|Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society|
|A Treatise on Pseudoscience|
|| home | ZS magazine | library | links ||
Khimiya i Zhizn' [Chemistry and Life], ¹10, 1975,
The Formulation of the Problem
Pseudoscience, pseudoliterature, pseudomusic….The words are paradoxical, containing an inner contradiction, for a lie is incompatible with human creative activity, for creativity always means a search for truth.
Nevertheless, falsehood exists in folk tales along with truth, art is accompanied by pseudosart, and science by – pseudoscience. Both scientists and readers of popular science journals have occasion to encounter false and spurious science.
Genuine science (here we are talking about the natural sciences) reveals the structure of the real world, grasping ever deeper relative truths. Nature is inexhaustible and absolute truth is unachievable. But the value of a relative truth is absolute – what has once been gained by science remains forever. Knowledge acquisition proceeds unevenly, but gradually, and "mutations" turning it back do not arise in the course of the development of science.
In the pre-scientific era, when strict methods of experimental and theoretical research had still not been created, temporary combinations of the true and the false were often encountered in science. Alchemy originated from completely fanciful ideas but in the course of the search for the "philosopher's stone" real information about the properties of substances was accumulated. The theory of phlogiston employed an idea about a fanciful substance which had negative weight. Nevertheless, it facilitated the transition to scientific chemistry.
But today the appearance of fantasy science (we will not confuse this concept with science fiction) is impossible even in little investigated fields. A new theory might be unexpected, "crazy", as Niels Bohr said, but it should satisfy the requirements of completeness and internal consistency and the concepts it introduces ought to have not a literal but a natural science, material meaning. A new theory ought to agree with an old theory which has been verified by experience in limited cases. And, of course, a new theory ought to explain and predict experimental facts better, more accurately, and more broadly than was previously done.
The demands made of experimental facts are no less strict. They ought to be correct and reproducible and if a fact is really new and contradicts conclusions established by science then it requires especially careful confirmation.
Scientific Mistakes and Dilettantism
No one is impervious to mistakes. However, one ought to distinguish mistakes which are objective, determined by the general state of science in a particular era, and mistakes which are subjective, caused by insufficiently careful work, for example. The first will appear later as research progresses; the second might immediately become obvious. The great Mendeleyev wrote a work on the world ether which he considered to be an element with atomic number zero. This was an objective mistake. Obviously such mistakes are not regarded as pseudoscience. The theory of phlogiston was science for its time, then it lost scientific meaning; the particle theory of light developed by Newton turned out to be mistaken, but it was science and remarkable science.
Objective mistakes of imagination conform to the logic of the development of science. They provide a temporary, but coherent explanation of many facts and therefore deserve the most rapt attention. At the same time attempts to revive already disproven ideas have a pseudoscientific character. Many physicists have had to come across engineers who have read popular books about atomic physics and have undertaken attempts to overthrow quantum mechanics. Attempts to revive the classic interpretation of the nature of chemical bonds, etc. are the same. We cite a contemporary example of a subjective mistake.
Atmospheric nitrogen, which is necessary for life, is bound by microorganisms, in some cases in symbiosis with plants. This is one of the basis precepts of biology and agricultural chemistry. However, several years ago Professor V. I. Volsky, a specialist in a field of technology far from biochemistry, began to claim that nitrogen fixation also occurs in animals. This was supported by a small number of poorly designed experiments. As one ought to have expected, these experiments were not confirmed and a careful investigation completely refuted the sensational discovery.
Subjective mistakes can grow into pseudoscience. The scientist's attitude toward them is important. A scientist can be mistaken but a pseudoscientist insists on his mistakes. This is the definition of Academician P. L. Kapitsa. Dilettantism unavoidably leads to subjective mistakes. Nitrogen fixation of animals is a mistaken idea which arose as a result of just such dilettantism.
Dilettantism is being predominantly directed right now at biology, whose importance has grown so much in contemporary natural sciences. The famous scientist G. A. Gamow, the author of outstanding works about theoretical physics who first formulated the problem of the genetic code, published an article in 1967 in which he stated that muscular contraction occurs as the result of a change of the surface tension of contracting proteins. Surprisingly the theoretical physicist did not cite any calculations about muscles in his work and did not compare his idea with the numerous facts acquired by several generations of biophysicists and biochemists. His mistaken idea was published as a revelation, the snobbism of a physicist who thinks that he can solve a difficult problem of biology without special knowledge.
What is pseudoscience and where does it begin? As a rule, pseudoscientific work does not satisfy any of the criteria indicated above.
It does not operate by any precisely defined concepts.
