Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Spread science education to quash rumors

By Zhang Zhouxiang (China Daily) Updated: 2016-04-22 08:15

The first reason is lack of scientific understanding, which comes from education. Unless a person majors in natural science or engineering, compulsory education remains his/her main source of knowledge about science. But that knowledge may not be enough to understand some technologies we use in daily life, let alone those applied in modern industries.

Some of the rumors have exploited this shortcoming. The rumor mills use words that an average person is familiar with but does not understand their full meaning. An apt example is the linking of the WiFi with "radioactivity". An average person may know the two words but may not understand how WiFi works and what radioactivity truly means. For such people, both mean transmitting something invisible from one point to another.

Even though one scientist after another has explained that WiFi signals have nothing to do with radioactive materials such as those used in nuclear power plants, people still do not believe them, because it requires too much background information to understand how WiFi signals are actually transmitted. That's why the rumor about WiFi harming human health refuses to die.

Lack of transparent information too breeds rumors. The fourth-strongest rumor on the top-10 list is about the Tianjin blasts on Aug 12, 2015, which destroyed some chemical tanks. The rumor is that the blasts caused cyanide to leak into the air and it could poison people in Beijing if they get wet in the rain.

Had people got the full information on the blasts, the actual damage caused, and the chemicals that leaked into the air, such a rumor would not have spread. Proper and timely release of information can prevent such rumors.

Some rumors are targeted at specific groups, such as senior citizens or parents of students. Such rumors exploit human psychology. Soon after the recent scandal over the illegal sales of expired or improperly stored vaccines, a rumor spread that such vaccines could lead to severe health problems, even death. Even after the World Health Organization issued an official statement saying the biggest risk such vaccines carry is being ineffective, many people kept spreading the rumor; some of them even refused to get their children vaccinated.

This is a typical example of a rumor that takes advantage of people's psychological weakness. When it comes to their children's safety, many parents choose to believe in rumors to avoid complications rather than taking real preventive measures. It is hard to root out such rumors because people not fully informed tend to flow with the tide.

In order to quash rumors about technologies, it is best to expand popular science education, promote transparency and take strict action against rumormongers, or those who spread lies to make profits. In other words, only when people get enough and proper information will they stop believing in rumors associated with technologies.

The author is a writer with China Daily.

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