Tag Archive | "supernaturalism"

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?)”

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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: www.swcs.us]

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: en.wikipedia.org]

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: teachengineering.org]

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, SocietyComments (10)

Physics for the Soul

As the United States shuts down its eastern seaboard for Cyclone Sandy, the Philippines will be shutting down as well, for completely different reasons. November 1 marks All Saints’ Day, when many establishments close up, since most people head to cemeteries to gamble and eat among the remains of the dead.

What comes with the holiday is the belief that when our bodies cease to function, even after we are laid into the soil or burned to ash, something survives. We are not just bodies, supernaturalist believers claim. There is a ghost in this machine and it breaks free from its mortal shackles upon death.

Some people claim to see these surviving entities, these spirits or souls, dwelling among the living. Ghostly apparitions are reported with disturbing regularity. Disturbing, in that even in the age of ubiquitous photography, no one has ever gathered any credible support for these ectoplasmic assertions. The reality of disembodied souls would necessarily overturn everything we know about physics. Any scientist would be itching to find evidence for the supernatural—evidence that never seems to turn up, despite the most adamant and most confident protestations of believers.

Human visual perception works because of light, and light works through electromagnetism. Electromagnetic/light particles called photons travel at the speed limit of the universe. When they hit objects, the energy of the photons is absorbed by particles in the object (such as electrons). These particles then release some energy back as another photon. The energy of the photon released determines the color and intensity of the light humans perceive.

If ghosts (under which I include saintly apparitions) can be seen, that means ghosts interact with photons! Electromagnetism is a physical phenomenon. This implies that at least some aspects of ghosts are physical, and therefore investigable by the methods of science. What kinds of photons are these spirits carrying? Are they different from everyday photons?

When people claim to hear ghosts, either through spooky screams or through elaborate homilies about the current geopolitical situation, they are actually claiming that physical objects are being moved by supernatural events. The perception of hearing occurs when the pressure of the air around us is locally fluctuated. When people talk, their vocal folds vibrate and push around air molecules. The air then vibrates the eardrums of animals within earshot. These vibrations correspond to what we hear as sound. The case is similar for those who report interacting with apparitions through touch (except that objects apart from air molecules are being moved, such as a uterus).

The Earth rotates on its own axis at around 1,674.4 km/h. It revolves around the Sun at 108,000 km/h. We don’t even feel these exorbitant speeds because we are moving with the Earth. We move with the Earth because we are on it and its forces are acting on us without variation. Should the Earth suddenly change in speed, however, we would definitely feel a calamitous disturbance. The Earth is tumbling around our galaxy, which is itself moving with respect to the rest of the universe. Should the Earth’s motion stop, we’d fly off into space—like a tetherball released from its rope. For the most part, we can happily ignore that we are hurtling across space because we are physical objects that obey the laws of physics. It is curious, therefore, when even immaterial ghosts follow physical laws.

When people claim to see ghosts, nobody ever reports them appearing one moment then zipping out into space the next, left behind by the Earth’s motion. Rather, people claim to see them stay in place long enough to scare the bejesus out of them, or tell them about some magic water that would heal people. Again, ghosts are eerily physical in all convenient aspects.

Imagine now that you have died. Ignore the paradox that you could not do such imagining because that would be imagining that your imagination could not imagine any longer. For the sake of argument, let us say that souls do exist and you are one right now, formerly in control of a body, currently disembodied.

Where are you? What do you see? Let us suppose that even though you are supernatural, you have some sort of particles that interact electromagnetically. Can you blink? It would be odd to do so, seeing as your soul would need to have eyelids.

At what direction are you looking? When you had a body, your eyeballs would sense a local cone of vision. Now that you’re a ghost, do you see all of existence at once? If so, where in the world are you? Certainly not floating just above your corpse.

When you had a body, you used your vision (and other senses) to determine where you were. You were limited by the local area that could be perceived by your physical sense organs. Now that you are without a body, the question of ‘where’ becomes meaningless. If ghosts exist, then they must be everywhere. They cannot otherwise be.

If these ghosts cannot exist as they have been claimed to be, then it must be that they are wholly in the mind of those who see them. They don’t have photons bouncing off of them, they don’t fly through space, because they’re not in the outside world! They do not exist objectively. These disembodied souls are figments, like how optical illusions, while very convincing, do not really show moving objects.

Our brains are easily fooled into seeing things that do not exist. People who claim to see ghosts often truly believe that they have experienced such a thing. I do not believe that they are all liars (though some must be). However, even though their brush with the supernatural must have felt very real, that does not mean that it was anything more than a psychological episode. The human brain is so adept at pattern recognition that it sees patterns everywhere—from clouds to dog anuses. It is no surprise, then, that ghosts follow the patterns we are so familiar with and that they are so much like normal natural objects, except for that little difficulty of being able to show them to others.

The supernatural world is suspicious to the scientifically literate because it is too convenient. It looks exactly like the natural world except when it’s favorable not to be. It looks like bad science fiction. Ghosts can hover, but not be left behind by a moving Earth. Ghosts can pass through solid walls, but can affect air molecules to produce sound. Ghosts can be perceived but not leave behind any independently-verifiable traces.

Surely some scientist must have left from the spirit world by now to show all his skeptical journal-publishing colleagues that the supernatural does exist. And yet, no scientist has ever come back from the grave to do so. Instead, we have saints who supposedly cure comatose patients, almost 400 years removed.

The vastness of space and time is available to the dead, if we are to believe the claims of the religious. Despite that, what is regularly professed to be done from beyond the grave is so vapid that miraculous claims are barely worth a 30 second spot on the evening news. The deep incongruence between the scale of the universe and the parochial concerns of people betrays the very human imaginations that spawn these stories.

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