Sunday, July 01, 2012

No Evolution in Korea?

Dear Korean,

This is horrifying. I knew many are stupid this way in the US, but I hadn't realized that S. Korea was worse - although with the large Christian population, maybe it's not surprising. (No offense to Christians, I just have trouble with people who can't reconcile religion and science.) Is this likely to be a permanent state of affairs in S. Korea, or is there an intellectual/scientific majority who will re-instate evolution in schoolbooks?

(With apologies if The Korean doesn't believe in evolution either, but I don't think that's possible.)

Judith H.


Don't worry -- the Korean is Christian, but he believes in evolution. He cannot see how anyone can deny evolution.

At any rate, this article on Nature magazine got a lot of publicity, especially thanks to the Huffington Post article that re-transmitted the Nature magazine article. Time magazine and Los Angeles Times covered the story as well. So what happened with this? Have all Koreans lost their minds? Hey, those stupid Koreans believe in Fan Death, so why not "creation sciences"?

Here is a rule of thumb on dealing with bizarre news from Korea in English-language media:  be very, very skeptical, until you have independent verification from a reputable Korean media as well. Certainly, bizarre things happen in Korea. But if they do, it is extremely unlikely an English-language media would break the news -- English-language media simply do not have enough resources to track down bizarre stories coming out of Korea. If there is a bizarre story regarding Korea that gets a lot of play outside of Korea but not in Korean media, your bullshit radar has to be on high alert.

That is exactly what happened with this story. The Korean reads two Korean newspapers every morning, and he has not seen any coverage on this topic. Only after the Huffington Post article did Korean newspapers begin covering this issue, and only perfunctorily at that.

Let's get to the bottom line first:  is Korean science textbook going to drop the discussion about evolution? Short answer -- nope. In fact, there was never any danger that creationism would prevail in Korean science textbooks.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.




First, we need to go over how textbooks are made in Korea. For each subject, Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) would issue a guideline on the topics that need to be included for each subject. Then each textbook company publishes its own textbook, following the MEST guideline. The textbook company makes the decision on the precise format of the textbook, including diagrams and examples. MEST, however, has to approve the final product before the textbook is released in the market.

Having said that, this is the whole story. Like Judith mentioned, Korea does have a large Christian population -- 25% of the country, approximately. Some of them are hardcore fundamentalists who sincerely believe in creationism. The group that represents these creationists, called Society for Textbook Revise (STR), has attempted to attack the references to evolution in Korean science textbooks in any manner possible.

What STR did manage to pull off with three textbook publishers was this: STR convinced those publishers that two diagrams in their books -- one about the evolution of horses, and the other about archeopteryx -- and the text accompanying them were scientifically incorrect. Notice the claim here:  the claim was not that the diagrams were against creationism. The claim was that the diagrams were scientifically incorrect.

The incorrect diagram about the evolution of
horses in some Korean science textbooks
 (source)


And you know what? Technically, they were right! The diagram above showing the evolution of horses is horribly outdated, and the pictures no longer comport with the current scientific consensus. The text accompanying archeopteryx said archeopteryx is the middle step between dinosaurs and birds, which is also technically incorrect -- archeopteryx is considered a close relative to the true ancestral birds, not itself a true ancestral bird. So the three textbook companies decided that they would drop the two diagrams in the next edition of their textbooks.

Pay close attention to what actually happened here. What got dropped was two diagrams and the accompanying texts about evolution that were scientifically incorrect -- not the theory of evolution. It is not possible for the textbook publishers to drop the discussion about the theory of evolution, because that would violate MEST guidelines. Further, not even the decision to drop the two diagrams was final, because MEST still had to approve the new textbooks that the publishers proposed to make.

But of course, STR nutcases thought they scored a huge victory for creationism, and started trumpeting their "victory." By and large, Korean media yawned -- exactly one national newspaper (and a relatively minor one at that) covered the story, and even that story made it quite clear that all that got dropped were diagrams. But the Nature magazine decided to run with the story, with a sensational headline that read: "South Korea surrenders to creationist demands," and here we are -- Korea is branded as a dumb country that doesn't believe in evolution.

After this story caused an international sensation, MEST reaffirmed that the theory of evolution must be included in science textbooks, and indicated that it would even deny the proposed deletion of those diagrams. (Rather than deleting the diagrams wholesale, they are to be replaced with more accurate diagrams and texts.) And the major Korean media continued to yawn, only reporting MEST's statement that the theory of evolution will be alive and well in Korean science textbooks.