When introducing some value and designating it with a Latin or Greek letter, a pseudoscientist does not indicate the means by which it is measured or even the scale.
A pseudoscientific theory is not internally consistent, it contradicts previously established laws and facts. As a rule, it ignores the previously reached level of knowledge and is in no way associated with it.
If it involves an experiment or pseudofacts, then they are not subjected to any strict verification and cannot be reproduced by other researchers.
The primary source of pseudoscience is insufficient knowledge and culture. The author of a pseudoscientific work might either be a person who is completely ignorant (and today unrecognized geniuses are often encountered who have built new models of perpetual motion machines) or a specialist in some field of science or technology claiming that he has made a great discovery in another field with which he is in reality not familiar. The claim itself is substantial. One can say that the degree of "pseudoscientificness" is determined by the product of two cofactors: the degree of ignorance and the level of the claims. If one of the cofactors is zero, there is no pseudoscience.
An uncritical self-conceit and excessive arrogance is typical of a pseudoscientist. He thinks he is a genius. Pseudoscientists usually try to show themselves not in some secondary field but in solving fundamental issues of the natural sciences. At one time the Austrian physicist Ehrenhaft demonstrated that he had discovered the subelectron, a particle with a fractional share of the charge of an electron. This was the result of poorly designed experiments which were soon discredited. Much later Ehrenhaft asserted that he had managed to observe "magnetolysis", the isolation of cations and anions at the poles of a magnet. It was found that the magnet in these experiments had been dissolved in acid and the hydrogen had precipitated out.
Still one more source of pseudoscience is low-grade careerism, leading to a lack of conscientiousness and plain fraud. Not being in a condition to achieve success by the normal means of strict and honest research a person tries to find an easier path to fame. He promotes his ideas in the press and advertises them by all available means.
The work of G. M. Bosh'yan, "The Nature of Viruses and Microbes" (Medgiz,1950), in which it was stated that antibiotics are turned into viruses, viruses into bacteria, and bacteria into crystals was such a sensation. Bosh'yan's claims were grandiose – he discredited all of biology and medicine. However, it turned out that Bosh'yan's experiments were simply a falsification. In essence this was immediately obvious to many. It is sufficient to know that viruses and bacteria contain phosphorus, which antibiotics do not have.
In pseudoscience we encounter a very wide spectrum of psychological types, from the person who is fanatically convinced of the truth of his ideas to the deliberate swindler and falsifier. But, however surprising it may be, the extremes converge. A fanatic enemy of genetics exhibits animals or plants. They are superior, but not because he made use of the declared methods to develop them, but because they were especially well fed or the soil was especially well fertilized. The fanatic understands that he is committing a fraud but thinks that he is acting correctly for the good of the cause. The idea itself is one of genius and it is not important for now that it could not be realized. It will triumph all the same but support is needed for the time being. Fanaticism is as dangerous to science as dishonesty.
It is completely obvious that pseudoscience is closely connected with ethical violations. Truth is moral and falsehood is immoral. Faraday wrote:
"He should not be biased by appearances, have no favorite hypothesis, be of no school and in doctrine have no master. He should not be a respecter of persons, but of things" [Translator's note: this is the original English from http://www.vigyanprasar.gov.in/scientists/MFaraday.htm]
Faraday himself followed these rules. Believing in harmony and the mutual connection between various physical phenomena, he searched for a relationship between gravity and electricity. Faraday designed an experiment to do this – he threw a coil with a wire whose ends were connected to a galvanometer from a height of several meters. The galvanometer displayed a current. A pseudoscientist would have immediately announced to the whole world that a change in the force of gravity creates a voltage. But Faraday was able to understand that the reason for the current was something else: the wire intersected the magnetic lines of force of the Earth. Faraday proved this relationship quantitatively. The sought-after effect was not found, but true science triumphed.
Some Words About the Level of Controversy and Imagination in Scientific Work
Pseudoscience usually appeals to the need for scientific discussions and insists on the right to imagination.
Yes, criticism and self-criticism are necessary in science. This is trivial. But this does not at all mean that any scientific position is controversial, that scientific truth has to be born of controversy. It is born as the result of serious work.
Firmly established, theoretically consistent conclusions verified by experiment ought not be the subject of discussion. It is not necessary to debate the correctness of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and there is no sense in disputing the Periodic Law or the law of the non-inheritability of acquired characteristics.
On the other hand, a debate or a dispute is extraordinarily useful when we are talking about unresolved issues. Today it is impossible to dispute Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. It is the firm property of science. But a theory of gravity exists in several versions, leading to various values of physical parameters. One needs to think that only one will turn out to be correct. The essence of the dispute is in finding an impeccable theoretical argument and in experimental verification of the consequences of the theory. A scientific dispute cannot be philological.
