Update: Since the site was down most of Tuesday, I'm leaving this post up another day. Things have only worsened since I put it up, though. . .
I've been withholding my comments on the South Korean stem cell controversy, waiting to see how the story finally settled out. Well, it's good and settled now: the entire enterprise was a fraud. Here's a timeline of the whole sorry business, for people who need a recap. Start at the bottom of that page to experience it in the most painfully realistic way.
My first impulse, in the manner of anyone belonging to a group (biomedical researchers) whose reputations have been dented by such a case, is to point out that, yes, "the system worked". The fraudulent research was discovered and rooted out, papers were retracted, funding lost, brows slapped, all of it. And it hasn't taken that long, either. It's useful to point these things out to people who would like to throw mud on the whole enterprise of science.
See, for example, this blog review of a recent book on scientific fraud. Contrary to its repeated assertions, scientists do indeed realize that fraud happens, because every working scientist has seen it. For starters, most large academic departments have tales of grad students or post-docs whose work could never be trusted. And all of us in research have run into papers in the literature whose techniques won't reproduce, no matter what, and the suspicions naturally grow that they were the product of exaggeration or wishful thinking. The number of possible publications sins alone is huge: yields of chemical reactions get padded, claims of novelty and generality get inflated, invalidating research from other labs doesn't get cited.
It's painful for me to admit it, but this kind of thing goes on all the time. And as long as the labs are staffed with humans, we're not going to be able to get rid of it. The best we can do is discourage it and correct it when we can.
But takes me to the second standard impulse that strikes in these situations, which is to ask what in the world these people were thinking. That's what's always puzzled me about major scientific fraud. The more interesting your work is, the more fame you stand to gain from your results, the more certain you are to be found out if you fake it. There are obscure areas that you could forge and fake around in for years, and journals in which you could publish your phony results without anyone ever being the wiser. Of course, by definition those won't do you much good - heck, you might as well do real work by that point.
But faking the big ones, the worldwide-headline national-hero stuff - you can't get away with that for long, and Professor Hwang didn't. The closest parallels I can think of are the recent Jan Hendrik Schoen case and the thirty-year-old Summerlin mouse scandal. (These and several other infamous cases are summarized here and here. I honestly find it hard to believe that there are others of that magnitude that anyone got away with.
I've never been able to imagine the state of mind of someone involved in this kind of thing. There you are, famous for something you've completely made up. In front of you are the cameras and reporters, while behind you, off in the distance, are hundreds of other scientists around the world busily trying to reproduce your amazing results. Every minute, they get closer to finding you out. How can anyone smile for the television crews under such conditions?
It's tempting to speculate about the state of the Korean scientific establishment and the role of Korea culture itself in this latest blowup. But such things have happened everywhere. The Korean factor certainly led to Hwang being an instant national figure with his face on every magazine and a dozen microphones trained on him wherever he turned. But it's not a Korean failing that did him in, it's a human one.