Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
Loss of a Culture of Debate and Logical Thinking and its Consequences for Society

The requirement of reasoned defense of one's scientific views and assertions, a requirement sanctified by centuries, appears to have been abolished on the sly by someone. To tell the truth, the culture of debate and the ability to think logically has never flourished. But in recent decades in Russian society the culture began to lose its position even among scientists with real and undoubted scientific contributions. What can one demand from the people who just call themselves .scientists., from journalists, and finally from the common man?

I'll venture to tell of my modest experience of debates with my opponents in philosophical outlook .in person, by correspondence, and in the mass media. More exactly attempts at debate, for in most cases I've been faced with a truly oppressive lack of an elementary culture of debate.

I'll begin with a 20-year old story. In 1980 Chinghiz Aytmatov's novel And the Day Lasts Longer than a Century (Substation Buranny) was published. From the literary point of view the novel is blameless, maybe even excellent. But it contains a .cosmic. (or, better said, comic) plotline which is a conglomeration of terribly ignorant nonsense, shameful even for a teenager (for instance, a rendezvous of two spaceships on opposite near-earth orbits). I attempted to state the essence of the matter to the editorial staff of the Literaturnaya Gazeta in a detailed and reasonable manner, trying to convince it to start a debate on its pages on the equal rights of the two cultures. The following question could be discussed in this debate: Why is a person who doesn't know, say, the Queen of Spades' author or Anna Karenina's author, deservedly nailed to the barn door, but if somebody doesn't know the most elementary (on a secondary school level) facts and notions from the natural sciences (for instance, what is the difference between a star, a planet and a galaxy), then it is considered to be in the nature of things . 'cause it's beyond his (or her) specialty? In polemical ardor I've dropped a phrase: .To be silent today means tomorrow to open wide a gate for an exciting discussion on the topic: What is the best remedy against hoodoo and evil eye. a necklace of birds' skulls or a black rooster's dried excrement?.. (Even in a ghastly nightmare one couldn't imagine what my cawing will turn into a decade later). The correspondence between the Literaturnaya Gazeta and me has been long and exhausting. All my desperate labors for eloquence have been striking against a dull repetition of the phrase .But we have another opinion.. The double standard of the LG's editorial staff of that time and its hypocrisy consisted of the fact that the newspaper constantly repeated (on other occasions) Voltaire's excellent aphorism: .I hate your opinion, but for your right to express it I'm ready to sacrifice my life.. In short, I couldn't achieve a success either in beginning a discussion or in publicly expressing myself against rewarding Ch.šAytmatov the State prize.

This old example is rather indicative: despite elemental ethics the mass media fairly often prefers to keep silent when their readers (listeners, audience, viewers) try to protest against being manifestly duped. I've repeatedly written angry letters to V.šStarkov, the editor-in-chief of the weekly Argumenty i Fakty, concerning the publication by the weekly of all kinds of antiscientific nonsense . like "the karma law", the correspondence between jewels and signs of the zodiac, the weighing a dead man's soul, the investigation of ghosts in some scientific research institute, and so on. Quite incomparable in a way was the explanation given by a professor of esoteric (that is to say fraudulent) sciences, master of healing arts S.šKomichizhiyev, to an inquisitive reader that, as it happens, Fate protects good people and punishes evil ones. According to the professor's logic, apparently, Adolph Hitler was a very good man, since Fate saved him in July 1944, during the generals' assassination attempt. The only reply to all my indignant letters was Mr. Starkov's haughty silence.

A fallacious argument well known in ancient times . argumentum ad hominem (personal attack) is widespread (including among scientists). Instead of objecting to one's statements in their substance . the opponent.s personality and nearly his biographical particulars are discussed. The forms are quite varied. On the one hand . the most primitive boorishness (in a broadcast of the St. Petersburg radio station (Baltika( some astrologer, as a reply to a proposal to organize a discussion with Trevogin, responded this way: .One could jabber with him about girls, about vodka, but just not about astrology.. And something else in the same overly familiar manner). Another pole is delicate complaints that the respected opponent allegedly doesn't know such and such scientific works. I make a reservation: such a reproach is relevant when a narrow scientific discipline (say, volcanology) is in question. But it's absolutely unjustified in controversies of a philosophical outlook: about astrology, about religious belief and science, or about the boundary between science and pseudoscience. Certainly, it is desirable that both debating parties have a certain outlook, some general erudition. But humanity has written so many books on different philosophical questions that nobody is able to master all of them. And it's scarcely worthwhile. There isn't (and can't be) such a kind of .qualifying examination for a candidate.s degree. (.candidate's minimum.) obligatory for everyone who dares to have and defend their own philosophy.

