The Lysenko Affair

Lysenkoism—a convenient untruth

For more than 30 years, from the early 1930s until the mid-1960s, the scientific study of genetics and agriculture in the Soviet Union was stunted by the official endorsement—from Joseph Stalin on down—of Lysenkoism, a hodgepodge of pseudo-scientific ideas and techniques advocated by Trofim Lysenko and his supporters. Central to Lysenkoism was denial of the firmly established science of genetics, replaced by a theory that acquired characteristics such as resistance to cold or drought could be inherited, a theory that supported the views and met the needs of the Communist Party—a politically convenient untruth.

That particular lie became official Truth throughout most of the Soviet bloc in 1935, when Stalin himself stood and shouted, “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko, Bravo!” after a speech in which Lysenko denounced those who opposed his ideas as anti-Marxist.

The three-decade reign of Lysenkoism not only pushed the Soviet biological sciences into the backwaters of scientific research and progress, it contributed to the enormous agricultural failures and mass starvation it was meant to remedy by putting into practice a series of policies and interventions that were at best haphazard and at worst counterproductive. In addition, it destroyed the careers, and in some cases led to the death of leading biologists who dared to disagree with the party line.

At its apex in the late 1940s, Lysenkoism was officially decreed to be the only correct biological theory. In a similar fashion, and with like results, Nazi ideology forced German scientists to deny and denounce Einstein’s theories and those of other researchers as “Jewish Science.” As in Soviet Russia, critics were branded enemies of the state, silenced, or liquidated.

Climate-Change Denial—the Price of Admission to the Party

Currently, Republicans leaders such as presidential hopeful Ted Cruz seem to be falling over each other in their eagerness to deny the core findings of climate science. So far, they haven’t yet found a Lysenko to anoint as denialist-in-chief, although physicist Christopher Keating—a proponent of climate change—has ironically challenged them to do so by personally promising to pay $30,000 to anyone who can disprove mainstream, accepted climate science. Yet their heavy handed attacks on researchers Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes over the famous “hockey stick” reconstruction of Earth’s climate, their labeling of anthropogenic climate change as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” their attempts to prevent even the U.S. military from acknowledging or researching climate change, and their pledge to oppose any tax-based government response to climate change, all convey the same message—climate-change denial is the price of admission to the Party; science, the environment, national security, not to mention common sense be damned.

American culture has not always proved immune to the reactive power passionate belief can have in the political realm: witness Tennessee’s famed Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ in the 1920s, or the continuing efforts by ‘creation science’ or ‘intelligent design’ advocates to inject religious beliefs into the public school curriculum. While theme parks purporting to show humans and dinosaurs coexisting in a theologically-imagined past may only be private exhibitions of the extreme capacity of human belief systems to override and deny all factual evidence, such beliefs written into textbooks or public law have a history of highly detrimental and even seriously dangerous effects.

Identity and Denial

Some recent research shows how central climate change denial has become to the very identity of many conservatives. Yale law professor and communication researcher Dan Kahan has found that if liberals and conservatives are asked questions like, “Is the earth getting warmer because of human activities?” liberals and conservatives answer dramatically differently, with few conservatives agreeing with the findings and warnings of mainstream climate science. However, if the questions are rephrased to reflect knowledge rather than belief, for example, “Do most climate scientists say the earth is getting warmer because of human activities?” most of the differences disappear. Kahan concludes that conservatives don’t deny climate science out of ignorance but because that stance has become part of their political identity.

Unfortunately, as Soviet communism’s embrace of Lysenkoism should have taught us, forging a political party’s identity around an untruth, however convenient, is truly playing with fire.