The battle for science

Powerful interests in the US and Australia are seeking to silence our scientists and anaesthetise us against the impact of their findings. [14 February 2012 | Peter Boyer]

The Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov (left) and the man who betrayed him to Stalin, Trofim Lysenko. SOURCE WIKIPEDIA

The Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov (left) and the man who betrayed him, Trofim Lysenko. SOURCE WIKIPEDIA

Human enlightenment is a fragile thing, and don’t ever think otherwise. Here’s a sobering story about how ignorant, self-serving ideology can destroy good science.

In 1934 a distinguished Russian biologist named Nikolai Vavilov, impressed by the energy and drive of one of his field assistants, successfully nominated the young man for membership of the Ukraine Academy of Sciences.

Vavilov was a world leader in the emerging field of genetics. A moderate supporter of the still-young Soviet regime under Josef Stalin, he wanted to apply his formidable scientific knowledge to improve the crop yields of his country’s struggling collective farms.

But he reckoned without the ambition of his protégé, Trofim Lysenko, who had long harboured a grudge against his academic masters. Lysenko especially resented genetics, which he didn’t understand, and its champion Vavilov, the man who had given him a break.

In 1935 Lysenko got to speak at a Moscow farmers’ conference attended by Stalin. Presenting himself as a humble worker lacking the academic gift of the gab, he denounced scientific colleagues as bourgeois academics intent on wrecking the Soviet system. Stalin liked what he heard.

With Stalin’s backing, Lysenko worked his way into the chair for the 1936 conference of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Putting forward his home-grown ideas about evolution and improving wheat yields, he resumed his attack on academic science, and when Stalin’s aide asked for a list of the “wreckers” he put Vavilov’s name at the top.

The Vavilov camp didn’t go down without a battle. Vavilov spoke out in defence of classical genetics as a tool for making farms more productive, and a colleague told the Academy meeting that Lysenko’s “solutions” were a choice “between witchcraft and medicine, between astrology and astronomy, between alchemy and chemistry.”

But under sustained attack from Stalin’s agent Lysenko, the ranks of Vavilov supporters grew thinner. Some died for their science, among the millions executed in Stalin’s notorious purges.

Vavilov’s reputation protected him for a while, but in 1940 he was arrested and sentenced to death for spreading anti-Soviet ideas. The sentence was commuted to 20 years’ jail in 1942, but a year later he died of starvation in a wartime labour camp.

In sharp contrast, Lysenko enjoyed the privileges of high Soviet office for 20 more years. Stalin directed that Lysenko’s ideology-driven “solutions” be taught and applied across the Soviet Union — not just on farms but in schools and universities.

Vavilov’s image on a USSR postage stamp in 1977, 34 years after his death in prison. SOURCE WIKIPEDIA

Vavilov’s image on a USSR postage stamp in 1977, 34 years after his death in prison. SOURCE WIKIPEDIA

Multiple agricultural failures finally persuaded the Soviet government that “Lysenkoism” was junk science. It was abandoned in 1964.

The reversal came too late for the generation of Soviet citizens who missed out on the benefits of the 20th century food revolution, or for the millions who starved as a consequence. Russian biology, which led the world in the 1920s, is still recovering from Lysenko’s devastating blow.

The Lysenko story has come back to haunt us. Genuine scientific endeavour, facing the great challenge of understanding how our climate works, is being subjected to sustained attacks from vested interests who want to see its findings buried and forgotten.

Lysenko used Soviet “justice” to indict people who dared to question his non-science. In the United States today, politicians like Senator James Inhofe and Virginia Attorney-General Ken Cuccinelli, with no credible science to support them, seek to drag reputable scientists into court to answer vaguely-worded charges of fraud.

Lord Christopher Monckton, in like manner, has publicly warned that scientists (including Australians) who continue to put the case that humans are influencing climate are in line to be prosecuted for fraud. “We’re coming after you” were his words.

I wouldn’t normally take the likes of Monckton too seriously. He’s a performer, not a scientist, and his views are supported by perhaps two per cent of the many thousands of scientists around the world researching climate. But a video that circulated last week has got me thinking.

In the video, recorded in Perth last year, Monckton, whose Australian tour was sponsored by billionaire Gina Rinehart, proposes that “those whom we know are super-rich” be asked to invest in a new television network purpose-designed to provide “a proper dose of free-market thinking”.

There are some very discomforting elements common to Monckton’s modus operandi, Inhofe’s and Cuccinelli’s indictments of scientists, and Lysenko’s campaign against Vavilov.

All the protagonists are non-scientists with no special knowledge of the field of science they are attacking. All have access to significant public or private resources, a position of strength from which they then attack individuals whose only “crime” has been to do their job, reporting without fear or favour what their research reveals.

It seems to me that the intention of such behaviour is not to debate the content of the research (which would be difficult for non-specialists) but to intimidate scientists into silence and minimise the public impact of any science that points up a need to change the way business is done.

These people want to anaesthetise us, and a well-funded new television network aiming to undermine science might be just the ticket. If it happens, it will be yet another blow to independent scientific inquiry in this country.

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