Another vicious argument, also well-known to the ancients, is: Magister dixit (.The teacher has spoken.). Those who believe in God and in fortune-telling by stars resort to it especially fiercely. The former make reference to believing scientists (with especial persistency reckoning among them academician I.P.šPavlov, although his atheistic pronouncements are widely known). The latter refer to Newton and Kepler (whose belief in astrology was hardly serious, either). I dare to express a heretical thesis: For a genuine scientist there are only two incontestable authorities: His Majesty Fact and His Majesty Logic. And that's all! There are and there can be no other authorities! Nobody, including a super-genius, is proof against error. And that's why the beliefs of no one whatsoever have conclusive force.

There is a specific argument in defense of astrology which has been revived in the recent decades: Genetics and cybernetics were also regarded as false sciences. This .scorching. argument hasn't a Latin name, so I'll dare call it a Russian name: ęóőŕđęčí äîâîä (the cook.s reason). lost count of how many times I have heard this squalid .thought.. Chronologically, it was last heard from astrologer Mikhail Levin's mouth, on the talk show .Korotkoe zamykanie (Short Circuit).. Well understanding that the cook's reason is immortal like the Mafia, I want nevertheless to respond to it once and for all. First of all, those who brandish it confuse science with ideology. Except for our totalitarian country, nobody anywhere ever counted either genetics or cybernetics among pseudosciences. Furthermore, supposing that even if the slander against these sciences were really global . what would follow from this? Consider the situation: A man named Robinson is being tried. And lo and behold . his attorney declares: 60 years ago Johnson and Peterson were tried . and they both turned to be innocent. This means that my client is innocent too!

Some people like to intimidate their opponents by all kinds of words like .intelligibility., .reflection on non-cognitivity., .paradigm., .collegiality. and so on. I don't wish to say .always., but quite often there is nothing that stands behind similar abusive language. Or there is a desire to attribute to the opponent something that he (she) didn't mean. For about a year I've happened to debate religious and scientific world views with a brilliant scientist, geneticist, and Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, L. I.šKorochkin ( the correspondence has been carried on with his knowledge openly via Internet). In the heat of the dispute he uttered a peremptory conviction that I (as an atheist) came from a certain .Marxist-Leninist paradigm.. Quite naturally, I asked, what it was. And I received an answer: .Philosophy is affiliated with a party. Science is affiliated with a party. Religion is opium for the people. Matter is primary, consciousness is secondary. God doesn't exist . it's been proven by science., and so on in the same vein. I was driven to despair. I said nothing of the kind to Leonid Korochkin! I always come from a .paradigm. that water is wet, carbon is quadrivalent, and lemon is sour. You could have in the same manner attributed to me some utterances by Goebbels or Mussolini! . I exclaimed via e-mail in a fit of temper. I have repeatedly tried to explain what my atheist's credo consists of: it is by no means .belief in God's absence., but quite another thing . it is an absence of belief in God! But I never managed to get this simple thought over not only to Mr. Korochkin, but to other believing opponents.

The hero of Kurt Vonnegut's novel .Cat's Cradle. says: .Any scientist who can't explain to an eight-year-old what he is doing is a charlatan.. Maybe that's too much, but in questions of philosophy in most cases one can really remain on the level of sentences like .tomato is red. and .fire is hot. . without any .paradigms. and .intelligibility.. For instance, for theological disputes one doesn.t need any intricate cunning philosophical tricks; it is a sufficiently simple but competently put question like this one: .Is a cruciform talisman able to deflect the trajectory of an enemy's bullet?..

