Anti-science and Lysenkoism

A couple of weeks back, I came across this story about a marketing study in America. They had labelled low energy light bulbs with stickers indicating the energy saving (and thus cost saving) benefits of using low-e bulbs. But, even if they kept the energy/cost saving labels, but instead included a little logo that claimed the product to be “eco-friendly” they found that sales dropped among self-confessed Republicans. It would seem that Republicans would sooner spend money to destroy the environment rather than save money and help the environment.

In another example, a group of culture jammers “the yes men” pretended to be “Young Republicans” and went around Republican heartland states asking people to sign a petition calling for more global warming and more air pollution, etc. They found it disturbing how easily they could get people to sign up!

There seems to be huge distrust of science by many, again particularly those on the right, because they are suspicious that the guys in white coats are somehow out to get them. While for example 97% of climate scientists agree on global warming only 45% of the public seem to believe them.

Now granted, there’s been plenty of foul ups along the way (BSE, DDT, Windscale, Chernobyl, Bhopal, take you’re pick!) which hardly builds confidence, but we won’t have the wonderful scientifically advance world we enjoy if it wasn’t for science and technology and the scientific method that drives that.

Increasingly many Americans don’t only mistrust the science on climate change, but mistrust the science on vaccines, evolution, even physics and the physical sciences. When the scientific community comes out with a load of science (graphs, equations, computer models and peer reviewed journal papers) to support their position, the “anti-intellectual” camp will ignore it all (or grossly misinterpret it) and instead put their faith in some unqualified quack with a load of have baked woo-woo. Dara O’Briain, of Mock the Week does a very good piece on this sort of attitude.

Modern day Lysenkoism
This to me highlights what is a growing anti-science or perhaps more accurately growing anti-intellectual movement within society, particularly among those on the right. Recall for example how one of the main criticisms of Romney from within his own party was his ability to speak French!

In many respects this is a retelling of the tale of Lysenkoism. He was an anti-intellectual, barely literate communists bully who came up with various crack pot genetic theories in Soviet Russia. Because of his high position within the party he was able to force the scientists to ignore they’re carefully controlled scientific experiments and rely instead on his “theories” instead, helping to put back soviet medical science. One could draw a direct parallel between Lysenkoism and the behaviour of many Republicans in their efforts to suppress the science of global warming, or restrict stem cell research…of course ironically some on the right try to claim it’s the other way around, failing to understand the history (i.e. that it was an anti-intellectual like them trying to distort the scientific method not the other way around!).

Examples of “Woo”
For example, there is a crack pot theory that oil isn’t the remains of dead plant matter cooked and baked by geology over millions of years but is naturally generated by the earth, so called Abiotic oil. According to conspiracy theorist there is thus no shortage of oil or natural gas and “they” (the government/liberals/corporations/Roswell aliens take you’re pick) are restricting oil supply deliberately (why would they do that? Don’t ask me! conspiracy theorists rarely think that far ahead, just look at Alex Jones a few weeks ago).

Others argue that various “perpetual motion” type devices that violate the basic laws of thermodynamics can supply unlimited energy can actually work. They claim that Tesla, the famous 20th century “mad” scientist developed such a device (as someone who has read a few autobiographies on Tesla I can say this is wholly without foundation and is a rumour largely based on a few sensationalised tabloid stories from around the 1930’s & 1940’s that have since been embellished on).

Another prominent example is the “answers in Genesis” movement :crazy:. They claim that actually not only is science wrong about evolution but we can find plenty of evidence for “intelligent design” within the bible. Of course, ignoring all the scientific evidence to the contrary, as well as ignoring all the facts we know about the bible and its creation and how the book we read now is very different from that of the early Christian Church. In short to believe in such nonsense not only means rejecting science but requires a complete misreading and distortion of the bible and its message (what they used to call in the middle ages “heresy” >:-[).

The fundamental problem with ID is if goddunnit why did he make so many mistakes? What’s with Junk DNA? Why do humans have an appendix? Why do Whales still have leg bones? One has to conclude that if ID is true it means:
A) God is deliberately trying to trick us into believing in evolution
B) He’s smoking crack while he does the designing or
C) “God’s plan” involves humans going back to eating leaves and Whales flopping out of the oceans and walking around in future ;D…neither of which incidentally are mentioned in the bible!…..which would indicate the bible is wrong…which sort of puts these bible literalists into a bit of a pickle!

Science under attack
Now if we were dealing with a small lunatic fringe here I think we could laugh it off. But its more of a lunatic mainstream. Take this typical example of the sorts of views held by republican congressmen.

Consider also how Republicans are now trying to reshape how the US National Science Council operates. Notably, they want to get rid of peer review process, largely because they know that their crack pot theories can’t get past the process of peer review.

Now granted, if you gave me and most other scientists the choice between being whacked over the head with a 2×4 or going through peer review, most would opt for the 2×4 (less painful!). But peer review is rigorous for a reason. Granted it doesn’t always get things right, a few papers contradicting the mainstream opinion on global warming have snuck through (although they are vastly outnumbered by papers supporting AGW) and there’s that infamous Andrew Wakefield example.

