Nature Other

Orientalism and crying wolf

This blog-post on the Hwang debacle kind of annoyed me. As is probably obvious from what I said in the comments section. The relevant part of the post is this :

It sounds like there was nothing in the paper that should have given Hwang Woo-suk away; doubtless he faked the data to be believable. But check this out (from the San Jose Mercury News):

“Hwang chalked up much of the success to South Korean government support and dedicated researchers working around the clock. He also credited his workers’ dexterity with chopsticks; stem cell researchers visited from around the world and rushed back to their labs to try the new technique.”

ARE they kidding?? Are they KIDDING? What next, “We just cultured the cells in kim-chee and they grew like mad!”?

Evidently westerners are so dense about Asian cultures that they figured this guy was doing a scientific version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style kung fu, using secret Asian powers involving chopsticks. This is deeply ridiculous. “So THAT’S how those brilliant Koreans accomplished their scientific research! They have special dexterity with chopsticks!” Once again:

“…stem cell researchers visited from around the world and rushed back to their labs to try the new technique.”

The chopsticks technique.

[some stuff about the Sokal hoax, which is an interesting enough subect in its own right but not what I’m interested in here]

The Sokal Hoax, while obnoxious, provided the humanities with an urgent motive for some much-needed self-scrutiny, including a few brilliant articles by one of my heroes, John Guillory (“The Great”).

Similarly, it might be time to check, in a public way, why scientists around the world were willing to believe that dexterity with chopsticks was the secret answer.

I’m all for making people’s biases and prejudices explicit, but this kind of thing just undermines any serious attempt to do that. I agree that the quote above reflects badly on the San Jose Mercury News, but that’s no big surprise, since science reporting in the media is so consistently poor. Of course the media love the chopstick quote – in a story which they know they have to cover but which they don’t believe their readers are going to understand, it’s the one human detail they can latch onto. I would speculate that Dr Hwang said it for that reason, since he seems to have enjoyed publicity.

But it’s ludicrous to suggest that the world’s working embryologists and geneticists were so beguiled by Orientalism that a comment about chopsticks was the reason they accepted Hwang’s claims. Hwang was one of the most highly respected and successful people in the field. Why on earth wouldn’t his claims be taken at face value?

There’s no shortage of real racism and stupidity in the world. Insisting on seeing it where it isn’t just reduces your credibility.

btw, if anyone wants to read the original Hwang paper, it’s available here. Personally I found it completely incomprehensible.


Actually, thinking about it, what really annoyed me is the bizarre idea of how the scientific community works implied by the post. Considering it’s attached to accusations of credulity and denseness about other cultures, there’s a certain amount of pot/kettle to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *