Thursday, June 16, 2005

Japanese government manipulation of science

I suspect most people know of the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by the North Koreans. Perhaps you even know of Ms. Megumi Yokota whom North Korea claims to have committed suicide in North Korea. When what were said to be her remains were returned to Tokyo, DNA tests were conducted which supposedly showed the remains were of 2 different people, not Megumi.

This has caused the tensions between the two countries to continue to rise. North Korea obviously cannot be trusted very much here, but how about the Japanese government? But did you know that 2 DNA tests were conducted, the first by the government which determined that it was not possible to determine whose remains they were or weren't after they were cremated at 1200 degrees centigrade. The second test was conducted by a lecturer at Teikyo university who had no experience testing cremated remains for DNA. The same scientist later told Nature magazine that the test really proved nothing. The Japanese government, as is their custom, did not debate the point, but instead attacked the magazine. You can read the full story at (Sorry, dead link, article has been removed by Japan Focus. Why?)

The story in short, available from several sources on the web, including Time and Wikipedia:

An article in the 3 February 2005 (Nature) issue revealed that the DNA analysis on Megumi's remains had been performed by a member of the medical department of Teikyo University, Yoshii Tomio. Yoshii, it later transpired, was a relatively junior faculty member, of lecturer status, in a forensic department that had neither a professor nor even an assistant professor. Remarkably, he said that he had no previous experience in the analysis of cremated specimens, described his tests as inconclusive and remarked that such samples were very easily contaminated by anyone coming in contact with them, like "stiff sponges that can absorb anything." In other words, the man who had actually conducted the Japanese analysis pronounced it anything but definitive. The five tiny samples he had been given to work on (the largest of them 1.5 grams) had anyway been used up in his laboratory, so independent verification was thereafter impossible. It seemed likely as a result that nobody could ever know for sure what Pyongyang's package had contained.

When the Japanese government's chief cabinet secretary, Hosoda Hiroyuki, referred to this article as inadequate and a misrepresentation of the government-commissioned analysis, Nature responded, in a highly unusual editorial (17 March), saying that:

"Japan is right to doubt North Korea's every statement. But its interpretation of the DNA tests has crossed the boundary of science's freedom from political interference. Nature's interview with the scientist who carried out the tests raised the possibility that the remains were merely contaminated, making the DNA tests inconclusive. This suggestion is uncomfortable for a Japanese government that wants to have North Korea seen as unambiguously fraudulent. ... The inescapable fact is that the bones may have been contaminated. ... It is also entirely possible that North Korea is lying. But the DNA tests that Japan is counting on won't resolve the issue. The problem is not in the science but in the fact that the government is meddling in scientific matters at all. Science runs on the premise that experiments, and all the uncertainty involved in them, should be open for scrutiny. Arguments made by other Japanese scientists that the tests should have been carried out by a larger team are convincing. Why did Japan entrust them to one scientist working alone, one who no longer seems to be free to talk about them? Japan's policy seems a desperate effort to make up for what has been a diplomatic failure ... Part of the burden for Japan's political and diplomatic failure is being shifted to a scientist for doing his job -- deriving conclusions from experiments and presenting reasonable doubts about them. But the friction between North Korea and Japan will not be decided by a DNA test. Likewise, the interpretation of DNA test results cannot be decided by the government of either country. Dealing with North Korea is no fun, but it doesn't justify breaking the rules of separation between science and politics."

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