|Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society|
|A Description of the RAN [Russian Academy of Science]'s Fight Against Pseudoscience in the Mass Media|
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(A Speech to members of the master class "Science in the Mass Media Today", St. Petersburg, 4-5 April 2003)
To begin, I would like to recommend the book of Academician Eh. P. Kruglyakov to you entitled "Swindlers Posing as Scientists" (Moscow, Nauka, 2001). He is my immediate superior in the Commission to Combat Pseudoscience and the Falsification of Scientific Research. This Commission was created in the RAN Presidium when science was deprived not only of money but also honor after being trampled on in the mass media, who explained that a pack of old men took all the money and are taking from real esoteric knowledge what should rightfully be going to it.
But now I want to relate a story of how I joined the struggle with this Pseudoscience itself. There's little that's pleasant in it since it is very much an area of conflict. The word "pseudoscience" itself right away usually makes people very combative because some people hear in this a cliche of Soviet times - "bourgeois pseudoscience". Others think that our struggle is a struggle against genetics, cybernetics, etc. and call our Commission "a new Inquisition". But this is a lie and this is what I want to talk about.
I myself would never have started to get into this business if events had not pushed me. Being an academic (I deal with quantum spectroscopy), at the start of perestroyka I suddenly landed in the chair of deputy director of an enormous specialized institute. The fashion then was simply this: toss members of the Academy who were not Party members into management. I landed in the post of deputy director for fundamental research and various materials began to come to me which had never reached me before because they were top secret.
It turned out that they were reports which primarily defense industries were receiving from their contractors and, according to their rules, they had to send these reports to someone for review. This was something new for me. But when I saw these reports my eyes almost popped out of my head because this was wild nonsense. I saw that there were some absolutely ridiculous projects which contradicted all the principles of physics but claimed, at a minimum, to be discoveries.
It said there that in the near future, if financing were continued, the modeling of an engine of a "flying saucer" with all its characteristics would be accomplished. The characteristics were; the speed of the "saucer" was greater than the speed of light, it became invisible, and could develop any acceleration. All the laws of physics were violated - Newton's First, Second, and Third Laws, all the laws of conservation - and it reported that new forces, new interactions, etc. had been discovered. These are the fairy tales which are being encountering right now in the mass media. But then this went under the classification of "Top Secret".
I was horrified reading these reports and wrote that this was complete nonsense and everyone who participated in this work needed to be fired and an investigation made. But there was no reaction to my comments. One day I asked a deputy minister whether he receive them? Yes, he said, we got them; they are being filed. I regarded this very naively then but then found out that there was simply a great amount of money going to specialized science was going to what is now called "kickbacks". It was called something else then. Then they explained to me: "You come to the ministry and you'll make arrangements that an [authorization] card [kartochka] will be written for you for 20 million [rubles] on condition that you bring a suitcase of cash and a container of spirits". I've just written to "Izvestia" that little has changed from that time.
Then I thought that, having no idea about physics, our bosses were signing such papers simply out of ignorance. But now I regard this much more skeptically and think that they knew very well what they were doing. This was nothing other than routine plundering of state property under socialist conditions. The characteristics of socialism were then expressed for me this way: one can waste any amount of money in order to steal one percent. For example, the chief of a vegetable warehouse could let all the vegetables rot in order to write something off and appropriate [the money]. Right now money is also being embezzled, but at least it is not lost. I think that there is already great progress from the point of view of physics' laws of conservation.
But the following events then occurred. Soon after I attempted to somehow influence the ministry's policy, I suddenly received a secret government decree that enormous work was beginning, with financing of about a billion dollars, as Glaz'yev told me (at new prices), to adopt and use new forces, rays, and particles discovered 30 years ago in secret laboratories of the Soviet Union.
Having found out about this I immediately went to the minister and tried to explain that this was impossible for it contradicted all the principles of physics. I had sufficient grounds to say so. I met with the leaders of this field and was convinced that they represented some kind of mix of fanatics, fools, and con men. And then, not acting out of naivete, which could have threatened me personally, I took this whole matter to a meeting of the Academy of Sciences. And this whole scam fell apart, having become known through glasnost. I was lucky that this was in 1991 when all Soviet power was collapsing in general and the ministries came crashing down. As a result, they left me on the job although the minister called me on the carpet.
Then all this somehow disappeared and all the supporting actors of the scam ran for cover. In the Academy of Sciences' resolution it said that this was pseudoscience, that nothing of the sort existed, and that all the records and reports about this supposedly having been adopted and put to use long ago were falsifications. This resolution was taken into account and the Center of Nontraditional Technologies of the then State Committee for Science and Technology was immediately disbanded. True, in the process it was announced that I had greatly overestimated the money wasted. This was all trivial.
