News & Politics

Lysenkoism and Climate Science Heresy

There are lessons to be learned from history. In the 1930s, an obscure agronomist named Lysenko promised amazing agricultural results based on a theory of genetics that was, at best, unusual. Lysenko’s theory completely contradicted the orthodox Mendelian view of genetics, but his predictions were politically convenient to Stalin, both because they promised enough food for everyone and because they fit with the communist theology of an arising species of new socialist men who would fit into the new socialist paradise.

Lysenko rose rapidly in prominence and reputation — at least in the Soviet Union. Disputing Lysenko’s theories became dangerous. Geneticists who persisted in the orthodox Mendelian view were eventually either forced to recant or punished. Some were imprisoned, some were executed, and some simply disappeared.

Science has evolved a whole system of publication, peer-review, and challenge-and-review around the effort to make sure that scientific results can be trusted. Not “proven” in the sense most people understand the word, but at least trusted, and it depends on that famous Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.”

For science to work, for us to be able to both trust and verify, disagreements must be published and discussed openly. In the Soviet Union, under Lysenko, that was no longer the case, and Soviet science suffered from it for decades.

Sadly, it’s not always true in the United States either. The science underlying nutrition has suffered for many years from the difficulty dissenting results have had getting published, and the pressure on researchers to conform to the “consensus view.” Gary Taubes, in Good Calories Bad Calories, and Nina Teicholz, in The Big Fat Surprise, have both documented this extensively.

Science, thankfully, is self-correcting, and the conventional view is changing as scientists like Eric Westman of Duke show that reducing carbs and increasing fats are effective treatments for a number of nutritionally related problems like obesity and Type 2 diabetes. But while science eventually self-corrects, individual scientists’ lives and life work can be destroyed. Not too long ago, Walter Willett, at the time the chair of the Department of Nutrition in Harvard’s School of Public Health and still a professor there, was severely criticized in two articles in Nature. According to the second article:

Public-health experts, including Willett, have spent decades emphasizing the risks of carrying excess weight. Studies such as Flegal’s are dangerous, Willett says, because they could confuse the public and doctors, and undermine public policies to curb rising obesity rates.

In other words, Willett objected to results that called into question the “simple message” he and others had been trying to convey.

This is important to the actual people involved because Willett, as a very respected, widely cited expert, had a lot of impact on things like funding and promotion. Saying publicly that someone’s research is “really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it,” could be the kiss of death.

Climate science has had its own problems with this. During “Climategate” we saw email evidence of scientists at the University of East Anglia, NASA Goddard, and elsewhere attempting to put pressure on journals to only publish research that agreed with the “consensus.” Of course, the pressure continued as the notion of calling people who disputed any of those findings “deniers” or “denialists” became more common. There is still an outstanding lawsuit against two critics of Michael Mann. “Meet the Press” recently had an hour-long session on climate, in which they proudly proclaimed no “deniers” would be permitted.

In the Fall 2018 issue of Issues and Technology, Adam Briggle of the University of North Texas, in an article titled “Philosopher’s Corner: Fear Mongering & Fact Mongering,” proposes adding to the standard definition of scientific misconduct (falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism, FFP) a new category: the “responsible rhetoric of research.”

Briggle’s general argument is based on rhetoric, not science, per se. I mean “rhetoric” in the technical sense here: “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.” But his argument has at its core this notion:

But [scientists’] usual language of facts can be part of the problem. Facts imply simple chains of causality and readily observable realities.

Of course, he’s right — scientists, and science are based on chains of causality and observable reality. But Briggle objects to this notion:

[Scientists] want to be sure to have sufficient factual evidence to infer a conclusion about climate. But waiting for assurance to pile up in a chain of facts can mean waiting too long if we cross a threshold where earth systems tip into less hospitable behaviors. In short, fact mongering can stunt our thinking in dangerous ways.

By which Briggle means “ways that don’t sufficiently frighten people.”