The inability (or unwillingness) to listen to one's opponent is, unfortunately, a widespread disease to which a great many people are subject. This includes digression and evasion of a direct answer to a simple and clearly formulated question, in short . blathering about the subject. I've repeatedly had to fight in the media against a certain professor, doctor of technical sciences A.N.šSinyakov, the author of the so-called .theory. of local geophysical resonance (LGR). It's impossible to understand what resonates with what, but anyhow it is a new form of astrology. The scope of disasters and devastation produced by the malicious LGR is impressive: here is the extinction of dinosaurs, here are all aeronautical accidents without exception, here are the floods in Saint Petersburg, here is Artyom Borovik's tragic death, here is the disappearance of the Mayan people, here is Sobchak's death, here is the collapse of the overhang of the shelter of the metro station .Sennaya Square. in Saint Petersburg, and here are many other things. It is astonishing that Mr. Sinyakov hasn't yet hit upon the idea of ascribing acts of terrorism, inflation, and default to his LGR. In short, this .theory. of his is a universal, all-embracing theory of everything in the world. Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences Ye. B.šAlexandrov and the author of this report (both independently and jointly) have repeatedly tried to challenge this sorcerer to a public dispute1,2, in order to induce him to answer some simple and obvious questions, but in vain. The only thing he is capable of is amazing credulous journalists with unprecedented sensations without condescending to reason or face-to-face meetings with opponents.

From an inability to argue competently let us pass smoothly to the inability to think logically . a sin that is peculiar to many false and genuine scientists. The well-known ophthalmologist E.M.šMuldashev has stuffed the aforementioned weekly Argumenty i Fakty (as well as bookshelves) with his opuses about trans-Himalayan, Ancient Egyptian and other miracles that are startling in their ignorance and contradict not only natural laws but simple common sense. I hardly need mention these revelations of his . unfortunately they are too well known. Rather detailed criticism can be found, for instance, in papers3,4,5. Here I'll note only two points. Firstly, Mr. Muldashev doesn't understand the difference between physics and mathematics, which is evident by his phrase, written in all seriousness: .Whether the number 3.33 is an ancient value of ?, which is characteristic for the period of life of the Earth when the North Pole was situated in the region of the Kailas Mountain and the planet had another magnetic structure?. Secondly, his acrobatic tricks with figures and numbers (666, 108, 6741 and so on) are quite ignorant. It never occurred to him that as a unit, the meter, as well as the decimal numbering system are mere conventions which have nothing to do with objective reality.

The figure of the former doctor of chemical sciences F.K.šVelichko is rather remarkable. The former, because having engaged about two decades ago in astrology .seriously. he had voluntarily placed himself outside of science and simply even outside of civilization. His credo is stated most completely in the first half of a booklet6, but he continues to speak in public on this theme . both in the press and on TV. There are a lot of strained interpretations, misrepresentations, logical discrepancies and misunderstandings of the simplest things in his part of the booklet (.PRO.) . there.s no end of them. Here, for instance, is his conception of .a clock with hands., according to which planets don't physically influence people's destinies but play the part of timemarkers. After all, the time periods, which they (astrologers) need, can be marked off as easily as ABC . without any planets. The former chemist does not note that by his concept he pronounces a death sentence on astrology. Or take another of his concepts . that of modeling. From the indisputable fact that .one can assemble an electric circuit the characteristics of which will change according to the same mathematical laws as those of the system under investigation., F.šVelichko concludes the .truth. of astrology: by means of a .model. (the movement of the planets) it allegedly studies and predicts the evolution of the .system. under investigation (life). It's difficult to understand whether the former doctor of sciences is saying this seriously or is simply playing the fool. After all, according to the same logic one can .model. heart rhythms by means of a metronome and then predict a heart attack. By the way, on 14 January 1997 in a talk show .Profession is astrologer. Mr. Velichko himself predicted that he only had six years to live. Was he counting on the host's and spectators' feeblemindedness?

Another .scientist. who dishonors Russian science by his inability to think logically is a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, Grigory Kvasha, the author of the so-called .theory of the structural horoscope.. Its essence consists in classifying people (and the phenomena of social life) not by the signs of the monthly zodiac, but by the signs of the eastern, twelve-year one. And past historical events are .explained. after the fact and predictions for the future are made on the basis of this .theory.. Like all astrologers (as well as all soothsayers with pretensions to a .scientific nature.) G.šKvasha doesn't understand an elementary thing. Even if astrology (or a similar .theory.) could establish certain statistical patterns, this all the same couldn't serve as a basis for individual predictions . for a very simple reason: statistics, and the theory of probability, study the patterns of mass phenomena and are in principle unable to predict individual ones. And like all superstitious people and pseudoscientists Mr. Kvasha doesn't understand (or doesn't acknowledge) what I call .a civilized man's main postulate.: Nature does not take human inventions7 into consideration. In particular, the periodicity of a particular real phenomenon (when such a periodicity occurs) is determined by natural processes, and not by some beliefs or traditions.

