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The Fact of the Matter?
October 23, 2012 1:06 PM   Subscribe

On September 24th Radiolab posted a new episode, The Fact of the Matter. It included a segment titled Yellow Rain. Radiolab's website says that it's "a detective story from the Cold War, about a mysterious substance that fell from the sky in Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam war." Robert Krulwich's interview with two of the segment's guests has prompted outrage at his treatment of them. One of the guests, writer Kao Kalia Yang, talked with Hyphen Magazine.
posted by FatRabbit (136 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
I want to be able to form an opinion about this, but the hyphen magazine link isn't loading for me, and the post doesn't tell me what the outrage was.

Here's a Radiolab blog post about the episode, in case you're in the same situation as I am.
posted by dammitjim at 1:12 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Corresponds to my pre-existing view of Krulwich and co.
posted by spitbull at 1:15 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I listened to this over the weekend. I guess I don't really get the outrage. Krulwich was not dismissing the hmong experience or trying to convince anyone that what happened to them after the Vietnam war was good or just or moral or not a tragedy. He was simply being a journalist and trying to get to the bottom of the question, which was "was a toxic 'yellow rain' killing villages of hmong people," the answer to which is emphatically no, and the guests simply did not want to hear it or listen to the scientific evidence.

I understand that their stake in the situation made it a difficult subject - but that doesn't give them a pass to harangue Krulwich for simply asking the tough questions.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:16 PM on October 23, 2012 [15 favorites]


Corresponds to my pre-existing view of Krulwich and co.

Which is what, exactly? This is an opaque statement.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 1:17 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Google cache has the Hyphen article for anyone who can't get it to load.
posted by aranyx at 1:19 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


That was hard to listen to at the time, and while I was saying whoa dickhead I also thought it was somewhat noble of them to still include it. Hyphen link isn't loading for me either, bummer.
posted by hypersloth at 1:19 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jad Abumrad, Lebanese-American, as the all-powerful all-dominating moustache-twirling white guy. It's a strange picture.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:22 PM on October 23, 2012




He was simply being a journalist and trying to get to the bottom of the question, which was "was a toxic 'yellow rain' killing villages of hmong people," the answer to which is emphatically no, and the guests simply did not want to hear it or listen to the scientific evidence.

I mean, that's part of it, sure, but they also got on an old dude who has clearly been through some hellish experiences for a "GOTCHA!" segment where they tell him that one of the horrible things that happened to him didn't. I generally love Radiolab, but either someone dropped the ball on this concept, or someone is an asshole.
posted by griphus at 1:27 PM on October 23, 2012 [21 favorites]


Man, I really thought Krulwich's behavior was a how not to do it of qualitative data gathering. I understand that he wasn't getting the info he was looking for, and that can be really frustrating and of course doesn't help the research, but he just kept pressing on and on without stopping and actually listening to what his participants were saying. You can stop, listen, and acknowledge deep pain about an experience, and a misunderstanding about what the interview was about, without insisting on your own agenda. It would have been hugely more appropriate, and more sensitive, to say something along the lines of, "I'm sorry, we meant to indicate to you that this was going to be a factual piece about exactly whether or not the yellow rain happened. We're not denying that your people were treated incredibly poorly, and we hear a lot of pain in your voice, and we think that's an important story too. Let's talk about that for a while after we talk about the yellow rain. Are you comfortable continuing to talk about whether or not the yellow rain happened, or would you prefer to take a break, or stop altogether?" Sometimes the best info comes out of qualitative data by not insisting that the researcher keep absolutely monarchic control of the conversational track.

I mean, I get that journalistic info and truth are very important, I really do. But human emotions and connections are also important, and he really did just run roughshod over what I thought was the much more interesting portion of the interview, which is how the Hmong need the story of the yellow rain to hold up as a specific example to Westerners, who don't know how horrible and widespread their mistreatment was and don't necessarily entirely trust the storytellers when the Hmong tell them about it.

On the other hand, props to Krulwhich and the crew for leaving in the audio. At least they didn't try to cover up what was, clearly, a pretty significant human relations gaff.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:27 PM on October 23, 2012 [38 favorites]


The most interesting thing for me was that after the guests did the whole "what the fuck is wrong with you, this is not why we came here" thing, they stayed and continued the conversation.
posted by griphus at 1:28 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Everybody in the show had a name, a profession, institutional affiliation except Eng Yang, who was identified as “Hmong guy,” and me, “his niece.”

That's not "asking the tough questions," that's racist bullshit.
posted by enn at 1:32 PM on October 23, 2012 [31 favorites]


On September 24, 2012 Radiolab aired their Yellow Rain segment in an episode titled “The Fact of the Matter.” Everybody in the show had a name, a profession, institutional affiliation except Eng Yang, who was identified as “Hmong guy,” and me, “his niece.” The fact that I am an award-winning writer was ignored. The fact that my uncle was an official radio man and documenter of the Hmong experience to the Thai government during the war was absent. In the interview, the Hmong knowledge of bees or the mountains of Laos were completely edited out.

You can disagree with people without belittling them. Indigenous knowledge doesn't always translate into scientific terms; people undergoing racist violence can IMO create mythic/metaphorical explanations for what is happening*. Speaking about those things respectfully and situating them in a context of underlying violence and abuse is possible.


(*There was a story going the rounds on Tumblr a while ago about how the Statue of Liberty was originally supposed to be a statue of an enslaved African woman with broken chains, but that this had been quashed due to racist outcry. Obviously it didn't happen, and there's lots of evidence of that, but there's a lot of power and pain involved in that story - a lot of emotions about real things that did and do happen. Now, you can be like "haha, you're so dumb that isn't true" or you can try to get at the truth of history that brings this story into being.)
posted by Frowner at 1:32 PM on October 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


Thanks aranyx.

There's never time to do it right, but there's always time for corrections.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:33 PM on October 23, 2012


As someone who has been at the hands of a "Woah, this NPR guy is sure being an asshole during this remote-link audio interview", I can say that you don't just walk away from it because you maintain some idea it might get better.

In my case, they edited it to insane levels so everyone sounds smart and not a thunderstorm of asshole.

I wrote about it here.
posted by jscott at 1:33 PM on October 23, 2012 [13 favorites]


To me, this sort of a dust up was inevitable as Radiolab has tried to make a pivot from Fun Science to Serious Science. They need to either change the style of the show or stick with their "oooh, this is cool!" schtick. Even though they do pop science really well, "real science" isn't their strong suit, and so the idea of discussing the "Fact of the Matter" of a genocide on a show with wacky sounds effects, feigned incredulousness, and hard cuts of Krulwich giggling is, I think, the biggest mistake here. You need more than 24 minutes and laughing at bee poop to do this story justice. And then they included the woman's strong reaction to the questioning because - why, exactly? Is this a show about journalism or science? The responsible thing would have been to not air the story at all. 'Hey, we messed this one up, let's either take another crack at it or move on.' Strange decisions all around.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 1:33 PM on October 23, 2012 [27 favorites]


And also there's this question of for whom. For whom is this story being reported? Is it for white people and the Hmong guests are a kind of sideshow? What is the purpose of this story? Why is this angle on this story being taken? Why is the story "people have a conspiracy idea about 'yellow rain' but it isn't true" instead of "what happened to Hmong people and continues to happen to them" or "Hmong intellectuals respond to the war"?
posted by Frowner at 1:34 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


And now I've actually RTFA, I see why Krulwhich and his crew didn't do what any good qualitative data researcher would have done. They pretty clearly went into that interview with a lot of foregone conclusions-- whether because of racism, or deadlines, or ignorance, or all of the above-- and they were so interested in protecting their own narrative that they ignored the narrative presented to them by the people involved, again and again.

This is what the dark side of qualitative research looks like. This is why you think about your privilege, your position in comparison to the storytellers, over and over throughout the process. Or the end result becomes this-- a story about your own unwillingness to hear what interviewees are telling you, about your own ego's need to keep a particular narrative in play, rather than the truth.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:36 PM on October 23, 2012 [14 favorites]


I'm really having trouble following this story due to all the missing pieces. What I gather is this: Hmong villagers had some sort of sticky yellow goo rain down on them in 1981. The Hmong and the US government said it was a chemical weapon, but scientists upon analyzing the stuff said no, it's honeybee droppings. The Hmong have never accepted this explanation, and insist to this day that they were poisoned. This Radiolab program interviewed some surviving Hmong and what? Told them impolitely that they were mistaken about what happened to them, and they were offended? I'm not really sure.
posted by Fnarf at 1:36 PM on October 23, 2012


Knowing Radiolab I assume he was constantly interrupting them. Sometimes to lecture, and other times to ring bells or blow into a french horn while Jad whispered in the background.
posted by Napierzaza at 1:39 PM on October 23, 2012 [41 favorites]


Oh, and I really should say I've been interviewed by a whole number of NPR and Public Radio people over the years, like Christopher Lydon, Nora Young, Dan Misener.... it's not a "public radio" thing, it's "you're running a show and maybe you shouldn't be an asshole" thing.

I was able to handle one Radiolab show before I got tired of the quirky, repetitive, Uncle Nutzy's Audio Funhouse sound, because the signal to noise was in seriously bad shape. I'm sure there's episodes where they're not like that. But I wouldn't call Radiolab serious radio.
posted by jscott at 1:39 PM on October 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


The episode was about how difficult and complicated our relationship with 'truth' can be. It was unpleasant to listen to that moment in the episode, yes. But it all went to the larger point being made, part of which is that people, once they've been convinced of something, especially something so emotionally charged, cannot or will not hear anything that runs contrary to their established belief. So, basically, what Lutoslawski said.
posted by Bartonius at 1:40 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Hmong have never accepted this explanation, and insist to this day that they were poisoned.

Among the other atrocities that actually happened and were dismissed as false just as easily.
posted by griphus at 1:41 PM on October 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


I hate to bring up Holocaust analogues, but this was, in some ways, the equivalent of bringing a camp survivor on the show, having them explain, among other things, Horrible Experiment 47B (the one between 47A and 47C,) and then telling them that Horrible Experiment 47B didn't actually hurt them. I mean, sure, okay, maybe it didn't, but you just got a camp survivor to talk about their experience in order to nod and listen and then say BUT WAIT YOU'RE WRONG. That's pretty fucking cruel in my book.
posted by griphus at 1:43 PM on October 23, 2012 [41 favorites]


especially something so emotionally charged, cannot or will not hear anything that runs contrary to their established belief

Okay, but this extremely old dude, a survivor of human rights atrocities, didn't know that he was going to be used as an object lesson. i don't think it's fair or right that he was.
posted by liketitanic at 1:43 PM on October 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Hey--people like Lutoslawski, Fnarf, and Bartonius--you might want to actually read the Hyphen piece (available via the Google cache) before you actually make any comments. To start with, it's a bit of a straw man to position the Radiolab guys as defenders of "TRUTH," when there's no reason truth = being an asshole.

More dammingly, if you read the Hyphen piece, you see that they had an agenda before they showed up and actually refused to read scientific research that Yang provided and even refused to publish her side of the story--not exactly an exemplary model for disinterested investigation.
posted by johnasdf at 1:43 PM on October 23, 2012 [12 favorites]


Not sure if I missed somehow that it'd been linked already, but Krulwich apologized for how he acted.
posted by General Malaise at 1:44 PM on October 23, 2012


Krulwhich's apology will mean a damn thing when they provide links to Kao Kalia Yang's side of the story and present the research with which they were provided but did not cover. Also when they give the Yangs names and titles in the episode and admit that they were provided with insufficient information before the interview. Yeeeesh. This whole thing just makes my skin crawl.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:46 PM on October 23, 2012 [16 favorites]


that people, once they've been convinced of something, especially something so emotionally charged, cannot or will not hear anything that runs contrary to their established belief

Indeed. Lots of that going around.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:48 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Johnasdf, I did not 'position the Radiolab guys as defenders of "TRUTH"' or make any straw men or anything else. I ASKED A QUESTION, because none of the materials available to me explained in plain English what was going on. I hadn't seen the Google Cache yet, only the broken Hyphen link. Without that article, there's plenty of outrage to go around but no context or content, and I simply couldn't understand what the story was about. OK?

