Tell Us You’re Sorry, Dr. Hwang

Lately, I’ve been catching up on a few blogs I find interesting. One of them is Asia Pages. The fine host there, Jodi, has had a couple of posts (1) (2) (3) up about the case of Dr. Hwang, a Korean researcher who, at least in Korea, is famously under fire for… well, there are a few things. There’s the fact he used research team members’ ova — an ethics violation. There’s the fact that, as he now admits, the research was cooked a little for the publication in Discovery. And then there’s the suspicions that his (published, in Science) claim of creating 11 stem cell lines is, well, hogwash, since only 2 exist.

If you want to know more, Marmot’s covering this (mainly here) and his link to the post at Blogethics was particularly useful to me. Likewise, this link offered by Jodi was pretty interesting.

Here’s my take. When it seemed like everything was on the up-and-up, I was excited to see Korea excelling at a technology that is sadly being neglected in America for ridiculous reasons. While Korean fundamentalists have their bad points, they refrain at least from preventing scientific advancement like their American counterparts. Korea was filling a science-market void that, frankly, I want to see filled. I want to be able to have a new arm grown should one of my current ones get severed. I’d like to be able to have a chunk of my brain that controls the optic functions regrown (along with a new optic nerve) so I could have proper sight out of my left eye. I’d downright love to be able to grown new hearts for people who need them. Stem cells potentially offer us all of this and more.

Imagine. Imagine living in a world where having your arm torn from your body would be painful, but fixable — the way a broken leg today dooms you to a few months on crutches, but not to death like it often would have in the far past. Imagine living in a world where, when your heart gives you, a new one will have been grown for you and will be ready for implantation (or, later, will be grown inside you). I want to live in that world.

What worries me is that the absurdity of what Dr. Hwang and all of his assistants have done is to simply put stem cell research in a bad light for the whole world. I fear they have set back stem cell research dramatically; that it can be given a Dr. Frankenstein air without much work, now that a major stem cell researcher and his team have shown themselves not only to be liars, but not truly apologetic ones. A forthright apology from Hwang, something more than, boo hoo, I I’ll quit my job at Seoul National University — as if that matters to the world!!! — is in order. Hwang owes us all an apology because he breached our faith in scientists; he gave amunition to the people who unreasonably distrust science; he has spat in the face of one of humanity’s most honorable creations, the Natural Sciences.

And his team; they are culpable too. In the comments back at Jodi’s post on the subject, Marmot expressed fears that members of his team, considering their careers ruined, might opt for suicide. Now, I will say first that I don’t think anyone ought to be committing suicide over this. Committing suicide will not be understood globally in a way that will mitigate the damage done to the relationship between scientists and the public, and between the Korean scientific community and the rest of the global scientific community. Hwang and/or his assistants committing suicide would do more harm than good. Note that I don’t object to it on personal grounds. I don’t much care what happens to these guys, how they choose to punish themselves; what I care about is what they do to mitigate the damage that has been done.

Now, I should disclaim what I say here: I don’t KNOW that the results were thoroughly fabricated. It looks like that, and Seoul National University is saying so, though; it’s hard to write accurately when all of the articles seem to swirl around, when the final results of the investigation aren’t yet in; but it’s clear and it is known that fakery took place. To me, this is equal to spitting in the face of science. Hwang and every member of his team who knowingly took part in the fraud spat in the face of other scientists, of people awaiting stem cell research advances, in the face of the Korean public, the world public, and in the face of Science itself. Anyone who knowingly took part in fabrications must be banned from science for life.

This may seem harsh. It is harsh. But I feel the same way about teachers who abuse children; I feel the same way about politicians who steal from the coffers; I feel the same way about journalists who make up news stories. These are all reasonable, because they help to create a professional atmosphere in which such actions are (or ideally are) unthinkable. Hwang ought to have been restrained by the honor-code that is central to science. But barring that, sensible and pragmatic fear of getting caught ought to have restrained him.

