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A Conversation with Russell Blackford, philosopher and author

A Conversation with Russell Blackford, philosopher and author

This week, for Conversations for a Cause, we talk with Russell Blackford, philosopher and co-author of 50 Great Myths About Atheism. We talk with him about misconceptions about atheism. Then, we discuss his views on theology and the ethics of human enhancement.

You may also download the episode file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

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A Conversation with Guy P. Harrison

A Conversation with Guy P. Harrison

This week, for Conversations for a Cause, we talk with Guy P. Harrison, author of 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God. We discuss skepticism, critical thinking, and his latest book, Think: Why You Should Question Everything.

You may also download the episode file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

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The World Through A Glass Darkly

[This piece is the first installation in a series on scientific reasoning and skepticism.]

Look at the picture below. Which part of the block looks darker, the one on top or the one on the bottom?

Shading optical illusion

Actually, they’re exactly the same color. You can see this if you cover the middle portion of the grey object using your index finger. Now study the next picture below and examine the tiles labeled A and B. What is the color of tile A? How about tile B?


What if I tell you that tiles A and B have the same color? If you don’t believe me (and it’s right that you don’t, because wtf they’re not the same color), save this picture and examine it using appropriate software. You can also print the picture on paper, cut out the tiles in question, and compare their colors side by side.

It is often said that we see the world through a glass darkly. What this means is our perception of the world is not perfect but rather goes through a flawed filter, the proverbial darkened glass. In reality, our perception of the world is not merely distorted by physical obstructions like dark glasses; our very minds are riddled with cognitive biases that are at the very core of how we perceive the universe. The dark glass we see the world through is part of who we are. It is us.

Why do we see tiles A and B above as having different colors? Before we answer that question, take a look at the picture below.

Shaded circles 1

Because of the shading, the circles appear three-dimensional. The fact that we perceive depth just because of shading is already interesting. Even more interesting is the fact that to nearly everyone, the same group of circles appear to bulge out (they are “eggs”) and the same group appear to cave in (they are “cavities”). Which of the circles look like eggs and which look like cavities? Assuming all of you who read this are humans, most of you will see the circles on the left as the eggs and the circles on the right as the cavities. The left portion of the picture looks like a flat surface with several bumps while the right portion reminds us of a golf ball’s surface.

It’s also interesting to note that it’s difficult to see it the other way around. Go ahead, try it. Imagine the circles on the left as cavities and those on the right as eggs. (Personally, I find the former more difficult to do than the latter.)

Scientists think our tendency to see the circles on the left as the convex eggs is due to our mind’s innate assumption that light always comes from above. For the left circles to be cavities, light would have to come from underneath. Our brains seem to find this latter scenario unlikely. In fact, our mind’s assumption that light always comes from above is so strong that the convex eggs pop out from among the cavities in the picture below.

Shaded circles 2

If you invert the picture above, the circles would exchange roles; the ones that used to be cavities will become the eggs and vice versa. I encourage you to give it a try. You can view the page with your head upside down or, if you’re reading this on a laptop or a tablet, try flipping your device and see the eggs become cavities.

Once you or your gadget is upright again, look at the picture below.

Shaded circles 3

Like last time, you will see eggs and cavities, but this time it’s easy to imagine either group as the eggs. Unlike last time, you can easily shift from the point of view that the upper circles are eggs to the view that the lower circles are the eggs. Our minds can easily imagine a scenario where light comes from the left to the scenario where light comes from the right.

Since our brains are products of our evolutionary history, so are our minds. We are descendants of creatures who had minds that allowed them to survive their world long enough to pass on their genes, and in their world light usually came from the Sun. In the sky, the Sun can be found to one’s right, one’s left, or above, but never below. Our minds have therefore evolved to use shortcuts that disregard the scenario of light coming from underneath.

The visual data our brain receives from our eyes are not enough to create an exact simulation of the world. From the last picture above, we see that the shading of the circles can be interpreted in at least two ways. In fact, the shading can be interpreted in many other ways; our brains just picked two among them. Another way to interpret the last image is as set of flat circles with uneven shading, but our brains disregarded that option, too. Evolution produced human minds that usually assume evenly shaded surfaces.

The mind’s problem of coming up with an accurate picture of the world given the visual data from the eyes is what engineers would call an ill-posed problem; there are more unknowns than there are given, and so no one correct solution can be derived from the given. In order for our ancestors to survive, that is, in order for them to find predators lurking nearby before they become said predator’s lunch, their minds had to evolve shortcuts that assume certain things about the world. Those assumptions may not always be true, but they are true often enough to be useful. An example of such assumption is the one that light always comes from above and never from underneath. We carry that innate assumption, that cognitive bias, with us. Today it may allow us to see eggs and cavities in a picture on a screen, but a million years ago it allowed our ancestors to avoid that lion waiting behind that stand of grass.

Let’s go back to the question of why tiles A and B in the second picture appear to have different colors even though they’re exactly the same. Because of the context, our minds are made to think that tile B is in the shadows. This, in turn, makes our visual processing system compensate for the shadow, “subtracting” the shade from the raw data to produce a final simulation that is erroneous, one in which tiles of the same color appear to have different hues. Because of a similar cognitive process, we see tiles A and B in the picture below as tiles with different shades, even though they’re exactly the same shade of grey.


Intuitively, we feel as if our brains simply interpret raw information coming from our senses. But as mentioned, the data from our sense organs are not enough to tell us everything we need to know about our surroundings. Because of this, our minds process the information from our senses, adding countless assumptions that may be false and disregarding many scenarios that are possible before creating a final simulation of the world. Our perceptions are heavily processed, extremely edited, assumption-laden finished products and not the raw information we usually think they are. Such is the dark glass through which we see the world.

How then, you ask, do we know what’s behind the dark glass? How can we see the world from outside our tinted windows? In other words, how do we know what’s really real? The answer: we turn to science.

In the next installation in this series, we will explore several more cognitive biases and then explain how the methods of science allow us to use our senses to transcend the limitations of those very senses we use, giving us glimpses of the reality that throbs and thrives on the other side of the dark glass.

