Korean Update to the Nth/ Musings About Science
Korean Update to the Nth
Remember when I said I trusted the journal Science more than I did a television station? Well, now news is coming out that the Korean station MBC has violated a lot of journalistic ethics and standards in an attempt to make Hwang Woo-suk’s research look bad. Chosun Ilbo reported yesterday that two researchers, "said journalists with the broadcaster’s PD Diary program sought them out there and told them they were going to make 'outcasts' of Hwang and another core member of his team.” Today’s Chosun Ilbo reports that “Journalists with the MBC current affairs program PD Diary tried to trick patients who donated somatic cells for Hwang Woo-suk’s stem cell research into testifying against the geneticist.” The International Herald Tribune reported today that MBC has apologized for violating journalistic standards and will hold people responsible. (The story was from JoongAng Daily.) Now the Korea Times is reporting that at least one politician wants a formal government probe into the station. The Korea Times also ran an editorial saying the broadcasting company had really screwed up but the research team should submit to a new review to make sure there was no lingering doubt.
Well gosh. This is enough to make people lose trust in science and journalism. However, one story (and I am sorry that I no longer remember the source, I’ve looked at so many) said that the outcry by scientists over Hwang’s lie about the egg donation shows that science is doing a good job at policing itself and does have very high ethical standards. In other words, if it hadn’t been news that he lied, that would have been bad. I think the same applies to media. I don’t know anything about this Korean station, but clearly journalists in Korea have taken it to task to protect their own profession. If the station did indeed try to trick patients, that is way way way uncool, far more than Hwang’s mistaken attempt to protect someone’s privacy.
So what can we laypeople learn from all this? Well, for one thing, that really good scientific research often needs to occur in relative obscurity—that is, it needs to be recognized by people in the field, by fenders, and by interested parties but that unnecessary publicity will distract from the research. Should science be held up to public scrutiny when something groundbreaking is published? Well, yes, but scientists know more than we do, and they have a good process.
And what about the maverick scientist, who comes up with a great new idea that breaks with all conventional scientific knowledge? What about the next Einstein or Darwin or Newton or Leibniz? Can we trust scientists to accept their work without bias? Well, actually, these geniuses are not usually all by themselves. There are other people who laid the groundwork. Darwin speaks repeatedly of other evolutionists and quotes many examples from other observers about natural selection; he was the man who put it all together, but it was not his idea to start with. It’s not unusual for the same groundbreaking discoveries to be made simultaneously in different parts of the world. And science, like most other knowledge, occurs best in collaboration. If a groundbreaking idea is good science, it will be recognized and embraced as an answer to a question many other scientists have been struggling over even if it is a major paradigm shift. So I don’t think we need to ask journalists to check on science for us. The field will take care of itself.