Thursday, September 27, 2012

Yellow Rain vs. Bee Droppings

I've been a long time fan of Radiolab, but one segment on the latest episode truly saddened me.

The theme of the episode was the pursuit of truth – obsessively asking questions until you can arrive at pure, unquestionable facts. (You can listen to the full episode; the specific segment on Yellow Rain can be found here.)  I absolutely love Radiolab. Listening to the show on long walks in the city can be the highlight of my day; I've been to live performances that were stunning – I'm a huge fan.

Anyway – this segment discussed something called Yellow Rain. Here are the "unquestionable" facts: In the 1970s, the U.S. withdrew from the Vietnam War, and the Lao communist government (the Pathet Lao) began persecuting the Hmong people, since they had supported the U.S. during the war.

Entire villages were slaughtered.  Houses were burned, crops were destroyed, men, women and children killed. During this time, the Hmong began reporting incidents of sticky "yellow rain" falling onto their villages from low-flying planes and helicopters. It coated everything – leaves, rooftops, rocks – with sticky bright yellow substance. After the "rainfall," cows, chickens, and pigs died. People reported horrible stomach pains; worse symptoms included vomiting, seizures, blindness, and death.

Evidence of wood affected by 'yellow rain.'  Source

Here's where the truth branches:

One side (the Hmong's):

The Hmong took leaves in for lab testing. Affected by yellow rain, the leaves were deep and dark with bright yellow spots. The U.S. scientists found traces of T2-mycotoxin (capable of permeating through human skin), as well as pollen, which is crazy, because it meant that if the pollen containing the poisons did not land on a person, winds would disperse the pollen and ensure that it ultimately would.

T2-Mycotoxin. Source

 The U.S. blamed Russia for these attacks, and used yellow rain as an excuse to start their own chemical warfare by building bombs in Arkansas.

The other side (the professors', and what seemed to be Radiolab's):

A Harvard biologist, Matthew Meselson, claims that what the villagers were experiencing was nothing more than bee feces. Yup, bee feces. Very interestingly, bees hibernate during the winter, and they don't poop until mid-winter, when it's warmer. At that time, the swarm of bees flies outside, about a hundred feet in the air, and then just lets everything go in a mass defecation – which can feel like "light rain." (I hope I never get caught in this.)

The professor proved that this indeed does happen in Southeast Asia, even though the bees there don't hibernate; and upon reanalysis of the lab samples, they couldn't find traces of the initial toxins. Which leads to this conclusion: the Hmong people mistook the yellow rain as chemical warfare, and the U.S. potentially seized this story as an excuse to start building their own weapons.

Bee droppings that resemble yellow rain. Source: Wikipedia

I'm not a scientist. I don't have access to the lab results or resources for analyzing all the pieces of evidence. Radiolab does – but in this episode, they don't use them. Instead of delving into all the facts and findings that could prove whether or not yellow rain was indeed toxin-laced-polin, they take the few facts that they do know from what seemed a cursory conversation with Professor Meselson, and persistently question the interviewee (Eng Yang, a hmong refugee) about his beliefs, asking him over and over if he was so sure that his people weren't just experiencing bee defecation.

You could tell Eng and his niece, the translator, were shocked by these questions. They felt so tangential in comparison to the real issues in the episode – the Hmong genocide. Apparently, Eng and his niece had been given the impression that Radiolab had wanted to hear the untold story about that genocide (which was important to them because until now,  people had "been uninterested in the story of the Hmong"), when in reality, it seemed like Radiolab just wanted Eng to admit that his beliefs were based on myths.  I felt tricked for them. It was painful to listen to.

And Robert Krulwich, who I love, made the comment that the translator had been monopolozing the entire story to bias it in favor of the Hmong. (And at the end of the interview, when the niece asked for a copy of the interview, he said "you'll need a court order for that – wtf?)

I came across this comment from a Hmong person who had also listened to this episode, which I think words what happened very eloquently:
In every episode, you introduce your guests by offering a brief description of their credentials, you never once mentioned the fact that Kalia (the niece and translator) is an accomplished writer who was the first Hmong American to pen a memoir of her experience nor do you ever offer her uncle's (the interviewee) biography. It was clear to me as someone who could understand him that he is an intelligent man whose opinions mattered as much as the Ivy league educated scientists you regularly feature on your show....
Secondly, Hmong people are farmers by nature, our entire lives were once rooted in the cycle of nature, we are attune to the changing tides of the jungle and weather, we know which plants can poison us and which can heal us. We are not ignorant - we know the difference between bee pollen and weapons of war so to portray us as if we are a community in need of education and correction is arrogant at best. 
I haven't done enough research to formulate an opinion on whether or not it was chemical warfare or just a political tool. (It's a super complicated issue – it would probably take me weeks to go through all the data.) I just feel like this entire episode was missing the point, and instead focusing on a fact that is only a single thread of the story, they only shave the surface of research for the purpose of cross-examining a survivor and refugee, and overlook a serious part of history.

