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The New Lysenkoism

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Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was Joseph Stalin’s favorite scientist. He rejected Mendelian genetics in favor of a new pseudo-science of hybridization which had strong political appeal to Stalin and his leadership clique. For the better part of a generation, Lysenkoism terrorized the Soviet scientific establishment—it was used to propel highly unqualified figures into the upper reaches of the academy and critical research institutions, because of their political loyalty and not scientific abilities. Andrei Sakharov writes compellingly of Lysenkoism and the damage it did at a critical time in Soviet history, contributing to famines and causing the death of untold thousands and undermining the state’s commitment to science generally.

Reading this morning’s newspapers it was impossible to avoid thinking of Lysenko and thinking of how close we have come to the same menace in America today. Science is viewed as a threat, and it is suppressed or toyed with whenever it is seen as potentially undermining myths on which the Bush Administration seeks to build.

The departing Surgeon General gives compelling evidence of just this.

Former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona told a Congressional panel Tuesday that top Bush administration officials repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations. The administration, Dr. Carmona said, would not allow him to speak or issue reports about stem cells, emergency contraception, sex education, or prison, mental and global health issues. Top officials delayed for years and tried to “water down” a landmark report on secondhand smoke, he said. Released last year, the report concluded that even brief exposure to cigarette smoke could cause immediate harm.

Dr. Carmona said he was ordered to mention President Bush three times on every page of his speeches. He also said he was asked to make speeches to support Republican political candidates and to attend political briefings.

And administration officials even discouraged him from attending the Special Olympics because, he said, of that charitable organization’s longtime ties to a “prominent family” that he refused to name. “I was specifically told by a senior person, ‘Why would you want to help those people?’ ” Dr. Carmona said. The Special Olympics is one of the nation’s premier charitable organizations to benefit disabled people, and the Kennedys have long been deeply involved in it.

In the balance of his testimony, Carmona cited a long series of incidents when he was directed to distort, withhold and revise scientific studies because their conclusions contradicted cherished Bush Administration myths—about homosexuality, AIDS, the dangers of smoking tobacco, and the benefits of smoking marijuana.

But Carmona’s testimony is just one piece of the current puzzle. Some of the more disturbing elements have come out of NOAA and NASA, where data concerning global warming has been routinely manipulated to support an Administration agenda of downplaying the risks associated with this phenomenon.

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