[OUTLOOK]Hitched to the wrong starAs I observed the controversy surrounding Dr. Hwang Woo-suk’s research, the biggest puzzle of all was the attitude of the researchers in his team. I was almost baffled to see over 20 researchers shedding tears at Dr. Hwang’s news conference on Thursday. While the Seoul National University’s investigation committee was doing its work, the researchers believed in the existence of stem cells and therefore followed Dr. Hwang. But the investigation committee concluded on Tuesday that Dr. Hwang had indeed fabricated his research results published in the journal Science.
We could somewhat predict that Dr. Hwang would not accept the committee’s conclusions, considering his behavior so far. But it is simply hard to understand the researchers sitting by his side at the news conference and sobbing when they might have been the biggest victims of the scandal.
At the news conference, Dr. Hwang admitted using fabricated data for his paper and apologized for it. But he said, “I do not know what the standards were for saying it was a fabrication.”
His argument that he had used imaginary data but did not fabricate the paper is hardly logical. Of course, he reiterated that the stem cells were “switched” and that he had the fundamental techniques to produce patient-specific stem cells. Whether the stem cells were indeed switched without his knowledge will be determined in the prosecutors’ investigation.
But whether the stem cells were switched or not, and whether he actually has a cloning technique ― in other words, regardless of the prosecutor’s investigation ― Dr. Hwang’s fabrication has already been ruled an academic crime. Science has already retracted Dr. Hwang’s papers altogether.
Under these circumstances, the researchers did not leave Dr. Hwang’s side but attended the news conference. Some scientists think that Dr. Hwang mobilized his students and staged a show to invoke sympathy from the people. They pity the researchers who were forced by their boss at the lab to show up. But if the researchers were, or aspire to be, scientists, they should acknowledge the clear faults of fabricating a scientific paper and turn their backs on Dr. Hwang’s absurd arguments. By staying on Dr. Hwang’s side, the students displayed less than scientific minds.
Jean Lipman-Blumen, a professor at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management of Claremont Graduate University, is a leadership expert. According to him, a “toxic leader” uses his charm to attract people and bring harm to the organization and to society. She argues that the charisma of the toxic leader blinds the eyes of his followers until his mask is removed in public. The supporters often ignore even obvious flaws of toxic leaders and pretend that they do not see them.
She explains that a harmless leader goes through a certain process to turn into a toxic one. As the leader pursues a plan that is not expected to succeed easily and has many flaws, he gradually exaggerates his accomplishments and hides his true intentions. A toxic leader tends to make an external enemy in order to unify his supporters.
Dr. Hwang’s scandal is still a work in progress. Many people still feel a lingering attachment to the glorious achievements such as the first cloned dog Snuppy. Some say that Dr. Hwang should be given a second chance.
But ever since the doubts were raised, Dr. Hwang has remained within the boundary of a toxic leader. His behavior has been far from that of a scientist. This is the very reason why Korean society should give up on Dr. Hwang as soon as possible.
Moreover, we should look around us and see if we are enchanted by yet another toxic leader or if we are creating an environment to produce more of them. It is important that we are not blinded by the charisma of a leader, and take appropriate action immediately whenever we discover even the slightest mistake.
*The writer is a deputy head of the policy planning team of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Se-jung