[VIEWPOINT]Tempted by high gain, low riskAlthough this year has been unusually eventful, no event shocked people more than Professor Hwang Woo-suk’s fabrication of his research results. The Hwang incident became a main topic of conversation not only at year-end parties but also in family gatherings. People’s heated interest in the incident refused to cool, despite the severe winter.
What people really wonder is why Dr. Hwang took such an unreasonable action despite the risk. Many people were involved in the research and the research results attracted international attention, so his fabrications were highly likely to be revealed.
Isn’t there a saying, “You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”
Nevertheless, Professor Hwang decided to fabricate his results and carried out this decision. This is what, with common sense, we cannot understand well. It is not likely that he did so because he was a born liar or a fundamentally immoral person. It is also hard to believe he was senseless enough to do such an absurd thing, knowing well that it would be exposed quickly.
We cannot know the entire picture of the fabrication of his results until the Seoul National University review board’s inquiry and the prosecution’s investigation are over. Because we cannot look into his heart, or that of others, there is absolutely no way of knowing what his original intention was.
But upon careful examination of his fabrications and false explanations, we can guess that he made what he thought was a rational decision. Above all, he seemed to think that the benefits he could get from the fabrication were far greater than the risks the fabrication entailed.
Here, the benefits could be fame and wealth accompanying his internationally recognized research achievement or a response to the urgent expectation that he should produce research achievements in a hurry. He would not have taken the tremendous risk of his fabrications being revealed if the benefit was not so great.
Perhaps, he may have intentionally underestimated the risk, or may have believed he could reduce it to a minimum. He may have thought that he would have an opportunity of offsetting the risk with his next research accomplishment, once he overcame the crisis this time. Anyway, he committed the foolishness of overestimating the benefits and underestimating the risk, and the result was his disastrous fall.
If we conclude that this incident was caused by the individual professor’s unethical and immoral behavior, it is difficult to examine the facts or solve the problem. This is because he made a rational choice in his own way, despite his wrong calculation. The problem is with the environment and conditions that made him ignore the minimum standard of ethics.
The government and the media’s making him a hero must have absurdly bloated the benefits of fabricating his research. The title of “a hero in Korea’s scientific circles” gave him power that he could not handle. When power increases, opposition or risk, however great it might be, looks trivial. This enhances the temptation to resort to wrong methods and makes us overlook the accompanying risk.
A social climate that tolerates sloppiness in our work may have played a part in his underestimating the risk. If Professor Hwang thought the benefit of using the wrong method was small but its risk big, he would not have attempted to fabricate the data in the beginning.
The irregularities that are caused by the foolishness of seeing large personal profit and a small accompanying risk and social loss are not limited to the Professor Hwang incident. The same goes for government officials who receive bribes and grant special favors, and the behavior of the political community that pursues party interests only and uses policy as a sop that is overly conscious of elections.
It is useless to emphasize ethical norms or moral rules to those groups. Irregularities are bound to reduce naturally only when the benefit gained by illegal behavior decreases and the risk is increased.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jong-soo