This is why I lack the sympathy that some posters/commenters seem to feel for Hwang’s team members. They were probably faced with a man who was thought to be incapable of doing wrong. They are Koreans, meaning they’re living in a culture where the predominant work-ethic is that one does not question one’s elder/superior/hierarchic “better”.

The problem is that this kind of work culture is simply incompatible with functional science. (Or many other functional modern systems, though that’s another rant.) Never questioning your superior is simply incompatible with science, especially in the area of scientific ethics. Each of those assistants probably felt a responsbility to carry out Hwang’s instructions. But each of them should also have felt a much stronger and more important responsibility toward the project.

Realistically, scientific culture is not absolutely non-hierarchic; there are people who are higher-ups, and there are people who are grunts. Grunts get stuck with grunt work. They get told, by the higher-ups, “Do this. Then do that.” But even competent grunts know the ins and outs of research, procedure and ethics. Even competent grunts know that faked results are bound to be caught sooner or later. So if this is a case of Korean hierarchic culture getting in the way of science, it’s just one more sign that this hierarchic culture needs reform, or it will continue to retard the growth of competent, ethical, and imaginative research. And if it’s a case of poor employees following the boss’s orders, well, then a strong and burning lesson needs to exist out there that one’s boss is not a deity, and that individuals cannot perform any boss’s demands with impunity.

And there’s a last area that concerns me, which is that it may well be an atmosphere of academic corruption that made Hwang the man he was, the man who believed he could get away with this kind of a scam. He was a national hero; when the story broke, many people on the street were quick to defend him as such. But it’s just plain blockheaded to think a sham could get published in Science without detection. From what I’ve heard since starting work in a University here, it seems plenty of people get PhDs in areas they’re far from competent in, even today. It seems also that a monetary contribution to one’s thesis-review committee can go a long way, though that’s the whisperings of other profs who claim they’ve heard it from Korean professors denigrating “fake profs” and such.

I do know, though, that among my friends, anecdotes of plagiarizing professors are far more common than back in Canada. In Canada, early-retirement was given to professors on grounds usually related to sexual indiscretions with students, but in Korea I’ve heard plenty of these stories about professors who, preparing articles for publication, ask a foreigner proofreader to check the content; when the foreigners ask how come the writing is so clear most of the way through, they’re really saying, “This is an obvious plagiarism. Are you sure you want to publish this?” Of the stories I’ve heard set in Universities in Jeonbuk, two people were fired and one was kept on staff. And that’s just stories I’ve heard.

I’ve heard so many stories. Stories of fiscal corruption at Universities. Stories of students who went unpunished for plagiarism. Stories like this surely link to the reasons that the Ministry of Education want to shut down a vast number of Universities in Korea in the next few years. So much money is poured out into the wrong places; so much sham-academia exists propped up by flimsy trappings. Regardless of the academic standards of Seoul National University itself, proper standards haven’t become institutionalized to the degree they need to be, nationwide.

And that’s hardly surprising. The institution is relatively new here, and was suppressed to some degree (a large one, according to what I’ve read) during the Japanese occupation. There is no doubt that Universities in Europe took a long time to have a true, deep, and powerful effect on European culture and society. But it’s also certain that professional associations — The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, for example — played a part in this, and such societies had extremely strict codes for members.

I am brought back to what Lime said to me, and what I couldn’t understand at the time, about Korea being a “developing country”. She said it wasn’t in an economic sense but rather in a social sense that she considered Korea a “developing country”. I was so focused on the fact that a developing country is normally called thus because of economic factors that I missed the point — that Korea’s society seems to maintain many of the social and infrastructural problems of many developing nations while, yes, having a pretty big economy. As my friend Heather put it recently while watching young people text-messaging on the street, “Korea is like the developing world… with icing.”

