Friday, December 16, 2005

Cloning, Nationalism, and Faked Data

Several people have asked me to comment on the controversy in Korea over allegations that Hwang Woo-Suk faked the data on his ground-breaking stem cell research. The rumblings started a couple of weeks ago with questions about whether or not the genetic material was obtained legally or ethically (from my understanding of the timeline, the material was obtained in a fashion that was legal at that time, though since made illegal, and unethically regardless of when it was obtained). Poking around because of that issue led to further allegations, until finally an American co-author asked that his name be removed from the paper.

Questions about whether or not the data was faked seem to now be over, and now the fingerpointing begins about who faked the data. For more on all of this, Gypsy Scholar has several posts, and here are a few English-language articles from The Korea Times, The Korea Herald, JoongAng Daily, and Chosun Ilbo, which should give a flavor of what the debate is like in Korea.

The complicating factor here is nationalism. The Korean press and politicians both highlighted Hwang's research as a sign that Korea was on the forefront of biological research. Hwang was transformed into a national hero, with his own fan club and all sorts of celebrity perqs. Every political figure in Korea wanted to be photographed with a cute baby on one arm and Hwang on the other. He is regularly referred to as a "national treasure." In other words, speaking ill of Hwang in Korea was rather like calling for the outlawing bald eagles, baseball, and Mom would be in America.

Even before the total meltdown last night, it was clear to all non-Korean observers that something was terribly wrong. Koreans, though, refused (and many continue to refuse) to believe that Hwang had done anything unethical. I heard breathless talk of American conspiracy to discredit Korea, mostly focused on the fact that the American co-author was the first to pull his name from the article. Korean news organizations that reported on the controversy were chastized as muckrakers and rumor-mongers, possibly under the influence of foreign conspirators.

Hwang could have gotten away with it, even now, except that he made a terrible miscalculation: he blamed another Korean. Now that fingerpointing is primarily one Korean pointing at another. The country feels a terrible wound to its national pride.

If Hwang really wants to get out of trouble, he'll have to start blaming some of the foreign scientists who worked on the project. It doesn't matter whether or not such allegations are plausible; all they must be is possible. Korea needs a way to save face, and blaming foreigners jealous of Korean success is the most natural way.

In the end, it seems to me, Korea will find some way to salvage their pride. If he's not careful, that way might be the public flogging of one Hwang Woo-Suk.

1 comment:

  1. Yesterday evening, as my wife was describing the press conference, I began to see that the debate was shifting from one of Korean scientist (Hwang) vs. American scientist (Schatten) to one of Korean (Hwang) vs. Korean (Roh), and that makes it much more interesting because Koreans will be forced to confront the issue without the protection of nationalism (though some may try to portray Roh as a 'traitor').

    I don't think that Hwang can easily turn the attention back to Korean scientist vs. American scientist because of Roh's opposition, but I can see how he might try. By implicitly blaming junior researcher Kim Seon-Jong for (supposedly) 'switching' the original stem cells for replacements from MizMedi Hospital, Hwang can imply that Kim, who is with Schatten, is cooperating with the American scientist to steal Korea's stem-cell technique.

    That's how I see it . . . but events will tell.

    Jeffery Hodges

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