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Virginia’s Lysenko


Eighty years ago, Josef Stalin found a scientist he liked.  This was bad news for the scientists who were not so popular with the Soviet leadership.  

Trofim Lysenko, with Stalin’s approval, directed the Soviet Institute of Genetics. He promoted the theory that characteristics acquired during an organism’s lifetime can be passed on genetically to future generations.

This fit well with the communist objective of creating a “New Man”. It did not fit quite so well with the truth.

Lysenko’s theories would have been laughed out of the lab had he not found a sponsor willing and able to apply the full coercive power of government to reward those who supported Lysenko and punish those who disagreed.  Thousands of scientists suffered under Lysenko, losing their jobs and often being imprisoned.  

It takes enormous courage to “speak truth to power” when you have a tyrannically-minded leader using power to threaten the truth.  Which brings me to Ken Cuccinelli.  

The state has an important role in science: to fund research and education, to use and promote science, to ensure it is freely conducted.  It is not the role of the state to dictate, for political reasons, which scientific theories may be considered right or wrong.

When governments do take such a stance, and get away with it, it is a sign of a deep sickness in the body politic.  Nothing is more important to democracy than the free and open pursuit of the truth.  Politicians who don’t respect or protect that pursuit represent the greatest danger a democracy can have.  Because when you take away the ability of citizens to appeal to reason, truth and common sense, you open the door to arbitrary rule – which means that those in power can ultimately get away with anything.

Some may see it as a small thing that Attorney General Cuccinelli is demanding information from the University of Virginia about the work of climate scientist Michael Mann to determine if he was “defrauding” state taxpayers – that is, by publishing peer-reviewed scientific research that Mr. Cuccinelli and his donors in the fossil fuel industry (such as Massey Energy) found inconvenient.  

This is no small thing.  It is one of the most shocking acts I have witnessed in over three decades of studying, observing and participating in politics and government.  Cuccinelli is crossing a line that democratic governments only cross at their peril.  This action cannot stand – it must not stand.  

It is time for Virginia’s campuses to rise up in outrage at this attack by the state on their academic freedom.  It is good to see University of Virginia faculty denouncing this action.  But others need to join them in solidarity – students and faculty at the rest of Virginia’s universities and at other institutions across the country; associations of academics, scientists, etc., nationally and internationally; protectors of the First Amendment, like the ACLU; perhaps, I don’t know, Amnesty International?  (Will Professor Mann become Cuccinelli’s first prisoner of conscience?)

The key to maintaining democracy is that when governments overreach, the people slap their hand.  It’s time for us to stand up and do so again – all hands on deck, people!  This is serious.

  • Glen Tomkins

    Cuccinelli likes to tell us about his little theory of how the Union works.  Sure, the people of the US voted in Obama and a Democratic majority in Congress last federal election.  But then the people of the Commonwealth voted in Republicans at the state level last Fall.  Whether or not they realized it, according to Cuccinelli, the people of VA were voting in folks whose job it is to rein in the federal govt, rather than what many of us might have supposed, that we were electing a state govt.

    Cuccinelli believes that the Commonwealth is our actual govt.  And it’s a govt that has broader powers than you people out there who imagined that the US was your only govt, are at all used to.  The Constitution can’t possibly bind Cuccinelli’s govt, because the Constitution is merely a contractual agreement among the states, and that federal govt that we are used to thinking of as our govt, is actually just the creation of VA and the other states.  Academic freedom is the least important of the rights and freedoms that the namby-pamby federal govt has to respect, but that the full-throated govt in Cuccinelli’s mind can and must trample to advance the power of the state.

    There is an actor in this little psycho-drama of Cuccinelli’s that does need reining in, but it’s not the federal govt, it’s not our true govt as US citizens.  Sure, his individual outrages need to opposed, but that opposition cannot be the limit of what this situation requires.  We have, as our highest legal authority, someone who doesn’t believe in the Union, doesn’t believe that it is our govt.  He needs reining in.  He needs reining in by our actual govt, the federal govt, because the fundamental duty of actual govt is to protect us all from anyone who seeks to usurp that govt.  

