South Korean creationists manufactured a fake victory

This is a correction to a post I wrote where I reported that South Korean creationists had gotten evolution taken out of South Korean textbooks. I was wrong. I was alerted to this by an e-mail from reader David Cortesi who writes:

The tale is an interesting one of how easily news from a foreign culture can be distorted, especially when enthusiastic creationists actively seek to distort it!

There is an active S. Korean creationist group, and they did manage to get two diagrams deleted from textbooks — on the basis that the diagrams were scientifically incorrect — which in fact they technically were! “of course, STR nutcases thought they scored a huge victory for creationism, and started trumpeting their “victory.””

A blogger known only as the Korean has more:

 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.


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.

The Korean blames Western media for this, though following the links on my previous post, it looks like this story was sensationalized by at least one Korean newspaper, Seoul News. Also, I think the Korean totally misunderstands why this story gained traction in the Western-speaking world. Here’s the opening paragraphs of the Korean’s post:

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.

I can guarantee the Korean that 95% of the people who heard this story in the US have never heard of fan death, and have no particular opinion of the intelligence of Koreans. This story gained traction in the US not because it helped us feel superior to other countries, but because it helps us feel not alone.

When I read “there was never any danger that creationism would prevail in Korean science textbooks,” I think, “well aren’t you lucky? Rub it in why dontcha?” It’s telling that Mano titled his correction post on this “Correction: South Korea is NOT becoming another Texas.”

In America, creationism isn’t going to become federal government policy, but we have to periodically fight battles to stop endorsements of creationism from becoming policy in this or that state (and many of our states are as big as other peoples’ countries.) Even at the state level, the risk of the creationists winning isn’t that big, but that’s mainly thanks to the Supreme Court.

So yes, we Americans can work on tuning our bullshit detectors better when it comes to international news. But rest of the world, please, be more sympathetic to our plight!

  • raven

    The current President of Korea is a fundie xian.

    That has helped the xians gain a lot of traction in South Korea.

    It’s about like here. The Korean Xians or at least a subset of them have been burning down Buddhist temples and destroying Buddhist shrines and statues.

    wikipedia Religion in South Korea:

    Religious conflict Some Korean Protestant Christians have expressed hostility to Buddhism.

    There have been several dozen incidents of arson and vandalism against Buddhist shrines and facilities over the last two decades, including the destruction of several large temples.

    In some of these incidents, the perpetrators were identified as Protestants, or left messages denouncing “idol worship.”[23]

    It’s been 2,000 years now. We know some xians need to hate, destroy, and kill. I suppose South Korea can end up like India, Iraq, or Northern Ireland with continual cycles of religiously motivated violence. Or for that matter my neighborhood. Some xian terrorists torched the local Mosque.

  • Janice

    So, what’s the word on fan death? It was easy to believe the Creationist story due to the belief in fan death, unless this is also a fabrication of the media? Wikipedia makes it seem like a real thing that South Koreans believe in.

    • Chris Hallquist

      The Korean’s blog post on fan death makes it sound like a real think South Koreans believe in, but the Korean also argues it’s real, due to the fact that when it’s really hot out, having a fan blowing on you can actually make it harder for your body to keep itself cool and contribute to dehydration. Though even if fan death is total bullshit, it’s no worse than a lot of things Americans have believed in (forget religion, think spontaneous human combustion, Bigfoot, UFOs, whatever).

  • J. Goard

    Almost all of my daily interactions are with Koreans, maybe two-thirds of that in Korean, and fan death belief isn’t remotely on my radar. Seriously, the only time it comes up, ever, at all, is on English-language blogs from new expats, those pandering to new expats, or The Korean’s rather bizarre overreaction of trying to justify it.

    In stark contrast, expensive “oriental medicine” consumables and treatments, without support from proper scientific experiments (otherwise they’d become “medicine”), harm a large number of the people close to me, both financially and by causing them to delay proper medical care. So as long as we’re going to talk about susceptibility to woo in the Korean population, let’s put the fan death canard to rest and get real.

    • Janice

      Thank you, I had no idea, so that’s why I asked.

      • J. Goard

        Sorry if it sounded like I was criticizing you, Janice. It wasn’t intentional! :-)

        • Janice

          No worries, my knowledge of South Korea is “they believe in fan death” and “they eat bugs on sticks” so I definitely needed the correction.

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