08 August 2010

Lysenkoism

There has been some interesting discussion at Hans von Storch's blog about Lysenkoism. Nils Roll Hansen wrote some posts.

I don't agree with the conclusions reached.

Lysenko was not a politician, he was not a fraud, he was not an ideologue. Lysenko was a scientist.

Lysenko, like the majority of scientists today, worked for the government.

In the scientific controversy that involved Lysenko, he reported to his superiors (the government). That was his job as a senior member of the scientific establishment.

The scientific controversy was politically sensitive. Lysenko claimed that his scientific opponents were politically motivated: their science was based on bourgeois ideas of inherited superiority. That claim was not implausible, and Lysenko had no reasonable alternative but to draw the attention of his superiors to the possibility.

The politicians did their job - they reached a conclusion about how to run a government department based on the advice they received and their judgement of that advice.

When we tell the story of Lysenkoism, we tell it in the knowledge that Lysenko was wrong. What we look for are the indications that the process was bad - that the wrong conclusion was being reached.

My opinion is that there are no such indications. Yes, it was "politicized science", but the main political force on the science was the belief that orthodox genetics was itself the product of the political assumptions of the Western scientists that developed it. That perception was probably exaggerated, if not totally erroneous, but it was a genuine belief honestly held.

The point is that for politics to mess up science, it is not necessary for anyone to let the political implications of a theory take precedence over the evidence. All that is necessary is for some participants to believe that other scientists are doing that. That is enough to cause theories to be suppressed, and thereby for the science to be systematically skewed.

It is not enough, either, to say that at the end of the day the evidence should speak for itself, and the trustworthiness of its spokesmen not be relevant - nullius in verba, and all that. That is all very fine, but it denies the fact that some science is difficult. It is so impractical to replicate every experiment, confirm every observation, check every calculation, that nullus in verba is the next thing to radical scepticism in the philosophical sense. You have to trust some scientists, and that means you have to choose who to trust, and that means you have to take into account politics.

In the very long run, you can learn who is actually trustworthy and who is not. But that is a painful bootstrapping process - you need a little trust to give you some facts, and then you use those facts to evaluate the trustworthiness of those who addressed them. That gives you a little more trust, to gather a few more facts, and so on.

To call, as Hansen does, for "independence" for science does not address the problem. It just means that scientists will be punished for scientific dissent rather than political dissent - which makes the situation worse. If science is run by politicians, you can probably advance whatever theories you like so long as you support the right policies. If science is run by scientists, you must support the authorized theories to succeed.

There is, then, no silver bullet to depoliticise science. There are, however, treatments that can make science work better. Since a small amount of distrust has such a catastrophic effect, the least dishonesty cannot be tolerated. This is behind the now dying attitude that Feynman talked about, of bending over backwards to draw attention to everything that tells against you theory, so that you cannot possibly be accused of concealing any of it.

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