Apparently some guy was an asshole, and I couldn't figure out why. I HATE articles like this, that assume everyone reading has been following this story from the get-go and knows everything.

Now I've read the Hyphen article in cache, and I've got it.
posted by Fnarf at 1:49 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


You're not wrong Walter, you're just an asshole.
posted by exit at 1:50 PM on October 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


Krulwich could've avoiding about 60% of the assholishness of it if he simply hadn't pressed on the point of "you didn't really witness it, did you?" It was clear that they didn't directly witness plane->bomb->yellow rain long before Krulwich considered it plain, because he wanted them to say "no, I didn't witness it." Which under most other journalistic contexts would be the correct standard to reach for; but in this one it just rubbed the Yang's noses in the fact that this specific incident was not directly supported by evidence. It's not hard to sympathize with the Yang's not wanting to give an inch to a "denier".
posted by fatbird at 1:51 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


They also didn't translate the bit where Eng Yang, the 'Hmong guy' was insisting that he'd been a beekeeper, knew what bee pollen looked like, and that this wasn't bee pollen.

Radiolab had a pre-existing narrative, and when that began to fall apart, refused to consider or air, any challenges to that.


And seriously, between the Soviet Union, and the US, I really doubt either of those powers have any motivation to detail exactly which chemical agents they used on the Hmong people. The US hasn't really accepted culpability for Agent Orange, and there still is no clear research on the birth defects caused by Agent Orange, which is especially tragic, as you can look at freaking *flickr* albums of children with severe birth defects in orphanages in Vietnam, and see that there is some very clear typologies of defects, including stuff like Vietnam having a siamese twinning rate several multiples higher than the rest of the world.


Anyway, yeah. Massive fail on radiolab's part.
posted by Elysum at 1:53 PM on October 23, 2012 [16 favorites]


Some background on the Hmong for those who "aren't getting it": the Hmong in Laos were recuited by the CIA to help fight against the Communists during the Vietname War. They gathered intelligence initially but expanded to rescue downed American pilots, fly combat missions, and engage in combat.

When the US withdrew, they essentially left the Hmong to defend themselves. And the North Vietnamese were not kind to them. The Hmong fled into the jungle or escaped to Thailand to avoid further reprisal. By 1975, the US finally began to accept Hmong refugees but by then a lot of damage had been done and is still being felt.
posted by mlo at 1:53 PM on October 23, 2012 [9 favorites]




As I recall the episode (-and, true I haven't read the Hyphen article) the gist of what the episode was about wasn't defending 'Truth'. It was about demonstrating how difficult the concept of truth in fact is and how 'Truth' basically doesn't exist. Upon reflection, yea, maybe it was poorly handled, poorly thought out, maybe naive of them to think this was going to come out okay. But, what about the alternative? They could've run the story and not involved anyone from the Hmong community. And then? But, hey, I could be wrong about all of this and those RadioLab guys are actually a couple of dicks. What do I really know about any of this anyway?
posted by Bartonius at 1:57 PM on October 23, 2012


Yeah, I totally grant that Krulwich certainly could've been nicer about the whole thing and not pressed so hard. Absolutely. But accusing him of racism or condemning him for "speaking as a white man in power calling from the safety of Time"? Nope. I don't buy that.

As for the "other research" from this one Columbia prof - well, I'm dubious I guess. And I don't really think Radiolab's narrative 'fell apart.' I don't think anyone who has seriously looked at this would try and argue that yes in fact this yellow rain was actually a secret chemical weapon developed by Russia. I think they weren't prepared for how vigilantly a guest would cling to what is essentially a misconception about an historical event. It's a science program. I do not hold it against them for favoring the scientific over "indigenous knowledge."

So yes. A bit dick of Radiolab, but a bit overplaying the sympathy card, imho, from the other side. Pretty weird situation all around.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:59 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


After reading the article, I take back what I said about nobility. What a clusterfuck. Strange series of decisions indeed. My heart goes out to "the niece" of the "Hmong guy".
posted by hypersloth at 2:02 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Corresponds to my pre-existing view of Krulwich and co.

Which is what, exactly? This is an opaque statement.


That Krulwich is a douchebag.
posted by spitbull at 2:04 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


I considered posting about this after hearing this episode, but I got busy.

Krulwich got a little too into the "we're reporters and we need the facts!" mindset and somehow nobody considered the fact that they were interviewing people that had been through genocide and war and how this one little story about bee poop, so full of geopolitical dynamite, could be extremely hurtful for their interviewees. It's baffling to me that the interview took this turn. There was a point at which the interviewers could easily have backed off and let the episode hang at the end. Not as satisfying, maybe, but not totally out of Radiolab's style. Maybe as a listener I just have the benefit of hindsight, but it felt like a palpable barrier had been crossed at the first mention of the genocide – after that, I thought they would reign it in. Was that barrier just not as obvious to the Radiolab crew, who must have spent weeks hearing this story over and over again? Who knows. It was an interesting decision to air this interview at all. Krulwich definitely crosses the line and only has his after-the-fact apology to offer, which feels somewhat forced. If I were the producer, I think I would have chalked this one up to a mistake on Krulwich's part and trashed the story.
posted by deathpanels at 2:11 PM on October 23, 2012


What bothered me about that segment is that Radiolab, Krulwich, et al. seemed like they already had their "truth" - that the Yellow Rain was not a chemical weapon, and that they used a survivor of horrible circumstances to confirm their "findings."

Krulwich came off as a bully; that they included Yang's crying at the end seemed to amplify that. Krulwich reduced Eng's experience in Vietnam to "answer this loaded yes/no question in which all of your credibility will be based."

I like Radiolab, but I don't plan on going out of my way to listen to it anymore.
posted by photovox at 2:11 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I totally grant that Krulwich certainly could've been nicer about the whole thing and not pressed so hard. Absolutely. But accusing him of racism or condemning him for "speaking as a white man in power calling from the safety of Time"? Nope. I don't buy that.


Says a white person from a place of privilege....

I think Radio Lab missed a really amazing opportunity to really tell the story of the Hmong.

And that that Eng and Kao Kalia did not have their titles properly attributed on the show does in fact speak to racism by omission. Maybe Radio Lab didn't intend that, but it's what they did all the same.
posted by zizzle at 2:13 PM on October 23, 2012 [13 favorites]


It was about demonstrating how difficult the concept of truth in fact is and how 'Truth' basically doesn't exist.

Does the show acknowledge that, through controlling the medium, the questions, the timing and editing, the 'truth' that listeners receive is just as fragile as Mr. and Ms. Yang's 'truth?'

I don't think it does. I think that if they were committed to the idea of "'Truth' basically doesn't exist," they wouldn't have come in, with the narrative already established of how their story would play out.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:13 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


As I recall the episode (-and, true I haven't read the Hyphen article) the gist of what the episode was about wasn't defending 'Truth'. It was about demonstrating how difficult the concept of truth in fact is and how 'Truth' basically doesn't exist. Upon reflection, yea, maybe it was poorly handled, poorly thought out, maybe naive of them to think this was going to come out okay. But, what about the alternative? They could've run the story and not involved anyone from the Hmong community. And then? But, hey, I could be wrong about all of this and those RadioLab guys are actually a couple of dicks. What do I really know about any of this anyway?

See, this is why I feel like this whole situation is structurally racist. Here is what I am thinking:

1. There's this problem: the harm done to Hmong people as a result of the Cold War and the Vietnam war, harm that persists to this day. (I live in a place where lots of Hmong were resettled and know some Hmong activists, so this is real to me.) People get/got treated pretty badly. There's a lot of racism. There's a lot of emotional damage and physical sickness from the war and refugee camps.

2. There's this other problem, that Hmong people aren't treated as legitimate speakers about Hmong history and community. And Hmong writers and intellectuals are not treated equally with white writers and intellectuals. And Hmong people are often written about as this sort of "alien in our midst" with exotic cultural practices and bullshit, even when people mean well. It's this deep emotional otherizing that white people learn to do, and that's really hard to stop, and that hurts people and prevents real solutions. It sucks! It's treating Hmong people as "objects of inquiry" instead of as your neighbors and fellow citizens.

3. So we have those big, real problems, and we have all these real, actual Hmong writers and public figures out there...and what is the big NPR story about Hmong people? A lulzy story - "haha the 'Hmong guy' thinks it was chemicals but really it was bee shit, lol peasants". It's like, to NPR Hmong people are a media convenience - not even "we just won't write about you because you're not important", it's "we'll write about you when we can get some kicks out of it, you are the equivalent of some humorous imported toy emblazoned with humorously misspelled English".

It's very obvious that no one is actually interested in Hmong people for themselves.

If you're interested in justice, you act with justice - you think about where to tackle a problem and how best to begin and how to ask questions and what stories to tell. If you're interested in putting people on the air to show that they are ignorant peasants because that amuses your audience, then don't be surprised when people hate you.
posted by Frowner at 2:14 PM on October 23, 2012 [61 favorites]


This was one of the craziest things I ever heard on public radio. I'm glad you posted this follow-up stuff because I was dumbstruck listening at the time.
posted by latkes at 2:15 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I really wish that this episode wasn't the one with Tim Kreider (who is a stand-up human being if I've ever met one) talking about his friend because that was a really, really well-produced, quite funny and genuinely heartbreaking segment that tackled the "what is the 'truth' really?" concept in an interesting way.

It's like they managed to get both the best they can do and the worst in one episode and guess which one people are going to remember.
posted by griphus at 2:16 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh man the Tim Kreider segment was amazing.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:19 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lutoslawski, I was struck by your ability to assess the validity of a report by a Columbia Professor that you (like the Radiolab guys) hadn't read. I guess you used this magic credibility detector to assess the other Ivy League professor that Kao offered to the show?

This is a broader issue of what gets considered "truth" or "credible." Those of you who think that Radiolab was just questing towards the truth (whatever that is) should consider why they didn't give any titles to Kao (an award-winning writer that I know and someone very involved in the Hmong community) or her uncle (an archivist commissioned by the Thai government on this topic--with actual experience with bee pollen!). It's not even as thought this is an open-and-shut case, as the Wikipedia entry shows. A great comment from one of the blog posts:

In my view, there were multiple mistakes but a profound one was the lack of acknowledgement of power in truth-telling and truth-adjudicating. Yes, that yellow rain was probably not a chemical weapon is the truth and has moral and political consequences. Yes, that the Hmong experienced terrible suffering and an attempted genocide is the truth and has moral and political consequences. But as you so ably demonstrated, determination of the first truth has advocates and interested parties in two of the most powerful governments in the world, multiple science labs, and your own reporters. Determination and dealing with the second truth, and the reckoning with justice and reparations and pain it might require, seems to have been left by the wayside by everyone but the Hmong who experienced it.

In the wake of this silence, the idea that Eng has any responsibility to act as a witness in the ongoing dispute between all of these powerful parties regarding yellow rain feels ludicrous compared to his ongoing mission to awaken people to the reality of what he and his family experienced. In your post-interview conversation you acknowledged that part of why the interview may have been so difficult for Eng and his niece is that the telling of the Hmong story is tied to this issue of yellow rain, and losing the latter feels like losing the former. But you didn't acknowledge that this is the case precisely because yellow rain has been the only lens through which non-Hmong have been interested to hear Eng's terrible story, which seems a much bigger blindness to the truth, and to the "fact of the matter," than what you chose to focus on.

posted by johnasdf at 2:21 PM on October 23, 2012 [12 favorites]


Krulwich should have known better.

Spray a rain forest with a chemical weapon, and of course there's going to be a large -- huge -- volume of insect crap and barf and sweat and, hell, tears, falling out of the trees -- diluting any traces of whatever chemical floated down from the sky.

Use a toxin that doesn't last long intact -- say one of the binary weapons -- and all you'll detect afterwards by looking at scrapings from what stuck to the ground is some of the results.

Show us the chemistry workups.

