9 April 2008

Charlatans in white coats

So we all know The Ancients were whack jobs. They built pretty temples and sturdy aqueducts, sure, but they not only thought the world was flat with an edge you could actually fall off of, but also that the sun revolved around it, a notion which persisted until the arrival of that crazy Copernicus with his heliocentric theory in the 16th century. They also believed a sneeze was the gods' way of trying to tell you something and that perturbations in the relative levels of the four humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) were the cause of all disease and personality defects. Oh, and not to mention their hideously antiquated taste in orgies: pigs' wombs in brine? Stuffed dormice? I think we'll stick with mini pizzas and garlic dip, thanks.

Modern science is The Truth. None of it is made up. Ever. Second-hand smoke causes cancer because the researchers say it does. If scientists warn that global warming may kill us all, we do our best to lower carbon emissions. The laundry detergent in the commercial must be scientifically proven to be superior, because the actor is wearing a white coat. Oh, wait... The public perception of science can so easily be hijacked. Science is not infallible, of course. It is a construed version of The Truth, based on observational evidence. Good science is objective honesty, but can never be absolute. Therefore, science is not The Truth, but it provides an explanation of natural phenomena that is damn well closest to The Truth. And that's why butter is really bad for you one week, and then much better than margarine the next. As more evidence is gathered, science inches closer to The Truth all the time. Now you can visualize just how far we've come since the days of ancient history.

The problem with the public perception of science is two-fold. First: people equate science with The Truth. Second: people equate anything that appears technical with science. If it sounds sciencey, we should trust it, because it must have come from an expert who knows what The Truth is. Not only is this rationale utterly absurd, it is also exceedingly dangerous. We are preconditioned to trust those who seem like authorities, even if they have hidden agendas. And even if these so-called authorities aren't inherently evil, they may themselves fall victim to indoctrination, disinformation or - worse yet - delusions of grandeur. Dabbling with pseudoscience not only detracts from the slow crawl to The Truth, but can bring a whole nation to its knees.

Trofim Lysenko was born in 1898 to a Ukranian peasant family. He attended the Kiev Agricultural Institute from 1921 to 1925 and was posted at Gandzha agricultural experiment station in Azerbaijan as head of legume selection - whatever that is. Lysenko constituted the perfect fodder for the Communist Party to create a working class agricultural scientist to inspire disenfranchised peasants to embrace forced collectivist farming. Lysenko had lots of novel ideas: in 1928, he proclaimed to have "invented" vernalization, a revolutionary new technique for increasing the yield of crops. By storing wet wheat seeds in snow over the winter, the resultant seedlings would flower earlier. This is of course nothing new - many temperate species require a cold vernalization period in order to break dormancy. It's a natural mechanism evolved to help the plant survive the cold, dark winter and sprout in the spring. However, Lysenko claimed that his technique ensured that the offspring of vernalized crops would already be vernalized themselves, and not require a new round of cold induction. This would stave off the looming food crisis. Could the next potato harvest be enormous? He had the results to back it up. No-one bothered to investigate the experimental practices at his agricultural research station. In reality, a lot of his data was inconclusive, but none of it was closely scrutinized at that point. It was too good not to be true. He could fertilize exhausted fields without applying any fertilizers at all! Lysenko was no mere agronomist, he was an agricultural messiah.

Soon Lysenko became majorly influential in Soviet agriculture. Sound Russian plant breeding was shifted to the sideline as Lysenko's procedures were adopted. Much of his work paralleled aspects of Lamarckism. Lamarckian evolution is the discredited scientific theory that acquired characteristics can be passed on to progeny. This is akin to saying that a man who lost an arm in a car accident will go on to sire armless children. Lamarck's theory was a pretty good one for the early 19th century perhaps, but since that time Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin had provided much improved explanations for how heredity and evolution worked. Lysenko put in a lot of effort in denouncing the burgeoning geneticists of his country. After all, they were playing around with the chromosomes of fruit flies and seemed disinterested in helping to feed the people. The proof that DNA was the genetic material was still some decades away. Such bourgeois academics were of little use to the Soviet government; Lysenko's research output was tremendous, with edible results. His promises were the best way of motivating the kolkhozniks to stay on the ailing collective farms. In 1940, Lysenko became director of The Institute of Genetics for the USSR Academy of Sciences. All so-called counterproductive scientific activities were halted. The study of Mendelian genetics was essentially outlawed. Scientists and researchers all over the Soviet Union were ousted from their positions, imprisoned, or sent to labour camps.

