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The Alchemy of Policymaking
By Michael Gough
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Harmful Politicization of Science
Politicization is inevitable when governments provide funding for science. The public expects to get something back from the science they support — for example, better health, national security, jobs. This normal politicization does no harm and may even be good for science and society. But politicization taken to the extreme can be very harmful. In extreme politicization, governments or powerful advocacy groups use science and scientists who share or benefit from the politicization to drive science out of technical decisions and to promote a nonscientific agenda.
My discussion of politicization of science begins with what must be its most extreme manifestation, when the Soviet Union used denial of income, imprisonment, and execution to impose its political will on the science of biology. The same desires for wealth, recognition, and power that propelled the politicization of Soviet biology exist in our democracy, but tyranny is absent. In its place, those who seek to politicize science here attempt to divert federal research funds to their ends and to stifle dissenting opinions, using the power of the press, congressional hearings, and appeals to patriotism.
The proponents of cold fusion in the United States used all those means in their quest for money and fame and standing. In the end, they failed because their claims were shown to be based on corrupt or misinterpreted experiments. While the debate was going on, at least one politician testified that scientists who expressed skepticism about cold fusion were unpatriotically inhibiting pursuit of the most important scientific breakthrough since the invention of fire. Worse, those who stood in the way of cold fusion were delaying development of a scientific breakthrough that would reverse many of the world's environmental problems because it would provide pollution-free energy.
Protection and improvement of the environment are now the siren song of politicians, businessmen, and scientists who claim that their conclusions about global climate change and their proposals to stave off catastrophic change are the only thing standing between mankind and a bleak, blasted planet in the future. They have, to some degree, succeeded in strangling the flow of research money to scientists who question their conclusions and prescriptions.
In my own case, I lost a federal position because of citing scientific research findings that undermined a politician's rhetoric. I did not suffer for my actions as did the Soviet biologists, but my dismissal surely serves as a warning to other government scientists and, perhaps more importantly, to nongovernment scientists who act as advisers to the government, that politics can trump science even in purely technical topics.
The politicization of science is impossible without the participation of some scientists in it. Politicians in both tyrannies and democracies are susceptible to scientists who say that they can show the way to manage nature without all the complicated baggage of ordinary science. How attractive the bright, adventurous, and brave individuals are who cast off the burdensome limitations of facts and theory that constrain the scientists who disagree with them. But politicians and citizens alike should question scientists who are unwilling to subject their observations and theories to independent tests, and their ideas and conclusions to discussion among technically qualified peers. Unhappily for society, such scientists, with sufficient political backing, can subvert the funding process so that information critical to their claims cannot be developed. At the present time, it is very difficult to obtain funding, either from U.S. governmental sources or from private foundations, for research that does not presuppose impending environmental doom. Suggestions that moderate global warming may actually be a good thing for humanity are treated with ridicule and hostility.
Lysenko's Destruction of Biology in the Soviet Union
Some of the worst consequences of politicized science have come from the seemingly noble aim of improving human well-being. Those who promise to circumvent the limitations that scientific laws place on human existence can always count on adulation, power, and wealth. A particularly egregious and well-documented example of this was Trofim Lysenko's destruction of biology in the Soviet Union. From the time he burst into public view in 1928 until the downfall of Khrushchev in 1964, Lysenko replaced real biology in the Soviet Union with falsehoods, prisons, and executions. Many details about Lysenko's career can be found in the excellent books by Valery N. Soyfer, Power and Science (in Russian), and Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science (in English). A "people's academic," Trofim Lysenko promised to revolutionize the laws of agriculture, just as his Communist masters were trying to revolutionize human society.
The Soviet Union forcibly collectivized agriculture in 1928 and forced peasants to surrender their land, livestock, and machinery and to join collective farms. All grain was confiscated from the peasants, even grain needed for planting the following year's crops. Massive famines followed in 1929 and the early 1930s. Several million peasants starved to death in the Ukraine, and the Red Army was used to collect the grain harvest, such as it was, because whole villages had perished from hunger.
Hard-working and successful small farmers remained productive and were an affront to Soviet collectivism. Referring to these enterprising farmers as kulaks (clenched fist in Russian), Stalin orchestrated the "liquidation of kulaks as a class." Thousands were executed, and millions were deported to Siberia or Central Asia.
To try to cope with the disastrous effects of collectivization, the Communist Party ordered the rapid development of more productive varieties of wheat and other important crops. It imposed impossible demands on agricultural research institutions to improve (within one year) crop yields, resistance to diseases and pests, ease of harvest, food value, and so on.
