With campus cancel culture now so commonplace and brazen that even leftist publications like The Atlantic are sounding the alarm, we are now inaugurating a new MTC award: The Minding the Campus Trofim Lysenko Award for the Suppression of Academic Speech (a Lysenko Award, for short).
Who was Trofim Lysenko?
The son of Ukrainian peasant farmers and illiterate until he was 13, Lysenko became an agronomist of initially dubious reputation. His earliest experiments (which involved sowing certain crops in the winter to get yields in the spring—hardly a new idea) were marked by poor design and likely fabricated results. Nevertheless, the young Lysenko loudly proclaimed that they validated his principal theory: that genetics did not exist, and that, instead, plants and animals could simply be trained to develop heritable traits, allowing them to grow and prosper under any conditions.
Foreign scientists regarded him as a bad joke. British biologist S.C. Harland observed that Lysenko was “completely ignorant of the elementary principles of genetics and plant physiology . . . To talk to Lysenko was like trying to explain differential calculus to a man who did not know his 12-times table.” When confronted with statistical errors in his results (likely occurring because he either did not understand statistics, or was simply fudging his data), Lysenko famously claimed that mathematics had no place in biology, and denounced his critics as bourgeois imperialists.
Under normal academic conditions, where researchers follow the scientific method and subject hypotheses to rigorous testing and debate, Lysenko’s theories would have been swiftly exposed for the pseudoscience they were. But Lysenko had one thing going for him. While his research was bunk, the idea that you could change a plant or animal’s heritable characteristics by changing its environment matched up with the Marxist concept of materialism—Joseph Stalin brooked no disagreement from that party line. Therefore, disputing or even mildly questioning Lysenko or his theories (Lysenkoism) thus marked you as a counterrevolutionary, a rebel, an imperialist, etc. Lysenko was not shy about unleashing the secret police on those who disagreed with him, or about blaming his dissenters as the “enemies” responsible for his failures. The lucky ones merely lost their positions and fell into penury. Many others, like botanist Nikolai Vavolov, were named enemies of the state and were either killed or starved to death in prison.
With dissent from Lysenkoism outlawed (indeed, the science of genetics was officially proclaimed to be antinationalist and pseudobiology), Lysenko’s crackpot ideas became official Soviet agricultural policy. This led to predictable results: implementation of his theories led to the famines of the 1930s that killed tens of millions in the Soviet Union. When Mao adopted them in 1958, the result was the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-62, in which 15 million people died.
Even after Watson and Crick cracked the genetic code in 1953, Lysenko, Lysenkoism, and the silencing of dissent remained official Soviet policy well into the 1960s. By the time he was finally exposed as a fraud and disgraced in the mid-60s, Soviet biology and agronomy had been set back by decades. In particular, Soviet genetics research—which had been among the best in the world in the 1920s— was utterly obliterated by Lysenkoism.
The moral of Lysenko is that suppressing academic debate and dissent for political reasons yields bad science, bad scholarship, and inevitably bad results. It can even lead to the collapse of nations. The genius of the scientific method and Western academic culture is that you get closer to the truth by subjecting all theories and ideas to rigorous testing and debate. When you frustrate this process because you are afraid the results might prove politically inconvenient, uncomfortable, or “triggering,” the ghost of Lysenko smiles.
The Lysenko Award
MTC’s Lysenko Award is for those in academia who promote or advocate the silencing of academic inquiry and speech, especially where the motive for doing so is based on political disagreement. Nominees for future awards can be sent to Managing Editor David Acevedo (email@example.com).
Dishonorable mention for the inaugural Lysenko Award goes to MIT Professor Robert van der Hilst, who caved to the Twitter mob and disinvited Professor Dorian Abbot from giving MIT’s annual Carlson lecture. However, as there appears to be some question as to whether Prof. van der Hilst was motivated by a desire for academic censorship or simple cowardice, he gets a reprieve.
Our winner, however, has no such excuse. While also involved in l’affaire Abbot, she is not on the MIT faculty or in its administration, so unlike Prof. van der Hilst, she was not thrust into the fray. Nevertheless, this Williams College department chair helped lead the keyboard warriors demanding that Prof. Abbot be disinvited from giving the Carlson Lecture—not because his science was unsound, or that he was unqualified, or that he had broken the law or committed a tort, but because he believes that individuals in higher education should be evaluated based on their individual merit rather than their membership in an identity group. Scandalous, I know. Apropos to the purpose of our award, when interviewed by the New York Times, our winner justified her actions thusly:
What, she was asked, of the effect on academic debate? Should the academy serve as a bastion of unfettered speech?
“This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated,” she replied.
Trofim Lysenko would be pleased, although he likely would have formulaically dismissed the need for academic rigor and debate as being the product of fascist-bourgeois-imperialist-capitalist culture, instead of the current wokeism of “straight white men” as the source of the world’s problems.
So congratulations, Williams College Professor Phoebe Cohen, you are the first recipient of the Minding the Campus Lysenko Award for the Suppression of Academic Speech.
Author’s Note: A draft of this article was sent to both Prof. Cohen and Williams College for comment. Neither Cohen nor the College responded.