The Deadly Cost of Bad Science

If you’ve ever been taught about the scientific method, you’ve almost been certainly told that it goes like this: Observation-hypothesis-experiment-theory. The only problem is: that is idealistic bullshit.

Scientists hardly ever proceed from dispassionate observations to formulating and testing hypotheses, and, finally, constructing a testable theory. Invariably, hypotheses precede everything else. Just as often, observations are gathered in order to support an already-formulated theory. Scientists are, after all, human, subject to all the same biases as the rest of us.

The idea, promulgated by meme culture, that science is somehow a purely intellectual endeavour unsullied by bias and opinion is idealistic bullshit on stilts. Yes, science is the best method we have for leavening the truth from opinion, but it is far from infallible. Scientists even less so. Science as actually practised can go wrong – far more often than its proponents like to admit – and when it goes wrong, it can go very, very wrong indeed.

Trofim Lysenko: the face of scientific mass-murder. Photo TASS / Sergei Ivanov-Alliluyev.

Easily the worst example in modern times of bad science, corrupted by ideology, was the Marxist perversion of science in the Soviet Union, especially what came to be known as “Lysenkoism”, after its chief proponent, Trofim Lysenko.

The collision of dogmatic Marxism with political veneration of “peasant scientists” conspired to propel the half-educated peasant Lysenko to pre-eminence in Soviet agriculture. Lysenko’s crackpot Lamarckian theories were appropriately “Marxist”, while conventional genetics were derided as “bourgeois” and “class-ridden”. Lysenko’s grandiose promises of staggering wheat yields, and new crops to be grown all year round in the cold Russian north, earned high praise from Stalin himself. Lysenko also claimed that Lamarckian “socialist re-education” could induce species to engender other species.

Scientists who opposed Lysenko’s nonsensical ideas were sacked – if they were lucky. Thousands were either sent to the gulags or sentenced to death. Soviet biology and botany were crippled for at least the next half-century. Combined with communist class hatreds and the dogma of collectivisation, Lysenkoism played a leading role in the genocidal Soviet famines. Even worse, Lysenko’s deadly scientific nonsense spread beyond Russia. After visiting the Soviet Union, Mao enthusiastically transplanted Lysenko’s theories to China.

When the Great Leap Forward was launched in China, there was a revolutionary fever for Lysenko’s “Marxist” agricultural ideas, such as “close-cropping” and “deep-ploughing”. Seeds were claimed to show the same revolutionary spirit as the Communists: those belonging to the same “class” sharing light and nutrients in a spirit of proletarian equality. Villagers who had worked the land for generations objected, but were dismissed by the enthusiastic Marxists as hopeless, ignorant reactionaries, incapable of understanding this brilliant new science. The results were disastrous as the supposedly “ignorant” peasants had feared: close-planting and deep-ploughing killed rice crops in even the most fertile areas. Applying Lysenko’s crazy theories to animal husbandry resulted in calamitous livestock losses. The end result was famine on an unimaginable scale: tens of millions starved.

It has been reasonably said that “Trofim Lysenko probably killed more human beings than any individual scientist in history”.

But surely the scientific world has learned from this murderous debacle? If only.

Lysenkoism is far from being the last example of ideology poisoning science. Although, to date, it remains the deadliest.

Walter Gratzer’s excellent The Undergrowth of Science, which ought to be required reading for all science students, is a depressing chronicle of how delusion, self-deception and human frailty are as constant a disruption to science as they are to every other field of human endeavour. From the 19th century to the present, science, perhaps the greatest achievement of human intellect, has constantly been under threat from the foibles of human nature.

Its blessing is that science, properly practised, encompasses the very tools that work to constrain the vicissitudes of human nature. Yet exposing and correcting bad science is much harder than concocting it in the first place. In the meantime, at best, knowledge and progress are held back for years, if not decades. At worst, millions of lives are blighted by ideological stupidity.

Whether it’s mutilating children’s bodies in the name of gender ideology; or starving the developing world by opposing genetic modification; or pursuing destructive “climate mitigation” policies; when science goes bad, it goes very bad.

One thought on “The Deadly Cost of Bad Science

  1. Pingback: Time to Bulldoze the Universities – A Devil's Curmudgeon

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