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China Gone Modern


Kendrick Frazier

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.2, March / April 2008

Amid explosive growth and modernization, China and CFI congress speakers ponder sustainability and the popularization, enjoyment, understanding, and widest possible applications of science.

In the nearly twenty years since our last visit to China (see “CSICOP in China,” SI Summer 1988), the country has undergone a stunning economic and physical transformation. The major cities are almost unrecognizable. The capital city of Beijing is a sprawling mass of modern, new high-rises. Construction cranes steadily raise ever more. In marked contrast to the dreary public lighting of the late 1980s, giant neon advertisements and flashy decorative lights on buildings and bridges brightly illuminate the nighttime streets. On the northern outskirts of the city, a vast area hums under twenty-four-hour construction to accommodate the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Given the new China’s obvious ability to carry out huge projects, I think Olympic visitors are likely to be impressed.) Cars are everywhere (and not small ones either), fast replacing the ubiquitous bicycles of two decades ago. Five multilane “ring road” freeways circle the enormous metropolitan area.

To the south in Shanghai, China’s economic capital with a population of around 17 million, the changes are breathtaking. An entirely new city, the Pudong area of Shanghai, has been constructed just east of the Huangpu River, marked by dozens of striking, imaginatively designed skyscrapers. One, nearing completion, is destined to be the third tallest in the world. All have been built since 1990. In this incredible period, three thousand new buildings of more than twenty stories have been erected. The three-sphered, three-legged Pearl Tower (468 meters, or 1,536 feet, high), beautifully illuminated at night, rivals the Eiffel Tower in iconic stature, and nearby skyscrapers likewise compete for the sky. An evening river cruise reveals the dramatic nighttime skyline. Some of the buildings sport twenty-story-high, swiftly changing, electric-lighted imagery.

And the planning and building goes on. Shanghai billboards tout the 2009 World Expo to be held there. The beautiful Shanghai Science and Technology Museum we visited is only five years old. The Shanghai Urban Planning and Exhibition Center boasts two huge, intricately detailed, three-dimensional scale models of the city. One is the core city as it is now. The other, the biggest in the world, extending over 600 square meters and covering most of an entire floor, envisions the city as it will be in 2020. The ports, the airport, the river facilities, and the subway system all are being expanded.

We took an evening ride to the international airport on Shanghai’s new Maglev (magnetic levitation) train, covering 30 kilometers in an effortless eight minutes. In contrast, our harrowing, lane-shifting, racecar-like morning taxi ride through heavy traffic back to the airport took an hour and threatened to cost us our lives.

In Beijing, the very nice China Science and Technology Museum, which we also visited, is only thirteen years old and is already being replaced by a huge, new one, which is under construction at the site of the 2008 Olympics. CFI members enjoyed a special tour. The museum’s deputy director proudly told us that as the biggest science museum in the world, it will encompass a total construction area of 180,000 square meters.

The energy and dynamism are palpable. Street markets remain, but on major thoroughfares every upscale store you see in New York, Paris, or London is stylishly present. The economic dynamo that is modern China has attracted and created great wealth. While we were there, news reports highlighted the fact that eight of the top twenty companies in the world (measured by their valuations on world stock markets) are now Chinese. One hundred of the world’s major companies have offices in Shanghai.

The stunning growth has been accompanied by typical consequences: urban sprawl, traffic jams, rapidly rising demand for electrical power, multitudinous new (but hardly clean) coal-fired power plants across the countryside (we saw half a dozen of them in a flight from Beijing to Xi’an), eye-watering air pollution, rapidly worsening income disparity, water capacity and water-quality concerns, water shortages in northern China, and rising urban vs. rural imbalances and tensions.

One could almost forget that the economic progress has not been accompanied by as much political progress—until viewing the formal, reverential, noncritical coverage on China Central TV and across the front pages of the Chinese newspapers of the seventeenth national Congress of the Communist Party in Beijing, which met while we were there. The TV and newspapers treated it all as an epic event, the cameras panning slowly over the aged, stone-faced party leaders, seemingly belying the modern transformation that has occurred all around them. (On the final day of the meeting, the congress did replace the vice president and two vice premiers with younger men.)

Nevertheless, China’s leaders do tout scientific and technical progress among their highest priorities, something seldom if ever heard anymore from American political leaders. China has tripled its research and development spending since 2000, an increase the U.S. National Science Foundation has called “unprecedented for any country in recent memory.” Science and technology have a respect and status among the Chinese people that is enviable in the U.S. They realize that their transformation has been propelled by—in addition to the unleashing of market economic forces—scientific and technological progress. But, as in Western societies, the results of science are understood and appreciated far more than the underlying methods and principles of science (including critical thinking and free, open inquiry) that account for its great success.

