Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
Propaganda of Obscurantism as a Policy of the State

(a report at the International Conference "Humanism and Science - Planetary Values of the Third Millenium", June 14-16, 2000, Saint-Petersburg)

During the last decade an unparalleled Sabbath of the wildest superstitions is going on in Russia. These superstitions, such as astrology, spiritism and so on, are actively supported by mass media. Charlatans have unimpeded access to microphone, TV camera and printing press, whereas their opponents have almost none.

Sometimes they attempt to explain the phenomenon by the freedom of speech that has recently appeared in our country: all these sorcerers and fortune-tellers by stars have been stopped their mouths before - well, let them speak out now. It were somewhat tolerable save for two "BUTS". Firstly, the proportion between appearances in mass media of the charlatans and their opponents is like that in an old anecdote about a pie with 50 % flesh of wildfowl and 50 % horse-flesh: half a horse and half a hazel-hen. Well, the difference is even much more. Secondly, appearances in mass media of the charlatans and very seldom utterances of their opponents exist as though in parallel worlds, independently. There is no perspective of a controversy, a dialogue between the two parties. All criticism of charlatanism is a fight with a shadow!

Characteristic is the fact that the press silently considers all the readers, listeners and TV viewers as believers. And besides orthodox Christians, of course. As if there were no such a thing as atheism. And what a fun: from time to time in some scientific publication millions or even milliards years are mentioned. And one feels an urge to cross oneself and to exclaim: God the Lord and Mother of God, Virgin Mary! Which millions, which milliards? What do you speak about? Every Christian who had been baptized knows quite exactly that our universe is less than 8.000 years old! However, the militant aggressiveness of the Russian Orthodox Church is a separate theme which I don't intend to dwell upon.

Apparently, everywhere astrologers and similar charlatans are permitted to mass media. But to specialized ones! Many books, papers and magazines for mentally retarded people are published. In our country there are such editions too. But not only. Our calamity (and disgrace, too) consists in practically unrestricted access of all the swindlers to mass media, including the most respective ones. Besides inferior newspapers and magazines, specializing in cheap sensations (like electrical lamps in the Ancient Egypt), many serious papers, such as Saint-Petersburg Vedomosti or Argumenty i Fakty, systematically propagate primitive superstitions. I'll relate about these two newspapers a little later. Each week the state company ITAR-TASS sends round horoscopes into Russian papers. In disguise of scientists every possible people, who are very far from genuine science (for instance, "professors" of astrology, magic, esoteric sciences etc.), and insane persons systematically appear in mass media (for instance, some real professor, who explains everything - from disappearance of dinosaurs to earthquakes and floods, from extinction of Vikings to airplane crashes - by a "local geophysical resonance").

As soon as this wild outburst of obscurantism (in the first place astrology) has begun, I've tried and continue to try to oppose it. But it is by no means an easy task: Russian and Leningrad (in that time) mass media very reluctantly give the floor to a man of commonsense and some education. Nevertheless I've managed to publish some material, at first in Leningradskaya Pravda and later in some other papers. But the situation is deteriorating from year to year. The charlatans have thrown aside all restraints feeling the state's active support and protection (it seems that there is no TV channel in Russia that don't publish daily (!) astrological prognoses). And our newspapers publish articles of unmasking character more and more reluctantly. Some of my articles have been published by Saint-Petersburg Vedomosti, the successor of Leningradskaya Pravda. But it has been possible only due a reasonable, responsible and influential in his newspaper journalist (who however has experienced counteraction from the editorial staff). When he has changed his job, opposition to charlatanism in Saint-Petersburg Vedomosti has faded away.

By the way, in one of my articles I've proposed a recipe (not so bad, methinks) for driving charlatans out of mass media. One ought not to forbid anything. Let any soothsayer come and bring any delirium he (she) wants. But he will be obliged to answer from time to time some serious questions of an educated and reasonable man, who will not play at give-away (like, for instance, TV talk-showman Andrey Karaulov, who has interviewed scandalous famous Pavel Globa). If he's ready to do so - then welcome. If not - then farewell. It seems so simple, to put such a condition to a charlatan: both the freedom of speech is intact and even a low barrier to obscurantism is set. But this simple advise hasn't been heard.