Posted in Philosophy, Science0 Comments

On Proof, Presumption, and the Existence of God

The debate on the existence of God cannot be resolved on the basis of proof. While atheists claim that theists fail to prove that God exists, theists respond by saying that atheists fail to prove that he doesn’t. Atheists would then say that the burden of proof lies on him who asserts and not on him who denies, and theists would point out that saying there is no god is also a positive claim that equally requires proof.

And so the outcome of the debate will most likely depend not on proof, but on presumption, because presumption determines which side has the burden of proof to overcome such presumption.

Presumption is defined as “an act of accepting that something is true until it is proved not true.” In law, this refers particularly to a rebuttable presumption (as opposed to a conclusive presumption), that is, presumed as such until defeated by proof to the contrary.

But are presumptions arbitrary? For instance, can atheists just presume that God does not exist while theists can presume that he does, leading to yet another stalemate? Another definition of presumption says that it’s not: “a legal inference as to the existence or truth of a fact not certainly known that is drawn from the known or proved existence of some other fact.”

If we are to apply the above definition to the existence of God, it would help to focus on the operative words and phrases: an inference drawn from the known or proved existence of some other fact. In other words, based on our present knowledge of the universe, which is more sensible to presume, that God exists, or that he doesn’t?

Centuries ago, before Darwin published his theory of natural selection, it would seem utterly foolish to presume that there is no Creator given the beauty and diversity of life around us, from the largest mammals to the tiniest anthropods. Today, however, our scientific knowledge would easily overcome any reasonable presumption of truth on the biblical story of creation.

Centuries ago, when Hume said that we cannot derive an ought from an is, it would be reasonable to presume that morality (or what we ought to do) can only come from the dictates of a Creator who defined right and wrong and bound us with the duty to do what is right. Today, with the achievements in evolutionary biology, while we do not claim to derive moral oughts from the acts that tend directly or indirectly to help perpetuate our genes, we can at least point out that the claim that God is the good is not just an unwarranted presumption but an empty tautology, a matter of arbitrary definition and not a logical conclusion.

Based on the above examples which show what we presently know of some other facts about this world, it would seem more plausible to infer that there is probably a naturalistic explanation for things that seem to require supernatural supposition to make up for our ignorance, such as the beginning of life and of the universe itself.

And while some philosophers might point out that the above arguments presuppose that all truths are scientific truths and all proofs must be empirical proofs, and that such assumptions cannot themselves be proven by the scientific method, it must be pointed out as well that science does not claim to hold a monopoly on truth. However, if one were to presume, science deserves the presumption of veracity because it has consistently been shown to work: cure diseases, predict typhoons and tsunamis, make our lives longer and better. On the other hand, would philosophers board an aircraft whose navigation and safety systems have only been logically proven to exist?

The God question then becomes a matter of presuming the negative until a clear and convincing proof that can survive scientific scrutiny surfaces to defeat such presumption. Of course, one can always presume the existence of God, but such presumption cannot be said to be supported by science. And while science does not claim to know all the answers, it is nevertheless associated with finding answers that can be verified with reasonable certainty.

* * * * *
Image credit: Jong Atmosfera

Posted in Philosophy, Science1 Comment

Why Our Leaders Should Be Technologists

Digital Art by Richard C. Base

Digital Art by Richard K. Base

If I may venture why our country is in such a dire state, it is because we have a huge lack of leaders who are technologists. Just look at our current crop of leaders: we have mostly lawyers, actors, celebrities and even ex-convicts (as well as convicts-to-be). How our government is run reflects this quite accurately. Go to almost any government office and see.

You will see “lawyers” who make you go around in circles and who burden you with a lot of procedures and requirements to follow. You will see “actors” pretending to work but are actually playing Candy Crush or chatting with their officemates — and yes, this happens even in relief operations in Tacloban as related by a volunteer through her facebook account where she says, “It breaks my heart seeing bottled waters outside the warehouse spread like garbage, rice grains scattered like no one cares, relief boxes literally being dumped by trucks without thinking that whatever inside maybe damage, reliefs outside the warehouse soaked in the rains, and you DSWD staff at the warehouse spending your day talking/chatting/seating while there are a lot of things need to be done ASAP”).

You will see “celebrities” who want to take credit for work done by others, who want their faces and names stamped on projects funded by people’s money. And of course, there are always the ex-convicts and convicts-to-be who are very good at finding ways to line their own pockets.

For the past few years, and particularly in the last decade alone, technologists have been at the forefront of changing how people act, interact and live — and their impact is felt not just in their locality but all over the world. How many people are now dependent on Google, Facebook and Twitter? How many billions and trillions of transactions take place using the internet, cellphones and tablets?

It is clear that the leader of the future, who will have the most influence and impact, should be a technologist. The leader himself may not be a scientist or an engineer per se, but he must have the heart of one. He must be keenly interested in technology and what it can do. Because above all else, a technologist wants only one thing: to solve problems.

And boy, do we have a ton of problems in our country.

How can technology solve our problems? Let me give 3 examples.

