Politics Is Upstream of Science

In the relationship between science and politics, politics wears the pants.

In a previous article, I introduced the possibility that civilization might be at risk. In this essay, we will begin to examine a specific risk to civilization: human politics. We are going to put together several historical examples to show that science is downstream of politics. By “downstream,” I mean the political considerations determine the goals of science and the parameters of how it is practiced.

Case Study: Lysenkoism

Lysenkoism Lysenko giving a speech with Stalin watching. Bourgeois science? Talk to the hand.

Trofim Lysenko was the Soviet agronomist who tried to grow peas in the winter using Marxist-Lenist theory. The Lysenko scandal is one of the biggest scientific scandals in history.

To understand how Lysenkoism happened, you need to understand the political environment for science in the Soviet Union. Here is a quote from the Lysenko Affair, the definitive book on Lysenkoism:

The specialists were warned that declarations of Bolshevik sympathy were not enough; they must prove their dedication by bringing Marxist-Leninism into their specialties. […] Now Marxist scientists were were supposed to prove their loyalty by establishing unique positions in science—by showing how different Marxist science was from that of bourgeoisie specialists. They could not do so; but they could and did add their voices to the penitent chorus of the scientific community echoing the call for a revolution in science, for an end to the ivory tower, for science that would at last be a useful and faithful servant of the toiling masses.

Lysenko delivered the new revolution in agriculture that the Party was looking for. As the son of farm peasantry, Lysenko was the perfect poster boy for the new Soviet science.

With Lysenko’s new agrobiology, the Soviet Union banned genetics as a “bourgeois pseudoscience.” This agricultural experiment went on for nearly 30 years and spread to other communist countries like China.

There was just one problem: Lysenko’s science was bunk, because it rejected Mendelian genetics. Lysenko believed he could make peas grow in winter with Lamarckian theories about environmentally acquired inheritance. He claimed that putting plants close together would result in them “cooperating,” rather than competing, rejecting the notion of “natural selection” in favor of “natural cooperation.” He promised to transmute rye into wheat.

Unfortunately for the Soviets, banning genetics didn’t stop it from being true. Mother Nature was not impressed by Marxist-Leninist politics, and the Soviet Union and China suffered massive famines that you’ve probably heard about. Lysenko’s politicized pseudoscience was a big part of the problem.

Lysenko claimed that he could make peas grow in winter, but his initiatives failed. He falsified his results, and the press trumpeted his success.

You would think that some of the other scientists would point out that Lysenko’s methods weren’t working and were complete pseudoscience. And they did, which resulted in them suffering firing, imprisonment, execution, or mysterious death. 3000 scientists suffered one of those fates for trying to get in the way of the new cooperative agriculture.

In the early 1950’s, scientific criticism started to be allowed again, and Soviet scientists started picking apart Lysenko’s ideas, though they hung on until the 1960’s.

But the story gets even weirder.

In 1989, historian Kirill Rossiyanov was reading a draft of one of Lysenko’s speeches, and he noticed some curious notes in the margin. They were written in a confident and sarcastic voice, making comments like the following:

Ha-ha-ha!!! And what about mathematics? And what about Darwinism?

Rossiyanov was eventually able to prove that the mysterious editor was Stalin himself. He summarizes Stalin’s edits:

Lysenko's original text had included an extensive section entitled "The Fundamentals of Bourgeois Biology Are False." Stalin crossed out the entire section. Next to Lysenko's remark in this section that "Each science is class oriented by its very nature," Stalin sarcastically wrote in the margin: "Ha-ha-ha!!! And what about mathematics? And what about Darwinism?" Stalin also carefully deleted the terms "bourgeois science" and "bourgeois biology", which had been used almost 20 times throughout the original text. He either excised, them, or replaced them with "reactionary" or "idealist" biology or science.

On the whole, Stalin made Lysenko's discourse sound less "political" and more "objective".

