The Blurring of Fact and Opinion, 2016-Style: When Opinion Overrides Fact (Part 5 of 5)

You’ve almost certainly never heard of Trofim Lysenko, but his indirect impact on world affairs in the twentieth century was enormous even though he wasn’t a politician and, although he worked in the Soviet Union, wasn’t even a member of the Community Party.

Lysenko was an agronomist: someone who works to help plants grow better. When some of his experiments in the 1920s showed promise, Stalin pretty much handed him the keys to the Soviet agriculture system and told him to start growing things his way. Lysenko had a theory that plant characteristics could be passed down but in a way that denied the existence of what today we call genetics. At the risk of oversimplifying, it was as if your choosing red as your favorite color would result in your child inheriting a preference for red and that this inheritance could be executed in just one generation. In theory, then, Lysenko insisted that some of his experiments that improved crop yields would be inherited by the seeds of those crops.

Today's Lysenko: making it up and punishing anyone who dares disagree.

Today’s Lysenko: making it up and punishing anyone who dares disagree.

They weren’t, and today that theory has been discredited, but Lysenko spent more than 30 years in charge of Soviet agriculture and rejected any dissent from his theories and worked to have those who disagreed with him not just tossed out of their jobs but tossed into jail. Opponents of Lysenko, with Stalin’s assistance, were routinely sentenced to time in the Gulag. It was only in the mid-1960s that Soviet authorities came to realize how profoundly Lysenko had damaged Soviet agriculture, and it was a failure from which the Soviet Union never recovered. You may recall in the 1970s that this enormous country, with plenty of arable land, routinely needing to import food because it could not grow enough for its own people. The money it spent on imported food could have been spent on more important things and The Curmudgeon would argue that this contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.

There was never, at any time, any good science behind Lysenko’s theories. He was apparently very good at creating plant hybrids through grafts but the theories he expounded were developed by others, not him, and his experiments were poorly performed and impossible to replicate because his methods were so slipshod and his documentation so lacking.

Curiously, Lysenkoism, as it came to be known, is enjoying a modest resurgence in Russia. Why? Russian nationalism: Russians want their own science, not the science of others, and Lysenko certainly meets that strange criterion – even though Lysenko’s “science” never really was science at all. The lack of credibility of the underlying science appears to be irrelevant to those supporting this strange resurgence. Fortunately for Russia, this appears to be a minor movement and not something that’s going to upend Russian agriculture all over again.

So why tell this story? Because if ideology led to the hijacking of science in the Soviet Union in the mid-twentieth century, it appears that ideology is trying to hijack science – and more than just science – in the U.S. in 2017.

Climate change is real: there’s no doubt about this. Man’s actions have caused profound and potentially lethal changes in our environment. There are no credible scientists with expertise in this field who don’t agree with this.

But there are plenty of non-credible, non-scientists who simply don’t accept it. Why not? Several reasons, The Curmudgeon suspects.

Some of it is ideological: for reasons that escape The Curmudgeon, the Republican Party has taken a very skeptical view of climate change. It’s not clear why – Republicans have always been inexplicably opposed to anything that has to do with preserving and protecting the environment – but given the party’s strong anti-intellectual inclinations, it almost makes senses that Republicans would reject climate change because the only people with the credibility to discuss it have a level of education that they don’t.

Some, The Curmudgeon understands, have a religious perspective: they believe such matters are in the hands of their deity and that this deity would never do such a thing to harm its subjects.

Smog? What smog?

Smog? What smog?

Some oppose it for business reasons: because admitting that global warming is a problem implies responsibility for addressing it but that means taking actions that could get in the way of making money. That, The Curmudgeon suspects, is why so many leaders of large industrial companies either reject the idea of climate change or believe it’s greatly overstated. They reject it because to accept it would mean risking their ability to continue making money through means that contribute to global warming.

Once again we come down to facts versus opinions. The scientists have the undeniable facts on their side and those who reject climate change and global warming do not. But that does not appear to deter opponents at all: they insist they are correct, they reject science and the scientists, and they demand that their opinions be accepted as fact.

Except they’re not.

This kind of insistence on supporting a viewpoint grounded in opinion in the face of facts to the contrary has enormous implications for our society. The facts aren’t all in, for example, but it appears there’s evidence that Russia did things to try to influence the outcome of our presidential election. But if those who won that election refuse to acknowledge that, that only poses a minor problem – but what would not be a minor problem is ignoring that Russian capability and risking foreign interference in other aspects of American life in the future.

It's just as cold as ever here at the South Pole.

It’s just as cold as ever here at the South Pole.

And there are others: Planned Parenthood doesn’t perform abortions; there’s not a hint of Sharia law anywhere in the U.S.; Obama never lifted a finger to take guns away from anyone; there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; and many more.

The false belief in the “science” behind Lysenko’s work was disastrous to the Soviet Union. What Lysenko and Stalin and their supporters put forth as science wasn’t, and as a result, people in the Soviet Union went hungry and that country’s economy stumbled because it had to buy food the country should have been able to grow itself. Now, we have people denying global warming even though its existence is beyond dispute, and even the clear evidence to the contrary – rising tides, warmer temperatures, melting ice caps, and much more – doesn’t seem to be able to convince people who have chosen to believe that their opinion, and the opinions they’re being fed by others, are facts.

So it continues to happen: the blurring of fact and opinion. It’s true: we can have our own opinions but we can’t have our own facts.

But that’s just not going to stop some people, no matter how much harm it causes the rest of us.





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