His first target for calumny under this is Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg’s book made several arguments that I think can fairly be distilled to two:

  • In fact, the overall progress has been toward a better environment. As people get richer, they begin to value a pleasant environment more.
  • The damage of the degree of warming that has been predicted is relatively small compared to the cost of amelioration, and a much greater improvement in the human condition can be realized by spending that money other ways, like providing access to clean water in places where there is none.

Briggle argues:

Defining responsible science in this case turned out to be difficult. That’s because the “Lomborg affair” was about much more than falsification or plagiarism. It wasn’t so much about telling the truth as it was deciding which truths to tell: how to interpret complex data, which findings to highlight, and how to handle uncertainty. Even if Lomborg avoided FFP and made solid arguments, a question still remained: were the sound arguments he made also the right ones?

In other words, just because Lomborg’s arguments were factually sound, was that enough if they led to a conclusion that Briggle doesn’t consider “right”?

Briggle makes this more explicit as he directs himself to Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado here in Boulder.

(By the way, we need to be careful with the names here. Pielke’s father, Roger Pielke Sr., is a respected climate scientist in his own right, who concentrates on the effects of land use on climate. Pielke Sr. was on the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) until he resigned in 1995 because his scientific contributions had been rewritten to fit the “anthropogenic CO2” hypothesis instead of reflecting his conclusion that changes in land use also contributed. For the remainder of this piece when I refer to Pielke, I mean Pielke fils.)

Briggle writes:

I was surprised to see [Pielke’s] op-ed counseling us to be “factful” when it comes to climate change. He has, it seems, adopted Lomborg’s view that there are facts on one hand and irrational fears on the other. And the fact is that despite all the bad news, times have never been better. He argues that there is little evidence that climate change has made weather more extreme. Indeed, natural disasters are claiming fewer lives than 50 years ago, and as a proportion of global gross domestic product the costs of natural disasters have actually gone down. [Emphasis mine.]

Now, Pielke is hardly a “denier.” He says explicitly that he believes in Jesus Christ, His only Son … sorry, I mean that he believes in climate change, that its cause is primarily anthropogenic, and that anthropogenic CO2 is the primary contributor. His heresy is that he believes the data says that this is not leading to unusually destructive weather — a conclusion which, by the way, the official IPCC scientific report shares.

For this, Pielke was driven off Nate Silver’s 538 and made the subject of a congressional investigation. He wasn’t made to recant on the threat of the stake, but he largely withdrew from the climate debate.

Apparently, however, that’s not enough. Briggle writes:

As far as I can tell, his thesis is logically, or empirically, flawless. It is the rhetoric of it that has me wondering. He highlights a set of facts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about specific weather phenomena. What he doesn’t mention are the words in bold at the top of the same report stating that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and changes are “unprecedented.” When Pielke says the IPCC substantiates his claims, that may be literally true, but also rhetorically questionable. [Again, emphasis mine.]

Briggle is a little hesitant to actually argue straightforwardly for what he’s suggesting, but he pretty well spells it out. Early in the article, he notes:

This expanded sense of ethics is reflected in the more recent coinage of RRI—responsible research and innovation. Researchers in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—are being asked not just to “do things right” (avoid FFP) but to “do the right things.” ….

One way forward would be through the development of what can be called RRR—the responsible rhetoric of research.

He appears to be arguing that failing in what he considers the “responsible rhetoric of research” should be considered on a par with the conventional definition of scientific misconduct: with falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism.

It may not be obvious what this implies, but scientific misconduct is actually considered sufficient cause to be fired, and tenure or no tenure. It turns a comfortable tenured position with students and an office and a parking place into asking for the customer’s preference in French fries. And Briggle suggests this is an appropriate step even when he agrees the research is “logically, or empirically, flawless.”

And this is Lysenkoism. The research can’t be correct if it’s politically inexpedient. Heresy must be punished, and incorrect views expunged. And if a scientist persists in his heretical views, he must be removed.