  1. Garbage. Do you know that there are some European countries who have solved their garbage problems to the point that they have to import garbage from other countries because they have none left to burn for their own use? On April 30, 2013, The New York Times reported that the City of Oslo in Norway has developed a way to convert “household trash, industrial waste, even toxic and dangerous waste from hospitals and drug arrests” to heat and electricity. Other cities in Sweden, Austria and Germany are also building such plants.Can you imagine what this one technology alone can do for our country? Where is the Philippine delegation to Oslo to study this? At the very least, even if we find the technology too expensive or impractical, we can work out some sort of deal to export our garbage to them. That would be a win-win situation.
  2. Prosthetics. Traditional prosthetics are prohibitively expensive. People who lose a hand, foot, nose or any other body part may find it economically impossible to replace these. A prosthetic hand that can grab things, for example, would cost somewhere between US$20,000 to US$30,000 (around PHP1M or more).However, we have an already existing technology called a 3D Printer which is changing the game in prosthetics. The Huffington Post recently ran a story about a dad who used a 3D printer to print a prosthetic hand for his son who was born without a left hand. His estimated cost was around US$2,000 for the printer and around US$10 for the materials (total cost of around PHP100,000). The plans and schematics for the hand were downloaded free. The Guardian UK also published an article about affordable prosthetic facial parts that can be generated by 3D printing instead of the more traditional and expensive method of making a cast and mold. A traditional prosthetic nose, for example, might cost P200,000 but a 3D printed one would only cost P20,000. That costs even less than an iPhone. Now, what if we had 3D Printers in every public hospital? How many more of our poor, disabled countrymen would now be able to afford prosthetics? How many lives would benefit? They might even be fit for some jobs now instead of being reduced to begging in the streets. Hello, Mayors and Congressmen. Are you paying attention?
  3. Water. The recent devastation brought about by Typhoon Yolanda showed how precious and important water is in the affected areas. However, water is also heavy, bulky and difficult to transport. Since around 2009, a British company call Lifesaver Systems (which is currently actively involved in disaster relief for the Philippines) has developed portable water containers with built-in filters that are so fine that you can literally fill the container with filthy, muddy water and it will produce clean, drinkable water.Those in calamity-stricken areas no longer need to wait for bottled water to arrive. They can simply use the container and get water from the nearest river (or any water source, no matter how dirty). A video demo shows the company’s CEO mixing a tank of river water with mud, sewage and garbage. He then takes a pitcher of the foul mixture and puts it in a Lifesaver Bottle. He pumps the bottle a few times, opens the top and pours clean water in a glass that he then drinks himself. Perhaps, instead of spending millions on election paraphernalia, our leaders could instead invest in these life-saving technologies. After all, nobody (except you and your relatives — and not all of them, mind you) really wants to see your smug faces splattered all over our walls, streets and lampposts, and the best preparation for disaster is innovative planning and willful action not some pretty speech on national television.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao. Also appears in Freethinking Me.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman by profession and an educator by obsession. You may email him at [email protected]. View previous articles at

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What You Need To Know About Comet ISON

In the coming days, stargazer the world over are swooning like fanboys and fangirls over the arrival and surprising intensification of Comet ISON. In this article, we will give some of the reasons why astronomers all around the world are geeking out over the comet. We will also give some tips that will be helpful in hunting for this celebrity comet.


Comet ISON is virgin stuff

Comet ISON was discovered by amateur astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novitchonok using telescopes run by the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON). According to calculations of its orbit, Comet ISON is a “dynamically new” comet. This means that this visit to the inner Solar System is Comet ISON’s first, and probably also its last.

The Oort Cloud

The Oort Cloud. [Photo credit:]


This makes planetary astronomers jizz in their pants because closely studying a first time visitor to the inner Solar System is a chance to peer into the origin of the Solar System itself. Some comets, for example the famous Halley’s Comet, are periodic comets. This means they periodically shuttle between the Kuiper Belt, that region beyond Neptune’s orbit to which Pluto belongs, and the inner Solar System. Thus, periodic comets are used to getting baked by the Sun’s heat and radiation. Dynamically new comets like Comet ISON, on the other hand, are former denizens of the part of the Solar System called the Oort Cloud. The icy bodies that form the Oort Cloud are believed to be remnants from the formation of the Solar System some 4.6 billion years ago. As Comet ISON approaches the Sun, the stuff it is made of will be exposed to the Sun’s heat and radiation for the very first time ever since the Solar System’s formation, so the gas and dust it will release can tell us about what kinds of stuff there were around during the time of the planets’ formation.


Comet ISON will live life dangerously by grazing the Sun

Comets have very eccentric, that is elongated, elliptical orbits. This explains why they are sometimes very far from the Sun and also sometimes very near it. A class of comets called sungrazers put the mythical Icarus to shame by getting so close to the Sun that the star’s tremendous gravitational field starts to tear at them. Many of these sungrazing comets do not survive their close approach to the Sun in one piece. Of the sungrazers that bite the dust, some evaporate completely while others dive into the Sun. Others still break into several large pieces that, taken as a team, put on a spectacular show. One good example is the Comet Ikeya-Seki, a sungrazing comet that broke into three to five large pieces as it approached the Sun. Comet Ikeya-Seki is considered one of the brightest comets of the previous century, reaching a brightness that made it visible in the sky even during noon. Like Comet Ikeya-Seki (which graced the sky on 1965) and the dazzling Comet Lovejoy (which put on a show last 2011), Comet ISON is also a sungrazer.

A sungrazer comet. [Photo credit:]

The sungrazing Comet Lovejoy of 2011. [Photo credit:]


An orbiting body’s closest approach to the Sun is called its perihelion. Comet ISON will reach perihelion this 28th of November. During this time, it will be three times closer to the Sun than Mercury ever gets.

Sungrazer comets always put space geeks on the edge of their seats because it is so hard to predict whether a sungrazer will survive its perihelion. Many astronomers think that Comet ISON’s prospects for survival are high, but until the 28th of November the jury is still out.

Aside from glancing off the Sun, Comet ISON has one additional claim to fame of being unique among sungrazers. Most sungrazers belong to a family called the Kreutz Sungrazers, a family of dangerously living comets that have related orbits and are believed to be fragments of the same parent comet. Both Comet Ikeya-Seki and Comet Lovejoy, as well as many other famous sungrazers, belong to the Kreutz family. Comet ISON is not part of this gang.


Comet ISON’s story is always a cliffhanger

The closer a comet gets to the Sun the brighter it shines, reflecting the most light from the Sun when it’s near perihelion; like nearly everything in the Solar System, comets do not produce much of their light, but instead merely reflect the Sun’s. It is therefore not surprising that sungrazers have the potential to be really bright, a fact illustrated by Comet Ikeya-Seki and Comet Lovejoy.

This lead some writers to prematurely hail Comet ISON as “the comet of the century”. Early this year, it became clear that this is certainly an exaggeration. This lead some astronomers to swing to the opposite side of the optimism spectrum by predicting that Comet ISON will be a dud.

