Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was a Ukrainian agronomist who lived in the Soviet Union. By 1928, he had rejected both Darwin's theory of natural selection and Mendel's theory of genetics. Neither, he declared, were compatible with the tenets of Marxism-Leninism. Lysenko's ideas would've quickly met with scientific opposition and dismissed in a normal time and place, but unfortunately, the USSR of the 1930s and 1940s was neither.
His views attracted the attention of the Communist Party, and approval from Stalin himself. Lysenko rose to become the Director of genetics for the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1940. By 1948, he had become the head of the V.I. Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and he declared that his theories of genetics and heredity would be the only allowable ones used in Soviet biological or agronomic science. Soviet scientists who had published contradictory works were forced to denounce them. Those who didn't were shot or carted off to labor camps.
Lysenko and his ideas were immune to criticism or debate until the Soviet government eased up on many of the rigid ideological conformities that had been imposed on Soviet science. The first allowable criticisms began in 1962. After a wave of increasing scientific criticism of his pseudo-scientific ideas, Lysenko was finally removed from his official posts in 1965.
The damage had already been done. Soviet biological science was 50 years behind the rest of the world. We now have a word for the distortion of science to force conformance to political or social ends: Lysenkoism.
We often think of totalitarian states as being ruled by a single person; by a Stalin or Hitler. But this type of rule is a symptom of totalitarianism, not the cause of it. The fundamental cause of totalitarianism is the rejection of truth, and its replacement with lies. For the system to survive, everyone must be forced to accept and publicly support these lies or face the consequences. Those consequences are often horrific, as hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Lysenko's colleagues learned.
The most important idea to rise from the Book Age was rationalism, that is to say, the idea that the world and its functioning could be understood and, with enough knowledge, explained factually. The pronouncement of experts, the dogma of priests, or the decisions of kings were no longer assumed to be the truth. Instead, they could be rationally evaluated with facts and evidence, and their truth or falsity established through rational examination.
The idea of rationalism had a profound effect on the progress of human civilization. Rationalism birthed what we now know as the entire endeavor of science. Science, in turn, led directly to the industrial revolution. It's hard to overstate how rapidly and vastly rationalism changed the life of the average person.
If you'd been able to pluck a random peasant from Mesopotamia in 6,000BC and drop them into, say, France in 1700, they'd see little, if anything, that would frighten or confuse them. Indeed, grab an Egyptian from 2,000 BC and plop then down in 1700 Paris, and they'd probably be singularly unimpressed with any of the local architecture. The modes of everyday life for all humans remained largely unchanged for all known history. On the other hand, if you were to grab a French peasant from 1700 and transport him to the modern day, our lives would largely be incomprehensible to him.
Rationalism, once ingrained into our culture, led to the most dramatic change in economic, political, and cultural life in human history. And the reason it did so was that, for the first time in history, our thinking was pointed towards truth. Not religious doctrine, not superstition, not supposition, but towards finding the truth. Always, perhaps, falling just a bit short, but always seeking for what could be understood and explained by the facts and evidence as it revealed itself to us.
Indeed, this amazing progress has become so ingrained in our culture that we now expect it to continue. The idea that we'll continue to move forward, and progress to ever higher modes of living is accepted as an unstated axiom of our culture. And the idea that we could regress from our current state to some earlier more primitive time is almost unthinkable.
History tells us otherwise.
Rationalism produced a number of beneficial results, not just in science and technology, but in concepts of governance and human rights.
For instance, if we are to apprehend the world rationally, we must address it honestly, and in good faith. At the same time, we must always accept that we may be wrong, that we may misunderstand the evidence, or be ignorant of it. We also must expect others to view the evidence differently, or to present countering evidence. To find the truth, therefore, we must debate and argue, with each of us proving or disproving the evidence we observe, with the goal of eventually discerning how the balance of the evidence points us to a truth about the world.
This mode of thinking began in science, but spread to politics and governance as well. If science requires debate and analysis to discover truths about the operation of the physical world, how much more important is open debate about the means and ends by which we are governed? Especially when the evidence of what constitutes good and bad policy, and what trade-offs must be made, is often far less clear than scientific evidence. Moreover, why should we trust the pronouncements of traditional political authorities about how we're governed, any more than we trust the ancient pronouncements of Plato about the nature of the world?
