[Viewpoint]Let the scientists be heard

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[Viewpoint]Let the scientists be heard

The whole country is seething over the issue of U.S. beef imports. Various gruesome stories about mad cow disease are spreading through the Internet, and thousands of people, including students, are participating in candlelight rallies protesting the resumption of U.S. beef imports.
Political parties have exchanged a volley of attacks against each other, issuing several statements each day and conducting a hearing on the issue at the National Assembly yesterday.
As for the present situation, opposition parties criticized the government, saying the governing party failed to pay proper attention to the issue and was not prepared to take necessary measures.
On the other hand, the government and the governing party are putting the blame on sensational journalism for stirring people up, as progressives try to take political advantage of the situation.
It has become hard to conduct a rational debate because the issue has become politicized and the solution seems to have gotten farther and farther away as people get busy taking sides.
The essence of the problem, after all, is the question of whether U.S. beef is safe for Korean people to eat, and a reasonable agreement on such a problem can be reached easily only if we approach it from a scientific viewpoint.
Unfortunately, scientists are failing to take the lead in the current discussions.
It seems that misunderstandings about the nature of science and the scientists’ tendency to avoid making their voices heard have worked in concert.
First of all, those who are against the resumption of imports demand a perfect prevention system with zero percent chance of transmitting mad cow disease. But science characteristically cannot assure zero percent risk.
Science is an accumulation of experience so anything that is believed to be right today could be wrong tomorrow.
Since cause and effect are connected in very complicated ways especially in biological issues, there are often cases in which scientific opinions are divided.
Therefore, it is too much to demand a zero percent prevention system on which all scientists agree.
It is, however, possible to create a system that controls the risks to a degree that most scientists can agree on.
In fact, discussions about U.S. beef imports should focus on this point; it is a pity that they do not.
In order to have a rational debate on this issue, specialists in this field should actively present their views.
But the tendency of Korean scientists to stay out of social debates is a big obstacle. Korean scientists seem to passively respond when facing social issues.
This is perhaps because the idea that scientific technology is a “value-free tool” and that its applications are decided by the people who use it is deeply instilled in them.
But with developments in scientific technology, which lead to greater social influence, there should be less of such a passive and responsibility-avoiding attitude. As the gap between laboratory results and actual products gets smaller, this becomes even more reinforced.
Scientists have a duty to explain objective facts so that people can judge issues where scientific knowledge is important, such as the risks of contracting mad cow disease.
I think the main reason for passivity among Korean scientists comes from the outdated practice of dividing academic classes into separate tracks, the sciences and liberal arts, in high school. This system makes science majors oblivious to social problems from a young age.
At the same time, students who major in liberal arts end up ignorant about the knowledge base and research methods in the natural sciences.
Today is an age where social problems are becoming more complicated and all people need to think together about problems that relate to both science and the liberal arts.
This education system is doing harm to our society by training people in biased thinking rather than training talented young people with deeper, broader insights.
As ordinary people lack scientific knowledge and scientists show indifference to social issues, our young students are easily dazzled by pseudo-scientific claims, and the whole society falls into confusion.
The issue of mad cow disease is causing public frenzy this time, but other social issues, such as genetically modified food and nuclear waste disposal, which need to be understood by scientific knowledge, will be raised continuously in the future.
The country must not get caught up in irrational debates like this whenever such issues are raised.
In order to prevent them, scientists should first learn how to communicate with ordinary people.
They should stop complaining that society treats scientists as tools only.
Instead, they should first change their way of thinking that sees themselves as tools and actively use their expertise to engage social issues.
Then they will receive appropriate recognition and respect as specialists and can exercise their due influence in our society.

*The writer is the dean of the College of Natural Science at Seoul National University.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Oh Se-jung
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