Posts Tagged ‘Lysenko’
We all know that you shouldn’t believe everything that you read in the press , or hear on the news, don’t we? What’s the definition of lying? Inventing stories, misappropriating the truth, lies of omission, spin?
Richard Wilson’s Don’t Get Fooled Again is an illuminating compilation of methods and examples from both the 20th and 21st centuries in which governments and the general public have been duped by flawed thinking:
a) Pseudo-science – 30 million deaths in China as a result of adopting Lysenko’s agricultural reforms (already the cause of millions of deaths in Stalin’s Russia!).
b) Relativism – the uncounted number of deaths in Africa as a result of the success of those denying the existence of HIV and AIDS.
c) The power of vested interests and commercial journalism – the decade-long controvery over whether smoking was bad for your health.
d) Groupthink – spiralling terrorism leading inevitability to the second Iraq war and the excesses at Abu Ghraib.
Wilson doesn’t just detail the facts in his examples. He explains the underlying psychologies. It’s only by understanding these that we, as individuals, can choose not to get fooled again. He offers the following toolkit for spotting manipulation:
1) The antidotes to delusion are logic and evidence, preferably from multiple sources.
2) Remember – it’s not all relative!
3) Spot the false sceptic. Remarkably credulous about facts which support their viewpoint but always demanding more evidence for those which do not.
4) Beware of groupthink.
I haven’t read a newspaper in years because of the underlying – and manipulative – bias of the writing. I think I might just revisit that policy. Armed with the above, it will be an interesting exercise.
Whereas Goldacre looked at the dangers of nonsense more from a personal and UK point of view, Wilson takes on a more global and political perspective. He tells us how whole areas of Russian science were hijacked by fake experts during the Soviet era who were more adept at playing political games than honestly seeking truth. Lysenko was the master at this as he held back Russian and Chinese biology and agriculture for decades as ideology became more important than evidence. The consequences of this were the death of millions through starvation.
From A Common Reader
Scepticism about media, politics and finances comes naturally to most of us these days, particularly when people who should know better have brought the world to a state of economic crisis (did our rulers really not know that unfettered greed is no basis for an economic world-order?). It is refreshing to read a book like Don’t Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that “things aren’t quite right” and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn’t believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.
Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of “meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish”.
Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated. He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer. The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.
Little insisted that it was not enough to show that lung cancer victims were smokers, but that until the cause of the link could be demonstrated under laboratory conditions, the link was irrelevant. Tests showing that mice contracted cancer when exposed to cigarette smoke were contested, but on the other hand, animal tests which were favourable to the tobacco industry were heavily publicised. Wilson shows that genius of the PR campaign was capitalising on the media’s love of “debate”.
A story really takes off when two sides are seen in opposition, even when it is obvious that the alleged “controversy” is falsely based. This can be observed every day on programmes like BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, when even the most blindingly obvious truth has to be contested by a protagonist with opposing views, with the result that equal weight is given to both nonsense and fact. One million people walked the streets of London to protest about the US/GB invasion of Iraq but this had no effect on those who wanted for a variety of reasons to believe the fantastic reports about Iraq’s offensive capability.
Wilson warns of the dangers of pseudo-science, and its ability to influence government and other decision-makers. Wilson traces this back to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist who’s wrong-headed ideas about agronomy led to mass starvation throughout Russia. Even worse, Lysenko’s ideas were taken up by Chairman Mao and his followers whose Lysenko-inspired agrarian reforms led to the worst man-made famine in history, with the loss of 30 million lives.
The chapter on “groupthink” describes that way in which a closed group of people can adopts a false belief and then support itself in perpetuating it despite mounting evidence suggesting its falsity. I found myself thinking again of the decision to invade Iraq taken by Tony Blair’s cabinet when I read Richard Wilson’s list of symptoms of groupthink:
- Invulnerability – everything is going to work out right because we are a special group
- Rationalisation – explaining away warnings that challenge the group’s assumptions
- Unquestioning belief in the morality of the group and ignoring moral consequences of the group’s decisions
- Sterotyping those who oppose the group’s view as weak, evil, impotent of stupid
- Direct pressure being placed on any member who questions the group couched in terms of “disloyalty”
- Self-censorship of ideas that stray from the consensus
- The illusion of unanimity among group members with silence being viewed as agreement.
I have worked on many large I.T. projects and have seen these processes at work when projects have begun to fail and careers and reputations are at risk. Project teams easily acquire the need to plough on despite all warning signals to the contrary until finally the project is abandoned far too late for anyone to be able to recover any benefits from it.
Wilson goes on to consider the HIV/AIDS denial movement, begun in America and then influencing the thinking of the South African government where “AIDS dissidents” have had a malign effect on public policy leading to the denial of effective treatment for many. President Tabo Mbeki immersed himself in AIDS denial literature and invited American AIDS dissidents to join a presidential advisory panel on AIDS and HIV, one of whose aims was to inivestigate “whether there’s this thing called AIDS . . . whether HIV leads to AIDS, whether there’s something called HIV”. By 2005, more than 5.5 million South Africans were infected with HIV and 1000 were dying each day from AIDS.
In his concluding chapter, Richard Wilson lists the common threads which run through false and illusory belief systems: fundamentalism, relativism, conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship, pseudo-news, wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonisation of perceived enemies, groupthink. While many of the ideas in this book are nothing new in themselves, Wilson has gathered them together, with many fascinating examples from recent history, to provide a very useful handbook for people who know that things they read in the paper or hear on the television are “not quite right” and need to be challenged.
I was pleased to find that Richard Wilson has a blog Don’t Get Fooled Again in which he reports on many of the topics covered in his book.
