Monthly Archives: March 2012

Lysenko: Pathological Science

Charles Rulon

Emeritus, Life Sciences, Long Beach City College


In the former U.S.S.R. the story of Soviet gen­et­ics from 1937 to 1964 was one of the most tragic ex­am­­ples, with disastrous results, of a pseudo-scientific belief rising to absolute dog­ma.  During this time a plant physiologist and char­latan named Trofim D. Lysenko rose to power, eventually achieving abso­lute control over all genetic and agricultural re­search.  Lysenko not only de­stroyed the lives of thousands of scientists and sti­fled the devel­opment of biology in the U.S.S.R. for decades; he also had a dev­a­statingly destructive influence on Rus­sia’s entire economy.[i]


Stalin came into power as a suc­ces­sor to Lenin in 1929.  At same time Russia was experi­encing a crisis in agri­cultural production; severe losses in wheat were occurring.  Stalin was power crazy, cruel, treach­­erous and intolerant of brilliant individ­ualists.  He institutionalized terror and during his reign (1929-1953) was respon­sible for the death of millions.

In 1931 Stalin demanded solu­tions to the seri­ous agricultural problems in the U.S.S.R.  Vavi­lov, president of the Soviet Acad­emy of Scien­ces and a world fam­ous ge­neticist, re­sponded that at least a decade of basic research would first be required.  When Stalin be­came outraged that Russian sci­ence could not quickly pro­vide the agri­cultural miracles he demanded, the green light flashed for Lysenko.  Lysenko claimed that he could solve Rus­sia’s agricultural pro­blems in under three years.  He convinced government of­ficials that their previous failures to produce rapid improve­ment in the ge­netic traits of agricultural plants was the fault of the bankrupt ideology of “bour­geois” sci­ence that had become corrupted by the false genetics of the West.  Lysenko insisted, in­stead, (with badly con­trol­led experi­ments and falsi­fied data) that those agricultural plants which had been made more productive through ad­justing the levels of nutri­­ents, water, light and so on could ge­neti­cally pass on this increased productivity to their offspring.

This claim, known in science as the “inheritance of acquired characteristics” already had been thoroughly scientific­ally disproved.  For example, although a tree can be forced through strenuous trim­ming to remain small for many years, the result­ing bonsai tree has not changed gen­eti­cally. Trees produced from its seeds will grow to nor­mal size if left un­pruned.  As another example, for thousands of years the feet of young Chinese girls were tightly bound for the rest of their lives (a very painful practice which severely stunted the growth of women’s feet).  Yet when the practice was finally discon­tinued the foot size of Chi­­nese women had not changed at all; the ac­quired trait of small feet had not been inher­ited.  And then there are the thousands of years of male circum­ci­sion, yet penile foreskins still exist.

Yet, Lysenko’s claim that favorable plant characteristics as a result of the plants’ interac­tion with its environ­ment could be passed on genetically (a belief that came to be known as Lysenko­ism) was politi­cally quite attrac­tive to Stalin, not only because it promised quick agricultural improve­­ment, but also be­cause it implied that loyalty, courage and politi­cal dedica­tion to the Communist Party might also be genetically passed on.

The rise of power-driven pathological science

Scien­tific truth is born from the sci­en­tific method.  Strong differences of opinion are both common and healthy in science.  But in the U.S.S.R. of the 1930s, with its spy hunts and fever­ish searches for “enemies of the people,” unfounded poli­tical accusations became common­place.  Lysenko came to realize that making poli­t­i­cal accu­sations against his scien­ti­fic oppon­ents was a very effective way of eliminating them.  So in the 1930s those geneticists and other biol­o­gists who disagreed with Lysenko were simply declared to be anti-Marxist saboteurs and enemies of the State who should be unmasked, driven from the temple of Soviet science and annihila­ted.  Slandering and defam­ing of others helped to con­ceal Lysenko’s pseu­do-science.  Even the scientifically well-established gene theory of heredity was denounced because it was seen as “bourgeois, reac­tion­ary, meta­physical and barren.”  Stalin, who saw him­self as a scientific genius, took Lysenko’s side and the ma­jor­ity of Soviet gen­eti­cists “disappeared”.

