The new Lysenkoism

Some science conflicts with Republican ideology, so it must be suppressed.

One of the nation’s leading climate change scientists is quitting the Agriculture Department in protest over the Trump administration’s efforts to bury his groundbreaking study about how rice is losing nutrients because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Lewis Ziska, a 62-year-old plant physiologist who’s worked at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for more than two decades, told POLITICO he was alarmed when department officials not only questioned the findings of the study — which raised serious concerns for the 600 million people who depend on rice for most of their calories — but also tried to minimize media coverage of the paper, which was published in the journal Science Advances last year.

I don’t think it was that groundbreaking. When I got here to UMM twenty years ago and started listening to plant biologists, this was a common and accepted conundrum: plants grown in CO2 enriched atmospheres would thrive happily but they were making more carbohydrates, which require only carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight, but things like proteins, which also require nitrogen, were being synthesized at the same or lower rate. You’d get loads of carbs at the expense of all the other nutrients we like in our food. Ziska may have been one of the plant physiologists who first advanced this concern — I wouldn’t know, it’s way outside my field — but what he is saying is not controversial or unusual now.

Well, not controversial to scientists. To politicians with an ideological anti-science axe to grind, it’s data that must be buried.

Ziska, in describing his decision to leave, painted a picture of a department in constant fear of the president and Secretary Sonny Perdue’s open skepticism about broadly accepted climate science, leading officials to go to extremes to obscure their work to avoid political blowback. The result, he said, is a vastly diminished ability for taxpayer-funded scientists to provide farmers and policymakers with important information about complex threats to the global food supply.

Ziska, or “Lew” as he’s known to his colleagues, has researched plants at USDA across five administrations, Republican and Democratic, contributing significantly to the country’s understanding of how rising carbon dioxide levels and changing temperatures affect everything from crops to noxious weeds and even plants grown to make illicit drugs.

The shifts in the USDA seem petty and trivial now, but they all add up to an effort to promote obscurantism when the science contradicted the political dogma of the right.

“We were careful,” he said. “And then it got to the point where language started to change. No one wanted to say climate change, you would say ‘climate uncertainty’ or you would say ‘extreme events.’ Or you would use whatever euphemism was available to not draw attention.”

Ziska said there was never a department memo that directed legions of USDA scientists to be more careful with their language, it was simply well understood.

The signals to scientists have been subtle but frequent. For example, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funnels hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to colleges and universities for food and agriculture research has dropped the term “climate change” from its requests for applications from scientists. Instead, the agency uses “climate variability and change.”

Practically every science textbook in the country — every one I’ve ever used, anyway — will have a section on the history of genetics that will mention Lysenko, the Soviet politician who was convinced that he could adapt any plant to the harsh Russian winters by vernalization, treating the seeds with exposure to cold so that they would acquire cold resistant traits. It didn’t work, but that didn’t stop him from promoting his wishful thinking, and getting the Soviet administration to censor (and imprison) people who pointed out the evidence was against him.

It’s interesting that we were all trained on this lesson with an example that involves climate and biology, and yet here we are, led by people who apparently never cracked an introductory science textbook, or they’d realize they’re repeating history.


  1. flange says

    Isn’t “climate change” itself a euphemism? Didn’t we use to talk about “global warming” instead? I always thought “climate change” was invented by Republican science deniers to make the phenomenon more palatable, less immediate and scary. And we bought into it.

  2. KG says

    No – that’s an unusual variation on a denialist myth, for which see here: the two terms have been used in parallel for decades. There have been recent suggestions to adopt terms which are less cuddly than either: “climate disruption” and “global heating” for example.

  3. KG says

    Woah! Slight mistake@3. Reading the article I linked to properly, I see that the Shrub administration was advised by a Republican political consultant to use “climate change” rather than “global warming” – but that was decades after both terms came into use.

  4. Ichthyic says

    but that was decades after both terms came into use.

    er, not so much, if we are talking about how the media treats the issue.

    In which case Flange is more correct than not, as you discovered yourself.

  5. chrislawson says

    Lysenko’s abuse of dissident (i.e correct) scientists was terrible, but even worse was the way the Soviet Union (and later China) planted millions of hectares to Lysenko’s specifications, creating famines that killed millions.

  6. chrislawson says

    …and the new Lysenkoists in right-wing Western governments will kill hundreds of millions if they aren’t reined in…

  7. KG says

    In which case Flange is more correct than not, as you discovered yourself. – Ichthyic@5

    Not really, since he thought the term “climate change” was invented by the Republicans, when it had been in regular use for decades before Shrub. As for how the media treats the terms, I’d want to see a proper analysis.

  8. numerobis says

    Climate change being more cuddly than global warming was of course just a stalling tactic; the concept is what’s scary. Change terms and you can confuse people for a short while, but before long they cotton on to the fact that double-plus-ungood means bad.

  9. flange says

    You’re being too literal.
    I should have said that Republicans “co-opted ‘climate change.'”
    Republicans are not capable of inventing anything.