Lamar Smith’s War on Science

Science, the system of knowledge and discovery that has made and kept the United States a superpower, is under attack. And the attack is being made by Congress, specifically by Rep. Lamar “Lysenko” Smith (R, Texas, of course). WC has written about Rep. Smith’s intellectual deficiencies. And his lobbyist-induced limited grasp of reality. And the frightening irony that this political hack for the fossil fuel industry chairs the U.S House Science Committee. Now this 21st Century Lysenko has declared war on science in general and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency in particular.

Let’s briefly review what happens when politicians involve themselves in science.

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko  (1898–1976) was a Soviet biologist and agronomist. Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics in favor of pseudo-scientific theories termed Lysenkoism. His theories earned the support of the dictator Joseph Stalin following the famine and loss of productivity resulting from forced collectivization in several regions of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. In 1940, he became director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR’s Academy of Sciences, and Lysenko’s anti-Mendelian doctrines were further secured in Soviet science and education by his exercise of political influence and power. Scientific dissent from Lysenko’s theories of environmentally acquired inheritance was formally outlawed in 1948. That’s right, it was illegal to practice science in the Soviet Union if it contradicted Lysenko’s crackpot ideas. In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov spoke out against Lysenko in the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences:

He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary, in its discussion of Lysenkoism, says:

Under Lysenko’s guidance, science was guided not by the most likely theories, backed by appropriately controlled experiments, but by the desired ideology. Science was practiced in the service of the State, or more precisely, in the service of ideology. The results were predictable: the steady deterioration of Soviet biology. Lysenko’s methods were not condemned by the Soviet scientific community until 1965, more than a decade after Stalin’s death.

The term has generalized from Lysenko’s Lamarckism to mean a corruption of true science, science in the service of ideology. Creationism is a fine example. Proponents of Creationism try to force Christianist ideology in place of the scientific method, controlled experiments and falsifiable theories. Creationism is a variety of Lysenkoism.

Rep. Lamar Smith is trying to force a particularly American variety of Lysenkoism on the United States: perversion of science to serve political lobbyists and big campaign donors. Rep. Smith is paid well by the fossil fuel industry to deny anthropogenic climate change. The fossil fuel industry is his largest category of campaign donor. WE all remember when President Gorge W. Bush’s flunky edited science reports to minimize or remove references to climate change. Rep. Smith is taking the same approach at the Congressional level. When NOAA data contradicted Rep. Smith’s cherished – well, bought and paid for – belief that world temperatures were stable the last 20 years, he issued subpoenas for NOAA’s data. Never mind that the data is publicly available; never mind that Rep. Smith and his staff are purely incapable of analyzing or interpreting the data. The purpose is harassment and intimidation. In fact, Rep. Smith has issued more subpoenas out of the Science Committee he chairs than any other Science Committee Chair in history.

Now Rep. Smith is proposing that Congress approve research projects and review proposed publications in advance. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the American Statistical Association, the Ecological Society of America, and the Geological Society of America have written Rep. Smith a letter telling him to stop the harassment. The senior Democrat on the House Science Committee, the leading Democrat on the House Science Committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D, Texas), has written Rep. Smith two letters calling out his bullying for what it is. In the second letter she excoriates Rep. Smith’s investigation. Describing the accusations that the NOAA study was rushed, she writes, “This mild accusation would hardly seem to warrant the hyper-aggressive oversight and rhetoric you have leveled at NOAA.” Nor is there any public evidence that the study or publication was “rushed;” in fact, there is a lot of evidence it wasn’t. Rep. Smith claims a whistleblower has told him the study and its publication was hastily done, but Rep. Smith hasn’t named the alleged whistleblower and Rep. Smith’s claim smack of the late Senator “Machine Gun” Joe McCarthy’s famous list of Commies in the State Department.

The simple fact is that Rep. Smith doesn’t like the outcome, so he is determined to kill the messenger.

One more fact about Rep. Lamar Smith. He is a Christian Scientist. He is a member of a religion whose core belief is that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone. That alone should disqualify him from membership, let alone the chairmanship, of any committee involving substantive science.

But in the bizarre world of the present, Republican-dominated Congress, he is in charge. And has made himself the Number 1 enemy of science.