trofim lysenko

Why we need to stand up for science...

There is no denying that we have entered a new era. The last week has brought a whirlwind of concerning announcements, statements, and revelations with wide-ranging consequence. To be honest, it’s hard to know exactly where to focus, with so much at stake in so many areas.

Personally, the seeming attack on science has affected me deeply. So many of the positive things in our world society are dependent on the advances in science and technology, based on following the evidence and rejecting what doesn’t hold water.

I was reminded the other day what can happen when science is pushed to the side by powerful people for whom its message is inconvenient. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, a biologist named Trofim Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics in favor of his pseudoscientific principles for increasing agricultural yields. For example, he believed that acquired characteristics could be passed on to offspring, and hoped to use those principles to develop crops that could better withstand the harsh Russian climate. 

He introduced new processes and ideas so quickly, there wasn’t time for legitimate biologists to conduct experiments to counter his false viewpoints. Following a period of famine during the 1930s, he managed to convince leaders to put him in charge of agricultural affairs. Once there, he put down legitimate geneticists and biologists, gaining Stalin’s attention and favor by painting them as enemies of Marxism. 

By 1948, traditional genetics was officially banned in favor of Lysenkoism. Over 3,000 mainstream biologists who failed to get on board were fired, imprisoned, or even executed. Not until the mid-1960s did the Soviet Union manage to shake off Lysenko’s radical pseudoscience and resume legitimate evidence-based progress in biology.

I understand the political conditions in the US are nowhere near the same as Stalinist Russia. Our system of checks and balances is far more robust, not only in the structure of our government, but in the wide availability of information. Journalists, at least the good ones, try to hold our leaders accountable with some degree of success. Thankfully, there’s no sign they are going to let up anytime soon. Beyond that, myriad social media platforms allow us to organize as scientists and present clear, accurate information directly to the public.

I’ve always been an optimist, so I’m hopeful we can pull this one off. With one voice, we need to let our leaders know that we won’t stand for the suppression of evidence-based science. Even if your science isn’t on the endangered list today, that doesn’t mean you are safe in the future. When leaders get in the habit of inventing “science” to fit desired policy, rather than the other way around, we’re all in trouble–not just in the US, but throughout the world.