Filipino flat-earthers and moon landing conspiracies: The importance of astronomy

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The Mind Museum recently launched “Space Adventure: Journey to the Wonders of the Universe,” a pop-up travelling exhibition that takes visitors through a playful exploration of the Universe. Photo courtesy of THE MIND MUSEUM

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There are Filipinos who think they’ve been abducted by aliens or those who believe that the earth is flat. Pecier Decierdo, the resident astronomer of the Mind Museum, has encountered some of them.

“Most of my problems with science communication, like when I give my introduction to stargazing here every Sunday in the planetarium, are people who believe in conspiracy theories,” he says. “The earth being flat [is] becoming popular in the Philippines, and also some people just don't believe that humans have not been to the moon.”

In order to address these falsehoods and to further educate more Filipinos on facts about the Universe, the Mind Museum launched “Space Adventure: Journey to the Wonders of the Universe,” a pop-up travelling exhibition that takes visitors through a playful exploration of the Universe — from knowing your weight when you’re on different planets of the solar system to drawing alien-life forms on magnetic boards.

Of all the topics that constitute the vastness of space, Decierdo and his team decided to include those that they could have a playful take on. A stark example of this is the area called Mission to Mars, where kids could dress up as astronauts while imagining what it is like to plant potatoes on Mars or what it would be like to control the command center of a future Mars.

“When it comes to Mars, we found that it's amenable to a playful treatment, like where we could make a play place kind of treatment on speculative ideas on how future humans would live on Mars and stay on Mars,” he explains.

The exhibit also didn’t shy away from the big ideas: the scale of the universe when it comes to time (presented through an analogy with the calendar year to help people imagine how old the universe is and how recent of an arrival humans are in the cosmic stage), the fact that we are made of star stuff (displayed through an optical illusion that explains how the atoms that make us up came from the stars), and the question of whether we are alone in the universe (as in the presence of the alien-life form activity area and the corner exploring the prospective life on Mars).

Photo-12.jpg The exhibition's Mission to Mars area allows kids to dress up as astronauts and imagine what it is like to plant potatoes on Mars or what it would be like to control the command center of a future Mars. Photo by JL JAVIER

Photo-7.jpg The idea behind the Mission to Mars area was to make a play place kind of treatment on speculative ideas on how future humans would live and stay on Mars. Photo by JL JAVIER

As it is really intended for children, a lot of creative freedom has been injected into the exhibit. But Decierdo adds that they had to put signages to remind the guests that some of the activities and play areas are speculations based on what we already know to be true.

CNN Philippines Life talked to Decierdo to know more about the importance of exhibitions like this in the Philippines, the biggest contribution of astronomy to our everyday lives, how astronomy inspires art and culture, and the only value astrology has. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

The Philippines is not a science-centric country nor is it known for investing on science and technology. How do you think exhibits like this help in having the country maybe shed more light on the industry?

That's exactly why we're also partnering with the DOST [Department of Science and Technology] ... We really want to encourage young people here in the Philippines to look up and to see that it really just makes life richer to wonder, and to speculate about our place in the universe. Even if it doesn't have a direct, fruitful impact, but we also want to remind them that it has.

For example, if you go to the Mars exhibit, there's some mention of space technology that we now apply to our daily lives. So we want to remind them that space is both simply just fun for its own sake, but it also has some side benefits which really benefit us here on earth, even a third world country like the Philippines.

As you mentioned, astronomy has contributed to technology and our knowledge of our place in the universe. Of all that astronomy has given to the world, what would you say is its most important contribution?

One of the most important contributions of astronomy would really be, I'd say science. Science started because we saw patterns in things. Because they saw patterns, they thought that the Universe was not governed by the whims of supernatural beings, but that there are laws that operate behind what we see in everyday life. And these laws are not as apparent in living things, like in biology. That's why biology came a little bit later, same with chemistry.

Photo-15 (1).jpg The Mind Museum's resident astronomer, Pecier Decierdo says that they "really want to encourage young people here in the Philippines to look up and to see that it really just makes life richer to wonder, and to speculate about our place in the universe." Photo by JL JAVIER

The earliest patterns that people really recognized were the patterns in the stars, the patterns of the motion of the moon, the sun, regularities in the seasons. So they saw patterns here and it really made them wonder. That's why of all the sciences, it was really physics, by way of astronomy, that ushered in the scientific revolution with Copernicus, Galileo.

So I think that would be the biggest contribution because it made people realize that there are nice patterns to these and maybe we can explain them using simple laws. And that inspired people to apply that in other fields. Maybe life is also governed by simple laws and then we discovered the DNA, or maybe the reaction between chemicals is also governed by simple laws. So I really think that science, historically, owes its inception to astronomy.

