Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Hwang Woo-suk Debacle: Why Koreans Should Debate

Professor Jae C. Chang, of the School of Medicine at the University of California at Irvine, has written an interesting article in today's Korea Herald criticizing Hwang Woo-suk, "Hwang and his team's misconduct" (December 21, 2005).

More on that in a moment.

But first, if "University of California at Irvine" sounds familiar, then you've been paying attention to the Hwang debacle. Irvine is where Schatten had a brush with a similar scandal a decade ago, as Rick Weiss's article, "Donor Issue Slows Stem Cell Progress," in the November 20, 2005 edition of The Washington Post reminds us:
This is not the first time Schatten has found himself in the penumbra of an egg scandal. Ten years ago, revelations about criminal practices at a University of California fertility program led investigators to Schatten, who was then at the University of Wisconsin. He had an arrangement to obtain eggs from the clinic in Irvine, Calif., where, it turned out, doctors were impregnating women with embryos made from other women's eggs and distributing excess eggs to researchers without institutional approval.

One Irvine doctor was eventually convicted on federal charges, and two others fled the country to avoid prosecution. Schatten was cleared of any wrongdoing.
One can understand Schatten's desire to quickly dissociate himself from Hwang, but he bears a large degree of responsibility for putting him name on the article without carefully checking its data.

One can also understand why Chang -- knowing what happened at Irvine ten years ago -- is calling for strong punishment now of Hwang and his research associates:
The Pandora's Box is wide open and the world is watching. And the international scientific community is watching and waiting. It is the time for the Korean scientific community [to] take ... an appropriate step, which is a difficult and painful one but is a clear choice. That is to make timely and fitting sanction and punishment to the entire cadre of involved individuals for their offense to the science, to Korean people, to international scientific community, and to Korean society.
I'll join Chang's call for punishment if it means as soon as the investigation has finished its work and we know exactly what happened.

I am somewhat puzzled, however, by Chang's caution on related issues:
It is not the time to debate the right or wrong of the contents of the published article, whether or not Dr. Hwang's team has patient-specific stem cell lines, or which claim between Dr. Hwang and Dr. Roh is more correct, etc. in the media. It is not the time media prints inflammatory stories and promotes the blame games and prints hearsay of those from involved and uninvolved persons. It is not the time for Korean people to irresponsibly debate this debacle through cyberspace. And it is not the time for Korean government, Korean policymakers, and Korean politicians to mediate this debacle.
While I agree that the Korean media and the public shouldn't debate irresponsibly, I think that they should be responsibly debating such things as Hwang's articles, Hwang's data, and Hwang's purported lies.

As I've mentioned previously in this crisis, I think that this is a teachable moment in Korea. I'd like to hear from the younger Korean scientists whom Chang praises:
I am seeing a huge hope for young, budding Korean scientists who have had the intelligence, knowledge and courage, and above all the desire to find "truth" that is science.
I assume that Chang means those younger Korean scientists who are reported to have been posting criticisms of Hwang's research methods for several months now and continue to post. Their spoken but unheard critique of Hwang should now be listened to in the public debate and help to bring about a cultural shift in Korean thinking on the rights of younger people to openly question their elders in civil discourse without fear of reprimand.

Such might enable Korea to develop a much-needed culture of discussion.


At 4:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Hwang thing didn't shock me that much as I feel I have met this Korean personality type many times before. The thing that made me sad was the public's reaction to the PD Diary team. I hope they get some vindication now because they deserve a huge amount of credit for questioning the party line.

At 5:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

My wife mentioned yesterday that the PD Notebook news program, which had been cancelled, has been approved for continuing.

When Koreans become fully aware of Hwang's betrayal of their trust and of the damage that he's done to Korea's image and of the inevitability of his having gotten caught (given the way that science works), they'll look at the PD Diary's investigation differently.


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