Speaking to South Korea

I have just found out that an edition of The Republican War on Science is coming out in South Korea, and I have to write an introduction to it. I'm supposed to address the book to South Koreans, and obviously I should say something about the central issue of embryonic stem cell research--but beyond that, I'm at a loss. I don't know anything about how the South Korean government relates to science, for example. I know enough to know that many South Koreans are concerned about the state of affairs in the U.S., but I doubt that's enough to really write an authentic introduction. I am suddenly feeling my very deficient grasp of the state of affairs in another part of the world where I have never visited (guess I should have tried harder to go to the World Cup in 2002 in Seoul). Any and all suggestions would be helpful.

P.S.: Don't mean to make it sound like a chore that I have to do this--I am extremely psyched that there will be a South Korean edition of the book. But, at the same time, I'm a bit clueless about how to approach writing an introduction to it....


More like this

Well I've just returned from the UK, and am currently writing from a coffee shop in Queens. I'll head back to D.C. this afternoon or tonight. The flight was easy, no hassle; the only disappointment was that although we flew very close to Greenland, if not over it, there were too many clouds for me…
In my post Why the gods will never be defeated I made many references to the rise in religiosity concomitant with modernization in South Korean. Here is an article which illustrates what I'm talking about: As recently as 1964, only a little over 3.5 million South Koreans, out of a total population…
New Solutions: The Drawing Board is a monthly feature produced by the journal New Solutions. Read more about it here. By Charles Levenstein and Dominick Tuminaro [In press, International Union Rights journal, volume 17(4), due out 20 December; posted with permission] There is an important…
I just learned that I have, like, three weeks to make all changes to my book in time for the paperback version--and to write a new introduction to boot. So much has happened in the world of politics-and-science since late August when RWoS first came out in hardback that the notion of…

Chris-- I visited South Korea a couple years ago and I can tell you my impressions.

The first was the pace of modernization. This was the most striking thing. It's similar to China that way, as I understand. I spent some time in Daegu and at one point I counted 12 cranes on the skyline all building skyscrapers. The pace and level of modernization is especially interesting because it wasn't very long ago that Korea was a third world country still recovering from a civil war.

Another interesting thing was that there are only a small number of corporations that own quite a bit of the economy. As I remember, they even owned the baseball teams (the teams had company names instead of city names). The Koreans remind me of the Japanese in the level of loyalty they seem to have for their employers.

A third thing is that as a culture they seem very much into education. You see that everywhere in their national monuments and museums. (One of the benefits of modernization is that they can now really care for their national sites and museums, which they are doing with great dedication.)

They are a democracy, but I think it was only about 20 years ago that they were under a military government. So I think at least some of their democratic institutions are fairly new.

Lastly, there are more Christians there than in any of their traditional religions. And I think there are a fairly high number of churchgoers. And I believe the Christian and Buddhist clergy have a certain degree of access to the political system.

So I bet you could talk about the importance of empirically based science as a basis for policy and education, and also mention building institutions that are independent of special interests, and you would do pretty well.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 24 Mar 2006 #permalink

Perhaps something along the lines of...if you were to educate yourself about S.K., you would look for unbiased sources of info in order to gain an accurate picture. Contrast this to the Republicans who look to skew science and science education to fit their ideologies. Technical info should come from a technical expert and not a political authority. (little jab at North K. there)

Catch C-Span 2's Booktv this Saturday @ 1:00 p.m. Bruce Cumings, Prof. of History at Chicago, gives a talk on "Korea's Place in the Sun: a Modern History." I caught a bit of this at a previous airing a week or two ago, very much different from what my expectations were, and it might provide a very quick, concise portrait for your purposes.

By Harris Contos (not verified) on 24 Mar 2006 #permalink

Chris--I'm Korean by blood, and while I don't actually claim any special insights (my last trip there was during the World Cup--quite a party!), I can perhaps give a couple of suggestions.