I have proposed to different Saint-Petersburg newspapers a cycle of scientific popular essays on comparative history of astronomy and astrology - how in ancient times it has been a mixture of knowledge and superstitions, and afterwards their ways have diverged. A pilot article has been written from the cycle - that on comets: what it is from the point of view of ancient people and from the point of view of the up-to-date science. I have the cheek to think that the article has been written popularly enough, vividly, with a grain of humor. Besides, it has been accompanied by an appropriate epigraph from Heinrich Heine. None of Saint-Petersburg newspapers has accepted this cycle of essays for publication. None! Our press isn't interested in enlightenment of the reader. It is interested in making fool of him, in systematic publication of horoscopes, in interviewing such charlatans as Pavel Globa, Sergey Shestopalov, Alexander Zarayev, Mark Levin and suchlike.

For the sake of justice I ought to say that everything is by no means hopeless. A group of Saint-Petersburg scientists, publicists and writers has appealed to SPb TV and Radio Company with a letter, and our appeal has been satisfied: a cycle of radio transmissions titled Science and Pseudoscience has been organized. The fact itself is splendid, but it doesn't resolve the problem since, the temporal framework of the cycle cannot be compared with the scale of what is going on in the rest mass media.

Some years ago I've succeeded in carving a pair or two of anti-obscurant transmissions by Leningrad TV, but now the access to it for commonsense is shut again. Very characteristic is the phrase that I've repeatedly heard from TV employees: 'We will not give you such-and-such for eating up'. As nobody, apparently, suspects anybody in cannibalism, the phrase can be translated like this: 'Of course, we are aware of charlatanism of Mr. X (Mrs. Y), but nevertheless we will not allow you to confuse him (her) by too clever questions'.The last year, in connection with some terroristic acts, I've written a small article titled Why the don't Astrologers Warn Us?. It has contained a modest request to star-fortune-tellers: since they are clever in such a degree, that they had been able (as they assert) to predict the wreck of the ferry Estonia and the catastrophe of the airplane Ruslan, why then they don't warn us against the forthcoming terroristic act? You just tell us: explosive stuff is already put in the basement of such-and-such house in such-and-such street of such-and-such town; the clockwork is set to such-and-such time. Just imagine, what a lot of people would be saved! None of Saint-Petersburg newspapers has accepted this article. To tell the truth, a journalist of Vecherny Petersburg has promised to publish it, but in the last moment the publication has been cut short by the editor-in-chief: one may not offence, he said, astrologers, who have real merits before mankind.

The attitude of such serious and authoritative newspapers, as Saint-Petersburg Vedomosti and Argumenty i Fakty, deserves a separate conversation.

Let us begin from the first of them. After publication of several unmasking articles against astrology in Saint-Petersburg Vedomosti, with concrete questions and invitations to dispute, no responses or objections from the part of astrologers have followed (well, and from where would the objections emerge?). Nevertheless weekly publication of horoscopes (which are sent round by the state's structure ITAR-TASS!) continued as if nothing had happened. Moreover, according to Oleg Kuzin's (the editor-in-chief) task in January 1999 a new disgraceful interview with Pavel Globa has been published: what this fortune-teller deigns to think about the forthcoming year. After that publication we, professor Konstantin V. Kholshevnikov (the head of the chair of Celestial Mechanics of Saint-Petersburg University) and me, have written to the chief-editor Oleg Kuzin, asking him, firstly, to accept us for a serious discussion, and secondly, once and forever to express on the newspaper's pages the attitude of the editorial staff towards astrology as a primitive superstition. In spite of reiterated reminders about our letter to the editor-in-chief's secretary during a whole month, Oleg Kuzin hadn't favored us with an answer. Professor Kholschevnikov said he had never experienced such humiliation. And the weekly horoscopes continue to be published as usually, and I wait loathingly for some next interview with this or that charlatan.

Even a worse situation is with the weekly Argumenty i Fakty. To tell the truth, the main issue doesn't publish horoscopes for different Capricorns and other Jackasses and Goats (they are published in some supplement), but then it regularly regales its readers with such delirium, that one involuntarily begins to estimate: maybe, the authors of such revelations have been expelled from a primary school after two or three years of studies. If you wish, there are political divinations of astrologers; there are scientific and research institutes studying ghosts; there is "the Law of Karma"; there is correspondence between signs of the Zodiac and jewels; and talismans against the evil eye; and very many other things of the kind. For instance, once the AiF has been published pseudo-scientific speculations of a professor of esoteric sciences about the destiny and how it guards good people and castigates bad ones. Evidently, according to the professor's logic, Adolph Hitler had been a very good man, as the destiny had guarded him in July 1944. If somebody has forgotten, I'll remind: there had been an attempt on his life then; some of his generals had been killed, and the F(hrer himself had had a lucky escape. If one takes in consideration a huge circulation of the weekly (the biggest in our country), one may give Argumenty i Facty a title of the Main Breeding-ground of Obscurantism in Russia.

