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?

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[-][anonymous]7y 22

Distance From Harvard and lesswrong discussion of it seems relevant to this.

Barry Marshall once said that if he had gone to Harvard, he would have known that stomach ulcers were caused by stress, and wouldn’t even have considered the possibility that they might be caused by a bacterium. There are a number of other important innovators that sure look as if they benefited from living as far as possible from the sources of establishment opinion. Back when continental drift was officially nonsense, quite a few geologists in South Africa and Australia thought it must be correct – partly because there are local geological facts that are hard to explain any other way (like ancient glacial moraines in Australia whose rocks originated in South Africa) but also because physical distance translates into mental distance.

I am not able to access my resources at the moment, but if I recall from school, a particular politically powerful Russian scientist essentially mandated that the abiogenic petroleum theory would be the one accepted by the Russian establishment. At the time, they justified this by pointing to large oil fields for which source rocks (underlying rock containing thermally decomposed organic matter) had not been discovered. Of course since then the source rocks have been discovered.

Amusingly, if you Google "abiogenic petroleum theory" you will find lovely quack articles explaining how plausible the theory is and how it means we will never run out of oil.

Do you mean Kudryavtsev?

What kind of school was this? Russian? American? Geology? History of science?

How can you tell the difference between a "mandate" and an argument? CellBioGuy compares your story to Lysenkoism, but Lysenko called his opponents "wreckers" and had them executed. I can imagine that his example had a chilling effect on future disagreement with superiors, but if this were a systematic problem with Soviet science, why don't we have more examples?

Unfortunately I am going to have to call "pause" until I can get some books from my office, or otherwise track down exactly the details I'm half-remembering.

Unfortunately Google has been totally worthless, in that the first several pages are things like "Peak oil a myth? The shocking secret of oil's abiogenic origin!" It's really quite mindkilling.

if I recall from school, a particular politically powerful Russian scientist essentially mandated that the abiogenic petroleum theory would be the one accepted by the Russian establishment.

Much like Lysenkoism in biology.

The main difference was that the Warsaw Pact had a single mandated epistemology: the dialectical materialism of marxist and leninist philosophy. I'm told this is fairly workable as a framework for science, but it also represents a fundamental restriction.

Still, I can't think of any substantial disagreements in physical science except for the ones you mentioned. There were many in softer fields, such as economics, prehistory and anthropology.

I know a few people who did medicine, IT, philosophy and history of religions in the Warsaw Pact. (No biology or geology, sorry.) All describe there was infrequent but regular communication going on with the scientists in Imperialist countries. It was tightly controlled, i.e. only a few selected and carefully briefed scientists would be allowed to visit conferences abroad. But that doesn't seem to have been about heretical knowledge, but about the loyalties of the scientists. Many would defect given the chance, and the Warsaw Pact countries tried hard to prevent that. (For example, your chance of attending a conference outside the Iron Curtain would much depend on whether you had close family staying at home that you wouldn't want to abandon.) A few more would have access to the locked bookshelf with the foreign journals and books by persona non grata authors like Nietzsche, but those journals and books did get read.

This was important in cases such as the rise of the HIV threat. The Warsaw Pact heard about it long before it had any cases of its own, because there was little tourism, even less organized crime (due to the worthlessness of their currencies) and a tradition of central registration of STDs that would have been called draconian in the West at that time. When HIV did trickle into the Warsaw Pact, its health system was prepared.

I can think of one case where the relative isolation was an advantage. In the fifities, West German pharmacologists offered East German ones to try Thalidomide, a sedative used, among other things, for morning sickness in pregnant women. The East Germans looked at it and refused, saying they thought it dangerous for foetal development. So the thousands of cases of phocomelia that followed were all in Western Germany.

Do you have a detailed source for the story about Thalidomide? (in German is OK) America rejected it, too, but as far as I can tell, for no reason that actually would have detected the problem. So the detail I'm wondering about is whether the East German rejection actually singled out pregnancy.

