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Lysenko, Bush and Redistributing the Future
Alex Steffen, 2 Mar 04

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko is alive and well and apparently running the scientific show in the American government (and several of our key allies). For those of us whose history is a touch rusty, Lysenko was a vicious little man who in the 1930s pretty much single-handedly destroyed Soviet biological science for ideological reasons:

"It was due to Lysenko's efforts that many real scientists, those who were geneticists or who rejected Lamarckism in favor of natural selection, were sent to the gulags or simply disappeared from the USSR. Lysenko rose to dominance at a 1948 conference in Russia where he delivered a passionate address denouncing Mendelian thought as "reactionary and decadent" and declared such thinkers to be "enemies of the Soviet people". He also announced that his speech had been approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Scientists either groveled, writing public letters confessing the errors of their way and the righteousness of the wisdom of the Party, or they were dismissed. Some were sent to labor camps. Some were never heard from again. Under Lysenko's guidance, science was guided not by the most likely theories, backed by appropriately controlled experiments, but by the desired ideology. Science was practiced in the service of the State, or more precisely, in the service of ideology. The results were predictable: the steady deterioration of Soviet biology."

If you've been paying attention, this description may be starting to sound uncomfortably familiar, with scores of Nobel-prizewinning scientists, the Union of Concerned Scientists, congressional investigators and a number of prominent international scientific bodies all warning that science is being politicized, distorted and supressed by the current administration and its allies to an extent we haven't seen in over 50 years. As an editorial choice, WorldChanging generally eschews partisan politics, but when a Nobel laureate calls the most powerful government in the world's scientific policy "corporate Lysenkoism," it's hard to stay silent.

What's the solution? Well, there's always regime change, but that's not our only option here. There's a lot of talk these days about the reglobalization of science, about spreading the tools for sustainable innovation, about "Southern" science. We think that far more widespread and open access to science, technology and innovation are pretty fundamental to building any kind of a sustainable planet, but there are other reasons to support efforts to democratize and redistribute the future.

The biggest is simply this: when Lysenko purged Soviet biology, the effects were pervasive and persistant. Some historians, in fact, say that the chilling effects on Soviet science in general were a factor in the USSR's eventual collapse. American scientists are of course not being shipped off to work camps or buried in mass graves, but the impacts of an intellectual assault on the planet's largest scientific community are deadly serious, and, if they continue, could still be pervasive and persistant, warping the American research agenda through funding and political pressure for decades to come.

It's a sad state of affairs, but we can no longer afford the luxury of science without a fail-safe. We need science and technology expertise and tools distributed in every corner of the Earth not only because that's how people will create the means for their own sustainable prosperity, but also to create a wider and less corruptible scientific conversation... because, in short, we can no longer trust the largest science budgets on Earth to reflect anything like, well, anything like the truth.

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Comments

Think Global, Act Local. Can you guys tune in to TUC Radio, they are in SF - Listen! Listen! eg. to their report on 'Obesity in the US'. I love you guys, but you have to get out out of your solocast/holoucast reality! Love...Radio GooGoo!


Posted by: Stefan Thomas on 3 Mar 04



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