Cue the sound file.
posted by hank at 2:24 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Goodbye, Radiolab: The Fact Of The Matter Of Storytelling
Aside from him putting words in Kalia’s mouth, aside from taking complete ownership of what they said, interpreting their words for his own purposes (ironically enough, to express indignation that Kalia and Eng might take ownership of the story), there’s the idea that Robert has the power over what truth should be presented. That Radiolab will dictate where the story goes. The Hmong taking ownership of a story about the Hmong genocide, “that we can’t allow.” I’ll come back to this, because this is where storytelling dies its death on Radiolab.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:27 PM on October 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


When I listened to this podcast over the weekend, I totally heard it as the two people being interviewed who were trying to reasonably point out that their interviewer was missing the point only to be really awkwardly bulldozed by the interviewer... and then when Kao Kalia loses it, it was righteously jarring and I was like YEAH WHAT THE HELL, ROBERT?

I totally understand that they handled it poorly and owe apologies and all of that, but I think as presented, Robert came out as the clear loser even without me knowing any of the deeper context.
posted by SharkParty at 2:31 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


hm, attempts to comment at the Radiolab thread end up on a page called "honeypot" instead of being posted? Well, time will tell.
posted by hank at 2:36 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lutoslawski, I was struck by your ability to assess the validity of a report by a Columbia Professor that you (like the Radiolab guys) hadn't read. I guess you used this magic credibility detector to assess the other Ivy League professor that Kao offered to the show?

Ha. I'm just inclined to believe that, when presented with pretty overwhelming evidence, the yellow rain was bee shit and not a secret chemical weapon designed by Russia that no chemist to date has been able to understand. Call it favoring the simpler explanation, if nothing else. The stuff from Columbia may be interesting, and I would certainly review it. I wonder why she didn't go into more detail about it? I mean, if the science is there? Do you have a link? If there was one I missed it, forgive me.

That the Hmong story has been under-reported is a tragedy, but it is a different problem than determining whether or not yellow rain was a natural and benign substance or a secret weapon.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:36 PM on October 23, 2012


Well, that was an interesting , if short, wiki-walk.

Long story short, back in the '70s Soviets are thought to have come up with a new class of organophosphate nerve agents, specifically to be safer and easier to handle and not known by NATO. One of the symptoms of organophosphate poisoning is defecation - I don't know if this holds true for bees as well as humans.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:41 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well, that was an interesting , if short, wiki-walk.

Yeah, but if you're looking for truth, that's probably not the greatest place to start. No offense to the Hmong.
posted by fungible at 2:50 PM on October 23, 2012


How many bridges would Ira Glass burn if TAL did a show about this episode and about the competing narratives of "science" and "experience". Actually, you know what, that might work. Give Jad and Robert a chance to redeem themselves. There is certainly a bigger story here - large themes abound.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:50 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I won't be satisfied until Krulwich and Abumrad apologize for Radiolab itself.
posted by mrnutty at 2:53 PM on October 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


To be completely honest, you know what bothers me about this episode? I am not really a regular listener to Radiolab – I don't think it's possible to be ADD like I am and actually listen to Radiolab without going insane. However, I have some respect for their method and their approach. They can be curious, and they tend to follow stories even when those stories go in strange directions.

And they completely dropped the ball on this story. It was an excellent lead-in. Yeah, the interview with Eng and Kao Kalia Yang was embarrassing, and probably tough for Robert and Jad to come to terms with. But think of what a massive opportunity that presented them with! Jad mentions during the post-interview conversation they had that Kalia pointed them away from this thing they were focused on and said 'why aren't you looking at this much more important thing?' And yet they refused to. They stuck with a stupid little story about bees, instead of telling the story that was sitting right there in their studio begging to be told.

In fact, I actually thought highly enough of Radiolab that I expected them to do better. This seems like a setup for an excellent Radiolab episode, in fact. Think about this as the storyline that could have been:

They start with this thread about bees, and they run through it and make their discovery about how there weren't actually chemical weapons. And they talk to the Yangs and aren't convinced otherwise – but in talking with the Yangs, they're pointed to something far more important than an interesting but mundane science fact about bee poop. And after that interview, they do another interview with the Yangs to talk about the atrocities as a whole, and present them clearly to the audience (which is not familiar with what happened) and talk about the impact, which is still being felt today.

This is a huge story! It's not too big (or, if I have to say it, too mundane) for Radiolab. It needs to be told. And the Radiolab guys just completely failed to tell that huge story. Instead, they left on this nonsense "well I guess we learned something today" note, which is (I guess) somewhat apologetic but which doesn't live up to the potential of the show or make good on the Yangs hope that their story would be told.

I'm really kind of shocked that they didn't follow this story to the end. It could have been a great episode. And if they'd done that, the Yangs might not be pissed off right now.
posted by koeselitz at 2:57 PM on October 23, 2012 [12 favorites]


I think Radio Lab missed a really amazing opportunity to really tell the story of the Hmong.

But the episode was not about the Hmong. Maybe they can do that later.

I'm confused. Yellow rain is unsubstantiated and most likely complete fiction but pointing this out is racist?
posted by rr at 2:57 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


well, at least the Radiolab guys refrained from adding in the usual wacky sound effects and silly voices in that segment (there must have been many bee pooping audio ideas they were eager to try), so give them that.
posted by Bwithh at 2:58 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Let's see what Scholar turns up: first hit today for me is:

Presence of four Fusarium mycotoxins and synthetic material in ‘yellow rain’: Evidence for the use of chemical weapons in laos


DOI: 10.1002/bms.1200091007

Copyright © 1982 Heyden & Son Ltd.

Biological Mass Spectrometry
Volume 9, Issue 10, pages 443–450, October 1982

Analysis of a ‘yellow rain’ sample by selected ion monitoring revealed the presence of three trichothecenes: T-2 toxin, diacetoxyscirpenol and 4-deoxynivalenol in concentrations of at least 48,42 and 58 ppm, respectively. The concentration of zearalenone, another Fusarium mycotoxin, was estimated to be at least 265 ppm. Evidence for a formulation which contained polyethylene glycol was also obtained.
____________
Cited by 85

This isn't news and was widely reported at the time and referred to subsequently.

Here's a bit from what's quoted in a Scholar search result; the full text is paywalled:

More Biosensors in the System of Express Control of Chemicals, Regularly Used as Terrorist Means, to Prevent Non-Desirable Consequences
N Starodub - The Role of Ecological Chemistry in Pollution …, 2009 - Springer
... They were used from 1975 to 1983 in some countries of South Asia in the form of “yellow rains” [23]. As a consequence, an increased level of some trichotecenes and polyethylene glycol in soil was detected. ... 11. Ember LR (1984) Yellow rain. Chem Eng News 62: 8–34. 12. ...
posted by hank at 3:00 PM on October 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


Corresponds to my pre-existing view of Krulwich and co.
Which is what, exactly? This is an opaque statement.


Perfectly clear to me, as I've been exposed to Radiolab previously. It's easily the most annoying thing I've ever heard on public radio. The special effects they use to make their program distinctive combined with their arrogant delivery make it unlistenable, IMO.
posted by Rash at 3:01 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yellow rain is unsubstantiated and most likely complete fiction but pointing this out is racist?

It's not unsubstantiated and it's not fiction. The early conclusion that it was a chemical weapon has been disputed by subsequent analysis, and an alternative hypothesis offered. RL did their own investigation, including talking to some prominent Hmong, and in the process 1) treated them as average Hmong witnesses rather than qualified activists, and 2) steamrolled over them in an attempt to get them to say "no, we didn't actually witness a plane dropping a bomb that spewed the yellow rain," the admission of which would have bolstered the 'not a chemical weapon' side.

Krulwich's interest in doing so was highlighting the fact that Reagan used the Yellow Rain as chemical weapon story as justification for restarting U.S. chemical weapons programs. But getting there, he did violence to the Hmong, both in person and overall by mashing up their history of suffering in service of his prepositioned narrative. Which is (arguably) racist.
posted by fatbird at 3:05 PM on October 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


rr: “I'm confused. Yellow rain is unsubstantiated and most likely complete fiction but pointing this out is racist?”

I don't think they even named the Yangs in their initial story. That may not be intentionally racist, but it's pretty shitty and culturally tonedeaf. I mean, these are people, not just nondescript villagers.
posted by koeselitz at 3:07 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


as the article linked above (by MeFi Citizen the man of twists and turns ) points out, even if the "yellow rain" was in fact just bee poop, this doesn't rule out the use of chemical weapons (which didn't have yellow characteristics), particularly given the other evidence of suffering
posted by Bwithh at 3:10 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Aside, suitable for a subsequent Radiolab show:

Starodub (2009) says in the abstract: "... individual toxic substances are shortly characterized. Among the latter the main attention is paid to pesticides and some detergents, especially nonylethoxylates, and mycotoxins. "

Nonylethoxylates? Those who read ingredients labels will recognize that.
Watch for it.
posted by hank at 3:10 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know what the really hi-larious part I turned up was? The mycotoxins seem to be the most likely culprits for any 'yellow rain' type chem/bio agent. Many of the initial sufferers were diagnosed as having fungal skin infections, rather than chem/bio exposure.

Mycotoxins are derived from fungi.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:14 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Unintentional racism often tastes the worst. Intentional racism immediately withers in the light, unintentional racism often plays out like a slow, gory train wreck instigated by people who should really know better.

Queue the Radiolab episode about Unintentional Racism. Boioioioioioing.
posted by changoperezoso at 3:14 PM on October 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


But the episode was not about the Hmong. Maybe they can do that later.

Yes, "later" is also when they should have brought on the dude who went through all that shit. If you can't devote the right amount of time and attention to a widely-ignored and massive human rights violation, you should probably find something else to talk about. Cherry-picking atrocity experiences to highlight and disprove when you're directly dealing with a victim is all sorts of bad.
posted by griphus at 3:20 PM on October 23, 2012 [13 favorites]


Did I hear a completely different podcast than everyone else?

I heard it this morning without any knowledge of this controversy over it, and my impression then was not any whitewashing on Radiolab's part. Instead, I thought they did a good job of showing that they begun their interview with Yang to discuss Yellow Rain, but that they had ignored the bigger story of the massacre of the Hmung. A fair amount of the podcast was given over to the horrors of that time, whether caused by Yellow Rain or deprivation/dysentery/conventional bombs/etc. And frankly I thought Krulwich came off as an asshole as he kept pressing them (which I thought was the point of the piece - scientific inquiry should give way sometimes to more strictly human considerations).

Wasn't that the point of the whole episode? That "finding the truth" is inevitably a bigger proposition than one had originally thought?
posted by dd42 at 3:47 PM on October 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


One additional issue I had with the Radiolab story: I never followed exactly what happened, from the science point of view:


Was the bee pollen toxic?
If so, could that have human-induced causes?
If not, what caused the effects experienced in the Hmong villages?
If it was toxic, does this happen all the time? Is there evidence for that? If it is rare, what made it happen just at that period?

I just didn't understand the very convoluted and confusing story they were laying out of what they seem to unequivocally believe happened.

And additionally it was horrible listening to Krulwich's bull-headed and cruel questioning.
posted by latkes at 3:48 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have enjoyed listening to Radiolab for a long time, but this a real mess. I found the original segment pretty jarring, but after reading Yang's article and the "apologies" from Robert and Jad, I'm incredibly disappointed in them. If they really owned up to their mistakes, I think it would be pretty easy to let it go. As it is, I will continue to listen to them, but I feel like I will have a nagging distrust that could ruin the show for me. It's a real shame.
posted by snofoam at 4:01 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


For a show that is purportedly about science, I heard precious little of it in this podcast. Tell me more about the gathering of the samples, the techniques used to test for the presence of putative chemical toxins, the test-retest reliability of those techniques, how fast those toxins or their chemical traces are going to degrade in a jungle, whether they may have been looking for the wrong toxins, et cetera. The face-plausibility of the use of chemical warfare in this scenario (e.g., compelling eyewitness accounts, documentation of use in similar circumstances) is in my opinion high--if you're going to disprove it using the scientific method and it's in some way important to your purpose to show how pragmatically difficult and emotionally painful that process can be, let's actually engage with the evidence like adults. (Which, apparently Krulwich doesn't if Eng's niece and her husband can be believed--he cuts out from the interview inconvenient lines about Eng's experience as a beekeeper, knowledge of the local geography/ecology, and sighting of canisters after-the-fact that could have potentially been from chemical weapons. Does this definitively prove anything? No. But it makes Eng seem a lot more credible within the framing of the article.)