People like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Janna Levin have incorporated pop culture or poetry into science. I feel like there's a parallelism between their works and having these kinds of exhibits as well, particularly into communicating big ideas to a larger audience. Do you think this is necessary?

I think it's another big contribution, major contribution of astronomy. It easily inspires art and culture — from the paintings of Van Gogh to pop songs littered with astronomical metaphors all the way to science fiction that's now so commonplace and ordinary. Many of our movies, many of our books, comics, T.V. shows, shows on Netflix, many of them are about space. Not everyone is going to want to become a scientist or an engineer. Of course, other people would want to become artists and I think it's important to get them into the conversation and show them that outer space and astronomy is for artists too.

There's something in it for everyone; there's something in it for the hardcore geeks but there's also something in it for really creative people, people who want to paint and draw can still draw inspiration from the stars.

03 Teleporter.JPG The "Teleporter" is among the many interactive pieces at the Space Adventure exhibition. Photo courtesy of THE MIND MUSEUM

12 Draw an Alien.JPG The Draw An Alien activity table is where guests can get their creative juices pumping and speculate about the possibility of alien life forms. Photo courtesy of THE MIND MUSEUM

In line with this though, do you think there is a danger in simplifying science into astronomical metaphors, for example?

I'm not as afraid of the dangers of simplification as much as I'm afraid of people not having enough trust in the process, or ending up believing false things, ending up believing that the earth is flat or that the whole thing about space exploration is just a big conspiracy.

Simplification, of course, sometimes leads to some misunderstanding, but the danger for that is not as great, because for example, in the case of the exhibit about gravity being warped in the fabric of space and time, that analogy has a lot of limitations and if pushed too far, people can have misunderstandings about how gravity works. But if these people are not going to be physicists or scientists, then that's not going to be a very dangerous misunderstanding.

What's more important, I believe, is that people appreciate the biggest ideas in science, even at a “shallow” level. The important thing is they have an appreciation of what these are in the same way that people don't need to be experts in constitutional law, but it would help for people to understand how government and politics works because we're all participants in a democracy.

Another topic, somehow related to astronomy, that has gotten a lot of following is astrology. Interest in it has spiked in the recent years. What’s your take on this?

If you look at the major claims of astrology, we really don't have any scientific evidence to back it up, that the position of the sun, moon, stars and planets, and the position of the heavenly bodies, have any effect on our personality and our personal destinities. We really have, of course, a hand in shaping our personal destinities and we really can shape our personalities as well. We can change many things about who we are, we can improve ourselves, and we don't need to turn to the stars for that.

We can turn to the stars for inspiration, but not for guidance about how we're going to live our lives. That said, some people draw entertainment value from astrology and if they are very conscious of that, that astrology really is for entertainment ... They should be conscious of that.  Right now, the highest value that astrology can have is entertainment in the same way that it's just fun to know whether you're an INTJ or an ENFP even though we now know that the whole Myers-Briggs has no scientific basis, it's just fun. It's fun to take quizzes online to know which character in “Game of Thrones” you are or what house you are in the Harry Potter universe.

Photo-3 (1).jpg The exhibit doesn't shy away from the big ideas, from the scale of the universe, the fact that we are made of star stuff, to the question of whether we are alone in the universe. Photo by JL JAVIER

As a science communicator in the Philippines, what are the usual challenges that you face?

Since I'm a science communicator and in some of the shows, I have a central position in the session because I'm the one who does the show. I don't get attacked, they're not really aggressive. But I've been asked weird questions, leading questions, questions that I know come from a place of doubting the science behind certain things or sometimes a place of certainty where there shouldn't be certainty. For example, people who were so certain that they've been abducted by aliens. [Sometimes] I get questions related to that.

How do you deal with them?

I deal with them by just mostly asking back questions. In the case of people who are so certain about the things they believe in, I inject doubt because I strongly think that real skepticism leads back to science. We know the things we know because people really are very skeptical. They question. So people who call themselves “skeptics” like for example people who don't believe that climate change is real and that it's caused by humans, if you really question them and really dig deep into the source of their beliefs, same with the people who think that the earth is flat, it comes actually from a place of certainty. It comes from a place where they start up with a conclusion, they already know what to believe in, and they just look for things to support or justify it.

I don't want to attack them so I just ask questions and just remind them to keep on asking questions and just have a high standard for what to believe in. If you just have high standards for what to believe in, you end up with science.

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Space Adventure runs from Tuesdays to Sundays, 9 a.m. to 6 pm. at The Mind Museum. The exhibition will be on display in the Museum for a limited run. The exhibition also aims to travel across the Philippines as part of the museum's mission to bring science closer to the public. For more information, visit The Mind Museum website or email inquiry@themindmuseum.org.