It turns out that getting the science right matters. We live in a wondrous age in which a breathtaking understanding of our universe is possible. We understand the nature of life though DNA and how structures arise though protein construction during embryonic development. We are discovering possibly inhabitable worlds at distances measured in light years. We have mapped the interior of our own planet and explored its oceans from deep under its waters and scanned them from above with orbiting satellites. This is not to say that science will answer all our questions, or provide all sources of value in all areas of meaning. But ignore it at your peril. It is typically ignored when its findings grate against deeply entrenched beliefs that people have refused to update in light of more recent and more well-grounded information. It is ignored when its findings chafe against political, religious, or economic dogma.
Take the case of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. Lysenko was a Russian agriculturist. He became a superstar in the Communist Party and rose quickly to positions of power and authority. He became a favorite of Joseph Stalin and scientists who thought Lysenko might be leading things in the wrong direction where reprimanded and criticized. He became the powerful leader of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences and actively pursued ‘correcting’ those scientists who were buying into Western ideas about genetics (and by correcting I mean, purging, imprisoning, and killing those who would not come around). And what were those ideas? Mendelian genetics. Lysenko was a Lamarckian. He held the long discredited idea that organisms could acquire the characteristics they obtained in life and pass them on to their offspring. And why did he hold this view? Was he was convinced after carefully weighing the evidence? Were genuine scientific debates at stake? No. He held these views because they fit in with theories and prejudices that he thought more compatible with Lenin’s version of Marxism; and there was no amount, or kind of, evidence that he would have accepted to displace those views.
As a result, Soviet genetics was fifty years behind Western science. Key aspects of the green revolution, without the perspectives of the Darwinian and Mendelian synthesis, were missed under Lysenko’s watch.
There are cultural wars waging as we speak over the best and brightest science that has been available since civilization started. Science is making staggering progress in our factual knowledge. Of course, there will be updates, amendments, arguments, and questions. That’s what science does. But ignore it, and genuine, pressing problems will be missed, opportunities lost, and progress stymied. Remember Lysenko.