His theory was that environmental changes to crop plants are heritable through the organism’s cells, dismissing entirely the role of genetics. Lysenko’s theories were fully adopted under Stalin and had disastrous consequences for the people of the Soviet Union when his rejection of genetics contributed to the Great Famine of 1932-1933 and the 1946-1947 drought. The reason why Lysenko’s hokum was embraced? His ideas cemented the narrative of the Communist Party: that environmental conditions, not genetics, produce results, fitting with the state narrative that hit back against elitist notions of “natural hierarchy.”
Lysenkoism is a fitting example of how social and political idealism can be imposed on society despite having absolutely no merit. Today we are not far away from Lysenkoism with a recent initiative in the US that Creationism be taught as a scientific theory in schools. With a new wave of bills aimed at changing what school children are learning in the US and the fact that Creationism is still taught in faith schools in the UK, scientific debates can be the most ferocious on the political front. Why is it that scientific disagreements turn into battlegrounds when, ostensibly, science is supposed to be clear cut? It’s not as if two parties are debating the merits of the Star Wars prequels.
Why are humans so driven to promote a pseudo-science without any fact-based evidence to sustain their claims? We are living in an era of “post-truth” where there is an upsurge of pseudoscience: the anti-vaxxers, those who use homeopathy for cancer treatments, climate change deniers, those who swear by horoscopes, clean coal, and myriad other anti-science beliefs. Similar to Lysenkoism, these beliefs do not emerge in a vacuum but have their roots in culture, political ideology, and even personality.
A recent study spearheaded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center hypothesised that those with little understanding of autism would be the most likely to think they are the best informed on the subject of vaccine policy. In psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a “cognitive bias whereby people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognise their own incompetence.” This study found that 35% of the respondents claimed they knew as much as or more than doctors and 34% thought they knew more than scientists on the causes of autism, linking uninformed overconfidence to the endorsement of misinformation.
This study references a common practice today where individuals attack science to underscore their belief system despite a complete lack or very limited knowledge on the subject. While Donald Trump’s opinions on climate change as a conspiracy being risible, his ideas symbolise many of the myths we face today as a society. We need to confront myths with facts, to include being ready to expand our own views when new facts come to light. We embrace the new when new devices or apps appear on the market—smart technologies in our homes, cars, and person that calculate everything from parking space capacity to glucose readings. Yet, despite this, as a culture many still hold certain myths as true such that they remain stubborn to certain scientific truths.
For instance, how many of us read across the political spectrum to challenge our notions of what we know and/or believe? How many of us have read the arguments of those who critique global warming as a human-made event or essays written by anti-vaxxers? While being certain of one’s political and scientific thoughts might feel comfortable, we must challenge ourselves in our own knowledge.
But how do we do this?
First, engage your mind by actively and purposely read ideas with which you disagree to fully understand if you actually disagree with them. Engage in healthy debate, listen to counterpoints, and make ripostes in return. And mostly, be prepared to have your ideas challenged—not only to be wrong, but to take into account other information that might yield a more nuanced answer. It is important that we separate our individualist notions of the self that seem to be both overwhelming our society today and blurring our collective ability to examine evidence-based science.
Socrates stated, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” I think the greatest wisdom we can begin with in this embrace of facts is to admit that while we might not know nothing, that we certainly don’t know it all.