January 17, 2004

Bush's Lysenkoism

The Bush administration's Lysenkoism. Mark Kleiman directs us to this analysis of the Bush administration by Winston Smith. He could have added a lot more examples from economic and social policy as well. The basic attitude seems to be, "There are people who say they are experts on both sides, so who the hell knows? Let's claim this is true: it will satisfy the Base."

Science and the Postmodern Presidency

[This post by CalPundit prompted me to post this, a shorter version of a longer piece I've been fiddling around with.]

'Lysenkoism' is a vague term for a complex and fuzzy phenomenon. Roughly and for my purposes here, to engage in Lysekoism is to distort science in order to bring it into line with political orthodoxy.

(A) It is well-known (though not well enough known) that the Bush administration is Lysenkoist, though it isn't often put in those terms. This administration has suppressed or distorted scientific conclusions about - among many other topics - global warming, the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education, drilling in the ANWR, and air quality in Manhattan after 9/11 in order to force science to conform (or appear to conform) to the administration's antecedently-accepted political beliefs. Henry Waxman's Politics and Science website is an invaluable resource for information on the political distortion of science in the Bush administration.

(B) It is also reasonably clear that the Bush administration distorted evidence about Iraq's WMDs and its links to al Qaeda in the run up to the Iraq war. This case is made persuasively in several places, most recently in a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications."

What is usually overlooked, however, is that A and B are merely two instances of the same general phenomenon. Intelligence gathering and analysis is a kind of science. It is in particular a kind of social science, aiming, like so many other kinds of social science, to discern the beliefs, intentions and actions of certain groups of people. Of course intelligence agencies often study groups that prefer to conceal their beliefs and intentions from us and that want to hurt us; but, although this adds a certain practical element of urgency to the equation, it doesn't change anything fundamental: intelligence gathering and analysis, when done correctly, is in large part a kind of science, even if a more practical and less theoretical kind of science, more like the science of nutrition than astrophysics. And, of course, Lysenkoism itself is simply a particular instance of an even more general phenomenon we could call logical preposterism--starting with your conclusion and evaluating evidence as good or bad depending on whether it supports this antecedently-accepted conclusion. Reasoning this way is preposterous in the literal sense of putting what is supposed to come last (the conclusion) first; in fact, it isn't really reasoning at all, but, rather, rationalization.

In seeking to manipulate and distort the findings of our intelligence agencies about Iraq, the Bush Administration was merely doing what it has done since it took office - dogmatically distorting and suppressing evidence in the service of advancing conclusions arrived at for political reasons, and putting political pressure on experts to go along with the deception. What happened in the build-up to the Iraq war should have come as no surprise to those who had been observing the AdministrationÂ’s general attitude to science and rational inquiry. In this, the postmodern presidency, belief need no longer conform to fact; on the contrary, facts are flexible things which must be made to conform to inflexible opinion. T. D. Lysenko has risen from the grave.

Winston Smith

Posted by DeLong at January 17, 2004 08:50 AM | TrackBack


There is a crucial question which Winston Smith's remarks leave unanswered: Is this Lysenkoism a pragmatic, but limited decision taken by republican political operatives with an eye to winning the next few elections or is it a fundamental policy shift trying to redirect the basic "secular" structure of the publicly supported part of the american scientific establishment. The second of course is far more dangerous, since it suggests we should expect a more systematic reconstruction of the american political and social landscape.

Posted by: CSTAR on January 17, 2004 09:28 AM


CSTAR, I believe that is mostly a pragmatic decision, these are not religious people, but I don't think that rules out the systematic reconstruction of the scientific establishment towards their own goals, the subservience of science to politics, to their politics.
Despite all the blustering about redesigning the world for American interests, the Cheneyites all have their nose pointed to the big prize, lasting domination of the US. Promoting orthodoxy over ability might ultimately prove our downfall in the outside world, but that's far enough down the road to be able to ignore (like global warming). Better to teach Creationism, cut funding for basic research, and have obedient subjects that get their worldview from Fox News.