It seems they did single out pregnancy. German wiki says it, with a German language journalistic source behind a paywall. Then again, the journalistic source is fifty years after the fact, and printed in a far-left journal that's exactly the kind of medium that'd want the East Germans to look good.

[-][anonymous]7y 10

I noticed people don't seem to use tags as much anymore, but tagging this "science" or something would be nice.

OK, I added a couple. I also found archives of the old tag clouds for main and discussion.

At least one side is thoroughly wrong

It's not a priori impossible that some different fuels were created using different processes, especially when we have three distinct types - oil, coal and natural gas.

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.

A politically charged scientific topic is in many (most?) cases political not because of its implications, but because different political parties are known to endorse different views.

It's not a priori impossible that some different fuels were created using different processes,

No, but it's highly unlikely that both processes create comparable amounts of fuel.

For example, diamond forms from several different processes, but the vast majority of them are formed in the Earth's mantle and then brought to the surface by volcanic processes. It's technically true that there are diamonds that used to be coal, but saying that diamonds came from coal would be highly misleading.

I'm not sure what you're arguing for here.

Clearly there are at least three different processes, because they create three different outcomes: coal, gas and oil. They may all three be produced from biological matter (Western theory), or all three from methane (USSR theory), or some types may be produced from biological matter and some other types from methane. Maybe even some types could be produced from both origins, although the prior is low and it's true in this case you would expect a majority to come from one process.

We observe comparable (in orders of magnitude) amounts of fuel of all three types. This is something any theory must account for. It might be evidence for a similar origin for all three fuel types (e.g. due to constraints on how much source matter was available to convert into fuel). But I don't see how it's evidence for one kind of origin over another.

I meant for each individual type. I don't know if there's any particular reason to believe all three kinds of fuels were from the same process.

I suppose the fact that they all have comparable amounts of fuel is some evidence, but it's not as strong, since I don't think we would particularly expect comparable amounts of fuel even if they did have the same source.

Then I agree, as I said,

Maybe even some types could be produced from both origins, although the prior is low and it's true in this case you would expect a majority to come from one process.

[-][anonymous]7y 7

The USA and the USSR both made spacecraft during the cold war. Air and space travel were not based on distinct physics in each nation. But the spacecraft looked quite different. The USA had cones and the USSR had scheres. My amateur conclusion is there was some measure of aesthetics and patriotism trumping physics in that visual difference.

I don't think it's a matter of aesthetics. The Vostok was spherical because they couldn't figure a better shape, the NASA did more research on spacecraft aerodynamics and particularly heat shields and and come up with the conical shape with an ablative heat shield on the bottom. The Soyuz eventually settled for a dome-like shape for the reentry module.

[-][anonymous]7y 6

More questions along a similar line:

  • Are there any other currently/recently-existing scientific communities?

  • Is there anything the Soviets got right that we don't know about yet? There was a SSC comment thread a while back about the Soviet belief in magnetic storms influencing behavior, which is something the Americans are apparently only now looking into.

  • Viliam_Bur says: "In Soviet Union many scientists knew that e.g. Lysenkoism was a fraud, they were just afraid to speak openly, because they would be fired or put in prison." What beliefs in America/the West are like Lysenkoism? What can be done about them?

  • How accepted was Lysenkoism among the general public? scientists outside the relevant field? the political elite?

  • There are many other examples of beliefs like the Soviet one in abiogenic oil: Germans and low blood pressure, Japanese and blood types, Koreans and fan death, 19th-century Americans and the belief that masturbation causes insanity, Anglophones (or at least Americans and Brits) and the belief that eating carrots improves eyesight. What beliefs in [parts of] America/the West fall into that category? What, if any, are their significant consequences? (Abiogenic oil means depletion isn't a problem; fan death means... people buy fewer fans, and don't leave them on at night.)

