Radio Lab and Kao Kalia Yang

What happens when one group of people privileges their own form of knowledge over another groups? In the case of Radio Lab interviewing Eng Yang and his niece Kao Kalia Yang (professor and award winning author in her own right), a world of hurt happens. If you have the time (no, even if you think you don’t have the time), I highly recommend Yang’s post with the Hyphen blog, relating what happened and her reactions to it.


Her post cut deep, so I read the Hyphen response, and started to get heated. The response did a very good job at breaking down the assumptions and biases of the Radio Lab folks, excerpt by excerpt, but before I let myself get too carried away, I went back and listened to the Radio Lab segment (the edited one, since the original is no longer available). After all, I didn’t want to overreact to quotes pulled out of context that made the situation seem worse than it was. Without reiterating what they said, this is what I heard–


Radio Lab said that they wanted to find the truth. The cold, hard truth on whether someone was using chemical warfare on the Hmong people in the late 1970’s. Western trained scientists said “No, no chemical warfare. There was yellow stuff falling from the sky. It was bee poop.” Eng Yang said “Are you crazy? I saw yellow stuff fall from the sky and it killed people. I know bee poop. Bee poop doesn’t kill people.” And Radio Lab said “Are you sure? The scientists say its bee poop. Did you really see this happen? How do you know what you really saw?” The Radio Lab host actually calls Eng Yang’s testimony heresay.


What Radio Lab did not do was treat the preeminent scientists in a similar manner. They did not go to the scientists and say “Did you calibrate your instruments? Did you consider that the toxin may have dissipated from the samples over time? Because we have an eyewitness, who says that he watched people die from chemical toxins that fell from the sky.”


And that’s the crux of their argument. Science can’t be wrong. It’s science. Therefore, the eyewitness must be wrong. He’s only some Hmong guy, anyway. When they apologized, they apologized for upsetting the Yangs, not for treating them badly.


That’s the worst, isn’t it? When someone says “I’m sorry your upset. It hurts me that you’re upset, but I didn’t do anything wrong.” So caught up in their own world view, that they don’t know how to value someone else’s.


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