Unfortunately, one can endlessly list the charlatans, swindlers, and rogues that who have been recently sired from science. Take, for example, the .military astrologer. A.šBuzinov, predicting the loss of ships and airplanes by their horoscopes, or A.šAkimov and G.šShipov with their .torsion generators.! Or .professor. A.P.šSmirnov with his .hyperphysics.! Or V. and T. Tikhoplav with their nonsensical monograph .The Physics of Faith.! An investigation of their (and other analogous) scribblings can be found, for instance, in articles8 and other places. But the most detailed analysis of the catastrophic situation in Russian science (if one may call it science) is presented in a book9, 10.

All this is by no means harmless or funny. Russian society is sliding headlong into primitive savagery and superstition. People in the street listen to all kinds of charlatans and swindlers open-mouthed, with bated breath. It has become customary to live according to horoscopes. Even state structures like the State Duma and the Ministry of Extraordinary Situations attach importance to astrologers' and psychics. recommendations. Andersen's tailors like A.šAkimov and A.šBuzinov live at the expense of the state, distributing breath-taking guarantees and promising the moon. As Yu. N.šYefremov justifiably says, .It sometimes seems that our country is already governed by savages.11. The voice of common sense, of real science is suppressed more and more. Especially indicative in this respect is the weekly Argumenty i Fakty. It publishes all sorts of foolish sensations in abundance (like Muldashev's revelations and astrologers' ravings), but grants permission to the other side to express itself extremely reluctantly and in small doses. The ratio is like in the old anecdote: pies with horseflesh half-and-half with wild game: half a horse and half a partridge. Thereby the sacred principle of the ancients is violated: audiatur et altera pars (let the other party be heard).

But truth is born in controversy anyway. At any rate it is polished, ground, refined, and separated from lies. We've already seen in totalitarian times what gagging one of the parties leads to. That's there should be no prohibitions (even concerning the Globas, Velichko, Zarayev and the like). The only weapon in the struggle with charlatanism and pseudoscience ought to be the word alone, but in no circumstances a club. An honest-minded, frank, and fair dispute. I throw you down my gauntlet! And let every question, every objection, every argument be given an answer, a counter-objection, a counter-argument. The most preferable is a dispute in .ping-pong mode.: a short question . a short answer. Then the danger that the essence of the matter will be drowned in verbiage and phrasemongering will be minimized.

Otherwise we'll indeed live to see a complete descent into primitive savagery.

P. Trevogin, candidate of technical sciences

Translated from Russian by the author

Translation edited by Gary Goldberg

1 P. Trevogin. A Scientific Hypothesis or a Conjuration? On Some Publications of Professor Sinyakov / .Zdravy Smysl. No. 14, 1999/2000.

2 Ye.šAlexandrov, P.šTrevogin. Pseudoscience on the Move. On So-called Theory of LGR of Professor Sinyakov.š/šPeterburgsky Chas Peak No. 34, 2002.

3 P.šTrevogin. Trans-Hymalayan Fairy Tales, .Nauka i Zhizn. No. 9, 2002.

4 L.šBalashevich. The Trans-Hymalayan Story-Teller from an ophthalmologist's point of view. / .Zdravy Smysl. No. 2 (27), 2003.

5 P.šTrevogin. Professor Mulsashev's Fairy Tales. Ibidem. (This is the same paper [3], but in a more complete variant).

6 F.šVelichko, V.šSurdin. Astrology: PRO and CONTRA. Publishing house of the society .Znaniye. RSFSR, 1990.

7 P.šTrevogin. The Civilized Man's Main Postulate as a Vaccine Against Superstitions. //Collection of papers .In Defense of Reason., materials of the international symposium .Science, Anti-science and Paranormal Believes.. Moscow, 2003.

8 G.šShevelyov. Physicists from the Shaping-Center. .Zdravy Smysl. No. 3 (20), 2001.

9 Ye.šAlexandrov. Cock-and-bull stories of the Newest Times. SPb Vedomosti No. 153, 20.08.2003.

10 E. Kruglyakov. The .Scientists. from the Highway. Moscow, .Nauka., 2001.

11 Yu.šYefremov. Trustworthiness and Limits of Scientific Knowledge. //Collection of papers .In Defense of Reason., materials of the international symposium .Science, Anti-science and Paranormal Believes.. Moscow, 2003.