Monday, 2 September 2013

Missing the point about Lysenkoism

I have spent a good deal of time, and started some blog posts on, the subject of Richard Lindzen's article in JPANDS, that rather discredited former newsletter.  I have already dealt with the global warming is religion theme so I thought it might be useful to have a go at the global warming is like Lysenkoism theme which is nicely bandied about across the deniersphere without, I suspect, any of them actually noticing the main and most important point.

Lysenkoism is nicely summarised here so I won't go over old ground too much. Suffice to say that the conditions that made Lysenkoism do not exist in the West and hardly exist anywhere else, save perhaps North Korea. And that is the point which I think the deniers miss.  Lysenkoism was wholly political and it stemmed from two things.
Lysenko speaking in 1935, Stalin top right.

Firstly, there was a fundamentalist adherence to a political creed in the Soviet Union of the 1930s when Lysenkoism took hold. It was a brutal regime. During Stalin's rule in the Soviet Union, it is estimated that 20 million people died as a result, directly and indirectly, of his policies.  One of those policies was the support he gave for Trofim Lysenko and his "scientific" ideas on how organisms change.  Lysenko believed that organisms were more plastic, more malleable, and not machines based on their genes. Such an idea was attractive to Stalin, especially when the results of forced collectivisation of farms led to the famine of 1932-3. Lysenko claimed to be able to make plants more productive without the tedious process of artificial selection. Instead of possible uprisings from a starving peasantry, Stalin would be able to feed them sooner.

That was, of course, a pipe dream. Lysenko's science didn't produce the results he promised but he himself was of low birth so his background meant he could be a sort of poster boy for Marxist/Soviet science. Put the two pieces together and there is a recipe for political horror. Geneticists were already under attack, Lysenko proposed an alternative, Stalin takes it on board. Stalin was not one to suffer political opponents for too long.  There were alternatives, prison camps, execution, that would ensure their silence. As with Lavoisier, many Soviet scientists were lost because of Stalin and his inability to realise how useful good science was.

This is a world where politics is the ruler of everything, crude and raw politics. In Western democracies we are used to a more genteel form of politics, with proper debate and many ways to try to influence governments. We might not agree that they are successful, but 1930s Soviet Union politics bears no similarity at all. Dissent was not tolerated. Once Lysenko was taken on as the official branch of Soviet biology, dissenting scientists were in trouble. 

I don't believe modern climate or other science deniers who cry Lysenkoism over their branch of denial understand that in modern Europe, Australia, North America and so on, political dissent is not crushed in the way that Stalin did. And usually when it is brought up it is because the deniers are unable to consider that other reasons, beyond trying to silence someone who isn't toeing "the party line" (see Murry Salby's case here), might be the reason someone is removed from their post. Indeed, it is extremely easy to dissent from perceived party lines. If the government supports anthropogenic global warming, and is funding research into it, if you don't like it you can do any number of things: write letters to the government or the newspapers, start a blog, set up petitions, organise a march, set up your own journal for original research... I could go on. Deniers have done these things. Are those deniers rotting in prisons like Nikolai Vavilov, Lysenko's opponent.
Vavilov's mug shots on his arrest in 1941

This is my second point. The deniers shout Lysenkoism in the full knowledge, or ignorance, that to deny Lysenkoism was to place your life in danger. This was about real fear, that there might be a knock on the door and that you, and quite possibly your family, would be taken for brutal interrogation, likely to be convicted with no free trial and sentenced, as Vavilov was, to death. That he died in prison of starvation was barely a compensation for having the sentence commuted to 20 years in prison.

Global warming deniers enjoy using content free assertions like this. Dissenting from modern climate science research is easy. I believe that Roy Spencer is still employed by NASA rather than in some Alabama penitentiary.  I believe that many others hold places within the scientific establishment. They appear on TV. They write books. Hardly a sign that the government is suppressing them.

Of course, none of this matters to the deniers. They appear to have fixed their ideas and then tried to fit the evidence around them. Real scientists, the ones working on climate change and more, stand scientifically naked, so to speak, at every conference, when every paper is published, because a fundamental mistake is the sort of thing that halts a scientific career. There have been scientific frauds and many cases have come to light. It is a hard thing to sustain but any accusation must come with evidence. Deniers like evidence, so long as they don't have to provide it. They love asking for lots and lots of evidence, none of which is good enough - Wikipedia is unreliable, this or that blog is biassed, that paper is flawed or has been questioned. When I watch in court, the judge directs the jury to find a verdict based on reasonable doubt. Deniers are unreasonable on this. They want absolute certainty and see an absence of that as reason to take a contrary position even though there is no evidence for it.