Lysenko’s power continued to grow, along with his fabrication of data.  By appealing to the scientifically ignorant power structure Lysenko slowly rose from be­ing an unknown in the early l930s to a posi­tion of such influ­ence by l940 that he was able to have Vav­ilov, the president of the Soviet Aca­demy of Sciences, arrested as a spy, convicted of agri­cultural sab­o­tage and im­pris­oned in 1940, where he died a few years later.  Vavilov’s scien­tific colla­bor­ators and friends were also ar­rested and many later perished in prison.

However, by 1948 Lysenko knew he was in trouble.  Soviet genetics and agricultural science was now lag­ging far behind that in the United States.  He realized that only the total sup­pression of all oppo­si­tion by Stalin, himself, could keep him in power.  So using skills honed over the previous decade, Lysenko was able to convince Stalin that all the remaining opposi­tion had to go.  Soon, hundreds of the best and most qualified Soviet biological scientists were dis­missed or demoted on the basis of fab­ri­cated accusa­tions of sabo­tage, or of supporting anti-Marxism.

With all opposition routed, Lysenko was pro­moted to president of the Lenin Academy of Agri­cultural Sci­ences.  With Stalin’s support he bec­ame virtually a dic­tator of genetics of the U.S.S.R., the undisputed auth­ority with full con­trol over agricul­ture and most of biol­ogy.  The Lysenkoites immediately at­tempted to des­­troy all remaining traces of oppo­sition.  Clas­si­cal genetics, one of the most impor­tant branches of the biological sciences, was declared a state men­ace.  Textbooks were destroyed or rewritten; names and pictures were black­­ened out; all Western gen­etics literature was re­moved from the libraries.  Sci­ence cour­ses from secondary schools to medical colleges were re­quired to teach Lysenkoism.  The whole body of ge­netic knowledge that had been accumu­lated in thou­sands of experi­ments around the world in the course of half a century was dis­carded by simply stating that it came from rot­ting capi­talist countries.

Lysenko’s rule became supreme.  His portraits were hung in all scientific institutions; busts of him were sold in art stores; cities erected monu­ments to him; folk songs were even written about him.  For the next several years (1948-1953) he was in to­tal control.  The full power of the Stalinist police state was employ­ed to silence all oppo­si­tion.  When Stalin died in 1953, he was replaced by Khrush­chev, also a sup­porter of Ly­senko.

Final­ly, follow­ing several serious agricultural failures and a growing awareness that Khrushchev’s reck­less eco­nomic poli­cies had proved dis­astrous to the U.S.S.R., Khrush­chev was removed from power in 1964.  Shortly afterward Lysenko was fi­nally exposed and publicly dis­graced.  A degree of sanity had finally returned to Russian genetics.  But by now its agriculture was in a shambles.

Forces at Work

What were the forces operating that so dramat­ic­ally shifted government support away from the widely ac­cepted genetic and biological sciences of the time to the pseudo-science of Lysenko?

a. Destructive agricultural po­­li­cies:   For many years prior to Lysenko, Soviet agricultural policies had been based more on achieving max­imum agri­cultural output at minimum financial cost, re­gard­less of the envi­ronmental costs (soil erosion, salt­ing up of the land).  Thus the stage was set for agri­cultural disasters.

b. Control of media:  Soviet political lead­er­­­ship determined which scientific trends would be sup­por­ted by the press and which would be sup­pressed.  When Lysenko received the endorse­ment of Stalin the mass media became his pup­pet.  Up to 1964 the central press did not allow any serious articles criti­cizing Lysenko­ism, al­though many such manuscripts were submitted.  Instead, hun­dreds of articles in support of Lysen­ko and criti­cizing classical biology were pub­lished.

c. Isolationism:  An important factor in the pro­longed domination of Lysenkoism was the iso­lation of the U.S.S.R. from world science.  By 1937 the attempt by any Soviet scientist for scien­tific inter­change with foreign colleagues was looked on as a political crime and a cause for ar­rest.  Peer review was dis­couraged as a plot by the power­ful to enslave the peasant class.  Aca­demic in­quiry was seen as an insult to the great Soviet people.  This iso­lation of Soviet scientific hy­po­theses from exter­nal crit­icism con­tributed much to the flou­rish­ing of many false beliefs which rose to become dogmas.

d. Strong centralization:  Rigid cen­traliza­tion in the U.S.S.R. permit­ted a single admin­istra­tive structure to impose a man­datory curriculum in biology for all insti­tu­tions of higher learning.  Since all funds supporting scientific research came from one central source, disa­gree­ing with this source could mean the end of one’s career.  Thus, the capturing of key adminis­trative posts by the Lysenkoites se­cured for them full control over vir­tu­ally all biological and agricul­tural science, plus all educational facilities.