Barry Karr, Paul Kurtz, Wang Jianguo, deputy director of the China Science Museum, and David Koepsell at the construction site of the museum’s huge, new building on the grounds of the 2008 Beijing Olympics park.

Barry Karr, Paul Kurtz, Wang Jianguo, deputy director of the China Science Museum, and David Koepsell at the construction site of the museum’s huge, new building on the grounds of the 2008 Beijing Olympics park.

It was in this remarkable set of circumstances—a society with an ancient cultural heritage rapidly transforming and re-creating itself—that the Center for Inquiry/Transnational’s world congress on Scientific Inquiry and Human Well-Being was held in Beijing October 13–15, 2007. Co-sponsored by the China Research Institute for Science Popularization (CRISP, CFI/
China) and supported by the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), both nongovernmental science organizations, the three-day conference addressed the problems facing scientific inquiry and the public understanding of science in the modern world. About a dozen other Chinese academic and scientific institutions also co-sponsored.

Held in the Science Hall of the Beijing Friendship Hotel in the northwest part of the city, the congress enjoyed the hotel’s appealing, newly modernized, eight-building, 1,600-room garden complex. Its staff jubilantly celebrated becoming a five-star hotel while we were there.

The conference focused on seven topics: science and the public, the scientific method and scientific ethos, scientific inquiry and the paranormal, science communication and the media, scientific inquiry and secular humanism, and science culture and morality.

CRISP executive director Ren Fujun, CAST executive secretary Cheng Donghong, and CFI/Transnational founder and Chairman Paul Kurtz welcomed the five hundred participants, including seventy speakers (about four-fifths from China, one-fifth from the West).

One of the early conference themes was environmental degradation and climate change. It was fitting that this discussion was initiated by Lin Zixin, a far-sighted Chinese leader and science editor who was the host for our 1988 CSICOP visit (which he fondly recalled) investigating then-rampant paranormal claimants in China. His attention has now turned to broader issues. He led off with a summary of his most recent concerns about climate change, the environment, and sustainable development. His view is global. Pollution, fresh water, weather extremes, sea levels, and melting of the Earth’s ice are, he said, “common interests of humanity.”

He cited the Stern report’s warning of “severe damage to social systems,” a December 2006 Chinese national report on climate change’s expected negative impact on China’s agriculture, and the World Wildlife Federation’s Living Planet of 2006 report stating that the productivity of the environment will decrease. He noted that China’s president attaches great importance to sustainable development in China and said a five-year pollution-control plan is essential.

A report on “The Crisis of the Yellow River Source” decried the displacement of the torrential waters of the Yellow River of the past by vast sandy areas. China must become a “water-conservation and energy-conservation society,” Lin said. “We have a great responsibility for protecting Earth’s ecosystems.”

The noted Chinese geography professor and climatologist/glaciologist (and academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences) Qin Dahe described in detail, with numerous charts and graphs, the concerns and conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He included a new report issued the day before on human and natural drivers of climate change, referring to “very positive evidence of human causes of global warming.”

Daniel C. Dennett calls for an end to indoctrination of children.

Daniel C. Dennett calls for an end to indoctrination of children.

Professor Qin is a member of IPCC Working Group I on the physical science basis of climate change. It is perhaps a mark of Chinese modesty that he left until the very end of his talk a newly prepared slide. It announced that the night before, the Nobel Committee had awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize jointly to the IPCC and former U.S. vice president Al Gore “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”

“I am very proud,” Qin said. “I am one small member of IPCC.”

Nobel laureate physicist Murray Gell-Mann had come straight to the China conference from a symposium in Potsdam, Germany. There, he said at the beginning of his China presentation (see sidebar on page 34), a group of fifteen Nobel Prize winners, himself included, had issued a declaration on global climate change: the scientific facts of global warming are a settled matter.

I opened my own remarks on climate change (and the recent controversy about it in the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer) by noting that when my wife and I visited the Summer Palace on the northwestern outskirts of Beijing before the conference, the atmosphere was so thick that the beautiful gate towers and other features, some with poetic, sky-invoking names like Gate of Dispelling Clouds and Hall of Embracing the Universe, could scarcely be seen across the corner of the lake. I worried that Beijing and other large cities are rapidly losing a precious heritage—a direct and emotional connection with the sky, which has driven both astronomy and public wonder about the cosmos and much poetry and literature. My temerity was immediately punished: The next three days in Beijing were glorious—crystal clear, blue skies. I hope it was not an anomaly, but fear that it was. The following week, everywhere we went the sky was hazy and smog-filled.

Paul Kurtz, in his opening plenary session talk, issued a ringing call for what he called planetary humanism to address the world’s biggest problems. “A viable new planetary humanism” to achieve “a safe, secure, and better world should be our overriding obligation.” He praised aspects of science that need to be better communicated, especially its objective methods of inquiry. In referring to a scientific worldview, he said he prefers the term “scientific naturalism” to “scientific materialism.” Kurtz said science has succeeded because of the use of scientific methods, an essential component of which is skepticism—placing in the cross hairs its own most cherished principles. Skepticism is continuous with common sense, he said, and he called for greater efforts in teaching critical thinkers “how to think.”

After the morning plenary session, the conference broke into two lines of concurrent sessions covering virtually every aspect of the conference’s stated themes and more.

I’ll give just a few examples.

Oxford University chemistry professor and writer Peter Atkins (Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science) spoke on “Science as Culture.” Science, as the epitome of rational thought, is a part of human culture, he emphasized. “Science enriches culture.”

Enjoyment of science goes hand in hand with understanding science. Atkins advocated that scientists give much greater emphasis to visual information when dealing with the public. “Pictures are the way of propagandizing ideas to the populace,” he said, launching into a display of a hundred images. Some chemical ideas can best be conveyed with images—the whole point, he said, is to share with the public the pleasure and deep intellectual satisfaction scientists gain from science by better using visual materials to aid people’s comprehension.

Nobel laureate chemist Sir Harold Kroto (co-discoverer of “buckyballs,” carbon-60) echoed similar themes with an Internet video presentation on “Science, the Enlightenment, and the Internet.” The Periodic Table, Kroto demonstrated, is based on the numbers 1, 2, and 3. “Those three numbers explain all chemistry, all of life,” he said. He, like Atkins and others, spoke of the “aesthetic beauty of science.” Examples he cited were buckyballs, the hemoglobin molecule, and DNA. Important practical applications can come out of that beauty, he pointed out. Examples are the doping of plastic solar cells with C-60 to increase electricity production and possible future supercomputers based on molecular biology.

French physicist Jean-Claude Pecker, currently general secretary of the International Astronomical Union (who early in the conference spoke on Creationism in Astronomy), discussed science’s role in culture in the concluding plenary session. The beauty of science is “not only in its flamboyant properties but in the deeper meaning,” he said. Science is everywhere, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much.

“We are awash in science. We are confronted with the facts, but the facts only,” Pecker said. As a result, “We ignore the logic of the scientific and technical achievements. We ignore the real scientific knowledge. We ignore the real scientific culture. How then can people distinguish science from pseudoscience, cranks, and charlatans?” Scientists must not just report the facts, they must explain, he urged.

“Debunking the pseudosciences is a task of science communicators wherever they are,” Pecker said. “Explain. Explain. Explain.”

Whereas the Internet “is a paradise for cranks,” he said, museums are one of the crossroads of teaching and information and “are generally very good.” He recommends building more museums, planetariums, botanical gardens, and zoos.

“Science has changed everything,” said physicist and writer Lawrence Krauss (The Physics of Star Trek, Hiding in the Mirror). He paused: “. . . except how we think and act!” In a lively, fast-paced talk to avoid stringent time limits, Krauss discussed some key aspects of the scientific ethos: honesty, full disclosure (citing evidence for and against one’s theory), anti-authoritarianism, egalitarianism, and creativity. He also cited two noted cases of fraud in science (one at Bell Labs, the other at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab) as especially painful examples of when scientists fail to follow that ethos.

Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann with a portrait of Isaac Newton at the Beijing Science Hall (conference hall).

Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann with a portrait of Isaac Newton at the Beijing Science Hall (conference hall).

But in the public sphere, he said, the greater problem is the continuing governmental interference in science, where science gets distorted in the political process. He cited cases related to stem cells, cancer research, birth control, the environment, the claims of WMDs in Iraq, and others.

Journalists also often have serious problems in dealing properly with scientific controversies, he noted. The journalistic tradition is to believe there are two sides to every story and to write accordingly. Science is different, Krauss said. “Most times one side is simply wrong.”

Restoring scientific integrity is essential, Krauss emphasized. Judging by their actions, many people in government seem to take an almost perverse pride in misunderstanding scientific information, allowing themselves to distort it for political ends, Krauss said. “The purpose of education is not to validate ignorance but to overcome it. Ignorance is the enemy.”

