Between March 2004 and the end of 2005, South Korean veterinarian Woo-Suk Hwang rose from relative obscurity to become the world’s most famous scientist.
His rise 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-cell line. Hwang’s reputation really hit the stratosphere last May after he reported in Science that he had derived eleven patient-specific embryonic-stem-cell lines using a variant of the same procedure. In barely more than one year, Hwang had gone from relative obscurity outside of Korea to being an internationally celebrated Nobel laureate-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: Creating embryonic stem cells that will not be rejected by patients’ immune systems is now a realistic prospect. Hwang’s success was immediately politicized: Stories and editorials accused President Bush of permitting America to fall behind South Korea in stem-cell science by refusing to spend federal funds for therapeutic cloning research, and they proposed bounteous federal and state funding as a curative.
Then, late last month, Hwang was exposed as a charlatan. He had manufactured no patient-specific cloned embryonic-stem-cell lines in 2005. His “proof” of having done so had been manipulated and forged. His 2004 paper also came under suspicion after it was discovered that the purported photograph of the first cloned stem-cell line was actually of a natural stem cell line, apparently plagiarized from an earlier journal article. Hwang resigned from his university in disgrace and is now perhaps the world’s most infamous scientist.
Where’s the Media Mea Culpa?
But enough about Hwang. The other story here is the media’s attempt to shore up public perception of embryonic-stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning even in the midst of the implosion of its most exciting “breakthrough” and the utter discrediting of the field’s most promising star.
There are ways to report a story to ensure that its import sinks deeply into the public’s consciousness. Think of Abu Ghraib; or of President Bush’s alleged culpability for the miseries suffered by the victims of Hurricane Katrina…or of the media’s incessant touting of embryonic-stem-cell research as the most likely source of miraculous medical cures, despite the current paucity of actual scientific verification.
Not only is such intensity missing in the media’s reporting of Hwang’s great cloning fraud; the coverage isn’t nearly as robust as the original “breakthrough” stories themselves. When the scandal broke, the New York Times and other papers ran matter-of-fact reporting on their front pages. How could they not? But television did not dwell on the story, and there has been an almost complete absence of investigative edge after the story first broke. Indeed, the Hwang story has generally been reported so blandly that it seems sure not to penetrate deeply into the public’s consciousness.
This tepid approach is exemplified by the two most popular newsweeklies. Michael D. Lemonick presented a thorough and accurate description 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:
By all accounts, the tales of Hwang’s dedication and personal discipline are all true. Hwang was one of the first to arrive in the lab, at 5 a.m., and rarely left before midnight. He rejected the role of aloof, inaccessible scientist to become a father-like figure for his young charges. And he introduced some genuine innovations into the science of cloning–gently squeezing the nucleus out of a donor egg rather than sucking it out violently and inserting the entire adult cell, not just its nucleus, into the hollowed-out recipient egg.
Never mind that this benign father figure apparently coerced his female associates to donate eggs. And never mind that we don’t even know whether Hwang’s technique actually worked.
Lemonick then characterizes one of the worst cases of science fraud in recent history to a mere stretching of the truth. Despite reporting previously that there is no evidence that the cloned stem-cell lines ever existed, he swallows Hwang’s claim that they were destroyed by a fungus and overlooks the possibility that the fungal infestation was actually a method of cover up:
Hwang claims it took six months to recover from the [fungus] disaster. But it also might be that Hwang’s team couldn’t recover quickly enough and began taking shortcuts to fill the gap. Under pressure from the government and the university, and with a deadline looming for publication in one of the world’s most prestigious journals, the temptation to stretch the truth might have been irresistible…
In the end, Lemonick suggests, Hwang may be responsible for the inaccurate Science paper, but he is not to blame.
In Hwang’s case, it may be that mistakes were made or frauds committed without his knowledge, but as head of the research team and lead author of 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 coverage barely mentioned the facts of the case at all, instead, deflecting readers away from the fraud itself to the continued vibrancy of science in South Korea.
Newsweek’s domestic edition finally got around to reporting the story in its January 15, 2006, domestic edition, devoting to it all of 346 words. The story lightly warns readers to “Get ready for ‘Hwang-gate’ mania”–a diminishing term that calls to mind popular fads such as Cabbage Patch Dolls rather than justified interest in an important story. And then readers are assured that the “mania” is nothing about which to be overly concerned:
The Hwang debacle isn’t stopping U.S. scientists. Nor are they starting from scratch. Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT)–the technique Hwang claimed to have mastered in humans–has already been accomplished in mice. If researchers can move it to people, they say SCNT will allow them to watch complex diseases develop in the petri dish, spot problems and then test drugs to fix them.
Contrary to the style and substance of most of the media’s reporting on this, the implications of the Hwang cloning scandal are deep and far reaching. For example, what, if anything, are we to conclude about the realistic potential of SCNT cloning to become a viable source of medical treatments? Are there other reasons to believe that the many other claims made in recent years about therapeutic cloning and embryonic-stem-cell research are actually more hype than hope? Does the apparent failure of Hwang to succeed with therapeutic cloning validate the argument that adult and umbilical cord blood stem cell research–already demonstrating distinct promise in early human trials–actually offer the most immediate potential for medical breakthroughs? How trustworthy is peer review, and does the system need reform?
Unfortunately, these questions remain mostly unexplored in the popular press. Indeed, based on the quality and depth of the reportage to date, the Hwang fraud scandal appears to be the story the mainstream media most wants to go away.