|Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society|
|The Sources of Pseudoscience|
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Pseudoscience is a system of views and ideas based on false principles outside science. In my field, biomedicine, the classic forms of pseudoscience are Lysenkoism [michurinskaya biologiya] based on the false principle of the inheritance of acquired characteristics; the theory of the origin of cells from so-called "vital substance" and, to some extent, nervism - the presumed primacy of the nervous system in all manifestations of the biology and pathology of the organism. In chemistry, this is alchemy and in astronomy, this is astrology.
How does pseudoscience arise and from where? It would seem from mistaken observations and incorrect ideas, but this is not so. The scientific method itself is a method of trial and error. Errors are an inseparable part of it. A scientist has the right to err. In looking back at of any of our fields I think that one can see that no less than 80-90% of the studies, hypotheses, and general conclusions have not made it into the complex system of scientific ideas, that is, they are formally erroneous. Entire fields in our science have turned out to based on fallacies - for example, the ideas about the nucleus of bacteria developed for many years or the special condition of molecules in a living cell, or the protein structure of chromosomes. But no one in their right mind would take this research and these ideas as pseudoscience.
Moreover, it is known that the fiercely competitive situation in modern science is disposed to haste in carrying out and publishing scientific works and even prompting the falsification of scientific data so that in the last 10-15 years an entire literature has arisen about "fraud and misconduct" [in English, followed by a Russian translation provided by the editor]. This sometimes concerns very important researchers even to the level of Nobel laureates. But even this careless work does not lead to pseudoscience and does not present an especial danger to science. Why? Although science does not have any sort of apparatus to monitor the reliability of reported facts or a law about some kind of sanctions with respect to the authors of erroneous data, the operative principle of science itself presumes that no falsehood will attach itself to it but if at times it leads to a scientific reversal then it is automatically sifted out. This is sometimes called the self-cleansing mechanism of science but it is important to keep in mind that this is not about some specially created administrative mechanism but a consequence of its normal operation.
The field of science, at least of the natural sciences, is the field of reproducible phenomena. A study becomes part of the structure of science only if it is part of a cycle of repeatability. Then it lives from the moment of publication. If the functioning of a cycle of repeatability has not been induced then it can hardly exist in science; it's as if it never existed. The profession of researcher in our field consists only of finding and precisely determining the conditions in which the phenomenon under study can be reproduced. The reputation of the researcher is determined by whether his data can be reproduced or not. His professional level is evaluated by the number of citations, that is, the number of publications where his work is reproduced. The prestige of a scientific journal is characterized by its impact factor, that is, the average value of the number of citations of the studies published in it. This factor varies from 0.01 to 20-25. It is clear from this that a scientist is interested primarily, rather, unquestionably, in the reproducibility of his studies without which they will not become part of the structure of science. Here it is not necessary, and even impossible, to have special external monitoring of the reliability and reproducibility of data coming from a laboratory or institute. The author himself does not want to dig his own grave as a researcher or at least ruin his reputation. The ethics of science are especially strict in this area, although there are no legal consequences for the author if he makes a mistake.
Pseudoscience is based either on false, that is, chiefly irreproducible data, or generally without any basis at all, that is, on unfounded concepts. It does not rely on reproducible phenomena and that is why it does even temporarily fall into the sphere of science. Therefore there is no monitoring for reliability "at the entrances" to science but only a system of expert analysis, the so-called peer review system [in English] in which the researchers themselves determine at their level whether or not a work presented for publication contains novel elements and all the necessary conditions to reproduce the phenomena described in it. How does pseudoscience survive? Numerous attempts to create ethics committees or commissions to combat fraud and misconduct have not been successful. These attempts have usually originated with congressmen who were trying not so much to protect science from falsification as protect the taxpayers, who are naturally interested in their money not being spent for nothing or for false purposes. However, these efforts have encountered blind resistance and incomprehension on the part of scientific researchers and the managers of institutes and has not led to anything except the introduction of rules of conduct and the maintenance of laboratory protocols. No ethics committees have appeared, nor laws against fraud and misconduct.
But pseudoscience has one cause in common. This cause is interference by non-scientific forces in the natural course of the development of science. Such interference arises from Ideology, Government, Money, or the Public.