But hey, if two of America's largest news networks can't even get the biggest story of the year right, perhaps it makes no sense to expect anyone to get anything right about Korea.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

19 comments:

  1. I was a bit concerned about this, because there's a chance that the MEST guideline might be too strict - and in favor of the STR people. There is excellent educational value in teaching genetics and evolution in terms of the classical/obsolete thoughts (Darwinian, Mendelian, Modern Synthesis, etc.) - just as we initially teach people that atoms are made out of spherical photons, neutrons, and electrons circling around them like monorails.

    Technically, a lot of the stuff in science textbooks are wrong (for the sake of effective education). I'm glad MEST decided in the end to say "Fuck you".

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  2. So MEST got it right - it seems a fairly pedestrian / pragmatic way to go. Good on them - but I still find a part of this story funny: A group of Christians in favor of attacking evolution has succeeded (thus far) in making the case for evolution *more* accurate?

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  3. Hmm, the Nature article is technically correct in its wording, while giving an incorrect impression of a much more serious problem.
    The Nature article cites surveys that says that "almost one-third of the respondents didn’t believe in evolution" and "40% of [Korean] biology teachers agreed with the statement that “much of the scientific community doubts if evolution occurs”". Does this concur with your experience?

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  4. Great post.

    I was bombarded with this by friends who albeit jokingly, tried to objectively prove my heritage is inherently inclined to backward behavior.
    Most sites that cover Korea in English are quite lacking.

    But it could be worse, like Japan coverage in English.

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  6. People put the evolution against the religion.

    Evolution claims humans come from (or a relative of) other creatures.
    As far as i know, all 3 religions (jew, christian, islam) teaches that the first human being is Adam. And he was created.
    And i don't understand what if one person believes his/her religion as a whole (and don't say i believe that, that but not that one).

    Not believing in evolution with all aspects make a person stupid, dumb or whatever.
    We respect everyone atheist, buddhist, christian, muslim, jew. But when it comes to believing or not believing in evolution, we forget everyting we know. There is only one truth and everybody MUST believe that.

    Come on...

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    1. I The problem is that many believers AND atheists, as well as any other non-believers take the bible and the other religious books too litterally. Those ancient texts were written by ancient people in order for other people of those ancient times to understand. It's full of metaphores, allegories and symbolism. Plus, at those times they were not educated enough. So those texts should be accepted, but never taken for granted.

      And that is why a lot of people talk about christians as stupid and a lot of christians take scientists to be heartless. Because both of the extremists of both of these groups take those texts litterally.

      I personally am a christian, a catholic. And I love science, althought I'm not that great at it, simply because I've got more skills in humanistic science and art, rather than natural and technical science, but I love them all. I do believe that God created the universe, but I don't believe he immediately created us and in only 7 days. Also, a scientist, evolutionist, who believe God created the world, may want to know HOW He did so. And here we get an acceptance of evolutionism in religions as well.

      Afterall, wasn't Einstain a believer too? I mean, he was not an evolutionist, he was a physicist, but many people believe science in general is opposed to religions in general.

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  7. tr, what the hell are you muttering on about?

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  8. And for a great laugh - please read the comments that Huff Post article generated! LOL! I'm a little scared how ppl think...

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    1. I'm exicted to be moving to Korea next year, finally a country that does away with fiction. The fact is we don't know how we got here, and the current theory of evolution is more science fiction than provable and tested. The way I see it is, evolution should be taught as it is - simply a theory, which may or may not be true. On the other side I do not wish to see intelligent design taught as fact, and if it were, again as a theory, which may or may not be true.

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    2. That's not what theory means.

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    3. ...the current theory of evolution is more science fiction than provable and tested...
      No, it's not.

      evolution should be taught as it is - simply a theory, which may or may not be true...
      You obviously don't know what the word "theory" means, at least in the scientific sense.

      I do not wish to see intelligent design taught as fact...
      Intelligent Design is neither theory nor fact. It's Bullshit. I do not wish to see Brought Here by Storks taught as theory or fact in a Reproductive Biology class.

      I'm exicted [sic] to be moving to Korea next year...
      Best to stay home. Korea has enough idiots as is.

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  10. Ndog,
    OMG...have you actually done any research, of which there is an enormous amount of information, on Korean culture?
    Unless of course you are either being sarcastic or obtuse?
    Have you even read Darwin?
    Nowadays there can not be any excuse for ignorance.