First of all, be sensitive of the overall reverence that education holds in Korean society. There is a strong feeling that it is a key to future prosperity and respect for them. And there is still a strong desire to overtake countries such as Japan, which reflects a sociological relationship with other Asian countries that has a basis going back centuries, if not millenia.

From this, another thought might be in the context of a science enterprise that is growing in Korea--different from the not too distant past where they were more content to emulate technical gains from elsewhere (yes, think Japan as an analogy). Given the threats to science that have grown in the US over the past few years, provide some cautionary context on how easy it is to piss away hard won gains in reputation and competence by mismanagement of science by political hacks and those wishing to subvert the process for ideology or monetary gain (sound familiar?). Credibility cannot be regained so easily as it is lost--again, incidents with the FDA, EPA, NASA etc. are instructive.

The stem cell incident is a warning sign, or at least should be to them--although it happened because of just a few, the national sense of shame over this is not something I would ever expect to see in the US. I would not raise this in a way that is scolding, but to show that there are no shortcuts in doing science correctly.

Hi Chris --

I got flown to South Korea about a year ago to give a series of talks. That makes me no expert, but I will see if I can get some of my colleagues to come here. In the mean time, a couple of quick points:

1) Don't make too big a deal out of the stem cell thing. This was an *enormous* loss of face for the whole country which as far as we know comes down to one man's corruption. I cannot emphasize enough how important face is in far eastern culture, and that it is very alien and *not* directly mappable to the obvious American analogues.

2) Please read the recent long article about science in China that was published in Tech Review. Realize that while Korea is very much not China, the entire region has some of the same cultural issues as well as some of the same government drive. Essentially, traditional East Asian culture has evolved for stability, while science is about perpetual change, so the drive for science while being important for both the economy and for esteem is a drive against precious cultural characteristics.

Korea went from being one of the most isolated cultures in the world to being *intensely* modelled on America, so it is still a very unique mix of many different things, and in some ways may be in the best position for countries in that region to really embrace the scientific method.

3) Since WWII, Korean governments, while elected, have largely been seen as (possibly corrupt) exercises in vast public spending. I have been told that by this year there are more university places for students than university-age children in South Korea. The new universities are incredible shiny beautiful places, while some of the older ones are very well respected and have made strong contributions in many fields.

4) The South Koreans are very, very aware of people rewriting *history*. One thing I found out there --- they are much more worried about China and the fate of e.g. Tibet than about North Korea, at least as a threat (they do feel *deep* sadness for the suffering of the North Korean people.) China released a text book a couple years ago that said Korea never really had a seperate culture and it was a *major* diplomatic incident with riots and protests in the street. I would look this up & milk it to explain what is happening in the US now.

By Joanna Bryson (not verified) on 24 Mar 2006 #permalink

Chris, I'm a Brazilian scientist working in South Korea for 2 years and a half now. Since arriving here, I've been closely dealing with Koreans on the lab bench, and although my comment is more related to how they work as scientists, I think maybe you can get a "touch" of the whole science politics here. (Please remind that these are only my personal thoughts.) I noticed some points, positives, negatives and neutrals:

1) Korean scientists work as a group. They hardly think as an individual. Team work really runs in their blood, and it's amazing how well they do as a group. But add to this characteristic a very rigid hierarchical society, and you may get the picture why the whole Hwang scandal went out of proportion. It's very unlikely that a person will contest a professor with a higher degree here.

2) The hierarchical society will translate, on science terms, that during scientific meetings or any other scientific encounter (even lab meetings) they will hardly contest you, mainly if you're a foreigner who doesn't speak Korean (like me) - few Koreans that I met here (even on the science business) speak enough English to perceive a full scientific discussion. And because you will be a "higher person" in the hierarchy - you're The Author of a Book! - I doubt you will receive any criticism, even if you want. :-)

3) Their drive is technology. Science discussion, science methodology, science philosophy... these are things that are not very clear in general for the average Korean lab worker. They do experiments mostly because their bosses asked to, but rarely are able to explain why they chose that path. (At least, none of the ones I met in the last half-dozen of conferences I've been here were able to show me some of that.) The success they acquired on technology had a side-effect of generating enough money to invest on science, but without the whole scientific background recquired for good science development.

