[Viewpoint] The perilous fear factor

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[Viewpoint] The perilous fear factor

Japan has upgraded the severity of the crisis at the crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima to the highest level of seven, on par with the worst-ever nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. The radiation release and the obfuscation of the severity of the crisis are scary.

But what poses as a more perilous and alarming threat is the accompanying fear factor. Panic over radiation leaks and contamination has sprawled across the Internet, and it will likely be hyped up further by the new information.

Monster creatures from Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 reactor explosion in Ukraine, are already parading on the Internet - a 4-meter-long (13-foot-long) catfish, a snake-size worm and a cattle-size rat. The explanations were that they were the mutated byproducts from radiation. It seemed we had a horror film in the waiting in our neighborhood.

But the creatures all proved to be nasty pranks by bloggers. The monster rat was a work by a Chinese art student. The worm is a type living in Australia and South America that normally grows as long as 3 meters. The hype has gone too far even for a joke, sparking a panicky stock-up of seaweed and preserved seafood.

Lee Joon-ho, a molecular biology professor at Seoul National University and an expert on gene mutation, brushed aside the photos as a juvenile joke. Mutations are changes in cells’ DNA sequence, he said, adding that the enlargement of an entire organism is biologically impossible.

In terms of radiation contamination and damage, the catastrophe was far greater in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when atomic bombs were dropped there 66 years ago. Considering the acute radiation effects from those incidents, we should have heard news of a person taller than 5 meters among the children of the survivors from the blasts or a rat as big as an elephant.

The truth about the 4-meter catfish has also been clarified. The giant catfish is an aboriginal kind living in the river near the Chernobyl plant. Catfish measuring 2 to 3 meters long have been caught in Ukraine, Spain and Britain. In Korea, three catfish more than 1 meter long were discovered last year. Catfish that have lived longer than 50 years can grow that big, Lee Wan-ok, a fish expert said.

The other fish caught in waters around Chernobyl, when looked at closely, also involve an entirely new story. The waters near Chernobyl, in which giant fish species have been spotted, have turned into an ecological heaven because the area near the nuclear plant has been sealed for more than 25 years. They are not mutations, but are a natural boon.

The Chernobyl monsters permeate through Internet without any filtering and censoring. Blind faith and spreading of the pictures are ignorant and reckless. Why are the photos being concocted and distributed? And who are responsible? We may be suffering from a collective, perverse desire for conspiracy theories and horror recipes.

Society has been routinely gripped by obsessive panics - such as the hoopla over war after the North Korean attack on the Cheonan - as side effects of the mad cow scare two years ago. One video clip, photo or untrue piece of writing usually is enough to put the country on fire.

Charles Mackay in the 1841 book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” warned of the pull of the dark gravity that causes people to cast aside their better judgement. It’s a lesson that can apply to today’s mob mentality responses to social phenomena and crises. “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one” only after paying a heavy price.

Our society habitually succumbs to collective mad fever. The influence and side effects are getting bigger. If this goes on, one day no one would pay heed to the advice and orders from doctors and experts. Someone could turn a bird from a picture book about the dinosaur age into a Chernobyl product and people may believe it. Godzilla from a Japanese film could jump out as a Fukushima monkey.

We should get our senses back and differentiate fiction from nonfiction, and make-believe from real life. Let’s all be adults and stop dancing to the foolish tune and jumping every time a boy shouts wolf.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Cheol-ho
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