|Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society|
|Demagogues and Ignoramuses Against Scientific Expertise|
|| home | ZS magazine | library | links ||
The fall of the totalitarian Soviet regime brought with it the elimination of censorship, among other things. A great achievement of democracy. But it is a great pity that the freedom of the press which arrived to replace censorship very often in the mass media it turns into permissiveness and the poisonous propaganda of pseudoscience and any other abomination. It would seem that society is concerned about its moral health but when the issue is charlatan healers and physical health, the mass media should be monitored in some fashion. This is not about a restoration of censorship but about some open, let's say, public oversight. As a result printed material, programs, and journalists who permit obvious carelessness should, in my opinion, be punished somehow. Of course, this is not about exile to the Gulag, but public censure, the loss of licenses, etc. I do not claim that it is clear to me how to organize appropriate actions on a country-wide scale. But it would be worse to sit with folded arms and wait until someone else tries something. Therefore in 1999 a Commission to Combat Pseudoscience and the Falsification of Scientific Research was created in the Russian Academy of Sciences [RAN] as a certain step in this direction. The mission of the Commission is clear from the appeal of the RAN Presidium which was adopted and begins thus: "At the present time in our country parascience and paranormal beliefs are widely proliferated and propagandized: astrology, charlatanism, occultish, etc. Attempts continue to carry out various senseless projects at state expense like the creation of torsion generators. The Russian population is being duped by TV and radio programs, articles, and books with openly anti-scientific content. The orgy of wizards, magicians, soothsayers, and prophets in Russian government and private media is unceasing. Pseudoscience is trying to penetrate all levels of society and all its institutions, including the Russian Academy of Sciences. These irrational and basically amoral trends doubtless present a serious threat to the normal intellectual development of the nation. The Russian Academy of Sciences cannot and should not view the unprecedented onslaught of obscurantism with equanimity and is obliged to give it a fitting rebuke (for more detail, see "Vestnik RAN [Bulletin of the RAN] N 10, 1999 and the newspaper "Poisk" N 23, 1999).
Unfortunately, the RAN Presidium did not give the Commission sufficient attention. The entire "staff" of the Presidium consists of a singe Presidium employee who is mainly loaded down with other work. I can also point to the publication of a book of the Commission's chairman, Academician Eh. P. Kruglyakov, "Swindlers Posing as 'Scientists'" ("Nauka", 2001), but in a laughable edition of 2000 copies for such a work. Of course, as we all know, the amount of money given to science in Russia right now is absolutely insufficient, but all the same this is about billions of rubles a year. Hence somehow there would be enough to publish this book in a large edition with free distribution to higher educational institutions, schools, etc. My public and repeated appeals to add Eh. P. Kruglyakov to the large RAN Presidium and entrust him with creating a functioning Commission responsible for all corresponding work has not as yet been heard.
Commission members Ye. B. Aleksandrov, Eh. P. Kruglyakov, and myself have addressed a letter to the President of Russia, V. V. Putin, describing the current situation and concluding with the following suggestions:
1. "Have an expert analysis with the aid of the RAN of any project which is based on the use of new laws of nature unknown to science (antigravity, torsion fields, etc.).
At our request, the President of the RAN, Academician Yu. S. Osipov, delivered this letter to the President's chief of staff in March 2001, We have not received a reply.
I hope all the same that something positive will be done in the RAN in the near future for the struggle against pseudoscience. Right now I want to make several comments clarifying some aspects of the issue of pseudoscience and the need to combat it. Personally, I have already tried to do this in several articles included in my book, "O nauke, o sebe, i o drugikh [About Science, Myself, and Other Things]" (Moscow, Fizmatlit, 2001), and in the article "O lzhenauke i neobkhodimosti bor'by s ney [About Pseudoscience and the Need to Combat It]" (the magazine "Nauka i Zhizn' [Science and Life]", N 11, 2000); I will point out Ye. B. Aleksandrov's article and my own "O lzhenauke i yeye propagandistakh [About Pseudoscience and Its Propagandists]" (Vestnik RAN N 3, 1999). By the way, the latter has had an interesting fate. We had to place it in a low-circulation publication for a number of newspapers didn't want to publish it, inasmuch as one of the shameless propagandists of pseudoscientists was named in it and "journalistic ethics" apparently prohibits newspapers from carrying such material.