4) Koreans are extremely religious (Christians) as pointed out above by Jon. And most of them believe on things like feng-shui, tarot, chiromancy, etc. (It's a few billion dollars industry here.) This doesn't interfere as much as in the US on science politics, though, for an unknown reason - maybe because my Korean communication is still too poor.

5) The government incentivates any kind of research (mostly state-of-the-art things) with few interference on most of the issues. There are very few obstacles - i.e. tight regulations or never-ending grant applications' writing - for a smooth work in general. Bureaucracy at minimum level. Most of the research though is on the big companies' hands - Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Daewoo and Posco. They usually have their own institutes or collaborations with major universities, allowing an extremely easy workflow. The government (my feeling) mostly observes from above the whole dynamics of the "science market". But lately some political discussions indicate that this kind of science management is already changing after the Hwang scandal.

Hope I helped you a little. Please let us know via blog post when you will be here in Seoul for your book "premiere". I would like to be there. :-)

I lived there most of last year. My advice would be to read articles from English language Korean websites such as ohmynews to get a jist on what's going on in Korea. The only major cultural taboos to avoid is Japan, don't mention it, don't get into, and whatever you DO NOT COMPARE THEM TO THE JAPANESE. Just don't. The Japanese brutality repressed them during and before WWII and many Koreans still feel a high level of hostility to Japanese people and don't like to be told their country is emulating Japan's sucess (which it did originally, but recent free market reforms have taken it farther than Japan and their GDP is growing faster than J's etc.). In regards to stem-cells and Hang Wo Suk or I'm sorry I forgot his name, I would point out that it was other Korean scientests that brought his case to the papers and that the korean scientific establishment is probably strengethened by the fact that peer review has now succesfully managed to keep someone from openly lying to a lot of people. Koreans are very nationalist and extremely proud of their country, but simulatenously can be quite sensitive. I'd imagine your book though will probably be more read by the Seoul and technoratic set who are about the same as scientests everywhere, fairly even headed and reasonable people who are more interested in education than politics.

"They are a democracy, but I think it was only about 20 years ago that they were under a military government. So I think at least some of their democratic institutions are fairly new."

actually it far more recent than that (1987 according to wikipedia, but when I was in Korea most koreans seemed to have felt democracy really only came into vogue in the 90s). Keep in mind the U.S. backed the military junta that ran the country becuase they saw it as a way of keeping them from going communist i.e. re-unifying with N.K. which is what most Koreans want, although these days the re-unification movement runs both ways with a young hip set of "liberals" favoring communist reforms and the older generation prefering N.K. becomes capitalistic and part of S.K. It's actually pretty scary some of the things over there such as the MacArthur protests etc.


Just have to compliment you on your honesty, especially in light of the Ben Domenche episode at the Washington Post blog. It is like night and day to contrast how well you research your work, and when you're just posting contemporaneously, you are respectful and humble when appropriate. I've taken this for granted.

It worries me that traditional media institutions are looking for controversy to generate ratings, without concern for truth and basic decorum. I know--this isn't exactly related to South Korea, but it IS related to the whole issue of respect for education and cultures. Anyway, thanks for sticking to basic good writer's ethics day-in and day-out. It's mundane, but the integrity of our science, writing, politics, and culture is strengthened by it.

"4) Koreans are extremely religious (Christians) as pointed out above by Jon. And most of them believe on things like feng-shui, tarot, chiromancy, etc. (It's a few billion dollars industry here.) This doesn't interfere as much as in the US on science politics, though, for an unknown reason - maybe because my Korean communication is still too poor."

