James Powell: Science Denialism Is Not Free, Part II

James Powell, The Inquisition of Climate Science

“Science denial, when projected from the level of the state, can cost millions, even scores of millions, of lives.”—James Powell

This the second part of James Powell’s series on science denialism. You can read the first post here. James Powell is the author of the recently published The Inquisition of Climate Science.

Global warming is the latest example in the long history of science denial. No doubt it will not be the last. What is different about global warming is that if it continues on its current worst-case trajectory, it has the potential to cost more lives than the wars, famines, economic depressions, and natural disasters of the twentieth century all taken together.

The most conspicuous example of science denial, if global warming has not already earned that label, is evolution denial, better known as creationism. It shows no signs of abating even though in more than 150 years, no one has ever been able to show that evolution is false. Over that history, scientific understanding of evolution and the evidence for it have grown, yet today 40-45 percent of Americans (Gallup and Pew polls) prefer creationism over evolution.

In contrast to the other types of science denial that I will describe, creationism does not have fatal consequences. After all, even the most ardent creationist gets the new flu shot each year, made necessary because the flu virus evolves so rapidly. Evolution denial is more of a gradual drag on science education, delaying if not permanently putting off the time at which people accept and are willing to support the findings of modern biology.

When the courts prevented creationists from banning the teaching of evolution, they turned to the demand that “creation science” or more lately, “intelligent design” be given equal time in the classroom, like requiring the teaching of Ptolemy’s earth-centered astronomy alongside the sun-centered model of Copernicus and Galileo. The more the US requires the teaching of creationism in the schools, the more scientific talent and innovation in the biological sciences will gravitate to other countries, with serious long term consequences for the development of science and medicine in this nation.

In the rest of this post I turn to one example of the denial of mainstream science that have cost millions of lives: Lysenkoism.

Lysenkoism [adapted from The Inquisition of Climate Science ]

In the 1920s, to increase crop production, Soviet leaders forced farmers to give up their land to large collective farms. The farmers grew restive, production fell, and in the “breadbasket of Europe,” famine struck hard and millions starved. Then came the Rasputin of Soviet science, Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko, who claimed he could make wheat flower earlier, putting more farmers to work and increasing grain production. That was biologically possible, but Lysenko went on to claim that the offspring of the “vernalized” wheat would also flower earlier, as though a parent who lifts weights will have more muscular children. Genetics showed instead that characteristics are passed by genes, which are unaffected by traits the parent has acquired. Lysenko denounced geneticists as bourgeois, fascist, pseudoscientists: “fly lovers and people haters.” He went so far as to claim that he could make wheat produce seeds of rye. As one author put it, that is like saying that wild dogs can give birth to foxes. Lysenko’s followers published articles claiming that they had transformed “barley into oats, peaches into vetch, vetch into lentils, cabbage into swedes, firs into pines, hazelnuts into hornbeams, alders into birches, sunflowers into strangleweed,” each a biological impossibility.

Lysenko’s image as the barefoot peasant genius outwitting the world’s bourgeois biologists dovetailed perfectly with Soviet mythology. In 1938, the authorities placed him in charge of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences and in 1948, they fired all geneticists and outlawed dissent from Lysenkoism. Purges sent his opponents to prison, some to the executioner. Lysenko was personally responsible for the imprisonment and death by malnutrition of the great Soviet biologist Nikolai Vavilov. Lysenkoism was not a Stalinist aberration; it ruled Soviet biology until the ouster of Khrushchev in the 1960s.
Russia has always been a land of famine. A modern report lists the following major famines in regions of Russia during the years the false doctrine of Lysenkoism dominated Soviet biology:

Central: 1936, 1946, 1972, 1979.
Southern: 1939, 1948, 1951, 1957, 1975.
Eastern: 1963, 1965.

It is impossible to say just what part the delusions of Lysenko and his followers played in these famines, at least some of which would have occurred without him. But surely his wrong-headed ideas and the suppression of research in genetics, research that led to a green revolution in agriculture elsewhere, must have taken a toll in human lives numbering in the millions, if not the tens of millions.

Communist China provides a better estimate of the cost of Lysenkoism. Following in Stalin’s footsteps, in the late 1950s Mao instructed Chinese farmers to plant up to eight times as many seeds, sometimes several feet deep; to stop using chemical fertilizer; and in some cases to leave at least one-third of their land fallow. There followed between 1958 and 1961 a famine which the Chinese themselves admitted had caused 15 million deaths, and which outside scholars estimate cost between 20 and 43 million lives. To avoid blame, Chinese leaders named the period, “Three Years of Natural Disaster.”

In The Inquisition of Climate Science, I pointed out that the ways in which today’s global warming deniers resemble the Lysenkoists:

Global warming deniers treat the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with contempt, as though it were common knowledge that they are corrupt. Scientist-deniers like Freeman Dyson and Richard Lindzen vilify mainstream scientists like [James] Hansen; others demand that NASA fire him. After Hansen condemned a presentation that [Viscount] Monckton was to make to the Kentucky state legislature, Monckton wrote the head of NASA accusing Hansen of having financial ties to Al Gore and demanding an investigation. Monckton calls climate scientists evil and likens them to war criminal Radovan Karadzic.

Lysenko accused his scientific opponents of trying to “wreck” the Soviet economy. Today’s deniers accuse climate scientists of wanting to transfer money and power from the people to the government, thus helping to bring down “industrialization and development and capitalism and the Western way.”

Instead of conducting experiments that would prove his theories, Lysenko used questionnaires from farmers fearful of a one-way ticket to the Gulag. Instead of doing research, the global warming deniers use petitions.

The Soviet media endorsed Lysenko and condemned his opponents, Pravda saying that he had “solved the problem of fertilizing the fields without fertilizer and minerals….” Today, right-wing American media like Fox News and The Wall Street Journal ridicule scientists and provide the deniers with a platform to say whatever they like without fear of contradiction.

In Lysenkoism, the Soviet State denounced biological science and made the denial of genetics state policy; today’s deniers urge our government to reject climate science and make the denial of global warming state policy.

We see in Lysenkoism how science denial, when projected from the level of the state, can cost millions, even scores of millions, of lives. In the next post, I will take up the “merchants of doubt” who denied that tobacco causes lung cancer, and the modern AIDS denialists.

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