And thus, free speech was unleashed on the world, along with democratic forms of self-governance. No longer was control over the means and ends of government confined to a political elite. No longer were we obligated to defer to the whims of political masters who held sway over us by dint of birth or tradition. As Thomas Jefferson put it:
The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.
The only thing that makes our society possible, the only thing that enables substantive human progress, is the search for truth, wherever that search leads us.
You cannot navigate reality with a faulty map. And the only map we have is truth. The less truth we find, or even worse, the less truth we're allowed to find, the less capable we are of navigating reality. And I fear that, in a growing section of our culture, there are people who want to use a different map. We seem to be increasingly divided into separate groups that don't just have different opinions, but different sets of "facts".
Unfortunately, we seem to be living in a time when people are beginning to prefer the solace of comforting lies, rather than the light of unpleasant truths. So much so, that one of the chief accomplishments of our society, the basic idea of free speech, is under attack. But this attack is hidden in language designed to obscure it.
"We must protect people from misinformation," our government tells us. Misinformation, of course, sounds bad. But the government, by declaring something to be misinformation, is implicitly declaring a monopoly on the truth. Anything that contradicts the government's position is labeled misinformation, the government assures us, but what we tell you is the truth.
Except, of course, we know that's not so. In my lifetime the government assured us that we were winning in Vietnam, that the Iraqis and Afghanis wanted to be free, and that the Covid vaccines would stop transmission. The government itself is a prime purveyor of actual misinformation. The most charitable characterization of this is that they're just wrong. The least charitable is that they're lying. Either way, neither the government, nor anyone else, can have a monopoly on the truth, nor does government have the moral authority to police misinformation when they're one of the most powerful sources of it.
Policing misinformation is—and will always be—a means for government to suppress speech that it doesn't like.
Equally pernicious is the tendency of modern news media to tailor their coverage to confirm the priors of their target audience. We all know the political differences between a devotee of MSNBC and FOXNews. The programming on each network is specifically biased to appeal to people of specific worldviews. Whatever else it might be, that isn't journalism or news as it was understood a generation ago.
Indeed, there are news aggregators now, like Ground news, who provide an app that enables you to see how coverage of the same story is biased to the Left or Right by the "news" organization that's reporting on it. Perhaps it's a useful tool, but, in a culture that's concerned with the truth, it would be an unnecessary one. The very fact that these ideological biases are so easily identifiable should cause concern.
It's becoming easier and easier, too, on social media to build your own perfect circle of epistemic closure. You can choose to see and hear only viewpoints with which you agree. And many do. To do so closes you off from the possibility of meeting up with the truth, and ever learning that what you think is true might just be wrong.
A society that cannot endure open and free debate, and wrestle with the complexities of differing, and even unpleasant viewpoints—indeed, a society that chooses epistemic closure for its own comfort—is a society that is losing its map to reality. A society that segregates itself into different ideological in-groups is a society that is losing the ability to find the truth, and thus, to govern itself.
And in such a society neither opposing group, armed with "facts" that only their group believes to be true, can be trusted to govern those of opposing views. Indeed, in such an environment, it's nearly inevitable that both groups will begin to consider the other to be fundamentally untrustworthy. This fundamental distrust between societal groups is how civil wars begin.
The unpleasant truth is that truth itself can be unpleasant. Truth confronts us with the idea that the things we want to believe are wrong. Most inconveniently, truth reasserts itself eventually, whether we wish to believe it or not.
Truth doesn't care about the intensity of your disbelief. It doesn't care if it contradicts the wishes of people with vast political, economic, or cultural power. Truth doesn't care if you find it pleasing or displeasing. It doesn't care about tradition. And that's why truth is the only map to reality. Because it doesn't care what you think, or what you want. It only tells you what reality is. And the only way to find the truth, or the closest approximation of it that we can achieve, is through open inquiry and open debate.
If this trend towards limiting the search for truth by shutting down free speech continues, it will impose a new Lysenkoism on society as a whole. The consequences of that will be incalculably tragic.