Let’s Not Lose Our Minds


Carl Zimmer in Medium:

Trofim Lysenko was a little-known researcher at the time. He did his experiment in the early years of Stalin’s dictatorship, when Stalin was facing dangerous food shortages across the Soviet Union. He had just responded by forcing peasants onto collectivized farms, a terrible decision that would lead over the next decade to the deaths of millions by starvation.

Stalin also demanded that Soviet scientists help fight the crisis by finding better crops, and find them fast. The Soviet Union at the time was home to a thriving community of geneticists who were doing pioneering work to understand the nature of genes in animals and plants. In response to the crisis, Soviet geneticists threw themselves into producing better crops through genetics. But their results were coming too slowly for Stalin.

And then came Lysenko. Lysenko had a great backstory that fit Stalinist ideology. He wasn’t one of those fussy cosmopolitan experts. He was from a peasant family. And despite having little advanced education, he was succeeding where mainstream scientists were failing. As soon as the agricultural ministry learned about Lysenko’s experiment on winter wheat, they began promoting him as scientific hero.

In fact, when Lysenko first described his research at scientific conferences in early 1929, other Soviet scientists roundly dismissed it. For one thing, it was nothing new. Plant breeders had already been trying to use cold temperatures for centuries to improve plant growth. But they had little or no success.

So why should Lysenko suddenly be getting his amazing results? Lysenko’s critics said he was getting nothing of the sort. He was running experiments that were so small and sloppy that they couldn’t be trusted. Even in the early years of Stalin’s rule, Russian scientists were still having vigorous open exchanges. That’s one of the essential ingredients of science, because it allows scientists to hold each other to high standards.

More here.