If Krulwich wanted to make some big drag about the manipulation of scientific "truth" to fit important beliefs or sociopolitical exegencies of some group or another, fine. He did not need to drag in the survivor of a motherfucking genocide and set him up as the mono-identified, ethnically-other counter-point to some white dudes with Ph.D.s and fancy titles in a straw-man argument between "folk truth" and "scientific truth." Even if we assume that Krulwich's thesis is true, he can prove that point without treating Eng as if (a) Eng is just some stupid rube who didn't know rocks from shit as his people were being massacred around him, or (b) as if Eng were willfully, consciously propagating a lie amplified by the Reagan administration out of some personal weakness or overinvolvement. It's not that fucking difficult to show basic kindness and respect to someone sharing with you such an intense pain.

What a total disaster.
posted by Keter at 4:18 PM on October 23, 2012 [22 favorites]


This is problematic for me at best. (I'll note that long ago I made some edits to the Wikipedia article, in the same vein of frustration.) I was never fully on board the Reagan/Pentagon line here, but I do have concern about how the Hmong were treated, both geopolitically and culturally.

I eventually concluded that this was one of those Cold War mysteries that should have come out by now. Soviet scientists, Vietnamese dissidents, American bioweapons experts, randomly smuggled paperwork, retired Russian contractors -- most of this stuff has been laid rather bare by now. Where is the evidence?

I have no trouble believing that such things happen; I just figure that if they do large numbers of people would have been participants, and one should be able to find them lo these many changes of government (in three countries!) later.

So what _I_ see is a bunch of Cold Warriors going off as usual half-cocked and cynically using loyal, but in human terms, insignificant to them partisans to make some temporary and now-moot tactical diplomacy.

All that said it sounds as if this was a flawed piece of journalism.
posted by dhartung at 4:20 PM on October 23, 2012


I love Radiolab, have listened to every single episode (even the one about Buke & Gass), and give them money. But this episode made me so angry I very nearly wrote them a grouchy letter and had to be talked out of it by my spouse. I mean, I had composed the letter in my head and everything.

The Yellow Rain segment was bad, bad, bad. Bush-league Malcolm Gladwell counterintuitive HAHA YOU SEE IT IS FREAKONOMICS!!!!! stuff. In the final bit, where they argue about if the interviewees were wrong to be angry, Krulwich's arguments for why Radiolab is right kind of blew my mind.

Here is part of Jad's response to the complaints (and I felt like I got this, from the original argument, that this is where they were coming from):

And I would like to say one thing, forcefully: even with the emotional heat of that moment, I would urge people not to dismiss Robert's point. The label "chemical weapon" is not just semantics. The United States almost used yellow rain as an excuse to begin manufacturing its own chemical weapons, which would have invariably led to other countries doing the same, which would have invariably led to many more people dying. So Robert's insistent questioning wasn't for cheap theatrics. He believes, as we all do, that the truth in this situation is a matter of life or death. It's not just bee poop.

And if they had been primarily interviewing some hawk in Reagan's administration who used the Yellow Rain story as justification for pushing through a new chemical weapons program, that's fine, and I wouldn't have any complaints. But when you are talking to people who were treated absolutely brutally during a conflict caused basically by your country (and then abandoned after they had helped you), why the hell are you debunking the details of their exodus narrative? I thought this was not just rude and cruel but also really sloppy journalism.

The way Krulwich responded to the concerns of the interviewees and his coworkers was so weird and - and colonial, I think? I don't know what other word to use. I felt like he was saying "But VIETNAM! And Reagan's involvement in the Cold War! These are the most important things that have ever happened!!!! They totally override the importance of your culture and the way you were almost destroyed!" which is pretty myopic and America-centric in the most charitable interpretation I can come up with.

There was also an issue of the crazy tonal switching between BEE POOP LOL!!! and The Tragedy of the Hmong that I could not get over.

And I did not actually feel that Radiolab made the most compelling argument for Yellow Rain being innocuous bee poop. I mean, I am prepared to believe it, I guess. But I did not listen to it and think "Oohhhhhh, clearly they are 100% correct". They seem to think they proved this beyond a shadow of a doubt, but I dunno. I felt like the episode was very light on science, and they were ultimately asking me, the listener, to take their word for it as they skimmed over the top of their conclusions.

So basically I did not like this very much, is what I am saying.

But thanks for this post! I wouldn't have found several of the links, otherwise.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 4:24 PM on October 23, 2012 [25 favorites]


So many problems with the show. I was deeply disappointed in Radiolab and their show of transparency and the follow-up apologies have done nothing to improve the situation.

1. Yang and Her uncle were not introduced with their proper credentials, while the scientist and CIA agent were. Already, you know who the "authorities" are.

2. The tone of piece veered from serious to LOL BEE POOP! Intended or not, it makes Hmong people come off like uneducated fools who can't tell the difference between a chemical weapon and bee droppings. (Even though, Mr. Yang clearly had experience with it. A fact that was hidden in the editing.)

3. Mr. Yang's account is discredited because he ran from planes that were shooting at him instead of calmly observing whether or not a toxic chemical was being dropped, while a "scientist" tested some leaves that someone brought him, which proves that it was bee poop. Because Radiolab was so commited to their narrative, they failed the ask the obvious questions: Where did the sample come from? How does it relate to the multiple eyewitness accounts (some of which were excerpted at the beginning of the segment)? Krulwich had no problem asking Mr. Yang the hard questions (essentially blaming him for America producing chemical weapons during the Cold War), but gave the scientist a pass (because he was white? university educated? credentialed? etc.)

The worst point was when Krulwich accused Yang of "monopolizing" the conversation. Krulwich has his own national radio show and editorial say in how the words of those he interviews are represented to the rest of the world. He also has a website to publish his further thoughts on the experience--where Mrs. Yang had to reply via the comments, instead of in the main article.
posted by imposster at 4:29 PM on October 23, 2012 [18 favorites]


I don't see how Yang's piece can be seen as anything other than a brutal takedown of Radiolab's approach to that episode.

Krulwich telling Yang she'd need a court order if she wanted copies of the full interview is just incredibly upsetting, too.

The lack of acknowledgement of who has the power here (Radiolab) and who does not (the people they're interviewing) is shocking. How could Yang possibly "monopolize" the conversation? She doesn't even have the conversation.

I try to remember that people are not solely defined by their mistakes, but this is a tough one to swallow. I think it's going to be a while before I listen to Radiolab again.
posted by Sokka shot first at 4:35 PM on October 23, 2012 [12 favorites]


That Radiolab segment is terrible. It affected me very hard the first time I listened to it. It was like watching a slowly unfolding accident. After listening to it, and reading the various follow-up texts, from Kao Kalia Yang, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, I had to go back to listen to it again, because how it had the segment had gone so terribly wrong was still a mystery to me. I think I understand now what went wrong. I think it's a problem of framing. Krulwich and Abumrad wanted to tell a particular story, and stuck with their frame long after their subject had stopped fitting that frame. The damage caused by that was then compounded by the radically different social status of the various individuals.

The show had gone off the rails before it even got going. Abumrad and Krulwich wanted to tell a story about good fighting valiantly against evil. The conflict that they set up is between the villainous Reagan administration and the hero scientists Matt Meselson and Tom Seeley. But reality is never that simple. That particular narrative arc may fit the two scientists, but has only a peripheral, incidental relationship with what the Hmong went through.

The story Radiolab wanted to tell was about how Reagan used the pretext of the Yellow Rain incident to manufacture the Bigeye bomb, a chemical weapon. But plucky scientists Seeley and Meselson prove that this pretext is all just a lie, that there was no chemical attack on the Hmong. I have no doubt that the scientists established to their satisfaction that the yellow spots on the leaves were pollen. If this had been where the Radiolab episode had ended, it would've been an incidental little story on NPR. The listeners would've laughed at the silly Reagan administration for mistaking bee shit for Soviet chemical weapons, and we'd gotten a stark reminder of how paranoid and crazy the world had been during the Cold War.

It was to the credit of Abumrad and Krulwich that they decided to get input from a Hmong survivor of the war in Southeast Asia. But like Procrustes with his bed, they had a frame and they were going to fit everyone who came their way to that frame. The determination of the Radiolab guys to tell their simplistic story is what got them into trouble. Krulwich and Abumrad treated Eng and Kao Kalia Yang as supporting characters in story of the Meselson and Seeley. When the Yangs resisted being fit into that narrative, that should have changed the story being told. And it did. But not until after Krulwich had humiliated a refugee and his niece by trying to get them to play the part his narrative needed.

That's where the different social status of the various individuals comes into play. One way of seeing it in action is how differently Abumrad and Krulwich treat what they're told by the high status Seeley and Meselson on the one hand, and what Eng Yang says, but as a non-English speaking refugee immigrant, he's about as peripheral to American society as you can get. Nowhere in the segment is the story questioned that the scientists tell about the government functionary that said off the record that the Soviets were owed an apology. However, Krulwich keeps pushing and pushing the Eng Yang. He was using two people as a means to an end, and not giving them the respect they deserve as human beings. The way they treat hearsay from the scientists. Furthermore, he was doing that from a position of high social status towards people who are on the periphery of American society. And that's where the Procrustean Bed cracks and the violence is laid bare.


[This is a complete sidenote, but this really bothered me. The supposed causal link between reports of Yellow Rain and the production of the Bigeye bomb are completely rushed by in the episode. I'm sure that it was used as a pretext, but that there is causality between the two is not even remotely established in the episode.]
posted by Kattullus at 4:36 PM on October 23, 2012 [27 favorites]


So Kao and her Uncle believed that the show was about yellow rain and not about 'truth as opposed to perception and belief'?

Before we even get to racism, let's talk about being cruel, deceptive and manipulative. How effing horrible.
posted by snsranch at 4:38 PM on October 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


LOL BEE POOP!

I fear this is the one thing which really attracted Radiolab to this story in the first place
posted by Bwithh at 4:40 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Did I hear a completely different podcast than everyone else? ... Wasn't that the point of the whole episode? That "finding the truth" is inevitably a bigger proposition than one had originally thought?

I'm not sure if you read Yang's piece linked in the FPP, but if you haven't, then many of the comments in the thread may not make much sense to you. If you look upthread, I think multiple people have actually commented in this thread before reading the article and then come back with comments from a completely different perspective after reading it.
posted by snofoam at 4:40 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


On the other hand the Hmong's suffering is now gaining renewed attention because of the shameful way a couple of radio producers side story about new shit. Honestly hearing the story on the podcast a few weeks ago I had to stop te car and cry when the young woman was berating them. It was one of the most affecting stories I've heard. Reagan and his buddies true to use the original yellow rain to launch a new WMD program. Yet they didn't do anything to help the alleged victims.
posted by humanfont at 4:40 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I listened to this podcast, and I couldn't help but think of it in the context of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I'm too tired to think too much about it now, but maybe someone else can.
posted by murfed13 at 4:44 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also what the fuck radiolab why won't you release whole unedited interview without a court order. I suggest folks in the US call their local NPR/PRI affiliate and tell them that Radiolab needs to do te right thing here. I assume you pledged to public broadcasting, so be sure to give them your member number.
posted by humanfont at 4:48 PM on October 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


murfed13: "I listened to this podcast, and I couldn't help but think of it in the context of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I'm too tired to think too much about it now, but maybe someone else can."

That book was also a horribly skewed portrayal of Hmong experiences; it constantly privileged Western experience over Hmong experience, and depicted Hmong people as ignorant and superstitious. This podcast unfortunately fits right into the mold of that awful book. (My comment in the previous thread about Lia Lee and Spirit.)
posted by jiawen at 4:56 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Radiolab, I knew you were too good to be true. I've only listened a handful of times, but I've always liked it, but this is bogus behavior.

