Empiricism amid propaganda
Secretaries Sonny Dominguez and Ernesto Pernia drew praise for infusing reason in the otherwise raucous rhetoric of the federalism debate. But beyond the issue of federalism, they have uplifted a virtue that has depreciated considerably over the last few years: empiricism.
Empiricism is evidence-based reasoning. More than placing a premium on data and scientific models, it is a firm commitment to rigorous techniques to produce objective information, the end-view being that of informed decision-making. With near-unlimited Google access, anyone can cite figures; but how many can defend the process by which it was derived?
Empiricism is a democratic value supported by the Constitution’s preamble, which envisions a “regime of truth”; the state policies of “full public disclosure” and the right to “information on matters of public concern”; and the emphasis on education, science and research as engines of national development.
While Dominguez and Pernia did not present full-blown reports on the economics of federalism, their statements before the legislature are consequential as part of the administration’s economic team. Touted for its empirical methodology, economics carries gravitas in public debate.
Thankfully, the pair expressed willingness to engage in a meaningful discussion on the issue. They are counted upon to challenge federalism myths and empower citizens in genuine deliberation. Theirs would be no different from reproductive health advocates’ empirical documentation of maternal complications and infant death, which debunked centuries-old Catholic dogma on family planning.
Conversely, democracy steeped in misinformation is akin to a person drowning at sea; too disoriented to use his senses in order to flail toward safety, he is swept by erratic tides. Likewise, in a democracy, citizens are crippled in making critical decisions when denied proper information.
The Duterte and Trump administrations have had quite a field day, thanks to polarizing social media. In the whirlpool of massive misinformation, strongman bombast is like the bewitching tune of the Pied Piper.
A commitment to empiricism is also a form of check and balance. Louis Brandeis argued: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants[.]” Thus, when the team of Dr. Ronald Mendoza extensively analyzed the poverty-enhancing effects of political dynasties, they furthered debate on the issue. The same principle animated the Commission on Audit when it assiduously flagged anomalies under Wanda Teo’s Department of Tourism.
It comes as no surprise, too, that there is still no official count of extrajudicial killings in the war on drugs. Conflict of interest and self-censorship curtail deep reflection and official action on that issue. Cockroaches, after all, thrive under cover of darkness, away from the light where they can easily be stamped out.
Commitment to the virtue, however, is not without hurdles. Information starts out fragmented and contradictory. Attaining empiricism is the end-product of a tedious process of data-gathering and verification, in turn entailing vast resources.
Traditional microeconomics posited that private entities are ill-equipped to produce such information, owing to the steep expenditures involved in collecting dispersed data. Government, therefore, was counted upon to undertake such function or subsidize private info-gatherers. But tech triumphs like Waze show that bottom-up community-generated information can be viable and reliable.
Also problematic are people who would rather shut the door on empirical debate. Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, in calling on Malacañang to sack Dominguez and Pernia, sounds no different from the 1600s Church that persecuted Copernicus and Galileo for teaching heliocentrism over the Church’s preferred geocentrism.
Moving forward, efforts must be undertaken to safeguard empiricism. A Freedom of Information statute is long overdue; the independence and integrity of information-gathering bodies such as the Philippine Statistics Authority must be upheld.
As George Orwell warns: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
Dominguez and Pernia’s critique of this administration’s federalist agenda is refreshing since they have, in a sense, broken the self-reinforcing illusion of a post-truth society. But, while the pair may just have thrown us a life buoy, it is only a strong commitment to empiricism that will keep democracy afloat.
Jose Maria L. Marella graduated summa cum laude from the UP School of
Economics and is now a senior at the UP College of Law.
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