There are many other examples of beliefs like the Soviet one in abiogenic oil: Germans and low blood pressure, Japanese and blood types, Koreans and fan death, 19th-century Americans and the belief that masturbation causes insanity, Anglophones (or at least Americans and Brits) and the belief that eating carrots improves eyesight.

You do realize these beliefs have very different status. For example, I get the impression that modern Japan scientists don't believe in the connection between blood type and personality, and I haven't seen evidence that fan death was ever more than an urban legend that was never taken seriously by Korean scientists. Whereas abiogenic oil was a well-respected scientific theory.

The carrots and eyesight thing apparently started out as a WWII disinformation campaign to explain why a lot more German bombers were being shot down (really due to radar), in this respect it's more comparable to the Soviet red mercury hoax.

The Korean Wikipedia article starts by calling it a superstition, but then quotes Korean physicians on both sides.

What beliefs in America/the West are like Lysenkoism?

Here, for example: Arrest Climate-Change Deniers. In case you think that's an outlier, here's more: Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent?.

What beliefs in America/the West are like Lysenkoism?

Well one place to start is to look at people who believe that certain scientific opinions are inherently "unjust" and shouldn't be heard, that their cause is so noble that it justifies lying and falsifying science.

They think that certain topics they discuss in a nuanced way among themselves might be used for crude propogandistic purposes by others....like you're doing right now.

They think that certain topics they discuss in a nuanced way among themselves

Is "nuanced" supposed to be a euphemism for "not corresponding to reality"? Because near as I can tell even when they talk among themselves they avoid mentioning said "unjust" scientific opinions and act lie they believe their own lies.

This is not surprising, as I described here once you start lying to attract people to your cause, your cause will be staffed by people who believe said lies. And if there really is some inner circle which free discusses the truth, how do you know they're goals are at all related to the goals that attracted you to the movement?

Yep. That was crude propaganda.

Care to define what you mean by "crude propaganda", and how calling out people who are lying and advocating lying for their cause counts as propaganda?

It's not a fact that anyone is lying: thats your interpretation.

Your interpretation is motivated by a POV apparent in almost everything you have posted here. So: propaganda.

You disregard "they interpret differently from me" in favour of "they're lying!!!!". So: crude.

You don't have facts on your side. Instead you have belief that you have facts on your side, which is not asupported by fact checking. For instance, younger had evidence that affirmative action is economically harmful.

It's not a fact that anyone is lying: thats your interpretation.

Did you look at the links? They're not exactly trying to hide it.

You disregard "they interpret differently from me" in favour of "they're lying!!!!".

Where by "they interpret differently from me" you mean they don't care whether they're statements correspond to reality as long as they're politically convenient.

None of the examples you mention is exactly official doctrine.

[-][anonymous]7y 1

Right. I didn't intend them to be. On the spectrum between official doctrine and benignly popular misconceptions, those are squarely on the latter end. (Except maybe the one about masturbation -- I wouldn't be surprised if there was social stigma against that.) Just as it's important to be aware of and correct for bias created by acceptance of official doctrine, it's important (though probably less so?) to be aware of and correct for bias created by acceptance of benignly popular misconceptions.

And yes, it is a spectrum: for a safe and presumably-uncontroversial-in-this-environment example of a point between Lysenkoism and fan death, consider atheists' testimony about what it's like to be an atheist in the Bible Belt.

For rationalist purposes, that fine. For reactionary purposes, my be not....

[-][anonymous]7y -1

Any two-digit number would be far too high an estimate for the number of reactionaries who don't hate Protestantism.

This raises some disturbing implications. Namely, that it's possible for a scientific community to converge on something besides the truth.

This raises the question: in cases of disagreement which theory was correct? I get the impression that in most cases of disagreement, the current consensus is that the West was correct, but is that because the West was actually correct or simply because the West won the cold war?

This raises some disturbing implications. Namely, that it's possible for a scientific community to converge on something besides the truth.

Why is this disturbing? Look at the history of science. A scientific community "converging" on something that turns out to be not true is neither unusual nor unexpected.

in cases of disagreement which theory was correct?