Posted by: Dick Durata on January 17, 2004 10:13 AM


The un-person Winston Smith's blind attachment to Mendelism-Morganism blinds him to the cause of G W Bush's progress to Lysenkoism. Because his grand father and father were politicians who were harassed by pesky scientists who believed that facts are not flexible, their gametes felt a need to protect their offspring from this problem by acquiring the trait of fact resistence.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on January 17, 2004 10:51 AM


This is a very depressing analysis. It means that the Bush administration isn't even pro-business. A wise pro-business administration would moderate the dangerous short-term impulses of individual companies or industries in the interest of the over all well being of the economy.

Instead, the Bush adminstration sees history simply as a series of short term events placed one after the other.

The Lysenkoism theory even fits the recent decision to dump $200 million of already-built hardware for the space shuttle to go to Mars instead.

Posted by: WarrenM on January 17, 2004 11:28 AM


There are many sorts of 'pro-business' attitudes. One (this administration's) might well be described as 'pro-big, well connected business, in the short term, after which *we* will have enough power and money to avoid the long-term bad effects; the rest of the s*ckers can suffer'.

Posted by: Barry on January 17, 2004 11:35 AM


Reagan has proven deficits do not matter, that is, they impose no political cost on the Republicans. He has also proven science does not matter (with SDI). What matters, folks, is that it is a morning in America. Fucking rooster.

Posted by: Leopold on January 17, 2004 11:43 AM


Good post. You can add economic policy to the list. This administration practicies a form of non-orthodox supply side economics (Lysenkonomics??).

Perhaps the most egregious example is the Bush stem cell policy. Recently, attention has been focused on politicization of Federal grants. The genetics of AIDS are suitable for study, but any study of the link between drug use and risky sexual behaviors is not politically correct in the Bush administration.
How can anyone say this crowd is not religious? Bush himself is a proclaimed born-again and practices religiosity. There are few in this administration that are not religious. And what about the WH prayer meetings that make those that do not attend uncomfortable?

I do not understand why Dick Durata would suggest that the Bush administration "are not religious people". They would argue vehemently against that statement. Most of the policies seem to be faith based as opposed to meticulously researched. We have faith based missile defense (does the scientific community think it can work?), faith based stem cell research (all human life is created by God and woe to men who tinker with God's handiwork), faith based intelligence (Mr Bush believes Saddam has WMD, therefore it must be true and our intelligence reports had better support it!) faith based trickle down economics (Reagan proved that it works), faith based welfare reform (and if that does not work we will pay you to get married) faith based education (the doctored test scores in Houston prove that it works) and faith based homeland security (we pray we don't get caught with our pants down again)..

This administration has a world view that very clearly has its roots in Christian fundamentalism. Why do you think the fundies are so happy with Mr. Bush??

Posted by: bakho on January 17, 2004 12:04 PM


Barry: Why do you star out your words? Don't be afraid of going _all_ the way using strong language. When judiciously (!) applied it will lend more force to your point (is this why it's called strong?). Take an example from Leopold :-). Hey, no offense anybody.

But this stuff is truly scary. Congratulations to the original author for distilling the essence so crisply.

When I heard about Hubble yesterday, my first thought was, "they started gutting their top projects for this Mars baloney". What has gotten into those guys?

There was also an article some time ago how giving foreign students/researchers a hard time is reducing the influx of foreign scientists on whom this country has so greatly depended:
Note: the above link appeared very slow for me, so be prepared to be cautious. The story also has links to more stuff.

Posted by: cm on January 17, 2004 12:06 PM


Sorry: "be prepared to be cautious" -- that was supposed to be "patient". Sometimes I have those fits of my English lapsing.

Posted by: cm on January 17, 2004 12:08 PM


"Barry: Why do you star out your words? Don't be afraid of going _all_ the way using strong language. When judiciously (!) applied it will lend more force to your point (is this why it's called strong?). Take an example from Leopold :-). Hey, no offense anybody."

