[OUTLOOK]Let the experts judgeProfessor Hwang Woo-suk’s research, which was once buffeted by ethical concerns, is now steeped in controversy about its very veracity. There is an experiment where people were made to line up and choose between a red and a white pouch with the sole knowledge that only one of them contained presents. When there were two lines, people chose to stand in the longer line, rather than the short one, even though they did not know which pouch contained the presents. People just believed more in the longer line. Should a well-known person happen to stand in the longer line, even more people were likely to rush to join that line.
Let’s say that such an experiment concerned a difficult physics question. People would still queue in the longer line, without knowing the answer. Regular people, that is, non-scientists, are not likely to versed in the scientific authenticity of Professor Hwang’s work. But what’s going on in this country is similar to this experiment of choosing lines.
At times like these, we need experts. If this were about a physics problem, people would be choosing correctly if they queued in the line where Einstein was, because he would be the authority in the field.
The young professors at Seoul National University have come forward to request a review of Dr. Hwang’s research. The professors say that, at maximum, it will take two days to verify the research results. It’s good that Dr. Hwang has decided, albeit belatedly, to accept such a review. He has erred in putting it off until now. Dr. Hwang’s team had a point in that they wanted to get at the truth with a follow-up study in spring because responding to any reviews would hinder their ongoing research. But when the entire country is abuzz over their results, it’s best they refer it to third-party experts. What does Dr. Hwang have to be afraid of if his research was based on the truth?
The young professors at Seoul National University, who requested the review, are not free from criticism either. As experts, weren’t they supposed to take a thorough look when Dr. Hwang’s thesis was announced? I don’t understand why they were silent at that time but have come forward belatedly to ask for a review. Were they intimidated by the thunderous public applause directed toward Dr. Hwang at the time? If they had an ounce of doubt about Dr. Hwang’s research, they should have attempted to verify it in pursuit of scientific truth. They only acted, however, after a news program, “PD Notebook,” raised questions. Does that mean that they lag behind the broadcast producers, who are not experts in the scientific field?
If we are to choose between a red and a white pouch, we need more data. We need to watch and study the matter. We need to be able to raise questions and communicate with each other in regard to those questions in order to get at the truth. To do that, we have to protect those making unpopular comments. Often times, it is just such people that propel a healthy discussion, which can reveal the truth.
This is one of the reasons why the opinions of the minority should be protected in a “majority-rules” environment. In particular, it’s the famous and influential people who often succumb to public requests for fear that they will lose their popularity. Things become all the more dangerous when experts refrain from voicing their doubts or questions because of popular opinion.
The Internet is a useful tool to generate discussion. But the Internet, in our society, is also a powerful tool that is used to force the public to choose certain lines, or take sides, and people standing in other lines are castigated and criticized.
Several media outlets also exhibit this tendency when they criticize those who disagree with Dr. Hwang and his research as “unpatriotic.” They are acting as if they want to use this opportunity to completely destroy their opponents. We should not be swayed by the influence of such press.
We must end this foolish choosing of lines. The controversy over parasite-ridden kimchi, the candlelight vigils on various issues and the avian flu are examples of this lining-up that is prevalent in our society. Gregory Henderson, a political scientist, has described Korean politics as a “politics of the vortex.” When a wind stirs up, it sweeps the entire country into a vortex. An American general who watched the birth of the regime of a military strongman, Chun Doo Hwan, once likened the character of South Koreans to that of lemmings. How embarrassing is that?
As for us, the regular, non-scientists, let’s not line up on this stem-cell issue anymore. The proper thing to do when we don’t understand the issue is not to choose any party line. The controversy over Professor Hwang and his work is not something that should be approached in terms of whether one is patriotic or not, or as a conflict between conservative and progressives.
This is an issue that pertains to natural sciences, and which should be free of any value-laden judgements. It’s up to the scientists to rule on matters of science. Let’s wait to see what conclusion the experts reach.
* The writer is the chief editor of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk