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Sunday, February 29, 2004

Manichean Lysenkoism

Recent intellectual left-wing critiques of President Bush have been stretching the boundaries of my vocabulary, and I'm supposed to be a well-educated person. Hopefully Democrats are planning on using slogans this fall that actual people can understand. In case they don't, though, I'll provide a public service here.

I finally looked up "Manichean" when I heard it used a few times to describe President Bush's worldview after he announced his support for a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. For example, here's Noam Scheiber:

On the one hand, social conservatives tend to have a Manichean view of the world and, as a result, tend to take a maximalist approach to their agenda. If, for example, you truly believe homosexual behavior is an abomination, then it does you no good to condone it in some circumstances but not others. Social conservatives deduce their policy positions from their principles, and there's no such thing as standing on half a principle.

Manichean thus describes a view that is black-and-white, all-or-nothing. One could use the term to describe Bush's approach to the war on terror too ("you're with us or you're with the terrorists"), and a Google of "Bush Manichean Worldview" reveals that many have (and more with "Manichaean", the alternate spelling). The actual definition refers to, "A believer in the doctrines of Manes, a Persian of the third century A. D., who taught a dualism in which Light is regarded as the source of Good, and Darkness as the source of Evil." Whether the modern Christian faith is also based on such duality sounds like a lengthy and controversial religious discussion I'm not qualified to participate in. I would remind participants that the Bush administration is not necessarily a reflection of Christian doctrine.

Lysenkoism, which has a far more recent origin, has been a term that has come up recently as a description of the administration's science policy, as in this Kevin Drum post entitled "Conservative Lysenkoism....The Definitive Report":

They don't want to hear about facts and they don't want to hear about research. Rather, they seem to think that somehow the world will conform to their views regardless of what the reality actually is, and anyone who says that the reality is different is simply a political enemy to be ignored or smeared as circumstances require. It's scary.

In short, Lysenkoism is a term for science that is really pseudo-science corrupted by outside ideological influence (here's another post on "Bush's Lysenkoism" from Brad DeLong). TD Lysenko was a Ukrainian agronomist who grew in stature within the USSR by emphasizing results he wanted to achieve over legitimate scientific inquiry, as this informative page explains:

Lysenko was very much a part of this campaign, stirring up a negative attitude to basic research and virulently demanding immediate practical results. He was capable of the crudest anti-intellectualism, remarking on one occasion: "It is better to know less, but to know just what is necessary for practice." He also was inclined to enunciations of the wildest voluntarism: "In order to obtain a certain result, You must want to obtain precisely that result; if you want to obtain a certain result, you will obtain it .... I need only such people as will obtain the results I need". Older scientists were, of course, horrified at such talk, so utterly alien to the habits of mind in which scientific method was grounded.

Lysenko interestingly was never a member of the Communist Party, but according to Helena Sheehan, "Lysenko's voluntarist approach to experimental results and to the transformation of agriculture was the counterpart of Stalin's voluntarist approach to social processes, undoubtedly a factor in Lysenko's managing to capture Stalin's imagination in this period." We've heard a lot about comparisons of Bush and Hitler, but not so much about these implicit comparisons of Bush to Stalin.

Now that I actually understand what the hell I've been reading, I'm even more committed to removing the Manichean Lyseknoism of the current administration from power.