The ideologization of science is a very terrible thing, that is, a strong and constant source of pseudoscience. Ideology prefaces scientific ideas with their own sort of indisputable, universally obligatory laws like the law of the preservation of energy or the impossibility of a perpetual motion machine, only not from natural science but from philosophy or sociology. It selects from reported facts those sort of having a right to exist, that is, agreeing with the "correct" philosophical views, for example, the laws of dialectics or Marxism, and discards those incompatible with them as not having such a right.
gives life to pseudoscientific observations and ideas such as those not existing in reality as the inheritance of acquired characteristics (on which Lysenkoism is based), or the origin of cells from "vital substance" (the erroneous idea of Lepeshinskaya), or racist theories such as during the times of fascism or the struggle against cosmopolitanism [the anti-Semitic campaignof the late Stalin era].
Ideologization superimposes a prohibition on entire fields of science like, let's say, the cell theory or corpuscular genetics, declaring them as not agreeing with the laws of nature. I cite a more frequent case as an example - the virus theory of the origin of malignant tumors. Right now this is already an indisputable fact for a large group of tumors but at the state of hypothesis this theory was rejected as not dialectic. Here "dialectics" proceeds from the idea that any development ought to have internal contradictions in its basis, although the virus hypothesis assumes that the determining factor in the genesis of a tumor is external.
The negative role of religious ideology in the formation of scientific ideas about the universe is well known, in particular in the switch from a geocentric to a heliocentric hypothesis. Only those hypotheses or theories which agree with Biblical doctrine have a right to exist.
Racist science - German physics or German astrology - is yet one more example of the grossest interference of ideology in the workings of science.
And so, the complete exclusion of the interference of ideology in science is the first condition for suppressing the sources of pseudoscience.
A second source is rooted in the interference of government in the natural development of science and attempts by the government to issue various practical recommendations to scientists. This is especially relevant to agriculture and medicine. As is well known, each has competence in them but particularly the government. Many remember the square cluster way of planting vegetables, linguistics, and corn, but not many remember the anti-cancer vaccine of Troitskaya and other means of treating cancer which have not proven themselves. Government tries to prevent duplication in research, concentrate resources and efforts, concentrate the management of science in the hands of scientific staffs, and establish single-person leadership and manageability in institutes. All this runs counter to the normal course of science, if not directly facilitating pseudoscience.
Secrecy is a specific source of pseudoscience, precluding its natural course - review, publication, and the reproduction of data. At times quite fraudulent trends of pseudoscience have developed under the cover of secrecy, for example, the so-called anti-cancer vaccine of Glezer and various spurious means of treating cancer. Secrecy should be completely excluded in basic science, at least as regards medical and biological sciences. And this can be one of the goals of commissions to combat pseudoscience as well as a limitation on government interference in scientific research.
Next comes money. This is a very delicate question. Basic science requires a lot of money which it does not produce itself. The money comes from the government going to the Academy's own scientific funds and various other funds issuing scientific grants, and to institutes. All this money is basically distributed on the basis of peer review [in English] and the expert evaluation of peers. A considerable part of the money comes from patrons; this money also goes into scientific funds and is distributed on a competitive basis, relying on expert opinion. But sometimes, and this is not so rare, money from patrons is sent for quite specific purposes, the creation of anti-cancer vaccines, ways of prolonging life, and AIDS drugs. Such targeted subsidies of science are very dangerous by skewing [spryamleniye] the logic of the research and subjectivism in the evaluation of its results, and also carry the danger of an outbreak of pseudoscientific trends. For example, the false idea about the microbiological nature of cancer, on the basis of which recommendations were made to treat tumors, was born this way.
And, finally, the greatest support and inducement of pseudoscience, in my view, comes from the general public. The public is intoxicated with scientific words and thirsts for miracles. "Biopoles", "positive and negative energy", "the long-distance transmission of thought", and similar paranormal phenomena have a real and fascinating importance for them. They believe in miracles, astrology, omens, and generally any kind of black magic - and are ready to pay for this.
All this has no relation to science, is not rooted in science, and does not concern scientists and their professional activity. But this fools the public, extracts a lot of money from them, dupes them, draws sick people away from normal treatment, inspires illusions, and tears them away from real life in general.
This is already the subject of a real battle, a legal battle to prohibit treatment with unprofessional methods and the battle for public opinion with the aid of popular lectures and books, radio, and television. But the effectiveness of such a battle, judging from everything, is not very great. Such pseudoscience is widespread throughout the entire world.
My conclusion from all of the above: science does not need protection from pseudoscience; it needs protection from the introduction of any form of ideology, from government interference, and from the dictates of money.
But protection and enlightenment are indisputably demanded by a public which thirsts for pseudoscience, produces it, supports it, and itself suffers from it.
G. I. Abelev, Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences Translated by G. Goldberg
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