I get them at a discount, if some of the vowels are missing :)

Posted by: Barry on January 17, 2004 12:49 PM


Did you guys see Josh Micah Marshall's article about this matter in the Washington Monthly?


Posted by: Julian Elson on January 17, 2004 02:09 PM


I wonder how religious some of these religious Republicans are. I read an interview of an administration official who has supposedly been going to one of those "read-the-Bible-in-a-year" groups for several years. He had Matthew and Acts completely confused. I wish I had saved that link. It might have been from Easterbrook or some one on Slate. Anyway, that kind of thing makes me suspicious. At least Dean knew what Job was about, even if his comparison of himself to Job was not the smoothest PR move, or very devout.

If these Repubs are devoutly religious, then at least we know that they are not following Augustine or Calvin, both of whom believed in distinguishing between scientific and religious knowledge, and respecting both. So they are not Augustinians, or Calvinists, but probably Scofieldians.

Posted by: jml on January 17, 2004 02:43 PM


Yes. It'll be interesting to watch this play out (in a sick, bad-for-our-country way).

In a few years, will it be considered strange for any scientist to be a Republican?

The big question - how long before it's considered strange for an economics professor to be a Republican?

Posted by: Barry on January 17, 2004 02:44 PM


My I recommend for those who have not yet read it, the new suskind book, the Price of Loyalty, since a part of the problem of lysenkoism is the the installation of Political Orthodoxy over even pragmatic counting. My Core Concern is the speculation about the intelligence community, and when I step back, yes "social science" would be appropriate, since the interdisciplinary nature of the project is clearly not the simple 'tube counting' game of the Cold War. So the idea of replacing the older process with "locical preposterism" in the intelligence community gravely concerns me in ways that some of shenanigans of the Cold War Era merely blanche at. As some will recall, to sell the americans on the need of the Oliver Hazard Perry class of FFG's that would wind up doing the convoy duty in the north atlantic, the americans opted to 'up grade' all of the Soviet Grisha class 'corvets' to being FFL's ( fast frigate light ) so that the total count of 'frigates' would be bigger. An amusing slight of hand - but at least within the core mission of addressing the problem of getting the American Army into Europe in time to plug the Fulda Gap.

The Iraq folly on the other hand has gravely threatened any real and substative concern about actually monitoring and/or dealing with the threat of nuclear arms proliferation, and/or other biological and chemical weaponry. Now that most americans have adopted the sense that it really does not matter one way or ther other - only what the Greatest Military Leader EVER! says - one does not have to worry about whether or not Iran or North Korea gets nukes. If the Greatest Military Leader EVER! decides that it is time for regime change in Iran or North Korea then the americans will be told that this has always been the policy!

For some reason americans are now surprised that the fed
deficit is mounting, but the president had made it clear that the party line was that there would be the $1.6 Trillion in Tax Cuts, and that was Gospel. No amount of economics, experience, or reasoning is needed, to deal with the consequences, since the Greatest Military Leader EVER! has spoken, thus it is written!

As for repositioning NASA, this is a surprise how?

Science is only Science when it complies with the wishes of the Greatest Military Leader EVER! Anything less and the Iraqi Flying Saucers WILL return!

2 + 2 == 5 or You Are In League with Satan!!!!

Posted by: drieux on January 17, 2004 02:50 PM


Is it too optimistic to say that Lysenkoist movements must eventually face inconvenient physical realities, just as Soviet agricultural "research" under Lysenko proved completely unable to develop effective crop-breeding technologies?

Posted by: Charles on January 17, 2004 03:43 PM


No, it's not too optimistic, Charles.

The problem is what we will have to endure before the conflict with physical reality is enough to cause a political change.

