Monday, May 05, 2008

Mad About Mad Cow Disease in Korea

Mad About Mad Cow Disease in Korea


I'm going to say this in unequivocal terms, so this can draw the attention of as many people as possible: anyone who believes the scare about getting "mad cow disease" from eating American beef is stupid. [See English link to editorial here, and Korean link here]

Now, that being said, let me also say that it's not quite their fault, since the amount of irresponsible reporting on the part of the media (PD 수첩), the lack of media literacy on the Korean public in general, the lack of general critical thinking skills that go with a tendency to believe anything on television or printed in a newspaper, combined with the tendency to not go against what the crowd, one's 선배, teacher, or group of friends think -- these all combine to make it pretty easy to spread a bunch of bullshit that people will tend to believe, the facts be damned.

The same thing happened in 2002, with the protests about the two middle school girls killed by an armored vehicle. Falsehoods presented as facts by an irresponsible Korean news media included:

1) the US Army refusing to offer compensation (from the beginning, the US military claimed responsibility and paid compensation according to the SOFA agreement and at a level decided according to Korean law -- the SOFA merely specified the percentage to be paid by the US), the members of the

2) the soldiers involved not only showed no remorse but laughed and joked at the crime scene and afterwards (no evidence for this was offered, but was widely reported from hearsay, even as the images from the service held by soldiers in 21D were widely available, which was attended by top brass, and the soldiers donated $22,000 of their own money to the families that was collected the very next day after the incident) -- none of this was reported

3) the US military and US government refused to apologize for the incident (in fact, written apologies from the US military commander to the President of the United States were reprinted and linked, in both Korean and English, on the US Embassy web site after having been sent to the appropriate parties)

4) the use of dubious "experts" who never visited the scene nor had access to the bodies, who said that the two girls were clearly "murdered" on purpose as the tank had rolled back and forth over their bodies several times (in fact, the tank had rolled over them, and backed up once they did, which is more in line with common sense than a "murder" case, which always needs a motive -- even the Korean imagination's most evil of evil American GI's isn't going to just run over two middle school girls for fun)

In the end, the backdrop for this incident was an already-extant, extreme amount of anti-American sentiment, which was cleverly used by radical activists to excite the Korean masses. Even I, as one who never hesitates to criticize American government or society, was taken in by it; but upon further review and after finding out that half the story I was being told was simply not true, by any stretch of interpretation or the imagination, I simply dismissed the story for what it was: effective baiting of a gullible Korean public more than willing, at the time, to express its anti-American sentiment. The fact that most of what the public was mad about was either patently untrue or an extreme distortion of the facts wasn't even an "inconvenient truth." In fact, at the time, one didn't dare have another point of view.

Here we go again. It's the same thing, enabled by similar dubious claims -- according to PD 수첩, Koreans are 94% more disposed to developing a disease to which no humans have demonstrated any resistance, and is a disease that scientists are not even fully clear as to how it works?

This is about as believable as the idiotic doctors who say that an elderly man has died because a fan was left on, letting the assumption bar any other investigation into the logical conclusion that it was age-induced heart failure, a sudden stroke, or some other thing that generally kills people who are 79 years old. This is simply stupid. I can shoot down any idiotic explanations for fan death than any quack doctor simply because I've had an education that has taught me basic logical and critical thinking skills, and I have a decent understanding of what is scientifically sound, and what is mere uninformed idiocy. I've already talked about it before, and I'll challenge any idiot who still claims "fan death" is a fact.

Anyone who believes in said myth is, in fact, stupid and is in need of correction, either in terms of basic logic (countless people sleep in front of fans in closed spaces and do not, in fact, die) or basic science education (the oxygen content of air does not, in fact, change if the air happens to be moving, and no, your body temperature cannot fall low enough to kill you because your body sweats to allow excess heat to be taken away by evaporation, which it doesn't do when you are no longer hot, and there is nothing about moving air in itself that actively reduces temperature, anyway-- the temperature of the air might your body to lose heat by induction, which would kill you if you were exposed at 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but not the 90-degree heat that usually causes people to use a fan in the first place. In fact, if one is worried about dying, one SHOULD use a fan to help your body keep body temperature DOWN by passing air over all the sweat causing one's kids to stick to the sheets.

One can't call me an "elitist" for having had access to the same basic science information that every Korean kid is exposed to. I took Basic Chemistry (not advanced) and got a B, and didn't do any better in Physics. I nearly failed Geometry and never got to Calculus in high school. I don't do numbers, and am pretty much a dunce in that respect. But I learned enough about how the world works to distinguish science fact from the science fiction of things to come, as well as from myth, magic, and other forms of apparent mystery. The fact that many Koreans cannot is not my fault, and I haven't received any additional messages about the world -- Koreans generally have been exposed to more math and science than I ever had, and I went to pretty good schools in the US.