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  1. Well said. I hope the end result of this shameful episode is that there is more listening to survivors of this. A whole episode listening to their stories would be really interesting.

  2. Well said. I hope the end result of this shameful episode is that there is more listening to survivors of this. A whole episode listening to their stories would be really interesting.

    1. Agreed. Even if Radiolab doesn't do that, I think they've at least stirred up enough curiosity in people to do some research on their own.

  3. Odd, you say that Radiolab's questions seemed so tangential to the topic of the episode. Actually, they weren't. The episode wasn't about the Hmong people, or genocides in general. It was about objective truth and what happens when the truth gets in the way of the narrative people have decided for themselves. Mr. Eng firmly believes that chemical weapons were used on his people. Objective analysis conclusively proves that they weren't. End of story. Maybe at some point in the future, Radiolab will do an episode about genocide. When that happens, questions about whether the yellow substance were pollen or chemicals would be tangential. But in an episode about truth, those questions are the ONLY relevant ones.

    1. You're right. The episode WAS focused on objective truth, and not about highlighting the Hmong genocide. But that's not how the episode turned out.

      If Radiolab was intent on finding the "facts of the matter," they would have more objectively represented the facts of the case – e.g., that Eng Yang was familiar with bees and their behavior, or that he's well respected in the Hmong community as a preserver of their history. Maybe they could've interviewed the researchers who analyzed the lab samples. But they don't. Instead, they presented a few facts of the case, and refused to look more deeply at the complicated ones.

      You're saying that those questions are the ONLY relevant ones. No, I think there are a lot more. And asking those other questions are more relevant to the theme of the episode than simply pushing someone to admit that THEIR subjective experiences are flawed.

    2. The Hmong people aren't the only ones who have decided on a truth because it fits their narrative and are unwilling to look at other analyses or scientific research. Radiolab had a narrative: that Reagan was bad and wrong, and that anything that the US could use as an excuse to create chemical weapons was evil. Radiolab made it very clear that Reagan and US politics was what they actually cared about, and anything that complicated their predetermined Manichean progressive narrative had to be dismissed. (I think that there's plenty of room to say that, for example, US involvement in Laos (and Vietnam and Cambodia) was wrong, and producing chemical weapons was wrong, while still thinking that this may have happened. But Radiolab wanted a good-vs-evil narrative.)

  4. As a science-themed show, I expected Radiolab to delve more into the scientific details. Is there evidence that bee poop has rained down in other circumstances? Is there evidence that bee poop can kill people?

  5. How dare you say the Hmong decided the truth because it fit their narrative. How about those who claim pseudo-science as their weapon creative an absurd bee-pollen story to fit their narrative?

    Which makes more sense? The independent accounts of many hundreds of Hmong refugees of chemical attacks, or the absurd idea that any outside TRUE SCIENTIST had any real access to Laos at that time, let alone the remote sites where chemical attacks would have occurred?

    What makes more sense, a primitive mountain people collectively made-up detailed stories of Yellow Rain to support the agenda of Ronald Reagan, that a people that lived in the mountains for centuries would have had no idea about their environment and bee-defecation, or that a completely pissed-off Pathet Lao government which has an undeniable history of trying to exterminate the Hmong used chemical weapons against them?

    Think about it.

  6. Cecilia, as a person who assisted many hundreds of Hmong refugees, I can tell you that I heard many detailed individual accounts of chemical attacks against the Hmong. These accounts were unsolicited. These people would have had nothing to gain by making-up these stories and telling them to me. The stories were believable, they were numerous, and they contained details that aligned.

    The treatment of the Yang's on Radiolab was shocking. First of all, I have not heard any convincing science that tells a narrative that can explain away the accounts of the Hmong refugees. Whatever the toxicity of bee-pollen may be, it's entirely absurd to contemplate that a people that lived off the land and where completely in tune with their environment, would have been so unaware of the phenomenon of bee-defecation in toxic clouds, lol.

    Using disjoint fragments of science and psuedo-science, that actually prove nothing, do not explain-away the accounts of the numerous Hmong who lived through this horror.

    The agenda of the communist Pathet Lao government to displace and exterminate the highland minorities of Laos -- the Hmong in particular -- is an undeniable fact. Given this history of government sponsored extreme violence and persecution against the Hmong, which is more believable, that the Pathet Lao and their cohorts used chemical weapons against the Hmong in the dense jungles of Laos where it was extremely difficult to attack them, or that bee-defecation wiped-out myriad Hmong?

    I'm not certain what the motivation or agenda of the Yellow Rain deniers is. Perhaps they want to skewer Ronald Reagan. Maybe they are naive, blind worshippers at the altar of science, so much so that if anyone claims "science" on any issue it must be true. I really don't know. What I do know is that I have not seen any credible evidence that puts together a believable narrative that explains-away the many stories of Hmong refugees that detail chemical attacks. To me, someone who personally has heard these accounts from many Hmong, I find the idea that Yellow Rain never happened as absurd and offensive as the idea that the Holocaust never happened.