The plant breeders and geneticists of the Soviet Union were some of the best in the world. Moreover, they had some of the finest genetic pools of wheat to start with; indeed, wheat varieties of Russian ancestry were the sources of the most productive wheat strains grown in the United States and Canada.
With the best of planning and luck, the time scale for introducing effective new varieties is much longer than one year. Several years are needed to evaluate hybrids or to select varieties with desirable properties. More years are needed to produce sufficient seed for massive plantings. Lenin himself, responding to a complaint by the Russian author Gorky about the arrest of intellectuals, replied, "In fact, they are not the brain of the nation, but shit." So it was not surprising that both the popular and the scientific press labeled those hapless Russian agronomists who pointed out the impossibility of producing effective new plant varieties in one year as "enemies of the Soviet people."
No wonder the Communists paid attention when young Trofim Lysenko declared that the genetics of Mendel's peas and Morgan's fruit flies was incorrect and simply a capitalist plot to exploit the peasants and working class. Lysenko believed that environmental factors determined the performance of plants and that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Having unmasked the evil Western myth of gene-based inheritance, Lysenko promised almost instant improvements in agricultural production.
Lysenko's origins — a peasant background, and little education — helped him avoid the hatred of the Soviet authorities for the intelligentsia. He first became famous in 1928 by claiming that a series of simple steps, within reach of any farmer, produced markedly improved yields of wheat. All that was necessary was "vernalization" — soaking winter-wheat seed in the fall, burying it in sacks under the snow, and planting it in the spring like ordinary spring wheat. This was all a fraud, supported by corrupted experiments and falsified statistics.
Stalin himself joined the fray, praising Lysenko and his people's scientists, and dismissing as old-fashioned and counterrevolutionary those who believed in genes. Many opportunistic biologists hopped on the Lysenko bandwagon, and he and his supporters founded Scientific Institutes of Vernalization, while his disciples took over existing institutions. Some brave Soviet biologists opposed Lysenko and many paid for this with their jobs or even their lives. N. I. Vavilov, a plant breeder of international renown, died in prison. Others were simply shot.
Honest scientists from other disciplines were alarmed about what was happening, but for many years they did little to interfere. By the outbreak of World War II, Lysenko and his henchmen were in full control of biology in the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
During the war, Lysenko's younger brother Pavel, a scientific worker in Kharkov, defected to the Germans when they overran the city. The younger Lysenko so impressed the German occupation forces that they named him mayor of occupied Kharkov. After the defeat of the Germans, Pavel managed to escape to the West and he made unflattering comments about the Soviet Union in Voice of America broadcasts. This made Trofim "a family member of an enemy of the people," a criminal offense in the Soviet Union. At about this same time, many in the top levels of the Soviet government were beginning to realize that Lysenko was a fraud who had done much damage to the Soviet Union. Lysenko's hold on Soviet biology weakened as articles in both the popular and scientific press began to assert that chromosomes and genes really did have something to do with inheritance and were important factors in practical agricultural science.
But Lysenko was not so easily defeated. By great good luck he was saved by Stalin himself. Someone had sent Stalin samples of branched wheat from his home republic of Georgia. Up to seven ears would grow on each stalk of this wheat, and Stalin was convinced that widespread planting of branched wheat would be the solution to the periodic crop failures and famines that still plagued the Soviet Union. Stalin invited Lysenko to visit him in his office, gave Lysenko a handful of seeds of the branched wheat, and ordered him to improve the wheat and make enough seed for the entire country. This Lysenko cheerfully promised to do, and as part of the bargain, he gained permission to deal once and for all with his remaining scientific enemies.
With Stalin's support Lysenko carefully orchestrated a trap for his opponents during the meeting of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences in August 1948. Lysenko's agents encouraged the few remaining honest geneticists to speak up in favor of genes and chromosomes. On the last day of the conference Lysenko stunned the conference by announcing that Stalin himself had decreed that henceforth there would be only one approved biology in the Soviet union, that of Lysenko. From then on, taking genes and chromosomes seriously was tantamount to treason.
In the aftermath of the 1948 conference, most of the remaining honest geneticists in the Soviet Union were fired from their jobs and replaced by Lysenko's protégés. The famous branched wheat that gained Stalin's support for Lysenko turned out to give much poorer yields than ordinary, unbranched wheat, but with Stalin's support, this was no problem for Lysenko. After Stalin's death, it was not long before Lysenko hypnotized his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who provided the same top-level political support to which Lysenko had become accustomed.
