The Cold War divided Science

by Douglas_Knight1 min read5th Apr 201453 comments


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What can we learn about science from the divide during the Cold War?

I have one example in mind: America held that coal and oil were fossil fuels, the stored energy of the sun, while the Soviets held that they were the result of geologic forces applied to primordial methane.

At least one side is thoroughly wrong. This isn't a politically charged topic like sociology, or even biology, but a physical science where people are supposed to agree on the answers. This isn't a matter of research priorities, where one side doesn't care enough to figure things out, but a topic that both sides saw to be of great importance, and where they both claimed to apply their theories. On the other hand, Lysenkoism seems to have resulted from the practical importance of crop breeding.

First of all, this example supports the claim that there really was a divide, that science was disconnected into two poorly communicating camps. It suggests that when the two sides reached the same results on other topics, they did so independently. Even if we cannot learn from this example, it suggests that we may be able to learn from other consequences of dividing the scientific community.

My understanding is that although some Russian language research papers were available in America, they were completely ignored and the scientists failed to even acknowledge that there was a community with divergent opinions. I don't know about the other direction.

Some questions:

  • Are there other topics, ideally in physical science, on which such a substantial disagreement persisted for decades? not necessarily between these two parties?
  • Did the Soviet scientists know that their American counterpoints disagreed?
  • Did Warsaw Pact (eg, Polish) scientists generally agree with the Soviets about the origin of coal and oil? Were they aware of the American position? Did other Western countries agree with America? How about other countries, such as China and Japan?
  • What are the current Russian beliefs about coal and oil? I tried running Russian Wikipedia through google translate and it seemed to support the biogenic theory. (right?) Has there been a reversal among Russian scientists? When? Or does Wikipedia represent foreign opinion? If a divide remains, does it follow the Iron Curtain, or some new line?
  • Have I missed some detail that would make me not classify this as an honest disagreement between two scientific establishments?
  • Finally, the original question: what can we learn about the institution of science?