Op-Ed Contributors

Disasters, science and lunacy

By John Coulter (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-03-18 07:52
Large Medium Small

Our modern world is making our lives better each day, and we need to be aware of what allows us to progress and what retards advances. The spreading of rumors across the world is a throwback from the Dark Ages, pre-science, and has no place in 2011, especially in modern media such as the Internet. The latest sensationalism is gossip that the alignment of the moon on Saturday, March 19, will cause massive earthquakes. The other is a widely circulated illustration on the Web, describing how nuclear radiation from Japan will spread to other countries.

China has more than 450 million netizens and the majority of them use the medium positively for work, study and social networking. But the freedom granted to them allows irresponsible individuals to spread rumors. Fortunately, the English language traffic is spared most excesses because the audiences have a longer experience in balancing and weighing a range of sources, and readily dismiss spam and idiots. For young Chinese in cities with the Internet as their new lifeline to contact home and friends, and for fashion and job searches, chatrooms that scaremonger and sensationalize are taken out of puerile context can have the wrong effects.

Social network is now being revealed as a key characteristic distinguishing us from other animal groups. Humans' willingness to cooperate, even with people they do not know, such as on the Internet, is a driver of progress. "Humans are not special because of their big brains," says Kim Hill, a social anthropologist at Arizona State University. "That's not the reason we can build rocket ships - no individual can. We have rockets because 10,000 individuals cooperate in producing the information."

This feature not only works in amazing developments, but strengthens humans threatened in disasters. The triple disasters that have hit Japan - earthquake, tsunami and radiation - remind us of the fragility of our existence and our physically small place in nature. A unanimous observation of stunned audiences around the world has been the stoic discipline, cooperation and resilience of Japanese people who have suffered so much. As the globe gets interconnected to live coverage of all big news, audiences can tend to wonder what this means to us.

Quakes in Japan, Yunnan province of China, New Zealand, and in Haiti last year and Sichuan province in China in 2008, and record floods, blizzards and droughts, and even man-made upheavals in North Africa and the whole climate change and financial crisis crash through our consciousness, grabbing attention just like news editors intend. Such crescendos of events cry out for interpretation of meaning.

In 2011, when so much of the modern world has much to be thankful for, the interjection of disasters into our living rooms and daily lives is the grist for gossip of idle and non-thinking beneficiaries of the good life. The digital appearance of the new century was going to unleash the Y2000 computer bug; Beijing 2008 Olympic Games would invite disaster; and now, the Year 2012 will be the end of the world. On a smaller scale there are fringe religious groups predicting Judgment Day, with an Oklahoma congregation convinced enough to announce by billboard that May 21, 2011, is the end. The group leader avoids questioning about his book, 1994, that says 2011 is supposed to be the end.

It is now generally acknowledged that the Internet phenomenon worrying about the end of the world in 2012 was triggered by publicists for the movie, 2012, which has now had its box office run and the hype has died with it.

   Previous Page 1 2 Next Page