Lessons of Lysenkoism?

Hans von Storch is a bit hard to pin down on GW: unquestionably a good scientist, but sounding oddly skeptical of late. His klimazwiebel is his current venue, where he posts with others including Eduardo “killer” Zorita. von S’s posts are usually the more sensible ones. But now we have Nils Roll-Hansen: A lesson from Lysenkoism? which isn’t actually by von S but is definitely sponsored by him.

What is this lesson? Well, von S says:

Please do not misunderstand this thread as another attempt to bring in Stalinism. My interest is in the interaction of policy/politics and science in the past – in situations far enough away that they will not arouse passions today (maybe a futile hope). Lysenkoism was one of the worst, if not the worst cases, where this interaction went really bad. Another one was eugenics. How did science come into such bad situations, and how did it escape/recover from it.

But the post itself isn’t very interesting. It also very carefully refraims from drawing any parallels with the world of today – which is deceitful, and von S very clearly does see such parallels, indeed “lessons” it would seem.

Given von S’s usual leanings, my assumption would be that the allusion is Lysenkoism = GW, some how. But I don’t think the connections are very plausible; unfortunately (as I said) von S doesn’t actually say what any of these lessons might be, so I may be missing his killer arguments.

But a more plausible connection would be that Lysenkoism = GW denialism. That fits fairly well: a powerful political/industrial movement is using “fake science” to prop up an agenda; that movement is immune to reason, and very rarely does any science, and the little science it does is marginal and slanted.

Perhaps that is what von S meant? Your thoughts are welcomed.

Update: von S denies the obvious parallels [1], but can only offer “it makes sense to think… [and] that science has to reflect upon its closeness with policies (and politics)” as possible lessons. Which I think is banal [2]. By contrast, JG offers the more interesting observation that L was only semi-trained and a scientific outsider [3] – perhaps today he would be a “blog scientist“. Or more seriously, he resembles the tendency nowadays for people to think that they can evaluate complex scientific constructs for themselves with no training; indeed, that they can do so better than “so-called experts”. Sigh. But I doubt that was what von S had in mind either.


  1. #1 Paul Tonita

    Lysenkoism is certainly more analogous to climate denial. A large part of Lysenkoism was the imprisonment of those scientists who had views counter to that of Lysenko. I have no doubt that Va Attorney General Cuccinelli and Senator Inhoffe would have Mann thrown in prison if they could.

  2. #2 Marco

    Honestly, I don’t think the latter is what Von Storch meant. There’s been a flurry of posts on Klimazwiebel making references to Lysenkoism and Stalinism (Dennis Bray posted a really poor article, and several horribly naive and ignorant comments). It really looks like they believe AGW and lysenkoism/stalinism are related. Dennis Bray at least links the AGW ‘movement’ to Stalinism, and Von Storch is most assuredly not contradicting him…

  3. #3 Eli Rabett

    As James pointed out, Klimazwiebel resembles the Onion in many ways

  4. #4 Guillaume Tell

    Whoever would use the Lysenko/Stalin situation so casually deserves to be misunderstood. Just beyond science’s “…closeness with policies (and politics)…” there’ll have to be a Stalin in the piece. If the analogy doesn’t get ugly, it becomes silly.

  5. #5 crf

    There’s nothing much like Lysenkoism and climate denial/skepticism.

    There might have been, if climate denialism ran rampant in the corridors of power. But it really doesn’t. Lack of action on climate problems has not been so much due to actively following, to whatever degree, a denialist creed, as to the general incompetence, apathy, stupidity, greed, and democratic pandering which has stopped general human progress for on nigh two decades.

  6. #6 Paul Kelly

    Lysenko certainly gives government involvement in science a bad name. Eisenhower warned about it in his “beware the military industrial complex” farewell address.

    Climatology is very much a government sponsored science. Is that the similarity VS sees to Stalin? Perhaps the point is Stalin’s hyper socialism rather than his brutality or ignorance.