But some time passed and when they were about to disband the public began to get into the market and the mass media began to be filled with all kinds of dramatic discoveries, including flying saucers, occult knowledge, new fields and forces, and new "scientific" achievements. And all this flew into the mass media invariably with abuse of the Academy of Sciences. And not just the yellow press participated in this. We have had a very serious war with "Rossiyskaya Gazeta". There was (and they say he's still there) a certain Eduard Valentinov who had seized the science department and completely monopolized it. I am absolutely convinced that he was writing paid advertising. There was persistent advertising of so-called torsion fields and technologies. As a physicist I have dealt with searches for new interactions and I know that they are not manifested even at a quite negligible level of importance in comparison with what is already known to science. Therefore, when it is said that with the aid of torsion generators we can shoot down enemy missiles, establish communications in all mediums - under water, underground, wherever you please - and these communications do not depend on distance and do not require energy, I state with authority that this is a complete scam. Nevertheless, this continues to ring out in the mass media and even land somehow on the desks of the most important people of the government, bypassing all expert review. I heard that our need for missiles would soon fade away since engines "without supports" were possible which were not subject to the limitations of Newton's Third Law and would push "away from itself" which, of course, is complete nonsense.
And all this is being accompanied by a reaction against the Russian Academy of Sciences. For example, there is a certain Professor Sinyakov in St. Petersburg who acts as a soothsayer: he predicts any disasters with the aid of astrology, although, it is true, mainly in hindsight. And when I gave an negative reaction to his project, with the aid of which he was fighting for money from the Naval Academy, he informed me confidentially: "They're going to disband your Academy very soon. I'm telling you this accurately".
But, in my opinion, times have changed somewhat. I don't know how and why, but now they've begun to give us space on the pages of "Izvestia" and "Literaturnaya Gazeta". And generally there are no more such dreadful articles such as Valentinov wrote then. All the same, the mass media is starting to listen to real science. Possibly they have simply understood that pseudoscientific nonsense cannot continue endlessly. Imagine what it means that a new physical interaction was discovered 30 years ago in the USSR. This [would mean] a Nobel Prize, at a minimum! And no one on Earth knew of this deep secret for decades but now suddenly all the trumpets are blowing about it. The Internet is literally overwhelmed with information about the declassified "scientific achievements" of Russians. But isn't it strange that the scientific world has somehow not reacted to this? But our officials do react; they depend on money for science.
Our latest encounters with this public were connected with the fact that it has started to enter the international arena. Not long ago I managed to publish a note in Izvestia about a Bulgarian journalist who sent a request for help to our Ioffe Physicotechnical Institute because some scam artists were attacking the Bulgarian budget with the object of, let's say, "palming off" perpetual motion machines on the Bulgarians. The authors called them vortex heat generators. Supposedly you connect such an apparatus to a network, draw, let's say, one kilowatt of power, and you get several free ones in exchange which simply come from a vacuum which, they say, is an infinite source of energy. The ideas that infinite energy could be concealed in a vacuum are borrowed from cosmogony. While it is not yet known what the mass of the universe is composed of, con men are borrowing these vague ideas and immediately putting them into commercial circulation. They've also launched themselves on Bulgaria with this same idea but its Academy of Sciences has not been able to say anything because they cited academicians of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences Shipov and Akimov, who supposedly proved that a vacuum is an infinite source of energy from which one can get as much as desired. In the note in Izvestia I wrote that a straightforward examination shows that this is simply nonsense, not to mention that it is theoretically impossible. Afterwards, Bulgaria woke up and rebuffed these "Akimovites". But it's a small country and therefore it's easier for them to deal with their own con men. But how is vast Russia to deal with them?
I have been talking mainly about the criminal side of pseudoscience. But, of course, it is multifaceted: there exist normal scientific errors, but paranoiacs exist as well as people who, having read about the theory of relativity in popular publications, think that this is nonsense and that they have better understanding in this matter, moreover, to compete with the great Einstein with great distinction.
For about 30 years I have worked in the editorial board of an academic journal. About twice a year articles come to us with a refutation of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. In the process it is explained that these are generally errors of our scientific popularization which, in the first place, presents these remarkable achievements as a revolution in physics, which is not so. Generally speaking, revolutions don't happen in physics. Physics constantly collects facts and over time only adds to them and clarifies them itself. In the second place, popular literature presents these theories of physics as being at the foundation of some very old and dilapidated experiments. This is a blunder. All those investigations which have been made of these theories which we have are the basis, the contemporary evidentiary basis of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. All of atomic energy is impossible without the theory of relativity. Not one accelerator could operate without the theory of relativity. Therefore all the formulas of the theory of relativity are absolutely indisputable. It is another matter that one can speak of improving their logical foundation but that they reflect reality is a fact which cannot be disputed.
