Fans, Fission, and Fear

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Over at Brave New Climate is a very good post that looks at the parallels between a modern superstition -- the notion, common in South Korea, that sleeping in a room with a running fan can be fatal -- and anti-nuclear hysteria. I particularly like the following passage:

It's only natural to be cautious about something new, and bundle what information you have into a grab-bag to establish a first-take danger zone around the thing in question, especially if what is either known or believed about it suggests problems. The trouble is, these preliminary responses are supposed to be just that, an initial assessment followed up with a more in-depth investigation to clarify the danger. They should not be taken for a map of uncharted territory forever off limits to understanding. The second step is the beginning of the journey into proper insight from which sound judgements can be made. It cannot be sidestepped without aborting that journey and rendering you helpless when assessing the potential danger.

Consider the matter of fan death. Due to a misattribution of cause and effect, a whole nation is now convinced that it's better for the elderly to put up with a heat wave than cool themselves down with an electric fan. People have almost certainly died unnecessarily from this belief. These sorts of superstitions are a direct danger to people's health, yet they often stand unchallenged. This is a lesson which needs to be learned by the citizens of modern nations if we are to make wise choices for the future. Unchallenged assumptions need to be challenged, and the most fatal path is to react with impression and instinct.
The article takes note of some of the more interesting rationalizations -- most obviously wrong to anyone with a decent understanding of science -- for these fears, and offers a reasonable theory for how the superstition arose in the first place. But there is a shortcoming: The article does not account adequately for the role of epistemology in the rise and continued existence of this strange idea throughout South Korean culture, and this drawback is most evident in the type and degree of effort the author holds it would take to eradicate this not-even-mistaken belief:
... None of the above 'explanations' are worth anything except possibly as research material for a study in psychology, but their existence seems to satisfy some need on the part of believers for a body of material to refer to, and besides that, "Everybody knows it's true!". This belief is now so entrenched in the South Korean national psyche that it would likely take generations of counter-propaganda to root it out. No-one has any inclination to undertake such a task, so they're probably stuck with this idiotic meme.
I agree that it could take a long time to wipe out this idea, but not because it would take counter-propaganda. Considering the various "explanations," and the near-basic level of scientific knowledge required to refute any of them, what is clearly required is for the population to adopt a more generally rational approach to knowledge. In particular, anyone with the habit of relating one item of knowledge to another would quickly reject any of the "explanations," if he somehow ended up considering them seriously at all, regardless of his level of scientific training. (It is at this point, with the science of nuclear power being less generally accessible, that the parallel Craig Schumacher draws runs into some difficulties.)

For that habit to take root in a culture is something that might require a huge amount of effort and education in the proper principles of rational thought, but once that happened, the pervasiveness of superstitions of all kinds would quickly subside, with reality serving as universal "counter-propaganda." Belief in fan deaths would dissipate in the cool breeze of reason.

-- CAV


: Corrected "Barry Brook" to read "Craig Schumacher."


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "It is at this point, with the science of nuclear power being less generally accessible, that the parallel Barry Brook draws runs into some difficulties."

Actually, it's a guest post by Craig Schumacher.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the correction, sir!