I am happy that the comments to my blog “A lesson from Lysenkoism?” (Klimazwiebel, 6 June 2010) give me an opportunity clarify a couple of issues.
- Firstly: I believe there is an important lesson about scientific autonomy to be learned. The present threat is not direct political intervention like in 1948, but subtle ideological, political and economic factors that undermine scientific autonomy in the long run.
- Secondly: Lysenko became infamous for his genetics. But it was contributions to plant physiology that launched his career. His personal career as well as that of his teachings can only be properly understood on this background. Traditional historiography misleads by neglecting the work that first gave Lysenko both national and international scientific status and recognition.
In my opinion science needs independence from particular economic and political interests, to be able to provide society with sound advice on contested issues. To give reliable factual judgements science needs autonomy. It is a serious problem of present Western science that since the 1960s autonomy has been under continuing political, economic and ideological pressure. I argue that much can be learned about the intellectual and social mechanisms that undermine the autonomy of science by carefully studying the rise Lysenkoism, and not only how it developed after Lysenkos rise to top positions.
Traditionally Lysenkoism has served as a standard example of how destructive direct political intervention on scientific issues can be. But the destructiveness of such immediate suppression is obvious, and thus rather trivial. However, there is a more subtle but no less important source of Lysenkoism, namely the Soviet science policy of the 1920s and -30s. Inspired by belief in the practical fruits of science this policy drove the extremely rapid growth of Soviet science in the 1920s and 1930s, and thus formed the research system where Lysenko made his career.
A central ideological element in this Soviet science policy was the “unity of theory and practice” which in effect gave a priority to “practice” as interpreted by reigning politics. This pragmatic approach to science was often condensed into “the practice criterion of truth”, saying that the truth of scientific theories is best tested by their contributions to short term economic growth. Such attitudes were internalized in the scientific community and not merely imposed by politics. The scientific community itself supported policies that undermined autonomy and legitimated a radical influence of political aims and values on the conduct of science. Traditional historiography of Lysenkoism is dominated by a Cold War perspective and pays little attention to this early formative period, both to scientific questions and issues of the science policy debates.
It is a crucial historical fact that Lysenko started his career in physiology of plant development, and not in plant breeding and genetics. Agricultural production was a fundamental problem in the Soviet strategy for industrialization. Grain production, the basis of agriculture, was the failing. And plant physiology, besides genetics, was the hopeful science promising to solve the crisis. In my blog essay “A lesson from Lysenkoism?” the role of plant physiology was only discussed in one short paragraph in the middle of the text. I should have flagged more clearly how Lysenko’s research on vernalization was the key to his rise in the scientific hierarchy. “Vernalization” was a translation of his Russian term “iarovizatsiia” and quickly became an international household word, still used in to-days plant science.
It was vernalization - treatment of germinating grain and young plants by temperature and light regimes to promote flowering - that made Lysenko nationally as well as internationally famous. Among Russian specialists there was from the beginning a mixture of enthusiasm and scepticism about Lysenko’s vernalization work. When he turned to plant breeding and genetics in the mid-1930s the positive attitudes waned, though at the fateful December 1936 conference on “Two directions in genetics” he still had wide support from genuine scientists. And by this time he had risen to high positions in the scientific establishment. To outsiders his claims had scientific authority no less than those of his opponents. Internationally his authority on vernalization lasted till well after World War II. Even after Lysenko’s genetics had been effectively revealed as pseudoscientific (following the 1948 conference) it was a common view among biologists and agricultural scientists that his work on vernalization was an important contribution both theoretically and practically.
So the lesson from Lysenkoism is to guard the autonomy of science. Without a science that has sufficient independence from specific political and economic goals society is not going to get the sound advice that it needs - for instance on pressing problems of global warming. The point is not that all scientific research should be governed solely by the scientists. International (OECD) statistics on scientific research divide ”research and development” (R&D) into three categories, “basic research”, “applied research” and “experimental development”. The latter two are rightly under strong guidance from funding agencies dominated by political and economic interests. This is simply a result of a general realization of how useful science is for solving practical problems. The point is that without sufficient autonomy in authoritative basic science, the general power of science to penetrate, reveal and criticise dominant but illusory public views will decline.
In my view this need for reliable factual advice to the public is an important reason for upholding a distinction between basic (theoretical) and applied (practical) scientific research with respect to organization (steering) as well as funding. Scientific research that is primarily concerned with problems of a general theoretical nature can also serve well as a basis for independent advice and criticism. Provided it does not isolate itself in an “ivory tower”, but keeps a broad perspective on natural and social phenomena and cultivates contact with practical problems in the broadest sense.
As a final provocative remark let me point out that the pragmatic Marxist theory of science that informed Soviet science policy has significant similarity to neo-Marxist views on science that inspired the student revolution of the late 1960s. And the sympathy for broad social “practice” as yardstick and criterion has lived on in later dominant fashions in science studies. (For instance, the present enthusiasm for bibliometry in the evaluation of scientific “quality”.) The new wave of science studies from the 1970s on, emphasizing the influence of cultural, economic, and political factors in the development of science, has no doubt taught us much about the social mechanisms of the scientific enterprise. But the time may now have come to also take a closer look at the intellectual content. To study the features that differentiate science from other social systems, namely the properties that has made it so successful in producing new and reliable socially relevant knowledge.
The historical origins of Lysenkoism illustrate how one-sided speculative ideas about the nature of science, poorly founded in a study of historical facts, but attractive from a certain ideological point of view, can corrupt science from the inside. Perhaps it is significant for present popular views of science that this aspect of Lysenkoism has received little attention. It is taken for granted that science can be corrupted, but there is little understanding of the intellectual mechanisms that effects the corruption. No doubt Lysenkoism is an extreme case because of the very special social and political circumstances, but it may also be that the contrast of abnormal circumstances helps a clear perception of the mechanisms.