Just Imagine…the Politicization of Science

September 14, 2023

Trofim Lysenko, Public Domain, via wikimedia

Trofim Lysenko was born to a peasant family in Ukraine in 1898. He developed an interest in agriculture and graduated from the Kyiv Agricultural Institute. His early interests were finding a way to grow crops in the harsh winters of his homeland.

His work in improving crop yields came to the attention of Joseph Stalin, the authoritarian leader of the Soviet Union. Lysenko had published misleading research studies to prove he had increased yields. When confronted by his mistakes, he lashed out at his critics. This was the first of many falsifications of science that became his approach to gaining political favor.

Lysenko rejected the emerging science of genetic inheritance. Most of his theories had limited scientific evidence to support them. When others tried to counter his fraudulent theories, he resorted to name calling. He often referred to geneticists as fly lovers because of their use of fruit flies in their studies.

Lysenko became a propaganda tool for the Soviet regime by promising higher crop yields. His promises were used to encourage peasants to return to farming. An angry peasant population was a threat to Stalin’s rule, and Lysenko was useful in diffusing their anger.

Lysenko’s promises were never fulfilled, and his false science led to the starvation of millions of Soviet citizens. Mao Zedong, the leader of China, was fond of Lysenko and adopted his theories and as a result China faced similar famines.

Because of Lysenko’s popularity with the authoritarian leadership of the Soviet Union, he set back scientific advances in genetics. Those who doubted Lysenko’s false science had no voice. Unfortunately, Stalin installed false scientists in other areas of inquiry, resulting in propaganda science rather than true science.

Eventually Lysenko was removed from power by Nikita Khrushchev, but it took years to recover from the damage done to scientific inquiry.

Just imagine a society where conspiracies become more believable than valid science. What might that society look like in future years when truth is replaced with propaganda in support of those in power? Can a true democracy exist without honest scientific inquiry? You can see some of your fellow citizens’s thoughts on questions like this, from our community conversation about Science, Truth and Democracy in America.

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“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 or learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.” – Andrei Sakharov (Nobel Prize winner for Physics, speaking about Trofim Lysenko)

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.

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