better society.

The fortnightly meet-ups are great for people who may feel left out due to being irreligious. Discussions are always interesting and fun, and I’ve learned to debate and discuss more effectively from that.

Moreover, the friendships I’ve formed are simply invaluable to me, and honestly it’s great to be a part of something I believe in.

5) Please explain why there seems to be some negative perceptions against molecular biology (i.e. Greenpeace) and how can we counter that?

It’s probably because it’s such a new technology, and people aren’t generally aware of how things work (fish DNA in my tomatoes! insect DNA in my corn!). Combine that with GM companies like Monsanto and their shady business practices, movies portraying scientists as morally ambiguous god-complexed balls of ego, and a belief that ~*~natural is better~*~ and you have the paranoia of our generation (kinda like nuclear energy in the 1950s).

There’s also the ethics issues that arise when dealing with altering /creating/combining DNA, safety concerns over genetically modified food, ownership/patent disputes, and the definition of “life.”

Countering all that hubbub would involve educating people, rigorous tests to assure food safety, and also a shift in public perception of scientists.

7) What’s the difference between working in a Philippine lab, and an American lab?

Funding and scale. Support and infrastructure. There are actually staffing companies here in the US dedicated to head hunting for laboratories. Regulating bodies for animal/human subject safety in clinical trials. We regularly get high school and college interns for the summer. That just blows my mind to see science as a massively thriving industry, involving collaborators from all over the world. The US military doesn’t spend all its money on guns, it also sponsors a lot of basic research (brain injuries, insect bites, malaria, dengue).

Another huge difference is the type of work. Working in an academic lab/doing basic research in the US generally has softer deadlines, flexible timelines, and lots of collaboration within different departments. You’re free to make your own schedule, as long as you get your work done. You discuss your results with your co-workers, then do the experiment again with slightly different conditions. Rinse, repeat, keep going.

Industry is a different beast altogether. Industry means research work that is contracted out to companies specializing in specific assays. That means you’re doing the same tests over and over for different clients, with very strict deadlines. They need to know if this new face cream will give people cancer! It is result-oriented and crazy-regulated. We had a meeting where we were arguing about how to print labels for test tubes. And how to properly write the date (the 31-Mar-2013 format is least ambiguous, I highly recommend it).

8) A lot of scientists somehow manage to doublethink their way into staying religious. Have you had to deal with someone like this in your lab? If so, how did you deal with it?

I know lots of scientists that are also religious. I think, for them, doing science is a way to discover how god works/designed the universe. Or, others prefer to keep their personal beliefs separate from their work. We don’t talk religion in the workplace much anyway. As long as you don’t let it get in the way of how you set up your experiments, we’re cool.

9) Do you think the current academic culture fosters a freethinking attitude?

I would say Meh, Not Really.  Hard work and perseverance are more prized attributes in school. That’s not bad in itself, but it seems to me that we tend to view science as just another subject to pass and just another hoop to jump through to obtain a diploma. Being able to memorize and spout facts grants you the title matalino, but really we should be giving credit to those who are marunong – those who know how to think, not just what to think.

It’s like saying it’s good to be smart, but keep that shit in your classrooms! Try to get a serious discussion going, and you get called pilosopo as an insult.  People laugh about not being able to understand a concept, nakaka-nosebleed! Ka-lurkey. This attitude of anti-intellectualism needs to change.

10) What is your answer to a creationist who says, there are no transitional fossils. Where is the dino-chicken?

Dino-chicken says hi.


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