Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Quackery, pseudoscience and the dangers of debunking in China

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In our new issue Sam Geall, deputy editor of the website China Dialogue, introduces the Chinese science cops – the debunkers who are bravely tackling the prevalence of quackery and shoddy (often fraudulent) science that so often prevails in the People's Republic. The bad science ranges from nutritionists offering mung beans as a cure-all solution for dietary issues, through the discredited and harmful "science" of earthquake prediction, to the troubling fact that, according to a Chinese government study, over a third of 6,000 Chinese scientists surveyed have practised "plagiarism, falsification or fabrication".

In the piece, Geall points to the work of two particular debunkers, Fang Zhouzi (pictured) and Fang Xuanchang, who have both played prominent roles in taking on the peddlers of pseudoscience; Zhouzi through running the influential watchdog site New Threads and Xuanchang in his role as science and technology editor at Caijing magazine.

Highlighting what is at stake for those daring to question the culture of bad science in China, on 24 June this year Xuanchang was the victim of a brutal attack as he returned to his apartment after work. Two men brandishing steel bars left him for dead and, as Geall reports, there has been little interest in the case from the Chinese police or mainstream media.

And in a new and disturbing development, on Sunday Fang Zhouzi was the victim of a similar attack. This latest incident is reported by Evan Osnos in his "Letter from China" on the New Yorker website:
"Fang was heading home over the weekend, when a man approached him and sprayed him in the face with what he later guessed was an anesthetic intended to daze him. 'Another man pursued me and tried to hit me in the head with a hammer,' he wrote in a blog post, as translated by ESWN. 'I kept sprinting ahead. This man chased me but could not catch up to me. He threw the hammer at my head but missed.' The hammer-thrower eventually hit Fang in the hip, though the writer escaped and is recovering with minor injuries."
It's unclear whether the attack was related to Zhouzi's work, but threats have been aimed at him in the past, so it certainly seems possible that it is part of a worrying trend. As Geall says in New Humanist, "for Chinese journalists, the message of the attack is clear: don’t go near the subject, or you might be next".

This is a fascinating and important story, and you can read it in full on our website. As China continues to grow into its role as an economic and technological superpower, with a position at the forefront of scientific innovation, the continuing reliance on quackery, along with the prevalence of fakery and plagiarism in academic research, takes on international significance. It's also a reminder that we need to maintain our vigilance against bad science closer to home.

Have a read and see what you think – there's a shiny new commenting facility on all articles on our main website, so you can join the debate there too.
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