Stalin in field

I’m not sure what is more disturbing here:

  • That Stalin was editing the speech of a scientist and inserting his own ideological views
  • That a political leader was try to make ideological science come off as more objective
  • That Lysenkoism was too politically extreme even for Stalin
  • Stalin allowed Lysenko full reign over agriculture for decades, while doubting whether Lysenko had fully justified parts of his theory (“and what about Darwinism?”)
  • That the peasants’ traditional knowledge of agriculture was thrown away in favor of politics

Under Lysenkoism, agricultural science could have been used to benefit the Russian population, but instead it was completely politicized and turned into an instrument of famine and persecution. Soviet politics created a demand for Marxist science. Lysenko stepped up to supply this science, and rapidly took over his field with the help of the state. Party members had the ability to review and override the work of scientists. Dissenters were purged. Only Stalin had enough power to dissent without punishment.

Case Study: Deutche Physik and World Ice Theory

Deutsche Physik

Deutsche Physik (“German Physics”) was the movement of German physicists who rejected Albert Einstein’s work as “Jewish Physics.” Deutsche Physik was also known as “Aryan Physics.” Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark led a crusade against Jewish physics in favor of their own theories, ingratiating themselves with the Nazi Party.

Stark’s writing attempted to bring Nazi identity politics into physics. Scientific American recounts:

In an article titled “National Socialism and Science”, Stark wrote in 1934 that science, like any other creative activity, “is conditioned by the spiritual and characterological endowments of its practitioners”. Jews did science differently from true Germans. Echoing Lenard’s fantasy, Stark claimed that while Aryans preferred to pursue an experimental physics rooted in tangible reality, the Jews wove webs of abstruse theory disconnected from experience. “Respect for facts and aptitude for exact observation”, he wrote, reside in the Nordic race.

Stark pandered further:

The scientist does not exist only for himself or even for his science. Rather, in his work he must serve the nation first and foremost. For these reasons, the leading scientific positions in the National Socialist state are to be occupied not by elements alien to the Volk but only by nationally conscious German men.

Unfortunately for German physics, Einstein’s physics was sound despite him being of the wrong ethnicity. By being so contrarian towards Einstein, the Deutsche Physik group pressured German science to ignore his advances, which made other scientists unhappy.

Lenard set his sights on Werner Heisenberg for teaching about relativity, quantum theory, and Einstein, labeling him a “White Jew.” Heisenberg tried to be apolitical, but his persecution continued. Eventually he surmounted Lenard’s harassment by having his own mother talk to Himmler’s mother and explain that Heisenberg was a good boy. Through this maternal intervention, Heisenberg invited an investigation into his work and loyalty, in hopes of clearing himself. Himmler investigated Heisenberg and pronounced him to be clean, forbidding further attacks against him.

Heisenberg Heisenberg at the blackboard.

Despite all of the obsequiousness of the Deutsche Physik clique, they never fully attained the esteem of the National Socialist party. Lenard and Stark bungled many of their political maneuvers in the complicated political environment of Nazi Germany. When they went after Heisenberg, he marshaled the support of several of Germany’s top physicists and acquired 75 signatures in his defense. Their failure to take him down revealed the weakness of their support.

While the Nazi party had encouraged Deutsche Physik, their actual policies were much more practical. Physicists also had freer reign in Germany than other types of scientists, who were restricted under Gleichschaltung, the National Socialist policy of “coordination”:

But the truth was that, while the dispute rumbled on through the late 1930s, the Nazis tightened their grip on German science regard­less. In some disciplines, such as chemistry, scientists fell into line in short order. In a few, such as anthropology and medicine, the collusion of some researchers had horrific consequences. Physics was another matter: just docile enough for its lapses, evasions and occa­sional defiance to be tolerated. The physicists were errant children: grumbling, arguing among themselves, slow to obey and somewhat lazy in their compliance, but in the final analysis obliging and dutiful enough. If they lacked ideological fervour, the Nazis were pragmatic enough to turn a blind eye.

