Thinking About Science in Trump’s USA: A Warning from History

The old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times”, has been thrust upon us; interesting times, indeed. Well, more than interesting, surreal. Brexit and Trump are just what is closest to us but let us not forget the puzzling situation in Syria and the mystery that Russia always is (the famous adage of Churchill about the Soviet Union always comes to mind: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”). One of the most surprising features of these times is the disregard for logic and sense, the creeping influence of “the falsehood” and a plump disregard for objective, fact based scientific reasoning. There is so much going on that it is easy to be desensitized, to not give importance to things that matter and to forget that actions have consequences. At this, there is one area where the discussion has been going on for so long that we can easily overlook its importance. The news that Trump is revoking the Obama legacy on climate change, reactivating drills and the coal industry in ways that put in peril the environment have been headlines news. People have complained and engaged into reasonable debate but, like so much these days, this has just fallen into the flow of news. Perhaps the most painful aspect of the New White House trend is the disregard for scientific evidence in favour of ideologies and false economic reasoning without thinking of the long term consequences.

We have seen this before. Hegel said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as a farce and it seems to me that this is happening today. Farces also have consequences though. The denial of climate change for ideological and social reasons has been going on for a while but the Trump administration, like in many other things, is taking it to another level. Not only there is an open denial of clear facts and evidence, there are also attempts to destroy evidence. Files are being deleted and scientists linked to the administration banned from raising their voices. The reasons behind this are the selfishness of certain elites that bargain the (our) future to feed (their) short term gains. We have seen this before, and perhaps it is worth remembering one such episodes which echoes in the climate change discussion.

A plot of Science at the service of Ideology developed in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 40s and led to the destruction of Soviet Biology, in particular Genetics, and henceforth to the poor state of this field today in Russia and its satellites. The name associated with this achievement is Trofim Lysenko and a doctrine called Lysenkoism. The plot is simple (well, not that simple but will try to summarize) and characteristic of those times and place. Even in the complicated environment of Russia in the 1920s, Science was still (just) workable and Genetics, as it was on the rise, became a normal staple of soviet Science under the influence and organization of Nikolai Vavilov (Russian stamp at the top). The importance of agriculture in a country the size of the Soviet Union with its large peasant population was obvious, so perhaps it is not surprising that much effort was focused on plant genetics and agriculture (the main specialty and interest of Vavilov). Fruit flies also had a good representation and Hermann Muller (a declared socialist) spent time in Moscow teaching and consolidating the laws and practice of transmission Genetics. The great Nikolay Timoffef-Ressovsky, was a product of this period.

It is not surprising that in a deeply ideological society even Science has to bend to the prevalent social and political thoughts; see Galileo’s trial or the attitudes of the Nazis towards “Jewish” science, but also in a more benign version the role that capitalism has played in the development of modern scientific culture. Thus in the Soviet Union, the collectivization of agriculture in the 1920s had led to great famines and deaths. This was the result of a mixture of poor agricultural practices and the weather, always harsh and unpredictable in most of the territory. With this in mind, it is not surprising that Genetics would be at the centre of any discussion to tackle this problem and that Vavilov, as the leading figure in the field, would take a leadership role and worked hard to address the problem. He travelled the world collecting seeds and trying to fit them to specific locations where they could grow and yield in the complex soviet geography. But Nature has its rules and if you want to change them you need to let Natural Selection work over long periods of times. The soviets did not have time.

Enter Lysenko (left), an agricultural biologist of peasant extraction who became interested in understanding why some crops needed to be planted in Winter and some in Spring. This was not a new question, not without scientific merit and for this reason Vavilov himself had been interested in it and supported this research. Building on experimental work of several years, Lysenko observed that exposure of Winter seeds to humidity and extreme temperatures in “laboratory conditions” would allow them to germinate and to be planted in Spring when they would grow as the natural plants. In this manner the laboratory conditions could bypass difficult winters and ensure harvest. He called this process “vernalization”, a term that already existed but which has become synonymous with Lysenko. Furthermore, he suggested that this acquired resilience and ability would be transmitted to the offspring which then would not need to be treated. If this neolamarckism were true and properly done this would avoid the vagaries of the Soviet climate and increase the yields. And of course, if this were true, it would be possible to control at will the development of the plants and the yields of crops. In an increasing climate of Ideology over Reason, much of this fitted well with premises of the emerging soviet socialism in which even the laws of Nature had to be at the service of the people.

A complex web of Science, Politics and Social Engineering was woven around Moscow in the 1930s. This led, almost imperceptibly to a political interest in shaping Science. Surprisingly Mendelian genetics, slowly but surely, become a focus of these activities. The rules and vagaries of random assortment of characters, the notion of “the gene” and the Darwinian principles that underpin much of Biology were put into doubt. Suddenly facts became servants to ideology and the gene was first questioned, then doubted and finally ridiculed, expunged from teaching and research. It is difficult to believe that scientific knowledge would be a dangerous asset in the early part of the XX century but as heliocentrism in the 1400s, Mendelian genetics could take you to the gallows. Muller had to leave Moscow in a hurry when it the notion that “biologists are fly lovers and people haters” (as quoted in Wikipedia Lysenkoism) started to spread. Over time, 3000 Soviet scientists were either killed or interned in camps during the 1930s and 40s, mainly for espousing or being seen to be associated with scientists linked to Mendelian genetics. Amidst this the biggest casualty was Vavilov who tried to make his clout count to help Genetics but who, in the end, succumbed to the conspiracies and power in fighting. In the ascendancy of Lysenko and the complex web that was being built between Science and Soviet ideology, Vavilov’s links with the West provided the catalyst that the State needed to build the case against him. He died in a camp in 1943. In 1948, Lysenko was appointed director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR’s Academy of Sciences and Genetics was declared a pseudoscience. He reigned supreme over Soviet Biology until the death of Stalin.

It is not difficult to see traces of this piece of history in the recent official decision of Trump administration to undo Obama’s climate change policies. The attack of the evidence of man made climate change is decried as pseudoscience and the reason behind this consideration is none other than an ideological one: to favour a kind of backwards industrial development for the people, a pro-business, pro-money, anti-science attitude of the administration. Of course, unlike the closed Soviet Union, this is happening in a well connected world where we are aware of news and events and in a country with a free press and without the risks that were so prevalent in Stalin’s USSR. However, let us not be fooled by these differences. The point is not whether Trump is like Stalin, he is not. The point is to remember that when Ideology takes charge of Science there are likely to be long term consequences. The USA has had, and still has, its issues with ideologies and science, creationism and intelligent design come to mind, but never before has been an administration leading the ideological charge. For the attitude towards climate change is mirrored by other national institutions like the Department of Agriculture, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Nowadays, the cuts to the NIH and the appointments at the higher level of individuals with little knowledge of, respect for and belief in Science do not bode well for a Society which has given and gives so much to Science.

The US academic and scientific community has enough power and foundation to resist but it will need help and this is where a reminder of history matters. Lysenkoism affected the USSR and never spread (though it tried) but the damage to the culture of that country was immense and long lasting. While Mathematics and Physics come to mind when thinking about Soviet of Russian Science, Genetics and Biology do not. In fact these are represented by what often is called the Lysenko affair. Such events unfold over long periods of time so lest we forget and make sure that we heed the warnings from History.

The image of Lysenko is from the picture of the stamp with Vavilov is from Wikipedia

  1. This post emerged while reading Simon Ings’ “Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953″ which reminded me that those of us who are scientists have a responsibility to defend the proper use of scientific evidence. Further reading, if you are interested, on the recent events in the USA:

and some good news: