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Is Science Communication For Scientific Literacy?

Iodine salt Rush-Purchasing in China

Xiaomin Zhu
Peking University

This paper divides into four parts, first portrays the development of the iodine salt rush-purchasing in China, second describes the response of media and academic opinions, third makes an analysis from the dimension of science communication, and last part draws some conclusions and gives suggestions.

After the 3.11 earthquake in Japan, especially when the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear accident happened, there were two news on internet communicated very quickly in China, one is the iodine could be helpful to deal with nuclear radiation, the other is the radiation from Japan polluted the sea and the salt which is from sea water would be unsafe in the future. As a result, a big panic arose suddenly among many Chinese people who crashed into every shops, stores and supermarkets to buy iodine salt, which looked just like a real disaster happened in China too. This iodine salt rush-purchasing tide first appeared in Zhejiang province and Shanghai city which are along the east coast of China on March 16, then spread very quickly to almost all over the country until to March 18 such as Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan provinces which are thousands miles away from the east ocean side of China. During the climax, many people bought dozens of kilograms to several tons of salt to homes; a man in Zhejiang even ate too much salt once a time as he had planned to prevent radiation and died in hospital, becoming the first victim outside of Japan as reported. Due to both the proficient providence of iodine salt on market and limitation of individual purchase (two bags of salt for one person) by government, and also popularization of rational information by mass media, new medias and scholars, the iodine salt rush-purchasing tide disappeared gradually on March 19 at last, and some people began asking to return the more salt they had bought back to supermarket which caused another tide of returning iodine salt back in some cities.

During and after the iodine salt rush-purchasing tide, media and scholars gave many analysis and reflections. The main opinion was Chinese people have so low level of scientific literacy that they couldn’t judge the right (scientific) way to face this emergency. Others include such as public didn’t trust on government and scholars; the information of mass media was a mess and led to confusions among people especially during the beginning of iodine salt rush-purchasing tide; usually ordinary people are irrational and just follow others blindly, etc.

The iodine salt rush-purchasing tide in China is a very good case of science communication of public concerning disaster. At the beginning of iodine salt rush-purchasing tide public couldn’t get right and enough information from both government and media (including experts), during the tide there were various and conflicted information among which no one had enough authority to comfort public calm down. From the public behavior of iodine salt rush-purchasing, general people  also showed their own rationalism: got a psychological sense of safety by a relative lower cost—several bags of salt; it’s obvious that public had their own ways to deal with emergency which maybe not scientific, but has science been a cure-all dealing with disasters? and public didn’t trust on experts also implicates the works of the latter hadn’t met the needs and expectations of the former.

Science communication implies to respect, understand, negotiate with, cooperate with, and provide service concerning science for public. General public is not like the school students, on one side, they have not enough time and energy to continue to learn so huge amount of scientific knowledge, and on the other side, the interests and needs of public to science are so various and change frequently during their life span that just to improve the scientific knowledge level of public is definitely not a cure-all. And science communication does not mean communication science itself—the scientific knowledge, data, facts, theories are often not enough for various and concrete needs of every individual person, it’s why we could observe that some people in Hong Kong, USA, Russia, Finland who are thought have much more higher level of scientific literacy than Chinese people, also crashed to buy iodine tablet, iodine salt and masks during the same days. Residents in Sakhalin Oblast (east of Russia) ran to purchase iodine wine, any other drinks which has iodine, even general red wine. As a result, we have to admit that nowadays science communication does not mean just to improve the so called scientific literacy of public and then every thing would be fine.

In conclusions and suggestions, the relative lower level of scientific literacy of Chinese people is not the only or main reason for the iodine salt rush-purchasing tide in China. The orientation of science communication should be changed from an education model to a service one: instead of asking public to improve so called scientific literacy, it’s quite suitable to establish an efficient feed back mechanism of meeting various and practical needs of public from material benefits, recreation expectation, to democracy right concerning science issues in modern society.

Xiaomin Zhu is Associate Professor in the Center for Science Communication and Philosophy Department of Peking University (China ). Now he is a one year visiting scholar at STS Dept. of Cornell University. He works mainly on science communication, he has published 20 papers in this area such as “A Study on the Role Change and Evaluation of Scientist in Popularization of Science”, “2049 and 2061: a Compare of Scientific Literacy Projects Between China and USA”.

6 Comments
  1. Laura Beltz Imaoka permalink

    I am also interested in the gap between scientific literacy and access to scientific information, and in particular, the role of the media in fueling or undermining certain understandings. A comparative media analysis between China and the United States, which witnessed a similar rush in Potassium Iodide tablet buying as you mentioned, could yield interesting findings; especially considering the differing levels of access to scientific facts via communication technologies. I wonder, how does a service oriented model work and what structures or platforms would need to be in place to make it efficient?

    Laura Beltz Imaoka (University of California, Irvine)

    • Xiaomin Zhu permalink

      Hi, Laura, thank you very much for your comment and question.
      Due to historical lower level of formal science education, the science popularization (now we often say science communication) in China has been oriented as a supplementary part of the former. As a result, science communication is still almost a one way education to public: expert tells public what the scientist thinks right ( such as scientific literacy) and does not care the needs of the public.
      From the iodine salt rush-purchasing tide in China, we still could see this “education model” which played a poor role in dealing with the public panic.
      The service model which I suggest will (1) put the public in the center of science communication, instead of asking public to listen scientist, the scientist should listen public first and answer back questions which the public cares about most, so (2) the import thing is to construct a high efficient feed back mechanism between public and scientist which should be public oriented, not scientist oriented as traditional.
      Of course, I just suggested this service model a couple of years ago in China, we still need time and experience to make it works well, but I think it’s a better direction.
      And my email is zxm0801@gmail.com , I hope we can keep in touch.
      Best,
      Xiaomin Zhu

  2. ***Posted on behalf of Lisa Onaga***

    Hi Zhu Xiaomin, thank you for posting this very interesting report, which helps bring to light a greater understanding of how science communication takes place in China. Your paper seems to illustrate a triangular tension. At one tip is the disaster itself; then the matter of food safety knowledge; then there is the question of how more precisely news and technical information is relayed (or not) among lay people within China. In the middle of this constriction seems to be the issue, “science communication does not mean communication science itself,” as you wrote. Indeed, the Enlightenment-style diffusion model has received its fair share of criticisms. I’m not convinced that you meant to say science education should be downplayed, though, if as you suggest, there remains a role for experts and expert knowledge more generally… Your paper seems to say that this particular disaster has brought into relief a change in scholarly/popular discourse about science communication in China. I wonder to what extent the Fukushima disaster is the primary source of historical rupture for this line of analysis, however, considering the melamine poisonings in powdered milk products that preceded 2011. Considering both controversies, to echo Laura’s question, what would a service-based model look like?

    Regarding your discussion of science communication characteristic of “the Chinese people,” it strikes me how it interesting it would be to consider how members of the Chinese diaspora also communicated with friends and family in China at the time. We know from the history of China how important migration is, and with this, the movement of information, goods, and capital. Looking within the interior, I wonder to what extent you may wish to identify between urban and rural populations, or detail different access to information considering language and dialects? I’m again bouncing this idea with the melamine powered milk issue, thinking of Chinese in Australia who have exhibited great purchasing power of infant formula, creating a shortage on a completely different continent, and the run on untaxed infant formula in Hong Kong by mainlanders, creating a vexing problem to the point of Hong Kongers petitioning the US government for international aid to address the “baby hunger outbreak” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2013/02/03/fitzpatrick-hong-kong-baby-formula.html).

    Salt itself is also very interesting, and it would be very interesting to learn more from you on this point, considering the long history of saltworks in China and salt as a source of revenue. Relatedly, one may wonder who mainly produces China’s salt today and which entities have gained from this controversy. Would it be possible to locate a case with which to compare the run on iodized salt with in recent Chinese history of science and medicine? Through comparison, it may be possible to explicate how this case of salt is a distinctively local issue or important in light of the heritage of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine), or whether it is a case that exemplifies pandemonium that cuts across particularities. For example (and this might not be the best example, admittedly), to offer a counterweight to the triangular tip of how news and information relays in a public with respect to relatively benign foodstuffs — the consumption of nattō, a gooey fermented soybean product was discussed on national Japanese television in 2007 that led to a curious shortage of the food. This raises a question that seeks some details about the individuals who committed purchases based on conversations about the life-extending benefits of fermented soya or iodized salt. Women? Wǒmén? While quite different because one case relates directly to disaster compared to the other, discussion of both could perhaps tell us something about the coalescence of prophylactic action and news sensations. Thanks again for sharing such an interesting case that raises an important question about why the power of purchase is so healing in times of anxiety and why a better understanding of that can help us better illustrate the relationship between science and the public in contemporary China.

    By the way, you might know already, but there is a salt mine underneath Lake Cayuga. Hope you’re enjoying your time in beautiful Ithaca.

    Lisa Onaga
    Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

    • Xiaomin Zhu permalink

      Hi, Lisa, first thank you very much for your comments and questions.
      Due to historical lower level of formal science education, the science popularization (now we often say science communication) in China has been oriented as a supplementary part of the former. As a result, science communication is still almost a one way education to public: expert tells public what the scientist thinks right ( such as scientific literacy) and does not care the needs of the public.
      From the iodine salt rush-purchasing tide in China, we still could see this “education model” which played a poor role in dealing with the public panic. Fukushima disaster again showed the failure of education model of science communication in China.
      The service model which I suggest will (1) put the public in the center of science communication, instead of asking public to listen scientist, the scientist should listen public first and answer back questions which the public cares about most, so (2) the import thing is to construct a high efficient feed back mechanism between public and scientist which should be public oriented, not scientist oriented as traditional.
      Of course, I just suggested this service model a couple of years ago in China, we still need time and experience to make it works well, but I think it’s a better direction.
      You also mentioned TCM which surely is a choice of public, although TCM maybe not so scientific but should be respected in science communication.
      Traditional Chinese society is an acquaintance society, Chinese people believe in their relatives and friends more than scientists sometimes especially in rural areas, the behaviors of people in science communication between rural and urban areas are quite different which can be verified by the series national investigations of civil science literacy in China between 1992 to 2010.
      And I walked to Cayuga lake several times, it’s really beautiful.
      And my email is zxm0801@gmail.com , I hope we can keep in touch.
      Best,
      Xiaomin Zhu

  3. Monamie Bhadra permalink

    Hello Zhu Xiaomin,

    Thank you very much for this interesting snapshot of science communication/ scientific literacy in China following Fukushima! I was wondering about the kinds of political commitments and constructions of citizenship lurking under the surface of science communication channels and expectations of scientific literacy (or lack thereof) in Chinese citizens. Indeed, in my own case of the anti-nuclear movements in India, the nuclear establishment’s attempts to foster scientific literacy of nuclear energy is very much tied to particular ideas of what constitutes the proper national development trajectory, legitimate forms of democratic action, and the meaning of personal lived experience. That is, it is not just about conveying scientific facts and creating natural order, but deeply about political and social order, as well. For example, you talked about the lack of public trust in experts. In India, there are definitely large swaths of the public who trust government experts (because of party affiliation, ideology etc), but also several constituencies who do not (such as the rural communities where nuclear power plants are slated to be built). As for the villages who have taken an anti-nuclear stance because they protest displacement, loss of livelihood and fear a nuclear accident, the notion of public mistrust in experts have a lot to do with experts and non-elites occupying different ontological positions and not having any common grammar with which to deliberate issues. There is very little by way of a shared, public imagination. As such, I would be very interested in understanding what the different constructions of the cognitive capacities of different communities in China imply for ideas of citizenship (or consumer-hood, subject-hood as the case often is in India).

    Thanks again!

    Monamie Bhadra, PhD candidate
    Arizona State University
    Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology

    • Xiaomin Zhu permalink

      Hi, Monamie, thank you very much for your comment and Indian experience.
      Sciencism is the ideology of Chinese government, in science communication many people think that improving scientific literacy of the public is the only way to get a balance between science and society. Due to historical lower level of formal science education, the science popularization (now we often say science communication) in China has been oriented as a supplementary part of the former, public should always keep learning science knowledge as school students in their whole lives. As a result, science communication is still almost a one way education to public: expert tells public what the scientist thinks right ( such as scientific literacy) and does not care the needs of the public.
      From the iodine salt rush-purchasing tide in China, we still could see this “education model” which played a poor role in dealing with the public panic. And Fukushima disaster again showed the failure of education model of science communication in China.
      The service model which I suggest will (1) put the public in the center of science communication, instead of asking public to listen scientist, the scientist should listen public first and answer back questions which the public cares about most, so (2) the import thing is to construct a high efficient feed back mechanism between public and scientist which should be public oriented, not scientist oriented as traditional.
      Of course, I just suggested this service model a couple of years ago in China, we still need time and experience to make it works well, but I think it’s a better direction.
      And my email is zxm0801@gmail.com , I hope we can keep in touch.
      Best,
      Xiaomin Zhu

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