We must guard against the casual disregard of science

Trofim Lysenko’s misguided agricultural practices led to famines in the Soviet Union and China, killing millions. This is no different from the modern-day denial of climate science. We need to learn from the past and try not to ignore scientific evidence for political or economic reasons. Else we risk devastating global consequences.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

In the 1930s, Trofim Lysenko was officially put in charge of agriculture in the Soviet Union, allowing him to implement a radically Marxist view of biology, one of his own invention. Lysenko believed that plants and animals are shaped by their environment alone and that all that was needed to remake them into whatever one wanted was to place them in an appropriate setting with the right sort of stimuli. He rubbished Western notions of genetics, denying that genes even existed. He called geneticists “fly lovers and people haters" in a sarcastic reference to their experiments with fruit flies.

Lysenko had the support of his premier, Joseph Stalin, who thought this theory worked quite nicely with his political philosophy. With the backing of the communist party, Lysenko put these ideas into practice, “educating" Soviet crops so that they could be harvested at different times of the year. To train them for winter, he soaked them in freezing water, claiming that if they learnt to sprout in the cold, future generations of crops would remember this training and, even without being treated themselves, would bloom in peak Russian winter. He claimed that these techniques would enable him to grow orange trees in Siberia and boost crop yields throughout the country, so that the tundra grasslands could become vast farms.

Western scientists decried this approach, pointing out that this was not how biology worked. Instead of engaging with them, Lysenko denounced them ideologically, countering their criticism by calling them tools of imperialist oppressors. He did all he could to eliminate voices of dissent among scientists within the Soviet Union. Those who refused to renounce genetics found themselves rounded up and sentenced to death, or just herded to jail and left to die. Before Lysenko, the Soviet Union had one of the world’s best communities of professional geneticists. After he took over Soviet biology, it was set back nearly half a century.

Perhaps no individual scientist in world history has been responsible for the deaths of more people than Trofim Lysenko. Everything Lysenko planted eventually rotted and died. The resulting famines killed more than 7 million people in the Soviet Union, and though his new methods resulted in an increase by more than 163 times of Soviet farmland under cultivation, the actual amount of food produced in the country dropped to levels lower than what they were when he took over. When China followed suit, adopting these same methods of agriculture in the late 1950s, it suffered greater famines, resulting in the death by starvation of more than 30 million people.

Today, we are witnessing a similar motivated disregard of science. The administration of the most powerful country in the world has chosen to renege on its commitment to address climate change on the basis that global warming is “fake news". Climate science is an attempt to make sense of a complex system whose properties may never ever be completely known and so it is trivially simple for motivated detractors to come up with arguments that call into question certain key aspects of the theory based on unavoidable gaps in available information. This, despite the preponderance of evidence indicating a worsening trend with regard to all relevant climate indicators.

When Lysenko implemented his erratic agricultural vision in Soviet Russia, devastating as the outcomes were, they were limited to the population of a single country. Climate change, on the other hand, is a global problem and any hesitation to take the agreed steps required to halt its effects will be felt far beyond the borders of the country that fails to act as it had promised.

Science denial often presents itself as a general lack of trust in science itself. However, it is, more often than not, the product of motivated reasoning, calculated to achieve objectives that are not immediately obvious. Lysenko was allowed to implement his ideas because they aligned with Stalin’s Marxist ideology. However, perhaps the real reason why Stalin was motivated to give him such a free rein is because these ideas served as an effective counterpoint to the science being propounded by his arch-rivals in the capitalist West.

The steps that need to be taken to address climate change are costly in the short term. Businesses that are answerable on a quarterly basis to their shareholders don’t like them and would rather find a way to avoid having to take them. They have every motivation to make climate change someone else’s problem. By convincing their governments to turn back from the national commitments that have been made under various global treaties, businesses will have achieved this objective, kicking the can of climate change down the road.

The problem is that this sort of behaviour often has viral effects. The EU, where most progress has been made to address the ills of climate change, has already become hugely uncompetitive in comparison to the US. Now that the US has decided to aggressively retrace its steps, it will only be a matter of time before EU nation states start to question whether they can remain economically relevant if they continue to comply with their climate change commitments.

We need to combat the current trend of science denial head-on by exposing the hidden motivations that are driving it. After all, we simply cannot afford to have a modern-day Lysenko thwart our efforts to address such a significant threat to the planet.