Lysenkoism:  Parallels to­day

Over the last few decades, many parallels have appeared between the anti-global warming activists and the Lysenkoites in the for­mer U.S.S.R.  These anti-science activists have all rejected considerable scien­tific know­ledge painstakingly gathered and, instead, have mis­repre­sented and dis­tor­ted the evidence.  They have bypassed peer review scien­ce jour­nals and gone directly to unin­­formed and/or ideologically biased public, politi­cians, legis­la­tors, government officials and other leaders who then decide what is “good science” and what isn’t.  In 2004 the Bush White House received failing marks in science from 62 leading scientists for suppressing EPA studies and for misrepresenting the findings of the National Academy of Sciences and other experts on climate change.[ii]

Also, although our media is not directly govern­ment controlled as it was in the U.S.S.R., large conservative corporations are heavily invested in ownership.  Plus, repor­ters are mostly scientific­ally illiterate and committed to presenting both sides equally.  So silly supersti­tion and serious sci­ence are often given the same weight.  There are also dead­lines to make; no time to do research.  And many repor­ters don’t seem to care about the objec­t­ive truth of the matter.  “A story’s a story.”  Pleasing readers and making money is more important than exercising scien­tific rigor.

False doctrines rising to prominence

As with Lysenkoism, any number of scientific disproved claims have risen to prominence in the U.S.  For example, over 40% of Americans still reject the fact of our biological evolution in favor of Genesis creation myths.  Another widely-held myth is that having a homo­­sex­ual orientation (being erotically and/or romantically drawn to the same sex) is a free choice gays make—that they can become “straight” if they really want­ed to.  Still another wide-spread, but scientifically nonsensical belief, is that fertilized eggs and tiny, mind­less, senseless, human embryos in Mississippi are actually Mississippians and thus should have the same right to life as you or I.  Still other widely held beliefs that con­tain con­sid­­erable scientific nonsense involve homeopa­thy, acupunc­ture, astrol­ogy, grapho­logy, natur­o­pa­thy, therapeutic touch and subliminal percep­tion.  Nor have visitations from outer space, or anything para­normal, or anything su­pernatural ever been scientific­ally docu­mented.  Yet, true believers abound, along with their testimonials, govern­ment conspir­acy theories and/or messages from their god(s).

Concluding thoughts

The memory of Lysenko lingers on as a remark­able and tragic epi­sode in the history of modern science and as a warn­ing of what could happen when science is perverted for political, reli­gious and other ideological ends.  Freedom of critical expres­­sion is a fra­gile flower that may be easily crushed by charla­tans and demagogues unafraid of using the power of the state for their own reli­gious, greedy, or political ends


[i]Much information on Lysenko in this article came from the book, The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko, by Zhores A. Medvedev, 1969, Colum­bia Univer­sity Press.  Medvedev was in charge of the labora­tory at the Institute of Medical Radiology in Russia and published nearly one hundred papers, mostly on the molecular aspects of development and aging.  His manu­script on Lysenko was translated into English by Michael Lerner, Profes­sor of Genetics at the University of California, Berkeley.  Other references used included: The Lysenko Affair  (1970) by D. Joravsky: Harvard University Press; Proletarian Science? The Case of Lysenko (1978), by D. Lecourt: Schocken;  Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science(1994), by V. Soyfer: Rutgers University Press.

[ii]“Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making,” <>

Does the ‘Special Status’ of the Christian God not make him immune to scientific critique?