After the announcement of the stem-cell work Korean Catholics actually decried the research etc. But Catholics aren't huge. Also, while I met a lot of people who attended Church I generally found that most Koreans I met, like most Americans, are kinda moderate Christians. i.e. they like going to church, enjoying the ammenities provided by their church group, and prayer groups, but aren't terribly rigid on sticking with the scripture etc. Although I did work with a Minister who got upset when I have her Malcom Gladwell's piece on Rick Warren for The New Yorker. I might add that Scientests and Doctors are held in high esteem and ya know becuase high-tech is the way of the future I doubt anyone would interfere. Anyway, I hope that none of my comments offend any Korean readers, I did enjoy my time there. Also, Lucia the researchers might be to shy to explain their research. There's a big taboo about making a public demonstration and making a mistake, hence why so many Koreans (and also other Asians) are afraid to reveal much about what their doing. I'm currently tutoring a 50 year old Taipei Doctor who writes research papers in English, he speaks English perfectly and his knowledge of grammar way surpases my own, yet becuase his daughter makes fun of his pronuciation he's afraid to speak English to his own children, hence he shows up once a week to "learn how to speak like an American." There's a lot of silliness like that in Asia.

By andrew jones (not verified) on 25 Mar 2006 #permalink

Nice comments! I'm a native Korean studied in the UK for quite a while, working in a university in Korea. The stem cell case is really a shame for all the Koreans as well as a scholar in the globe. Please don't touch that. It's painful. We know what's wrong. But, if you could give a helpful advice, then it will be welcome.

To give you a vision of Korea, let me tell you as follows:

1. dizzy developing: a number of elites very practical, smart, and stong, they leads Korean industry. They are equipped with an ability to make profit in a competative environment. Even we are short in history to catch up the hundreds year industry tradition in the West, these people will be able to create new value in the globe, in particular in human admiring industry like touching IT technology and media.

2. Emotion: Koreans have survived from many invasions in history. We developed deep emotion in the grief to reborn into a emotional and stron nation that might enables us not only to understand human but also to succeed in human touching business while being practical.

3. Week science foundation: Basic science is important, but it's hardly taken by the public. University basic science is going collapsed. I regret that this would make the application sound. However, big companies such as Samsung, they investigate there products in this way. They are already complete enough to make the foundation solid pursuing the basic thing by themselves.

I believe that our science should be directed to the centre of humanity. Korean boom is now orienting to "well being" industry. I suppose, Korea is still unstable in politics and economy structure, but the unique culture and strong human power will lead the globe to some new condition of industry in the future. ... my personal viewpoint.

I just have to thank you all again--you have given me incredible guidance, and as I sit down to write this Korean introduction I find myself reading through your comments again to get inspired. When I finish the introduction, I will post it--the English version, of course--right here for all of you.

Korean boom is now orienting to "well being" industry.

That's actually an interesting phenomenon. My Korean host talked to me about that. He found it interesting that Korea was very much into something they call "well being", using the English phrase, even though native English speakers themselves seldom use it as a catchphrase. He said it could refer to a lot of things, including traditional parts of Korean culture like Taoism and Korean Zen, but also could encompass things like ordinary physical exercise. He saw the "boom" as something that seemed to rise together with the pace of modernization.

As for this sort of thing clashing with science, I think you would have to take it on a case by case basis, but historically I don't think you get many reactionary Taoists, Buddhists, or Confucianists in the same way that you get reactionary Christians here in the States. I couldn't picture a Taoist, Buddhist, or Confucian Scopes Trial. That's not to say that Korean religion and politics couldn't mix in some way (for good or ill). I just doubt it would mix in the same way as it does here in the US.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 27 Mar 2006 #permalink

These comments were so helpful, I thought I'd send you my draft intro to the Korean edition (written with your comments in mind) for further reflection. Here goes:

A Greeting to Korean Readers

Let me begin by saying how thrilled I am that my very first book, The Republican War on Science, will appear in a Korean edition. I never could have imagined this happening even a year ago. It's very gratifying, but also, if I may be so bold, quite appropriate. The book has received considerable attention in the United States, but I would hope that its broader message has relevance to any democracy trying to navigate this era of rapid scientific advancement and technological growth--especially South Korea.

