Thu, Jan 03, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Science, superstition and another ‘doomsday’

By Huang Chun-ju 黃俊儒

Unsurprisingly, we Taiwanese continued life as usual after Dec. 21, the day that, according to certain interpretations of Mayan calendrical calculations, was to be the day the world ended. There were concerns the prophecies would have an adverse affect on the public psyche, or that students would be too anxious to prepare for their finals. However, most people paid little heed to the prophecies. Had it not been for the media’s sensationalist presentations, nobody would have noticed any connection between Mayan civilization and Taiwan.

The media gave the prophecy massive coverage. In addition to the daily discussions on TV talk shows, there were special exhibitions and videos by scientists. Some talk show commentators even argued with them in public. What a scene it was. The vast majority of people maintained a rational demeanor as Dec. 21 approached, so why had the media sought fit to make such a fuss? Who did this Armageddon extravaganza benefit?

Among the perspectives on the so-called end of the world, “science” and “superstition” are like two extremes of a spectrum, one on which most people know where they stand. For example, when people are ill, they mostly choose to receive modern medical treatment. We mostly check scientific weather forecasts. In our daily life, we also rely on modern technology that makes things so much more convenient. Most people regard divination as a decisionmaking tool as pure superstition, or the result of alternative cultural and psychological needs. There is, then, always a clear distinction between science and superstition.

However, the real challenge lies somewhere in between the two extremes, in the “gray area” of science. This area includes things that can only be unsatisfactorily explained by either scientific theories or folk beliefs. There are, for example, certain issues that cannot be completely explained, accounted for or predicted by scientific theory. Are genetically modified foods safe for humans to eat? Should we build more nuclear power plants? Do petroleum plants damage nearby residents’ health? Should wetland protection be prioritized over industrial development? For such issues, we need to understand how to employ science rationally and have an understanding of its effectiveness, limitations and risks. This is much more significant and urgent than the traditional thinking of “using science to eliminate superstition.”

We may not like the irrational and impulsive aspects of Taiwan’s society or the sensationalist tendencies of the media, so should we not just remain calm in the face of every two-bit end-of-the-world prophecy and refuse to get caught up in the media circus? That these rumors are a constant of life does not stand in opposition to scientifically attested fact; rather, they are a necessary reflection and requirement of our emotional selves.

To employ a Chinese metaphor, using scientific knowledge to dispel such matters would be “killing a chicken with an ox cleaver”: It is the wrong tool for the job. If we were to take the Mayan “prophecy” seriously, should we not take astrology seriously as well? Horoscopes are published every day, and influence many people’s lives.

Certainly, it is another story if some people just want to share the spotlight on the end-of-the-world stage, so I am not surprised if the rumor made TV commentators rich and boosted show ratings.

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