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Lysenko: The risks of politicizing science


Debate rages about whether scientists should get political. This story crossed the desk, and it might be food for thought: From Ian Goodwin and Yuri Trusov at the Conversation:

By the late 1920s, as director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Vavilov soon amassed the largest seed collection on the planet. He worked hard, he enjoyed himself, and drove other eager young scientists to work just as hard to make more food for the people of the Soviet Union.

However, things did not go well for Vavilov politically. How did this visionary geneticist, who aimed to find the means for food security, end up starving to death in a Soviet gulag in 1943?

nter the villain, Trofim Lysenko, ironically a protégé of Vavilov’s. The notorious Vavilov-Lysenko antagonism became one of the saddest textbook examples of a futile effort to resolve scientific debate using a political approach.

We more or less know the Lysenko story, hauntingly recounted by Goodwin and Trusov:

In reality, Lysenko was what we might today call a crackpot. Among other things, he denied the existence of DNA and genes, he claimed that plants selected their mates, and argued that they could acquire characteristics during their lifetime and pass them on. He also espoused the theory that some plants choose to sacrifice themselves for the good of the remaining plants – another notion that runs against the grain of evolutionary understanding.

Pravda – formerly the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party – celebrated him for finding a way to fertilise crops without applying anything to the field.

None of this could be backed up by solid evidence. His experiments were not repeatable, nor could his theories claim overwhelming consensus among other scientists. But Lysenko had the ear of the one man who counted most in the USSR: Joseph Stalin. More.

A perennial historical illusion is that if we were there, we would have seen through it all. Don’t be so sure. Ideologically, Lysenko was just the ticket.  He said what cool people wanted to believe.

Inviting the politician into the lab is one thing; safely ejecting him is another.

See also: New Scientist: EU green energy policies make global warming worse.

Geologist on why a scientists’ march on Washington is a bad idea


March for Science in Boston: Geek sign language to ponder

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