Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Lysenko, Walker, and the dangers of state-controlled science

Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet agrobiologist during the Stalin years, whose interest in trying to improve crop yields led him into some seriously sketchy pseudoscience.  He believed in a warped version of Lamarckism -- that plants exposed to certain environmental conditions during their lives would alter what they do to adjust to those conditions, and (furthermore) those alterations would be passed down to subsequent generations.

He not only threw away everything Mendel and Darwin had uncovered, he disbelieved in DNA as the hereditary material.  Lysenko wrote:
An immortal hereditary substance, independent of the qualitative features attending the development of the living body, directing the mortal body, but not produced by the latter - that is Weismann’s frankly idealist, essentially mystical conception, which he disguised as “Neo-Darwinism”.  Weismann’s conception has been fully accepted and, we might say, carried further by Mendelism-Morganism.
So basically, since there were no genes there to constrain the possibilities, humans could mold organisms in whatever way they chose.  "It is possible, with man’s intervention," Lysenko wrote, "to force any form of animal or plant to change more quickly and in a direction desirable to man.  There opens before man a broad field of activity of the greatest value to him."

Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The Soviet agricultural industry was ordered to use Lysenko's theories (if I can dignify them by that name) to inform their practices.  Deeper plowing of fields, for example, was said by Lysenko to induce plants' roots to delve deeper for minerals, creating deeper-rooted plants in following years and increased crop yields.  Farmers dutifully began to plow fields to a depth of five feet, requiring enormous expenditure of time and labor.

Crop yields didn't change.  But that didn't matter; Lysenko's ideas were beloved by Stalin, as they seemed to give a scientific basis to the concept of striving by the sturdy peasant stock, thus improving their own lot.  Evidence and data took a back seat to ideology.  Lysenko was given award after award and rose to the post of Director of the Institute of Genetics in the USSR's Academy of Sciences.  Scientists who followed Lysenko's lead in making up data out of whole cloth to support the state-approved model of heredity got advancements, grants, and gifts from Stalin himself.  Scientists who pointed out that Lysenko's experiments were flawed and his data doctored or fabricated outright were purged -- by some estimates 3,000 of them were fired, exiled, jailed, or executed for choosing "bourgeois science" (i.e. actual evidence-based research) over Lysenko.  His stranglehold on Soviet biological research and agricultural practice didn't cease until his retirement in 1965, by which time an entire generation of Soviet scientists had been hindered from making any progress at all.

Which brings us to Scott Walker.

Walker, you probably know, is the governor of Wisconsin, whose notoriety primarily comes from his union-busting, a failed presidential bid, and a narrow escape from losing his office to a vote recall.  But now Walker's in the news for a different reason; he is trying to out-Lysenko Lysenko by scrubbing from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources webpage every mention of the words "climate" and "climate change."

Fortunately, James Rowen of Urban Milwaukee has a screenshot of the original text and the changes made -- it's on the link provided in the preceding paragraph, and has to be seen to be believed.  Rowen writes:
Climate change censors driven by science denial and obeisance to polluters these days at the GOP-managed, Scott Walker-redefined “chamber of commerce mentality” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are at it again. 
Not content with having already stripped content and links from an agency webpage about climate change – deletions I documented some years ago and which I have frequently referenced – the ideologues intent on scrubbing science off these pages and sowing doubt and confusion about the consensus view of experts worldwide about climate change have edited, deleted and otherwise compressed information in order to whitewash long-standing concepts and facts off a climate change page about the Great Lakes... 
It’s a continuation of Walker’s deliberate destruction of the DNR – which we also learned he is considering completely breaking apart to further hamstring and weaken public science, conservation and pollution enforcement while further playing to corporate donors and manipulating GOP base voters to help embed partisan Republican advancement and entrenchment by propagandizing that government – and especially agencies like DNR which Walker has intentionally doomed – does not work for them.
So just like in Stalin's day, we are moving toward a state-endorsed scientific party line, which non-scientists (and scientists in the pay of corporate interests or the politicians themselves) are enforcing using such sticks as censorship, funding cuts, and layoffs.  We have not yet progressed to outright purges and imprisonment, but we sure as hell have taken a large step in that direction.

Lysenko died forty years ago, but his propaganda-based, anti-science spirit lives on.  My hope is that because of the greater transparency and freedom of information afforded by the internet, moves like Walker's scrubbing of the Department of Natural Resources website will not be shrouded in secrecy the way that Stalin's and Lysenko's actions were.  But it behooves us all to remain aware, watchful, and vigilant, because you can just as easily see it slipping under the radar -- and for the claws of partisan politics to sink so deeply into scientific research that it will, as it did in the USSR, take generations to repair the damage.

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