Astronomers are not new to comets that do not perform as was initially hoped. The most famous example was the Comet Kohoutek of 1973. Kohoutek was considered an astronomical PR disaster because of the hype that grew around it and the subsequent lackluster performance. Some astronomers fear that Comet ISON might be a Kohoutek Part II.

Comet Kohoutek did not live up to the hype. [Photo credit:  Photo credit:]

Comet Kohoutek did not live up to the hype. [Photo credit: Photo credit:]


Well guest what, in recent nights Comet ISON surprised everyone by suddenly brightening! It still is not as bright as previous optimistic estimates predicted, but recent developments also give the lie to the pessimists’ projections. In other words, Comet ISON is frustrating most attempts to divine its maximum brightness.

What was just said is not an indication that astronomers are clueless but rather an illustration of the amazing variety of comets; there are just so many kinds of comets that it’s very difficult to predict the behavior of the next comet based on the behavior of its predecessors. This lead the great comet hunter David H. Levy, of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 fame, to famously say, “Comets are like cats; they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.”


That’s all fine and good, but where in the freakin’ sky do I find this cat?

Right now there are three requirements if you want to see Comet ISON. First, you must wake up really early, around 5 in the morning. Second, you must look for the constellations Virgo and Libra. If you don’t know how to find these faint constellations, fear not. If you look toward the easter horizon at the early hours of the morning, you will be inevitably looking at these two constellations. The third requirement is a modest pair of binoculars. As of this writing, Comet ISON is already barely visible to the naked eyes on a dark sky. Using a pair of binoculars allows you to see Comet ISON as a faint smudge with a distinct tail.

The screenshot shown below is from the freeware Stellarium, a free software that you can download from this link. In the screenshot Comet ISON is indicated by its official name, C/2012 S1 (ISON). The position shown would be the spot where Comet ISON can be found at around 5:15 AM on November 23 in Manila.

Where to find Comet ISON this Saturday morning. (Screenshot courtesy of Stellarium.)

Where to find Comet ISON this Saturday morning. (Screenshot courtesy of Stellarium.)


As the date of perihelion approaches, Comet ISON will move farther from the location of Mars in the constellation Leo and towards the center of Virgo, to the direction of the Sun.


Do I need to buy expensive telescopes just to see this thing soon?

Fortunately, you don’t have to. As of this writing, Comet ISON is bright enough to been seen through a modest pair of binoculars, and its getting brighter and brighter by the hour. Many stargazers have even noted that the comet is visible via the naked eye in dark locations, and it might intensify further to be visible even in urban vantage points! If this prediction proves accurate, Comet ISON will probably put on a good show after its perihelion next week and further into December.

At any rate, Comet ISON’s claims to fame are enough to make it a comet worthy of intense observation. Whether it will be among the brighter comets of recent years or a modest naked-eye comet, Comet ISON will be among the most closely observed comets in history, and everyone is invited to join in this celebration of human curiosity.

A November 17 photo of Comet ISON taken by Austrian astrophotographer Michael Jäger. Note that the comet's beautiful and long tail is still too faint to be seen with any detail via naked-eye observation. [Photo credit: Michael Jäger]

A November 17 photo of Comet ISON taken by Austrian astrophotographer Michael Jäger. Note that the comet’s beautiful and long tail is still too faint to be seen with any detail via naked-eye observation. [Photo credit: Michael Jäger. Photo taken from article on Comet ISON.]

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FF Podcast (Audio) 021: Microwave Storms and Criticism During Crises

FF Podcast (Audio) 021: Microwave Storms and Criticism During Crises

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.24.00 AM

This week we talk about the conspiracy theory that microwaves were used to generate the devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). Then, we discuss when it’s okay to criticize in times of crisis.

Join us on our live webshow on November 16, 2013. 10 AM to 8 PM (GMT +8). Help raise funds for relief efforts for victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Posted in Audio, audio podcast, Media, Science, Society0 Comments

FF Podcast 021: Microwave Storms and Criticism During Crises

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.24.00 AM

This week we talk about the conspiracy theory that microwaves were used to generate the devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). Then, we discuss when it’s okay to criticize in times of crisis.

Join us on our live webshow on November 16, 2013. 10 AM to 8 PM (GMT +8). Help raise funds for relief efforts for victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Posted in Media, Podcast, Science, Society, Video0 Comments

Microwave Storms: Full Of Hot Air

There have been conspiracy theories going around suggesting that Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan), which wreaked havoc in central Philippines last week, was man-made. This writer is not pertaining to scientifically sound speculations that Typhoon Yolanda’s unprecedented strength might be due in part to the effects of climate change, but rather to grossly outlandish claims that the super typhoon was caused by powerful electromagnetic beams that were released by human-made machines.

While these conspiracy theories should be easy to dismiss and do not deserve a lengthy rebuttal, what with the need for lending a helping hand to the survivors and all, it is unfortunate that such speculations were recently given media airtime as if they were somehow in the same league as sound scientific hypotheses. As such, a quick debunking is in order.

The following list is far from exhaustive, and is only meant as an illustration that the conspiracy theories are wrong by orders of magnitude. That said, here are some reasons why Super Typhoon Yolanda could not have been caused by microwave beams emitted by human machines.

Sorry fellow Red Alert fans, but not yet. [Image credit:]

Sorry fellow Red Alert fans, but not yet. [Image credit:]


1. Making clouds is like boiling tons of water.

To make a storm, you need clouds, lots of clouds. Since clouds are masses of condensed water vapor, you need to convert a lot of water (sea water, in particular) into water vapor. This is not an easy task, as water is a substance with an unusually high heat capacity and latent heat of vaporization. Translated in everyday language, this means that water is really, really hard to vaporize. Making large clouds thus requires a gargantuan amount of energy. Dozens of storms can form over warm oceans only because their source of power is no other than the Sun, which produces energy via nuclear fusion.