A statement about the need for imagination in creative scientific work is trivial. Yes, the formula for benzene was born in Kekule's brain from a fantastic dream. The powerful imagination of Newton allowed him to imagine that the Moon was falling to the Earth like an apple from a branch of a tree. Probably, the more talented a real scientist is, the greater is the number imaginative ideas he has. But only some of these ideas gain theoretical and experimental confirmation and become the property of science. Scientists' temperaments vary – some publish only absolutely final and verified works, other are not afraid of expressing idea in the press or ex cathedra which are not without a degree of whimsy. But a real scientist always remembers what among his words are only imagination and what has already become science.
The great biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgy wrote "Bioenergetics (the Russian edition [was published in] Moscow in 1960). The main idea of this book was that the most important biological processes are associated with the migration of quanta of energy through protein and water molecules. But in [his] next book "Introduction to a Submolecular Biology" (Moscow, 1964) Szent-Gyorgy said, "This small book is a new embodiment of my "Bioenergetics", which was hardly anything more than a fantasy". Szent-Gyorgy is absolutely right here. By the way, his second book was hypothetical and far-fetched [fantastichna] – biology begins at the molecular level but submolecular biology does not exist.
Imaginative ideas and hypotheses have enormous significance in science. They express certain stages of the development of creativity, they point the way to a scientific investigation but they are still not in themselves science.
Science is difficult work. Scientific investigation very often leads to a dead end and it is necessary to turn back and unwind Ariadne's thread again. But without investigation, without imagination, and without tests and mistakes, there is and could not be science.
Argumentation and Support of Pseudoscience
Instead of paying careful attention to criticism and reexamining his views, a pseudoscientist says approximately the following to his scientific opposition: "I am suggesting something new in science. You are claiming knowledge of a final truth. You are ignoring the development of science. Tomorrow everyone will see that I am right and you will end up in the unenviable position of the reactionaries and obscurantists. I am Mozart and you are Salieri. And the only thing I want is an fair debate, for truth is born in debate. Therefore my work ought to be published. And how are you better than Professor X, who supports me?"
such cases have occurred in the history of science when first-class discoveries did not receive recognition from great scientists. Academician M. V. Ostrogradsky rejected Lobachevsky's geometry without understanding anything in it, and the great chemist Adolf Kolbe ridiculed the work of van 't Hoff "The Arrangement of Atoms in Space". Now such instances are increasingly rare, for scientific methods have been developed comprehensively and science is done collectively. As regards a fair debate then, as a rule, the pseudoscientist is simply lying here. He rejects the joint controlled experiments or calculations he is offered. He insists on his own mistakes and appeals for support to people who do not have a direct relationship to the subject of the research.
Who supports pseudoscience? It is easy to classify these people.
Other pseudoscientists in any field they wouldn't engage in. The author of a pseudoscientific work in biological thermodynamics finds support from pseudoscientists who engage in telekinesis or in the rejection of genetics and molecular biology. It is surprising that pseudoscientists find one another and join together. This is understandable, a solidarity of unrecognized geniuses arises.
Relatives and friends of the pseudoscientists who have nothing to do with science. This requires no examples or explanations.
Journalists who are insufficiently informed but who are suckers for sensations. Pseudoscience claims much, it sounds loud, and usually seems much more effective than genuine science. It is easier to popularize pseudoscience than serious scientific work.
Business people who know little about science but who are ready to believe in the extraordinary practical value of a pseudoscientific discovery. Pseudoscientists very often gamble on the practical benefit and gain support for their activity. It is appropriate here to cite the words of K. A. Timiryazev from his early article on Pasteur:
"…the outer appearance of the narrow immediate benefit through which supporters of pseudoscience have most successfully taken refuge, gaining recognition of their practical importance and even usefulness to the government for their parodies without difficulty is not a criterion of genuine science".
Pseudoscience acquires special opportunities if it appears in the specific conditions of the performance of work which was not intended for publication. An especially careful analysis of the claims which are advanced is needed here. We recall "Our Man in Havana" from the Graham Greene novel, who fooled British intelligence with drawings of an imaginary military invention.
Sometimes people are encountered who are not aggravated by excessive knowledge in the natural sciences field and among philosophers. Such people dearly love pseudoscience, especially if it speculates on ideological problems. Fortunately, this is now becoming a rarer phenomenon.
Sometimes you have occasion to hear such words [as]: " Yes, of course, much is unproven in this field but innovation cannot fail to be impressive". There is no sense in discussing such a statement. If a person says that two times two is five, this ought not impress anyone, although of course it can be called an innovation.