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  11. Most of the coverage of Asia (Japan and the Koreas, in particular, but other countries as well) in the US boils down to or is presented as "News of the Weird". People marrying pillows, robots teaching English, cosplay conventions on every street corner (they'd have you believe), somebody who steals thousands of shoes, an old woman who fails a driving test hundreds of times, public mourning of Kim Jong-il, those wacky Asians and those standardized tests, etc. etc. etc. And since most people are casual news readers (that is, scanning headlines on Yahoo.com, or watching Fox News at McDonald's), there is no real depth of coverage on any issue, whether it's what's going on in South Korea or the issues most relevant to the lives of the average American. I don't advocate not reading the news, or not paying attention . . . but for all the talk of a "free" press here in the US, we're certainly surrounded by rotten examples.

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  12. I hardly think the Korean media are so trustworthy that when they ignore something, that's a sign that it's not a problem, given the media's, ahem, political commitments, er, I mean, their dubious honesty, bipartisanism, and straight shooting. The Koreans I know laugh at the idea one reads newspapers to be informed, and have said things rather like what Mark Twain noted: you don't read the paper, you're uninformed; you do read the paper, then you're misinformed.

    I hasten to note that pretty much everyone I know working in or teaching science here (or even, like me, engage with science more informally) acknowledges science is not held in high enough esteem, or popularized enough, in Korean society; plenty of parents tell their kids not to major in the sciences except as a stepping stone to medicine or pharmacy. A friend of mine who teaches physics notes that i's comparatively harder for physics grads to get jobs in Korea than in other places, because many companies prefer engineers, even when the skill set for a given job overlaps generally. Hell, even SF fans in Korea are heard to complain when there's "too much science" in a work of science fiction. (Western SF fans might complain the science is too hard, but not that there's "too much science.")

    In conditions like that, it's not surprising newspapers wouldn't treat a science-related issue like a big deal when the readers don't either.

    So while I'll grant that perhaps Nature's presentation of events was problematic, it seems that The Korean's is problematic as well.

    Science recently ran an article (yes, in English, and with quotes from prominent Korean scientists) the perusal of which raises some questions, despite also pointing out there was some media exaggeration:

    - If this is just a Western media freakout over a non-issue in Korea, then why did Korean scientists go to the trouble of mobilizing after the Nature article? Why did Choe Jae (Ewha University Prof.) bother to organize a petition?

    - Why did many Korean scientists "not want to 'participate in that muddy debate'" prior to the article? One professor is noted as having felt it might legitimate the STR to debate with them. Is that why the others stayed out of it? And why did the Nature article change this response to STR, if it was a rational response, as The Korean seems to suggest?

    - Why did it take the MEST almost two months before it announced that it would seek "expert opinions"? And why indeed would the MEST make any decision regarding textbook content guidelines without consulting expert opinions?

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    1. I hardly think the Korean media are so trustworthy that when they ignore something, that's a sign that it's not a problem, given the media's, ahem, political commitments, er, I mean, their dubious honesty, bipartisanism, and straight shooting. The Koreans I know laugh at the idea one reads newspapers to be informed, and have said things rather like what Mark Twain noted: you don't read the paper, you're uninformed; you do read the paper, then you're misinformed.

      I find this stance, common among expat commentators, very annoying. It essentially is an attempt to foreclose Korean perspectives from entering a discussion about Korea. It is particularly annoying when this stance is supported with a sentence that starts with "The Koreans I know . . ." Koreans are annoyed at the media like the way Americans are annoyed at the partisanship of MSNBC and Fox News; their level of annoyance does not amount to a wholesale disregard of all Korean media.

      If this is just a Western media freakout over a non-issue in Korea, then why did Korean scientists go to the trouble of mobilizing after the Nature article? Why did Choe Jae (Ewha University Prof.) bother to organize a petition? Why did many Korean scientists "not want to 'participate in that muddy debate'" prior to the article? One professor is noted as having felt it might legitimate the STR to debate with them. Is that why the others stayed out of it? And why did the Nature article change this response to STR, if it was a rational response, as The Korean seems to suggest?

      Because Koreans care about what the Western media says. This was a non-issue before the sensationalistic Nature article. Then the Nature article MADE it an issue. The Nature article legitimized STR by putting it in the international spotlight and giving them far, far more credit than it was due. It would be foolish for Korean scientists to sit on their hands when there is a veritable international slander on Korea's science education.

      Why did it take the MEST almost two months before it announced that it would seek "expert opinions"? And why indeed would the MEST make any decision regarding textbook content guidelines without consulting expert opinions?

