Thursday, August 19, 2010

South Korean Probe Unlikely to Settle Dispute over Warship Sinking: Really?

The government's preliminary findings released in May were attacked as amateurish and crude by some South Korean–born scientists concerned that flawed science could be used to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Oh wow. But wait:
”To me, this challenges the integrity of science,” Seung-Hun Lee, a physicist at the University of Virginia, tells TIME. “They say they reached these conclusions that have enormous consequences on the political and international stage. As a scientist and scholar, I felt it was my duty to check their conclusion.” Lee says bluntly that the government's conclusions are “absurd.”
But whatTIME fails to tell us is that Professor Lee’s area of expertise is solid state physics. He’s an expert “on strongly correlated materials such as non-conventional high temperature superconductors, quantum magnets, frustrated spin systems, magnetic molecules, and multiferroics,” not a “physicist” in the popular sense, that is, someone who is used to thinking about things that make big bangs or what happens to stuff around them when they do. In other words, nothing in his background suggests that he has anything meaningful to say about the case, which point being obvious from the next citation:
The residues that the governments say were caused by the blast “have nothing to do with the explosion, but are just aluminum hydroxide that can be naturally formed by corrosion when aluminum is exposed to water for a long time,” Lee says. He adds that he doesn't know why Seoul and Washington would invent such a scenario to explain the sinking. “That's a political thing that's beyond me,” he says.
This means that the aluminum hydroxide could have been formed naturally by corrosion, but why can he be so sure that it has “nothing to do with the explosion”? After all, aluminum hydroxide is only one of the pieces of evidence that the South Koreans produced. But at least Professor Lee is a “scientist.”
J.J. Suh, a professor and director of Korea Studies at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., also doesn't believe the government's story.
What TIME fails to tell us is that Associate Professor Suh is a political scientist and is a strong advocate of the Sunshine Policy that current President Lee Myung-bak rejected.

Of course the South Korean probe is unlikely to settle the dispute over the warship sinking. In that respect, “it certainly has echoes of conspiracy theories like those surrounding the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.” And the moon landing. And the Holocaust. And the Nanjing Massacre… the list goes on. So I guess my question is: Are things that desparate at TIME magazine?

Actually, I’m giving Professor Lee the benefit of the doubt and willing to assume that he has more to say on this. And he’d better, because there are a good number of real experts whose integrity he has maligned. (Assistant Professor Suh doesn’t count; he’s not a real scientist.)

Addendum (August 19): My heartfelt apologies to Professor Seung-Hun Lee and TIME magazine. I should not have posted at all, or better, should have followed my usual procedure when I come across any interesting anomaly and gone to the source. Here, by Lee, and here, coauthored by Lee and Panseok Yang, are two papers that cast strong doubt on a key part of the evidence in the South Korean government’s yet-to-be-published report on the sinking of the Cheonan. Specifically, they point to serious discrepancies between the data for material taken from the ship and the torpedo on one hand and the data from material taken from a test explosion on the other as well as that undermine

But his logic is sound throughout, and any errors in his science should be easily refutable (or verified) by his peers and, where required, more tests. He also acknowledges that his argument do not disprove the South Korean government’s conclusion that a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan. However, it would knock out a significant piece of evidence behind the claim. I look forward to the release of the report, which should be forthcoming soon.

Again, my apologies. This is not the first time I’ve done such a thing, and it won’t be my last. But it’s been a good lesson. In the meantime I was prompted to read a couple of fascinating investigative documents, and that is a good thing in itself.

Addendum II (August 19): Now that I have time to elaborate on my mea culpa, let me state that I do agree with Janne’s comment about a scientist’s expertise extending his specific area of expertise, but only up to a point. For example, I would not take Professor Lee’s word over those of, say, experts on underwater explosions on the macrcophysical consequences of the event such as the dispersion pattern of fragments of the ship and its equipment and the possibility of some parts of the torpedo surviving the blast fairly intact. An explosion is an uneven and in many ways unique event: not the sort of phenomenon that a solid state physicist is likely to be very familiar with. This weakness actually shows in the experiment that he performed (see the second paper), substituting fine crystalline aluminum powder and 40 minutes of exposure to high-temperature for substantial aluminum pieces subjected to the extreme heat and pressure of a split-second explosion. This is a point that Lee’s detractors are sure to point to. But my focus in on his first document, where he uses the tools of his trade and his specific expertise to expose what appears to be serious shortcomings in the reports claims. And I have to see the full report. (The official announcement was only five pages long).