In science, a Fermi estimate is an order of magnitude approximation of a certain quantity. What follows is a Fermi estimate of the amount of energy required to produce a storm-sized cloud system. For a storm that rains down 300 mm of water on the central Philippines alone, this totals to approximately 56 billion tons of water. Now let us assume the temperature of seawater in the central Pacific to be evaporated is 30°C. The amount of heat required to convert 56 billion tons of seawater into water vapor, around 39 trillion kW-h of energy, is more than 500 times the energy consumed in the entire Philippines in the year 2012. In order to produce this amount of energy in a month (assuming it takes a month to create a typhoon), about 39 thousand nuclear power plants must simultaneously operate! According to the World Nuclear Association, there are only “435 operable civil nuclear power nuclear reactors around the world, with a further 72 under construction.

Peter Tyson of PBS Nova has this to say about the power of storms: “The total energy released through cloud and rain formation in an average hurricane is equivalent to 200 times the worldwide electrical generating capacity.” Just image if we are able to harness even just a fraction of this energy for the improvement of human lives.

The swirling vortex of clouds and wind that was Typhoon Haiyan. [Photo credit:]

The swirling vortex of clouds and wind that was Typhoon Haiyan. [Photo credit:]


2. Making rain is not cheap. 

Contrary to the popular joke, off-key singing is not enough to make it rain. Cloud seeding, the technique of dropping crystals into pre-existing clouds to cause rain, is expensive and difficult. Using data from the United Nations Environment Programme, the average cost of seeding is around $1.5/cu m/ha/season (this cost was in 1985). This places the Fermi estimate of the cost of seeding an entire storm at around $ 1.5 billion billion. This value is more than 140 thousand times the number of US dollars in the entire world as of July 2013, which, according to the Federal Reserve, was $ 10.5 trillion.


3. Storm formation involves planet-wide chains of cause and effect.

Even if you have the required amount of rain clouds, gathering all those clouds into a spinning, swirling vortex that is a storm is no easy task. Certainly, it is not a task that can be accomplished by manipulating a portion of the Earth only. The development of a typhoon might seem local at first sight, but scientists have known for decades now that storm formation involves complex interactions between a region and its neighbors over long periods of time. This is why the initial stages in the formation of a storm usually happens far from where it will first be spotted as a low pressure area or tropical depression. It is for this reason that scientists studying hurricanes in the Atlantic also study air circulation patterns in west-central Africa, and those who monitor typhoons in the Pacific also concern themselves with atmospheric conditions over China and Siberia.

The very, very tangled web of global air currents. (And that is NOT even the entire picture.) [Image credit:]

The very, very tangled web of global air currents. (And that is NOT even the entire picture.) [Image credit:]


The interconnectedness of the Earth’s climate systems means that one cannot isolate the north central Pacific and manipulate only its climate by releasing supposed EM beams in the vicinity of a low pressure area, as what the conspiracy theories will have us believe. We are still a long way from having the technology that will allow us to control weather in the macroscale, but from what we do know, future attempts to manipulate the weather must be global and not local in scope. (One way in which we humans affect, although not manipulate, the climate on a global scale is our inadvertent and uncontrolled changing of the climate through an enhanced greenhouse effect.)


4. The energy of the storm winds is immense.

Even if we ignore the many physical errors involved in supposing that a beam of microwave radiation can make a cloud system spin, the math of the energies involved simply does not add up.  Ignoring the stupendous amount of energy required to produce the storm clouds (see Item 1), the kinetic energy of the winds in an average storm amounts to about 36 billion kW-h per day. If, for the sake of argument, we pretend that a microwave pulse can produce a vortex in a low pressure area, the required force exerted by the beam would be equivalent to the force exerted by 25 simultaneous nuclear explosions per day. That is something no global conspiracy can hide.

"Let me unleash the power of a dozen nuclear bombs on you." [Image credit: Marvel Enterprises.]

“Let me unleash the power of a dozen nuclear bombs on you.” [Image credit: Marvel Enterprises.]


5. Coincidence is not causation.

Videos showing the emission of several microwave beams in the north Pacific region around the time of Typhoon Haiyan’s formation simply confuse coincidence with causation. The emission of electromagnetic beams around the same time and area as the formation of a typhoon in no way implies that the storm was caused by the beams. This is neither rocket science nor climate science, it’s just basic science.


Back to basics

As this writer noted in a previous article, Typhoon Yolanda reminds us that when it comes to our dealings with the natural world, we should all go back to basics. After all, an appreciation of the scales involved and the basics of scientific reasoning are not just handy in battling nutty conspiracy theories, they also can, and should, be used to save lives in the future. Now that we have this nonsense out of the way, it’s time to talk about solid science in order to mitigate the effects of future natural catastrophes.


Posted in Science5 Comments

Some Things Typhoon Yolanda Reminds Us Of

The devastation Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) left in its wake leaves us no choice but to help in some capacity or another. (See these links to learn about some of the ways you can help.) But when the rubble is cleared and everything is put to working order again, here are some of the things that we need change in society and in ourselves as a response to the wakeup call that is Typhoon Yolanda.


1. We should “do more science”

More storms make landfall on the Philippines than on any other large country on Earth. This one fact demands that the science curriculum in the country should be tailored to produce basic education graduates who understand how tropical storms roll. Knowing how typhoons behave, of course, implies a grasp of atmospheric physics and climate systems, neither of which are simple and trivial. We are therefore left with no choice but to strengthen science education in the Philippines. Allowing an inadequately informed population to live on the stormlands that are the Philippine islands is a massive inhumanity.

More Filipinos should be like this.


2. We should start talking about the weather more often

Although a cooperative public education system is evidently a must in educating the public, sometimes waiting for the government can be like waiting for Godot. We should therefore start with ourselves, friends, and loved ones. One way to do this is by swapping information on how best to minimize the negative effects of storms in our lives, and how best to respond to the negative effects when they finally come. Boring as it sounds, Filipinos should start talking about weather. It’s science, after all, and since the cultural milieu is beginning to embrace the “science is awesome” meme, we should let the “climate science is mind blowing” message hitch a ride on the wave of science’s popularity. After all, people who geek out over weather science are useful to have around during picnics.


