Comments on Sungook Hong _Seoul National University_ by maclaren1



Comments on Sungook Hong (Seoul National University)

“Replication, Scientific Fraud, and STS”.

The Hwang case certainly has been an amazing one – I recall that it was only a little over

a year ago that I gave a talk at Seoul National University. It was the same day that Dr

Hwang announced the cloning of SNUPPY – named in honor of SNU – a story that was

covered on the front page of the New York Times. Well a lot has changed in that year –

Dr Hwang has fallen from grace in what is widely perceived to be one of the most high-

profile scientific frauds ever and STS scholars, not only in Korea, clearly have a major

case study on their hands.

I remember talking to Sungook Hong and other colleagues in STS in Korea about Hwang

last year. It was interesting that even before the main scandal broke no-one spoke

admiringly of Hwang – people were already suspicious of him “describing him as more

of a businessman than scientist”. Indeed if Hwang was a straight shooting scientist – say

a guy who just loved his research, such as Francis Crick - the fraud would probably have

been more surprising, but also LESS of a scandal. It is Hwang’s deliberate courting of

Korean politicians, media and lay people and let’s remember, lots of women, which has

turned his fall from grace from being a scientific fraud story into a much bigger national,

social and political scandal in Korea.

Is then the Wang Scandal like the “perfect storm” – the perfect S&TS case?

The biggest problem in approaching the Wang case is what is the big S&TS point it

raises? At this conference we have five papers on the Hwang scandal and each raises a

different aspect (and as you shall see I shall add yet another point).

And to add the four you have already heard we have Sungook Hong’s paper which

focuses more on the specific episodes in science and the media that led to the uncovering

of the fraud and in particular the issue of replication.

As Sungook has told you his paper his incomplete. What it gives is a superb “blow by

blow” account of how Dr Hwang, as he so nicely puts it, “fell from the top of the

mountain”. What was missing was the final part of the paper where he promises to

compare this case with other cases of replication in S&TS and draw out a general

conclusion about the Hwang controversy. I await that final part with interest. The case I

suggest that it might be interesting to compare with is Jan Sapp’s book on the fraudulent

claims of the German molecular biologist Franz Moewus – in that case Sapp (Where the

Truth Lies) looks at issues of replication and tries to present an SSK symmetrical view of

fraud. I would like to have known whether Sungook plans too to be symmetrical in his

analysis – will he argue that the discrediting of Hwang is as much a social construction as

Hwang’s original findings?

What the paper does well is document Dr Hwang’s extraordinary rise. Hwang is a

“virtual unknown”, coming from a poor background, being a lover of cows and so on.

Until in 1999 he clones appropriately enough a dairy cow – an achievement which I

understand to this day has not been properly documented.

He certainly realized early on the importance of naming and how this worked in terms of

rewarding his patrons – naming his first cloned cow, in honor of the Minister of Science

and Technology and naming his second cow after a famous Korean geisha at the

suggestion of the President of Korea. By the way this naming of scientific objects in

honor of your patrons dates back to the pre-modern period. Think of Galileo and the

naming of the four largest moons of Jupiter which he discovered after the four Medici

children – the Medici family were famously his patrons as Mario Biagioli has

documented. Indeed there may be an interesting parallel to draw between the Hwang

cases and the Galileo case studied by Bagioli – because both scientists end up falling into

grace and disfavor with their patrons. Of course no-one today thinks of Galileo as a fraud

but at the time the Church of Rome certainly thought Galileo’s telescope observations of

the heavens were a matter of deception (see Van Helden’s translation of Siderius


Hwang’s realization of the need to get political support for the new emerging science of

cloning seems very prescient. Try thinking about what Hwang did not with the 20-20

hindsight of us knowing he committed fraud and compare him with the fate of Dr Ian

Wilmut who cloned the famous “Dolly” sheep- reputedly named after Dolly Parton the

busty American country singer because Dolly was cloned from a mammary gland cell!

(Dolly was actually named by the stockman who gave birth to Dolly) . Last year Dr

Wilmut’s laboratory at the Roslin Institute was closed and he recently went public

lamenting the lack of interest and investment by the UK government in the cloning

research he pioneered. Well imagine if he and his team would have been more Hwang

like – rather than calling his sheep Dolly – he might have tried calling his sheep “Tony”

after Tony Blair!!!!! Somehow I can’t see that form of patronage having worked in


One of the interesting things I learnt from Hungsook’s paper was Hwang’s direct links to

the political elite through that so-called Golden-Bat group. By the way I have met one of

this group, Jin Dae-Jae, the Minister of Information and Communications and former

CEO of Samsung – he came to Korea University Summer School to give us a talk. I

could see the role of patronage at that event as well. Every time someone in the audience

asked a question that Jin Dae-Jae thought was a good question they were rewarded with

a signed copy of his life story! But there is something interesting here also about

Hwang’s strategy and that of Samsung – I also was invited at the KU summer school to

visit Samsung headquarters and there we were subject to one of the most blatant

propaganda films I have ever seen about technology. The claim of the movie was that

technology was the imagination and that Samsung and the Korean people were together

imagining the future. It seems to me that the kind of technological utopia envisaged by

Samsung dovetails nicely with Hwang’s vision for what stem cell research could do. To

fully understand what Hwang was I up to I suggest we need to analyze these

technological utopias and their peculiar manifestation in Korea.