By Juan Bernal

Some people defend theism by arguing that theism represents a reasonable philosophy because it is consistent with the prevailing scientific picture of reality.  Such defenders of theism claim that the sciences (i.e., the relevant sciences) have not proven beyond all doubt that a belief in God is false.  Sometimes they add that despite all our accrued scientific knowledge of the physical and biological world, God, as conceived by Western theology and areas of Western theistic philosophy, could exist somehow and somewhere behind the scenes, beyond the scope of the sciences and critical, rational inquiry.  In short, according to the defenders, belief in God has not been refuted by any of the sciences.

Prima facie, this appears to be a very weak position, arguing that something is reasonable just because it could (possibly) be true:

That p could be the case despite the fact that the body of evidence available fails to support p is a very weak basis for belief in p.   Most people, in their rational moments, would agree that for just about any value of p, ‘that p could be true’ is a very weak (even non-existent) basis for asserting the truth of p.   The same can be said regarding the fact that not-p has not been logically demonstrated.  None of these support the assertion that p is true,   To take the contrary position is to open the gate to the ‘truth’ of a large set of myth, fiction, fantasies and such.  After all, the sciences do not concentrate on refuting every creature of human myth and fantasy, but very few take seriously the hypothesis that such creatures of myth and fantasy are real.

However, there are some philosophers who exempt this rational skepticism when the value of p is a particular, venerated belief in God.  Among these philosophers and students of philosophy we find such people as the Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga and my e-mail correspondent, Pablo. For these people, the concept of God developed by Western theologians and theistic philosophers is special, categorically different from other mythical and fictional entities that the sciences don’t bother to refute.

This philosophy comes out in Plantinga’s insistence that belief in God is consistent with science and with evolutionary science in particular.  According to him, the sciences and even Darwinian’s theory of evolution do not deny the possibility that God may have acted behind the scenes in guiding evolution at key points.  He admits that scientists do not assume this to be true, but points out that they don’t explicitly deny it.  God could have guided evolution.  According to him, the claim by “naturalists” that evolution is a blind, unguided process is a philosophical claim, not one having a scientific warrant.  (I believe that Pablo also holds to this view.)

Opponents like Daniel Dennett (with his Superman character) and my fellow skeptic,  Chuckles (who once satirically promoted the mythical Greek god, Poseidon, as a competitor to the Judeo-Christian version of “God”), counter these theistic tactics by turning the table and making similar claims for their candidates for theistic supremacy, Superman and Poseidon. The theists shut them down by insisting that the cases are very different because the concept of God favored by the theists is a very special concept, not at all one that compares with ideas and images of mythical, fictional entities such as Superman and Poseidon.

Why do Plantinga, Pablo, and other defenders of theism allege that the cases are so different?  The reasons given take various forms.  Plantinga at one point mentions that, contrary to Dennett’s superman character, God is a necessary being.  He also stresses that, whereas God could have guided evolution, Dennett’s Superman character could not.   Pablo on occasion has argued that the concept of God has been developed and refined to a fine point — which is internally consistent and affirmed by millions of theists — something which we cannot claim for any of our alternative candidates, whether Dennett’s Superman or Chuckle’s Poseidon.

So how effective are these claims?  For the skeptic, it is not at all obvious that the theistic belief in and concept of God establishes any kind of priority.  With respect to the theological notion of “necessary Being,” it is a longstanding philosophical counter-argument that you cannot establish the reality of X merely by declaring X to be a necessary being. It is not even clear that the concept of necessity (as in mathematical or logical necessity) even applies to real existence. Plantinga’s statement that his God is a necessary being, whereas alternative candidates for godhood and designer of evolution are not, looks to be nothing more than special pleading.

When we turn to the argument that Western theology and theistic philosophy somehow establish a priority for a specific concept of God, we find that the argument fails on several key points:  there is no single concept of God which is accepted by all major schools of theology and all theistic philosophers who write on the subject.  Even when we limit ourselves to Western theism, we find a variety of God concepts held by different theologians, philosophers, and churchmen.   Selecting one of these as the official version, as Pablo does, and arguing that this concept of God should be given favorable status will not do as an effective argument that such a God has a better claim to reality than any alternative candidate. Arguing that p is likely true just because honorable theologians have struggled for centuries to refine the concept and show that p is true is not an effective argument that the proposition p has a better chance of being true than any competing propositions, r,s,t,…

Given that neither the great Alvin Plantinga nor the honorable Pablo have made a good case for their claim that the god concept familiar to Western theologians and theistic philosophers is special and has ontological priority, neither one has a basis for denying that the same could-be-true tactic can also apply to alternative candidates for godhood that we might care to promote.   Just as the sciences have not proven that the Christian God does not exist, they have not proven that Superman or Poseidon do not exist.   If we allow the reasonableness of belief in God on the basis of his could-exist status, we must allow the same type of ‘reasonableness’ to belief in Superman or in Poseidon.

