Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Chait on Trump and Lysenkoism

I've been thinking about doing a post on Lysenkoism, but Jonathan Chait beat me to it and in more detail. TThere are, however, a few points that deserve added emphasis.

None of this would be possible without the decades long effort of the conservative movement to defund and undermine trusted sources of objective information. (See this weekend's posts for details.)

The composition of hydroxychloroquine boosters (billionaires/Silicon Valley tech bros/biohackers/Fox News/the White House) will make for interesting study one of these days.

Big effects are easy to spot. Hydroxychloroquine may have a future in the treatment of covid 19, but it is highly that it will be the game changer that Trump and Fox have promised.

Chait's own New York Magazine itself has a long history of flirting with Goop and anti-vaxxers. All good clean fun till thousands start dropping dead in a pandemic.

Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet biologist who gained the favor of Joseph Stalin by promoting pseudoscientific theories that purported to apply Marxist-Leninist theory to biology. Lysenko’s insight was to dismiss the burgeoning field of genetics as a capitalist lie, and to posit a socialist alternative theory of biology that refused to accept that plants were bound by any such thing as “genes.” Orange trees would flourish in Siberia, he promised Stalin. Catering both to the regime’s state ideology and its yearning for prosperity — he promised his methods would yield orange trees in Siberia — Lysenko established his crackpot theories as official Soviet science, and purged scientists who refused to endorse them. Stalin directed Soviet farmers to follow Lysenko’s bizarre theories, contributing to mass starvation.

There are eerie echoes of Lysenkoism in President Trump’s obsession with promoting hydroxychloroquine, a medication used to treat malaria, as a cure for the coronavirus. The parallel is not exact: Hydroxychloroquine has shown some anecdotal promise as a coronavirus therapy. It might emerge as a treatment, and conceivably even the major treatment, for the coronavirus. What gives Trump’s hydroxychloroquine obsessions its creepy Lysenkoist tinge is that the fervor is altogether disconnected from science.

Trump has repeatedly touted the medication, at times with a fervency that makes him sound like a marketer hired to promote the drug. “Hydroxychloroquine. Try it. If you like,” he suggested from the podium Saturday. In perhaps the most surreal moment of his pitch, he announced that he might personally try the medication, even though he does not have the coronavirus: “I think people should — if it were me — in fact, I might do it anyway. I may take it. Okay? I may take it. And I’ll have to ask my doctors about that, but I may take it.”

Public-health officials are far more skeptical. Evidence to date can be summarized as “limited and inconclusive.” Trump’s former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote a Wall Street Journal column urging the rapid development of coronavirus treatments, citing several promising examples, but conspicuously omitting the president’s favorite example. On Twitter, Gottlieb cautioned that hydroxychloroquine is not the wonder treatment Trump believes it to be: “If the [hydroxychloroquine] drug combo is working its effect is probably subtle enough that only rigorous and large scale trials will tease it out.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top scientist, has sounded cautionary notes. “The data are really just at best suggestive,” he says. “There have been cases that show there may be an effect and there are others to show there’s no effect.”


Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has repeatedly lobbied Trump to adopt hydroxychloroquine, which he has falsely described as “100 percent effective.” Giuliani told the Washington Post that he hasn’t discussed his views with Fauci, “I’m sure he thinks I am an ignoramus,” he concedes. Upon realizing that one of the country’s most prestigious scientists considers them an ignoramus, most laypeople would begin to question their own views, but Giuliani operates at a level of self-confidence that few people can fathom. Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro, has enlisted in the cause. In a bizarre episode, he confronted Fauci at a Saturday White House meeting, denouncing his caution.

Whether Giuliani and Navarro are even qualified to advise the president in their stated areas of expertise — law and economics, respectively — is a matter of serious dispute. For both to emerge as self-styled medical authorities during a pandemic is beyond unnerving.

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