  7. #7 Paul Kelly

    Lysenko trained a frog to jump on his command. When he yelled “прыжок” the frog jumped. Here’s how Lysenko recorded his famous experiment: Remove one leg from frog; say прыжок, frog jumps. Remove second leg: say прыжок, frog jumps. Remove third leg: say прыжок, frog loses hearing.

  8. #8 dhogaza

    Lysenko certainly gives government involvement in science a bad name.

    No, Lysenko gives murdering of scientists who do science rather than toady to a political belief system a bad name.

    Climatology is very much a government sponsored science

    Climatology is very much a government-ignored science, which is why we haven’t done anything about the problem over the last 20 years.

    If your analogy held, Hansen would’ve been Gulag’d rather than testifying to Congress back in 1989.

  9. #9 dhogaza

    Eli sez:

    As James pointed out, Klimazwiebel resembles the Onion in many ways

    Not really. The onion is actually funny sometimes …

  10. #10 Paul Kelly

    Climatology is very much a government-ignored science may be the most divorced from reality statement I have ever read. Most climate science is produced at governments’ behest and expense. Thousands of government officials, diplomats and heads of state just met in Copenhagen. Many continue to meet every day.

    [I think you're missing the point. Climatology is both govt-sponsored and govt-ignored. Indeed I think that there is a fair case for saying that govts often produce the science as a displacement activity from actually doing anything -W]

  11. #11 Chris S.

    “Most climate science is produced at governments’ behest and expense.”

    Does the word climate have to be in that sentence?

  12. #12 facepalm

    You should at least read three previous Posts in “The Klimazwiebel”, which acuse “the greeen crowd” beeing either nationalistic or stalinistic like “The watermelon: green on the outside, red in the middle”:


  13. #13 Adam

    The (UK) government pays/paid for a lot of science, only to then go on and ignore its findings, results, etc. It’s like saying “tell it to me straight”, then covering your ears and shouting “la la la can’t hear you”.

    Or as a minister or secretary would probably say, “One wants to be seen to be doing the right thing, but if the right thing is not what one wants to do, then it is better if one does not know what the right thing is.”

  14. #14 bigcitylib

    Slightly OT, but speaking of Bray: wasn’t the third edition of his climate scientists survey due out?

  15. #15 Ned

    Yes, there are many similarities between Lysenkoism and climate-change denialism.

    These similarities are obscured by the fact that the former was promoted by the government while the latter has been promoted mostly but not entirely by people outside the government. But this distinction is misleading. because in the USSR there weren’t really any important power structures outside the government, whereas in the US (and the rest of the western world) there are (cf Murdoch empire and media more generally; big business; etc.). In essence, AGW denialism is the modern western conservative ideological movement’s own version of Lysenkoism, or “Lysenkoism with a capitalist face.”

    Lysenkoism, like AGW denialism, was a contrarian attack on mainstream science in which favored outsiders were elevated and actual scientists were persecuted (fortunately Inhofe & the denizens of WUWT, etc. don’t have the powers that the Party had in the USSR). Both Lysenkoism and AGW denialism also involve a strong element of wishful thinking — the Lysenkoists promised vastly increased crop yields, while the AGW deniers promise that we don’t have to worry about increasing CO2.

  16. #16 Paul Kelly

    Some conflate “government ignores” with “government isn’t doing what I’d like it to do.” For example, Germany, Spain, Denmark heavily subsidize wind an PV. US tax policies favor alternatives and efficiencies. The EU has a carbon trading scheme. Let’s have for consideration some specific proposals for government action.

    [I agree there is some PV subsidisation but I'd be inclined to put that into the displacement-activity bin: I strongly suspect that the German subsidy for brown coal, for example, is far larger -W]

  17. #17 Deconvoluter

    When a nation attacks science it is losing its reason thus contributing to its final destruction ; for past examples consider Nazi Germany and the USSR. The signs consisted of the promotion of cranks and amateurs until they did huge damage. This was defended by fraudulent research, together with zombie and populist arguments.