Hence, the Plantinga’s claim that his God could be real despite the naturalists view that theism gets no support whatsoever from the sciences completely fails as a way of showing the special status and reasonableness of his Christian theism.

Thinking further on this little exercise, we might conclude that in either case (Plantinga’s Christian God and Superman/Poseidon) we’re just playing around with mythical, fictional notions.  That’s all that is happening, folks!  And such musings on myths and fantasies have nothing to do with a scientifically-based, well-reasoned view of reality.


The Scientific Method (“Talking” chimps: Controlling the variables)

Charles Rulon

Where humans, in general, fail in their ability to think critically is in the area of con­trols.  Endless cause and ef­fect errors and wrong conclusions have resulted because of our failure to con­sider the many variables in a situ­a­tion. 

Recently articles have appeared of orangutans using iPads at zoos (Google “Apps for Apes” and “orangutan outreach”).  Apparently, zookeepers are planning to “set up play-dates when the apes can use iPads to video chat with friends in other zoos”.

So, consider the question: Can the great apes actually learn to talk with us—to have a two-way communication—via an iPad or, perhaps, American Sign Language (ASL)?  If they can, that would be absolutely extra­or­dinary.  Of course, extraordinary claims require extraordinarily careful research.[i]  And, of course, “talk” has many mean­ings: dogs “talk” when they bark, growl, whimper and leave a message on a fire hydrant.

So let’s go back to the 1970s when research­ers at the University of Nevada reported success in teaching ASL to an infant chim­panzee named Washoe.  For the first time in history it was pro­claimed that a non-human pri­mate, a chimp (our closest evolutionary rela­tive), had mas­tered a lan­guage in which it could actu­ally communicate with humans.  Washoe was reported to not only understand over a hundred different ASL sign gestures, but also to be able to also com­bine them in ways that suggested elementary grammar.  For exam­ple, when a swan flew by, Washoe is reported to have signed the words “water” and “bird.”

Other research­ers soon began teaching ASL and other sign lan­guages to young chimps and even a gorilla with seeming success.  Books, articles and even a film documentary soon appeared.[ii]   Writer Michael Crichton even had a fictional gorilla named Amy extensively communicate with her keeper using ASL in his 1980 novel Congo, a novel I just finished reading.

However from the begin­ning a num­ber of experts on language and an­imal behavior had remained skeptical of these extra­ordinary claims.  But their criticisms regarding the many uncontrolled variables appeared only in tech­ni­cal journals.  Then in 1979-1980 two books (Nim, 1779; Speaking of Apes, 1980) were published.  Both au­thors presented a strong scientific case for the view that, although chimps have a re­mark­able memory that en­abled them to master over a hun­dred different visual signs (dogs and horses can also master several dozen signs), they do not com­pre­hend sign sequences in any way essentially different from a dog’s under­standing of such com­mands as “Go get the newspaper.” These chimps have simply learned to do “clever tricks” for a reward.  The authors documented, by extensively studying unedited video tapes, that:

a. Much of the signing by the trained chimps imitated parts of what the trainer had just signed.  In many cases trainers were astonished to see how often they had unconsciously started a sign that the chimp had noticed and copied.  For example, an un­cut version of a Nova documentary called, “The First Signs of Washoe,” showed that almost all of Was­hoe’s multi­-sign statements came after similar signs by trainers.

b. Most of the chimp’s signing were random combi­na­tions of signs plus the sign for “me” and for the chimp’s name—signs that fit al­most all other signs and which they had learned were likely to be rewarded.

c. The trained chimps never learned the two-way nature of conversation as young children do. They con­tinuously interrupted. The research­ers had ex­plained this away by attri­buting such inter­ruptions merely to the chimps’ “eagerness to talk.”

