[Outlook]The scientific approach

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[Outlook]The scientific approach

Our society is having trouble finding out who’s telling the truth. Disputes have emerged about the accuracy of a documentary program by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation which claimed to show the danger of mad cow disease. Now, people are trying to find out whether the producers of the program intentionally exaggerated and distorted the report.
Disputes are swirling over whether the candlelight vigils are illegal and whether the police crackdown on protesters has been legitimate. Protesters maintain that the demonstrations only became violent because the police were using excessive measures. The police say that they had no choice because the rallies were illegal and violent.
An opposition party lawmaker claims that a senior police officer used violence against him; the police officer says the opposite is true. As both sides produce opposing arguments, media outlets have become clearly divided, focusing on reports that support their own arguments.
It is difficult for ordinary citizens to find out who’s telling the truth and who is lying.
How can we find the truth amid this chaos? We can look at methods used in the scientific field, as the goal of science is finding the objective truth.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Philip W. Anderson, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977. I asked him why scientific truth is trusted and his answer made a deep impression on me. Professor Anderson said it is not that scientists are especially more honest than nonscientists, but that a scientist can gain recognition and become successful simply by discovering flaws in the research of other scientists. Thus, false information is not tolerated.
One can understand that if all claims are openly discussed, including minority opinions, the truth will come out in the end.
In this sense, the existence of a variety of media outlets with different perspectives and arguments is a precondition to finding out the truth. As seen in the Dreyfus affair in France and a scandal in Korea over ramen made with low-quality animal oil intended for industrial use, if many media outlets keep running biased reports, the truth can easily be hidden. As many Koreans tend to side with those they favor or have a connection with, having a diversity of media channels and outlets is a necessity if we hope for the truth to emerge.
The Internet is now widely used, so it is no longer possible for the powerful to block communication channels and control what people discuss. But still, it is meaningful that conventional, more influential media outlets have been diversified.
However, a diversity of media outlets doesn’t always guarantee that the truth will be revealed. In the scientific field, there are several strict rules when investigating the objective truth.
The most important rule is that lies are not tolerated. As it is impossible to conduct all tests in scientific studies again, data in a researchers’ studies are initially regarded as accurate. If it is later revealed that a researcher has fabricated data or overblown information, he is abandoned by academia for good.
If this did not happen, the research of other scholars would also be subject to suspicion, and that would hinder productive discussion.
Some may have felt that the punishment Hwang Woo-suk received for fabricating his research papers was too harsh, but the rule is aimed at sustaining trust in the science community.
The second rule is that a theory’s authenticity must be verified entirely by whether it matches observations made during the course of experiments. Ideological or religious interpretations are not accepted.
The geocentric theory, which holds the Earth as the center of the universe, suited religious beliefs in the Western World during the Middle Ages. But the heliocentric model, where the Earth orbits the sun, was later accepted because observation and experiments proved it to be correct.
Nazi Germany’s eugenicists asserted that the German race was superior. Joseph Stalin supported the agrobiology theory of Trofim D. Lysenko, saying that the idea matched Communist ideology. Both theories not only failed in academia but also did enormous damage to society. Drawing conclusions based on prejudice and ideology, while oppressing other opinions, hinders inquiry into the truth.
Our society has opened up to various media outlets, but we should think seriously how strictly these rules are abided by. Lying and exaggerating to justify one’s claims, depriving others of a chance to express their opinion and disrupting other people’s lives and work don’t help to find out the truth at all. Such behavior can only do tremendous harm.

*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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