[Photo credit:]


3. We need additional weather geeks

As people who live in a country pummeled by record-breaking typhoons on a regular basis, we should place more economic and cultural value on meteorological knowledge. This means that meteorology geeks shouldn’t only be adequately paid, they should also be awarded rock star status. This is only possible in a culture where basic knowledge of the weather is valued and where the power and limits of science are well-appreciated, because otherwise you get all these people who love parroting the phrase “Wala talagang PAGASA ang PAGASA”, or who never tire of the old joke, “If PAGASA says it will be sunny tomorrow, I will bring an umbrella because it’s sure to rain.” Of course PAGASA has an awful lot of room for improvements, but science is not divination and forecasting is not fortunetelling. Science has its limits, and we must understand these limits before we can expand them and exploit science’s powers for the improvement of human well-being.

“You so hot whenever you talk about the Intertropical Convergence Zone.” [Photo credit: ]


4. We should be extra sensitive to typhoon traffic

Some parts of the Philippine archipelago are more frequently storm-stricken than others. In light of this, people should be encouraged to live and build businesses on parts of the country with relatively more clement climates. More importantly, for the millions of Filipinos already living in places with high typhoon traffic, layers of safety nets should be in place to minimize the damage.

How can this be accomplished? As always, cooperation from the government must be demanded. But once again, a well-informed public will do wonders. If people know which places are relatively typhoon-free, most of them will be encouraged to move there. For those who do not have the proclivity or motivation to move, structures and systems should be in place to prepare for the worst, like, Yolanda worst.

We already see some of this at work, such as in how Ivatan homes in Batanes are designed to take a pounding or in the fact that the eastern part of Luzon, the part facing the Pacific Ocean, is sparsely populated compared to the western part. But there are still a lot left to be desired, as was illustrated by the horrifying examples of evacuation centers whose roofs were blown away, or relief operations centers that are badly undermanned and underfunded. In parts of the country constantly pummeled by storms, substandard evacuation centers can usually be traced to negligence and insufficient funding of the type that makes graft and corruption heinous crimes.

An Ivatan house. [Photo credit:]

5. We should learn to respect nature

Most city dwellers living in the age of the Internet and modern technology usually fail to appreciate the awesome power and complexity of nature, often to our demise. Typhoon Yolanda serves as a wakeup call that our planet is capable of unleashing tremendous destruction on its inhabitants. Some scientists even suspect that Yolanda might already give us a teaser of the full effects of climate change, a mess we are all in partly because of the failure of previous generations to appreciate the delicate complexity of our planet’s cycles.

Typhoon Yolanda reminds us that our respect for nature must not be limited to a theoretical awe of natural phenomena, but a knowledge that moves us to action to save our lives and the lives of others. While we wish to see improvements in governance and changes in society as a whole, the change should start from our culture and ourselves.


6. We  should always try to help in whatever way we can

The time to help is now. But it will never be over, for in the stormlands it will always be time to help. When all survivors are dry, fed, and placed under a safe roof, the next thing we must do would be to change our culture.

Always trying to help in whatever way you can is part of the cultural change that needs to happen. [Photo credit:]

Posted in Science, Society4 Comments

Pediatrician Claims to Have “Final Answer” to Question of Life


A little over a week ago, The Philippine Daily Inquirer published a letter written by the American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds), claiming that science had presented a final answer to when life begins. To quote the relevant section of the ACPeds letter:

As stated in our website, “Scientific and medical discoveries over the past three decades have only verified and solidified this age-old truth. At the completion of the process of fertilization, the human creature emerges as a whole, genetically distinct, individuated zygotic living human organism, a member of the species Homo sapiens, needing only the proper environment in order to grow and develop. The difference between the individual in its adult stage and in its zygotic stage is not one of personhood but of development.” (

This is the final answer to this issue, as Professor Kischer puts it. In an article titled “When does human life begin? The final answer,” which was published in the Linacre Quarterly, he categorically states: “Virtually every human embryologist and every major textbook of human embryology states that fertilization marks the beginning of the life of the new individual human being.”

There are numerous problems with ACPeds’ assertions.

The first is their statement that “virtually every human embryologist and every major textbook” agrees with their stance that life begins after fertilization. A cursory search turns up several notable embryologists and researchers in relevant fields who wouldn’t hesitate to call out at ACPeds’ claim.

For instance, there is Professor Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore College, who has stated in one of his more notable lectures (available here) that there is no consensus among embryologists on when life begins. Here is a basic rundown of Professor Gilbert refuting common misconceptions about fertilization, as summarized by Rationalwiki:

  • Instructions for Development and Heredity are all in the Fertilised egg. The view that we are genetically determined by the combination of parental DNA has been shown to fall far short of the complete story. How the DNA is interpreted can vary greatly affected by things such as the maternal diet. Similarly some development requires certain bacteria to be present. Thirdly, and most surprisingly, the level of maternal care can determine which areas of DNA are ‘methylated’ which radically alters how they are interpreted. As such the view that we are ‘complete but unformed’ at conception is far from accurate.
  • The Embryo is Safe Within the Womb. Modern research shows that 30% or fewer fertilised eggs will go on to become foetuses. Many of these early miscarriages are because of abnormal numbers of chromosomes. The view that every fertilised egg is a potential human being is wrong in around 70% of cases.
  • There is a Moment of Fertilisation when the passive egg receives the active sperm. Again recent research has shown that the previous commonly held view that the fastest sperm races towards the egg and, bingo, we’re up and running is wrong on many levels. Fertilisation is a process taking up to four days. As such there is no magic moment, rather there is a process.
  • There is consensus amongst scientists that life begins at conception. There isn’t even consensus amongst scientists as to whether there’s consensus. However, Scott Gilbert’s paper lists embryologists who support each of the major view points belying the common and oft repeated assertion that there is consensus amongst embryologists, let alone scientists.

Lewis Wolpert, a well-known developmental biologist, also made similar points in his lectures regarding when personhood begins:

“What I’m concerned with is how you develop”, he says. “I know that you all think about it perpetually that you come from one single cell of a fertilized egg. I don’t want to get involved in religion but that is not a human being. I’ve spoken to these eggs many times and they make it quite clear … they are not a human being. The cells divide and the question I’m going to deal with a little bit here…how do the cells know what to do. So, how do they end up looking like … you? It is amazing that you come from one single cell. I’m sorry to give you a lesson in embryology but you should know how you develop.”