d. Many times the chimps’ signs were wrong, vague, or only partially complete, resulting in the train­er either “reading in the rest,” or claiming that the chimp was either “making a joke”, “teasing”, or “being bratty.”

e. In the course of several years, these chimps put together signs in thousands of random ways.  No re­searchers bothered to record all of the nonsense com­binations produced by these chimps, such as “Banana eat Nim.”  But every lucky hit such as “Nim eat banana,” was reinforced by cues of approval and went into the re­searcher’s records.   So, claim the skep­tics, these chimps just ran on with their hands until they got what they wanted.

f. Most damaging, deaf native users of ASL not only reported a failure in two-way communication with the trained apes, but also that these apes were not signing ASL at all, but were just making many gestures and partial signs.  In retrospect, it seems obvious that a precondition for any experimental attempt to teach a true sign language to primates would beto ensure that the main contact people are all native speakers of that sign language.  Otherwise it’s somewhat like a non-Italian-speaking trainer with an Italian dictionary trying to raise a human child who hasn’t yet learned a language to speak Italian.

The final conclusion was that when all the above variables were tightly con­trolled, the ability of chimps to have a two-way con­ver­sation with a human dropped almost to chance.

How could re­search­­ers have over­looked all of these seemingly ob­vious vari­ables?

A.  The “successful” chimp trainers had min­imal, if any, training in con­trolling their uncon­scious fa­cial move­ments, breathing rhythms, bodily ten­sions and so on that could cue the apes.  The litera­ture is full of “learn­ed” dogs, horses, pigs, even ducks, that respond to the smallest unconscious cueing.  “Talking” apes don’t perform well at all for skeptical strangers.

B.  Psychologists refer to “confirmation bias” and “ex­peri­­menter ef­fect” for all of the insidious ways that re­search­ers’ con­vict­ions can unwit­tingly deceive them and dis­tort the data.  The past few decades of research in cognitive, social and clinical psychology suggest that such biases may be far more common than most of us realize. Even the best and brightest scientists can be swayed by them, especially when they are deeply invested in their own hypotheses and the data are ambiguous.[iii]   Consider:

a. Eminent scientists tend to be more arrogant and confident than other scientists. As a consequence, they may be especially vulnerable to confirmation bias and to wrong-headed conclusions, unless they are perpetually vigilant.

b. Researchers have a tendency to look for and perceive evidence consistent with their hypotheses and to deny, dismiss or distort evidence that is not.

c. Researchers who get positive re­sults often have their careers advance faster and their work more likely funded. The pressure on scholars to disregard or selectively reinterpret negative results that could doom their careers is considerable.

d. Assistants are strongly moti­vated to produce results that will please an employer who pays their salaries.

e. If the work is controversial, there is a ten­dency for research teams to close off from the outside world and to form a cluster of insid­ers deeply suspi­cious of outsiders.

This brief coverage of “talking” chimps:

a. Was presented to emphasize how cri­tically important (and often how difficult) it is to control all the variables in scientific experiments.  One major variable is human fallibility.  Thus the necessity of having independent impartial investi­ga­tors reproduce the work.

b. Was presented to il­lustrate the power of the human mind to deceive itself.  Such self-deception is particularly wide-spread in areas deal­ing with the paranormal, the supernatu­ral, UFO’s and so-called alternative medicine “cures”.

c. Was not presented to demean the brains of apes and other mammals.  The great apes are probably much smarter than we give them credit for.  Each mammal species has a unique set of evolved mental capabili­ties that we are just on the frontiers of un­der­standing.  We “civilized” humans, for the most part, have seen our­selves as superior to other animals, an atti­tude that has resul­ted in wholesale indifference, care­less­ness and wide­spread species extinction.

d. Was not presented to indicate the last word.  Much research will con­tinue.  Scientific knowledge grows through an openness to correct past er­rors.