The Nazi brass were smart enough to see that Heisenberg was doing useful work. But they still had some funny ideas about science:

When Himmler explained his decision on Heisenberg to the head of the Gestapo Reinhard Heydrich, he wrote with icy pragmatism that “I believe that Heisenberg is decent; and we cannot afford to lose this man or have him killed, since he is a relatively young man and can bring up the next generation.” Moreover, Himmler concluded with a bathetic indi­cation of his scientific ignorance, “we may be able to get this man, who is a good scientist, to cooperate with our people on the cosmic-ice theory”.

What was this “cosmic-ice theory” that Himmler was talking about? That would be Welteislehre, “World Ice Theory” (also known as Glazial-Kosmogonie, “Glacial Cosmology”), the notion that ice was the building-block of the universe. World Ice Theory was created in 1894, and it hitched itself to the NSDAP:

The third period (1931–1945) involved the adoption of the cosmic ice theory by the National Socialists and its institutionalization in their research organization Ahnenerbe (ancestral heritage). The Welteislehre had already been heavily and successfully promoted as the “German antithesis” of the “Jewish” theory of relativity in the late 1920s. After Hörbiger’s death in 1931, the followers of the cosmic ice theory came to the conclusion that, given the changing political situation in Germany, aligning the theory with National Socialism would eventually lead to its acceptance.

World Ice Theory, Lysenkoism, and Deutsche Physik all share a contrarian impulse: they mainly became popular because of what they were against. They were against “bourgeois science” or “Jewish physics.” They were not for serious scientific theory, they were in favor of injecting the reigning political ideas about class or race into science. They relished the opportunity for a moral crusade.

World Ice Theory World Ice Theory illustration

Like Deutsche Physik, Welteislehre was a political weapon passing itself off as science. Without the National Socialists, cosmic ice would have likely fallen into obscurity much sooner. And similar to Lysenkoism, we are seeing that political environments select which theories to popularize based on their needs.

The similarity between Deutsche Physik and Lysenkoism is that both involved a clique of people attempting to take over a scientific field by pandering to the ideology of the ruling party. The difference is that in the case of Lysenkoism, the ideological hijacking was complete, but in the case of Deutsche Physik, it was only partial. In both cases, dissenters were persecuted, but Heisenberg had a better fate than most of Lysenko’s critics. The damage of Deutsche Physik was less substantial, but it definitely set back German physics at the time.

In Nazi Germany, politics was upstream of science. Political considerations allowed Deutsche Physik and World Ice Theory to become popular, due to their appeal to the party. The political decisions of highly-ranked people like Himmler dictated which scientists were allowed to operate in the field. Himmler was judging the entire careers of scientists based on a very shaky understanding of science, evidence by his sympathy for Welteislehre. He got it wrong by letting Lenard and Stark operate, and he happened to get it right by letting Heisenberg operate, but it’s very easy to imagine a political leader throwing Heisenberg to the wolves.

If we extend the supply-demand model: under Lysenkoism, the state created demand for politicized science, and Lysenko created the supply. In National Socialist Germany, the state allowed multiple suppliers of science (Deutsche Physik and Heisenberg) and allowed them to compete. In both cases, the state determined the market for science.

Case Study: Project Camelot

After looking at Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, you might be tempted to believe that political domination of science is a totalitarian problem. Surely nothing like that could happen in modern, liberal, Western countries, where we never, ever persecute scientists for political reasons and where we keep identity politics out of science entirely, and we believe in genetics and evolution.

For our third example, we will move from Europe to America and discuss the strange story of Project Camelot in 1964.

What was Project Camelot? Project Camelot was the $6 million military social science project to counter Soviet influence in Latin America. Under the project, a large team of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and economists studied Latin America to advise the military on counterinsurgency tactics. Project Camelot was like the Manhattan Project of social science.

Project Camelot This org chart of Project Camelot shows who is upstream of whom

During the Cold War, Soviets were trying to start communist revolutions in Latin America. The goal of Camelot was to predict communist insurgency and to give the military recommendations on how to counteract it. Eventually, the Chilean government got wind of the project and threw a fit, so it was shut down.