Remember, the administration and it's backers will be the last to suffer, except under some extreme scenario's (e.g., Al Quaida puts a nuke into DC).
And the Administration has shown a lot of propaganda ability, which means that, even when GOP voters suffer, it can probably be successfully blamed on the Evul America-Hating Liberals, or Terrorists, or Foreigners in general.

Posted by: Barry on January 17, 2004 04:06 PM


The results of Lysenkoism was the tons of grain shipped to the FSU when Nixon was president and Earl Butz calling to plant fence row to fence row. Amercian farmers got a good laugh and a full wallet. Who will be laughing at us in the future??

Posted by: bakho on January 17, 2004 04:43 PM


Bakho writes: Who will be laughing at us in the future??

The guys living really high in the mountains?

Posted by: Leopold on January 17, 2004 06:49 PM


Smith engages in overkill when he uses the term “Lysenkoism.” In its broad sense Lysenkoism is more than the distortion of science for political ends. In includes the severe punishment and suppression of anyone who does not support a politically mandated scientific theory. And “punishment” means prison or liquidation, not mere dismissal. In other words, an important component of Lysenkoism is terror.

Let’s look at the issue of global warming. In real life it’s those critical of global warming who suffer, not the other way around as Smith asserts. I have personally witnessed general circulation modelers fudge the results of their code to give answers that support global warming. I know an atmospheric physicist (and a good one) whose boss refused to approve his journal article because it was critical of global warming. It’s the money. The government agencies providing the funding expect support for global warming not criticism. No support, no money. Then we have the case of Bjorn Lomborg (former member of Greenpeace). He wrote a book critical of some of the reasoning of environmentalists and a jihad ensued. The major part of an issue of Scientific American was devoted to an attack on Lomborg. When he responded point by point to their criticisms from his website SA threatened to sue to stop him from providing links to the SA article. Then the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty investigated him and declared him a fraud and a liar. Lomborg actually faced substantial penalties. But in December 2002 the Danish Ministry of Science completely exonerated Lomborg. The Ministry found that the DCSD judgment was not backed up by documentation, and was "completely void of argumentation" for the claims of dishonesty and lack of good scientific practice. The Ministry found that the DCSD used the very same practices that it accused Lomborg of - and for the same reasons it accused Lomborg of having.

Smith provides the usual Bush bashing, with little evidence beyond his own assertions.

Posted by: A. Zarkov on January 17, 2004 07:57 PM


jml writes:
> I wonder how religious some of these religious
> Republicans are. I read an interview of an administration
> official who has supposedly been going to one of those
> "read-the-Bible-in-a-year" groups for several years. He
> had Matthew and Acts completely confused. I wish I had
> saved that link. It might have been from Easterbrook or
> some one on Slate. Anyway, that kind of thing makes me
> suspicious.

Man, the tears were running down my face when I read this. So, for the record, you're suspicious about the devoutness of some people in the administration when they can't remember which book in the Bible a specific passage comes from, but you, who apparently reads the entire canon of political commentary, can't yourself remember where you read the anecdote in question? I think there is reason to be suspicious about the devoutness of some in the administration, but that's because they are so frankly cynical about so much.

OK, so the anecdote you can't locate appears originally in the recent best-seller by Al Franken ("Lying liars...") and is about Seretary Evans and his misplacement of the Parable of the Talents. Now, to be sure, *I* think it's weird to mis-remember the source of a parable as being in the Acts of the Apostles, but "source memory" (as this kind of thing is called) is notoriously fragile.

Posted by: Jonathan King on January 17, 2004 08:03 PM


This started early on. They shitcanned the lead scientists on bears, (1) grizzly and (2) polar, as they were about to release habitation maps of greater Yellowstone and ANWAR. It's a vicious crew, going against the religions of the eternal guard at the gate of Eden, and the sciences of evolution and ecology.

Posted by: Lee A. on January 18, 2004 12:24 PM


Sorry, ANWR--the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Would somebody please name this nicer.

Posted by: Lee A. on January 19, 2004 02:54 PM


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