In these days of climate change denial, Trofim Lysenko is a name that you need to know.
Half of Texas might be underwater due to the sort of extreme weather event that climate scientists – not to mention the risk modelling of insurance companies – have been predicting will become increasingly common, but this seems not to matter to the peddlers of the myth that this has nothing to do with human activity.
Ann Coulter might be a professional troll – she’s basically America’s Katie Hopkins – but when she tweets: “I don’t believe Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor. But that is more credible than ‘climate change’”, an awful lot of Conservatives cheer her on.
Thanks to the election of Donald Trump, the fictions of a small number of charlatans are in the ascendant.
They are the new Lysenko-ists: the advocates of a fake science that suits a political ideology.
But first, a brief explanation of the man who thrust Soviet agrobiology into the dark ages – for those who haven’t studied Russian history and/or genetics.
Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet scientist who managed to catch the eye of Joseph Stalin. A plain-speaking man of peasant stock, his ideas, and especially his background, chimed with the politics of the time.
He rejected natural selection and Mendelian genetics, advocating instead (among other things) that acquired characteristics could be inherited, and that his theories and processes could dramatically improve crop yields.
Bunk. But the appeal of a man with a politically correct background claiming that a “Soviet science” could produce miracles, at a time when the country was struggling to feed itself, was obvious. The fact that he cast himself in opposition to the “materialist” scientific consensus made him all the more alluring to Uncle Joe.
Lysenko’s rise was rapid, and thanks to his all-powerful patron, mainstream scientists found it all but impossible to expose his rubbish. Some of them died for trying.
The new Lysenko-ist myth similarly suits the politics of the time. Its advocates often like to cast themselves as “outsiders”, backing the “American people” against alleged leftists advocating measures that would “destroy jobs”. They’re trying to do America down!
In Trump, they have a powerful patron. And while their opponents don’t find themselves sent to Siberia (or worse), they have been losing their jobs at places such as America’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, funding is readily available to those who will sing from the deniers’ hymn sheet, despite the fact that they’re setting themselves against virtually every respectable scientist on Planet Earth.
I’ve yet to see the phrase “American science” to characterise their claims in the same way that “Soviet science” was used by Lysenko, but how long can it be before that happens?
It doesn’t seem to be enough that evidence contradicting their myths has come from no less than the likes of NASA, or that the economic cost of taking no action is mounting by the day. The new Lysenko-ists are immune.
It is also a depressing fact that the mainstream media has played a role in aiding their cause by according them false equivalence with real scientists.
There are climate change deniers on these shores, and the BBC has been guilty of giving them a leg up. It recently invited Nigel Lawson onto its flagship Today programme, to peddle a series of falsehoods that largely went unchallenged. No, it is not getting cooler.
The Beeb might just as well have invited Ken Ham from Kentucky’s Creation Museum to discuss Darwin, or anti-vaxxer Ken Heckenlively to talk about the MMR jab. By the way, did I forget to mention that Trump is also fond of the anti-vaccination movement?
Trouble is, the stubborn resilience of what they serve up demonstrates that, even if the mainstream media treated climate deniers with the contempt that they usually receive, it might not change anything .
The internet has facilitated the rise of alternative media outlets that delight in peddling “alternative facts”, to quote infamous Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway. They can be relied upon to keep the bandwagon rolling.
Funding, and the political support of powerful people, is all it takes to keep these people from being consigned to Kooksville where live the flat Earthers, 9/11 truthers, and the people who claim that the planet is hollow.
I wish the experience of Soviet Russia would give for optimism for the future. I wish I could say that Lysenko was exposed by the patent falsehoods he traded in. Unfortunately, his power only started to wane when Stalin began to become irritated by his popularity. And it took not only the death of his original patron, but the fall of his successor Nikita Khrushchev, for him and his mad theories to be formally debunked.
In other words, it took a change in the political climate, as opposed to any practical or scientific considerations.
It remains vitally important that we continue to expose charlatans peddling pseudoscience, and that we continue to confront their myths and untruths with facts.
But we might still have to wait for the same thing to happen for Lysenko’s inheritors to be consigned to the dustbin of history where they belong.
Were there an afterlife, and were a crafty Georgian with a big bushy moustache able to look down on us from it, he’d be laughing right now. As would his protégé.
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