August 10, 2004

Practicing Lysenkoism

[Ed: This article was first published for Vox Populi Nebraska in March 2004. Earlier articles from this series can be found here: I, II, III, IV, and V.]

When David Kay came back from Iraq he said that his team of investigators saw no sign of WMDs or WMD programs. He said that he thought it was important to understand why the intelligence was so bad that the administration was fooled into taking the country to war against Iraq. This failure was so stark that President Bush has named a committee to investigate the intelligence failings. Yet much has been written and reported about how the greatest failures concerning intelligence were found in the office of the Vice President of the United States. Because Dick Cheney was convinced that removing Saddam was essential, he insisted that there must be evidence that Saddam was stockpiling WMD. When he found that the CIA and other intelligence agencies could not find sufficient evidence proving this fact, Dick Cheney formed the Office of Special Projects run by William Luti under Douglas Feith in the Pentagon which took raw intelligence data, often just rumors or gossip, and there they found (faulty) intelligence that was used to justify the war. [1]

Just as there was a deliberate misuse of intelligence in regards to our national security, there is an equally appalling distortion of scientific evidence by this administration. Recently the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report that documented a number of areas where science was being ignored or altered by the Bush administration. Sixty respected scientists including 20 Nobel Prize winners and consisting of scientists that had worked in both Republican and Democratic administration signed this report. One thing they reported was that previous administrations understood the need for accurate science assessments when driving policy and it was very worrying that this administration was so blind to the problems using bad data causes.

Science, like any field of endeavor, relies on freedom of inquiry; and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity. Now more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research to genetic engineering to food additives, government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.

---- President George H. W. Bush, 1990 [2]

Picking and choosing what scientific data you want to accept is simply not scientific. Practicing science means starting with a theoretical model of how you think things might work and then using controlled experiments for observing data to see if your model is valid or not. It is not throwing away data (or even worse, distorting the data) because you decide you think your model (which is a human construct) is more valid than the observed data. If your model does not match the existing data after you have carefully validated your results, then there is something wrong with your model. When a model is clearly no longer capable of describing what is actually observed, then the model must change.

Scientists can go through times when they resist changing from one model to another, as when during the middle of the 20th century, geologists resisted believing that plate tectonics was a better model for the existing data than the earlier theories. Yet eventually, all reputable geologists came to believe that the theory of plate tectonics was very good at modeling what was going on with the earth including predicting where earthquakes and volcanoes would occur and why. Scientists are trained to have an open mind and to try to maintain objectivity, so they remain open to having to change and revise their models.

A much bigger problem happens when someone holds a model that cannot be backed up by data and they actively suppress other theoretical models. During the last century a cautionary example of that particular blindness occurred in the Soviet Union in the area of biology that is now known as Lysenkoism. A Soviet scientist named Trofim Denisovich Lysenko [1898-1976] decided that his theories of biology were correct and that genetics was a bad theory. Under Stalin he gained enough control over biological science to suppress any experiments or exploration that even mentioned genetics. Biologists that tried to promote the study of genetics were thrown into the gulags or just disappeared.

Under Lysenko's guidance, science was guided not by the most likely theories, backed by appropriately controlled experiments, but by the desired ideology. Science was practiced in the service of the State, or more precisely, in the service of ideology. The results were predictable: the steady deterioration of Soviet biology. Lysenko's methods were not condemned by the Soviet scientific community until 1965, more than a decade after Stalin's death. [3]

One reason Lysenkoism had such a strong hold in the Soviet Union was because they strongly desired a “proletarian” biology that was better than the degenerate western biology. Later Mao Tse-Tung picked up the tenets of Lysenkoism and he used it to reorganize Chinese agriculture based on the faulty science of Lysenko. The result was the deaths of over 30 million Chinese in the 1950s by famine because the theory was simply wrong.

Other periods of human history have required science to take second place to ideology including during Galileo’s time when he was denounced for promoting the theory that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around. Much of the dark ages were enthralled to Aristotle’s scientific theories rather than any direct observation. So while in the Asian and Islamic worlds, human knowledge was advancing and changing because people could practice good science, Europeans were trapped in an ideological straightjacket because they were trained to ignore their observations and believe what was handed down on high. Using ideology rather than observed data is guaranteed to lead to bad science.

Today, the Bush administration’s approach to science is like Lysenko’s. Their record of starting from a result they want and simply forcing the data to fit that result are numerous. Their ideological approach results in a number of policies that defy common sense. And their campaign contributors or their religious base sets our government’s scientific goals.

Therefore, we have abstinence-only programs in schools where every study shows these programs are ineffective in preventing sexual activity, pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Our government refuses to believe that global warming is a concern and even suppresses reports or scientific studies that provide information about the growing problem. They rewrite the clean air laws and the clean water laws so as to weaken them and to make it easier for industry to avoid taking responsibility for our environment. They have suppressed scientific reports by governmental scientists that might hurt their industrial backers. For instance, after 9/11 they suppressed the EPA reports showing the air around the fallen towers was highly toxic and lied to the survivors and those working in that area. In another case, they refused to let an Agricultural microbiologist with a national reputation publish or speak about his study that showed pig factory farms were producing antibiotic-resistance bacteria that was making people sick. [4]

Our government has a duty to allow our public-sector scientists to practice sound science. Americans expect their government to use tax dollars funding our public agencies to protect our interests and to improve our lives. The Bush administration has proven they are unwilling to do this and in fact, that they are actively hostile to good science if it interferes with their ideology. No wonder they are being branded as practicing Lysenkoism.

For more information:
[1] The Lie Factory (Mother Jones, February/March 2004)

[2] Scientific Integrity in Policymaking (Union of Concerned Scientists, February 2004)

[3] Lysenkoism (The Skeptical Dictionary)

[4] The Junk Science of George W. Bush (The Nation, March 8, 2004)

Posted by Mary at August 10, 2004 12:37 AM | Science | Technorati links |


This is a wonderful article, thank you.

Posted by: Ron In Portland at August 10, 2004 08:51 PM