It’s frustrating to watch this, since of course, all it takes to not have corruption within a community is the simple good-faith maneuver by which people all agree not to lie. It can be justified in all kinds of ways, but those ways promise us bad things: nationalism, hero-worship, and face-saving at the expense of a functional, dependable academic and scientific culture. Science is expressly about asking questions and honestly investigating and reporting the answers you find. It’s crucial that a society that wants to participate in the world scientific community get its act together and make this possible. Any society that fails to manage this will lose out, in the long run, as it gets excluded and ignored. And that will cost the citizens, and the world, dearly.

UPDATE 27.12.2005: Commenting on The Useless Tree on this subject, it struck me that without freedom for critical discussion of ideas, regardless of whose ideas they are, a society attempting to practice science will simply not, in the long run, be able to keep up with a society that doesn’t. (And bear in mind that, although I feel they are less severe, there are definitely some sorts of limitations on criticism apparent in Western labs, too.) A society would do well to be rid of such limitations… well, sort of.

A critic should be called upon to demonstrate the validity in her criticisms. But then again, a claimant (like Hwang) should really be called upon to prove his claims. This shouldn’t have been such a house of cards, but I suppose it’s because scientists trust one another, because there is a kind of honour system in place. Do we realistically need to work on this honour system anymore?

Probably not. We’re living in an age when unprecedented amounts of information can be processed, stored, and transferred. Perhaps the Victorian Era’s methods of furnishing scientific proof need an overhaul? Why would not Dr. Hwang (or any other researcher) be required to digitize the DNA information for his 11 stem cell lines — at least to the degree that they’re being examined right now — and submit that along with the rest for publication? It’s not as if this information is impossible to provide, or even difficult, anymore. It’s not as if it would slow him down in terms of competition, as long as everyone else were also being required to provide the same data.

The more information provided, the more scientists will be able to level intelligent criticisms at other experimenters’ work, and the faster science will advance. Speed, if it is everything, is only achievable with greater transparency and greater accountability.

Of course, there’s a dangerous slippery slope involved here. A society with no ethical limitations placed upon science will also advance much faster than one forced to obey ethics. For example, German experimentation during World War II provided us with all kinds of new information about disease, the human body, and about the limits of damage that the human body can withstand, but at a horrible, evil cost. A society would not, in my opinion, do well to eliminate ethical restraints in experimentation. Luckily, this doesn’t seem to be likely anywhere, anytime soon.

But neither does the opening up of Korean society to open, vocal criticism of transparently shared information within the lab. The result of this seems, to me, to be a retardation of advancement. Dr. Hwang has set back stem cell research many years, in Korea definitely and perhaps globally. But more than that, the case of Dr. Hwang and his assistants has demonstrated that a society without open lines of discourse, criticism, accountability, and information-sharing within the lab will in the end be unable to compete scientifically with societies that assure these things within the lab.

Happily, what’s needed is not a culture-wide reform — this isn’t possible, and anyway, America and Britain and France and Japan haven’t necessarily had them either — but simply the efforts of concerned scientists to assure this kind of thing not only doesn’t, but also can’t, happen again in a Korean laboratory. Scientific culture is, after all, normally a small bastion of light, a beacon where reason outshines money — however marginally, however much it’s tainted by money — that shines in the darkness of our wider cultures. The change seems massive, but it’s only needed in pockets, and, I hasten to add, may have already happened in many labs across the country.

Here’s hoping.

8 thoughts on “Tell Us You’re Sorry, Dr. Hwang

  1. I remember studying at Koryo University and one of the instructors drew a graph on the board. He drew an arithmetic line, and then an exponential line.

    He pointed to the exponential line and said, “This is our country’s economic growth.”

    And then pointed to the arithmetic line and said, “This is our country’s social growth,” adding that the country’s social growth wasn’t keeping up with the economy. That the gap between the two was a problem and one he personally worried about.

    I had an inkling of what he was talking about when he said that nearly 15 years ago. And now I am crystal clear on it. Thanks for your post, Gord–it’s given me clarity on the situation at hand, and also connected some past “dangling” knowledge to a concrete event.

