The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, September 15, 2020 1:00 am

'Nature ... doesn't care about politics'

Results, not desired outcomes, all that matters

Christer Watson

I am becoming increasingly concerned over news stories describing political interference at federal health agencies. Two are especially disturbing.

The first is at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recently changed its recommendations regarding virus testing. The new recommendations, which do not appear to be widely supported by the public heath community, are that those who have been exposed to the virus should only get tested if they feel symptoms.

The second is at the Food and Drug Administration, which has announced an emergency approval of a coronavirus treatment using plasma. The announcement came a day after the president described the FDA as part of the deep state.

These examples are not isolated. There is a tradition of political interference in decisions that are properly scientific.

In the current administration, there was the widely reported, almost comical case of Hurricane Dorian's path. The president casually mentioned Alabama as within the hurricane's path, which scientists' computer models were not predicting. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration changed its advice to match this unsupported statement.

For decades there have been sporadic accounts of climate change being minimized in official reports as well.

It can be challenging to identify these cases of political interference in a scientific decision.

The most important idea to keep in mind is that good science should work. It should produce results. It is perfectly acceptable for everyone who is outside the scientific community to expect and demand results.

There is a famous, cautionary story out of the Soviet Union where this lesson was ignored. The story is of a leading Soviet biologist, Trofim Lysenko. This is such an important story I sometimes include a description of it from Carl Sagan in my introductory astronomy courses.

It is worth remembering that the Soviet Union supported many successful, world-leading scientific projects during the 20th century. For example, Soviet scientists were first or close to first in producing many of the heaviest elements on the periodic table.

In biology, however, the Soviet Union lagged. One of the most important applications of biology was the development of new strains of crops. In the 1940s and '50s, Lysenko was the director of the Institute of Genetics, an influential Soviet scientific organization.

Lysenko rejected the basic science of genes and DNA. He specifically argued that plants could develop properties as they grew that would be passed on to the next generation.

For example, he claimed that if seeds were exposed to freezing water, they would become a winter-friendly crop that would reproduce.

Lysenko also claimed that plants of the same species would not compete with each other for resources. Somehow, this was supposed to be similar to ideal workers in the Soviet ideology. Using this idea, Lysenko directed farms to plant crops excessively close together.

The important lesson is that Lysenko somehow convinced Soviet political leaders, specifically Joseph Stalin, that his ideas were a natural fit with other ideas of communism. Apparently the ideas of inheritance of genes and natural selection somehow conflicted with the ideas of class solidarity.

Nature, of course, doesn't care about politics. Lysenko's ideas didn't work. He appeared to continually promise a better crop of winter wheat and peas, but continually failed. More precisely, the crops failed and people starved. Millions of people.

The stories from this time in the Soviet Union and China, which used similar ideas, are legendarily brutal.

This inclination is widespread – to want the laws of nature to fit our beliefs of how politics or society should work. Just about everything Lysenko believed was probably dead wrong and is mostly abandoned now. The inclination to judge science on the politics, however, is alive and well.

Many areas of science are obscure enough that knowing which sides are well supported is difficult. We can, however, demand results. When winter wheat crops failed, people knew it. When political leaders cannot contain the coronavirus or minimize the death toll, we know it, too.


Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a visiting assistant professor of physics at Purdue University Fort Wayne. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette, where his columns normally appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.

Sign up for our Opinion newsletter

Sent daily