From all that has been said above it can be concluded that pseudoscience is a social phenomenon. The appearance of a certain number of pseudoscientific works is unfortunately unavoidable thanks to the enormous development of science and its great role in modern life.
Pseudoscience About Water
We will not touch on well-known directions of pseudoscience, pseudobiology, which has fought scientific genetics, or parapsychology, which deals with the telepathy of people or mice (see, for example, Khimiya i Zhizn', 1975 N? 1). We will mention several examples closer to the readers of the magazine.
A multitude of pseudoscientific works have been dedicated to water. This is understandable since water is a liquid with special properties and its importance for life, science, and technology cannot be overestimated.
At various times new kinds of water have appeared and been widely advertised, in particular the following:
1. "Structured water" in living systems.
2. Water "which remembers its past".
3. "Magnetic" water.
4. "Polymer" water.
We will look into these substances in order.
1. Pseudoscientific ideas about the special structure of water in biological systems have been widely circulated. In this context it is not the water which is part of the hydrated membranes of protein molecules and nucleic acids that is under discussion, but the water as a whole which is found in the cells and tissues of a plant or an animal. Instead of studying the change in the state of biopolymers and supramolecular structures, for example the biological membranes in a developing plant, they study the supposed changes in the structure of water. In particular, the measurements of the dielectric permittivity of tissues in an alternating field are used for the properties of these changes.
Physicists well know that the data of dielectric spectroscopy of such varied systems cannot in general be rationally interpreted. Ignoring the physics of water and the physics of liquids as a whole the authors of pseudoscientific works speak of "the state of water at the submolecular level" (?). But in one dissertation "the possibility of the presence in plant cells…of 13 types of water structures was observed" (!). Why 13 and not 113? A significant provision figures as one of the points of this dissertation: "Regulation of the state of water in a cell is performed adaptively and hierarchically, which promotes its high reliability. The total exchange of substances in the entire plant acts as the central regulation point and functional groups (centers) of the non-water components of the cell [act as the local regulation point]". These words sound completely scientific but they have no meaning at all! In reality some change of structure occurs only at the monomolecular level of hydrate water interacting with biopolymers. A total change of the structure of water at ordinary temperatures and pressures is impossible since it requires an enormous expense of free energy. Biopolymers surrounded by water are so constructed as to avoid a change in the structure of water.
In the works of K. S. Trincher who denies the validity of the Second Law of Thermodynamics in biology, it is stated that "the physical feature of intra-cell water is in its ordered, quasi-crystalline structure while simultaneously preserving the properties of liquid water, a low viscosity value…"
Again a scientific-sounding, but senseless statement: water changes its structure but preserves the viscosity of an ordinary liquid (?!). The means of verifying this statement of the author are, of course, not indicated.
2. The structural "memory" of water. Water supposedly "remembers" that it was frozen, heated, or subjected to the influence of a magnetic field for a long time – its structure relaxes slowly. Melted water is especially useful since the quasi-crystalline structure of ice is contained in it. This explains the longevity of mountain dwellers who drink ice water and also, we add on our own behalf, the natural attraction of children to ice cream.
One more statement: water heated to a temperature somewhat above zero [Celsius] froze at a temperature below zero, but water heated to 40-50o Celsius only [froze] at -1.6o Celsius (V. I. Danilov, "The Structure and Crystallization of Liquids", published by the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in 1956). It is evident that in the latter case he is talking about nothing more than the well-known phenomenon of supercooled water, which might depend on the content of the dissolved air.
Recently a report appeared that, after first heating water up to 400o at high pressure then cooling it, the water acquired an increased ability to dissolve bicarbonates and silicon oxide. At the same time its acidity increased considerably. The authors (geologists by profession) state that in the process distilled water did not change its structure [sostav] (Proceedings of the USSR Academy of Sciences, 1972, Vol. 206). And again an improbable statement was in no way proven and no controlled experiments were designed.
It is known that the time for the structural relaxation of water is very small. Water therefore does not have "memory" and all the statements cited here are either arbitrary or based on poor quality experiments. At the same time the claims of the authors of these works are so significant and if even one of them were correct then it would signify the need to reexamine all the ideas about the properties of water and the physics of liquids as a whole.
3. "Magnetic" water. Its supporters say that industrial and even distilled water changes its properties after passing through a magnetic field. In many countries, including ours, magnetic processing of water is used to reduce the deposits in boilers. It is said of this that watering plants with "magnetized water" accelerates their growth etc. etc. "Magnetic" water is widely advertised in the popular press, including on the pages of Khimiya i Zhizn'.