  2. Most educated Koreans I know consider Korea a developing country, socially rather than economically. One of my professors (very influential in the field of Korean Lit) considers Korea a Third World country because of its colonial history (which led to a distorted modernization), and because subsequent attempts at development focused solely on economics and/or infrastructure and neglected the social aspect.

    Quick comment on the hierarchy idea: while I agree with you to an extent, I don’t think this sort of thing is limited to Confucian society. Avoiding responsibility for one’s actions is a favorite pastime of the human race, and people from all cultures, not just Confucian cultures, will do things they might not have done on their own because someone higher up ordered them to do so, thus freeing them from responsibility. And it goes beyond just responsibility: as a grunt, you are basically at the mercy of your higher ups. Even those who may feel a sense of personal responsibility may fail to act on it for fear of repercussions (losing their job, blacklisting, etc.). And there’s always the possibility that the grunts suffer from the same lack of a moral compass as their higher ups, which would mean that it has nothing to do with the hierarchy. In most real-world cases, though, it’s probably a combination of all these factors.

    OK, not so quick, but there you have it.

  3. Charles,

    What infuriates me about the notion that Korea is still a developing country is the fact that there isn’t in actuality a lack of the resources necessary for the reforms that would help pull the nation up into the “developed” world socially. When I went to India, suddenly I realized what a world of difference there is between the “developing world” and Korea. Korea is certainly not a developing country, economically. It’s just that the majority of those resources are in the hands of a small minority, and nobody’s willing to tear it from their hands. (Same problem exists in America, which is among the richest nations in the world but has a third-world healthcare system. My homeland, Canada, is more and more headed in that direction.)

    I guess what infuriates me is the sense I have that Korea has the resources necessary to effect those reforms; but the political will and the necessary education are lacking, and this is a self-perpetuating problem that nobody seems to be addressing now. If moderization was distorted, I don’t know that it would be because of Japan. Blaming Japan is probably emotionally helpful to Koreans, but Koreans here and now have the resources needed. It’s the social organization to effect reform here and now that is lacking. It’s up to Koreans how their society will proceed, but all of the frustrations I see in my friends tends to make them want to leave the country, rather than fix the problems. This is perhaps the most saddening thing to me.

    On hierarchy: perhaps you have a point. I actually don’t think it’s necessarily purely an issue of Confucian society. In fact, I don’t really consider modern Korean society a really Confucian society. It tells itself it is, just as America tells itself it’s a Judeo-Christian society. In both cases, corporatism, commercialism, and consumerism seem to have supplanted a lot of the ethics of the original fundaments. We’re left with an overflow of moralizing in the West and strict, rigid hierarchic power in the East. But in both societies, it seems like when you look a little closer, everything is about money, money, money.

    I guess I agree with you that the aspect of Confucianism probably only factors into this to some extent; my concern is the degree to which the social conventions attributed to Confucianism may play an inhibiting factor in practical scientific deliberation.

    May. It’s not as if science as practiced in the West is pure and free from distortions, especially distortions brought about by the need for speed, the race to get results, and funding. But it seems like someone, someone, should have thought about the repercussions that actually faking results would have. It’s frankly so outright stupid that I just can’t imagine why anyone would do it, and because of that, I suppose I, like others, find myself grasping at explanations not just for why Hwang lied, but why others knowlingly went along with it. That is the part that baffles me most.

    Still, I realize now that I don’t know much about the history of scientific fraud, and that’s the kind of background I’d need to really speak about this sensibly. But my pile of books is high enough right now, meaning I’m not up to buying any books on the subject for the time being, so I shall have to just look into fraud later.

  4. I’m not an expert on scientific fraud either, but it has been my impression (just from reading these sorts of articles, as well as general news) that people do try to slip one by the establishment from time to time. Why, I don’t know. As you said, it is incredibly stupid. I can only say that even smart people do stupid and irrational things sometimes.

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