Dark days for science. Georgii Karpechenko, a cytologist and plant breeder, was arrested for "anti-Soviet" inclinations. He was sentenced to death and executed on 28 July 1941. The real reason for his execution was his affiliation with Nikolai Vavilov. Vavilov was a Soviet botanist and director of the Leningrad All-Union Institute of Agricultural Sciences. He was especially interested in finding the centres of origin of crops like wheat and maize. Because he realized the importance of preserving the genetic diversity found at these centres of origin for future plant breeding projects, he was responsible for establishing what continues to be one of the world's largest seedbanks. Vavilov was quite vocal and openly criticized Lysenko's non-Mendelian initiatives. This did not go down well and Nikolai Vavilov was duly arrested. He died of starvation in a prison in 1943.

"He is 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." - physicist Andrei Sakharov on Lysenko, 1964

Lysenko's stranglehold on Russian agriculture continued well after Stalin's death and into the 1960s. However, the world had changed by then; mainstream science could no longer be suppressed. A case was brought against Lysenko in 1962 (by three physicists, no less). Lysenko's use of political power to silence opposition and eliminate his scientific opponents was condemned and his work criticizd as pseudoscience. Appeals for the restoration of the scientific method to all fields of biology and agricultural science pervaded the Soviet press. No longer immune to criticism, Lysenko was removed from his post as director of the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences and restricted to an experimental farm in Moscow's Lenin Hills. The Institute itself was soon dissolved. Trofim Lysenko passed away on 20 November 1976.

Science is not infallible, of course, because scientists are human. Inevitably, researcher bias clouds results: the desire to see the data support the theory - that human need to be vindicated and validated - is very strong. A hypothesis can only be rejected or fail to be rejected, never proven. Truly objective science will allow the theory to describe the data, and so bring us an inch closer to The Truth. That is the beauty of the scientific method. The fact that the guy on TV is wearing a white coat doesn't make him a scientist. Listen to what he is saying: does he juggle technical terms? Does he whip statistics out of clean air? How reliable are the references he uses? Does he rely on your innumeracy to convince you? Is this a conjuring trick disguised as statistics? In the 21st century, now that everyone's an expert, it is more prudent than ever not to become sold on the hype.


Triggermap said...

Wow, thats really interesting. I think the reason a lot of 'science' is proved false is often by sheer luck and the poor use of statistical methods, most glaringly too small sample sizes that reflect the sample more than the population. Hence fiascos like the MMR vaccine debacle develop. Check out this link for the frightening reality of medical science: WSJ

Shimmerrings said...

We are often like sheep... following, mindlessly, where we are led... and who's to know the difference. We put too much trust in status, often making others into gods, whom we gladly and blindly follow.

singleton said...

JSYK, I've missed you! Working in the medical field, I've seen time and time again, drugs heralded as the cure, the do~all, the fix~me~up, and rightly so....they did all that.....
to later be yanked
off the shelves
for everything else they do....

It's a spooky kinda science....

Unknown said...

triggermap: don't even go there. There are two kinds of science. The kind based on surveys, and the kind based on experiments. Experiments have controls, and usually result in statistically significant data. Survey science generally doesn't have nice controls, and is therefore less powerful. When a magazine feature quotes something like, "45% of American women said they felt better after treatment" I'm always cautious. Very cautious.

shimmerings: well said. Don't trust the white coat, trust the science. Clear-cut scientific evidence will always speak for itself, and you don't need a chemistry degree to see it. Common sense will do - read between the lines.

singleton: we have to trust the process. Remember that those drugs were better than no drugs at all. The drugs of the future will be even better! But a drug lauded as a miracle cure is doomed to failure: don't believe the hype.

Anonymous said...

Nice article on Lysenkoism

But don't be so quick to allege that the ancients believed the world was "flat," even in jest.

They knew the world was round. Any sailor could tell that from the horizon.

What they did believe, many of them anyway, was that the earth was the centre of the Universe and the rest of those things out there rotated around the cool green earth.

Lysenkoism is a tribute to people religiously following Marx, (Karl nor Groucho.) Blame Stalin.

So-called “global warming” is indeed a good case in point. When you read that thousands of scientists have signed a petition to “stop the CO2 madness,” how many look to their credentials and note that 90% of these scientists are “social scientists?”

I prefer my world not be administered by sociologists and library cataloguers, thank you.

I am not a scientist. But I play one on TV…isn't that good enough?

