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Stalin and the scientists: Some advances under his rule, though millions died

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  The millions were just “other losses,” of course.

Simon Ings’ Stalin and the Scientists: a History of Triumph and Tragedy examines what happened to physics and biology under Stalin:

Scientists throughout history, from Galileo to today’s experts on climate change, have often had to contend with politics in their pursuit of knowledge. But in the Soviet Union, where the ruling elites embraced, patronized, and even fetishized science like never before, scientists lived their lives on a knife edge. The Soviet Union had the best-funded scientific establishment in history. Scientists were elevated as popular heroes and lavished with awards and privileges. But if their ideas or their field of study lost favor with the elites, they could be exiled, imprisoned, or murdered. And yet they persisted, making major contributions to 20th century science.

Stalin and the Scientists tells the story of the many gifted scientists who worked in Russia from the years leading up to the Revolution through the death of the “Great Scientist” himself, Joseph Stalin. It weaves together the stories of scientists, politicians, and ideologues into an intimate and sometimes horrifying portrait of a state determined to remake the world. They often wreaked great harm. Stalin was himself an amateur botanist, and by falling under the sway of dangerous charlatans like Trofim Lysenko (who denied the existence of genes), and by relying on antiquated ideas of biology, he not only destroyed the lives of hundreds of brilliant scientists, he caused the death of millions through famine.

But from atomic physics to management theory, and from radiation biology to neuroscience and psychology, these Soviet experts also made breakthroughs that forever changed agriculture, education, and medicine. A masterful book that deepens our understanding of Russian history, Stalin and the Scientists is a great achievement of research and storytelling, and a gripping look at what happens when science falls prey to politics. (from the publisher)

We get some sense of what went wrong from the Times review by Gerard DeGroot:

Stalin understood the importance of science to a modern state. At his death, the Soviet Union had the largest and best-funded scientific establishment in the world. It was also the most peculiar, because of Stalin’s insistence that scientists must serve the state and reflect its politics. “A fortress stands before us,” he told his people. “This fortress is called science . . . We must seize this fortress at any cost.”

As Simon Ings writes in this endlessly entertaining book, the Bolshevik view of science held that “if you are pure and selfless and focused . . . then the physical world will shape itself to your will . . . do not accommodate reality: it will only scatter your effort”. This meant that any mad scientist who parroted Stalinist dogma could bask in the Soviet sun. More.

The corpse count from naturalism in science is much lower these days but there is something oddly familiar about seizing science as a fortress and bending it to one’s will.

Consider the vast wads of twaddle published today that merely confirm naturalist doctrines, irrespective of consequences. The authors of the twaddle would never think of asking critical questions, but if they did think of that, they would soon realize that they had better not.

Consider, for example, of the war on falsifiability and on our ability to perceive reality correctly. And the endless streams of nonsense around human evolution. To say nothing of the ongoing scandal around peer review.

Naturalism corrupts science with or without violence. Without violence is slower. Yes, there are advances under naturalism but then the dead ends are all eventually reached.

Because naturalism fronts a lot of nonsense that cannot be contested except by competing naturalist nonsense. And we are on the wrong track.

See also: The war on falsifiability in science continues

Evolution bred a sense of reality out of us

“The evolutionary psychologist knows why you vote — and shop, and tip at restaurants”

and

Peer review “unscientific”: Tough words from editor of Nature

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