Saturday, June 5, 2010

Nils Roll-Hansen: A lesson from Lysenkoism?

Please do not misunderstand this thread as another attempt to bring in Stalinism. My interest is in the interaction of policy/politics and science in the past - in situations far enough away that they will not arouse passions today (maybe a futile hope). Lysenkoism was one of the worst, if not the worst cases, where this interaction went really bad. Another one was eugenics. How did science come into such bad situations, and how did it escape/recover from it.

Therefore I have asked Nils Roll-Hansen to summarize his knowledge about the Lysenko-case, which is described at length in his book (Roll-Hansen, N., 2005: The Lysenko Effect. The Politics of Science. Amherst, NY: Humanity Book, 335 p) and in a number of articles. He was so kind to fulfill my request ... and the result is here -- Hans von Storch

Nils Roll-Hansen: A lesson from Lysenkoism?

In 1948 the Soviet government decided that Mendelian genetics is a pseudoscience and should no more be taught in the country. Instead Trofim Lysenko’s agrobiology should be the basis of biological research and practice. This was the big scientific scandal of the 20th century.  At the outbreak of the Cold War it blatantly signalled a deep irrational strain in Soviet ideology and marked progressing defeat on the intellectual front. How could it happen that a regime perceiving itself as particularly “modern” and “scientific” in this way discard the most advanced theory in biology?

The standard historical explanation has been Stalinism. The brutal overruling of science by political bosses created Lysenkoism. Stalin himself was central. In fact he closely edited the script “On the situation in biological science” for Lysenko’s presidential address to the crucial August 1948 congress of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Science. There was a minority that criticised Lysenko’s views, but at the end of the congress he informed that his key notre speech had been approved by the Politbureau, the top political authority, and all opposition crumbled.

A verbatim report was quickly published and distributed nationally as well as abroad, in English, German and other languages. The political suppression of science, of well established knowledge and rational argument, was clearly exposed to the international scientific community. Why did the Soviet regime so effectively shoot its own foot?

A plausible explanation is that the political leadership sincerely believed Lysenko was right and that his ideas would in time prevail in international science. Supporting him would simply confirm the progressive modern and scientific nature of the Soviet system. From the end of the civil war in the early 1920s a grand scientific establishment had been built at great expense.  The Lenin Academy was a keystone created to solve the crucial problem of reforming agriculture. Collectivization and plant science together were to create an effective modern agriculture and thus to provide new cadres for industry as well as ample food for the whole population. But how come the leadership did not get better advice from its scientists?

Could it be that the pragmatic and instrumental Soviet Marxist theory of science had shaped a scientific establishment with inadequate understanding of scientific objectivity? Marxist theory questioned any fundamental distinction between facts and values and held political practice to be a guide for scientific progress. Did such ideas blur the difference between science and politics, promote wishful thinking among scientists as well as politicians, and thus pave the way for the Lysenko scandal?

In the standard story about Lysenkoism the heroic martyr of true science is the botanist Nikolai Vavilov. His defence of classical genetics led to arrest in 1940 and death in prison in 1943. However, as the main entrepreneur of Soviet agricultural science from the early 1920s Vavilov also held responsibility for the development of the great system of research institutions under the Lenin Academy. Soviet science, and the agricultural branch not least, was built at breakneck speed in the 1920s and -30s. Under such circumstances usual scientific standards of qualification could not be upheld.

Lysenko was a dedicated researcher of peasant origin and weak scientific training. In the early 1930s his research on the developmental physiology of cultivated plants, especially grain, attracted much scientific attention, nationally and internationally. Effects of temperature and light on growth and flowering of plants was a pioneering field considered to have great practical potential. Lysenko became famous for his experiments on “vernalization”, control of flowering by low temperatures. The term is still current in plant physiology.

Vavilov was a liberal and pragmatic leader. He saw a valuable scientific potential in the energetic young peasant scientist and promoted his career. Lysenko’s methods and ideas had a prominent place in the treatise Theoretical foundations of plant breeding edited by Vavilov and published in 1935. As late as the summer of 1935 he vigorously defended Lysenko in scientific debates.