At a time of rapidly disintegrating economic and communication barriers, but also of global-scale threats like avian flu and climate change, each nation must grapple with the question of how to forge a strong relationship between scientific knowledge and political decision-making, one in which politicians draw upon the best available information and use it to serve the interest of citizens. In this context, my book demonstrates just how fragile the scientist-politician relationship is and how easily it can be undermined--even in a nation, like the United States, with a long and honored tradition of leadership in science and technology.

Despite our history, today in America we find scientific information under attack on all fronts: Not just on high profile subjects like evolution, embryonic stem cell research, and climate change, but whenever any particular morsel of scientific knowledge offends a key constituency of the governing political party. At the same time, we have seen government scientific reports edited by political actors to skew the information they contain, clamp-downs on the ability of government scientists to speak to the media and public, and repeated distortions of scientific information coming out of government agencies (the self-same agencies that we Americans rely and depend upon to serve and protect us). It's an alarming situation, and one that shows few signs of improvement.

The Republican War on Science explains why we have reached such a low point in America, examining issue after issue where science has fallen under attack. In many cases, none other than president George W. Bush himself has misled the public about matters of science, or even endorsed the teaching of pseudo-scientific explanations in our nation's science classes. The problem, in short, goes straight to the White House, and implicates the leadership of both houses of our Congress.

In South Korea, however, I hope you will read this book not merely as an expose of what has gone wrong in the United States, but also, perhaps, as a warning. Your nation has made dramatic strides in science, technology, and education. You have much to be proud of. But The Republican War on Science provides, in a sense, a cautionary tale, demonstrating just how easily scientific achievements can be undermined by those seeking political, ideological, or economic gain.

After all, the incentives to attack politically influential scientific information are vast, and those who opt for this strategy have an inherent advantage over science's defenders. It's much easier to sow confusion and misinformation than it is to generate new and reliable knowledge. It's much easier to spin the media than to correct errors once they've been disseminated. It's much easier to just make something up than to do the hard work required to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

That's why, when science falls under political attack, responsible people--scientists especially--cannot sit on the sidelines. They must speak out and defend the knowledge they have brought into the world, for the truth is that while science may provide us with the best approximation we can hope for about the nature of reality, in the end it's an inescapably human activity. Science is only as good as we are--and what we make of it. That's a humbling thought, but also, hopefully, an inspiring one.

So, I hope you enjoy this book, and perhaps even learn something from it. South Korea is a great nation, with much reason for pride and optimism. I'm hoping I can visit you soon (I wish I had come in 2002 for the World Cup!). Either way, it's deeply inspiring to know that I've been able to reach some of you through my writing.

Chris Mooney
April 2006

I think its absolutely brilliant. Really well done.

I thought for a bit that the 3rd to last paragraph was too blatently about the stem cell thing, but at the same time you can't afford to seem ignorant either, and while more and more people will read this book that event will be futher and further in the past, so maybe that's just right.

For that reason though, I'm not sure about paranthetical expression about the World Cup at the end --- there's a lot more to see in Korea than soccer and that *is* four years ago already now! But I'm not an average Korean, maybe you should ask Taehee Kim. But no one brought it up when I was there 2 years ago.

By Joanna Bryson (not verified) on 02 Apr 2006 #permalink

hi, i'm korean as well, and just wanted to comment on the whole japan taboo thing. as for my generation (i'm 15 years old), we don't really give a hoot. my parents? (40s) they don't care either. only people i personally know that have any hostility towards the japanese are my grandparents, and then, only the really really old conservative ones.

just don't go comparing koreans to japanese people. that's a general no no for any two races, is it not? read your intro, looks great to me :D

(i feel so immature compared to everyone else who commented... but hey, i'm 15)