Monday, December 19, 2005

Hwang: I've "forgotten where it is..."

No, Hwang's not referring to his recent stem-cell work, nor even to his missing integrity, but to his doctoral thesis, in which he claimed to have cloned a calf.

According to Terence Mitchell, "SK Gov't Linked to 'Faked Cloning' Scandal," OhmyNews (December 19, 2005):
Although Hwang seemed to been very confident and clear in his rebuttal of the allegations surrounding him, as the weekend wore on new and potentially more damaging allegations came to light, mainly regarding his 1998 cloning of a calf. When asked by the media for access to a copy of his thesis on the experiment, Hwang himself explained he had "forgotten where it is" and explained it may have been "lost some years ago."

Some in the science community now believe that it is more likely that Hwang simply split a cow embryo, thereby duplicating the natural twinning process. Moreover, the calf does not seem to display any typical symptoms of clones such as infertility, and in fact, had twin calves itself last year.
My wife had already mentioned this yesterday after having read several online articles in Korean. Today, after reading yet more Korean articles, she observed that Hwang's star is declining in Korea as more and more Koreans are coming to doubt his claims, then added:
"I just wish that more scientists would openly criticize him."
I then told her of a tidbit that I'd read in a Nicholas Wade article ("Scientist Faked Stem Cell Study, Associate Says," December 15, 2005) from the New York Times:
Although the new disclosures are being presented as a blow for South Korean science, they can also be seen as a triumph for a cadre of well-trained young Koreans for whom it became almost a pastime to turn up one flaw after another in his work. All or almost all the criticisms that eventually brought him down were first posted on Web sites used by young Korean scientists.
Given the hierarchical structure of Korean society these young Korean scientists -- trained in Western universities where they have learned the more rigorous, critical, and questioning methods of modern scientific culture -- have not yet been listened to, I told my wife, but as the tipping point approaches, their voices will begin to be heard, and we may see a revolution in the way Korean science is done.

My wife then noted that several Korean articles that she had read were already growing critical of the hierarchical culture of Korean laboratories:
"They describe the labs as authoritarian," she said, "and run like the military. People higher up in the hierarchy give orders to those below them, and those below can't question the orders."
This would explain the puzzling behavior of Hwang's junior researcher Kim Seon-jong, who reportedly told investigative journalists from MBC's "PD Notebook" program that "Hwang had asked him to make up 11 different stem-cell images out of two cells for publication in Science." Kim said that he had then done what Hwang had asked, excusing his behavior in the following way:
"I felt burdened because I was not supposed to do that. But I had no choice but to follow (Hwang's) instruction."
Later, MizMedi Hospital director Roh Sung-il reported much the same thing from Kim:
Roh Sung-il said a researcher on Hwang's team, Kim Seon-jong, told him that the results were fabricated and that Hwang and his SNU colleague Prof. Kang Sung-keun ordered Kim to fake them.
While Westerners may wonder why Kim would have complied, Koreans know very well the sort of pressure that those higher up in a structure can 'legitimately' apply to those below them. Korean society, shaped by a 'Confucian' social ethic, works that way.

The Hwang debacle, however, may begin to change this way of working by demonstrating that it does not work.


At 9:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Theses are always kept in university libraries in western countries, and are also sent to national associations for archiving. Can it really be that Dr. Hwang's thesis is not in the records of his alma mater or anywhere else in South Korea?

At 4:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I also found that hard to believe, and his statement could be easily checked.


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