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!

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