The Dangers of Mixing Politics and Science

Feb 7, 2017

If you have listened to a few of these “Field Notes," you know that I often manage to screw up while out doing field work.  There was the time I got slammed onto the ice when my ice auger suddenly broke through, giving me a spectacular black eye. I once left a canoe near shore and, after taking all of my heavy equipment out, allowed the boat to drift off across the lake. Another time, I was SCUBA diving and stupidly ran out of air, scaring myself to death.

Today I am going to tell you about someone else’s screw-up in science. It’s a timely tale of caution and, besides, it is less painful to learn from someone else’s mistakes than your own. This mistake was due to an unfortunate confluence of politics and science. Trofim Lysenko, an agronomist in the old Soviet Union, had some early success with increased yields of wheat in the 1930s. His work caught the attention and support of Josef Stalin… and Soviet genetics went down a blind alley for forty years.

Here’s how it happened:

In the early 20th century, scientists were making huge strides in the study of genetics.  You may have heard of Gregor Mendel, a Czech-born monk who worked out the principles of inheritance by doing experiments with garden peas.  Mendel had discovered how different traits, such as flower color, were passed on from one generation of peas to the next.  It was a massive insight, but unfortunately his work was ignored for 30 years. Once rediscovered, scientists combined Mendel’s ideas with those of Charles Darwin, leading to explosive progress in the studies of genetics and evolution.

At about the same time, Lysenko was working in the agricultural fields in the Soviet Union. Lysenko dismissed Mendel’s and Darwin’s principles, convinced that traits an organism acquired during its life could be passed on to the next generation. This is contrary to actual laws of inheritance and many of his fellow Soviet scientists heartily disagreed with him. However, Lysenko’s beliefs were consistent with Marxist concepts that people improved after living under socialism and would pass these personal enhancements on to future generations. Despite a complete lack of scientific support, Josef Stalin elevated Lysenko to the top post in Soviet genetics. Dissenting scientists were imprisoned, and Soviet genetics came to a complete halt. It wasn’t until Stalin died that the pall began to lift, Lysenko was revealed to be a fraud, and true Soviet scientists came out from the shadows. In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov spoke out against Lysenko saying, “He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.”

Does this scenario sound familiar? I am not the first to recognize the similarities of the story of Lysenko and Soviet genetics with the politics surrounding the science of climate change in the United States. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, some politicians insist there is no climate warming or that it is not human-caused.  The evidence shows otherwise. 15 of the warmest years ever recorded have occurred in the last 16 years. And you may have seen the recent news that Earth just experienced the hottest year on record – for the third straight year. Temperature is straightforward and easy to measure. Scientists simply look at the numbers on thermometers, average them for an entire year, and report:  the world is getting warmer. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has gone up at an exponential rate. Sea level is rising as glaciers melt. Ocean temperatures are rising. There is a real “Northwest Passage” as arctic ice sheets melt. On average, ice is forming later on northern Wisconsin’s lakes. The list goes on. 

And yet, the Department of Energy was recently asked, by the incoming administration, to identify all scientists who had ever attended a climate change conference.  NASA, responsible for those pictures of shrinking ice sheets, may not be allowed to work on climate issues any more. In our own state, scientists have been penalized for working on climate change, and recently the WI DNR changed its statement about climate change on its website so that it now states that academic entities outside the WDNR are debating the reasons for the changes we are seeing. The causes of climate change are not being debated. There is broad scientific agreement that human activity is to blame and it is most certainly real. Despite these political word games, we are already seeing what a warmer world looks like. As one protestor’s sign said, “Ice doesn’t have an agenda, it just melts”.

Lysenko’s bogus science hung on until Stalin died.  Hopefully, here in the US we will be allowed to pursue the scientific method and not be stymied by politics. I would rather report on a few mishaps out in the field, than recount that our scientists are hamstrung by our own version of an old Soviet mistake.