The noted Russian physicist Edward Kruglyakov, deputy director of the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk, the largest Russian scientific institute, gave a detailed chronicle of the rapid growth of pseudoscience in Russia in the 1990s. As he did in an article for Skeptical Inquirer (“Why Is Pseudoscience Dangerous?” July/August 2002), Kruglyakov described vivid examples of cases in which pseudoscience has penetrated into high levels of government and society. Russian leader Boris Yeltsin asked Kruglyakov, for instance, if high energy can be released from stone. He had been told that it was possible. Kruglyakov tried to warn him off, but “Yeltsin later allocated 200 million dollars” to the energy-from-stone project.

“Energy” and “informational therapy” are often commonly used as pseudoscientific terms in Russia, usually tied to so-called “torsion fields.” Other frequent problems are, in Kruglyakov’s words, “preposterous patents” (a patent was granted for the “sympathetic treatment of illnesses with the aid of an aspen stick at the moment of full moon”); “pyramidology” (fifteen large pyramids have been built to “solve mankind’s problems” and to “guarantee against cancer”); and fraudulent labels (a $50 label that its sellers claim protects against microwave radiation).

Scott Atran (University of Michigan and National Center for Scientific Research in Paris), Lionel Tiger (Rutgers University), and David Koepsell (Council for Secular Humanism) were among the other Western speakers.

Many of the Chinese scholars and researchers gave talks on the public understanding of science, the popularization of science, and the history of science. It is clear these are all lively fields of academic research in China.

For example, Zeng Guoping of Tsinghua University in Beijing, in his remarks on the public understanding of science at the closing plenary session, described the results of surveys in China. Superstition is “fairly high toward folk matters,” he said, but China’s people “are enthusiastic and interested in science.” He said the level of interest is higher than in Europe, the U.S., or Japan. Nevertheless, although the interest in science is high, the level of scientific literacy is low, a complaint heard in the U.S. as well.

Television is the main source of science information for the Chinese public, he said. Newspapers are another. Because Internet availability in China is still lower than in the West, it is not a primary source of science news. As for evolution, “The people believe in evolution, not creationism,” Guoping said. Atheism is linked to evolution, but, he said atheism doesn’t have the same negative connotations in China as in the U.S. And in China there is great interest and support for “post-academic science,” or industrial science, because of its role in increasing the gross domestic product, or GDP.

Sun Xian of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology and the China Science and Technology Museum (who has been a visiting scholar at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst) spoke of the difficulty of promoting scientific rationality among Chinese young people. She said many Chinese experts and scholars in recent years have been studying that problem. Among their observations: Young people are intrigued but puzzled by “stupid superstition” (her words) and “extraordinary natural occurrences.” They lack approaches in rational thinking that would enable them to make rational judgments on such mystical phenomena, and schools and society are short in giving such education. Despite devoting several years to the promotion of the scientific attitude in China, she said, researchers “found it still a heavy responsibility and an arduous task to fulfill.”

Conference co-chair Ren Fujan, in his remarks at the closing plenary session, said “China is now in a great flourish of development in science popularization.” He is a professor at three Chinese universities, executive director of CRISP, and editor-in-chief of the Chinese academic Journal of Science Popularization, besides chairing the Center for Inquiry/China group. In China, a 2002 law encourages science popularization, and he said the Center for Inquiry’s China branch intends to push even more in that direction. He said CFI will promote science and science education, encourage the integration of science and the humanities, study science literacy, spread scientific knowledge in science, study the theory of science popularization, form volunteer teams to serve local science popularization, and enter into broader cooperation with CFI/Transnational.

“Scientific Inquiry and Human Well-Being” was truly the world congress’s theme, and CFI founder Paul Kurtz concluded the three-day affair by broadening the discussion even more—to moral and ethical concerns. “Science must transcend any political boundaries,” he said. “We want to develop the appreciation of science, its methodology, its outlook.” And, he said, we are interested in “the practical application of scientific methodology to ethics and moral principles.” Our moral systems are too often based on ancient dogmas, he said. They must instead be informed by modern scientific knowledge. Just as science must transcend political concerns, “A number of ethical principles and moral values transcend culture,” he said.

Kurtz, always a philosopher in the best sense, spoke movingly of “the common moral decencies.” Among his examples were integrity, trustworthiness, benevolence, and fairness. He also referred to the rights of the individual and certain “excellences” that should be pursued: good health, self control and moderation, self respect and self-esteem, high motivation, the capacity for love, caring for other sentient beings, a commitment to beloved causes, a sense of joi de vivre, a quest to achieve and to create, a generalized goodwill toward others and oneself, the use of reason, courage (“the audacity to succeed”), altruism, the mitigation of suffering and sorrow, and empathy for others.

He seemed almost to be willing these characteristics and values onto a planet that sorely needs them. And on that high-toned plane, an invigorating conference in a dynamic, rapidly changing part of the world came to an end.

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier's photo

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.