In spite of Lysenko's complete triumph over his scientific enemies in 1948, it was increasingly clear to objective observers in the Soviet Union and abroad that Lysenko's bizarre agricultural practices, together with the disincentives of Soviet economic policies, were ruining Soviet food production. Nevertheless, Lysenko continued to enjoy the full support of the leadership of the Communist Party, and no biologists who disagreed with him remained in any position to challenge or question him. The only effective scientific opposition came from outside biology.
The physicists Peter Kapitza, who later won a Nobel Prize for his work on low-temperature physics, Igor Tamm, and AndreiSakharov were some of the most fearless defenders of honest genetics. Lysenko hated them all, but Tamm and Sakharov were credited with the invention of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and Lysenko did not have sufficient political power to have them jailed or shot, as he had done with his opponents in the field of biology. In 1964, Tamm and Sakharovled a successful campaign to thwart Lysenko's attempt to pack the Soviet Academy of Sciences with his cronies. This so infuriated Khrushchev that he decided to dissolve the Academy of Sciences. Luckily for Soviet science, Khrushchev was so confident of success that he took a vacation before completing his dismantlement of the Academy. On October 14, 1964, Anastas I. Mikoyan and an impressive contingent of Red Army generals showed up at Khrushchev's vacation spot and announced that he, Khrushchev, had just retired and would be drawing his pension from now on. So the "Little October Revolution," as the Russians like to call this episode, saved Soviet science from Lysenko.
The Lysenko episode shows that an entire scientific discipline can be destroyed if the attractions of false science are greatenough and if its proponents are ruthless enough. The great Russian poetess Anna Axmatova, who lost her husband and nearly lost her son, a distinguished historian, to Stalin's executioners, in a few lines of verse summarizes the tragedies Lysenko and other opportunists brought to Russia:
TO THE DEFENDERS OF STALIN
Those are the ones who shouted,
"release Barrabas to us for our holiday,"
those who commanded Socrates to drink the hemlock
in the dim confines of the dungeon.
We should pour out the same drink for them,
in their innocent, slandering mouths,
these amiable lovers of tortures,
these experts in the production of orphans.
The Lysenko affair is one of the most thoroughly documented and horrifying examples of the politicization of science, but no country or age is immune. In totalitarian societies politicized science often leads to tragedy; in democratic societies politicized science often ends in wasted time and effort and sometimes in farce.
To illustrate the different histories of politicized science in totalitarian societies and democracies, I will compare Lysenko's biology in the Soviet Union with the history of "cold fusion" in the United States. Most of my discussion of cold fusion has been taken from the excellent book by John Huizenga, Cold Fusion: The Scientific Fiasco of the Century.
What can be more annoying than the difficulty of getting controlled fusion energy on earth? If we could only figure out how to do it, we could provide the world's energy needs indefinitely with the practically inexhaustible supplies of deuterium and lithium available in the oceans. We know how to get large amounts of energy from fusing deuterium and tritium nuclei in a thermonuclear weapon. But after nearly fifty years of hard work and large expenditures of research funds, the world has yet to harness fusion energy to generate electrical power. Magnetic fusion devices are large, costly, and still far from practical; imploding small samples of deuterium and tritium gas with large lasers also still has a long way to go before it can be a practical energy source.
In light of the great effort and limited results, Professor B. Stanley Pons and his colleague, Dr. Martin Fleischman, surprised the whole world on March 23, 1989. Pons, chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of Utah, and Fleischman, a distinguished electrochemist from England, announced that they had observed the generation of substantial heat from deuterium nuclei fusing in the palladium electrodes of electrochemical cells under the benign conditions of temperature and pressure found in an ordinary room. Television and newspapers trumpeted "controlled fusion in a fruit jar," in glowing terms all over the world.
Pons and Fleischman had not submitted a scientific paper about their discovery at the time of their press conference, so it was very hard for other scientists to judge the claims, but as details began to leak out, there was skepticism in the nuclear physics community, even as many other scientists and the public at large were greatly enthusiastic.
There were many parallels to Lysenko's vernalization announcements in 1928. The simplicity and importance of the cold fusion process intoxicated the press. Eager scientific imitators hurried to join the bandwagon. And there was soon high-level political attention. President George Bush asked for advice from Glen Seaborg, the great nuclear chemist who discovered plutonium. Seaborg gave a sober briefing to President Bush, and he stressed the inconsistency of the claimed results with fifty years of painstaking work in nuclear physics.
Excerpted from Politicizing Science by Michael Gough. Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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