Prologue: From a history book in the year 2100
“The story of the atmospheric sciences in the period 1980 to 2025 is one of the most puzzling chapters in the history of modern science. In a society claiming to be devoted to the improvement of the lives of its citizens a cabal of ignorant fanatics, half-literate researchers, political hangers-on and the odd charlatan was allowed control over research in atmospheric science and its applications. This event not only stifled the development of science, but also had far-reaching and destructive influence on the economies of many countries through misdirection of resources on a truly epic scale. To the outsider it was completely incomprehensible that societies capable of sending man into space could have entrusted something as vital as the energy provision, transport and food production to exploitation by obvious quacks. Even more curious was that the aberration was all the while loudly applauded by a sycophantic press and endorsed by learned societies that ought to have known better. Scientists of the subsequent period have long speculated about the machinery of that takeover and about the circumstances that made it possible.”
This posting is about how and why that takeover happened.
The twentieth century was one of great advances in physics, biology, geology and a whole raft of other branches of the scientific enterprise. It was unfortunately also the century that gave us the notorious pseudosciences Eugenics, Lysenkoism and the beginnings of Climate Alarmism, the current scientific aberration. Some, myself included, would add Marxism to the list, but I decided to not unnecessarily insult the intelligence and will briefly touch on only Eugenics further on to illustrate a point.
The hypothesis of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, aka. Man-Made Climate Change, is a textbook example of a pseudoscience. More specifically, I will demonstrate that the conflict between that climate alarmism and real science has uncanny and disturbing parallels to Lysenkoism, a 3 decade long perversion of the biological sciences practiced in the Soviet bloc starting in the mid-1930s with Marxism as an enabling boundary condition. I will do so guided by a book that for a long time was the only available contemporary scholarly record of the period.
At the centre of every pseudoscience is invariably a false doctrine, a flawed hypothesis. In our case that CO2 is the most important climate driver. In a real science the hypothesis evolves through testing against reality into a better one or is just abandoned. In a pseudo science the false doctrine becomes dogma which may descend into folklore, such as astrology, but occasionally is taken up by powerful political interest and then does immense damage. Lysenkoism serves as a case in point.
A short history of Lysenkoism
I have a little confession to make. The ‘prologue’ was adapted with some poetic license from the opening paragraph in a translation of a book by the Russian biologist Zhores Medvedev: “The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko”. In it Medvedev gives a detailed account of how Lysenkoism took hold, how it treated it’s opponents how it ruined Soviet agriculture and how it disappeared in the end. It’s a fascinating but difficult read, the more so because of the occasional depiction of personal misery suffered by those at the receiving end. The book is also remarkable in that it was never published in its original Russian (note 1) but only appeared in print in the USA, translated by his American colleague Michael Lerner who had stumbled upon the existence of the manuscript by accident, learning of it from the grapevine.
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko had a bee in his bonnet about a method of growing crops, ‘vernalization’ with which he tried to improve yield. He had adopted this method from the works of a crackpot horticulturalist Ivan Vladimir Michurin. There is anecdotal evidence that he was taken to those ideas because his father had had a modest success on a patch of potatoes with it once or twice. Sometimes you read that Lysenkoism was some form of Lamarckian biology or similar to what we now call ‘Epigenetics’ (a branch of genetics dealing with gene regulation and nothing to do with Eugenics) but that is incorrect. Michurin’s and Lysenko’s ideas were basically a rejection of the basis of Mendelian genetics, of the concept of genes. At present, in an age of gene sequencing on an almost industrial scale such ideas look nonsensical indeed, but also in the 1930s, more than half a century after Mendel’s work was published, they were downright ridiculous. No surprise then, that Lysenko collided with the geneticists of the day, in particular Nicolai Vavilov, one of the greatest biologists of the Soviet era, widely regarded as the father of what we now call ‘population genetics’.
