(for nationalreview.com) Between March 2004 and the end of2005, South Korean veterinarian Woo-Suk Hwang rose from relativeobscurity to become the world’s most famous scientist.
Hisrise to international renown began when he reported, in the March 12,2004, edition of the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science,to have created the first cloned human embryos and embryonic-stem-cellline. Hwang’s reputation really hit the stratosphere last May after hereported in Science that he had derived eleven patient-specificembryonic-stem-cell lines using a variant of the same procedure. Inbarely more than one year, Hwang had gone from relative obscurityoutside of Korea to being an internationally celebrated Nobellaureate-in-waiting whose influence knew no national boundaries.
Naturally, Hwang’s “breakthrough” created a media sensation.Therapeutic cloning is no longer mere theory, stories crowed: Creatingembryonic stem cells that will not be rejected by patients’ immunesystems is now a realistic prospect. Hwang’s success was immediatelypoliticized: Stories and editorials accused President Bush ofpermitting America to fall behind South Korea in stem-cell science byrefusing to spend federal funds for therapeutic cloning research, andthey proposed bounteous federal and state funding as a curative.
Then, late last month, Hwang was exposed as a charlatan. He hadmanufactured no patient-specific cloned embryonic-stem-cell lines in2005. His “proof” of having done so had been manipulated and forged.His 2004 paper also came under suspicion after it was discovered thatthe purported photograph of the first cloned stem-cell line wasactually of a natural stem cell line, apparently plagiarized from anearlier journal article. Hwang resigned from his university in disgraceand is now perhaps the world’s most infamous scientist.
Where’s the Media Mea Culpa But enough aboutHwang. The other story here is the media’s attempt to shore up publicperception of embryonic-stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning evenin the midst of the implosion of its most exciting “breakthrough” andthe utter discrediting of the field’s most promising star.
There are ways to report a story to ensure that its import sinksdeeply into the public’s consciousness. Think of Abu Ghraib; or ofPresident Bush’s alleged culpability for the miseries suffered by thevictims of Hurricane Katrina…or of the media’s incessant touting ofembryonic-stem-cell research as the most likely source of miraculousmedical cures, despite the current paucity of actual scientificverification.
Not only is such intensity missing in the media’s reporting ofHwang’s great cloning fraud; the coverage isn’t nearly as robust as theoriginal “breakthrough” stories themselves. When the scandal broke, theNew York Times and other papers ran matter-of-fact reporting ontheir front pages. How could they not? But television did not dwell onthe story, and there has been an almost complete absence ofinvestigative edge after the story first broke. Indeed, the Hwang storyhas generally been reported so blandly that it seems sure not topenetrate deeply into the public’s consciousness.
This tepid approach is exemplified by the two most popularnewsweeklies. Michael D. Lemonick presented a thorough and accuratedescription of the facts surrounding Hwang’s fall in an article in Time.But toward the end of his article, Lemonick feebly — almost desperately— attempts to rehabilitate the rogue scientist’s reputation:
Byall accounts, the tales of Hwang’s dedication and personal disciplineare all true. Hwang was one of the first to arrive in the lab, at 5a.m., and rarely left before midnight. He rejected the role of aloof,inaccessible scientist to become a father-like figure for his youngcharges. And he introduced some genuine innovations into the science ofcloning — gently squeezing the nucleus out of a donor egg rather thansucking it out violently and inserting the entire adult cell, not justits nucleus, into the hollowed-out recipient egg.
Nevermind that this benign father figure apparently coerced his femaleassociates to donate eggs. And never mind that we don’t even knowwhether Hwang’s technique actually worked.
Lemonick then characterizes one of the worst cases of science fraudin recent history to a mere stretching of the truth. Despite reportingpreviously that there is no evidence that the cloned stem-cell linesever existed, he swallows Hwang’s claim that they were destroyed by afungus and overlooks the possibility that the fungal infestation wasactually a method of cover up:
Hwang claims it tooksix months to recover from the [fungus] disaster. But it also might bethat Hwang’s team couldn’t recover quickly enough and began takingshortcuts to fill the gap. Under pressure from the government and theuniversity, and with a deadline looming for publication in one of theworld’s most prestigious journals, the temptation to stretch the truthmight have been irresistible…
In the end, Lemonick suggests, Hwang may be responsible for the inaccurate Science paper, but he is not to blame.
InHwang’s case, it may be that mistakes were made or frauds committedwithout his knowledge, but as head of the research team and lead authorof the published results, he’s stuck with the responsibility.
At least Time made Hwang’s fraud one of its lead stories as the new year broke. Newsweek‘s January 2, 2006, domestic edition, in contrast to a story in its May 31, 2005, issue that touted Hwang’s apparent cloning success as “a giant leap forward” in stem cell science, didn’t even report the story. And the international edition’s coveragebarely mentioned the facts of the case at all, instead, deflectingreaders away from the fraud itself to the continued vibrancy of sciencein South Korea.
Newsweek‘s domestic edition finally got around to reporting the storyin its January 15, 2006, domestic edition, devoting to it all of 346words. The story lightly warns readers to “Get ready for ‘Hwang-gate’mania” — a diminishing term that calls to mind popular fads such asCabbage Patch Dolls rather than justified interest in an importantstory. And then readers are assured that the “mania” is nothing aboutwhich to be overly concerned:
The Hwang debacle isn’tstopping U.S. scientists. Nor are they starting from scratch. Somaticcell nuclear transfer (SCNT) — the technique Hwang claimed to havemastered in humans — has already been accomplished in mice. Ifresearchers can move it to people, they say SCNT will allow them towatch complex diseases develop in the petri dish, spot problems andthen test drugs to fix them.
Contrary to the style andsubstance of most of the media’s reporting on this, the implications ofthe Hwang cloning scandal are deep and far reaching. For example, what,if anything, are we to conclude about the realistic potential of SCNTcloning to become a viable source of medical treatments? Are thereother reasons to believe that the many other claims made in recentyears about therapeutic cloning and embryonic-stem-cell research areactually more hype than hope? Does the apparent failure of Hwang tosucceed with therapeutic cloning validate the argument that adult andumbilical cord blood stem cell research — already demonstratingdistinct promise in early human trials — actually offer the mostimmediate potential for medical breakthroughs? How trustworthy is peerreview, and does the system need reform?
Unfortunately, these questions remain mostly unexplored in thepopular press. I
ndeed, based on the quality and depth of the reportageto date, the Hwang fraud scandal appears to be the story the mainstreammedia most wants to go away.
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