And yes, Paxy, I had been inclined to believe the South Korean government—for two reasons. First, I thought that there were too many people involved in the incident and the report to maintain a conspiracy in a democratic state. Second, the survey brought in overseas experts, making a cover-up even more difficult. But Lee’s papers have sown the seeds of doubt in my mind. So I’m looking forward to the report.


Janne Morén said...

I agree that scientists (and others) too often try to ride the coattails of their own expertise to spout opinions on stuff they don't know about. Lee may well have a particular political agenda in making these claims. And researchers are certainly not above lying or committing fraud, as today's Asahi Shinbun shows.

That aside (a big aside), I'm not sure your criticism of his qualifications really hit the mark. His particular area of expertise is not exactly the same, that is true. But his field _is_ materials science, and that likely makes him very well versed in most aspects of it, even if he doesn't actively follow the latest research findings on anything but his own esoteric bit.

This is generally true. My focus (such as it may be) is in modeling subcortical brain structures such as the amygdala and superior colliculus. So when I write about politics you can be pretty sure I'm spouting hot air.

But when I write about neurology or brain science you can assume I "wear something on my feet" (to badly translate a very convenient Swedish expression); that I do have solid reason to believe what I write even if I'm not an expert on that particular part of the field. After all, I may focus on a tiny speciality in my own work, but I have studied other fields a fair amount (you can't study a speciality in isolation), and you hear and read about other areas all the time in conversation, in conferences, in research journals.

So while I would be quite prepared to dismiss Dr. Lee on political grounds, I would not be ready to do so on the basis of his expertise or lack of it.

PaxAmericana said...


No dog in this race, but ...

Are you of the opinion that the North Koreans sunk the Cheonan? I was under the impression that the Western media was moving away from that position, perhaps due to the positions of Russia and China.

It's also the case that SK and the US have very good motives for twisting an accident into aggressive behavior from an enemy. You have to take advantage of the opportunities life throws your way, as they say.

Jun Okumura said...

Janne, Paxy:

See my addendum. To say that I have been chastened would be an understatement. And yes, Paxy, I was convinced. But now, I am not. I'll reserve my personal judgment until I see the full report.

Sun Bin said...

good to see the addendum.

but to add one thing about the background of Solid State Physicist. In any sense, and judged by any scientist SSP are "PHYSICISTS". Perhaps SSP are only second in number of Nobel Prize Lauraete after particle physicist.
Both types of physicists had to go through the same rigorous training in elementary physics related to examining this case (though engineers may know more about technical details).

in fact, if anything, they know only more (not less) about interpreting experiment data of physics that particles physics and cosmologists such as hawkings or witten -- though not as much versus feynman.

Jun Okumura said...

Sun Bin:

I should look in more often on your blog, but Japanese politics has kept me occupied. And yes, my other, far less lucrative, diversions. As for your point about solid state physicists, I would take Professor Lee over Hawkins (but no, not Feynman) on this case, but over less illustrious forensic experts for instance? My second addendum goes into this in slightly more detail.

Sun Bin said...

I blog very lightly these days, too time consuming.

I think there is not much difference in terms of insight and conclusions. e.g. NK still a key suspect, evidence not entirely conclusive, some of the data in the US-SK report are up to challenged.

i was merely trying to clarify on a minor technical point regarding "solid state physics".

PaxAmericana said...

Perhaps you could tell us where you get information on the skeptical side for this incident. The only articles I've seen are:

Each site has three or four long articles that question the Western version.

As an aside, the issue of Korea and the rise of China is worth some thought. One of the above articles gets into the topic of how SK may deal with a regionally dominant China. It would seem that any change in SK's position would impact Japan greatly.

Jun Okumura said...

Sun Bin: I can imagine the toll that maintaining a fact-based blog that requires research takes over time.

I too believe that “NK [is] still a key suspect,” and this, if Lee’s allegations are true, would not be the first time that the authorities touched up the evidence to make sure that they got their man, whom they “knew” were guilty. And I do appreciate your clarification “on a minor technical point regarding ‘solid state physics’”. But I’ve seen scientists who turn out to be little better than the rest of us when it comes to mattered outside of their specific areas of expertise—some seem to have portable skills (Feynman) while others merely cash in on their PhDs—that I do feel the need to look past their credentials.

Paxy: Lee’s analysis comes across as sound to this layperson, so I’ve decided to wait to see the full report and what the two sides have to say about it. And thank you for the links.

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