Since the 1970s, much research has continued into great ape language, involving chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.  In recent years, computer keyboards and iPads have been added to ASL. A quick Google search reveals that many researchers remain convinced that two-way communication has been achieved.  Their conclusions, however, continue to be disputed.[iv]  So far, at least as reported by the linguistics department at UCLA, no breakthroughs have been confirmed; no unequivocal evidence exists that apes can learn and use a sign language, which incorporates most of the significant features of human language.[v]

Finally, to quote eSkeptic: “Next time you see [a talking chimp] on a television documentary, turn down the sound so you can just watch what he is doing without interpretation from the ape’s trainers.  See if that really appears to be language. Somewhere in the history of our kind there must have been the first beings who could rearrange tokens to create new meanings, to distinguish Me Banana from Banana Me. But the evidence from many years of training apes to press buttons or sign in ASL is that this must have happened sometime after we split off from chimps, bonobos and gorillas.  Since then we have been talking to ourselves.”[vi]

Charles Rulon is an emeritus in the biology department at Long Beach City College.

[i]This article draws heavily from Martin Gardner’s ex­cellent book, Science-Good, Bad and Bogus (1981).

Also see;

[ii] Omni, Jan., 1980; Nat. Geogra­phic, Oct. 1978; Koko, A Talking Gorilla (film-1979).

[iii] Scott O. Lilienfeld -Scientific American, Nov. 2010, p. 18.


The Scientific Method (Controlling the Variables)

Charles Rulon

 Where people in general fail in their ability to think critically or scientifically is in the area of con­trols.  Endless cause and ef­fect errors and wrong con­clusions have resulted because of our failure to con­sider the many variables in a situa­tion.  Testimonials, anecdotes and biased data gathering make up the evidential back­­bone of pseu­do­sci­ence, paranor­mal be­liefs, religions and quack­ery.  But testi­monials and anecdotes do not a science make.

Con­sider the following example:

“I’m convinced that vegetarians live longer.  Many articles on the web agree with me and as proof both my mother and father were vegetarians and they lived into their 90’s.  My friend, however, suggested that maybe my parents had good genes, and/or were very lucky, and/or had excellent health habits.  Or maybe they did eat meat and lied.  She even hinted that maybe I was exagger­ating to win the argument. Picky! Picky!”

It is the failure of the public to both understand the rigor of the Scientific Method and to appreciate its power to discover empirical truths that has enabled creationism to be promoted over evolution.  It has enabled “alternative medicine” charlatans to thrive, global warming deniers to pollute the media, and politicians to ignore its findings in shaping public policy.

Controls & subliminal learn­ing

The belief in the effectiveness of subliminal mes­sages and advertising used to be widespread.  Some people believed they had become so good (or paranoid) at dis­cov­ering subliminal messages that they saw such messages in every­thing from soap commercials to ancient works of art.  Audiocassettes claiming to have sub­liminal mes­sages that would pro­duce every­thing from quick weight loss to peace of mind were hauling in $50 million annually.  Testimonials of satisfied customers abounded.  True believ­ers were everywhere.  But did these tapes really work?  After all, if sublimi­nal advertising really did work, wouldn’t there be numerous profes­sional text­books, conferences and work­­shops telling the pros how it’s best done?  But there weren’t.  When the vari­ables were tightly controlled, subliminal mes­sages didn’t work.

Consider one actual exper­iment: At the Uni­versity of Wash­ing­ton 237 students listened to com­mer­cially available sub­limi­­nal tapes aimed at im­proving one’s mem­ory or self-es­teem.  The messages were hidden behind sounds of ocean waves.  Each vol­unteer com­­pleted a series of both memory and self-esteem tests before and after using either a memory tape or a self-es­teem tape for one month.

But unknown to the volunteers, the re­searchers had reversed the labels on half the tapes.  So, 1/4th thought they got the memory tape and did get the mem­ory tape; 1/4th thought they got the memory tape, but instead got the self-esteem tape; 1/4th thought they got the self-esteem tape and did get it; 1/4th thought they got the self-esteem tape, but in­stead got the memory tape.

At the end of one month these four groups were all tested again.  Results: No group actually showed any more improve­ment in self-esteem or in memory than any other group.  Yet, of interest, those who thought they had the mem­ory tape were still convinced that their memories had improved and those who thought they were listen­ing to a self-esteem tape (whether they were or not) remained con­vinced that their self-esteem had improved. (It would seem that we could all benefit from a course in the psy­chology of self-deception.)