Can someone tell me if this incident an isolated thing, or if it illustrates a pattern of incompetency and cruelty that's existed on the show over the years? I'm hoping it does, because I love reading stories about NPR trainwrecks. Especially slow trainwrecks.
posted by shushufindi at 4:57 PM on October 23, 2012


I have listened to this story a few times now, and though it is very upsetting, I don't think I am as offended as the rest of the internet, and am trying to figure this out. Here is what I heard:
A pretty clearly stated thesis: "Sometimes getting to the fact of the matter—a fact of the matter—that can be tricky. You end up finding things you didn't expect, that are way more complicated than you expect."

Several variations on "the truth":

The politically powerless Hmong believed yellow rain was a chemical weapon, and their daily experience of brutal killings confirmed this belief.

Politically powerful CIA agents thought Laos was a jungle backwater full of rumors and wanted to hear from a Harvard scientist.

An epistemologically powerful chemist says "this leaf has abnormally high concentrations of T-2 toxin." The CIA hears "this is a new type of chemical weapon."

Leaders in a powerful country believe yellow rain is a chemical weapon because they heard it from a scientist at a prestigious university. They want to believe because it is politically convenient.

Scientists in a slightly less powerful country generate a better explanation: yellow rain was created by bees. Several independent tests falsify the politically convenient explanation. Planes were shooting bullets and bombs every day, all the time, and some deaths could have been wrongly attributed to chemical weapons.

The Hmong (politically powerless people being used by a powerful country) say they know yellow rain was falling where there were heavy concentrations of Hmong people. Plus, the powerful country that exploited them now confirms the truth that they have known all along.

A science journalist making a radio show on the nature of truth talks to one Hmong survivor through an interpreter trying to "carry meaning across the chasm of English and Hmong." His questions seem a little rude and uncomfortable.

One "Hmong guy" (Okay, this term was a pretty poor choice) says he knows the chemical weapon explanation is true. Planes were shooting bullets and bombs every day, all the time. Why does it matter if it was bombs or chemical weapons? Why does their experience have to be confirmed by scientists? Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used.
As Jad says at the end: "What do you do when three truths are right at the same time?"

Now the internet has scrutinized every angle of this story, emphasizing all the places where power of all sorts influenced Radiolab's perception of truth and assumptions about knowledge. Sure, Robert Krulwich was a little rude, and it was unpleasant to hear Kao and Eng Yang get upset, but it's silly to say that Radiolab wasn't sure what the point of this story was. This was a story about the complicated relationship between truth, knowledge, and power, and it succeeded on and off the radio.

I'm not sure if I'm the one who isn't listening, or if it's everyone else who has been so offended by this. Do you think that this story was trying to "prove" that yellow rain wasn't a weapon, or invalidate the Hmong experience? Or was it trying to get at a more complicated notion of truth?
posted by ecmendenhall at 5:13 PM on October 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


Heck, even if it were harmless, if something --- some hypothetical spray or noise or whatever -- pure antifreeze? -- happens to have had the effect of stimulating every insect to leap or fly then poop --- if something harmless can be a 'yellow rain' trigger and the unusual material were just the ejecta of bees -- that'd still, we now know, carry a lot of toxic material. Are there ways of weaponizing insect behavior?
posted by hank at 5:26 PM on October 23, 2012


I suggest folks in the US call their local NPR/PRI affiliate and tell them that Radiolab needs to do the right thing here.

Please don't harass the stations with this. Call on your local affiliate to drop RadioLab if that's your goal - that's something they can control - but if you have complaints about the production itself, go straight to the source.
posted by mykescipark at 5:56 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Kalia's husband Aaron responds here and on the Radiolab site
posted by Bwithh at 6:45 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


This thread is fascinating because of how many different kinds of "truth" I see here. Most of the accusations are based on one person's perspective in an article on an internet website. Some of the accusations are made based on Wikipedia. All about a heavily edited radio show.

Now, I don't wish to push aside Ms. Yang's disappointment and anguish about this whole episode, but we've all been burned many times before, reading someone's passionate account of injustice only to find out much later it's, at best, not the whole truth, or at worst, fabrications and hearsay (see Mike Daisey).

How do I know what really happened? Did Krulwich really say "you'll need a court order" in order to get a transcript? I'm sure his perspective was quite different. Did Uncle Eng really go in depth on his bee expertise during this interview? I don't know that for sure; maybe there was a misunderstanding. I don't even know the full truth behind "Hmong guy and his niece" - maybe they didn't use their names because they asked for anonymity. I'm sure Eng's experience was a horrible truth for him, and I'm sure Ms. Yang's experience with Robert Krulwich was pretty tactless, but don't accept everything you read on the internet as the full objective truth any more than something you heard on RadioLab.

I'm not trying to make excuses for these guys, it's clear they stepped in it pretty bad here. But even our biggest heroes inevitably fail us. I'm not going to stop listening just because they made a mistake and dared to do some on-air soul searching about it. If you want to hear some radio with someone who doesn't care about the truth and never apologizes for it, try Rush Limbaugh.
posted by fungible at 6:52 PM on October 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


I listened to it fresh too and I'm glad we're all getting a chance to process the upsetting thing we witnessed. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

They brought Eng and Yang on thinking they would have a chance to tell their story, just to jump out from behind a bush and go "Actually no, the truth is you just got pooped on!" (of all things) and then not even prove the case that they just got pooped on, and then themselves get offended that Eng and Yang weren't as in awe of their grand thesis about the nature of reality as they were. If this was a natural harmless and amusing phenomenon, why did it just happen this one time that these people were also coincidentally under attack? They never attempted to answer that question.

"What do you do when three truths are right at the same time?"

The thing that really offended me, besides the awful way they treated they guests, was this wide-eyed bewilderment at the idea that there can be different conflicting but equally valid truths about one thing or one person at one time. This bothered me in the other segments in the show as well. Maybe I took too many English lit classes but to me this is like saying "What do you do when your kid wants to stay up but you know they really have to go bed??" as if it's this mind-blowing koan. It's just not a new or surprising thought. That's not to say it's not interesting but it's like on Project Runway when the judges say "It's a nice dress but we've seen it before." What else is new? I already took Philosophy 101.

But, what you do when that happens is just give it a lot of thought, get input from people who know more about it than you, and proceed slowly and carefully. What you don't do is pick the one you think can't defend itself and bend it and step on it until it fits your pre-conceived notions. If that's what you think the right thing to do is, it's no wonder you're so surprised that reality can be complicated some times.
posted by bleep at 7:18 PM on October 23, 2012 [19 favorites]


By the way "You" is referring to the hosts of the show, not anyone here.
posted by bleep at 7:18 PM on October 23, 2012


fungible: I don't even know the full truth behind "Hmong guy and his niece" - maybe they didn't use their names because they asked for anonymity.

They were identified by name. You have misunderstood the complaint, which is that while everyone else was credentialed (e.g. Harvard scientists, CIA operative), Kao Kalia Yang and Eng Yang were merely there as Hmongs, as far as the Radiolab narrative was concerned. Ms. Yang is herself Ivy League educated, which shouldn't matter, but in a radio segment like this where listeners form impressions based on very little, that kind of thing does matter. Furthermore, Eng Yang is not put in any other context than as an old refugee. From what I've read online, he is highly educated and an expert on this issue, that Radiolab didn't bother to give him any context except as refugee and survivor is rather damning, I feel.

Did Uncle Eng really go in depth on his bee expertise during this interview?

According to Hmong-speakers in the comment section on Radiolab, he can be heard, in Hmong, talking about being a beekeeper.

How do I know what really happened? Did Krulwich really say "you'll need a court order" in order to get a transcript?

Aaron Hokanson, Ms. Yang's husband, says he was present during the two-hour long interview and backs that assertion up.
posted by Kattullus at 7:30 PM on October 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


The notion that Krulwich would pull this court order trick is surprising. Is that at all standard in journalism, whether radio or otherwise? I mean, when it is the very subjects of the interview who are asking for the transcript or recording. That just seems wrong.
posted by chinston at 7:36 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


>Aaron Hokanson, Ms. Yang's husband, says he was present >during the two-hour long interview and backs that assertion up.

Wow. Yeah, I'd like to hear the missing middle half of the record and read the translation -- and find out if the Radiolab interviewers were actually getting the translation and having time to think about what the translator conveyed.
posted by hank at 7:45 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh cripes, THIS - this could have been an AMAZING segment had they followed this progression of thought. It was an unfinished piece. Kudos to them for having aired the discomfort but they DID NOT redeem themselves, and they continue let the wound fester.

As to the issue of racism - well I feel that to those who think that's an overreactive response, I would say there is a distinction between malicious racism and endemic racism and the fallout of this entire debacle for me is that there is a base level assumption that these smart, Western reporter types know how much better than a couple of ethnics.

Perhaps, to turn the tables around, we can frame this story as "white American guy contradicts Hmong genocide story as told by official Hmong documentarian and witness, and award-winning Ivy-league educated writer"
posted by mooza at 8:11 PM on October 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Don't forget to call your local NPR affiliate as well. Yes the local affiliate has no control over the program, but they are the ones who buy the content from NPR. In effect the local station is NPRs customer. When the affiliates start to complain, that gets those in NpR management moving. Juan Williams was a classic exams of this.
posted by humanfont at 8:25 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


That the Hmong story has been under-reported is a tragedy, but it is a different problem than determining whether or not yellow rain was a natural and benign substance or a secret weapon

Not at the moment they intersect. And this is where I think the real failure lies. I love Radiolab, and will continue to listen, but I think they're taking some well-earned flack over this. If, at the end of this conversation, either host had said, 'Whoa, wait, okay, the horror that the Hmong experienced during America's war in Southeast Asia is not what we're covering, probably because we're not qualified to. We're trying to figure out if one factor of that was an understandable misunderstanding of a natural phenomena in the fog of war that went one to have some horrible effects. If you feel this is degrading to the Hmong experience at all, we apologize", then this would have been a great segment.

I walked away from it feeling like, if nothing else, not listening carefully to the people who were actually there is a serious mistake. Lab work is all well and good, but it's not bulletproof. And automatically assuming that one piece of chemistry solves the problem. Well, I guess that's what gets us here.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:01 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


mlo: "Some background on the Hmong for those who "aren't getting it": the Hmong in Laos were recuited by the CIA to help fight against the Communists during the Vietname War. They gathered intelligence initially but expanded to rescue downed American pilots, fly combat missions, and engage in combat.

When the US withdrew, they essentially left the Hmong to defend themselves. And the North Vietnamese were not kind to them. The Hmong fled into the jungle or escaped to Thailand to avoid further reprisal. By 1975, the US finally began to accept Hmong refugees but by then a lot of damage had been done and is still being felt
"

Goddammit. I hate how the US is so sociopathic in how it forgets and abandons people and countries that work with it. It just makes me weary and sad.
posted by barnacles at 9:53 PM on October 23, 2012


> forgets and abandons people and countries that work with it.

I remember a television comic cracking (back in the '50s or '60s) that every time the US lost another ally, US cities got another variety of ethnic restaurant.
posted by hank at 10:13 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, I'm very late to this thread (and I've only made it about halfway), but I wanted to say that this is a textbook example of what the feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker refers to as "episitemic injustice", and if you work with indigenous or forgotten communities it's something that you become quite familiar with, even if you've never known how exactly to describe it. If you like philosophy or feminist theory, or you are involved in any epistemological field, I cannot recommend her book enough.

The idea behind epistemic injustice is that one can commit an injustice on a person or a group by denying them the right to their own knowledge and way of knowing. I believe she originally began building the philosophical and ethical basis for examining this injustice in relation to women's struggles, but it has amazing theoretical power for any dispossesed or oppressed group.

Knowledge and power -- especially social power -- and intimately related, but in modern western society we tend to think of knowedge as all stemming from an objective truth, and once we've got our hands around that truth we can judge everything else. For quantitative data (e.g., 2+2=4), it's an understandable position to be in (though see Elizabeth Potter's Gender and Boyle's Law of Gases for a rather entertaining read about how even natural laws can be influenced by the social position of the person exploring them). But once you get beyond this into qualitative data, ways of knowing, and personal standpoints, all that jazz goes right out the window!

