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Sunday, January 06, 2013


Soviet agronomist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was a Cargo Cult Scientist. He had a job to increase crop yields. He did not succeed. He succeeded, in spite of his scientific shortcomings, at being one of the most powerful scientists in the Soviet Union during his lifetime. He is now considered an embarrassment. What can we learn from this dark story in the history of science and popular opinion. Certainly, if the opinion holders are influential human beings, opinions can trump scientific facts. At least until facts can no longer be ignored.

What led to the influence of Lysenko on Soviet science? We in the biotechnology business have had a similar problem. The influencers set up a system of conducting research that has been a failure. The rest of us bought into the prospect of riches and fame, in spite of our average minds. Is it possible that the social phenomenon that lead to the rise of Lysenko is infecting modern scientific systems?

Lysenko and the scientific method parted ways at the corner of Nature and Nurture. Lysenko did not believe in Mendelian genetics. He felt that the environment was a more important factor in the long run. For example, in 1927 Lysenko described a new method to fertilize fields without the use of fertilizers or minerals. The method was called vernalization. Germinating seeds were exposed to low temperatures under specific conditions allowing for human control of the plant's flowering time. In the modern world we could easily test his theories. Using design of experiment (DOE) one could create the series of growth experiments. Determine the variable, temperatures, lighting, soil, water... Undoubtably, there will be a sweet spot in which to grow your seeds. Lysenko, in this fashion, was not unlike many scientists today. Take a system in which something must happen, randomly test combinations of variables, and claim that you have discovered something. It is a useful process, testing variables via DOE, but something was missing in Lysenkos work.

Vernalization is a proven biological phenomenon. Lysenko however, utilized the cargo cult scientific method: Design research to reach pre-ordained results, ignore any results which do not advance your theories, report only positive results, and guard your career with Machiavellian political skills.  Lysenko pre-ordained that the process of vernalization could be inherited in plants.  He reported successful experiments that yielded healthy, robust pea plants in the dead of winter. Amidst the poverty and frequently frozen Soviet Union, Lysenko was portrayed as a hero of the Soviet state by the state-owned media.

That sounds familiar. For example, in biotechnology we pre-ordained RNAi technology as the next big thing. The media jumped on it, investors handed over billions and "news" organizations such as the journals and the lesser scientific reviewers such as Xconomy touted the coming of a new era in scientific advances. Finding cures for Cancers and Alzheimers was just a matter of time. Ironically, much of the research that I witnessed, and participated in, was very much like the work of Lysenko. If an experiment with RNAi did not produce the pre-ordained results, we were sent back into the lab to tweak the environmental variables. The temperature or CO2 in the incubators must have been off. Try again! The cell media needed to be tweaked. The measurement techniques were sloppy. There was always something wrong in the lab when the pre-ordained results were not obtained. Imagine one small lab experiencing this cargo cult scientific method, then multiply the experience by however much cargo cult work was generated by billions and billions in investments.

Lysenko was a successful man. In his day he accomplished his goals. Like most important members of a society, he was eventually deposed. He worked at the highest level, identified as a scientist, from the late 1920s to 1964. He never repented. He labeled his detractors as nattering nabobs and humdrum hirelings. He had power. When he lost it he was already an old man and people would remember that he was once here. However, in spite of his own opinion on his worth on earth, his name has become synonymous with bad science. According to Wikipedia:
Lysenkoism is used metaphorically to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives.
That is an excellent description of Cargo Cult Science. Lysenkoism is alive and well. I worked under these conditions for years. The bias is related to careers and financial gain. Under our current system, nothing has to reach the market. No product needs to be sold to a customer. We sell potential. The science must be sexy and the potential profits must be identified and described eloquently to our real customers, the investors. Before a drug in the pipeline reaches its final destination, its own death, a few can have successful careers, like Lysenko. Success is merely getting another round of financing. At the lower levels, that of the tribesmen who work in the labs, success is another year or two of work.  The promise of biotechnology, like the promises of Lysenkos science, has not produced. My experience made me a skeptic of the leaders. It lead me skepticism, a word not allowed in the Lysenko approach to science.

The massive layoffs repeated year after year, the useless "Provenge" style products, the wasted educations, the 90% false published findings, THE AMGEN STUDY!, and the arguments against the Reproducibility Initiave are all part of our biotech Lysenkoism. The modern world of humans who thrive now, and who would have thrived under the leadership of Lysenko, are making a mess of science. The successful scientist interviewed in the Amgen study:
"We went through the paper line by line, figure by figure," said Begley. "I explained that we re-did their experiment 50 times and never got their result. He said they'd done it six times and got this result once, but put it in the paper because it made the best story. It's very disillusioning."

We are, after all, mostly average minds, trying to do what Einstein and Newton once did. We allow the successful scientist to operate in a "best story" environmnet. The leadership, such as Lysenkos, defines what is the best story. Nature is too tough to figure out sometimes. Sometimes we just tell the best story. But it's not science. It's Lysenkoism. It's a Cargo Cult Science.

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