However, I would point out that this proves that the peer review process is unbiased, i.e. it is not the duty of Journals or the NSC to “censor” what gets published, but act as facilitators in a scientific debate. And of course when a paper with a controversial position gets through, normally the effect is to stir other scientists into investigating its claims, either with a view of disproving it, or in fact proving that the original paper was correct and furthering the proof of this new idea. This is how science works.

And it is of course deeply ironic how the anti-science brigade can on the one hand point to these examples above as “proof” peer review doesn’t work…..but then cease on the mistakes made by peer review (such as Andrew Wakefield’s now discredited and withdrawn paper) as proof of their quack belief’s! :??:

In another example North Carolina, the state which tried to ban sea level rise due to global warming, have also for example recently tried to ban Tesla Motor’s electric cars!…I don’t know, maybe if Tesla tie a couple of dead baby seals to be the back bumper the Republicans will reconsider :no:

The Price
Now the danger apparent with these sorts of attitudes, is that it will becoming increasingly difficult if not impossible to make major scientific advances if we start allowing crack pot theories to override rigorous scientific research. The result will be a slow down, or possibly even a reversal of current technology levels. e.g. one of the reasons for tinkering around with stem cells and genetics is that antibiotics will no longer be effective if we don’t develop new versions or alternative ways of fight infection. This will of course have a detrimental knock on effect to society.

The history books are seldom kind to civilisations who allow themselves to stagnate technologically. Lysenkoism played a role in the disastrous mismanagement of agriculture within the Soviet Union, which was a major factor in the ultimate demise of the Soviet Bloc. For much of recorded history the Indians and Chinese were well ahead technologically (and culturally) of Western societies. However, in the 19th century both empires were easily beaten or subjugated by a handful of western adventurers, often using the very technologies (paper, printing, gunpowder, celestial navigation, mathematics) that the Indians and Chinese had themselves developed!

And in some respects its already happening. Before G. W. Bush came to power the US led the world in green technology research. Now they’ve lost that lead to both Germany and increasingly China. Both are not only manufacturing and installing solar panels, wind turbines and fuel cells in ever increasing numbers (while the UK hum’s and haw’s about a couple of turbines here and there the China have plans for 20 GW array of wind turbines!). But the Chinese are also working on the research to develop the next generation of these technologies. I’ve been working with fuel cells recently and I can tell you even the best stuff out of America now looks old fashioned. The really good high tech stuff comes from China or other members of the BRICS.

Often you find the people behind such research originally started their careers in the US, but when funding dried up, they left and took their knowledge overseas. Naturally this will in the long term have very heavy detrimental effect on the US economy and on its position as the world’s foremost super power (if indeed we can still make that claim given how beholden America is to the whims of China).

But also in Britain!
And lest anyone claim that this is purely an American problem which we don’t need to worry about this side of the pond, look no further than UKIP, aka the UK Tea party, a veritable den of anti-intellectual, anti-science, homepathic quacks. They’ve even made “screaming” Lord Monckton :crazy: their science spokesman (that’s sort of like the Church of England making Richard Dawkins their spokesman on religious affairs).

These very same trends we’ve seen happen to America seem to be spreading to the UK. And there is a need to recognize that and takes steps to prevent it – If that is, you don’t want to see homeopathy on the NHS in place of this stuff called “medicine” don’t vote for UKIP. Indeed UKIP’s own founder, Prof Alan Sked (yes I did say Professor, the irony!) has denounced his own party as going “completely fruitcake” and “gone anti-intellectual“.

Similarly those who are conservative, but are vaguely sane, and understand how science works, need to grow a spine and start standing up to these anti-intellectual bullies. Increasingly for example many prominent Republicans (notably Mike Bloomberg) have come out and spoken about the need to firstly recognize that global warming is a reality, but also work out how to deal with it within a Republican free market orientated policy. If they succeed then maybe the GOP can overcome its “cave man” image. If they fail then the long term prospects for them or the US are not good.


5 thoughts on “Anti-science and Lysenkoism

  1. I am in contact with a fair few Anericans, and it is surprising how many of them are skeptical of….well, pretty much everything. Scientists, liberals, socialists, people who don’t like guns, foreigners, people who talk funny, and their own government. The big political problem in America is that it only has 2 parties and they are about 90% identical.


  2. I am not anti science but I do think we need to look at its activities more critically.
    Why are billions being spent on sending men to Mars while the conditions here on earth are so perilous?
    Why are the great advances long since made in medical science mainly only available to the rich nations?
    Why do the scientific community not admit that at least some of our problems have been caused by scientific advance? The internal combustion engine has almost ruined the world.
    The truth is that science has become a golden calf at which we must all bow down and worship.


    • I would argue the problems you highlight aren’t so much the scientists or the science but how it is utilised by politicians and corporations.

      The IC engine’s you mention for example, originally Rudolf Diesel designed his to run off biofuel. It was only later that someone cooked up this fossil fuel based alternative called “Diesel” to run them.

      In another example, Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb was one of a number of US scientists who tried to get the new UN to ban the bomb back in the late 1940’s. Unfortunately US politicians naively thinking they had a monopoly on the technology blocked it.

      So perhaps the problem is scientists being a little naïve themselves that the people in charge can be trusted with said science.


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