A society in diapers

To all my fellow Dominicans….

 

I really enjoy watching Neil deGrasse Tyson interviews on Youtube. If you do not know who I am talking about, Dr. deGrasse Tyson is the guy that makes astrophysics seem like the sexiest career path there ever was. Not only is he full of wisdom, but also, his evident passion towards the universe and scientific discovery is more than just inspiring: it is contagious.

Recently, I watched this video of a debate Neil was participating in, where he was pointing out how religious texts should not be taken as the access point to understand the natural world:

“There is no compelling reason to just say: “Well, God did it”, and then sort of give up (on finding the scientific explanation of things) and move on to other problems (…) My issue is that, if you feel that way, you should not be writing the science curriculum of a classroom. Because if you do, you are undermining the very process science is about. If you undermine that foundation, you undermine the ability of your nation to compete technologically in the 21st century”

 Huh. Makes sense. Sad though, how the whole “what-should-be-our-science-curriculum debate” seems more like a luxury of more developed societies. Never, in my 9 years reading the Dominican press (I calculate that I started reading newspapers around the time I started high school, which was also around the time I started drinking coffee in the mornings. Probably not a coincidence) have I come across an even similar issue. This probably comes to no surprise, as the whole education-policy-thing progresses in baby steps: we have spent the last couple of years advocating to even get the legally-stipulated government budget amount directed at public education, surely we have not even began questioning the competence of our science program.

And I do think that our attitude towards scientific endeavour, and our lack of concern for the scientific progress that we are NOT achieving says a lot about us as a nation. I like to joke around and blame it on our indigenous predecessors, the taínos. If you are not Dominican, there is no reason why you should have come across the taínos at any point in your studies. Usually, the culturally-acceptable minimum knowledge of Latin American indigenous peoples involves only the three “mainstream” tribes: the Mayan, the Aztecs, and the Incas. But you know about them for a reason, I mean, these guys were the true geeks of indigenous peoples, and were all, for the most part, very science-oriented (in their own spiritual, holistic way).

How else do you explain their still-astounding achievements? The Mayans developed their (in)famous calendar, which was, for the most part, pretty damn accurate (we can all now leave that whole 2012-end-of-the-world moment of irrationality behind us). They also had pyramids. The Aztecs pretty much built their capital city on top of a lake, which probably required some tricky engineering work. They also had pyramids. The Incas were the ones with the most unfortunate geography, but hey, they did not let that stop them, and they built a pretty impressive road system, and developed very sophisticated agricultural techniques to cultivate on the hillsides.

You want to know what the taínos’ greatest achievement was? Well, my friends, they invented… THE HAMMOCK. That’s right. Because our indigenous people had their priorities straight, and everyone knows that you cannot go back to work without first having your siesta. You’re welcome, western civilization. (I’m half-joking here, of course. There’s very little taíno DNA in the Dominican blood, as the race pretty much saw its extinction with the arrival of the Spanish colonizers).

But jokes and historical rants aside, I do see a problem. To me, the virtues of science go beyond the results. It is not only that we are able to expand the frontiers of knowledge, invent new devices, or figure out cures for diseases. It is also the fact that it all starts with a question: Why? Or: How? Or: What if? If compels us to look into pre-existing explanations only as a starting point, to then figure out new ways to come up with evidence that will add to previous knowledge, or contradict it. Science is the greenhouse of curiosity, and well, there is an evident lack of curiosity in my country.

Obviously, there are outliers. I once read in one of my textbooks how a Dominican scientist discovered a new breed of the common fly! Good for him! But see? No one really cares (Sadly). We have no science museum the children can go to, and get inspired, and realize that they too, want to discover “stuff” in the future. We have no rigorous lab requirements in high-school, we have no competitive “physics”, or “chemistry”, or “biology” university career option. In fact neither one of my classmates went into “science” after finishing high school. I mean, you have engineering, where there’s applied physics, and medicine, where there’s applied biology and chemistry. But no science “for science sake”. We are too practical for that. We are too materialistic for that. We find absolutely no joy in discovery (apparently, as I like to believe that actions speak louder than words). And this is a problem, because I sometimes ask myself whether we even know what science means, or what it can do for us.

There is the very cliché saying: “Ignorance is bliss”. While this may apply at the individual level (because it does), I do believe that, at the national level, ignorance is doom. I guess it is one of the things that struck me the most coming back to Santo Domingo from studying abroad, how we Dominicans tend to hold tight to whatever “truths” someone with apparent knowledge of power throws your way. But we are not, as the foreign media sometimes portrays us “relatively conservative”, we are just uniformed. Uniformed because our citizens have had very limited exposure to the scientific methodology. And by this, I now move from the specific field of just “science”, as I believe that the scientific methodology pretty much applies to any exercise in analytical thinking that a person undertakes. I mean the ability to actually question what is given to you, and to find and use evidence in the world around you to prove your point. But no, we look for the “truths” from someone or something (religion, mostly) and never ever dare to find them on our own.

And it annoys me because these shortcomings also leave our potential social progress unrealized. Any issue under debate is quickly vetoed under the flag of controversiality. And why is it controversial? “Well… because the BIBLE says…” And because, anything new or different will OBVIOUSLY undermine the well-cherished values of our society (Apparently, discussions about human rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and reproductive rights are indeed a luxury for better-educated societies. We less educated societies have a more limited media-attention span, which is mostly at capacity with issues related to corruption). And yes, there are ultra-religious people in every country of the world, and they are, honestly, a mediatic pain in the a** sometimes, but in more developed nations, they comment because the issue is open for debate. In this case, there is no current national debate going on (heck, debate requires a minimum of logic on both sides, and the ability to support your argument for at least a couple of rounds of cross-examination), and these comments are what is keeping the issue from ever reaching that dialogue stage.

The fact that we live in a traditional machista society does not help much. Why else would Dominican women never challenge the notion of the glass ceiling? Why have Dominican women taken the obvious harassment they face probably at a daily basis, whenever they go to the streets or to most public places for granted? Why has no one questioned whether this is OK? Why are we not debating about this, and finding solutions?

So my point is: our scientific illiteracy shows. And it’s not only that we have to get our sh*t together and start teaching kids in elementary and high school what science can do for them, so that we can ever actually make a contribution to this technology-driven world; but we also have to learn to start to think. To actually think by ourselves without having “the truths” spelled out to us. Because true ignorance is just a lack of curiosity, and until we learn the value of justified skepticism, until we are genuinely captivated by the possibility of discovery, and until we exercise those logic and reasoning muscles that are somewhere under those rolos, we will be a society in diapers.

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