Although Lysenko was at best a mediocre botanist, he turned out to be an astute political operator. At the Second Congress of Collective Farmers in 1935 he gave in the presence of the head of the party, Joseph Stalin, a speech describing the debate with his geneticists opponents in the political terms of class struggle, a Marxist concept, with Mendelian genetics labeled as ‘bourgeois thinking’ and its practitioners basically as ‘enemies of the people’ or collaborators with capitalist imperialism. Medvedev writes:
This speech of Lysenko greatly pleased Stalin who, at its end, exclaimed:
‘Bravo comrade Lysenko, bravo!’.
From then on Lysenko had the backing of the highest authorities of the state and gradually his detractors became marginalized. Needless to say that he attracted a large following of active supporters and hangers-on who realized very well on which side their bread was buttered. It will also be no surprise that Lysenko used his influence to systematically get rid of his opponents. Again Medvedev:
hundreds of scientists, the best and most qualified representatives of Soviet biology, were either
dismissed or demoted on the basis of fabricated, slanderous, and perverted accusations of ….
then he gives a long list of purported crimes, among which: having reactionary views, complicity with imperialism and the bourgeoisie, grovelling before the West, sabotage, anti-Marxism, anti-Darwinism and so on. But, of course, the only thing they were guilty of was having a mind of their own.
In spite of this onslaught, there remained an opposition actively lead by Vavilov until also he disappeared from the scene through vile machinations culminating in trumped up and false accusations. Medvedev describes the circumstances of his arrest while doing field work in the Ukraine. He was literally plucked from the land, then put on trial together with some of his closest collaborators for subversion and locked up. The condemned were denied outdoor exercise and their wives and relatives were kept in the dark about their whereabouts. Vavilov died at the end of 1942 of pneumonia brought on by malnutrition and exhaustion. He left behind a massive body of unfinished work, to the incalculable detriment of his science.
Repressions were imposed well into the 1950s, also outside academia proper, on those disagreeing, the so-called anti-Pavlovians, a term, as Medvedev mentions, ‘especially coined for convenience in making accusations’. This was a masterstroke of agitprop as Pavlov was a national hero at the time and known to practically every child, both inside and outside the Soviet Union, because of that dog of his. To be against him, you must be very bad indeed. And if you were as scientist so unfortunate to be baited as anti-Pavlovian you were for many years deprived of normal opportunities to carry on scientific work.
The two decades 1940-1960 were of stagnation. In 1953 Stalin died and was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, a man from the countryside, who luckily for Lysenko was a true believer. However, while in the free world biology was advancing rapidly – in particular in the 1960-ties after the discovery of the genetic code – the lagging behind of Soviet biology was there for any unbiased observer to see:
The yoke of Lysenkoism became particularly burdensome as this pseudoscience continued seeking to suppress the new shoots inevitably sprouting in our science. The control of biological literature by supporters of Michurinist biology was so tight that for years there was scarcely a single article in the Soviet press openly critical of Lysenkoism. It was impossible to publish genetics articles as such during that period, and they had to appear in periodicals devoted to chemistry, physics, or mathematics. No direct critique of Lysenko himself got past editorial boards or the censorship. At the same time, periodicals and the popular press continued to promote the significance of the work of the Michurinists for agriculture and the national economy.
