Friday, January 27, 2017

Is Trumpism/Pencism the New Lysenkoism? The Need to Defend Science From "Alternative Facts"

Drought-killed trees in Yosemite Valley, California

Imagine what it must have been like living under communist rule in the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin's regime. I can't even begin to imagine the unspeakable horrors that led to the deaths of tens of millions of people for a variety of reasons, but events this week have brought to mind a particular episode that is unfamiliar to the public at large, but which had a profound effect on Soviet agriculture. It was no doubt among the reasons for the failure of the totalitarian rule over the Soviet Union. Why? Because they were never really able to feed their own people, especially wheat. The Soviets had plenty of arable land. Why did this happen? There were always profound inefficiencies in the Soviet economy, but the heart of the problem was a single man: Trofim Denisovich Lysenko.
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, 1898-1976. Source:
How could one man do so much damage? It had to do with how science was done in the Soviet Union under communist rule. Scientific research, at least in agriculture, was done from the top down. The government decided what was true, and directed that research must confirm what the government knew was true. If that didn't happen, scientists and researchers faced arrest, re-education, and possible death. And in the Soviet Union, from the 1920s until 1965, Lysenko was in charge of agriculture.

Simply stated, Lysenko didn't accept the theory of evolution by natural selection. He denied Mendelian genetics or even the presence of genes in plants and animals. He instead believed an earlier hypothesis called Lamarkism as well as his own bizarre ideas about inheritance. In essence, he believed that organisms could pass down their experiences to their offspring. A simple model to illustrate this would be an experiment in which dogs had their tails surgically removed, generation after generation. After enough time had passed, puppies would start being born without tails. These were called acquired characteristics. In essence, he insisted that the best strains of cold-weather wheat could be achieved by repeatedly subjecting the seeds of warmer climate strains with cold temperatures. They would then acquire the ability to grow in colder climates.

And so, under his direction, farmers were ordered to grow inferior wheat strains for decades, and the results were no surprise. Production suffered, and over the years the Soviets had to import wheat from other countries, including the United States. The study of DNA, genetics, and natural selection continued unabated in other parts of the world, and agricultural yields ballooned as a result. Yet despite these failures, Lysenko continued as the Director of Genetics for the Academy of Sciences for decades. And he had true power. Under his reign, more than 3,000 geneticists who didn't toe the Lysenko line were arrested, and many of them were executed.
Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. The glacier has been receding for decades

So why are we talking about Lysenko tonight? I can barely keep up with the daily outrages of the new Trump/Pence administration, but one of the most chilling news during the transition period and inaugural week has been the attack on science and scientific research. Global warming and climate change have been declared to be false, and Trump officials have taken steps to end government research into this most pressing environmental issue. They have demanded the names of climate researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service and other departments, suggesting a coming purge. They announced a gag order on dissemination of the results of research by government experts, even outside of government channels. They have attempted to restrict information flow via the social media. There have been hints of draconian budget cuts in scientific research.

The cause, of course, is not a belief in some other cause of warming. Many of Trump's followers deny that warming is even happening. Because Trump, Pence, and the others in the administration do not believe in global warming, they have decided that it must not be investigated. They are trying to use their position of power to alter the direction of scientific research to conform to their own preconceived beliefs. That runs absolutely counter to the trajectory and goal of scientific exploration, and very much counter to the role of science in America throughout its history. Scientific research and discovery has been a driver that has allowed the American economy to thrive. For a country to promote scientific research that is directed from above towards categorically wrong conclusions is courting disaster, and the implications are worldwide in scope.

I am encouraged at the response of the scientific community. There has been a concerted effort to protect and preserve the research that has been conducted in the past, and researchers are beginning to realize that they will have to become politically active, despite a tendency to avoid it in the past. Resistance has been growing in the social media. To be clear, this is not a Democratic-Republican issue, or a liberal-conservative issue. It is a battle between factual truths and willful ignorance. It is also an economic issue, as the opposition is richly funded by corporations who stand to profit handsomely by denying the existence of global warming. Unfortunately, we will all lose in the end.

I've tended to avoid politics in this blog, but that has to change now. Until the Trump/Pence administration acknowledges the critical role of independent scientific research, they must be challenged at every turn. The stakes are simply too high for Americans and the rest of the world. It doesn't matter what Trump and Pence believe. They may believe warming hasn't happened, but sea level will continue to rise anyway. Coral reefs will continue to die off. Glaciers will continue to melt. Storms will become more intense, as will droughts. The world will get hotter, and each year will decrease our chances to deal effectively with the issue. For Pence and Trump to be willfully ignorant about science is appalling. To ignore the advice and counsel of experts in the many fields of science is absolute folly.

I fear we have entered into a new age of Lysenkoism. Yes, that is a term. And it would be a tragedy.


Jane Strong said...


Michael Caton said...

I'm glad that lots of people are making connections to Lysenko, and the tragedies that resulted. So far these people have mostly only rejected science rather than adding their own alternative facts, but we should watch for this.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading this on the eve of the 2020 election and I'm scared. My wife and I were threatened with a lynching this summer and the local police refused to do anything. I fear this country will tear itself apart if we forced to endure four more years of insanity.