america’s new lysenkoism: what happens when ideology trumps science

america’s new lysenkoism: what happens when ideology trumps science

When populists, demagogues, and authoritarians insist on attacking experts for trying to fix the problems their dogmas created, the consequences can destroy entire nations.

In the early 1930s, the Soviet Union was starving after collective farming failed to meet the impossible promises of the communist leadership. In search for a solution, they had a choice. They could’ve tapped scientists well versed with plant genetics and the basics of evolution to figure out which crops to plant, where, and how to maximize yield and calories. Or, they could elevate a crank who dismissed genetics as “bourgeois” and claimed that changing the plants’ environment would turn them into new, more desired species. Finding the idea that random mutations drove evolution at odds with its ideology, Soviet leaders decided on the latter. It didn’t end well.

Tens of millions of people throughout the communist world starved to death while thousands of experts and scientists who could’ve prevented this sad and disturbing state of affairs were either muzzled, sent to labor camps, or executed. Meanwhile, as crops failed and people died, the crank in question, Trofim Lysenko, built up elaborate conspiracy theories in which he was nothing short of a brilliant iconoclast on par with Newton and Aristotle, and his methods were destined for success, but the many enemies of communism were sabotaging his work. He kept that ruse going for more than three decades thanks to Stalin’s patronage, sending his critics to quite literally die along the way.

Eventually, Lysenko got his comeuppance. But before you start cheering for karma, you should probably know that as punishment for his actions he was dismissed from his political post and given a dead-end job in a doomed lab until finally being fired and formally denounced. That’s right. His punishment for starving 24 to 54 million people across Ukraine, Russia, and China was a scathing public performance review and being ignored, like punishing a child by sending him to his room without dinner for running a drug cartel. But it’s not as if the USSR could afford to make that big of a show of reprimanding Lysenko’s since it would’ve put a spotlight on their monstrous mistakes.

Spending years on trial and error to find the right mutation for better crop yields was too much work. Admitting that collective farming wasn’t working and privately ran farms could’ve done a better job by deviating from the five year plan to more adequately meet demand was not just a non-starter but downright heretical. Lysenko’s pseudo-Lamarckism was a perfect solution as far as they were concerned. It adhered to their faith in forced collectivism, didn’t require highly skilled, specialized work for which they might have to compensate accordingly, and it promised to have the population fed within the span of the party’s plan. Therefore, the Soviet leaders decided, it had to work because they really, really wanted it to work.

It’s this unshakeable, blind faith in their own infallibility and dogma, to the point of very openly indulging in batshit conspiracy theories to explain glaring failures that could’ve been predicted from a million miles away that ultimately dooms so many populists and authoritarians to make such costly and disastrous errors. And this is why they take their frustrations out on experts and journalists. Experts can warn them of disasters they choose to ignore or dismiss, making them look and feel stupid. Journalists can point out when those disasters happen, showing the public just how ignorant and vain their leaders truly are, and how easy it is for them to tune out facts they simply don’t want to hear.

And this is why the Soviet Union kept putting Lysenko’s critics in labor camps or just killing them, silencing journalists with similar threats and punishments. They certainly knew his ideas didn’t work, but they’ve already framed them as part of an existential struggle against the West and to reverse course would make them look bad, so they’d rather their people simply die as quietly as possible while they pretended everything was going just fine. Fast forward to today, and the Trump administration’s handling of COVID-19 has disturbing parallels to Lysenkoism, minus the mass executions and hard labor for journalists and scientists exposing their follies, of course, as this simply isn’t possible in America.

man in mask colorful smoke

Just like Lysenko didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t solve the Soviet Union’s food shortages, Trump’s inner circle didn’t want to admit it was a real threat because it would undermine the fragile economic house of cards on which Trump counted for an easy reelection. Experts who specialized in predicting and handling pandemics were fired, and the relevant budgets cut. The intelligence sources in China who could’ve given an early warning were also dismissed. Months of urgent warnings in briefings were ignored. While in retrospect, this may sound malicious, it could’ve still been chalked up to incompetence, laziness, and denial. It’s what happened when the pandemic arrived that’s far, far darker.

It’s hard to know where to begin with the myriad of ways the Trump administration showed bad faith and sociopathic disregard for human life. Trump himself lamented that adequate testing would uncover too many cases of COVID-19 and “make the United States look bad,” which seems downright bizarre from the same person who is simultaneously livid at China for downplaying their numbers. His team trashed CDC guidelines for reopening the country after the document dared to suggest that we can’t pretend the virus still isn’t under control and we simply can’t go back to normal with no changes whatsoever. And Trump surrogates have been busy trying to justify throwing grandma in a coffin as a sacrifice to restore the economy even though the virus would still pummel it.

In short, just like Soviet leaders saw the nation’s population as expendable in their struggle against capitalist forces and Lysenkoism’s failure as a minor speed bump in their quest to bend the world to their whims, the Trump administration sees Americans as nothing more than units of labor and consumption, and chalks up its failure to do adequate testing and containment of COVID-19 as a messaging problem. In both cases, the people are just statistics and because any admission of being wrong is synonymous with weakness in their eyes, they can never publicly reverse course, only double on the whatever they’re doing, or, at best, pretend that “a slight course correction” was their idea all along.

