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January 18-24, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Good Fakes

By Annalee Newitz

NANCY REAGAN is probably indignant about South Korea. The former first lady, who in recent years has become a huge advocate of stem cell research for treating (surprise) Alzheimer's, must be reading apologetic editorials by Science magazine's editor-in-chief and gritting her teeth.

That venerable magazine is responsible for publishing work by Woo-suk Hwang, whose groundbreaking research on stem cell therapies has made him a megastar in South Korea's scientific community. Unfortunately, those stem cell studies turned out to be fake and creepy. Not only were some of the research results forged, but apparently the cell samples were taken from female lab assistants. Honestly, the whole give-me-your-eggs thing wouldn't bug me so much if it weren't for the fact that this debacle means we're not as far along with stem cell therapies as we thought a few months ago.

I'm less disturbed by creepy science than I am by bad or fake science. Go head and pull a Dr. Jekyll if you want—as long as you don't hurt anybody, I'm there. I'll be the first to read about how you injected yourself with something that turned you into Spencer Tracy with bad makeup.

I guess that's why I've been so bemused by the bizarre story of another scandal about fraud in the publishing world. J.T. LeRoy, a rising literary star whose genderfucked magic-realist novel Sarah earned him fans among Hollywood glitterati as well as dispossessed teenagers everywhere, has been unmasked.

Instead of being an abused boy hustler whose tragic childhood nearly drove him mad, it turns out that J.T. is a hot goth chick named Emily "Speedie" Albert. Since one of the main ways J.T. reached out to his fans was via his website and email list, this news is breaking the Internet in half. Tales of betrayal are filling up blogspace and are spilling over into column inches in The New York Times.

Among many of my geeky friends, the Korean stem cell scandal has been eclipsed by the J.T. scandal. You'd think that J.T. had somehow faked his literary talent instead of simply masking his true identity. I mean, what difference does it make if J.T. is a girl or a boy? Why should we care whether he's the victim of abuse or merely a person whose writing about being abused is good enough that we could easily believe that it's inspired by true experiences? It's not as if he managed to convince one of the world's most respected science journals to print a pack of lies based on faked research. J.T. writes fiction. He doesn't need to do real-life research to back up his stories. Therefore, it's no betrayal when it turns out he didn't.

It's not as if J.T.'s novels had the power to change the course of medical research. In fact, his novels probably did change thousands of people's lives, and they still can—even if he's just a girl who lives in San Francisco with her boyfriend and son. OK, I'll admit it. I'm one of the many people whom J.T. phone-stalked. He'd call me once in a while and talk to me about his work in a voice that sounds like a cross between Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton.

Turns out a lot of us got these calls. My old pal Cara Bruce used to get them; Susie Bright and Ayelet Waldman have both written online about getting them, too. All of us agree that the calls have been at times annoying and/or creepy. But as I said before, creepy isn't a problem. If you can do something amazing without hurting anyone—whether that's science or literature—go for it.

I think our culture has become so confused about the difference between scientific realities and fiction that we've lost sight of what both things are supposed to do. Science should teach us about what we can do in physical reality. It doesn't, for example, allow for the discussion of what a possible spiritual entity might have done if he or she had the ability to design the universe intelligently. Nor should science have anything to say about issues like whether it's good or bad to have sex or create families in certain ways.

Fiction, on the other hand, can do all of these things and more. It pushes us to stretch our imaginations, to consider what it might mean for gods to make worlds and for little boys to be abused. Fiction may be a pack of lies, but it can push us to make new scientific discoveries, or to change the way we think about our children. Hwang did fake science, but J.T. doesn't write fake fiction. J.T.'s book does all the things fiction should do, including, sometimes, forcing people to remember that imagination is not the same thing as real life.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who'd rather be crank-called by J.T. than by Woo-suk.

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