Unknown said...

anon: While it's true that most of the Ancients knew the Earth was a sphere, many Greek philosophers such as Leucippus and Democritus (curiously from the Atomist School) are recorded as having believed it to be flat. Other theories held that the world was a cylinder, or - indeed - pear-shaped. In our Modern Age, almost everyone (except for members of the Flat Earth Society!) shares in the common knowledge of a spherical world. However, who knows what some shepherd believed two thousand years ago? Sailors knew of course, since a ship's mast dips behind the horizon as you mentioned.

I hinted at geocentrism in the sentence that mentioned Copernicus and heliocentrism.

I am not blaming Lysenko per se. Although he was as much a pawn under the control of the government as the other researchers, he was still able to effectively use his position of power to remove those who openly oposed him. The history of Lysenkoism is very controversial, and an embarrassing or touchy subject for many, especially the people of the old Soviet countries. My personal take on the matter is that blame is such a subjective thing, that I chose not to discuss it, but rather what we can learn from the whole debacle.

Hopefully the viewers of your show are wise enough to discern fact from fiction. I have done fact-checking and written scientific dialogue for television in the past, actually. Still, I wouldn't recommend that TV show over a text book or peer-reviewed journal as a primary source of information!

Thanks for stopping by and thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Lisa said...

This is a really interesting post and in our "information age", there are so many charlatans touting themselves as experts and so many people making arguments they claim are based on science. One has to be incredibly diligent to determine what the source of each individual claim really is and even then, it can be very difficult for a non-scientist to judge the veracity of each claim. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of gullible people who are drawn to things they want to believe and who will accept almost any rationale, no matter how lame.

Unknown said...

lisa: You've hit the nail on the head again, Lisa! Diligence is key. If we just sit back and hope to absorb the right info via osmosis, we're bound to swallow any old nonsense that gets thrown into the mix (those were a lot of tropes strung together; may your literary heart forgive me). People are gullible because it's so much easier to just believe what you're told.

*dalyn said...

it's like you say about butter, one day it's good for you the next it's not. have a glass of wine a day or one drink a day will up your chances of breast cancer... frustrating. my hubby's brother is a stem cell researcher for cancer and we often ask his opinion on all of the toxic items we've either been consuming or putting our food in (plastics etc...) he often laughs at the media overkill of such 'findings' and would like to see some acual findings from longterm research. he tells us not to listen to much of it. i try not to but it's hard when every other story on the news is telling me my fridge is full of cancer. do you have a source that you personaly trust? *d

Unknown said...

*dalyn: I thought the antioxidants in red wine were supposed to be good for you and help prevent cancer! When closely scrutinized, many innocuous substances are slightly carcinogenic. Yes, that includes plants we regard as safe and edible. But the body is remarkably resilient and copes well with these, usually repairing any damage before scary things happen.

Personally, I'd trust my eyes. People are healthier now and live longer than they ever have before, probably in the history of civilization. The world is not as dangerous as it used to be. That makes me sleep well at night.

Chris Eldin said...

Wow! I never heard of Lysenko. This was a fascinating and also disturbing post. I remember taking a Soviet literature course back in college, and the prevalence of the 'tractor novels.' Basically stories about the hard working peasant on the farm. Seems like Lysenko's influence was far and wide at that time. What a shame.

Thanks for posting those great pictures. I can read cyrillic, so I understand some of it.

Claire said...

It seems that poor old Mendel almost never got credit for his work. Hugo de Vries tried to lay claim to Mendelian insights until another researcher spoke up and made a stink about it.
On the whole people are living longer and are healthier, but I am disturbed by the great increase in neurological problems such as autism.
I also think that we are due for another flu pandemic such as the one in 1918 that killed so many people world wide.
Then again, I do not stay up nights worrying about it.
Global warming was going to happen anyway as a natural cycle of our planet. We are probably accelerating it a bit. I wouldn't live in Florida or New Orleans! :)

Unknown said...

christineeldin: tractor novels! Cool, I'd never even heard of those - I shall investigate further. I love propaganda posters of all kinds; they do kind of represent the idyll of human life (literally).

claire: are neurological problems really increasing, or are we just getting better at diagnosing and reporting them? Yes, I agree that we are due for some global pandemic disease; it's just a question of time. And isn't California overdue for a big earthquake? Hmmm... and with global warming, perhaps Colorado will have some prime beach front property soon - after all, it used to be a shallow inland sea!

Anonymous said...

Since I'm directly involved, I worry about the dire dangers of drug and device research in humans. Human nature has many dark facets.

SleekPelt said...

Great post, Teoh, and Lisa's comment hit home with me too. I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to science and have considered her point many times before.