      It is important not to mix up the terminology here. Refer to my post -- the textbook content guidelines were already set long ago, and those guidelines include the theory of evolution. Period. There was NEVER any danger that MEST was going to drop the theory of evolution from its guidelines.

      Recall that the issue is regarding two diagrams, not the theory of evolution. Removing those two diagrams actually made the science textbooks more scientifically accurate, because those diagrams were outdated. Ideally, those diagrams would have been replaced by more accurate diagrams. And they are getting around to doing that now, and the more accurate diagrams will require consulting expert opinions. If there was any issue, it was a bureaucratic inaction. I will write a bit more on this in the reply to your second comment, because it is more pertinent there.

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  13. Those of my Korean friends who have commented about this to me are almost exclusively from that small segment of Korean society who really deeply cares about science and science education, and they certainly did not regard the news as small potatoes.

    Those I talked to were mostly annoyed at the MEST's response to the STR, not by the article that The Korean is busy lambasting. They felt this was just the opening salvo in a prolonged fight against evolution in school textbooks that was to come. Hell, even the Korean commenter on my original post on the subject (which needs updating) reminisced that his high school biology teacher claimed evangelicals like himself were, thirty years ago, already "working on" the institution of laws to restrict the teaching of evolution in high schools. More than once I encountered the opinion that this was the opening salvo against the teaching of evolution, to be followed by more chipping-away at the teaching of evolution in schools, which they would (and openly declare they will) continue working at.

    They were, more importantly, critical about the fact that textbooks still had such out-of-date information that the STR had leeway to attack--which some argued says a lot about the abysmal state of high school science education here: outdated information in science textbooks, when the textbook turnover rate is almost certainly pretty constant, gave the STR an Achilles heel to attack.

    (I don't know specifically about science books, but I imagine the process is similar to with English textbooks, where the textbook assessment period (and thus revisions or the production of new texts) occurs on a cycle of a few years (between 5 and 9 years for most subjects, the last I checked, though I got the impression somewhere that the cycle was shorter for TEFL textbooks)--and are a massive last-minute scramble for the huge cash cow of approval status each time--and I'd be surprised if it's not the same for science texts.)

    And that's the real news story to be concerned about: ridiculously out of date content in science textbooks in this day and age, when science textbooks are supposedly being revised regularly. Pretty amazing when you actually have a whole government ministry dedicated to Education, Science, and Technology, that they would simply "pass the baton" to the publishers as to whether they should comply with the demands of Creationist nuts. In a case like this, passing the baton is a way of approving the demand without publicly doing so...

    Which is a very important point that shouldn't be skipped--the decision to drop those images was not final, but take it from me: no textbook publisher would be willing to even consider dropping anything from its texts (let alone announcing plans to do so) unless they felt the omission would not jeopardize their successfully receiving approval! The textbook industry is in a collective slump right now, and no publisher takes even the smallest of risks these days. (I've seen editors at a mid-range house, desperate to get approved school textbook-list status, include pointlessly awkward garbage on purpose because the Education Ministry guidelines demanded outdated or useless phrases be taught; everyone involved, from the editors to the authors, simply did their best to jigger together something that kinda-sorta almost worked, because you don't contradict the extremely micromanagerial textbook guidelines, even when they were clearly written by someone ignorant of the subject matter.)

    In that context, the Ministry "not making a final decision" but instead telling publishers to decide for themselves, I would argue, constitutes a kind of message in itself.

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    1. First, I have to note that you completely bought the Western media freakout, hook, line & sinker. I will repeat for what feels like a thousandth time: There was NEVER any danger that MEST was going to drop the theory of evolution from its guidelines. Your claim that "several major Korean textbook publishers have caved to the pressure from Christian extremists, and will be removing all mention of evolution from biology textbooks" is completely incorrect. (Emphasis mine.)

      That said, I do agree with the upshot: if this episode indicates any problem in Korea's science education, it is bureaucratic inaction. If MEST rigorously applied its guidelines to the fullest extent, it would have required the textbook to not simply mention evolution, but support it with scientifically accurate diagrams. It would signal to the textbook publishers that it is not enough to drop the scientifically inaccurate diagrams; those diagrams have to be replaced. This would have required MEST, for its part, to have a rigorous commitment to science education, and resist any attempt that can even be mischaracterized as a victory for anti-evolution nutcases. MEST's stance of simply going along displays a lack of such commitment. If one cares about science education in Korea, this is enough reason to worry, not because the theory of evolution is about to be eliimniated in Korea.

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