And then there’s professor Paul Zachary Myers (of crackergate fame) if you like your rebuttals served with a side of snark and heat.

I’m hoping you get my point – that there is no such consensus among the scientific community that life begins at fertilization, and that several scientists have in fact spoken at length on why they disagree. This leads to another problem with the ACPeds letter. By using language like the title “Science’s final answer to when human life begins”, ACPEds implies that they speak on behalf of the rest of the scientific community. This is not the case, and it reeks of arrogance on their part to assume they do.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that ACPeds has been caught making questionable claims.

The American College of Pediatrics is actually a breakaway faction from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and was formed by a small group of healthcare providers who did not agree with the latter’s support for adoption by gay parents.

Since its establishment in 2002, ACPeds has been caught intentionally spreading numerous disproven claims about homosexuality, and trying to pass it off as science. The group has the distinct (dis)honor of being personally called out by the director of the National Institutes of Health for misrepresenting his work. Dr. Collins was not the only researcher who was upset by ACPeds, as seen here and here.

If there is anything we can learn from ACPeds actions, both in the Inquirer letter and in their previous activities, it is that they’re more about pushing an ideology and a political agenda than about promoting truthful and fact-based science.

If you’d like to read more about the matter of when life begins, we’ve also got a couple of articles here and here, written by fellow freethinker  Garrick Bercero

Posted in Advocacy, RH Bill, Science0 Comments

FF Podcast 016: Ethics of Spoilers and Comment Trolls

Ep 16

This week, we talk about spoilers and whether it’s appropriate to spoil stories and then we talk about trolls and’s decision to close their comments section.

You may also download the episode file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Posted in Entertainment, Media, Podcast, Science, Society, Video0 Comments

FF Podcast (Audio) 013: Is Gender Equality Against Freedom of Religion? Plus—Soylent!

FF Podcast (Audio) 013: Is Gender Equality Against Freedom of Religion? Plus—Soylent!

Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 8.52.06 AM

This week, we talk about the claim by Couples for Christ that gender equality in the RH Law goes against their religious freedom. Then, we discuss Soylent, the food replacement drink.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Posted in Audio, audio podcast, Media, Politics, Religion, Science, Secularism, Society0 Comments

Hiwaga and Humbug on Philippine TV

In recent posts on Facebook and Twitter, the social media accounts of the ABS-CBN show Hiwaga asked the following question: “Ayon sa teorya ni Charles Darwin, nagmula ang mga tao sa unggoy… kaya maari bang bumalik uli tayo dito? (According to the theory of Charles Darwin, humans came from monkeys… so is it possible that we will go back to being monkeys?)”

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 10.15.47 AM


This leading question, even if not representative of the entire content of the episode, is still reprehensible for its sensationalism of the theory of evolution, a sensationalism that can contribute to worsening the public’s misapprehension of Darwin’s theory. However, given the new show’s track record so far, it is likely that the people in charge of the show, including host Atom Araullo, will make monkeys out of themselves in their treatment of the monkeys-to-men question.

In this article, I will start by fleshing out my criticism of the post on Darwin’s theory, then I will go on to criticize the very spirit of shows like Hiwaga. I will extend this criticism to cover all forms of superstition, pseudoscience, and sloppy science in Philippine TV. Finally I will appeal to the show’s host Atom Araullo, who is an alumnus of Philippine Science High School and the University of the Philippines, an applied physics graduate, and an activist, to find it in his conscience to leave the program and criticize it publicly.


Of Monkeys and Men

So what about monkeys and men? According to the theory of evolution, apes, including humans, share a recent common ancestor with modern monkeys. Careful comparison of bones and body structure, as well as analyses of genes and biomolecules, helped establish the phylogenetic tree (a sort of family tree of species) of apes and monkeys. The tree below showing the relatedness of apes (like chimps, gorillas, and humans) and monkeys (like the Philippine macaque) explain why they have many similarities and important differences.

A tree showing the relatedness of monkeys and apes (including humans). [Image credit:]


Does this say we come from monkeys? Sinasabi ba nito na nanggaling tayo sa unggoy? No and yes. What this says is that apes and monkeys share a fairly recent common ancestor. The last ancestor shared by the Old World monkeys and apes lived a bit more than 20 million years ago (mya). This ancestor probably looked more like modern monkeys than like apes, and if it were still alive today we would probably call it a monkey. In other words, we humans descended from monkey-like ancestors that lived more than 20 mya. But we did not come from modern monkeys or chimpanzees; the fellow shown in the picture below is a relative of ours, not an ancestor nor a “primitive” form of human.

The Philippine macaque, a local species of monkey. [Photo credit:]


Why is this issue of the exact relationship between monkey and man so important as to lead me to criticize the post on Hiwaga’s social media accounts? Here’s why the theory of evolution is important.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, independently discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace, explains the origin of diversity in the living world. It tells us that all living organisms on Earth are related, but by different degrees. The modern version of the theory of evolution can also explain many aspects of living things, such as why many plants have colorful flowers, why certain bacteria produce very potent toxins, and why animals behave in certain ways.

The theory of evolution is important because we and the flora and fauna we depend on are products of evolution; to understand ourselves and the organisms around us, a correct understanding of evolution is necessary. To provide a concrete example, the rice we eat is a product of artificial selection, a process very similar to natural selection, and some genetic engineering. The recent attacks on ‘golden rice’ research in the Philippines is partly due to a serious lack of understanding about how artificial and natural selection work.

Then you should’ve listened closely in biology class. But don’t worry, it’s not too late. You can always demand more informative shows from our TV and radio stations.

Evolution also affects us not just in geological time but also in real time. The critters that plague our farms and the viruses and bacteria that make us sick undergo evolution within our lifetimes. Failure to grasp the effects of evolution on the scale of a few years can lead to unscientific and dangerous positions such as being against vaccines.

In addition to the direct importance of understanding evolution, sensational simplifications contribute greatly to the spread of misunderstandings such as that embodied by statements like “So why are there still monkeys around if we came from monkeys?”  Science sensationalism also gives fodder to anti-scientific movements like creationism.

