Mon, Jan 23, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Hero-worship corrupts the talented

By Li Kuang-chun (李廣均)

After two months of investigation, a Seoul National University panel confirmed in its final report that South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk's two scientific papers presenting key "accomplishments" in human cloning, both published in Science magazine, were found to have been fabricated.

After the evidence of faking stem cell research, Hwang now faces a criminal investigation. Meanwhile, there have been reports saying that despite the scandal, Hwang can still count on the backing of many of his hard-core supporters and others who are reluctant to accept the downfall of a national icon. Over a short period of two months, South Korea has faced the unprecedented challenge of losing a scientist of great potential as well as a national hero. But who should really take responsibility for this scandal? Was it the result of a failure of the peer review process in the scientific community, or merely Hwang's individual wrongdoing?

This is hardly the first time that the scientific community has been wracked by scandal. But it is unusual to see a scandal give rise to such passionate and polarized responses. Over many years, the scientific community has been striving to establish mechanisms for monitoring professional ethics and replicating experiments, and boosting peer reviews and other gatekeeping measures. But there have been studies showing that scientific fraud is far from uncommon, even when it involves highly-respected journals such as Science and Nature.

There are many motivations for scientists to risk it all to publish a fabricated paper, including time pressures, funding restraints and insufficient peer review before presenting papers. No matter the reasons, they cannot explain the "Hwang Woo-suk phenomenon." The key is that Hwang was not simply a scientist, but also had a status as a national hero. Viewed in this way, we can understand why this incident came as a big shock to Koreans and generated such a polarized reaction in South Korean society.

According to some news reports, Koreans took great pride in Hwang's pioneering work in stem cell research. Hwang's childhood was very difficult since his family was poor, but he had the determination to fight and achieve his academic goals. In fact, Hwang's experience reflects the national fate and historical development of South Korea.

Following its recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, South Korea not only revitalized itself but also scored world-class achievements in car manufacturing, IT products, and film and television.

South Korea's scientific breakthrough therefore came as no surprise. Hwang claimed to have cloned a cow in 1999 and a pig in 2002. He shot to worldwide fame in 2004 when he claimed to have cloned the first human embryos and extracted stem cells from them. This supposed achievement made him a star of the scientific world and a national hero.

For scientists, the prospect of becoming a national hero exercises a fatal attraction. To serve the nation through science has been the goal of many leading intellectuals in developing countries. But when a scientist does become a national hero, then he or she is most at risk of becoming corrupt.

The making of a national hero is the result of projection by a kind of collective nationalist emotion. A national hero provides the common people with a cheap and strong type of psychological satisfaction, which reduces them to a state of numbness. As a result, their expectation that only success is tolerable contradicts the spirit of trial and error in scientific thinking.

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