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Spotting Pseudoscience

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by Alister R. Olson, Michael P. Clough, and Benjamin C. Herman

This story highlights six tactics of science misinformation and disinformation efforts: the lack of competence among false experts, creation of false legitimacy in order to fabricate a fake scientific controversy, cherry picking, putting forth conspiracy theories, avoiding peer review, and appeals directly to the public. See Features of Science Misinformation/Disinformation Efforts: Understand how to detect false information for more information regarding these tactics.

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After the Russian Revolution ended in 1923, the newly formed Soviet government began to prioritize the sciences. Leading the Soviet genetics program was the esteemed geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. Vavilov was winner of the Lenin Award, founder and head of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences (VASKhNIL) and the Institute of Plant Breeding (VIR), and member of the Collegium of the People’s Commisariat of Agriculture of the U.S.S.R. [1]. Under Vavilov, Soviet geneticists made significant advances, and the program was considered to be second only to the United States during the 1920s [2]. However, by 1948, Vavilov had been imprisoned, the Soviet genetics program had been completely dismantled, and millions within the Soviet Union were dead from starvation. Understanding the disintegration of the once vibrant Soviet research program has lessons for combatting the extensive misinformation and disinformation present in today’s world.

Trofim Lysenko

The downfall of Soviet genetics and agriculture occurred due to the alignment of numerous social, economic, scientific, meteorological, and political factors. No single person can bear complete blame for the events, but a crucial actor in the story was Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was born to a Ukrainian peasant family in 1898, and as a result of his family’s background, he did not learn to read or write until he was 13 [3]. He received a basic education in a war-torn region [4], and later completed a degree in agronomy from the Kiev Agricultural Institute in 1925 [3]. Following graduation, Lysenko took a post at the Gandzha agricultural research station in Azerbaijan [4].

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Trofim Lysenko at the 1948 VASKhNIL conference. image source

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Red Flag  |  Lack of competence

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Question 1

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Nature of science connections

Science is not satisfied with well-established relationships (i.e., scientific laws), even those that make accurate predictions. Science seeks a deeper understanding (i.e., theories) that explain why those relationships exist.

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References

[1] Kolchinsky, E. I. (2014). Nikolai Vavilov in the years of Stalin's 'Revolution from Above' (1929-1932). Centaurus, 56, 330-358.

[2] Dobzhansky, T. (1952). Lysenko's "Michurinist" genetics. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 8(2), 40-44.

[3] Roll-Hansen, N. (2005). The Lysenko effect: Undermining the autonomy of science. Endeavour, 29(4), 143-147.

[4] Soyfer, V. N. (1989). New light on the Lysenko era. Nature, 339(8), 415-420.
[5] Harper, P. S. (2017). Lysenko and Russian genetics: Reply to Wang & Liu. European Journal of Human Genetics, 25, 1098.

[6] Cook, R. C. (1949). Lysenko's Marxist genetics: Science or religion? The Journal of Heredity, 40(7), 169-202.

[7] Borinskaya, S. A., Ermolaev, A. I., & Kolchinsky, E. I. (2019). Lysenkoism against genetics: The meeting of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences of August 1948, its background, causes, and aftermath. Genetics, 212, 1-12.

[8] Caspari, E. W., & Marshak, R. E. (1965). The rise and fall of Lysenko. Science, 149(3681), 275-278.
[9] Gordin, M. D. (2012). How Lysenkoism became pseudoscience: Dobzhansky to  Velikovsky. Journal of the History of Biology, 45(3), 443-468.

[10] Amasino, R. (2004). Vernalization, competence, and the epigenetic memory of winter wheat. Plant Cell, 16(10), 2553-2559.

[11] Joravsky, D. (1962). The Lysenko affair. Scientific American, 207(5), 41-49.

[12] Ellman, M. (2000). The 1947 Soviet famine and the entitlement approach to famines. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 24, 603-630.

[13] Boterbloem, C. N. (2002). The death of Andrei Zhdanov. The Slavonic and East European Review, 80(2), 267-287.

[14] Ashby, E. (1948). Genetics in the Soviet Union. Nature, 162, 912-913.

[15] Dejong-Lambert, W., & Krementsov, N. (2012). On labels and issues: The Lysenko controversy and the Cold War. Journal of the History of Biology, 45, 373-388

[16] Reznik, S., & Fet, V. (2019). The destructive role of Trofim Lysenko in Russian science. European Journal of Human Genetics, 27, 1325-1325.

[17] Dobzhansky, T. (1958). Lysenko at bay. Journal of Heredity, 49(1), 15-17.

[18] Ellman, M. (2002). Soviet repression statistics: Some comments. Europe-Asia Studies, 54(7), 1151-1172.

 
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