The situation in contemporary science is fundamentally different from what it was 50 or 100 years ago when science was passing through virgin territory and it was thought that a certain crazy idea was needed. These are the words of Bohr which crazy people repeat. Indeed, this is very reckless thinking. There are any number of crazy ideas. An idea should be right. And so for the last 100 years science has been constantly accumulating facts and knowledge and each succeeding discovery must include the preceding ones into it without fail; it doesn't have the right to deny them.
For example, if you find some new interplanetary long-range influence [deystviye] then how will you associate it with the fact that celestial mechanics according to Newton operates with an accuracy to about one millionth? This means that if there is some new force, it is infinitesimally small in comparison with those known since Newton's time. Nevertheless, the search for new forces continues. Science rests on it. It strives for growth but alas the space for groundless fantasies is shrinking.
Those who object to this also said the same thing in the last century. Yes, but in the past century they said this on the basis of a completely different knowledge base. For example, as is well known, at the beginning of the age of geographic discoveries Columbus was sent to discover a new passage to India but he succeeded so remarkably that he discovered America. But can one imagine now that someone would discover a new continent on our planet? It is impossible; everything is known. The expansion of geographic knowledge is over, alas. Something of this sort is occurring now in physics. Terrestrial physics is very well known. There can be no wonders here. If we want wonders then we have to get into the neighborhood of "black holes" at the edges of galaxies, at the "edge" of the universe, where complete different forces are operating which we don't yet know. Therefore, when you encounter any sensation, that some St. Petersburg engineer has observed, that Einstein's theory of gravity is incorrect, that indeed there are gaps in gravity, time, and all the rest in the Bermuda Triangle and therefore planes will fall, then it's not necessary to hurry to publish this in the mass media. Turn to any competent physicist for an explanation. I understand that this is very interesting and increases circulation but all the same you need to think about the unfortunate consequences – people begin to blindly believe what they want. Just take, for example, this crazy faith in folk healers and psychics. This is a terrible matter and is very harmful.
Various deviations from normal science do occur. There is criminal pseudoscience, there is naive neophyte [science], and other things. After the end of the Cold War when government financing of science in our country was sharply reduced scientists went to any lengths in the cause of hyping their achievements. And at times this began to take on the nature of pseudoscience. In particular, all kinds of reports about violations of Einstein's laws, that the speed of light had been surpassed or that it had been stopped, that teleportation was possible like in "Star Wars", etc. were basically made in order to scare up financing. Responsible scientists don't allow themselves to do this.
I can cite examples described in recent issues of the magazines "Physics Today" and "Physics World", scientific falsifications which were observed in the truest citadels of science abroad. But they are very unique. Judge for yourself.
There are two such stories. One was in Lawrence's laboratory in Berkeley, where two new transuranic isotopes were discovered. You know there is a race to discover all the heavier artificial elements: mendelevium, berkelium, etc. And two new elements were discovered here: 116 and 118. But somehow other laboratories were unable to observe them. But when the experiments were repeated in Berkeley they were observed again. Then this laboratory conducted an in-house investigation. And it became clear that although there were 30 people who were collaborators in the discovery, each time only one of them, one Viktor Ninov, had processed the experimental data and he had falsified it. He was expelled with a great scandal.
In the second instance a scientist of German origin working in America was absolutely confident that he was just about to make a Nobel discovery and published 60 articles in two years where he reported completely fantastic discoveries. He had supposedly observed superconductivity in anthracene crystals, had made a computer chip on a single molecule, etc. The articles were published with very prominent co-authors. He simply selected them from among those who had a very good reputation. A board of inquiry exonerated these co-authors although they were "admonished". But the main figure, Henrik Schon, was expelled from the laboratory. Such stories are not typical in today's Russia; today we have few young, ambitious people who are actually working on the leading edge of science.
The most dangerous thing for us remains the real possibility of plundering the budget for some dubious projects. The money which might go to this, as before, is concealed in classified budget items earmarked for the financing of all the special services, the Army, etc. Old ties have been preserved and now slimy people have ways to approach them. Therefore, from my point of view, the main task of our Commission to Combat Pseudoscience is to convince the government that not one fantastic scheme should be pursued without the expert review of world science. If you don't believe in the RAN's expert review, then invite someone from abroad, although of all Russian science the RAN is the most integrated into world science in view of the fact that we have had mistakes in the expert review of science, although perhaps least of all.
Ye. B. Aleksandrov, Academician of the RAN
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