    But he also needs reining in by the people and govt of the Commonwealth.  And since his misdeeds in office are not simply one-off mistakes, but all stem from one fixed conviction of his, that VA is our one country of allegiance, and he is the govt of that country, that reining in cannot be limited to just blocking each individual outrage he commits.  He needs to be impeached and removed form office.  If there aren’t the votes in the legislature for that, his office needs to have its funding blocked, completely, totally.  Let the majority of the House deal with this consequence of their refusal to do their duty and impeach this lunatic, by allowing funding of some other agency newly created to do whatever useful and needful work the AG’s office is actually supposed to be engaged in.  

  • Teddy Goodson

    Under Bush II we came perilously close to this type of Stalinist government control of science and research, but Cucinnelli is the first to cross the line so boldly and so openly.

    This action of Cucinneli shows the mindset of the natural authoritarian, self-righteous True Believer. When persons with this mindset gain positions of power, they see it as an opportunity to run wild, imposing their own True Beliefs on everyone else, no matter how bizarre. So we have this attempt, however disguised, at deciding what outcomes will be allowed to result from research—- leading, eventually to, (for example) how people should lead their private lives, including sex, how we will treat the environment for our own use, what kind of art, movies, plays will be allowed, how we will impose our will on other, recalcitrant nations in the world because of course we are superior to other peoples on account of our True Belief, we are, shall we say, exceptional. God loves us, and we can do no wrong.  In other words, we are Republicans.

    At this time and place, here and now, this seems to be where we have arrived with the evolution of the formerly Grand Old Party, of whose dominant wing Cucinnelli has been an annointed standardbearer. What a pity no Republican has forcefully denounced his actions.  Just, what a pity.

  • fuzed

    Letter writing campaign, Recall campaign.  petition?

    What form would gather the most support, and yet be effective?

    Should we help UVA’s response somehow,  can we ask for an audit of the AG’s office?

  • WestEndVoter

    and is being investigated by Penn State. Let that investigation take its course.  Virginia’s involvement goes way too far.  If anything, Mann, as a relatively junior Professor crossed the line on acceptable research practices, and came up with a historical temperature record which made global warming look to be worse of a problem than it might be.  

    (Miles/Lowell: I am not saying that Global Warming is not a problem — just that the way he arrived at his historical record left a lot to be desired).  

    While he did not appear to falsify data per se, there appeared to be too much advocacy in the way he used the data to create a historical temperature record which resembled a “hockey stick” when viewed over a period of over a thousand years.

    Temperature    __________________/

                 Time (thousands of years)

    Because we have only had true global measurement of temperature via satellite for a few decades, scientists needed to use traditional thermometers in recent centuries, and “proxies”, such as tree ring size, prior to the invention of thermometers.

    Much of the criticism of Mann’s work was based on, to put it nicely, the “creativity” and the lack of statistical rigor that he used to create the “hockey stick” graphs.  While his historical temperature record is still in debate, in my view, many, if not most scientists would seriously question, or even condemn, his research practices if they took the time to look at his research in detail.    

    Does that “creativity” by a junior Professor rise to the level of criminal activity?  Unless there is more to the story that I have seen, assuredly not.  While I have definitely seen overreach in Virginia government that is worse than Cuccinelli’s subpoena, that does not mean that Cuccinelli’s political actions should not be condemned.  As kindler mentions, “when governments overreach, the people slap their hand.”

    Mann, as a scientist, overreached.  He has had his hand repeatedly slapped already.  So why cannot Cuccinelli now find better use of his time, for example, going after people that are truly cooking the books, blatently ignoring environmental/safety laws, and endangering Virginia citizens?

    I guess that answers to that have been stated in other comments above. We know this is, at best, a political stunt, an attempt to discredit the foundations of climate change science by persecuting a single individual scientist.

    Fortunately, there are solutions to political stunts.  As kindler mentions, “all hands on deck”!  Virginia’s overreach definitely deserves your attention.