Ask reality :-)

is that because the West was actually correct or simply because the West won the cold war?

In Soviet Union many scientists knew that e.g. Lysenkoism was a fraud, they were just afraid to speak openly, because they would be fired or put in prison. When the threat was gone, the problem fixed itself.

Which is an evidence for West being actually correct. Hypothetically the scientists in the West could be operating under different threats... but then their mistakes would be exposed by current scientists in Russia or China.

What other cases do you know? This is the only one I know.

The beliefs about nutrition and diet were very different.

Another example, Geodakian's theories were rather popular in the Soviet Union (for all I know they're still popular in Russia), but he's rather obscure in the West.

Can you say what they believed about nutrition and diet? Do you have some source on this topic? I think that there is a lot of diversity of opinion in America, between the nutritionists, the cardiologists, and the general public. So I could just as well declare those to be isolated communities. (and I wouldn't be surprised if different countries have fairly different nutritional beliefs)

My understanding is that in the West, the question of the origin of sex is considered a great mystery. People like the Red Queen theory, but only because it exists, not because it is anywhere near proven. If the Russian view of Geodakian's theory were similar, there would be the mystery of why the two communities hadn't shared their hypotheses with each other, but I wouldn't say that they held conflicting views. I have heard it claimed, though, that when there is only one hypothesis, it often ossifies into an established belief with evidence ever turning up. But I don't think this example has gotten there yet.

An example from the "Distance from Harvard" thread is the study of language superfamilies in Russia. Westerners reject their techniques, but they don't have any particular conflicting conclusion, only agnosticism. Indeed, they have come around to accept the specific conclusions that the American Joseph Greenberg came to by the same methods. From this, I feel very safe in saying that their criticism of Greenberg was wrong, and thus their criticism of the Russians is unfounded. But I'm not willing to endorse the Russians with any certainty, as they may be pushing their techniques too far. What they need are statistics telling they how far is too far.

Can you say what they believed about nutrition and diet?

I know that the Russians were recommending fish oil while the West was still advertising low-fat fish.

Do you have some source on this topic?

My memory growing up in the Soviet Union. In particular a spoonful of fish oil was the standard "disgusting but good for you" thing from children's stories.

If the Russian view of Geodakian's theory were similar, there would be the mystery of why the two communities hadn't shared their hypotheses with each other, but I wouldn't say that they held conflicting views.

Well, Geodakian's theory has obvious non-politically correct (by Western standards) implications. For starters, it says that significant sex differences exist and that this is a good thing.

I don't know much about the Red Queen theory, but for all I know it might have also had politically incorrect (by Soviet standards) implications, e.g., contradicting some official interpretation of dialectical materialism.

I know that the Russians were recommending fish oil while the West was still advertising low-fat fish.

That wasn't what we now buy as "fish oil" in the West. We now buy, basically, Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA/DHA). The Russians fed their kids cod liver oil which is full of vitamins A and D and is useful in the winter if you live up north.

[-][anonymous]7y 2

So did the Americans.

Interesting. He seems to have Wikipedia entries in several languages, but not in English.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suppressed_research_in_the_Soviet_Union

Mendel- and Darwin-based biology was rejected in the Soviet Union for ideological reasons. Unlike Western epistemology, which holds itself to a standard of objectivity, communism (and leftism in general) is always suspicious that someone who tries to convince you of an idea is secretly planning to sell you something. In this field communism made the same mistake of the postmodernists: it couldn't conceive of objective science without an agenda hidden somewhere. Genetics was labeled "bourgeois science" and thus not worth learning. A classic example of rejecting a good idea because of who happened to say it.

In this field communism made the same mistake of the postmodernists: it couldn't conceive of objective science without an agenda hidden somewhere. Genetics was labeled "bourgeois science" and thus not worth learning. A classic example of rejecting a good idea because of who happened to say it.