I foresee an objection: why the "main" one? You know, firstly, AiF publishes besides delirium of every kind many reasonable and useful things: serious analytical surveys of domestic and foreign policy, economical articles, recommendations of medical character, advices to gardeners, warnings against swindlers (however, astrologers are swindlers as well) and so on. Secondly, there are many periodicals specializing almost exceptionally in anti-scientific sensations. I reply: it is for these two reasons that the weekly Argumenty i Facty is much more dangerous than the named periodicals. Those yellow papers are comparatively harmless because they are addressed to a specific readers' contingent with a quite definite intellectual level. These readers will not become more stupid than they are. But AiF is quite a different case. Its readers' auditory is much more all-embracing and has a very wide and diverse intellectual specter. And when a reader sees near a serious analysis of dynamics of prices or of demographic situation, with tables and diagrams, when he sees on the same or on the next page cock-and-bull story about new miracles or chilling speculations about what cataclysms one may expect from the nearest lunar eclipse or from the parade of planets arranging in a form of cross or swastika, then, no doubt, some people (and not few) may take the nonsense seriously.

I've repeatedly drawn Vladislav Starkov's (the chief-editor of AiF) attention to inadmissibility and danger of uncritical publication of anti-scientific nonsense on pages of a newspaper that enjoys deserved authority and popularity. I've pointed at numerous flops of the astrologers which are published by him especially readily, by means of argumentation I've derided different foolishnesses, published by AiF. Everything was in vain. All letters to Vladislav Starkov have been left without any answer.

Very significant is an episode with a publication in Argumenty i Facty's junior brother, a regional supplement AiF-Petersburg. There was an article in it about an institute of military astrology (or cosmorythmology), where they under leadership of Alexander Buzinov allegedly predict with probability 90 % catastrophes of natural and technical origin, including (allegedly) wreckage of airplane "Ruslan". As a reply to that irresponsible stuff I've brought in the editorial office an article Astrology Cancels Every Science, where quite simple and evident questions have been put:

  • Is the combination of planets THE ONLY factor of catastrophes or ONE OF the factors?
  • If it is the only factor, then what for institutes, which bear no relation to astrology, exist?
  • But if it is one of the factors, then how do the cosmorythmologers (or military astrologers) contrive to take into account other factors, and besides from afar, and besides beforehand?

Nobody wished to talk with me in the editorial office. Such is the freedom of speech in Russian style: not only one may not prove or disprove something, but one may not put questions.

Let us sum up. The catastrophic situation in Russia may be characterized by three disasters, and each following one is worse than the preceding one.

The first. Unrestrained, irresponsible and uncontrolled propaganda of irrationalism.

The second. Very insignificant (in volume) opposition to the propaganda, and sometimes total absence of any opposition at all.

The third. Existence of irrationalism and its opposition as if in parallel worlds, impossibility to compel priests of irrationalism by means of mass media to public dialogue with education and commonsense.

A natural question arises: What is it - a chance or somebody's evil will?

Vladislav Starkov's, Oleg Kuzin's and other leaders' of mass media haughty refusal from serious and honest conversation is a very significant symptom. Systematic publication of false prophets' predictions in spite of their numerous shameful failures, weekly delivery of horoscopes to newspapers by state structure ITAR-TASS, obstructionist behavior of mass media with regard to education and commonsense - all this clearly witnesses that the propaganda of obscurantism is not somebody's oversight, is not mere stupidity of separate journalists (although it takes place as well), is not short-sighted commercial conjuncture, but a POLICY, a deliberate, well thought-out criminal policy. It is intellectual genocide of the Russian people. They try to turn us (not unsuccessfully, unfortunately) into a tribe of primitive savages. To whom it is profitable and what for, I don't know. But the aim is too evident. For the time being, all these games with horoscopes, extrasensory miracles and talismans against evil eye seem ludicrous. But if nobody stops it, then after two or three generations we'll in no mood for laughter. Irrationalism will triumph over all Russia; reasonable people, not recognizing any superstitions, will be looked at as moral monsters (as atheists are now looked at), and for scientific education one will be impelled to go in some civilized country like Ethiopia. What is going on in our country is not only national disgrace. It is national tragedy, a great danger hanging over intellectual potential of the people.

No genuine scientist, no mere reasonable man dare stay indifferent to the threat. We must unite our efforts to stop the offensive of obscurantism. If we permit to turn our people in a tribe of savages, our grandsons will not forgive us.

Peter A. Trevogin
Translated from Russian by the author