Opinion

The Taal Eruption Proves That Literacy Is A National Disaster Risk Concern

More alarming is that even politicians and other prominent people have made public their own lack of understanding of even the most elementary scientific facts.
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It’s only been a month since the Philippines ranked dead last among 79 countries in reading comprehension and the second lowest in science and mathematics in the findings published by the Programme for International Student Assessment, and already we are seeing firsthand its implications in the public response to the ongoing crisis of what has been declared an imminent Taal Volcano eruption.

With practically half of Southern Tagalog constantly tuned in to PHIVOLCS’s daily press conferences and Facebook updates, it’s not at all difficult to tell from the comments section that a good portion of the population cannot make full sense of the scientific and technical jargon: phreatic columns, pyroclastic flows, base surges, tephra, and all those other terminologies that Microsoft Word insists on underlining in red—proof of their obscure use even for fluent English speakers.

In an attempt to address this obvious language gap, U.K-based Filipino Mai Jardeleza, who claims to be a post-grad volcanology student, has found a strong following on social media for her videos that give a more accessible classroom-like feel to interpreting the science behind the geological movements, complete with the unedited charm of her markers running out of ink, accounts from her own life story, and even her dog barking in the background.

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Another netizen do-gooder, Jun Dio, a lawyer from Lipa, Batangas, one of the affected cities in the region, has taken it upon himself to make unofficial daily Filipino translations of PHIVOLCS updates, which he shares on his own Facebook page.

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But these are perhaps, limited alternatives. Whether we like it or not, English is currently the dominant language of science, and though PHIVOLCS’s director Renato Solidum and chief research specialist Maria Antonia Bornas also do their best to discuss their findings in layman’s terms, the argument has to be made that there are simply some scientific discussions that cannot be reduced to everyday language without diminishing precision of meaning. We can’t always rely on subjective metaphors and similes all the time. Equipping the public with an adequate level of reading competence and scientific stock knowledge has just proven itself a dire necessity for national disaster risk reduction.

More alarming is that even politicians and other prominent people have made public their own lack of understanding of even the most elementary scientific facts. That volcanoes are by nature unpredictable seems to be an idea way over the heads of a congressman and a TV and radio host. The Talisay vice mayor doesn’t seem to understand that scientific instruments blurt out facts not opinions. And a senator proposes cloud seeding as a good idea to clear away the ashfall—though this itself is not much of a surprise, coming from the same person who previously suggested we identify the nationality of the fish in the sea.  

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And though we can find amusement in such statements, such ignorance may and will prove consequential soon enough if the situation escalates. Evacuation plans for instance, still rely more on individual decisions than government mandate, and an under-informed resident will most likely make the wrong decisions at the wrong times. Distinguishing fake news and misinformation from legitimate sources during times of calamities is also a reading comprehension issue with potentially disastrous outcomes.

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Caught in the difficulty of explaining itself, PHIVOLCS has resorted to a catch-all-explain-all phrase, calling Taal a “complex volcano,” which is somehow almost like how we label certain relationships simply as “complicated” just to curb the discussion while projecting to a doubtful friend, a calm and confident demeanor of still being on top of the situation. 

An adequate level of reading competence and scientific stock knowledge has just proven itself a dire necessity for national disaster risk reduction.

Fortunately, a lot of people still have chosen to put their trust and faith on PHIVOLCS’ warnings. The religious among us insist that faith begins where knowledge ends. In our current scenario, our scientific knowledge—even if only elementary—must be to such a degree to endow us with a kind of “scientific faith” or the ability to trust in the word of our scientists when we realize the limits of our own scientific knowledge. This, at least, must now be the foremost concern among our educational institutions. Remember: Every disaster movie starts with a scientist being ignored. 

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After all, with our geography well within the Pacific Ring of Fire, the country is literally a bowling lane for typhoons and a minefield of volcanoes and earthquake fault lines. It only seems like common sense to make basic scientific know-how about these elements second nature to us instead of having to rely on watered-down interpretations, especially when our very lives depend on it.

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Derik Cumagun
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