And, of course, the yield of the crops grown with the purportedly miracle methods were increasing year on year, if we are to believe the governmental departments involved, that is. However:
“Nonetheless, the backwardness of our theoretical biology became so obvious that some decisions had to be made, as pressure on the Academy of Sciences and other scientific administrative organs became stronger and stronger”
Part of the background to this was the, in reality, dismal performance of Soviet agriculture with several years of serious crop failures. The years 1962 and 1963 were so bad that food supplies had to be bought in the West and also in later years the USSR became a net importer of grain on a regular basis. The crunch came at a meeting to elect new members for the Academy of Sciences in June, 1964. Lysenko tried to ‘augment his forces in the AS Biology section’ but the proposed candidates were also vetted by members from the other branches of science over whom he and his clique held no sway. One of these members of the Academy was a young and now famous physicist Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. His presentation dealt with the candidacy of a certain Nikolai Nuzhdin, one of Lysenko’s protégées, who was put forward to “counter anti-Michurinist distortions by [Lysenko’s] opponents”, as it was presented. This is what Sakharov said:
“It is a matter of scientific conscience for each of the academicians who will vote as to how to interpret what is really hidden behind this ‘struggle against anti-Michurinist distortions’ and for the further development of the philosophical works of outstanding figures in biology, and so forth. I shall not read the excerpt a second time. As for myself, I call on those present to vote so that the only “ayes” will be by those who, together with Nuzhdin, together with Lysenko, bear the responsibility for the infamous, painful pages in the development of Soviet science, which fortunately are now coming to an end”.
I love the sarcasm. What he basically and totally against protocol put to the meeting was: “don’t vote for these guys, they are quacks”. The statement was met by applause. Lysenko and his ‘ism’ never recovered from this devastating assessment and within a year had completely disappeared from the scene, was literally written out of Soviet history.
Medvedev ends his book with an analysis of how and why it had happened. As he puts it: how did it happen that “in a society devoted to the betterment of the lot of peasants and workers, an illiterate and fanatical charlatan was allowed absolute dictatorship and control over both research in biology and agricultural practice?”. The way I read his conclusions is that you need four ingredients for such a disaster: (1) a false doctrine, obviously, (2) politically savvy and/or charismatic protagonists,
(3) patronage (which he calls ‘personality cult’, because he has Stalin in mind) and (4) an ideology in which all these can be embedded. Here Medvedev thought that such an ideology must necessarily be extremist in nature itself, but I have my doubts about that. The only requirement is to stifle free expression, and we all know that that can be achieved in the nicest possible and legal ways.
Climate Change Alarmism
You know what? I haven’t said much about Climate Change Alarmism. But I didn’t need to, because you will have recognized it in all its gory detail. For every aspect of Lysenkoism you can find the counterpart in the global warming hysteria. It’s all there: the false hypothesis, the speech that started the ball rolling (note 2), the personalities, with their groupies and real or imagined prizes, the patronage by the party, sorry, the UN, the censorious manipulation, the name calling, the data molestation, the muzzling of opponents, the people who can’t get their work past the editors, the people who are locked out of funding possibilities, those who lost their job (note 3), those who are accused of sleeping with the enemy, and last but not least the fanatics forcing their views on others and the cretins baying for blood. Plus, of course, an obliging press. And it’s all embedded in Woke Ideology, in the doctrine of Political Correctness which makes it not done to criticize anything green and survive in your job. The only thing you will not find with Lysenko is a petulant half-educated schoolgirl beatified by a clueless following. And just as Lysenkoism devastated Soviet agriculture – resulting in food shortages – the current affliction, spawning idiotic energy and food policies, will rob the peoples of the West of the resources that underpin their standard of living.
Climate Change Alarmism is Lysenkoism Mark II of the politically correct classes of the West. It appears to me that Medvedev’s four points explain reasonably well why it was possible that in an advanced society things as vital as energy, transport and food policies were allowed to be held hostage to the whims of a rabble of activists and second-rate scientists. However, we could then wonder which of those circumstances are the more important, which one we should concentrate on in order to rid ourselves of the turbulent climate-change priests? Here the events of 1964 may provide some guidance. Lysenkoism did notdie because the false hypothesis was shown to be false; that had been obvious to any intelligent observer almost from the beginning. Also it didn’t disappear because the enabling ideology was ditched; the USSR limped on for a further quarter of a century. Lysenkoism expired because of a combination of two things: a comprehensive assault on its pretence of being a legitimate science, followed by the withdrawal of the patronage. The former happened when someone of unassailable credentials stood up and called a spade a spade. Sakharov was considered as the father of the Soviet H-bomb project and whatever the members of the Politburo may have thought of him they recognized that he usually knew precisely what he was talking about. That defenestration paved the way for the withdrawal of the patronage by the Soviet state without loss of face, but that, significantly, happened only after the believer Khrushchev had been deposed by the realist Leonid Brezhnev.