I hope I have made my points: Lysenkoism was political because of the situation in which it happened and that the situation that prevails today makes standing up and shouting about it easy and relatively pain free. Dissenting scientists seem to be able to carry on regardless, except they get called out by those that know better.  If they can't sleep, can I suggest watching Anthony Watts's presentation to his friendly concerned doctors.  Or perhaps ask them for some sleeping tablets (if they are still permitted to write prescriptions)?

NB  In researching this I came across a piece from Scientific American in 2004 about George W Bush and the suppression of science on climate change.  Things can obviously work both ways. I note that a commenter the other day at WUWT denied that Bush did any suppression of climate change research because he didn't have the power.  Hmm.  Perhaps not but having a skeptic in the White House clearly didn't help the skeptic cause. That's because it is science that arbitrates, not Congress. In the Soviet Union it took Stalin's death to make things better.  Just a little bit better.


  1. Lindzen gets to write op-eds in WSJ and to testify in congress. That is hardly oppression.

  2. GW ended before 2001.

    AGW never was.

  3. Dan

    I don't buy your arguments given in your links. Since I suspect nothing I say will change your mind I won't enter into a discussion. Suffice to say, with so many of the hottest years on record coming in the last fifteen, it is impossible to agree with your first link.


    1. Average global temperature history since 1975 is like a hill. We went up the hill from 1975 to 2001 where the average global temperature trend reached a plateau (per the average of the five government agencies that publicly report average global temperature anomalies). The average global temperature trend since 2001 has been flat to slightly declining but is on the plateau at the top of the hill. Claiming that the hill is highest at its top is not very profound. The temperature trend has started to decline but the decline will be slow; about 0.1 K per decade for the planet, approximately twice that fast for land areas.

    2. Read this, Dan. It might open your eyes to alternative possibilities

    3. Cat - el nino is a minor contributor to the global ocean oscillation which is dominated by the PDO. The incompetence of climate models has been demonstrated by their failure to predict the flat global temperature trend for more than a decade while CO2 has continued to increase. That Tamino still uses them indicates that he has a lot to learn.

      Being open to alternative possibilities helped me find what actually drives average global temperature.

  4. > many Soviet scientists were lost because of Stalin and his inability to realise how useful good science was

    There is a repeat of this, sort-of, later on under Brezhnev. The KGB certainly understood the usefulness of good science. They just failed to see that it is something you can only build, not steal.

  5. Using your mountain analogy, the route to the top is not a straight line. Went up Vesuvius a few weeks back so I am confident my reading is correct. I refer you to the temperature escalator on SkepticalScience to show what reality looks like. And a reminder of how warm the last ten years have been compared to, say 1980-1989.

    1. CO2 increase from 1800 to 2001 was 89.5 ppmv (parts per million by volume). The atmospheric carbon dioxide level has increased since 2001 by 25.59 ppmv (an amount equal to 28.6% of the increase that took place from 1800 to 2001) (1800, 281.6 ppmv; 2001, 371.13 ppmv; July, 2013, 396.72 ppmv).

      The average (5 reporting agencies) global temperature trend since 2001 is flat. Figure 1 in is through April but the average through July is not significantly different.

      That is the observation. No amount of spin can rationalize how the temperature increase to 2001 was caused by a CO2 increase of 89.5 ppmv but that 25.59 ppmv additional CO2 increase had no effect on the average global temperature trend after 2001. This demonstrates that the climate models that many climate scientists and the IPCC depend on are conspicuously wrong.

  6. it goes to show how deluded Lindzen has become: as one of those supposedly suffering at the hands of this "climate Lysenkoism", he should find it obvious that the reaction he's been experiencing has absolutely nothing in common with what Lysenko's opponents suffered. he's still got a good job at MIT, regular speaking gigs around the world, the ability to publish his research -- not a lifetime in a forced labour camp, or a shallow grave in a prison-yard.

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