Suspicion sometimes arises among even respectable, but uninformed people that the authors of some new, productive ideas can suffer under the guise of a struggle against pseudoscience. In other words, "but who are the judges?", and why can some elderly academicians judge what is pseudoscience correctly? For in the history of science there are known cases when progressive views have encountered sharp objections. However, the similar suspicions of ignorant people (the discussion is especially about demagogues) are the fruit of the purest misunderstanding. The problem is that all reasonable people, in any case, all members of the RAN Commission, understand by pseudoscience only as something which contradicts firmly established truths and not some controversial issues, new theories, etc. For example, in the case of the most well-known pseudoscience, astrology, obvious charlatanism, it has been proven and re-proven that its horoscopes are obvious charlatanism (see, for example, V. Surdin's article in "Nauka i Zhizn' [Science and Life]", 11, 2000). And the pseudoscientific "perpetual motion" designs, in general, any mechanisms whose operation contradicts classical (Newtonian) mechanics which has been verified for 300 years (we're not talking here about relativistic and quantum allowances which are also well known). However, the RAN Commission is not necessary to expose these and similar pseudoscientific opinions and concepts; competent engineers and specialists are quite sufficient for this purpose. The main task of the Commission is to critique more specialized and less well-known issues. The projects to use torsion fields are a good example. Modern physics knows four types of fields: grativational, electromagnetic, and the so-called "weak" and "strong" [forces]. In theory there could exist other fields, in particular, the so-called torsion field (or twisting field). A similar possibility has already been discussed for many years within the framework of the General Theory of Relativity. Appropriate experiments were set up in the USSR and abroad which showed that torsion fields either do not generally exist in nature or are so weak that they could not be detected even with the most modern measuring apparatus. Accordingly, they could not possibly be used for communications equipment or other practical ends. But there were charlatans who, covering themselves in secrecy, deceived incompetent military and KGB officials, receiving a large amount of money from them for their own, if one can call them, projects. All this has been described in detail in the literature cited above. It is clear that the Commission and, specifically, its members mentioned above have been fighting and are fighting these charlatans.
would seem that the situation is as clear as possible, but the "torsioners" are finding newer and newer defenders. One of them is candidate of technical sciences Eh. V. Vaytsman, who published an article in the 23 September 2002 issue of "NG-nauka" entitled "Retrogrady protiv sharlatanov (neobkhodimo ogradit' ryadovykh avtorov nauchnykh statey ot proizvol 'chernykh opponentov' [Reactionaries Against Charlatans (ordinary authors of scientific articles need to be protected against the caprice of 'underhanded opponents']". It is a long since since I have had to contend with such a demagogic and false combination. Mr Vaytsman also protects "torsioners", although he notes that "he is quite far from this problem" (and, as I am convinced, doesn't even know what torsion fields are), but, on the other hand, instructs: "in fighting opponents it is unsuitable for academicians to use an academic administrative resource, including a so-called "qualified body of experts". But all of our "resources" in this case are just the knowledge of physics which allows us to warn managers who are not skilled in it not to use government resources to support obviously worthless projects.
Each and every phrase in Vaytsman's article is a falsification or arrogance. For example, he suddenly states that all three (Aleksandrovv, Kruglyakov, and myself) enjoy high-quality free medical services. He should be disappointed (or, on the contrary, glad?): I enjoy the services of the academic polyclinic which is vegetating in poverty and my colleagues who don't live in Moscow also are obviously not registered with the Kremlin Polyclinic. And in general, what does this have to do with the issue of pseudoscience?
I don't intend to hold a discussion with opponents of Vaytsman's type, but I consider it useful to illustrate one more aspect with respect to which ignorant people are deceived. This is about the publication of scientific works and that capriciousness is supposedly allowed in this matter hindering the familiarization with new ideas, etc. Especially popular are accusations of the anonymity of reviewers whom "fighters for justice" call "underhanded opponents".
