Making up the past and the present
Congratulations are in order for Vice-Mayor Michael Rama for successfully meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte. I believe he had a big part in convincing the President to consider the historical and cultural aspects of the Quincentennial that we will be celebrating next year.
Now we are seeing how dangerous social media can become. The Wuhan Coronavirus scare has gripped some idle Filipino mind who are now inventing realities, transforming personal imaginations as scientific fact. Even before this one unfortunate death outside China happening in the Philippines of all places, we have been bombarded with all kinds of stories about this new virus, many of them absurd, even racist and xenophobic.
Social media has indeed now become so infested with half-truths and false claims so that pretty soon we will all awake to a world with a deep mistrust of scientists or of anything posted on the Internet.
And that will be the day when disseminating real, science-based knowledge on cyberspace will become extremely difficult to convince people to believe in. The Internet is a powerful tool to spread the good news but, in the hands of the ignorant and simple-minded, it can become a disseminator of the unfounded, erroneous, selfish, unpatriotic and utterly unverifiable.
My good friend Michael Lopez summed all this up in his posted on Facebook today: “Last week nidaghan ang volcanologists. This week nidaghan ang epidemiologists.” I might as well add that as the 500th anniversary of the Magellan expedition approaches, nidaghan sab ang mga historians.
Consider the number of Facebook and other social media posts about our past. Weeks back there was one who posted that “Sugbu” was a term imposed by Tagalogs on Cebuanos and that it meant, “scorched earth.” By what rhyme or reason one should accept that as true, I have no idea. But a friend of mine tagged me and asked me to react to it. And I did, replying that “Sugbu” was misspelled as Zzubu or Zubu (which much later became Cebu) by Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian chronicler of the Magellan expedition simply because his ear was not accustomed to hearing the hard ‘g’. And that Sugbu meant to “wade in shallow water,” an important characteristic of Humabon’s port—nothing at all to do with any scorched earth. Besides, I added, “even Aguinaldo had to send a Bisaya-speaking Leon Kilat to organize the Katipunanan two years after the revolution had started already, because no one spoke Tagalog in Cebu and Cebuanos considered the revolution as revolt of the “Katagalugan” not of Cebuanos. And then you think Sugbuanons would countenance such a labeling by Tagalogs? You are giving the Tagalogs in fact too much credit!”
The reply I got from the guy was that he did not believe me and that my explanation was too simplistic. I posted back by saying that if he was in Germany for the first time and was asked to spell out each and every German word spoken to him, I bet he would not spell them correctly. In the same manner, Pigafetta could not be faulted for misspelling what was new to his Italian ear.
And I followed it up with this simple dictum that all scientists always take to heart, one that I always teach my students on their first day in my Anthropological Theory classes: “Non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem.” Directly translated it means “Do not make things more difficult than they need to be.” In short, the simplest explanation is often the correct one. Everyone who has done research, whether in the social or the natural sciences, knows this as Ockham’s Razor.
You know what the guy did after this? He deleted all my replies to his post but he did not delete his incredible claim and the replies of others.
Days later, I received a private message on my Facebook page asking me what I think about the claim of Mactang, Camotes as the site of the historic battle of Mactan. In response, I shared to this person one of my recent columns where I precisely debunked that claim, stating in so many words that Mactang would not have been reached by Magellan in just three hours, as recounted by Pigafetta, and that the battle would have happened in the afternoon or even the following day. Apparently, he did not read it because he shot back with this: “I guess only Lapulapu knows” to which I then replied: “Why not just burn all the archives and all the historical records then if you do not trust them the moment someone in the present makes an unfounded claim?”
There are many more of these anecdotes like this. I believe this penchant for making up stories or imagining that their unfounded notions are true and then disseminating them on social media is a result, as I said in this column last week, of a shallowness in thinking, the absence of a critical mind, a dislike for reading a lot of published materials and poor reading comprehension. Something must be done in this country’s educational system if we are to produce a nation equipped with the proper thinking skills, not a nation of idiots spewing out rumors as truth and making us the laughingstock of the world for breeding a population merely pretending to be scientists.
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