By Frank J. Dinan
The rejection of widely accepted scientific theories that clash with political ideology is nothing new. Donald Trump’s claim that human-induced climate change, a concept widely accepted within the scientific community, is just a “scam” is but another example of a time-honored method used to refute inconvenient scientific truths.
Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate accord is just the latest in a series of attacks he has mounted on the science community. His appointment of a climate change denier to head the EPA is a particularly egregious assault on established science.
To see the damage that ideologically based rejection of experimentally established science can do to a society, we need only look back at the damage done in the 1930 to 1964 era in which Lysenkoism reigned in the U.S.S.R.
Trofim Lysenko was a trained agronomist who had some very strange ideas about genetics. He rejected the scientifically accepted concept that characteristics were passed from generation to generation by genes. He argued instead that the social-shaped environment determined how traits were passed on, even for plants.
Josef Stalin, the ironfisted Soviet dictator, loved Lysenko’s ideas since they fit perfectly with his Marxist ideology. He appointed Lysenko director of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and politically supported Lysenko’s scientifically unacceptable ideas.
Lysenko used Stalin’s support to make teaching heredity based on genes illegal, and many mainstream scientists who continued to support the gene transmission theory of heredity were jailed, executed or sent to Siberian labor camps.
Interestingly, Stalin did not interfere with chemists and physicists to any great extent since he considered their work vital for the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union and its preparations for war. He is quoted as saying of physicists, “We can always shoot them later.”
Faced with famine during the forced collectivism of Soviet agriculture in the 1930s, Lysenko promised “revolutionary leaps” in crop yields if his ideas were implemented. Intimidated Soviet politicians supported Lysenko, and his ideas were put into practice. They failed dramatically and mass starvation resulted.
Lysenko’s politically supported ideas remained dominant in the USSR until 1964, years after Nikita Krushchev replaced the deceased Stalin as the U.S.S.R.’s leader. In the meantime the Soviets missed an entire generation of progress in the understanding of genetics.
I am afraid that we are now on the edge of an era of American “Lysenkoism.” While the rest of the world and the scientific community accept the idea that global warming is happening, and that human activity contributes to it, Trump, who has no science background, has arbitrarily decided that mainstream science is wrong, and is pushing for our return to fossil fuels and lessened support of clean energy, and automotive technologies. The ghost of Lysenko is alive and well in the United States.
Frank J. Dinan is a professor emeritus in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department of Canisius College.