These are but a few reasons why the theory of evolution is important, and why its sensationalism by Hiwaga and other media outlets deserves criticism. I understand that the journalistic intention behind the post is to catch people’s attentions using a language familiar to them, thereby increasing the probability that they will watch the show. That is no excuse for sensationalism. I just hope that the people behind the show, especially its host Atom Araullo, will redeem themselves during the episode itself. And this show needs a lot of redeeming, as we will soon see.


Superstition and Sloppy Science

Several studies have shown that the science and math aptitudes of most Filipino students are dismal. It does not help that the few science-related shows on TV exhibit sloppy thinking in their explanation of scientific concepts. Kim Atienza’s Matanglawin is a good example of this, but since using it as an example is too easy, let me use another. This clip from the GMA show iBilib demonstrates the fact that water and oil do not mix. Host Chris Tiu shows the viewers how the hydrophobic properties of oil can be use to make a “dagat in a bottle”. The show’s aim of making science accessible to Filipino kids is admirable. Unfortunately, the show, at least to me, lacks the philosophical dimension necessary to make students interested in science and not just in the tinkering of household stuff. Spectacular and cute phenomena are a great way to pique kids’ interest, but the focus should not be on the spectacle. The wow factor must simply be a means to get kids to be curious, skeptical, and scientific. If Bill Nye can make a science program just with these specifications, then I believe iBilib must do it too.

Bill Nye the Science Guy, proof that you don’t have to be sloppy to be interesting.

My beef with iBilib and similarly sloppy science programs like Kim Atienza’s Matanglawin, however, is with its frequent use of sloppy or even erroneous scientific explanations of the phenomena. The clip showing the sea-in-a-bottle demonstration is just one of the many instances where Tiu throws a sloppy or erroneous explanation at the curious people who watch his show. In the clip, the host is wrong in saying that oil and water do not mix because of their different densities. Water and alcohol mix even if their densities are different. Fresh water and saltwater also mix even though the latter is slightly denser than the former. If a science show claims things that can be contradicted by kids’ experiences, what will that tell the young viewers about science’s role in describing nature?

To Chris Tiu: Density is the reason why the oil layer is above the water layer, but it does not explain why water and oil do not mix. The actual explanation of non-mixing is more subtle and marvelous. Next time, double check and triple check your script before you say it in front of an entire nation of admiring young viewers. This is not the only instance in which you relayed wrong information to those kids. You owe them an apology and you need to make amends.

Chris Tiu, I bet your chem teacher is mad at you right now. You should’ve listened to her more. [Photo credit:]


And now back to Atom Auraullo and Hiwaga. If Chris Tiu in iBilib frequently exhibits haphazard thinking, Atom in Hiwaga is mostly just peddling superstition and pseudoscience on Philippine TV. The woo starts from the very title of the program. I’m already worried about the title of iBilib, because it seems to imply that science is a matter of belief.  So you can imagine my reaction when I heard that there was another show entitled Hiwaga, a Filipino word that means “mystery”. When I saw promotional videos of the TV program, my worries about it were confirmed. In this episode of the show, for example, Atom interviews an “expert” on Feng Shui. In another episode, Araullo discusses so-called out of body experiences and “astral projections”. Still another episode entertains the possibility of premonitions.

Hiwaga is unfortunately just the latest incarnation in a long series of shows and segments on Philippine TV clearly capitalizing on Filipino supernatural and unscientific beliefs. Shows like Rated K hosted by Korina Sanchez and Kapuso Mo Jessica Soho are just a few of the other programs that ride the sensational wave of superstition and pseudoscience. The use of “umano” and “daw” in the reporting of supernatural claims rarely help, as these program hosts regularly fail to amply discuss the lack of scientific merits of the claims they report. In the end, these shows’ ‘di umanos just remind us of Pontius Pilate. What these umanos and daws effectively do is to allow the TV programs to throw mountains of claptrap into the viewing public while absolving the show runners of the guilt of misinformation. Well, I’m sorry Korina and Jessica, what you and many other journalists are doing is still misinformation. Why? Because the discussions on the value of skepticism in your shows are frequently inadequate, sometimes even watered down by closing messages that go along the along the lines of “let’s be open minded about these things” or “science does not know everything and life is full of mysteries woooo…” Your umanos and daws do not absolve you.

“There, I said ‘umano’. Now it’s time to report about ghosts hauntings, demonic possessions, and faith healing.”

To the writers, researchers, producers, and hosts of TV programs that promote superstition among Filipinos, I ask you to rethink your values. I believe I don’t need to preach the importance of science and the dangers of superstition and pseudoscience to the lot of you, you should know it by now. Hence, let me just remind you that your aim is to inform the Filipino people, not befuddle them. You should never sacrifice the truth in the name of higher ratings. I understand that most Filipinos are ignorant and superstitious, and that a show about superstition will appeal to them more than a show about skepticism. But you should give them programs that they need, not programs they want.


A Request to Atom Araullo

As promised in the start of this article, I will end my piece by making an appeal to Atom Araullo’s better judgment.

Dear Atom,

As a good-looking Pisay and UP alumnus working in media, you have great powers. Your responsibilities are therefore equally great, and chief among these is your responsibility of informing the public on correct ways of thinking about the world. As a science graduate, an activist, and a reporter, your duty to seek, fight for, and relay the truth demands that you rethink your role in the show. Try educating the writers and executives of the program on the proper ways of reporting supernatural claims. The local superstitions and ghost stories you tackle in the show are excellent entry points into critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific reasoning, and you should use them as such. Intriguing questions that the Filipino public can relate to are excellent in catching their attention, but since your subject matter is very sensitive, the writers should be very careful with the wording of your script. You should not forget to stress the value of skeptical inquiry and the importance of demanding extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

Finally, if those writers, researchers, and executives cannot be convinced, I appeal to your better judgment as a person to please leave that show and criticize it publicly.

Thank you.


Pecier C. Decierdo

Science Advocacy Director

Filipino Freethinkers

Posted in Science, Society10 Comments