But these days, we don't really celebrate alternate ways of knowing of anything that might turn our black/white views of objective truth more grey. Just check the recent thread in which Scientific American attacked the fact that candidates were attacking science ... by attacking (specifically) post-modern approaches to knowledge and (implicitly) any sort of epistemology that doesn't conform exactly with the male-dominated western scientific approach that we've been doing for the last few hundred years. The title of that thread ought to be something more like "Science. Within the constructs of late, industrialized, capitalist, neo-liberal, European-dominated, patriarchal, quantitative STEM-focused worldviews and societies, it works, candidiates!

And that's sorta what I see happening with Radiolab here. They go in with these very quant-centric views of science and truth and reality, and then try to apply them to something that has to be approached from directions that are both culturally relative and culturally respectful. And of course they fail, and then don't understand why they failed nor do they realize what the problem was, thus committing epistemic injustice by denying local knowledge and continuing to privilege the non-critical pop science they blather about.

Skimming above, I see that the show ended with "What do you do when three truths are right at the same time?"

What you do is you accept that and realize that we all come at truths from very different ways and that they can all be right at the same time, depending on the person. Western science and western pop science can't handle that because it's too inflexible and absolute, but by being inflexible and absolute it only continues to be part of ongoing injustice against many cultures, groups, people, and places.

(Sorry about the mini-dissertation here; this is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart and which I can rant about for days)
posted by barnacles at 10:21 PM on October 23, 2012 [15 favorites]


I don't know if I have a lot of new thoughts to contribute to this thread, but I'm personally glad it came up as this interview/episode has haunted me for the past few weeks. I'm glad to learn I'm not the only one.

So many conflicting emotions/thoughts.

This confirms for me that Robert can be a jerk and very emotionally/culturally tone-deaf. I first got this impression during an episode on Genghis Khan in which he (if I recall correctly) jokingly described Khan as a "lady's man" or something to that effect, but I wrote it off as an unfortunate fluke of the Radiolab cutesy aesthetic. When he started getting aggressive with Eng Yang and it was clear he'd crossed a very serious line but dug in his heels anyway and went even further . . . wow, I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

And then, when they left the reaction of Kao Kalia Yang in, I felt they'd redeemed themselves to some degree. The emotion behind her speech was absolutely compelling and damning. I actually thought they would end the episode there, and I really wish they had. But no, they went on to process what happened and, in the midst of that processing, Krulwich makes his counterargument that They Were Investigating Something Very Important and she just wanted to co-opt the conversation and make it all about the Hmong's story.

At first, this really rubbed me the wrong way, but I thought he had a point. Manufacturing chemical weapons is a big deal to everyone on the globe and that this story could have been a key factor in reintroducing their widespread manufacture puts it in a wider context, especially considering that this happened pretty near the height of the Cold War. On the other hand, it seemed he was just digging his heals in even further in order to have the last word. After all, the episode was ultimately about the quirkiness of truth and bee poop, not the Cold War and the disasters we narrowly missed.

On the other hand again, there's something that bugs me about the notion that questioning the alleged facts of an an oppressed culture's oral history amounts to racism. I kind of felt like that was implied in Eng Yang's and Kao Kalia Yan's critique of the interview. I realize Radiolab wasn't upfront about their story angle and that this deception or lack of transparency drives a lot of the justifiably hurt feelings and anger, but I feel like there was also this notion of "if you don't accept our account of events as factual, then you're refusing to hear us." To me, that approach seems brittle and potentially counterproductive in the long run. Surely there's a way to honor the truth of what people experienced while interpreting it in light of new information. Which, to go back to Radiolab's errors in this situation, they didn't even attempt to do, perhaps because they were determined to dogmatically stick to this (ironically and fundamentally unscientific) theme of "the paradox of irreconcilable truths."

Finally, as other have said, this:

Everybody in the show had a name, a profession, institutional affiliation except Eng Yang, who was identified as “Hmong guy,” and me, “his niece.”

is pretty damning and does indeed count as institutionalized colonialism and racism in my book.
posted by treepour at 10:28 PM on October 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


Wait a minute, Radiolab is a science show? I’ve listened to several minutes of it at various times and never got that. I always end up turning it off because it’s one of the most annoying shows I’ve ever heard.
posted by bongo_x at 10:30 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


it’s one of the most annoying shows I’ve ever heard.

yeah, just the sound design by itself is difficult to bear for me too.

One of the Radiolab guys got a MacArthur Genius award because he created the show, apparently.
posted by Bwithh at 10:35 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Abumrad is the one who got the Genius Grant. Which is probably why Krulwich is such an insufferable asshole.
posted by Waitwhat at 11:21 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


That Radiolab was a pretty cringeworthy piece. I do have mixed feelings about the reaction(s), however. It felt like shoving a dose of unwanted critical rationality down the throat of someone who desperately needs their faith to deal with whatever demons they may be battling. Krulwich was unnecessarily cruel to push the interview as far as he did.

Yet at the same time, there are moments when when one may need to face the cracks in one's foundation, especially if it causes a harm to be done. This isn't always an easy process to undergo. And I'm not sure it always leads to a truly happy ending. Sometimes, just a necessary one.

In this case, I'm not inclined to grant Krulwich amnesty for assuming that task as his responsibility. It's entirely possible the program could have strengthened itself by continuing the science theme beyond chemical warfare and bee shit, to include the psychology of belief. But at this point, it may be more gracious to let the whole thing fade.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:39 PM on October 23, 2012


At this point, I don't really believe a damned thing Radiolab said in this piece. I don't believe scientists say that it was only bee poop. I don't believe no chemical weapons were used. And I sure as hell don't believe that the Yellow Rain incident led to the US development of chemical weapons.
posted by koeselitz at 1:30 AM on October 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Generally speaking, I don't think Radiolab's angle that it was bee poop is irrelevant (although I definitely don't think we got the whole picture here), but asserting that particular truth by reducing these people to tears by saying their experience was wrong, invalidating their tragedy, is a DREADFUL way to make that point. Especially if they were not given the full picture of what they were being interviewed for to start with. How incredibly traumatic for them. How thoughtless and cruel of Radiolab.

To say, essentially, "oh I listened back to the interview and yeah I was a bit harsh but I was still right" doesn't address the issue of what the Hmong went through and they are still, in effect, denying them their tragedy. This is not because they don't believe the genocide took place (I think), but because they royally fucked up they way they handled the story. They missed such a prime opportunity to tell the Radiolab story while still staying respectful to the Hmong story. And they still don't strike me as actually *getting* it. If they did they'd have reached out to the "Hmong man" and his "niece" and apologised. It's not that they don't have a valid point, it's that they were being assholes while making it.
posted by mooza at 1:48 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I had heard this when it first aired, but I must've been completely distracted or checked out or asleep, because now... I listened to it just now, twice. I can't even wrap my head around how wrong it is, in every conceivable way. In an episode themed around finding truth, when one found them...they so obtusely and petulantly dismiss it?

Not only that, but they went on to frame the entire segment so that this empathyless bait-and-switch was exalted that much higher and then yanked from the viewer. That they don't see this, I am forced into "Is this a parody?" mode. But what kind of people...?

And any charity towards them was quashed when they included the debrief bit, where they just add insult to injury and further make directly discrediting comments about Kao (and Eng), calling their sincerity into question. Complete with "Golly, it sounds like they were saying that THIS was the important bit...do you think that's what they were saying?" "Well, yes, to them at least. They did say that" "How strange. Can't say that I agree!"

And then they cap it all off with a bullshit apology...to the viewers. As the last word. End of segment. For you know, their reputations and the reputation of the show, I presume.

And I'm not even going to get into the whole co-opted style of the thing where the announcers voice-over other people's stories, as if they can explain it better. I don't want to hear their damn summaries anymore. I've lost all respect.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:44 AM on October 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


ecmendenhall, then Radiolab should have made the angle of the show apparent to its guests from the start, or they should have picked a topic less volatile, rife with tragedy, and the very real truth of an actual genoicde that did happen.

There are plenty of other topics they could have discussed to achieve the same point -- ones that probably wouldn't have led to this public call out and shaming ---, but they went with a heavy topic probably to demonstrate their point with gravity. But they screwed it up when they were met with people who refused to let their very real tragedy of being a persecuted people be countered. It is known that the Hmong were killed in droves.

It is speculative that yellow rain had an impact on that, yes. And, yes, that was the point of the show.

But does it really freaking matter? Whether yellow rain or bullets killed the Hmong, the Hmong were actively slaughtered. And THAT'S at least part of the truth that RadioLab should have paid due respect and attention to.

Imagine if they did this to a Holocaust survivor, as someone above suggested. IMAGINE if they had done that.
posted by zizzle at 4:35 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've been thinking about this episode a lot since I heard the podcast the other day. I'm a long time, and sometimes ambivalent, listener to RadioLab. It was in fact painful to listen to. My take-away reactions at the time (before reading any of the commentary) were:

- yes, Krulwich pressed way too long in the interview to get Eng Yang to accept the RL consultant's findings about the yellow powder (and any fool would know going into it that a lifelong activist for a particular cause was unlikely to accept a fundamental challenge to his story during the course of a brief interview, even had they had a dozen peer-reviewed papers backing up their point)
- as an aside, the whole incident strengthened my feeling (that has been building over the years) that Abumrad and Krulwich -- who do not themselves have scientific credentials or education, and whose jokey "Yuk, yuk, I did so bad in Math in high school!?!" and "Maybe weird scientific findings are really the fingerprints of God" routines wear very thin sometimes (to the point where I sometimes skip past a podcast when they go into into disingenuous "English major mode" during a story) -- are walking on very thin ice when covering any scientific argument of depth
- since I knew the names of both the Hmong man (Eng Yang) and the interpreter (Kalia Yang) before reading the article linked above, I presume they were in fact identified by name in the program and not simply called "Hmong man" and interpreter as some are asserting upthread; if that was something they put into the podcast that was not in the original radio show I retract this objection to what people are claiming up thread
- Okay, this is subjective, but long before the interview veered out of control into upset, I had this weird feeling listening to Ms Yang's interpreting during the interview that she was substantially embellishing her elderly relative's account; it would be interesting to have a third party interpreter confirm this, because even before the interview blew up the whole thing felt really weird to me, like Ms Yang was herself using the elder as a political prop
- when Ms Yang gets upset during the interview and starts yelling at Krulwich and the other interviewer, it's very sudden and shocking and you can tell Krulwich is startled and blindsided and upset; you might point to his not forseeing this reaction as a failing as an interviewer, but not so much as a deliberately cruel or cynical tactic. (Maybe that's worse, I don't know)
- listening to what Ms Yang says to Krulwich when she is upset, the substance of it (as I remember hearing the story) felt at the time that she believed American radio guys are not allowed to disagree in any way with her / the Hmong account of being poisoned specifically by Yellow Rain, because of the simple fact that their people's genocide happened, which is I guess troubling, though again is a commentary of what truth is and who owns it, I suppose
- People making comments about Abumrad's role in this should know that while he probably produced the living shit out of the final mix, which is what he does in all RL eps, he wasn't part of this actual interview (some of the comments above seem to assume he was) - the interviewers were Krulwich and a Minnesota Public Radio staffer whose name I don't remember

Now, having read some of the linked materials, I can add:

- the fact that Ms. Yang started her rebuttal article by mentioning she was pregnant feels like a cynical sympathy-getting tactic and bothers me a lot, similar in feeling to how I felt she was behaving in the interview before the blow-up -- I come away feeling she is not naive or unacquainted with politically manipulating opinions either.
- this is a troubling program, all around; what's most ironic that I am not sure anyone really went into up thread is that part of the (lefty expose') RL agenda going into this was proving that the Reagan administration used the (provably false) Yellow Rain report cynically to prop up its re-entry into evil chemical weapons manufacturing -- only for RL to mishandle the interview so badly then end up looking like the same kind of imperialist shitbirds they were trying to uncover!
posted by aught at 6:42 AM on October 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


For Lutoslawski, who doesn't "think anyone who has seriously looked at this would try and argue that yes in fact this yellow rain was actually a secret chemical weapon developed by Russia":

Here's a bit from a Princeton PhD dissertation on the topic: "I find that there appears to be sufficient information from a variety of sources to make a confident assessment that a chemical or toxin agent was used against the Hmong."