In reality, pure water is a diamagnetic substance whose state cannot be changed by a magnetic field. The influence of a magnetic field on the electrons of water is instantaneous (it occurs at the speed of light) and it disappears instantaneously after the field is switched off. Industrial water can contain dissolved salts and also colloidal paramagnetic or ferromagnetic ingredients – a hydrate of iron oxide and others. Without going into the practice of engineering it is necessary to note that no serious physicochemical research of the behavior of industrial water in a magnetic field has been conducted. The patented methods do not have a scientific explanation.
4. "Polymer" water was discovered by the great Soviet scientist B. V. Deryagin and his colleagues. During the sublimation of water in narrow quartz capillary tubes a liquid was condensed in trace quantities which had a much higher value of viscosity and index of refraction than water and boiled at a higher temperature. It was stated that this was "polymer" water. The discovery was widely advertised for several years.
Then it turned out that the condensed liquid contained a multitude of non-organic and organic substances and humanity was delivered from the danger of "polymerization" of the oceans. To the credit of the authors of "polymer water" B. V. Deryagin repudiated the erroneous discovery in the press (Proceedings of the USSR Academy of Sciences, 1973, Vol. 209).
This is a different case. There were actually experimental facts here and their interpretation turned out to be mistaken. Pseudoscience existed as long as they insisted on this interpretation. Then it ceased to exist.
The Struggle Against Pseudoscience
Pseudoscience becomes dangerous to society if, having received outside support, it gains power and the ability to crowd out genuine science. Conversations about equal debate are being completely turned around here and pseudoscientists are becoming militant and impatient enemies of real science. We will not dwell on such situations but from time to time it is useful to re-read the Report of the 1948 VASKhNIL [The All-Union Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences] Session.
Under normal conditions the harmfulness of pseudoscience is limited since it does not receive public support. But nevertheless it is necessary to struggle against pseudoscience, for its existence has an effect on science and education and harms scientific and technical progress. This struggle is the public duty of a scientist. Of course, bothering with pseudoscience is an unpleasant matter and a waste of time which brings no direct benefit. But it can't be helped. Everyone, including pseudoscientists, has the right to have specialists hear him and verify his claims. Unfortunately, a pseudoscientist will not heed criticism. Therefore one has to directly and openly express his own opinion about his discoveries at the editorial board of a scientific journal or at a meeting of the science council. Pseudoscientific works should not be published; this is an impermissible luxury.
And, of course, it is necessary to actively struggle against the popularization of pseudoscience.
This task is, I repeat, unpleasant. It can even turn out to be dangerous – cases of the murder of opponents by mentally ill pseudoscientists are known. But if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. It is unworthy for a scientist to engage in "rearranging chairs", sending a pseudoscientist to other specialists instead of sharply and unambiguously expressing one's attitude toward his fantasies.
Scientific creativity is directly associated with esthetic aspects. Esthetic assessments are also appropriate in the struggle against pseudoscience. Truth is beautiful, but a lie is ugly. Pseudoscience is to be ridiculed. It has no humor itself, but humor is very useful in combating it. I think that nothing except a sense of humor is required for such a statement like, for example:
"In classic theory a particle is viewed not only as the combination of the constantly changing, together with the constant changes of the space and force relations of electrons and nuclei, and the properties of substances, but also as a discrete form of the existence of matter as objectively real "things in themselves" whose qualitative specificity is determined by the discontinuity of the changes of the chemical compound relations of the electrons and nuclei, atoms, and the atoms in reactions" (G. V. Chelintsev, 'Essays on the Theory of Organic Chemistry', Goskhimizdat [State Chemistry Publishers], 1949)".
"Elementary forms of movement are: shifting, metric, rotational, microrotational, mechanical (voluminous), microvoluminous, kinetic shifting, impulse, kinetic rotational, spinning, chronal [khronal'naya] shifting, chronal rotational, microchronal, hydrodynamic, deformational, vibrational, gravitational, microgravitational, diffusional, microdiffusional, chemical", etc. etc. (A. I. Veynik, "Thermodynamics", Minsk, 1968).
Pseudoscience is ridiculous – it is senseless, inarticulate, and often simply stupid.
We will conclude the article with the paraphrased words of the great poet Aleksandr Blok: there are no special sciences. A name ought not to be given to a science that isn't called one. In order to create a science one has to be able to do this.
Blok was not speaking of science, but art, however the substance of the matter does not change on account of this.
M. V. Vol'kenshteyn, Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences
Translated by Gary Goldberg
|| home | ZS magazine | library | links ||