[OUTLOOK]A broadcaster’s case of hubris

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[OUTLOOK]A broadcaster’s case of hubris

I could not suppress my shock when I found that the controversy over human eggs used in Professor Hwang Woo-suk’s stem cell research was just the beginning of an “international fiasco.” It boggles my mind to see a broadcast team ambitious and ignorant enough to go digging deep into a scientific field to verify the authenticity of a study that leading international scholars recognized.
I am sure that those in charge of producing the program at PD Notebook probably know that the shape of DNA is a double helix. But other than that, where do they get their confidence in thinking that they could poke into the bioscience field? If they were so confident, why did they not have their coverage published in the journal Science? I regret to note that the broadcast program team went too far, because of their arrogance, and that pervasive mentality of jealousy and violence that lurks over Korean society has driven innocent scientists into a land of false accusations.
The results of their ruthlessness are wretched. Our government’s ability to manage the national asset has been bankrupt, and a social death has been imposed on the university, where its intellectual authority has been cut and torn to tatters.
I don’t want to translate into monetary terms the value of the work of Professor Hwang, that is an intellectual property for our posterity to enjoy and the pride of Korean science. But I would like us to ponder just what Korean scientists should aspire to when they see that their government sits on a fence and issues lame public appeals such as saying, “Let’s leave things as they are,” while a national asset is being undermined and the protagonist of a splendid feat is being hit with all sorts of debilitating accusations to such an extent as to cause concern about his recovery.
What has our government done, other than come up with budgetary assistance, which any government can do? Does it know the role it has to play to protect scientists and their work? Perhaps the government blindly trusted the broadcast program because it was a scoop produced by a major network that shares similar codes with the administration. The exhaustive suffering and pain that Professor Hwang and the public is experiencing seems very much like an “avant-garde act,” which stems from the current prevailing sentiment of our society where people feel satisfied only after turning things upside down.
The graver outcome, however, is the “social death” sentence imposed on the university. This case portends an ill omen in that it squarely questions the basis of trust that society gave to the higher education institution. Let us say that the chief producer set out to answer the doubts and questions that had been hovering over Professor Hwang’s work. He should have passed on that task to academia, the guards of intellectual property. Why did he, a non-science expert, don a laboratory gown to seek answers? Did he want to examine Professor Hwang, his team and a university’s research ability, and come up with his own set of results?
The actions of PD Notebook were more “military-like” than those committed by South Korea’s former military regimes that violated universities with tanks. At least the military stopped and built barricades outside of research labs, but the PD Notebook team charged boldly into the lab. They checked each researcher, research outcome, samples and methodology, and they also questioned the veracity of the research outcome. When things come to this, it is not mere boundary crossing but is equal to forcing all of Korea’s universities and their faculty members to kneel down before the power of a broadcaster’s reporting.
Unknowingly, a broadcaster has erred because it swelled with pride over the sense of mission that it was searching for the truth and wrongly thought that it could reexamine a university’s research and its methodology, if it wants, on its own terms at any given time.
Some say that Professor Hwang is a “legendary hero,” a product whip-ped up by the conservative print media. Does that automatically mean that the progressives in this society must overturn that? Has our society come to this random state where such violence is allowed in the name of reform and innovation? I become more desolate when I listen to civic groups’ demands that Professor Hwang repeat his feat: they know that science is not like performances of an opera that can be reproduced.
A university’s authority comes from its recognition by society. When a society refuses to recognize this higher academic institution, the production of knowledge and science comes to a halt. The reason that universities and their mavericks who practically live at the labs for research can churn out public good is because of a university’s ability to self-cleanse and filter out.
A mechanism to verify a research result is multi-layered and very sensitive. But the PD Notebook team, with stem cells that were actively dividing once they were out of the lab, went knocking on doors to confirm the authenticity of Professor Hwang’s work. And as soon as the result of their search hit the airwaves, the university had to forgo its inherent mission and become a protagonist in a fraud. Did the responsible producer of that program know what he was doing at that time? And does the network realize that it has dealt a “death sentence” to the university?

* The writer is professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Song Ho-keun

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