I'd say argue it's not a complete mistake, and indeed can be a very useful guide, to assume that there is an ideology behind everything, even science. There are, however, a number of mistakes one can make given this statement, the first being to divide all ideologies according to familiar political divisions (capitalist/communist) rather than imagine there might be local ideological divisions in any given field, across arbitrary dimensions. And the second being to think biased results are useless (a coin being biased doesn't make it an ineffective random number generator).

I find it useful to think in this way when reading papers (in physics) : it's entirely possible, even pretty certain, to miss very clear and simple ideas because the ideological background in which things are presented does not have room for them (the classic Kuhnian idea). In this way I see postmodernism (and a good part of continental philosophy) as a useful warning, albeit like most useful warnings it can be taken too far into paranoia.

I feel like this might more accurately be titled "The Soviet Union Had Some Problems With Its Scientific Establishment."

The most important (IMO) question the OP raises is: does the West also have some similar problems with its scientific establishment, theories wrongly promoted or rejected because of their political associations?

If I understand correctly, Soviet biology was in shambles because of Lysenko.

I'm not sure how long this lasted: My dad is a gifted biochemist who emigrated in 89. So they must've had some way of teaching real useful science

The grandparent overgeneralizes -- Soviet genetics was pretty much absent, but the rest of biology was fine (well, at least as fine as it could be expected to be under the Soviet regime).

I have difficulty seeing how you can do biology beyond pure description ("Here's a species of bird with appearance X and behavior Y") while ignoring both genetics and natural selection. Doing cellular biology seems near-impossible if you can't mention DNA, while ecology is similarly linked to selection pressure.

I am completely uninformed on the technical particulars here, so this is idle speculation. But it isn't totally implausible that ideological factors were at play here. By this I don't mean that there were arguments being deployed as soldiers - nothing political, as far as I'm aware, rides upon the two theories - but that worldviews may have primed scientists (acting in entirely good faith) to think of, and see as more reasonable, certain hypotheses. Dialectical materialism, for instance, tends to emphasize (or, by default, think in terms of) qualitative transformations that arise from historically specific tensions between different forces that eventually gets resolved (in said qualitative transformations.) If I understand you correctly that the difference between the two theories was that the American one isolated a process (1) explicable by the properties of a single substance and (2) acting at all times in Earth's history, while the Soviet one isolated a process (1) explicable in terms of the interaction of forces and (2) only active until it the conditions for it (stores of primordial methane) were resolved, then it's easy to construct a just-so story about how a scientist thinking in the categories privileged by diamat might find the second more intuitive than the first. Likewise, if, as a stereotypical reductive mechanist, you tend to think of individual objects rather than relationships, and eternal laws rather than historically specific ones, the former might be more intuitive than the latter. Further, it seems at least facially plausible that if you had a scientific community with Aristotelian or German idealist frameworks, you'd have different dominant theories still - even with researchers acting in good faith, with lots of data, and material incentives to produce a theory that derived correct predictions. (Such frameworks bear some similarities to, but are more vague and general than, Kuhnian paradigms.)

Of course, I could totally misunderstand the nature of the two theories at play, and I don't know anything about the geological communities of the two superpowers specifically, so the just-so stories here are probably complete bullshit. But your concerns are more general than the specific examples as well, so consider their purpose to be illustrative rather than explanatory.

If anything, it seems the opposite to me. The biogenic theory is about swamps that only occurred in particular places in particular geologic periods, whereas the abiogenic theory, though I did not say, is about a continual process uniform through space and time, except for variation in the porosity of rock, especially capstones, a particularity that is shared with the other theory.

The Germanic founders of quantum mechanics did invoke Idealism, and the Soviets criticized them for it, but this was quite explicit.

There is a simple and good reason for that. Soviet scientist Nikolai Kudryavtsev, proponent of abiogenic theory, discovered that oil and gas that Russia is exporting now. So his theory was assumed true. It has nothing to do with ideology.