And here's an analysis by that same author plus another PhD, published by the journal of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences: "Our analysis strongly supports the hypothesis that [chemical and biological weapons] were used in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, although a definitive judgment cannot be made."

and here's part of the Textbook of Military Medicine by the Office of the Surgeon General/Department of the Army of the United States: "Actual biological warfare use of trichothecenes in Southeast Asia...is strongly supported by the epidemiological and intelligence assessments and trichothecene assays, although reports in the open literature have discounted this contention...It is important to remember that persons caught in a shower of bee feces do not get sick and die. Although bee flights have occurred before and since 1982, reports of attacks of yellow rain and death in Asia have not."

So it's not like on the one side we have this giant edifice of FACT! and SCIENCE!, and on the other side we have emotional Hmong misrepresenting things.
posted by feets at 6:50 AM on October 24, 2012 [16 favorites]


As I see it, we had two groups of people who were attached to their narratives. The Radiolab guys were attached to the "bee poop" narrative because it fit their purposes and their aesthetic (and failed to mention that "bee poop" is not 100% scientific consensus, because that didn't fit with their story arc). Meanwhile, the Hmong were attached to the "we were massacred" narrative because they were massacred -- and, as Ms. Eng says, the details of how the war was fought can feel semantic if it was your family and neighbors who were murdered, sickened, had their eyes rot, etc.
posted by feets at 6:53 AM on October 24, 2012


I had a thought today for a radio segment, probably more appropriate for This American Life - an interview with a sound engineer. As the engineer is editing, cleaning and cutting the interview.

Obviously, can't edit in real time. But the editing would stop when the interview did, so as the segment progressed, more gaps, more tangents, more noise would appear, degrading the quality of the interview. I think it would be neat.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:41 AM on October 24, 2012


I don't think Yang blamed her miscarriage on the Radiolab train wreck. It was more of a device to tell her and her uncle Eng's side of the story, of the potential that the pregnancy and the Radiolab interview provided, and her attitude towards dealing with the heartbreaking outcomes of both events.

Yang's pregnancy represented the hope of building a family with her husband. The Radiolab interview represented the hope of sharing with the world the difficulties that the Hmong faced after the Vietnam War and how much it still affects them today. Especially when the Radiolab producers had framed their request to speak to Eng as such: "the show was looking for the Hmong perspective on Yellow Rain for a podcast." The epidemic of illness and death was their experience with Yellow Rain.

She miscarried and yet was able to put her son's spirit to rest rather than give in to such a terrible event mirrors her situation with Radiolab; that even though she and her uncle suffered through the interview and the proceeding events, she still has the grace to give Radiolab a chance to redeem themselves and put this fiasco to rest:

I have a proposition for you: that one of your colleagues do a story on the Hmong experience of what happened in Laos after the Americans left, a story that will respect the Hmong voices, and redeem all of our faith in good journalism that transcends cultures and revives history so that our shared realities become more whole. I am happy to help in any way I can. I cannot afford to give in to cynicism.

So her speaking of her miscarriage is not some disingenuous ploy for our support. It doesn't read that way.
posted by mlo at 11:02 AM on October 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Stuff like this annoys me as a journalist. It's just tremendous bad faith to go into an interview and not actually listen to what you're being told. It's OK, even good, to be skeptical, and doing so isn't necessarily racism, but this added up to a racist effect in a really unfair way.

I guess that's the fundamental complaint I have with this: it was an unfair use of power and it ended up sinking a good story beneath bullshit.
posted by klangklangston at 11:45 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Stuff like this annoys me as a journalist. It's just tremendous bad faith to go into an interview and not actually listen to what you're being told..

True, thats more of a talk show host attitude getting into a debate with a caller or something.

Radiolab could have politely asked their questions without trying to contradict/getting the interviewee to admit his/her experience being invalid.
posted by asra at 12:46 PM on October 24, 2012


Much has already been said. Let me add that I think one of the egregious mistakes they made in this segment was to include the moment when Kao Kalia Yang becomes distraught as an emotional climax within the show--something riveting, like the moment when you hear a woman come out of a coma in a different episode. That struck me as terribly wrongheaded and exploitative.
posted by umbú at 1:23 PM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is how Radiolab works. It's way beyond this incident. They have disdain for most of their interviewees because they are just so fucking clever.
posted by spitbull at 4:42 PM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


The "Yellow Rain" Controversy: Lessons for Arms Control Compliance is a 2001 article by chemical and biological warfare expert Jonathan B. Tucker. It sets out the whole story, fully acknowledging blanks in knowledge, and putting forth the various theories posited about Yellow Rain.

If you have more than a passing interest in this story, I highly recommend reading this article. Besides being a very clear overview, it answers a lot details that have come up in-thread (e.g. the suspected toxic agent does indeed degrade quickly).

My main takeaway is that the US government's case was completely botched from the start. The investigation was so poorly handled that it served to obfuscate things rather than illuminate. Furthermore, it made "yellow rain" specifically the bone of contention, which caused people to overlook a number of other important things: "Lost in the heated scientific debate over the U.S. government's mycotoxin allegations was an early consensus among military analysts that some type of chemical warfare was taking place in Laos and Cambodia in violation of international law." [Italics in the original]

This article reinforced for me just how poorly Radiolab told the story. They approach a delicate situation with many facets, and just bulldoze through it. That is no way to discuss a complex situation.

Tucker had a short followup article, which is mainly of interest if you've read his original
posted by Kattullus at 6:28 PM on October 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


aught: since I knew the names of both the Hmong man (Eng Yang) and the interpreter (Kalia Yang) before reading the article linked above, I presume they were in fact identified by name in the program and not simply called "Hmong man" and interpreter as some are asserting upthread

This has been addressed a whole bunch of times upthread. The complaint wasn't that the Yangs were left anonymous, but that they were presented without any context other than "Hmong guy" and "his niece." Every other person pulled into the narrative is given context that makes the listener trust what they have to say. The way the segment is set up, the word of a scientist and Harvard professor is pitted against a refugee. The technical, historical and agricultural expertise of Eng Yang is completely left out of the story. Most listeners will give the words of experts more weight than that of non-experts, so when the expertise of one side in a debate is hidden, it privileges those whose expertise is made plain.

I had this weird feeling listening to Ms Yang's interpreting during the interview that she was substantially embellishing her elderly relative's account; it would be interesting to have a third party interpreter confirm this, because even before the interview blew up the whole thing felt really weird to me, like Ms Yang was herself using the elder as a political prop

On what basis do you make this allegation? I don't speak Hmong, so I don't know, but the Hmong-speakers I've seen talk about the Radiolab segment back up what Ms. Yang has said. Having done a bit of simultaneous interpretation, I can say that doing so is immensely taxing, and that you get mentally exhausted quickly. So I'm sure there are a few minor discrepancies here and there, but nothing major.

listening to what Ms Yang says to Krulwich when she is upset, the substance of it (as I remember hearing the story) felt at the time that she believed American radio guys are not allowed to disagree in any way with her / the Hmong account of being poisoned specifically by Yellow Rain, because of the simple fact that their people's genocide happened, which is I guess troubling, though again is a commentary of what truth is and who owns it, I suppose

That is not what she says. Here is a transcript of what she says:
My uncle says for the last 20 years, he didn’t know that anybody was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. You know what happened to the Hmong happened. And the world has been uninterested for the last 20 years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard, and that the Hmong deaths would be [well?]-documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview. That the Hmong heart is broken. That our leaders have been silenced. And what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reasons. That Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story. That they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game. We can. But I am not interested. My uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people, in the process.

I think that the interview is done. [transcript taken from Matthew Salesses]
Sidenote: The whole interview was two hours long. This is an excerpt that the Radiolab people chose to play for their audience. Personally I'd find it deeply humiliating if a recording of me losing my composure was played on radio, and I don't understand how their story necessitated doing that.

People making comments about Abumrad's role in this should know that while he probably produced the living shit out of the final mix, which is what he does in all RL eps, he wasn't part of this actual interview (some of the comments above seem to assume he was)

Unless I misunderstand Abumrad's blogpost, he took part in making that segment and in the decision to air it. I haven't seen anyone say that he was the one asking questions.

the fact that Ms. Yang started her rebuttal article by mentioning she was pregnant feels like a cynical sympathy-getting tactic and bothers me a lot, similar in feeling to how I felt she was behaving in the interview before the blow-up -- I come away feeling she is not naive or unacquainted with politically manipulating opinions either.

The reason you thought she is naive is that she was presented by the radio program as Hmong and nothing else. She has a bachelor's degree from Carleton College, an MFA from Columbia University, and is a radio presenter. She wrote this short documentary, The Place Where We Were Born. She is a writer and she is using words to present her story. That's what people do, that she is skilled at it shouldn't be held against her. If the Radiolab crew had been better at that, there wouldn't be this awful mess. Furthermore, her pregnancy seems like pretty germane to the story of how she reacted to the incredibly stressful circumstances she faced. To make an analogy, if someone had an accident and had to be hospitalized, while also dealing with the repercussions of a national media fiasco, that would be a part of any story told about that.
posted by Kattullus at 7:23 PM on October 24, 2012 [10 favorites]


Personally I'd find it deeply humiliating if a recording of me losing my composure was played on radio, and I don't understand how their story necessitated doing that.

In fairness to the RL guys, presenting her losing her composure with them was the lead in to their failed attempt to recognize that they'd done something wrong and address it. If they really wanted to double down on their narrative, they could have edited the Yang's part in it to confirm that they hadn't witnessed planes and bombs, and left it at that, with the Yangs implicitly supporting the bee poop theory. In condensing two hours into five minutes, leaving it in gave it some importance, and I haven't seen anyone who thought that Krulwich wasn't being a dick, so the import of that particular choice seems entirely in the Yang's favour.
posted by fatbird at 7:51 PM on October 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Official Radiolab response including list of questions producers sent before interview.
posted by gwint at 9:00 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am so embarrassed for Radiolab and WNYC right now. It's hard for me to even read their followups and "rebuttals." I have never been a huge fan of RC, but I had expected better of Jad and the rest of the staff. I'm honestly shocked that they've dug themselves in this deep.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:08 AM on October 25, 2012


gwint has already posted the link to a rebuttal of some of the assertions from the Hyphen essay published by the chief content officer for WYNC. He goes through and presents a pretty convincing case (at least to me), including a debunking of several of Kalia's assertions including that she was not informed of interview topics in advance.

1) On the accusation that Radiolab did not inform Kalia Yang and Eng Yang of the interview topic in advance.
Six days before the interview, Radiolab producer Pat Walters sent Kalia an email with the following questions. Although our reporters generally do not send questions in advance, in this case, recognizing the sensitivity of the story as well as possible language barriers, Pat wanted to be sure that Kalia and Eng Yang were informed of the exact nature of the interview. He and Robert did not know the answers to these questions beforehand.

On May 10, Pat sent Kalia an email that included the following:

Here are my questions:

Tell me about where you lived in Laos.

What happened after the Americans left?

Was your village attacked?

At what point did you first hear about the yellow rain?

Where did the name yellow rain come from?

How does one say yellow rain in Hmong?

Did you see it yourself?

What did it look like? Did you touch it? See evidence of it on leaves or houses?

It made people sick? What happened to them?

Who specifically got sick?

Did people die from the sickness that came from the yellow rain?

When did you leave?

Tell me about the journey out of Laos.

When did you arrive in Ban Vinai?

Did you hear stories about the yellow rain there?

Do you know about the theory scientists have that the yellow rain wasn't a poison weapon, but instead was bee droppings?

What do you make of that?

Please let me know if you want me to clarify anything.

Thanks, Kalia.

Pat

posted by forkisbetter at 10:11 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Current Magazine also included a good break-down of the story as it relates to public media.