Sungook’s paper nicely chronicles the role of the TV show PD Su-cheop and the

attempted replications. I find this aspect very interesting.. Here was a media show

carrying out its own scientific investigation and even negotiating with scientists about

what to do if the results came out one way or the other! The role of TV shows doing

science has been analyzed a little bit – I recall one paper by Harry Collins on the British

TV show QED and their role in setting up experiments to prove the authenticity of the

Shroud of Turin. Collins made the point that it is only with fringe science or marginal

science that TV shows get to play a role in the constitution of scientific knowledge. What

is fascinating about this case is that it seems to be a huge exception. How is it that a mere

TV show can get to do some science on possibly the most important scientific discovery

ever in Korea? I would have liked more analysis of how this came about, and issues of

credibility for this TV show. It seems to be a very important case where something like

institutions for claim making and credibility in the media is clashing with institutions for

claim making and credibility with scientists. Indeed as Sungook nicely points out, once

the program came out with results against Hwang, its credibility was attacked by

scientists exactly on these grounds – that TV shows don’t make scientific claims –

scientists do.

While we are on the role of the media it is also clear that new media like the internet

played an important role in Hwang’s unmasking (as well as in the continued support he

received and the anonymous conspiracy theories of Jewish Amereican plots against

Korea) There is clearly a fascinating story here as well. While old media like TV are still

to a degree within government control – new media lie outside the realm. That one of

Hwang’s own lab was running a forum in his support unebeknownst to anyone shows the

danger of the internet with its possibility of anonymity. But also it is the new media such

as the BRIC website where the first posts appear which reveal other aspects of Hwang’s

fraud such as the doctoring of the photos in the 2005 Science article. Clearly as part of

the analysis of this controversy one has to study the internet as Bruce Lewsnetein argued

for the cold fusion controversy.

The debate between Hwang’s group and the TV show – again a debate fought out in press

conferences and in the media – centers on the issue of replication. And it is the classic

issue that we know from so many studies of replication (say Collins on gravity waves)

that one can point to the issue that the replicating experiment with negative results (that

of the TV station – or rather IDGene on behalf o the TV station ) has uncertainties

attached to and is an incompetent replication. Doubt is cast over what the replication

means – that the replicators misunderstood the original feeder cells were all the same

mouse cells, used the wrong reagent and so on. Sungook shows that it relatively easy for

Hwang and his supporters to discredit the journalists as “amateurish” – this of course

again is in a context where you have a TV show trying to make scientific knowledge. It is

all too easy to raise the specter of serious scientists publishing in refereed journals like

Science and amateurish TV program science done by amateurs. What Sungook adds to

the debate of replication is how the word “replication” itself is subject to interpretative

flexibility - Hwang’s supporters slide in meaning between replication of DNA tests and

replication of the actual cell stem experimental claims. I think this is a new point about

replication which I have not seen anywhere else.

What I find interesting about this episode is not so much the deconstruction of the TV

program science – which is to be expected - but the hundreds of scientist who rally to

Hwang’s cause without themselves calling for an urgent attempt to verify or replicate

Hwang’s findings. This on the surface seems a collective breech of what Robert Merton

termed the norm of Skepticism.

And here is my own modest suggestion for what the big S&TS point about the Hwang

controversy is. Robert Merton wrote his famous essay on the ethos of science as in part a

response to what was happening with Nazi science and the rise of Lysenkoism in the

Soviet Union (I am grateful to a discussion with Professor Kim Hwan-Suk on the

comparison between Hwang and Lysenko). In the Lysenko case the norms of science

were breeched by a plant breeder who solicited the support of the political elite. In this

case we have seen how Hwang courted the political elite with his fraudulent work and

with claims to a Korean form of science – what Merton would call particularism. We

have also seen how the community as a whole seems to have lacked skepticism and

remember Merton famously remarked that fraud was almost totally absent from the

hallways of science because of disinterestedness. Certainly Korea’s short-lived “Supreme

scientist” seems to have been anything but disinterested

Now we all know that SSK famously spent its youth showing that the norms of science

were not norms in Mertonian sense of “Institutional Imperatives” but rather were, as

Mulkay put it, repertoires of discourse – things to be appealed to in particular social and

cultural circumstances. What I think the Hwang cases presents is an opportunity for

S&TS scholars to revisit the norms of science. In the world of Technoscience where

scientists and politicians and the media are increasingly aligned, where technology and

science are harder to differentiate, and where scientific fraud is more commonplace, can

we as S&TS scholars suggest that in this particular social and cultural context – the

norms of science are the appropriate ones for scientists to appeal to. A call to look at this

case in terms of norms does not go against symmetry – norms are still analytically to be

treated as flexible resources. But did the Korean scientific community think they were

still following the norms? When do appeals to the “Korean metallic-chopstick method”

slide over from rhetorically slick appeals for home support to an illicit particularistic

nationalistic appeal?

Lastly, Hwang was disgraced and fell from grace largely because of the work and whistle

blowing from Korean scientists, some astute journalism, (mention also the contribution of

Professor Kim Hwan-Suk and the work of STS scholars in the Korean Center for

Democracy in Science and Technology) and an inquiry from SNU. In the end, apart from

the shame to some Korean nationalists, wasn’t the wider cause of science served by the

Hwang case? That Professor Hwang was forced to fall from the mountain perhaps shows

that modernity - and all its scandals - has truly arrived in Korea.

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