What is the process of publication of scientific works accepted throughout the entire world, including Russia? It is the same more or less everywhere, but to be specific and to avoid any inaccuracies I will describe how work is conducted in the journal "Uspekhi fizicheskikh nauk [Successes of the Physical Sciences]", where I am editor-in-chief. Any article coming to the editor, including articles of members of the editorial board, myself included, are sent for review. The reviewer can be a member of the editorial board, but most often he plays the role of just one more reviewer. If the review of favorable but contains various critical comments, it is sent to the author for revision, then is usually sent to the reviewer again or the appropriate member of the editorial board. As a result, if it is decided to publish the article, they edit it and send it to be printed. Can it be done otherwise? Of course not. In the process, the author is obliged to accept the corrections, both in the Russian and the English versions (our journal is translated into English). All this is a quite laborious process, done by the entire editorial board and translators. If the review of the article is negative and the member of the editorial board who oversees this field and I agree with the negative conclusion, the author is informed that the article is rejected. Often the author does not agree with our conclusion and informs us of his counterarguments and then the article is sent for comment to another reviewer and is considered again. Finally, sometimes after a second negative conclusion and my negative conclusion but when the author has new objections, the article is discussed at a meeting of the editorial board. In the course of this process the surname of the reviewer is given to the author only if the reviewer informs the editorial board of his agreement in writing. Can it be done otherwise? Of course not. The review process, if it is honest, is not an easy matter. It is a service which the reviewers offer to the editorial board and, naturally, in a majority of cases they don't want to start additional arguments with authors and then be subjected to insults, rebukes of incompetence, etc., which often happens in the case of uneducated or troublesome authors. Such a review process, which the authors of rejected articles sometimes see fit to call "underhanded", I repeat, has been adopted throughout the entire world, is unavoidable and fair. Articles which are not published in one journal are often published in another, including those in another country. This is also a natural process. Various journals have various requirements and often their own specific ones. For example, UFN is a digest type of journal and we can't even print valuable articles in full, but rather narrowly-specialized ones which don't have quite broad content, etc. There's no discrimination here; the size of the journal is limited and there's often a great deal of material which has to be rejected. In journals which publish only original work the selection criteria are different, of course. Doubtless there are mistakes in editorial work, not to mention controversial cases, but what does this prove? We need to try and work better but it's impossible to print all the articles that come in. Such journals would hardly be subscribed to and read, the work of many people would be lost, and there wouldn't be enough money to publish thick volumes. Unfortunately, the development of the so-called electronic press and the Internet are reducing this problem to a greater degree. Authors in a whole range of specialties can already without hindrance and any review place their articles on suitable sites. There even exists an opinion and a tendency to move everything to the Internet and stop printed editions. Many (and I among them) are vigorous opponents of such an approach and consider it necessary to have paper journals. And for now it is so. The review process and selection of articles by an editorial board are unavoidable. Those dissatisfied with such a method are often demagogues and uneducated people. I can only add that in my more than 60 years of practical work I do not know of an instance where a truly valuable work and idea in the field of physics was not published.
In conclusion, I want to return to the really important issue of the struggle against pseudoscience. Even if the RAN and, to no lesser degree, the Russian Academy of Medican Sciences (RAMN) do their duty to protect science in Russia from pseudoscientists, charlatans, and swindlers by shifting this matter to some Commissions, the problem as a whole will not be solved. It can only be solved if all scientists and simply educated people are uncompromising toward obscurantism and fight against it. There are various means available. I will permit myself to share an indication of one of them which I have adopted for myself. A correspondent of a well-known newspaper called me from time to time and asked a question about science. And once I suspected to ask whether his newspaper astrological predictions. The correspondent informed me that, yes, the newspaper did publish them, although neither he nor the editorial board believed in them, but, you see, "the readers request them". This is a typical case when in the pursuit of material advantage over and over again the mass media dupes the people. I informed the above correspondent that I would not answer his questions and in general have anything to do with his newspaper while it propagandized pseudoscience. The journalist has not called me since. Obviously they continue to publish horoscopes, and unfortunately it's not hard to find more compliant consultants. I think that if the majority of members of the scientiic community or at least the members of the RAN and RAMN boycotted the mass media which propagandize and charlatanism we would achieve a certain success.
Academician Vitaly Ginzburg
Translated by Gary Goldberg
|| home | ZS magazine | library | links ||