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PM Takes a Stalinist Stance on Science

Image: Simon Kneebone

Tony Abbott, like Joseph Stalin, has no decision-making framework when it comes to science. Image: Simon Kneebone

By Ross Honeywill

By pandering to anti-science, Australia’s Prime Minister is repeating the mistakes of Socialist Russia.

In an exquisite paradox of politics and science, Australia under Tony Abbott appears to be following in the Soviet footsteps of Joseph Stalin – at least when it comes to science and scientists. The Stalinist era saw an immediate denigration and demotion of professional, academically trained scientists, a denial of evidence-based science, and the rise of peasant science.

One day after Tony Abbott’s election, a close adviser and former chairman of the ABC and the Australian Stock Exchange launched a vitriolic attack against the CSIRO, the weather bureau and the professional scientists who propagate “the myth of anthropological climate change.” He probably meant anthropogenic climate change, but he’s not a scientist.

He’s Maurice Newman, the man who will chair Tony Abbott’s Business Advisory Council, and in an opinion piece written for the Australian Financial Review he said that investment in the myths of climate change and global action mis­allocate capital and contribute to unemployment.

“The CSIRO, for example, has 27 scientists dedicated to climate change,” he wrote. “It and the weather bureau continue to propagate the myth of anthropological climate change and are likely to be background critics of the Coalition’s Direct Action policies.”

Coming only 1 day after the portfolios of science and climate change vanished, seriously diminishing the status of Australian science, it was also revealed that John Howard, Mr Abbott’s mentor, was to address one of the world’s pre-eminent groups of climate sceptics.

Then, 3 weeks after the election of the Abbott government, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its most damning report yet on the role played by humans and their polluting industries in negatively impacting the planet’s climate. The Abbott government said next to nothing about the report.

The real test for the Coalition government then came in October with the release of the Climate Change Authority’s report on Australia’s “carbon budget”. The Coalition attempted to suppress the report by threatening to dismantle the Authority in much the same way it dismantled the Climate Commission (which, within 48 hours, re-emerged through public donations as the Climate Council).

Clive James wrote that there could be no clearer proof that the mind is hard to kill, nor could there be a more frightening demonstration of the virulent power of the forces which can combine to kill it.

Ironically, on the same day the IPCC released its research, the federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, shut down the Climate Commission’s website so its taxpayer-funded research over the past 2 years could no longer be accessed by the public. “However sincere Hunt might like to appear in interviews,” Renew Economy reported, “the reality is that Tony Abbott owes his position to the cabal of climate deniers that elevated him to leadership, and climate denial remains rife within the Coalition. He has appointed a vocal climate denier as his main business advisor.”

Australia’s cultural revolution has begun.

Likewise in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union under Stalin there was little sympathy for anyone with academic pretensions. It was in this anti-science milieu that Trofim Denisovich Lysenko came to prominence.

Although he’d benefited from a good education, Lysenko never allowed it to stand in the way of his image as a peasant with peasant parents and a peasant mentality. His was an anti-science persona, and it never held him back from seeking a high profile through the media.

When he was only 29, Lysenko received prominent praise in Pravda – the official newspaper of the revolutionary government under Lenin and subsequently Stalin—for an anti-science breakthrough.

One is reminded of the common Russian commentary on the country’s two most influential newspapers Pravda (truth) and Isvestia (news): there should be more Pravda in Isvestia and more Isvestia in Pravda.

Despite the lack of truth in Lysenko’s news, the Stalinist government proclaimed that this non-scientific peasant would feed its starving population, and immediately adopted what became known as Lysenko’s vernalisation. This was the process of soaking and chilling grain before planting.

Lysenko proposed that vernalised wheat would perform better in difficult conditions than any of the pedigreed strains produced by professional scientists, and that not only would it deliver better results, in line with the controversial theory of French proto-evolutionist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, when it had been vernalised once it would pass the benefit on to subsequent grain crops without the need for further treatment. The second-generation wheat, Lysenko declared, would outshine all others and deliver the struggling Soviet Republic from its crippling grain shortage.

In the name of amateur genius, Lysenko was triumphant and such was the political enthusiasm for his solution that Lysenko’s political champions accused scientists, who were deeply sceptical about the results from one inconclusive experiment, of being spoilers and destroyers.

Increasingly cautious, the scientists refused to be silenced, so throughout Lysenko’s rapid rise through the ranks of influence he made sure he stayed one step ahead of scrutiny or the potential exposure of the practical failure of his methods. He needed to because vernalisation was a failure.

During the decade following his spectacular emergence onto the stage of Soviet food production, Lysenko further cemented his status in Stalin’s eyes by continually suggesting newer and more radical experiments before the results of the last set of trials became available. This very modern management survival technique secured him prominent coverage in the newspapers, and public eminence.

Then, in a spectacular display of Machiavellian manoeuvring, Lysenko encouraged Stalin to transform a debate about practice outranking theory into a war on genetics as the central tenet of biology. In a final stab to the heart of professional science, Stalin declared that practice was indeed more important than theory.

Lysenko, wearing the emperor’s new clothes, was considered to be a model comrade in the new order, and just as the mainstream scientists were put on notice and demoted, newspapers elevated Lysenko’s reputation to one of a proletarian hero.

The political battlefield shifted to open attacks on the scientific establishment deemed to be, by definition, anti-proletarian, and Lysenko proved himself to be a master of realpolitik.

Lysenkoites, as his growing band of followers became known, demanded total abolition of genetics as a science in the Soviet Union. They openly attacked the “bourgeois thinking”that decent scientists had engaged in before the revolution.

He served his masters well, causing the expulsion, imprisonment and death of hundreds of scientists, and eliminating throughout the Soviet Union all study and research involving Mendelian genetics. This period is known as Lysenkoism.

It must be said that despite his rare moments of brilliance, most of Lysenko’s life was spent brutalising geneticists and developing scientific theories that bordered on science fiction.

Following Stalin’s death in 1953 the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had other priorities and the frontier atmosphere of revolutionary retribution was turning into a more sophisticated political climate. Mainstream scientists soon re-emerged, and Lysenko began to suffer the kind of strident criticism from which he’d been quarantined for 30 years.

The scientists, having been muzzled throughout the Lysenko era, relished their newfound freedoms and denounced Lysenko’s use of political power to silence opposition and eliminate opponents in the scientific community.

In 1964 the president of the Academy of Sciences declared that Lysenko’s immunity from criticism had officially expired. Lysenko was disgraced in the Soviet Union.

Professional scientists and evidence-based science was back and the peasant scientists were once again regarded as no more than... peasants.

Tony Abbott, like Joseph Stalin, has no decision-making framework when it comes to science and the application of scientific rigour. He has already acquiesced to the anti-scientists and abandoned evidence-based practise in climate science.

As the anti-scientists of 21st century Australia build political capital, we are reminded of George Santayana famously saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Ross Honeywill is author of Lamarck’s Evolution: Two Centuries of Genius and Jealousy, and a doctoral scholar at the University of Tasmania.