The patronage is the key. Disproving the false hypothesis, although necessary, can only help to discredit the pseudo-science but on its own is like barking up the wrong tree. The focus should be on the juggernaut of the IPCC. That organization does not obtain its perceived legitimacy from its parent, the UN, but instead does so from the many scientists from a wide range of disciplines who faithfully and naively contribute to its reports. There is, however, a growing number of former contributors who have left that circus behind, disillusioned because they found that their honest effort was just ignored or worse, misconstrued and abused to support the political agenda of the bureaucrats. Could that experience be mobilized to convince others withdrawing their collaboration?
I want to conclude with an observation about the nefarious role of the press. That a press labouring under a dictatorship will follow orders is no surprise. But in the early 1920s, at the height of the Eugenics mania, you could not open a magazine or newspaper or there was an item fawning over happy couples and their beautiful special ‘eugenic babies’, who nevertheless somehow looked just like all other newborns (note 4). Newspapers and magazines went out of their way in admiration of the self-appointed exponents of that pseudoscience and the censorious attitude of publishers stifled opposition. This had the effect of legitimizing the ideology through the drip-drip of false information camouflaged in an endearing message, paving the way for tacit acceptance later of inhumane policies culminating in the atrocities of WWII, all in the name of ‘science’. Currently, the fake news about the non-existent plight of cuddly polar bears by organizations such as WWF and Greenpeace and their willing mouthpieces BBC and CNN is just a variation on the same theme: conditioning a susceptible younger generation to accept the draconian measures planned to fight the ‘climate crisis’. The philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) put it this way: “The press today is an army with carefully organized weapons, the journalists its officers, the readers its soldiers. The reader neither knows nor is supposed to know the purposes for which he is used and the role he is to play.” Or, in plain English, the readers, the foot soldiers, are being brainwashed and immersed in the agenda of the publishers. George Orwell, himself a journalist, said something similar (see also note 5).
However, one wonders why also the publishing outlets of the scientific enterprise have such a penchant for finding themselves on the wrong side of history. Is it just ignorance, stupidity and cowardice on the side of editors and journalist or is it something more ominous and a deep-seated aspect of the way information is handled? Has the cherished ‘peer review’ system as tool for quality control outlived its usefulness because it has proved itself to be defenceless against subversion and subterfuge and has been, at least in the atmospheric sciences, thoroughly corrupted? But perhaps the explanation is much simpler, so let me put a thought for the day: Lysenko cast his ‘ism’ in terms of a class war. Methinks he was, unwittingly, spot on. Pseudoscientific episodes have all the characteristics of class war, as a conflict between those deluded by groupthink, dogma or ‘consensus’ and those who think for themselves. And wars are never being reported honestly.
- Medvedev intended to publish in Russian via the Soviet Academy by early 1967 but informed his translator that publication there ‘was to be delayed’, because the powers that be had decreed that that year, being the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution was ‘not a suitable time’ to bring out books which could be seen as critical of the Soviet regime. Many months later it became evident that the ‘manuscript was not publishable in the USSR’.
- James Hansen’s 1988 senate address that scared the living daylights out of the gullible politicians (and turned him from scientist into activist).
- Check with e.g. Solomon’s book “The Deniers”, among others, for names and details.
- The pamphlet “Eugenics And Other Evils” by G.K. Chesterton is well worth a read.
- No one explained it more clearly than the notorious Joseph Goebbels: ‘Those who are to be persuaded by it should be completely immersed in the ideas of the propaganda, without ever noticing that they are being immersed in it’.