This issue will be about cognitive dissonance - the mental discomfort we feel when we hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. We try to reduce the cognitive dissonance by, for example, ignoring the information that increase the cognitive dissonance. But first a story about a Soviet biologist, Trofim Lysenko, that I got from the book Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.
Lysenko claimed to have found a new way to enhance crop yields. His idea was that plants of the same species, planted closer together, would thrive better and yield more crop. You know, stronger together.
This idea was in line with the Communist ideology. He was spotted by political leaders and gradually moved up the academic ranks until he was appointed to the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
Lysenko was hungry for political power. And being a faithful communist, the leaders liked his ideas. Especially the ones which supported their teachings. For example, the science of genetics, based on Gregor Mendel, was just taking-off at the time. Mendelian genetics is widely accepted today and it states that our characteristics are encoded in genes and passed from generation to generation. But despite all of the evidence that it was this way, Lysenko became a harsh critic of the theory. He believed that human nature is adaptable and that characteristics acquired in life can be passed down to the next generations (also called Lamarckism).
Other scientists, however, were thrilled about the new approach. And they had data to back it up. Mendel even proved it about a century before that. But instead of taking into account the evidence, Lysenko was too obsessed with the communist belief. He even went to Stalin to outlaw the Mendelian approach. Stalin agreed, Lysenko silenced his critics and guaranteed that his ideas would triumph. Soviet science was decimated because scientists who didn’t agree were sent to labour camps or executed.
Back to his original idea…it was even worse than Lamarckism. Today, we know that plants and animals compete for resources. I’m pretty sure the Soviets knew as well. But it wasn’t the Soviet way. So they applied his method in the Soviet Union and Communist China.
The results were devastating. The crops were destroyed and millions died in the Soviet Union. It was even worse in China - between 20 and 43 million people died of hunger. And it’s considered one of the factors that contributed to the Great Chinese Famine.
Two things were going on. Lysenko’s theory was failure-proof (he made it so) and he experienced cognitive dissonance.
But I won’t comment on the first one, I wrote a post about failure itself and how vital it is for improvement.
Lysenko actively refused to take evidence into account or he bent them to support his theory and lower cognitive dissonance. He first bent his thoughts and then the evidence towards an ideology so his ideas would prevail and his political success triumph. In essence, he was deluding himself.
Lysenko cannot be blamed, however. At least not entirely. We all experience cognitive dissonance on an almost daily basis.
Remember the last time you wanted to go for a run and then looked outside the window only to convince yourself that the weather is too bad. Cognitive dissonance at its best.
The important thing is that we know about it and that we accept the possibility that it’s happening to us. Just don’t be like Lysenko.