A genuinely alarming piece of news from the China Association for Science and Technology, an agency for which I spoke in Beijing some years ago, should get our attention, folks.  Scientific literacy – by which we mean the basic understanding and knowledge of scientific concepts and processes – can be a critical factor for making personal decisions and participating in civic and cultural affairs, and the CACT has found that only 3.27 percent of the Chinese people have basic scientific literacy, which signifies a failure to keep pace with developed countries. This was just revealed in a report at the group's 12th annual meeting. This was the eighth survey that China has conducted on the subject since 1992.

This finding should encourage Chinese scientists to work toward improving public understanding of their fields of expertise. Presently, though scientists generate some 13% of news in the media and contribute 3.5% to government outlets and to online forums, it was found that during the melamine-tainted milk powder scandal of 2008, which killed at least six infants and sickened some 300,000 Chinese children, no scientists participated in online public forums about the incident! This is a serious lack of participation by this increasingly important source of information in China, and we might suspect that media indifference to science might be an important factor, as well.

This low rate of scientific literacy has led to the Chinese people being taken in by rumors and quack claims. For example, mung beans – vigna radiate – which are similar to one of our most common basic foods – soy beans –  and are commonly used in China. Prices for this commodity tripled since last April after a fraudulent health expert claimed they could be used as a cancer cure, a direct result of the failure of the media to invite Chinese scientists to advise citizens, as well as the poor understanding of the scientific process by the public. In 2007, banana plantations in Hainan and Guangdong provinces were infected by the Panama disease fungus, which is not dangerous to people. A rumor claimed it was potentially carcinogenic, and this canard led to a substantial drop in the price of bananas. The local banana industry lost more than 20 million yuan (US$3 million) a day.

Chinese citizens – a sizable proportion of the world’s populace – should be better prepared to understand and accept input from their scientists, who should then be able work with the media to report the truth, and stop the quacks from profiting from misinformation. The James Randi Educational Foundation hopes that the China Association for Science and Technology report is noted and acted upon…