The media made Teacher Wang

By Huang Chun-ju 黃俊儒  / 

Fri, May 20, 2011 - Page 8

The apocalyptic earthquake that some people were predicting did not come to pass. Who would have guessed?

This groundless prediction of an earthquake of catastrophic magnitude managed to cause panic in Taiwan, and it was wholly unwarranted. Obviously, the disturbances that this caused, with people buying up land in the mountains and storage containers for shelter, is not something to be encouraged, but it does bring up some questions that are worth asking. Why, for example, did we pay so much attention to Wang Chao-hung (王超弘), also known as “Teacher Wang,” and his apocalyptic predictions, both of which came quite out of the blue? And who is this “Teacher Wang” anyway? More to the point, do his opinions have any value?

For a few days, the papers were full of reports about how some people were counting down to the advent of the earthquake, how some wanted to know who exactly Teacher Wang was and how others just turned their noses up at the whole affair. All pretty much predictable, all pretty much standard fare. But why report it at all? What were they actually trying to tell us?

Let’s say that “science” and “superstition” lie at the extreme ends of a spectrum. Taiwanese society has already reached a certain degree of consensus on how to define these two extremes. For example, when people fall ill, the vast majority will choose to go see a doctor and accept the recommendations of modern medical science. When a typhoon is about to hit, most people will act according to the Central Weather Bureau’s (CWB) forecasts, even though they are aware these are unlikely to be 100 percent accurate. People are also generally happy to adopt devices such as mobile phones, computers and electrical appliances, confident that technology will provide them with a certain amount of reliability. On the other hand, most people would regard relying on folk remedies and petitions to the spirits when ill, divining to predict typhoons, or making major decisions based on the advice of fortune-tellers as superstitious behavior. In other words, Taiwanese don’t have that much of a problem differentiating science from superstition.

The biggest challenge for scientific and technological progress in Taiwanese society comes not from the extremes, but from the “gray areas” that lie between. These are questions for which there are no straight answers in our scientific textbooks, and which cannot be satisfied by looking to folk beliefs. Sometimes scientific theories cannot give entirely satisfactory answers to, or confirm either way, certain questions, and then there are other complex issues involving political, economic or cultural factors. For example, are electromagnetic waves harmful to humans? Are nuclear power plants completely safe? Should the petrochemical industry be allowed to expand further? How do we choose between industrial zones and wetlands? Taiwanese society has devoted copious resources to “gray area” questions such as these, as it should. Their importance and urgency far outstrip any preoccupation with the Teacher Wangs of this world.

In a pluralistic society you will always get people like Teacher Wang. He was not the first of his kind, and he certainly will not be the last. But where did this latest version get his power from, to make him into some sort of “Superwang?”

Politicians would sell their right arm to be able to get the sort of exposure his earthquake prediction did. What exactly did Teacher Wang do, apart from posting his prediction on a blog? Did he call a press conference? Did he splash out for advertising space? Did he force people to hoard food supplies and buy storage containers in readiness for the earthquake? If nobody had paid him any mind, would there even be any such thing as Teacher Wang today? The whole thing has been manufactured by the press.

News media have given this man the spotlight only to pelt him with eggs and sticks. In the process the media have succeeded in creating a story from which they emerge as being on the side of “justice” and “science.” It goes without saying that this has not exactly harmed their viewing figures, either. However, throughout the whole sorry affair, a great deal of resources have been wasted on illuminating what is basically a big non-story. Who hasn’t felt obliged to come out and talk about this case, to set the record straight? Members of the Cabinet, the Ministry of the Interior, the CWB, the National Science Council and the Ministry of National Defense have all offered their two cents on the issue. It’s not like there aren’t more pressing things going on in the country to which their talents would be better turned.

As far as the whole Teacher Wang spectacle is concerned, the media’s rather sanctimonious attempts at watching over society have, frankly speaking, degenerated into a circus in which everyone has been complicit. Some people might just shrug the whole thing off, arguing that Taiwanese society is quite rational, and saw it all as an interesting diversion, a bit of excitement. But look at how many resources have been frittered away on this circus. That rather light-hearted take on events now starts to look a little naive.

If society is happy to be complacent after all that has been spent on this Teacher Wang business, then we still have an awfully long way to go before we are able to deal, in any rational way, with all the problems the technological age is bound to throw at us.

Huang Chun-ju is an associate professor at National Chung Cheng University’s General Education Center.