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Virginia’s Lysenko

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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.