The choice of the name “Project Camelot” explains a lot about the goals of the program. Solovey continues:

The project's name resonated with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' growing confidence in social engineering as the key to social harmony. 'Camelot', explained Vallance, referred to the Arthurian legend about 'the development of a stable society with domestic tranquility and peace and justice for all. This is an objective that seemed to, if we were going to have a code label, connote the right sort of things'. After Kennedy's death, 'Camelot' had also become associated with his legendary idealism and youthful vigour.

“Peace and justice for all.” And already, we are seeing the politics involved.

We have discussed the political ideology of Soviet Russia and National Socialist Germany, but what about the United States? What was its ideology, and how did this ideology relate to science?

We can start to uncover the political ideology of Cold War USG through these quotes from Ellen Herman, in The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts:

Ithiel de Sola Pool, a political scientist who had worked with Harold Lasswell at the Library of Congress during World War II, was a key figure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies, which had been founded and supported throughout the 1950s (with Ford Foundation and secret CIA funds) "to bring to bear academic research on issues of public policy." Sola Pool was probably the most enthusiastic proponent of a "humanizing" alliance between social science and government. "They [the social sciences] have the same relationship to the training of mandarins of the twentieth century that the humanities have always had to the training of mandarins in the past.... The only hope for humane government in the future is through the extensive use of the social sciences by government." Far from considering Camelot's participants to be spies, Sola Pool went so far as to accuse critics of "a kind of neo-McCarthyism."

Neither Camelot's supporters nor its detractors were politically homogeneous, and the project cannot, therefore, be easily dismissed as a perverse brainchild of rabid cold warriors. Many, perhaps even a majority, of participants were liberal anti-Communists; some were critics of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. For them, deploying the theories and techniques of behavioral science to prosecute the Cold War efficiently and nonviolently was evidence of the democratic values embedded in U.S. policy. Indeed, Camelot's critics and defenders all tended to venerate the vital and progressive role that behavioral expertise could and should play in government.

The ideology of Cold War USG could be describe as managerial, scientific, democratic, progressive bureaucracy. This bureaucracy created a ravenous demand for social science.

The government threw gigantic sums of money into social science, in conjunction with the big foundations (such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s Social Science Research Council and the Ford Foundation’s Behavioral Sciences Division). Solovey calls this the “politics-patronage-social science nexus.”

The idea behind scientific government was that scientists would produce objective, neutral, empirical work under state patronage. The results of their work would inform the mandarins, so they could pursue “humane government” and “peace and justice for all.” Whatever that means.

Project Camelot attracted a large amount of debate. Detractors accused the social scientists of accepting the political premises of the state, and engaging in imperialism in other countries. Defenders argued that social science “humanize” the military. In the end, despite the project shutdown and the firestorm of controversy, the politics-patronage-social science nexus only got stronger in later decades. Similar social science projects appeared under other names.

So how did the bureaucratic patronage of Project Camelot turn out? Unfortunately, there is no good way to assess the quality of the science produced, but we can look at some of the successor projects, such as the Viet-Cong Motivation and Morale Project (VC M&M). From Herman:

VC M&M was a classic example, during the Vietnam era, of the basic axiom about bureaucratic survival and expertise that policy-makers had learned during World War II: government uses social science the way a drunk uses a lamp post, for support rather than light. Its authors' conclusions—that the enemy was near the breaking point and that heavy bombing would quickly end the conflict—told the policy-makers exactly what they wanted to hear in 1965, the precise moment of military escalation. And there is quite a bit of evidence that policy-makers were paying close attention to the findings of VC M&M, rewarding the project's researchers for their good efforts with a 100 percent increase in funding in 1966.

The light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel mentality would, of course, appear tragically misguided later on. One of the project's own staff members would go so far as to call it "a whitewash of genocide." In the aftermath of Camelot, however, the RAND studies illustrated, once again, how politically useful psychological intelligence was to the policy-making process, even when it was entirely wrong.