For the Soviet Union, using “capitalist methods” of agriculture and admitting that evolution was caused by individual mutations instead of collective adaptation to the environment meant that the evil West would win, regardless of how absurd that sounds. For Trump and his toadies, an admission that they were unprepared for a pandemic and “his big, beautiful economy” won’t simply restart for a myriad of reasons means that his reelection may be in trouble, no matter how selfish that is. And it’s amazing that both cultures, shaped in no small part by the mutual fear and hatred of each other ended up with leaderships that have the same apathy towards the welfare of their own citizens.

But this is what happens when you embrace the idea that the world is a zero-sum game you must win at all costs, that if someone didn’t get a bad deal, you’re the loser. In both Trump’s and Khrushchev’s minds, if they admitted that they listened to ideologues and yes men over experts means they lost their imaginary little battles with reality, therefore it’s the experts who have to be punished for contradicting the politicians. The USSR used the blunt cudgel of prison camps and secret police. Trumpian America uses a Soviet-esque torrent of borderline libelous propaganda and vicious invective vomited by random cranks and demagogues ready and eager to defend the administration’s fragile egos.

Americans believe in rugged individualism so much that a disturbing number of them see life in their own country as a Social Darwinist everyone vs. everyone battle royale, and others’ setbacks as evidence of their moral or intellectual failures. Trump and his inner circle have been busy further codifying this ideology into official policy, and now they have to listen to scientists and doctors saying that all these individuals who should be mortal enemies now need to work together, and that a winner-take-all system means that a vast majority will get left behind, just as a matter of statistics? No, they’d much rather point fingers and pretend that shifting blame means they don’t actually have to do anything but keep demanding that we create another economic boom because Trump wants a second term.

our dream soviet mural

Of course, there’s a key difference at play here. Soviet citizens never really got the right to fix their leaders’ mistakes after the implosion of their country, so even when they knew they were being led straight off a cliff, they had no choice. Meanwhile, far too many Americans are raised to believe that being the world’s top superpower and number one at everything isn’t a process that takes hard work, constant investment, and the discipline to admit mistakes, learn from them, and innovate, but as their birthright. So, rather than own up to problems, they’d rather turn to ever more elaborate conspiracy theories and lash out at experts who dare imply that things aren’t going well and getting worse.

Combined with a media that’s focused on getting engagement and being first instead of being right, and social platforms that believe it’s their job to give everyone global reach but that the outcome of this business model isn’t their responsibility, we got a culture that has ER doctors wondering why they’re even trying to save lives in a pandemic as venomous bile is spat in their faces and armed lunatics threaten them at work. How many experts in STEM disciplines are doubting the impact their work has on a population which either hates or ignores them as their attempts to solve real problems and debunk crazy conspiracies seem like slamming into a brick wall? How many are asking why they even bother?

Why go to work in a lab, racing against the clock to create a vaccine for COVID-19 when crowds of conspiracy theorists organized by paid shills and whipped into a frenzy by bought and paid for grifters on social media chant that they’ll never let you “inject your poison” into their bodies? Why write thousands of lines of code to create new features to connect people to COVID-19 resources or apps to help with contact tracing and testing if only a small minority of users is even interested in looking at what you’ve built for them, or think you’re in on some New World Order plot to track their every move for the Reptilian Illuminati? Why bother helping those who couldn’t possibly want your help less? Even if they are a tiny vocal minority, the deafening silence of the majority just helps make things worse every year.

Americans are trapped. Admitting that they’re wrong means they’re supposedly weak. Asking the government and technocrats for help apparently means that the monster of socialism will come to their door and drag them off to a gulag. With every option cut off or very deliberately crippled, including the ballot box, they lash out in rage and frustration. But instead of making big changes and demanding new and better ways of doing things, they’ve decided to shoot the messengers. Scientists, engineers, doctors, and wonks who tell them what the problems are and how to fix them are framed as villains in ever more deranged conspiracy theories even as those responsible for their woes are allowed to keep failing upwards.

It’s definitely easier to attack imaginary villains than tackle decades of neglect, reform a culture of proud cynicism and denial, and overhaul a sclerotic political system, all of which is, at best, a generational project at best. But as someone who’s seen what happens when a country either no longer wants to or can solve its problems, I can tell you what comes next. Those with the education, resources, and connections to fix festering messes get fed up and leave. Those who are left either benefit from the broken system and have no incentive to change it, or have no way out and are trapped. This is exactly how the Eastern Block was hollowed out, with nations becoming sad shells of their former selves.

It seems almost impossible to find the words to describe what it’s like to see two nations run themselves into the ground firsthand in one objectively short lifetime even as they both beat their chests about being the dominant global superpower all the world should envy. And while one collapsed from stubborn gerontocratic totalitarianism and the other is failing from trickle up incompetence and conspiracy mongering, the common thread is their utter disdain for any sort of expertise or knowledge that contradicts their favorite ideologies. As both failed to learn that fighting with reality is a losing proposition, the USSR imploded, and the United States is desperately trying to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory 30 years later.

# politics // anti intellectualism / conspiracy / covid-19


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