Modern science is The Truth. None of it is made up. Ever. Second-hand smoke causes cancer because the researchers say it does. If scientists warn that global warming may kill us all, we do our best to lower carbon emissions. The laundry detergent in the commercial must be scientifically proven to be superior, because the actor is wearing a white coat. Oh, wait... The public perception of science can so easily be hijacked. Science is not infallible, of course. It is a construed version of The Truth, based on observational evidence. Good science is objective honesty, but can never be absolute. Therefore, science is not The Truth, but it provides an explanation of natural phenomena that is damn well closest to The Truth. And that's why butter is really bad for you one week, and then much better than margarine the next. As more evidence is gathered, science inches closer to The Truth all the time. Now you can visualize just how far we've come since the days of ancient history.
The problem with the public perception of science is two-fold. First: people equate science with The Truth. Second: people equate anything that appears technical with science. If it sounds sciencey, we should trust it, because it must have come from an expert who knows what The Truth is. Not only is this rationale utterly absurd, it is also exceedingly dangerous. We are preconditioned to trust those who seem like authorities, even if they have hidden agendas. And even if these so-called authorities aren't inherently evil, they may themselves fall victim to indoctrination, disinformation or - worse yet - delusions of grandeur. Dabbling with pseudoscience not only detracts from the slow crawl to The Truth, but can bring a whole nation to its knees.
Trofim Lysenko was born in 1898 to a Ukranian peasant family. He attended the Kiev Agricultural Institute from 1921 to 1925 and was posted at Gandzha agricultural experiment station in Azerbaijan as head of legume selection - whatever that is. Lysenko constituted the perfect fodder for the Communist Party to create a working class agricultural scientist to inspire disenfranchised peasants to embrace forced collectivist farming. Lysenko had lots of novel ideas: in 1928, he proclaimed to have "invented" vernalization, a revolutionary new technique for increasing the yield of crops. By storing wet wheat seeds in snow over the winter, the resultant seedlings would flower earlier. This is of course nothing new - many temperate species require a cold vernalization period in order to break dormancy. It's a natural mechanism evolved to help the plant survive the cold, dark winter and sprout in the spring. However, Lysenko claimed that his technique ensured that the offspring of vernalized crops would already be vernalized themselves, and not require a new round of cold induction. This would stave off the looming food crisis. Could the next potato harvest be enormous? He had the results to back it up. No-one bothered to investigate the experimental practices at his agricultural research station. In reality, a lot of his data was inconclusive, but none of it was closely scrutinized at that point. It was too good not to be true. He could fertilize exhausted fields without applying any fertilizers at all! Lysenko was no mere agronomist, he was an agricultural messiah.
Soon Lysenko became majorly influential in Soviet agriculture. Sound Russian plant breeding was shifted to the sideline as Lysenko's procedures were adopted. Much of his work paralleled aspects of Lamarckism. Lamarckian evolution is the discredited scientific theory that acquired characteristics can be passed on to progeny. This is akin to saying that a man who lost an arm in a car accident will go on to sire armless children. Lamarck's theory was a pretty good one for the early 19th century perhaps, but since that time Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin had provided much improved explanations for how heredity and evolution worked. Lysenko put in a lot of effort in denouncing the burgeoning geneticists of his country. After all, they were playing around with the chromosomes of fruit flies and seemed disinterested in helping to feed the people. The proof that DNA was the genetic material was still some decades away. Such bourgeois academics were of little use to the Soviet government; Lysenko's research output was tremendous, with edible results. His promises were the best way of motivating the kolkhozniks to stay on the ailing collective farms. In 1940, Lysenko became director of The Institute of Genetics for the USSR Academy of Sciences. All so-called counterproductive scientific activities were halted. The study of Mendelian genetics was essentially outlawed. Scientists and researchers all over the Soviet Union were ousted from their positions, imprisoned, or sent to labour camps.
Dark days for science. Georgii Karpechenko, a cytologist and plant breeder, was arrested for "anti-Soviet" inclinations. He was sentenced to death and executed on 28 July 1941. The real reason for his execution was his affiliation with Nikolai Vavilov. Vavilov was a Soviet botanist and director of the Leningrad All-Union Institute of Agricultural Sciences. He was especially interested in finding the centres of origin of crops like wheat and maize. Because he realized the importance of preserving the genetic diversity found at these centres of origin for future plant breeding projects, he was responsible for establishing what continues to be one of the world's largest seedbanks. Vavilov was quite vocal and openly criticized Lysenko's non-Mendelian initiatives. This did not go down well and Nikolai Vavilov was duly arrested. He died of starvation in a prison in 1943.
"He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists." - physicist Andrei Sakharov on Lysenko, 1964
Lysenko's stranglehold on Russian agriculture continued well after Stalin's death and into the 1960s. However, the world had changed by then; mainstream science could no longer be suppressed. A case was brought against Lysenko in 1962 (by three physicists, no less). Lysenko's use of political power to silence opposition and eliminate his scientific opponents was condemned and his work criticizd as pseudoscience. Appeals for the restoration of the scientific method to all fields of biology and agricultural science pervaded the Soviet press. No longer immune to criticism, Lysenko was removed from his post as director of the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences and restricted to an experimental farm in Moscow's Lenin Hills. The Institute itself was soon dissolved. Trofim Lysenko passed away on 20 November 1976.
Science is not infallible, of course, because scientists are human. Inevitably, researcher bias clouds results: the desire to see the data support the theory - that human need to be vindicated and validated - is very strong. A hypothesis can only be rejected or fail to be rejected, never proven. Truly objective science will allow the theory to describe the data, and so bring us an inch closer to The Truth. That is the beauty of the scientific method. The fact that the guy on TV is wearing a white coat doesn't make him a scientist. Listen to what he is saying: does he juggle technical terms? Does he whip statistics out of clean air? How reliable are the references he uses? Does he rely on your innumeracy to convince you? Is this a conjuring trick disguised as statistics? In the 21st century, now that everyone's an expert, it is more prudent than ever not to become sold on the hype.