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Science in the Service of a Political Agenda

Exclusive commentary by Greg Lewis /
February 18, 2003

Among the characteristics of a democratic and pluralistic society is that the interests of many different people and groups are given a hearing as part of the process of making public policy. Among the most important voices contributing to the process are those of the scientific community. But what happens when the scientific community ceases to be a disinterested and objective contributor to the public debate? What happens when policy makers stop accepting the input of the scientific community in deciding public policy, or accept the input only of those whose political views support a politically correct position?

We're in the midst of such a situation today with regard to a number of critical public policy issues. Among those issues, few have commanded the sustained focus of global warming. Unfortunately, where public discussion of this issue is concerned, the record includes attempts to selectively suppress study results as well as concerted efforts to bar important and qualified voices from the debate.

The roots of ignoring science in the interest of perpetuating a political agenda are deep, but one such instance holds particular relevance for our current circumstances. From the late 1920s through the 1930s, as Joseph Stalin carried out his murderous consolidation of power in the Soviet Union, Trofim Denisovich (T.D.) Lysenko emerged as the leading proponent of a scientific position that would become the basis of Stalin's collectivization of agricultural production in the Soviet Union.

Lysenko's muddy and unsupported "theory" of plant development — which held incorrectly that environment, and not genetics, was the critical factor in determining how much time it would take a plant to mature — was applied widely in an attempt to improve the productivity of then-recently collectivized Ukrainian farms. The resulting disaster saw as many as five million kulaks (as the group of peasants singled out in Stalin's brutal collectivization strategy were called) die of starvation. Policies based on Lysenko's theory were also at the core of the Great Leap Forward, Mao Tse Tung's agricultural reform of the late 1950s and early '60s, during which as many as 30 million Chinese people, again mostly peasants, perished from hunger.

Throughout Lysenko's tenure as the leader of Soviet agricultural reform, legitimate scientists were scorned and vilified, and their voices silenced, often brutally. Lysenko was successful in no small part because his "science" was consonant with Marxist political philosophy, which was committed, at the expense of such triflings as genetics, to the primacy of the influence of the environment, not only on plants but on humans as well.

Now a similar and equally disturbing tendency can be observed in America (and around the world) with regard to the issue of global warming. The eye of the most recent storm related to this topic has been Bjørn Lomborg's book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg, a Danish statistician and, coincidentally, a radical environmentalist, initially set out to write a book to disprove what he believed were the heretical positions of the late Julian Simon, a university professor and businessman who vigorously disputed environmentalism's alarmist positions concerning the future of our planet. But while meticulously reviewing and analyzing the available data (The Skeptical Environmentalist contains nearly 3,000 footnotes), Lomborg found himself agreeing with most of Simon's points. In the spirit of scientific honesty, he said so in his book. The furor that ensued has been reminiscent of the suppression of legitimate scientific debate in Stalinist Russia.

Whether Lomborg is right or wrong in the conclusions he draws from his research is not the point. The "rightness" or "wrongness" of any position can and should be determined by dispassionate public and scientific debate. The point is that Left/Environmentalists would, if they could, refuse even to let Lomborg's side of the story be heard. Scientific American magazine, that defender of the "scientific" method, took the outrageous and unheard-of (in the free world, at least) step of commissioning four environmentalists who were known opponents of Lomborg's position to write separate essays condemning The Skeptical Environmentalist. The magazine did not even have the civility or decency to let Lomborg respond to his critics. It published the articles in its January, 2002, edition on the pretense of defending "science" against Lomborg.

Stephen Schneider, one of the four who contributed anti-Lomborg articles, offers this summary of the role the scientist should play: "[W]e have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, make little mention of any doubts we might have[,] . . . decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest." This is the stated position of one of those who criticized the author of an extraordinarily thorough and forthright book as being a "parasite load." (Note that I have used the term "anti-Lomborg" advisedly: The Scientific American articles are filled with ad hominem criticism but simply don't bother to address Lomborg's research methodology, which is impeccable, or his conclusions, which have found broad support.)

The inquisition of Bjørn Lomborg didn't stop with the Scientific American massacre. A Denmark governmental agency with the lofty title Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty deemed that it was within its purview to "try" Lomborg and his book for the purpose of determining if the author had committed, uh, "scientific dishonesty." (I think that's the same as lying.) The only "evidence" cited in its skimpy 17-page report is taken from the four Scientific American articles to which I've referred. The Committees did not even hear testimony from Lomborg and barely acknowledged the depositions he attempted to submit in his defense; they did, however, find Lomborg guilty of committing, uh, "scientific dishonesty." Their conclusion, however, is so utterly muddled and badly articulated, that it is difficult to determine what its implications are.

This so-called "verdict" is widely (and correctly, in my view) seen as some sort of absurd joke. Further, those colluding in the attempt to silence Lomborg's serious and measured voice and to marginalize his work in the name of their scientifically unsubstantiated political positions (and they include the aforementioned writers who pilloried Lomborg's book, Scientific American magazine, and the Danish government, among many others) are coming to be seen for what they are: modern-day Lysenkos who, in the name of an autocratic leftist political ideology, would stifle genuine scientific inquiry and discussion based on reasoned conclusions.

Lomborg's stated aim has always been to help provide sound analysis of existing data as the basis for public policy debate. He is very clearly not trying to "push" his position on anyone, but rather to help steer policymakers in the direction of rational decisions which will not wreak the kind of havoc on America's citizens that Lysenko-based policies did on those of the Soviet Union. In doing so, however, Lomborg has disagreed with much of what he calls "the litany," the gloom-and-doom checklist of purportedly deadly scenarios without which no respectable "environmentalist" would be caught dead today.

It is imperative that environmental fascists who would stifle genuine debate in the name of pushing their political agenda be brought to account. The brutal and substanceless ad hominem criticisms of the sort they have leveled at Lomborg and others have no place in public policy debate. Unfortunately, this sort of scientific and journalistic savagery occurs routinely when the Angry Left gets wind of a political position counter to accepted leftist orthodoxy. And while I do not advocate silencing even so venomous a group as this, I will say that it is every American's duty to help ensure that the assertions of many radical environmentalists are seen for what they are: scientifically groundless attempts at coercing legislators into championing public policy in the service of a political agenda. For opening our eyes to this, and for helping us understand what is needed to make enlightened policy decisions, Bjørn Lomborg deserves our profound respect and gratitude.

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