There’s always somebody trying to pull a fast one, but we can help ourselves. “The antidotes to delusion are logic and evidence, preferably from multiple sources.” The author hopes to give us the tools to avoid being fooled by “pseudo-news”, as well as pseudo-experts, and pseudo-conspiracy theories. Confusingly, many of the people we ought to be sceptical of pretend to be sceptics themselves. The giveaway, as Wilson nicely shows, is that their scepticism is asymmetrical: no evidence is ever enough for someone “sceptical” about anthropogenic global warming (an example not included in this book), and yet they are remarkably credulous about any alternative factoids that might seem to support their own view.
Wilson ranges somewhat loosely over examples contemporary and historical: anti-Aids science in South Africa, Lysenko’s pseudo-agriculture, David Irving’s Holocaust denial, Richard Dawkins’s atheism, and torture at Abu Ghraib, explaining psychological ideas of selection bias and groupthink along the way. He alludes to the X-Files slogan “I want to believe” as an example of dangerous thinking, but to be fair they also say “Trust no one.”
One of the oddest cases I came across while researching “Don’t Get Fooled Again” was that of Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko, Stalin’s “barefoot scientist”, who must rank as one of the greatest fraudsters of the modern age.
Lysenko, an agronomist by training, first rose to prominence in the late 1920s, when the Soviet state newspaper Pravda credited him with “turning the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without trembling for tomorrow”. He managed to hold sway over Soviet science for most of the next four decades, less because of his scientific abilities than for his talents in self-promotion – and for the ruthless way that he dealt with his enemies.
Lysenko managed to present himself as the embodiment of a Communist ideal, the “barefoot scientist”, a peasant genius whose expertise derived not, primarily, from books, but from his practical understanding of the problems facing the Soviet worker, born of his own toil in the fields. His theories were likewise very agreeable to the Communist authorities, both in spirit and in consequence. Lysenko argued that, just as human nature could – as the Soviets believed – be fundamentally remoulded by the application of Marxist-Leninist principles, so the nature of plants could be transformed by the application of Lysenkoism. Wheat could be “trained” to thrive under Arctic conditions, simply by soaking the seeds in freezing water. Lysenko also rejected as “bourgeois” the Darwinist idea that organisms of the same species would naturally compete for resources. He insisted that, on the contrary, crops that were sowed very close together – be they pea plants or apple trees – would in fact co-operate with each other, and thrive, through a kind of agricultural “class solidarity”.
But there was one very big problem with these theories: they didn’t work. And when they began to be put into practice, lots of people starved. But the famines of the early 1930s seem to have done little to dent Lysenko’s reputation.
When statistical analysis by other Soviet scientists found no evidence to support his claims, Lysenko stepped up his use of inflammatory and politicised rhetoric. He declared that “mathematics has no relevance to biology – that is why we biologists do not take the slightest interest in mathematical calculations that confirm the useless statistical formulas of the Mendelists”. Lysenko rejected whole swathes of work as “bourgeois pseudo-science”, flatly denied the existence of genes as a bourgeois invention, and denounced geneticists as “fly-lovers and people haters”. In a speech before Stalin in 1935, Lysenko announced that “a class enemy is always an enemy whether he is a scientist or not”. “Bravo, comrade Lysenko!” came the response from the Soviet leader.
Over the next few years, Lysenko and his followers became increasingly vicious in their attacks on their fellow scientists. The geneticists Muralov, Meister and finally one of the country’s leading lights, Nikolai Vavilov, were arrested and jailed. Many others followed, with those who were not deliberately killed often dying in prison, as Vavilov did in 1943. Lysenko, meanwhile, was made President of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and subsequently became – ironically – head of the Institute of Genetics within the prestigious Soviet Academy of Sciences.
Lysenko’s influence in the USSR began to decline after the death of Stalin, but his ideas had begun to spread beyond the Soviet Union. China’s Mao Zedong, in particular, was inspired by the claimed successes of Lysenko’s theories in the USSR, and in 1958 sought to make them a key component of his “Great Leap Forward”. This was a plan to transform Chinese industry and agriculture, by the application of Communist principles, with the aim of economically surpassing the capitalist West within 15 years. Along with Lysenko ideas about “close planting”, Mao sought to impose the collectivisation of farming, and orchestrated a nationwide campaign to kill every sparrow in China. These measures failed disastrously – agricultural production plummeted Although the extermination of sparrows meant that there were fewer birds eating grain, there were also fewer birds eating locusts. Much of the food that had survived Mao’s efforts to revolutionise agriculture was devoured amid the worst Chinese locust plague in living memory. Historians estimate that more than 20 million people may have died before the Great Leap Forward was abandoned, in 1961. While Lysenko’s ideas were only one component of the disaster, they certainly will not have helped.
Lysenko’s downfall finally came in 1964, following a speech by the Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, at the General Assembly of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Among Soviet scientists, physicists enjoyed a relatively priveleged position due to their importance to the country’s nuclear programme, and were thus one of the few groups able to speak openly. Sakharov accused Lysenko of being “responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists”. The dam had broken, and within months the Academy of Sciences carried out a damning investigation into Lysenko’s work, which largely destroyed his reputation.
Yet Lysenko’s fate was in sharp contrast to that of his victims. Where Vavilov and his fellow geneticists had been imprisoned or killed, Lysenko was allowed to live out a comfortable retirement, dying in relative obscurity in 1976.
Lysenko was very much a creature of the Soviet era, but he has many heirs. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I explore some of the parallels between Trofim Lysenko and his modern-day successors.