Scientists and Bush : When science was thwarted before

Op-Ed Contributor

By Michael Benson

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia— For anyone who ever spent time in the old Soviet Union, the recent statement by 60 of the top scientists in the United States had an eerie ring of déjà vu. The accusatory statement, which included 20 Nobel laureates among its issuers, charges that the Bush administration has systematically distorted scientific facts in pursuit of its policy goals. The name of Lysenko, the quack mid-century Soviet botanist, comes to mind.

In the 1930s, Trofim Lysenko postulated that hereditary changes to plants could be triggered by environmental changes — for example, by exposing seed grain to extreme temperatures. He insisted that this theory, which rejected widely accepted chromosome theories of heredity, directly corresponded to Marxism. He was rapidly promoted within the Stalinist hierarchy and in short order effectively became the science czar of the Soviet Union. Under him, bona fide geneticists were denounced as advocates of a doctrine synonymous with fascism. Lysenko was personally responsible for the deportation to the gulag of many talented scientists who didn’t agree with his theories.

Lysenko was, of course, just a symptom of a far larger disease, in which the reigning Soviet ideology, which insisted that its doctrines were firmly grounded in objectively verifiable scientific fact, warped the realities surrounding it to justify its own totalitarian rule and agenda.

Two decades after Lysenko was finally denounced by Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet media still featured a steady diet of contented workers and gleaming combines. The reality, as everyone knew, was different; decrepit, sluggish industries, an agricultural sector that had to import increasing amounts of wheat from the United States, widespread alcoholism and despair, a dead-end command economy.

The Bush administration, needless to say, is not the old Soviet regime, and a Lysenko could never gain such power in the United States. Still, the statement last week by America’s scientific elite has troubling echoes and should serve as a clear warning of the dangers of wearing ideological blinkers. Like the old Soviet Union, which invaded Afghanistan on the basis of a sort of inverted version of the Western domino theory, the Bush regime attacked Iraq with the shakiest of justifications, and like the Soviet Union of the 1980s, the United States is now bogged down in a bloody and expensive war that is drawing infuriated mujahadeen from across the Muslim world.

The Soviet system essentially ignored fundamental economic realities, bankrupting itself in a fruitless attempt to keep up with the United States militarily; the Bush administration likewise seems to believe that it can spend as much as it wants on flawed missile defense schemes and an open-ended global war on terror while legislating massive tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest part of the population.

The Soviet Union cranked out reams of strident propaganda in which non-Socialist states were depicted as despotic outposts of capitalist exploitation, with Moscow and its allies the gleaming hope for mankind; the Bush administration’s black-and-white division of the planet into those for and against us provides a chilling reprise.

The KGB conducted surveillance on its population without even a pretense of judicial oversight; although obviously not comparable with Stalinist methods, the Bush administration’s Patriot Act (an Orwellian name if ever there was one) similarly gives a wide latitude to the FBI to conduct domestic surveillance at will and without much legal recourse.

To circle back to science, last week’s “J’accuse” by America’s leading scientific minds underlines, among other things, a perilous danger. Although there is now a scientific consensus that industrial effluents are the leading cause of a (similarly unquestionable) global warming trend, the White House simply dismisses the evidence. And here again we have to keep the Lysenko example in mind.

In the same way that the Bush administration exaggerated intelligence on Iraq, emphasizing extreme worst-case scenarios to make its case for war, it ignores overwhelming evidence that global warming is gathering force, stressing those few studies which call it into question.

In the end, as the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard said, reality has a way of taking its revenge. The Soviet Union finally disintegrated under the weight of its internal contradictions, a victim of the discrepancy between its ideologically distorted views and reigning reality.

Kurt Gottfried, chairman of the board of directors at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a signer of the accusatory study, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that the administration’s attitude toward science could place the long-term prosperity of the United States at risk. Despite the spooky Soviet overtones the Bush administration has brought to Washington, the United States remains a well-grounded democracy. We need to lose this creeping latter-day variant of Lysenkoism that has moved well beyond the current administration’s dealing with scientific and ecological issues to taint American politics and diplomacy across the board.

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Michael Benson, author of “Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes,” has written for The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly.

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