    I recommend “Corrupted Science” by John Grant.

    In Nazi Germany,Himmler’s Institute of Meteorology appeared to advocate the World Ice Theory according to which all the stars were made of ice revolving around the sun. Ice from outer space was also responsible for the weather. Much of theoretical physics was out, I am unsure how calculus survived because they did not like limits or infinite sequences.

    In the USSR there was Olga Lepeshinskaya (not a ballet dancer)who was rewarded for “re-discovering” the spontaneous generation of life. Then there was the cross breeder Ilya Ivanonov who persuaded Stalin that it would be worth trying to hybridise humans and apes to create warriors for the army.

    Their colleagues, Lysenko and Michurin, re-discovered the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. L argued that cuckoos were not the result of an alien visitor but just a change of diet.Hard to believe? He was also a good crosser and could turn wheat into rye,cabbage into swede, barley into oats and increase the productivity of almost any plant. Sorry no peer reviewed papers (Does that remind you of anything?). He did not believe in hormones and rejected more than half of Darwin’s theory. He outlived Stalin and was only removed years later after the discovery of huge fraud. But his tenure involved the USSR missing out on all advances in agriculture and a massive increase in hunger.

  18. #18 Tony Sidaway

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that socialism is invoked as a bogy in this context.

    The Lysenko comparison is a very difficult one to use against modern-day climate science, particularly because global warming is slap bang in the middle of the scientific mainstream.

    Mike from Melbourne has an interesting analysis of the role of bogies in fringe opposition to modern science. What’s particularly interesting is that the same postures show up repeatedly on the fringes, and they do tend to succeed for a while in opposing the acceptance of science.


  19. #19 deconvoluter

    The British Lysenko in waiting? Please compare these talents with those mentioned in my previous comment…


  20. #20 Paul Kelly

    How about some definition of the slap bang middle? 3C sensitivity has the most agreement. Governments must base action on that number. In fact, most agree on aiming for no more than 2C warming this century. Yes, government action can control the temperature.

  21. #21 Carl C

    I was interested in Hans’ blog when it came out amidst “climategate”, as some sort of “neutral” turf. He seems to know his stats (well I have his book as a souvenir from my foray into the field). But the blog did seem to devolve rather quickly into “Climate Audit Lite” with everybody just posting their own grudge (including me ;-).

    As far as the name, I guess by German standards of humor Klimazwiebel is funny like “The Onion”! :-)

  22. #22 Rüdiger

    Von Storch is the master of insinuation. His vagueness in his constant accusations of his fellow scientists of alarmism is probably due to his own inner conflict. His political sympathies are clearly with the denialists (his media statements are mostly designed to question and delay mitigation policies). Yet his scientific training and insight prevent him from actually being a denialist – he knows their scientific arguments are wrong (and publically says so occasionally to keep some form of scientific credibility). He copes with this contradiction by making vague statements open to all kind of interpretation – like his diffuse “lessons from Lysenkoism”.

  23. #23 Tony Sidaway

    Rüdiger, I’ve been thinking along these lines recently, though my grasp of politics is perhaps even more rudimentary than my knowledge of climate science.

    Although there is a general consensus, or at least a common convention, that large problems need some kind of government and intergovernment coordination, a quite significant proportion of all thinking people seem to be uncomfortable with the implications. Both American conservatives and their more socially liberal cousins the “libertarians” (who in America at least seem to my eyes to be merely extreme propertarians) want small government, and for pretty much the same reasons. I don’t know Hans von Storch’s history but it wouldn’t be inconsistent for a middle-European to be suspicious of large scale government dominance over industry.

    Current projections of climate change seem to have given rise to plans for limiting emissions by carbon trading or carbon taxation. This in turn seems to raise hackles with doctrinaire economic liberals. Comments?