Asimov, one of the most brilliant science writers (or writers, period) of the
twentieth century, had something to say that is particularly relevant right now
about how the outcome of the elections may influence the future of science and
education. This quote, in fact, illustrates a fundamental weakness of
democracy. He said something to the effect that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your
fantasize that there could be a society in which well-educated people who
understand the world and care about it could make the decisions in the best
interests of everyone else. But of course this is impossible. If a scientific
elite ruled a society, evil demagogues would soon displace the scientists and
create a dictatorship far worse than any democracy could ever be.
list of scientific things that the new Trump team has totally wrong—despite
having their errors explained to them—goes far beyond the ones most people
already know about: global warming, evolution, and endangered species.
According to this article,
Trump has also bought into anti-science hoaxes such as the belief that
vaccination causes autism, that there never was anything wrong with the ozone
layer, that environmentally-friendly light bulbs cause cancer, that wind farms
will make you sick, and that ebola can spread just by being around Africans.
Trump team attacks on science affects me personally in three ways. First, one
of my major pieces of ongoing research shows that tree buds are opening earlier
each year, which is evidence of global warming. Do I need to suppress or alter
my results to fit in with Trump’s views? Second, I teach and write books about
evolution. Will I be suppressed from doing this? Third, another major research
and conservation effort in which I am involved is saving an endangered species
(the seaside alder Alnus maritima).
Does this make me an enemy of the state?
used language that was a little bit exaggerated in the previous paragraph, such
as enemy of the state. Surely the Trump team cannot actually ban the teaching
of, and research on, evolution, global warming, endangered species, etc., can
you are probably not surprised to discover, the answer is yes and no. No, they
cannot do so directly. But they can use the power of federal money to do so.
Suppose—and at this point it is just speculation—that the federal Department of
Education, soon to be run by creationist Ben Carson, announced that no federal
funds can be used at educational institutions in which evolution is taught?
This would include student scholarship money. If they did this, my university
would face an immediate crisis: the president would have to tell me to not
teach evolution, for if I did so, it would cause the university to close. Such
an action could be challenged in the courts, but this would take years.
case you think this cannot happen, I need to remind you of the story of Trofim
Lysenko, who had an utterly wrong theory of genetics but one which Joseph
Stalin liked. Lysenko’s utterly wrong theory of genetics became the doctrine of
the Stalinist USSR. The world-famous geneticist Nikolai Vavilov opposed
Lysenko. Stalin did not kill Vavilov, but let him die in prison. The Trump team
would not take any steps against people like me as Stalin did against Vavilov.
They would not have to. I will not starve in prison. But I might find my job
description changed overnight. I might turn overnight from a science teacher
into a teacher who must be silent in order to not be a creationism preacher.
more recent example was a George W. Bush era director of the Fish and Wildlife
Service who told FWS scientists that they would not discover, in their
research, that there were any endangered species. Period.
federal government can in fact strangle science. I remain vigilant against any
first steps in this direction. You say Trump would never do this? I hope you
is my summary of Lysenkoism, from my Encyclopedia of Evolution:
Lysenkoism Lysenkoism is
the doctrine of agriculturalist Trofim Lysenko, who dominated Soviet biological
science during the Stalinist era. The early years of the Soviet state were
plagued with social upheaval and, in the early 1920s, poor harvests. Wheat was
usually planted in the autumn, when it produced leaves; after overwintering,
the wheat plants would reproduce in the spring for an early summer harvest. The
Russian winters frequently killed the overwintering wheat. Lysenko, a plant
breeder in Azerbaijan, demonstrated that if the wheat seeds were stratified
(kept in cool moist conditions for a few weeks), they could be sown in the
spring and would reproduce in time for an autumn harvest. Stratification is now
known among plant physiologists as one of the standard ways of influencing the
germination and developmental characteristics of seeds. If Lysenko had stopped
here, he might today be revered as the man who helped to save Soviet
agriculture. But he went further. He claimed that this stratification process
actually changed the seeds in a way that could be inherited. Stratify the first
generation, he said, and all the subsequent generations would have the new,
convenient trait. His genetic theory was essentially the same as that of French
biologist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, which had been discredited years earlier by
next is an illustration of a government imposing its philosophy on science and
on its technological application. Lysenko’s Lamarckism happened to resonate
well with Soviet philosophy, which claimed that individuals and whole societies
could be changed if forced to change, and the change would be permanent. If
humans, why not all species? Moreover, Lysenko adopted just part of the
Mendelian view as European and American scientists understood it at that time:
that heritable changes could occur by big, sudden leaps (mutations). This also
pleased the Soviet authorities, still proud of their Bolshevik Revolution that
appeared to them to have, in the single year of 1917, propelled Russia from the
Middle Ages into the modern world. Lysenko’s doctrine was proclaimed to be
truth; evidence to the contrary was suppressed, and experimental results were
forced to fit into a Lysenkoist interpretation.
Russian scientist to disagree with Lysenko was geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. (Due
to secrecy imposed by Soviet authorities, scientists outside Russia knew
scarcely anything about what was happening there.) Vavilov had done extensive
research regarding genetic variation in crop species (local varieties and wild
relatives), and provided great insights into the processes of domestication that
had produced these crops. The thing that emerged most clearly from his research
was that in order to breed crops, and in order to save them from disease, it is
necessary to save the genes. The researcher must travel extensively, gather
seeds or other plant reproductive parts (such as potato tubers), and keep them
alive. One cannot just grab some seeds, like Lysenko, and force them to change
into what one needs them to be. Vavilov spent time in prison for his beliefs. He
died during the Nazi siege of Leningrad (now once again St. Petersburg). Some
of his fellow geneticists starved within reach of bags of potatoes, which they
were saving for the future of agriculture. Vavilov was one of the small number
of scientific martyrs.
death in 1952, Soviet leadership had to rethink many things about domestic and
external policy. While they never openly repented for their Lysenkoist errors,
the Soviet political and intellectual leadership moved away from Lysenkoism and
adopted the same kind of genetics that was proving successful in the
west—particularly with the breakthrough the next year by Watson and Crick in
demonstrating the structure, and genetic efficacy, of DNA.
Stephen Jay. “A Hearing For
Vavilov.” Chap. 10 in Hen’s Teeth and
Horse’s Toes. New York: Norton,