The geat investments in science did pay off. Soviet science enjoyed great success on the technological front, culminating with space technology in the 1950s and -60s. To a majority of Western scientists Soviet science policy appeared as a model of how science should be built to serve society. However, already by the mid-1930s it had become clear that the aim of the Lenin Academy, an efficient agricultural technology, was much harder to achieve. “The grain problem” continued to pester the Soviet Union to its end.

Ideological controversies pushed by Marxist theory had appeared in several branches of Soviet science. In microphysics, where there existed a well established theoretical tradition, ideological dissatisfaction with quantum mechanics and relativity theory as insufficiently “materialist” had limited impact. The practical usefulness of these theories in nuclear technology was also a good argument. But the situation was different in young and controversial scientific fields like genetics and developmental physiology of plants.

The Soviet suppression of genetics in 1948 was a paradigm case of illegitimate political intervention into science. It was not however, as often believed, the result of a simple ideological distinction between good socialist and bad bourgeois science. Stalin systematically removed from Lysenko’s 1948 speech the references to “bourgeois science”. In his mind it was the general validity of scientific claims, beyond political ideologies, that was at stake.  His confidence in Lysenko was based on confidence in the superiority of the scientific establishment built by the Soviet regime.

Lysenkoism was an extreme case of political perversion of science due to the particular social and political circumstances. The precarious situation of the young socialist state combined with suppression of public criticism made it difficult correct mistaken decisions. But precisely because of the extreme character the case provides useful lessons on how science can be perverted by politics. The nature and interactions of social and intellectual mechanisms that produce irrationality also under more normal circumstances are easier to discern and study.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

The post makes no allowance for the fact that the Soviet Union was a closed, terrorised society. In the 1930s, many of its most prominent scientists, engineers and intellectuals were sent to labour camps, from which some never returned. This surely affected the views of all those who fell in behind Lysenko's pseudo-science, which had no adherents outside the Soviet Union. Lysenko made sure that his relationahip with Stalin was well known to everybody.

So to state the Lysenko case as a "normal" scientific debate that got out of hand is to misread it significantly. It took place in abnormal circumstances. Lysenko sold a brand of science not to other scientists but to the party elite, who forced his theories onto Lysenko's colleagues.

Lysenko told the politicians what they wanted to hear - a "short cut" to socialism. Which side of the current "debate" is telling politicians what they want to hear? The ones arguing that money must be spent and sacrifices made? Or the ones advocating that nothing be done?

Toby

Hans von Storch said...

Toby, may I ask you to read the book before making categorical statements? Or maybe Soyfer's book on the same issue? Maybe, the situation was really a bit different, and that's what may make Nils Roll-Hansen's analysis so valuable? Or have you done your own research of this interesting field? -- Hans

Belette said...

A potentially interesting post, but rather marred by your careful avoidance of what the "lessons" to be learnt might be. Perhaps you are too subtle for us: could you be more explicit?

For example, do you see any parallels between Lysenkoism and, say, the GW denialist movement, so blind to reason and funded by fossil fuel interests? Or did you have any other parallels in mind?

I comment here: http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2010/06/lessons_of_lysenkoism.php

Hans von Storch said...

Belette - which lesson? Not that crude one that GW denialists would follow a Lysenkoist path. The first lesson is - it makes sense to think, and to examine cases in some detail. The suggestion that the alarmists would be on that path, is of equal crude quality as yours and not helpful.

One lesson, for me, is that science has to reflect upon its closeness with policies (and politics), and that responding to populist and opportunistic calls may be tempting but is not sustainable. The other question is: how to avoid such a situation, how to excape when once caught?

Jonathan Gilligan said...

Hans: First, I don't think it's reasonable to say, as you do in #2, that someone must read a 335 page book before replying to a blog post. Roll-Hansen's post should stand on its own; restricting discussion to those who had already read the book would limit discussion too much and waiting for everyone else to read the book would delay discussion too long, in the pace of internet time.