After dozens of such experiments, the Nation­al Acade­my of Sciences concluded over 20 years ago (1991) that there was neither a theoreti­cal founda­tion nor experi­mental evidence to sup­port claims that subliminal self-help tapes enhanced performance.[i]

Controls: marijuana and auto accidents

Consider the following quote:  “Persons arrested for use of marijuana have, on the av­erage, 40% more auto accidents and 180% more traffic vio­lations than do average drivers of the same age and sex.  It’s obvi­ous, there­fore, that marijuana ad­versely affects driving.”  Yet, are all these accidents and violations really due to the effects of marijuana, itself? Several variables need to be controlled if we wish a scientific answer.  First, is the quote accurate?  Second, maybe the same type of per­son who is willing to break the law to smoke mari­juana also has less respect for our traffic laws in general.  Third, maybe people high on marijuana are also more like­ly to be on other drugs which also decrease their driving ability.  Fourth, maybe the paranoia and fear of being arrested on a drug charge con­tributes to careless driving.

Controls: the plague, God & christening

In Games, God and Gamb­ling (1962), the author asserts that one purpose of keeping vital statistics several centuries ago was to understand the intentions of God.  For example, the bubonic plague in the 1600s was recorded to be much more serious in those years when fewer children were christened.  As a result, it was preached that the plague was God’s punishment for par­ents who didn’t christen their chil­dren.  But assuming this data is even reliable, perhaps fewer children were christened during the plague years simply because more terrified parents fled to the hills with their children before they could be christened.

Controls: vitamin–C and colds

In one experiment 300 university students were given vitamin-C all winter.  They had 65% fewer colds than the winter before.  But, in addition, another randomly selected group of 300 students at the same college were each given what they thought was vitamin-C but, instead, was a placebo.  Also, to make the experiment double-blinded, the dispenser of the real and the fake vitamin-C didn’t know which was which.  Results: The placebo group also had about 65% fewer colds.  Conclusion: in this experiment vitamin-C wasn’t directly responsible for the decrease in colds.

Controls: Join the navy, it’s safer

During World War II a poster read: “During wartime, for every 1000 people in the navy, fewer will die than for every 1000 people in New York City.  Join the navy.  It’s safer!”   Q.  What major variable was not con­sidered?

Ans.  The average phy­sical characteristics of people selected for the navy (young, healthy) are markedly different from those who re­mained behind in New York City.

Controls: the Fremont Christian Clinic

The former Fremont Christian Clinic in Los Angeles would take an X-ray of any person who came in complaining of indigestion or constipation.  The X-ray would show “a colon cancer which was still curable.”  A barrage of expensive pills would follow for many months.  Finally, a second X-ray would be taken.  The can­cer was gone!  A miraculous cure!  Grateful patients were only too happy to write glowing testi­monials, or even to appear in court on behalf of the clinic.  Q.  What major variable was not con­trolled?  Ans: The X-rays were phony.  How many of us can recognize our own X-ray?

Controls: sexually abused children

When children who claimed to have been sexually abused were given anatomically correct dolls (having a rectum and a penis or vagina) to play with, they tended to con­centrate on the genitals and would even stick things up the vagina and rectum.  Such behavior was used as a test to determine if a child really had been molested, or was just making it up.  Q.  What control was missing for this to be a scientific test?  Ans. If children who were not sexually abused were also given anatomically correct dolls, they would behave in the same way toward the dolls as did the molested children.

To summarize

In general, where people fail in their ability to think critically or scientifically is in their under-appreciation of the importance of controls.  Whether we’re talking about subliminal learning, vitamin-C or whatever, tightly controlling all the variables is what separates science from non-science.  This is one of the first things scientists must learn.  Endless cause and ef­fect errors and wrong con­clu­sions have resulted from failure to control all the variables.  Until people become aware of the critical neces­sity for rigorous con­trols, they will remain essentially un­sci­en­tific, no matter how many scien­tific facts they may have memorized.  They will remain like the rooster who crows, notices a moment later that the sun rises and then con­cludes that it’s because of his crowing.

Charles L. Rulon is an emeritus in the Life Sciences department at Long Beach City College


[i]In the Mind’s Eye, National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences (National Academy Press, Washington, 1991, p. 15-16).