Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Trofim Lysenko - why we should not mix ideology and science

What happens when ideology becomes more important than scientifical critical thinking?

Trofim Lysenko (see picture), quickly became a very prominent "scientist" in the soviet union following an article printed in Pravda (aka "the truth") about this barefooted peasant who "solved problems". Even though he had little education and was barely literate Lysenko progressed rapidly in the soviet system and it did not take many years before he controlled much of the agricultural policy in the soviet union. Lysenko was a practical man who cared about practical issues rather than theoretical nonsense. When something appealed to Lysenko's intuition there was really no need for rigorous testing, consider for instance his citation "In order to obtain a certain result, you must want to obtain precisely that result; if you want to obtain a certain result you will obtain it". When he had achieved a powerful position in the soviet union Lysenko's intuition became so important that criticzing him was associated with grave dangers. Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian biologist who have made important contributions to genetics was one of Lysenko's many victims

Lysenko did not believe in Darwin's theory of evolution because organisms do not "compete", they co-operate. Based on this belief Lysenko ordered that trees should be planted in groups so that they would co-operate (perhaps he was a well-meaning man after all). The result: only 5% of the trees planted flourished, 15% survived, huge economical costs to the soviet union. Lysenko also believed that environment meant everything. Give a seed a good environment and it will flourish. The result of this: availability of meat and vegetables was no higher in 1953 than in 1900 when Tsar Nicholas II reigned the country, millions of Russians starved. In fact, Lysenko even believed that one could easily change one species into another species by manipulating the environment, and indeed "scientists" began reporting studies in which they changed bacteria into viruses and even a rabbit into a chicken!

This history shows the danger of letting ideals steer science. Though he may have been a well meaning man, Lysenko ignored what was known about agriculture and the Russian people suffered the consequences. As I have previously argues, I think it would be a mistake to ignore what we know about human nature when we design our society. Under what conditions do people tend to co-operate, and when do we not co-operate?, what differences between the sexes should we expect and accept rather than fight against (and which should we fight against)? I think that the most important lesson of the above is that whatever ideological motives we have we should not let these motives affect the way we do scientific research...


furiku said...

Wasn't Lysenko a Lamarckian? He thought you could increase the quality of a crop by growing it under terse conditions, as it would automatically develop resistances to those terse conditions and then yield more. Something like that.

rasmussenanders said...

Yes, that was indeed one of his weird untested ideas that had disatrous effects for the russian people.

About Lamarckism I actually, during my stay in Santa Barbara, heard someone speak about a new form of Lamarckism. According to this (I do not know if I believe it), DNA can be turned on or of by certain reactions. This is nothing new of course, but what is new, is that according to what I heard these patterns can also be inherited. Now , just like you probably do, I see lots of problems with this: why don't we change faster then is perhaps the most important question... I don't know but it is an interesting idea.

furiku said...

This isn't anything new. Dawkins talks about it in The Extended Phenotype. These kinds of discoveries pop up with regular intervals and I don't know if it's all that weird. A lot I think can probably be put down to maternal effects. Even so it still comes down to DNA and how it works in the end - I'm with Dawkins on this one.

Rational sceptic said...

I completely agree with your main message, that we should not mix ideology and science. Lysenko is a terrible example of what happens when it is done. The example of Lysenko is perhaps best described as an example of when the "left" dismisses science on ideological grounds, although it is questionable if stalinism should be taken as representing a general left opinon. On the right-wing side, we have the example with Nazigermany and eugenics, where political goals where motivated with socialdarwinist arguments.

However, one does not need to move to the Sovjetunion during Stalin or Nazigermany during Hitler to find examples of how ideology is mixed with scientific arguments. Many scientists even today are bad in making the crucil distinction between their own political opinion and science. One excellent example of this is your own PhD-student advisor Germund Hesslow in Lund. He has, on several occasions, used his status as a professor in neurofysiology in Lund to argue for his own right-wing idéas. Particularly ridiculous are his claims that salary differences between men and women in today's society are an unavoidable consequence of biological differences between the sexes. See
the excellent criticisms by evolutionary biologist Erik Svensson (also in Lund) of Germund Hesslow's flawed arguments:


rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for your response. Sorry about my delayed response, I had not seen your comment until this day…

First of all, I think that you, like many others have accepted what is written in critical responses, without going to the source.
What he says is that there is no evidence that the difference in salary is due to discrimination. In fact, it seems that a large part of the gap can be explained by the type of measure used when calculating the difference in salary. Two studies which have controlled more factors than the one which showed that women earn 83% of what men earn, have shown that the gap is 8%, or if you control for further factors 1.7%, a small difference in other words.
Take a look at this blog (which I just found), for more in depth information: http://frihetsgudinna.blogspot.com/2006_02_01_frihetsgudinna_archive.html

So I suggest that instead of accepting what you read in the first critical article that you find, go to the original source, or if you are ambitious, go to Hesslow’s personal homepage and read his response, then come back with more viewpoints, because I really like answering them!

In my post about Lysenko I only said that ideology should not influence how we do scientific research, however, if you have read this blog you will know that I do not think the opposite is necessarily true. For instance, I think that science has a great deal to say about the God hypothesis, which is arguably a type of ideology. Likewise I think that scientific research can help us construct the society that we want.

What science cannot do, in my opinion at least, is to tell us what moral code to live by, but when we have decided that, science can help us implement it...