I'd like to address a few interesting points that Roll-Hansen raises: He suggests that the problems of Lysenkoism were less a question of who is a legitimate scientist: "The Soviet suppression of genetics ... was not ... the result of a simple ideological distinction between good socialist and bad bourgeois science. Stalin systematically removed from Lysenko’s 1948 speech the references to 'bourgeois science.' In his mind it was the general validity of scientific claims, beyond political ideologies, that was at stake."

Might Stalin's use of ideology not have been so much about the capitalist/individualist ideology Lysenko ascribed to Darwin than Stalin's belief that ideological outsiders without proper scientific training were more authoritative than trained scientists within the (bourgeois) mainstream? "Lysenko was a dedicated researcher of peasant origin and weak scientific training. ... Vavilov ... saw a valuable scientific potential in the energetic young peasant scientist...." The emphasis on Lysenko's peasant origin fits well with the Bolshevik ideological commitment to the dictatorship of the proletariat. He is qualified by dint of his outsider status, not his training or track record of success at research.

Where science was dominated by properly trained scientists (e.g., in nuclear physics) rigor won out and the Soviets developed a very successful bomb program despite the ideological factors; but in agriculture, where poorly trained outsiders to the scientific establishment were able to gain firm footholds, junk science overcame true science, ideology defeated pragmatism, and this defeat contributed to famine and starvation.

I oversimplify, of course, and magnify a small thread in Roll-Hansen's essay in isolation from its larger context in this blog post, to say nothing of Roll-Hansen's book, which I do intend to read in the future. Despite these limitations, I think this thought is worth further study: one lesson one might take from this account is that Lysenkoism can arise when outsiders' ideological attacks on the credibility mainstream science are allowed to derail the traditional scientific process of rationally and empirically testing hypotheses and the trust the public and policymakers have in that process.

This lesson might be particularly apt at a time when science by amateur blog post is considered by many in the public, the press, and public office to be on a par with publication in peer-reviewed journals by established scientists.

Belette said...

Thank you for your reply. But I'm still dissatisfied. The two lessons you offer - it makes sense to think; and that science has to reflect upon its closeness with policies - are banal. And (I say) there is no need and indeed it is no help to drag Lysenkoism into the picture to help understand these lessons.

Jonathan Gilligan said...

A clarification of two places where my sloppy typing garbled my comment:

Where I wrote, "He suggests that the problems of Lysenkoism were less a question of who is a legitimate scientist" reverses my meaning: I meant to say, "He suggests that the problems of Lysenkoism were less a question of the ideology of the science than the ideology of who is a legitimate scientist"

Second, where I wrote, "Lysenkoism can arise when outsiders' ideological attacks on the credibility mainstream science," I meant to write "Lysenkoism can arise when outsiders' ideological attacks on the credibility of mainstream science"

Dennis Bray said...

Jonathan Gilligan says "waiting for everyone else to read the book would delay discussion too long, in the pace of internet time."
And
"This lesson might be particularly apt at a time when science by amateur blog post is considered by many in the public, the press, and public office to be on a par with publication in peer-reviewed journals by established scientists."

Might 'science by internet' be part of the problem?

Reiner Grundmann said...

Hans-
these are important questions and we need detailed historical and comparative studies. In a forthcoming book which I wrote with Nico Stehr we will present the cases of Eugenics, Keynesianism and climate change. With regard to eugenics, it is certainly not the case that a political regime corrupted science. Eugenics (or 'racial hygiene' as it was also called)was a respected academic field with firm roots in Darwinian theory.

Emil Perhinschi said...

"The Soviet suppression of genetics in 1948 ... "

There was no "Soviet" suppression of "genetics", but of "Genetics", i.e. "Eugenic". When the DNA molecule was described, the Soviets promptly dropped Lysenkoism. Before that there was no more proof that the colored blob in the middle of the cell was involved in heredity than there was proof that acquired traits got transmitted to offspring.

"This was the big scientific scandal of the 20th century." ... no, really ? Wasn't that, the big scientific scandal, the extermination or mutilation of millions based on an unjustified extrapolation of horse-breeding techniques to the management of human populations ?