In this program, it seems that the social scientists produced the conclusion that the government wanted, and the results were bad: Operation Rolling Thunder failed to break the Viet-Cong.

For another example of a successor project to Camelot, there is POLITICA, the computer simulation game that was used in planning Pinochet’s coup in Chile:

Ironically, Camelot's spirit was destined to have its most lethal reincarnation in Chile, the country where it had been exposed, but which had never been one of the intended targets of research. In 1973, almost a decade after Camelot was canceled, its mark could be seen in the secret, CIA-sponsored coup against the socialist government of Salvador Allende.

The connection came through Abt Associates, a research organization located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose president, Clark Abt, had been one of Camelot's consultants. In 1965 the DOD's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) contracted with Abt to design a computer simulation game to be used for monitoring internal war in Latin America. Except for the addition of sophisticated computer technology, Camelot's goal remained intact. Dubbed Politica, the game was first loaded with data about hundreds of social psychological variables in a given country: degree of group cohesiveness, levels of self-esteem, attitudes toward authority, and so on. Then it would "highlight those variables decisive for the description, indication, prediction, and control of internal revolutionary conflict."

In the case of Chile, according to Daniel Del Solar, one of Politica's inventors, the game's results eventually gave the green light to policy-makers who favored murdering Allende in the plan to topple Chile's leftist government. Politica had predicted that Chile would remain stable even after a military takeover and the president's death.

Yes, the United States government tried to build a military proto-AI informed by social science. And they called it the most blatant name possible: “POLITICA.” And it was actually used for military decisions about toppling regimes in other countries.

It turned out that POLITICA reached the correct conclusion in this case: The coup did happen, and Allende did die (by suicide), and Chile did remain stable after Allende's death. Yet it's unclear whether a 1970s-era computer program with social science variables was actually any good, or whether it was just used to launder an analysis coming from human judgment.

Science is downstream of politics

Now that we have examined several examples of the politics-science nexus in several 20th century states, we have a better understanding of the relationships between politics and science. The clear conclusion is that politics and science were heavily entangled in 20th century states. Nazi Germany had Gleichschaltung (coordination), and Cold War America had the “politics-patronage-social science nexus.”

Under Soviet communism and National Socialism, the state perverted science entirely and used it as a tool of political propaganda and identity politics. The government of the United States was much more secure, so the state didn’t need to use science as an internal propaganda weapon. Instead, science became a tool of civilian and military bureaucrats seeking “peace and justice” on a geopolitical game board. Rather than science being used to justify the state, science was used to justify particular policies of the state.

In all three of these cases, it was the state that defined the parameters of science. It was the state that controls the funding and livelihood of scientists. It was the state that defined the goals that scientists were working towards, even in the United States, where scientists were on a longer leash.

In all three cases, the state defined the ideological environment for science, and then scientists jockeyed for power and funding within that environment. In the case of Lysenkoism and Deutsche Physik, cliques of scientists took over their entire field by delivering a brand of science that the party wanted to hear.

In the United States, social scientists figured out that the government wanted to know how science could be used for military projects and social policy, and they delivered this behavioral science. The result was the accelerating gravy train of the politics-patronage-social science nexus, which continues today.

The thesis I am advancing is that science is “downstream” of politics. But do we see examples where the science influenced the politics? For example, the proponents of World Ice Theory tried to influence the National Socialists, and many of the social scientists were trying to “humanize” the military and the government. Isn’t this a case of science being upstream of politics? No, it’s a case of already-politicized sciences negotiating with the politics of the state.

There are always lots of theories going on at any given time. The question is: which theories and technologies get selected for funding by the state? The politically useful ones.

These are just a few examples of the politicization of science, and we could find many more in the present-day, particularly in modern social science. Politics is upstream of science.

The next article in this series will make the case that politics is upstream of AI research.

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