Yet, many people here -- even the highly educated -- still believe in "fan death," that blood types are linked to personality traits (a myth ironically started by a racist Japanese anthropologist trying to prove the superiority of mainland Japanese over the "inferior" Ainu -- since I am always one to try and be specific about claims rather than offer ambiguous references, that would Takeji Furukawa's series of papers called "The Study of Temperament Through Blood Type"), that kimchi can prevent SARS, or even the old doozy that Koreans are "racially pure", which defies Korea's own historical logic as should be dictated by all the nations and tribes that ran back and forth across the peninsula.

Basically, a lot of Koreans believe in a lot of stupid bullshit spread by irresponsible authorities, and this is enabled by having been trained to unequivocally believe in what one is told. That is a pretty defensible claim, but I'll spare you the thousands of concrete complaints about the problems of the Korean education system, authoritarian socialization, or the lingering effects of having lived under direct colonial occupation, neo-colonial administration, or direct dictatorship, none of which are very conducive to encouraging liberal pedagogy.

Another claim that is more of an opinionated observation is that many Koreans seem to have trouble discerning between logic and emotion when it comes to issues related to the nation. I've been in so many arguments in which a Korean is forced to admit that my observation is correct but they simply don't like the fact that a foreigner has noticed it or is making the comment, and I often squash the argument by simply pointing that out; alternatively, I simply make an equally harsh criticism of the United States, and the person sees I do not "hate" Korea, but am just a critical thinker. But I rarely talk about any issue with a Korean unless I have specific examples, statistics, and references -- there is no benefit of the doubt given to a reasonable explication of reasonable claims when it comes to Korea. One has to have serious ammunition when it comes to pointing out even the painfully obvious in Korea, especially when people are on about something.

Whether it's Ohno (why vilify the athlete simply doing what athletes do, which is try to win, as opposed to the referee?), the US military's dumping of harmful chemicals into the Han River (which is bad, but is a tiny fraction of what Korean companies continue to dump into the river, as highlighted in far less publicized media stories), two middle school girls killed in a vehicular accident (but lack of seatbelts or respect for pedestrians means that Korea is the most dangerous place in the world in terms of traffic deaths, and many of the factors that led to the girls' deaths, like the lack of a sidewalk or a divider on a highway regularly traveled by pedestrians, or the fact they were listening to an MP3 player while walking, remain unaddressed) -- people are not only not thinking critically or looking very deeply, there's another factor here, which is the big, fat, pink-and-blue striped elephant in the room:

Anti-American sentiment runs at such a fever pitch here that people are willing to believe any bad news about anything having to do with the United States, to the point of believing flimsy "scientific" claims and not dealing with the fact that American beef has not been proven to be much less safe than any other country's beef, not to mention Korea's own problems with E. coli or the recent Cheil Jedang food poisoning scandal.

It boils down to the KORUS FTA and whether or not one wants cheap American beef flooding the markets here. That issue, being dealt with directly, would be a fair one. Don't want to open the markets? Want to protect the domestic beef industry? Think America's FTA is negative for Korea? Fine. That's legitimate. I don't happen to agree, but I understand the arguments on the other side.

But this fear-mongering and nationalism-baiting isn't a healthy mode for Korean society, and it's even more frightening to see that teachers (well, members of the Korean Teachers' Union, which is little more than a propaganda machine for far left interests) here are telling their students that eating American beef is tantamount to a death sentence. Last week, half of my school, at the urging of certain teachers, told kids to attend the rally "if they wanted to fight for their life" and other such nonsense. To their credit, the principal and most of the teachers forbade students from leaving the grounds, and several stood guard at the gates to make sure no kids were sneaking out.

I myself forbade a student from skipping class to go, but held a discussion about why the claims were ridiculous, and why I felt that an anti-FTA rally was no place for a high school girl. Yes, the candlelight vigil was peaceful, but that was a first when it came to anti-FTA or anti-US beef rallies, and I didn't think that human feces-throwing, epithet yelling, riot police attacking protesters would provide any "education experience" for impressionable 10th-graders. It's sad to think that Korean teachers, knowing how intellectually vulnerable Korean students are, would urge them to go. It's not surprising, mind you -- just sad.

I actually had students thinking that using menstrual pads would lead to mad cow disease (I'll have to get back to you on that one, since the logic was such a stretch that the strings of "evidence" has broken down in my mind), or who actually made the mental jump to a sincere belief that they would immediately die upon eating US beef. This isn't responsible "teaching" if your students are literally scared to death -- I got a text message urging me not to go to 7/11, TGI Friday, and Lotte Mart because I would get mad cow disease, since they use American beef.

None of this is commensurate with any actual dangers posed by American beef, although it might be in relation to the danger of eating ANY kind of beef, but that's a different story, and I've already decided why I can't be a vegetarian, even though I know I should:

I like beef. "It's what's for dinner."

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