Of note, I thought that Jad's response to accusations of racism and insensitivity was interesting:

Outside of Abumrad, who is Lebanese, all other Radiolab staff members are white and of European descent, according to WNYC spokeswoman Jennifer Houlihan.

While Abumrad acknowledged that diversity in public radio remains a “crucially important” issue, he disputed the idea that Radiolab has difficulty empathizing with different ethnicities.

“My parents came over to America in the early ’70s as the result of a civil war that killed over 100,000 people, and a lot of people that we knew,” he said. “Sensitivity to perspectives that are outside the norm, a sensitivity to people who are isolated, whose voices you don’t usually hear from — I get that. I still think the line of questioning in that piece is not only valid, it’s important.”

posted by forkisbetter at 10:14 AM on October 25, 2012


The trouble with these is that none of them present any documentary evidence whatsoever that Radiolab was correct that no chemical weapons were used in the conflict. In fact, Radiolab has presented no evidence whatsoever for any of this. Their interview method is neither here nor there; it's just an indication that their general approach to journalistic practice is flawed, and they have presented absolutely no facts or support for their side of the story. In short, it doesn't really seem as though Radiolab is a trustworthy source for journalism at this point.
posted by koeselitz at 10:21 AM on October 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


– in particular, I take some exception to the implication (maybe even outright statement) that the Yellow Rain allegations directly caused the United States to pursue chemical weapons development. For one thing, we'd had chemical weapons programs going since the 1960s; Alexander Haig used the Yellow Rain incident to spur Reagan to continue to pursue them, but it was certainly not a new thing. I'm pretty sure the Bigeye project started around 1965. But more importantly, it seems beyond belief that you'd blame the actual victims of international US intrigue for "causing" the US to pursue unethical methods of warfare.

Jad wants us to focus on the "valid" and "important" line of questioning here, and the conclusions it leads to. The piece concludes that the United States pursued chemical weapons on the basis of a belief that chemical weapons had been used in Laos; but it turned out that they actually hadn't been used at all in Laos. The implication seems to be: the United States should not have pursued chemical weapons, because the report that they'd been used in Laos was false. But clearly this isn't true at all! The reason we shouldn't use chemical weapons isn't because they have never been used in the world; they have, at this point, quite clearly. (They were, in fact, used in Iran, incidentally mere months before Reagan actually reauthorized Bigeye in 1988.)

The reason we shouldn't use chemical weapons isn't because somebody else hasn't used them first. The reason we shouldn't use chemical weapons is because chemical weapons are an unethical method of warfare.

This piece spends a lot of time (though not much actual research, to be honest) trying to show that chemical weapons have not been used, under the pretense that, if they haven't been used, we shouldn't be the first to use them. But it doesn't matter if we're the first or the last to use them – it's still wrong. It's as though someone went to a lot of trouble to prove that prisoners who'd been subjected to horrible torture were innocent. Their innocence doesn't matter – torture is wrong.
posted by koeselitz at 10:40 AM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Update from Current
posted by FatRabbit at 10:42 AM on October 25, 2012


This piece spends a lot of time (though not much actual research, to be honest) trying to show that chemical weapons have not been used, under the pretense that, if they haven't been used, we shouldn't be the first to use them. But it doesn't matter if we're the first or the last to use them – it's still wrong. It's as though someone went to a lot of trouble to prove that prisoners who'd been subjected to horrible torture were innocent. Their innocence doesn't matter – torture is wrong.

I thought I remembered the piece briefly acknowledged that in addition to whatever else (conventional warfare, war-heightened illnesses, etc.) was wiping out the Hmong, chemical weapons may also have been used against them -- just that, contrary to widespread belief, it wasn't the Yellow Rain that contained any chemical weapon because it was more straightforwardly explained as bee pollen.

I saw it more that in trying to create a "gotcha" moment about the Reagan administration's manufacturing a pretext for manufacturing despised chemical weapons, they were willing to use as a stepping stone their belief that Hmong victims were confused about what exactly the vector was for the chemical weapons that killed thousands of their family and friends. They might well be correct, but they were not kind.

(I should listen to the show again. After a few days of following this fpp I am starting to lose track of what I actually heard in the RL show versus what I read in comments here was or wasn't on the show.)
posted by aught at 11:58 AM on October 25, 2012


These rebuttals aren't doing anything for me. In the finished product the hosts come off looking like cruel, stupid bullies. In the finished product they put together themselves. They were in over their heads and they screwed up. It happens sometimes.

Their shows after this one haven't been bad. I still listen. When they do it right I like their approach of "Hey, here is some cool stuff we found out, let us tell you about our journey of discovery" and how it sounds like sort of an illustrated story book about finding things out about your world. Or something. They just need to stick with that and leave the amateurish journalism and philosophy stuff out.
posted by bleep at 6:08 PM on October 25, 2012


They just need to stick with that and leave the amateurish journalism and philosophy stuff out.

Of course, that would mean making RL a completely different show then, since the disingenuous banter and woo-woo armchair philosophizing have been central to their style.

Semi-relatedly, I wrote RL an annoyed note when their show on "Space" earlier this year had a couple egregious factual errors about Albireo right off the bat, and then spent like a half-hour tediously detailing Ann Druyan's and Carl Sagan's early romance, as if that had anything to do with astronomy or space exploration. Sweet story maybe but let's save it for the Romance episode of RL.

That and the fact they don't seem to do very many full-length shows any more -- the podcast stream has been mostly shorts and reruns the last year. (Though the cynical side of me expects RL to jump the shark immediately after its creator gets a Macarthur grant.)
posted by aught at 6:48 AM on October 26, 2012


Last night I read the very well-researched paper Kattullus posted above. I strongly encourage everyone to read that paper. It's a much, much better overview of the issues, and includes a lot of details that put doubt on all the theories involved; for example:

- There were many, many reports of chemical weapon attacks around Southeast Asia and beyond at this time – in Laos, in Cambodia, and in Afghanistan. It's hard to say that bees were the cause in all cases. And the reports weren't invariably the same, either; 70% mentioned the haze or rain (not always rain) as being yellow, but many also reported it being blue, green, orange, or other colors.

- The Soviet Union actually most likely studied mycotoxins for many decades, starting in 1944 when an outbreak of mycotoxins in wheat supplies killed many people; so it does seem at least plausible that they developed weaponized mycotoxin. It isn't in the realm of science fiction.

- Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we've known for sure that the Soviet Union indeed had a chemical weapons program that was massive in scope. We don't have confirmation that part of it focused on mycotoxins, but it is very, very likely that they used some kind of chemical weapon at some point.

- Because of various political factors, it seems clear that the Soviet regime had realized by this time that, if they used chemical weapons against non-western populations, they would not have faced much trouble from the western nations in the UN.

All of this stuff was left out of the program to give an air of certainty to the bee poop theory. But "the fact of the matter" seems to be that there is no certainty to be had at all in this story. On the one hand, thousands of interviews were conducted with victims of chemical weapons attacks at the time, eyewitness accounts were gathered, blood and tissue samples were obtained, and independently thousands upon thousands of people gave testimony to what happened. On the other hand, those interviews don't seem to have been conducted in a very scientific way; the people being interviewed were probably often told ahead of time what the interviewer expected to hear; the blood and tissue samples were not handled in the correct ways; and, in general, correct practices weren't followed.

It's possible that the thousands of reports we gathered of Yellow Rain were actually driven by hysteria and by the intentions of the interviewers, who were of course working for the US military and were not independent observers. It's also possible that an entirely different chemical weapon that wasn't a mycotoxin at all caused the effects that witnesses described as Yellow Rain. And of course it's still possible and even plausible that Yellow Rain was exactly as witnesses described it an scientists suspected it to be at the time: a mycotoxin developed and manufactured by the Soviet Union.

As the paper Kattullus linked to points out, the lesson here isn't a whimsical story about how reports of a chemical weapon turned out to be reports of bee feces. The lesson is that we have no idea whatsoever because the correct procedure wasn't followed. We'll likely never know. We certainly won't find out because a little radio program decided to interview exactly one scientist and one witness and then draw firm conclusions from that.

Of course, that's the irony here, isn't it? The episode is called "The Fact Of The Matter," and it's supposed to revolve around finding the truth. Jad and Robert figured out the truth in this case, and they had a neat little lesson to go with it: sometimes the truth isn't what you thought it was, and that's tough to face. The trouble with this neat little lesson is that their conclusion, so clean and simple, isn't necessarily the truth at all. We have no idea. In their rush to uncover the truth and make a program about it, Radiolab ignored all the uncertainty, all the difficulty and the unfortunate vagueness of the situation.

And – to be completely honest – that almost completely destroys the show's credibility for me. I don't like to say that, but it's true. The problems with this episode seem essential and very, very worrisome. The Radiolab people have tried to say, and indeed have apparently convinced a lot of people, that there were no 'factual' errors, that all of their errors had to do with the way they went about interviewing Eng and Kao Kalia Yang. But this is a controversy that, at this point, some scientists have spent their entire lives trying to sort out, with no clear or firm results. Did Radiolab genuinely believe that, in the space of twenty minutes, with only one interview with a scientist and one interview with a witness, they could clear this up forever and put the question behind us? Robert seems to have believed that his duty as a journalist was to carefully but thoroughly interview this eyewitness and obtain the truth; but that idea seems utterly laughable in the face of the actual circumstances. Thousands of people reported the same things Eng Yang did. It's entirely possible that most or even all of them were reporting things they felt rather than things they saw – but did Robert really believe that by singling out just one of them, he could prove that? That's not how forensic science works. You don't make conclusions based on one report. Heck, if the US military had used that method, we'd know even less about this than we do know.

All of this suggests to me that Radiolab is a program that's more about drawing clean and easy conclusions and then philosophizing about them. That's okay for a radio program, I guess, and it should probably be stressed that this apparently isn't intended to be "hard journalism." But the question remains – where does hard journalism end and "soft journalism" begin? I am reticent, at this point, to trust Radiolab on major issues where a lot is at stake. It seems as though their habit is to simplify and to state conclusions as though they were much more certain than they actually are.
posted by koeselitz at 8:45 AM on October 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


not to mention idiocy of the idea that people who have lived in a place for generations and generations weren't familiar with how bee shit looks.

I mean, a whole village saw clouds of bee shit for the first time (and at the same time) in their lives and didn't know what it was, even though they had lived there for centuries?
posted by Tarumba at 10:23 AM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the Jonathan Tucker article linked above:
A joint team of State and Defense Department officials also reinvestigated the Yellow Rain allegations in Thailand from November 1983 until October 1985. They questioned some of the same Hmong refugees who had been interviewed between 1979 and 1981 in an effort to cross-check their reports, and found little or no confirmation. The earlier interviews had not distinguished clearly between first-hand accounts and hearsay, and there were numerous inconsistencies in the testimony of different people who claimed to have witnessed the same attack. According to the Haig and Schultz reports, more than 200 attacks had taken place in the vicinity of Phu Bia, yet a Hmong resistance leader who had spent eight years there told the State-Defense team that he had never experienced a chemical attack and dismissed such accounts as rumor. The State-Defense team concluded that the Hmong were not accurate reporters of reality, and that in some instances, coercion from activist Hmong had caused respondents to make allegations that they subsequently denied. [emphasis added]
In other words, even if we consider only the testimony of Hmong who were there, and ignore the physical evidence, we still have contradictory evidence and recantations, and even indications that some of the initial testimony had been coerced to further political interests. And this is from a U.S. government investigation! So no, it's a lot more complicated than villagers knowing the eternal patterns of bee behavior in their native lands. The entire article is indeed a good read.

For the record, I believe Krulwich acted like a jerk during the segment, both in the interview and the post-mortem discussion, but airing both his badgering of Eng Yang and Kao Kalia Yang's emotional outburst in response was important to the segment and also to the Yangs. If they had not aired the segment at all, the Hmong's suffering would not have received the public attention that it now has. If the younger Yang's tears and anger had not been included in the show, then there would be no controversy - Krulwich and Abumrad could have blithely continued on like nothing controversial or upsetting had ever happened, and Yang's subsequent outraged response would not seem so immediately credible to the rest of us.
posted by skoosh at 12:26 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


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