Science and solidarity in Taal
With Taal Volcano still on Alert Level 4, it is premature to make a collective sigh of relief over an ongoing event that may yet turn for the worse. As Phivolcs has warned, a powerful eruption may still occur in the coming days.
But the fact that many more Filipinos now know what alert levels and even terms like “phreatic eruption” mean speaks of the role of scientific expertise, not just in informing policy to the best extent possible, but also in making sense of the volcanic phenomenon.
This is the first early lesson of Taal: the value of science in our everyday lives. When Renato Solidum or Maria Antonia Bornas speak of magma movements, sulfur dioxide levels and volcanic earthquakes, we are comforted by the fact that they are not just making things up—as our politicians are wont to do. They are using empirical data and tapping into the scientific literature, that is, the collective knowledge of hundreds of scientists around the world across centuries of experience and experimentation.
Science, of course, is both fuzzy and fallible, and therefore prone to misinterpretation and disappointment. For one, it is by nature restrained in its language: It speaks in terms of possibilities, not certainties, as when Phivolcs warns that “a hazardous eruption is possible within hours to days.” It draws on precedent—e.g. Taal’s eruptions in 1911, 1965 and 1977—but offers no absolute certainty as to these past events’ predictive value.
Furthermore, science is limited by the current technology. While the trajectories of typhoons have been amenable to prognostication, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions remain impossible to predict, contrary to the expectations of some politicians who lost no time in blaming our scientists or dismissing their forecasts as mere “opinion.”
Despite these limits, and despite their financial and political constraints, our scientists have done an excellent job in monitoring our physical environment for the numerous threats in our disaster-prone part of the world: storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. They have also been improving in their ability to communicate their knowledge to the general public. As Dean Tony La Viña wrote of the Phivolcs officials: “They give us confidence, assurance that science will guide the response to this disaster.”
Surely, with more government support and increased funding, our scientific agencies will do an even better job.
The second early lesson of Taal is the power of solidarity in times of disaster. Some may have sought to shamelessly profit from the demand for N95 masks; others may have taken to spewing fake news and hate. But by all accounts, the people’s response has been overwhelmingly positive; in the words of journalist Howie Severino, there has been a “tsunami of kindness” these past several days, with people from all over the country contributing to the relief effort in various ways, including looking after the poor affected animals. LGUs have also largely risen to the occasion. Hearteningly, many in the region have opened their own homes for the evacuees.
As both participant and observer in some of the relief operations over the past week, I can only attest to, and take heart from, this overwhelming response. By last week, all kinds of groups—from mountaineering clubs to sports teams, from religious congregations to youth organizations, from private companies to government agencies—were mobilizing to help. Even the farmers of Benguet parted with their hard-earned harvest; even students in Sagada sent their sacks of rice and messages of goodwill. Who cannot but admire private citizens like Angel Locsin and Gang Capati for their initiative and sense of duty?
And who can forget the three La Salle students—Rio John Abel, Darwin Lajara and Maximino Alcantara III—who died in a car crash after delivering relief goods?
In a previous column, I wrote that “we can only be a nation when we have learned to share each other’s pain.” Despite the continuing apathy that characterizes our country’s leadership, and despite the enduring fissures in our society, the people’s response to the Taal Volcano crisis gives me hope that we can still build such a nation.
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