|Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society|
|Role of the Media in Making Fools of Russian Society|
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In Soviet times the average man on the street had an uncritical trust in «official» information — the printed word, and words broadcast on radio and television.
When Russian society became pluralistic, the floodgates opened: all sorts of fortunetellers by chamomile, the stars and coffee grounds, various cleansers of karma, ghost-conjurers and interpreters of dreams have received unrestricted access to the printing presses, radio microphones and TV cameras. And that's when a middlebrow's credulity played a nasty trick on him. Ordinary people who aren't accustomed to filter and sift the information they get and devoid of normal immunity to patently anti-scientific rubbish, with childish simple-heartedness swallow nearly every word that is printed or heard over the air: horoscopes, remedies against the evil eye, the karma law, correction of biofield — everything is accepted at face value!
I would like to think that journalists are to a great extent conscientious people. But the impression is that the overwhelming majority of them are subject to militant ignorance, that they have thoroughly forgotten all school wisdom and actively and deliberately restrict access to the mass media for people with common sense. And on top of everything, to their ignorance mercantile considerations are added: the desire not to lose readers (listeners, viewers). But the moral and ethical aspects of this policy doesn't bother them. Not to mention the state's interests, whose population is quickly and purposely being converted into a tribe of primitive savages. This is not merely a national disgrace — this is real intellectual genocide!
The first rolls of thunder (one couldn't imagine yet that a catastrophe of unprecedented scale was hanging over our country) rumbled, if my memory does not fail me, in the year 1989 or so. On Leningrad TV an interview was broadcast with a completely unknown astrologer, Pavel Globa. Stunned and indignant at this disgrace, I wrote a letter to the program director, Bella Kurkova, but received no reply (a year or two later I addressed a letter to her signed by a group of eminent scientists — with the same result). Having telephoned LenTV and having ordered a pass for access to the studio, I attempted to appeal to the common sense of the TV reporter who interviewed the astrologer: «Do you know yourself what are such objects as planets, stars, constellations?» As one could judge by her coquettish giggling and by her request for an explanation — well, and what are they?, it was obvious that she really didn't know it. After that I've repeatedly been convinced of the gross ignorance of a great many journalists.
Shortly after that interview the Globas (at that time not yet divorced) began their triumphant progress through the Russian mass media. Journalists vying with each other invited the charlatans into studios and editorial offices and simply didn't know how to please them. After very silly interview with the Leningrad newspaper Smena I wrote an article for this paper with a reasoned analysis of their claims and an invitation to an open dispute. A newspaperwoman of Smena, one Yelena Shul’gina, began to «work» with my article: to edit, to give various advice etc. This went on for half a year or so, whereupon the newspaperwoman announced that my article wasn't needed by the newspaper and wouldn't be published. Somewhat taken aback, I asked whose opinion this was. The newspaperwoman's answer breathed of modest dignity and pride: «It is my opinion, which coincides with the editorial staff’s opinion.» However, the article was then published by another paper — Leningradskaya Pravda. Of course, astrologers would see me damned first, and haven't responded to it. According to some indirect information, after my article Pavel Globa became frightened, having decided that an ordinary Soviet-style «campaign» had begun, but then having understood that no journalist would stand up to him, settled down.
The grandiose- (including financial!) scale torsion swindle concocted by A. Akimov and G. Shipov (torsional or microlepton fields, torsion generators, wonder weapons etc.) also occurred with the most active connivance of journalists, particularly A. Valentinov (Rossiyskaya Gazeta). Academicians E. Kruglyakov and Ye. Alexandrov have been repeatedly obliged to fight real battles with journalists who in no way were able to understand that enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money were being spent on Andersen's tailors' «work». The detailed description of these wars may be found in E. Kruglyakov's splendid book «Swindlers Posing as Scientists»1.
Another swindle that is also runs into money is so-called military astrology. An Institute of Cosmorhythmology actively «works» at this «science» and the chief military astrologer in the Institute is one Captain 1st Rank Alexander Buzinov. The «cosmorhythmologists» take the «birthday» of a ship, plane, and so on, and cast a horoscope, by means of which they foretell every kind of technical catastrophe, and, as exalted newsmen and newswomen say, the accuracy of their prophesies is as high as 90 %. For example, A. Buzinov allegedly predicted the catastrophes of the airplane «Ruslan» and the atomic submarine «Kursk» (in reality, he ascribed it to himself post factum). With especial zeal Buzinov's charlatanism is advocated and popularized by the weekly Argumenty i Fakty and its little brother AiF-Petersburg. After the first publication about this institute of swindlers I've I brought a small article into the editorial office of AiF-Petersburg, where I asked some simple questions:
Is the alignment of planets THE ONLY factor of technical (and, maybe natural) catastrophes or ONE OF the factors?
If it’s the only factor, then why are institutes necessary which have no relation to astrology?
But if it is one of the factors, then how do the cosmorhythmologists manage to take in consideration the remaining factors, especially from a distance, what’s more beforehand?
If cosmorhythmology doesn't recognize the law of causality, then what is the difference between it and fortune-telling by coffee grounds, sheep's entrails, and hen's shit?
When I've brought the material in the editorial office it provoked rage from the secretary. Numb from indignation, she explained to me, the benighted one, that astrology is a legitimate science and is as trustworthy as Ohm's law and the Pythagorean theorem.
But Mr. Buzinov doesn't content himself with predictions of catastrophes. He preaches and explains what must be done during a solar eclipse, undertakes to predict the outcome of presidential elections and so on. E. Kruglyakov, too, tried to fight against Mr. Buzinov (with the articles Is Russia Again in Darkness?, Following the Trails of Evil Forces and others in the above book). In particular, Edward Pavlovich has proposed to the (then) editor-in-chief V. Starkov to ask Mr. Buzinov to forecast ten specific events and see what the result will be. Like hell he did! Neither Starkov nor the today's editor-in-chief of the AiF N. Zyat'kov are interested in unmasking charlatans.
Unfortunately, sometimes even editorial boards of serious scientific journals come to the defense of pseudoscientists. The former doctor of chemical sciences, and for some time now an astrologer, F. Velichko, constantly appears in the mass media with his astrological revelations, forecasts, interpretations and so on. I have conducted a well-reasoned analysis of these performances and sent the article to the magazine Khimiya i Zhizn' (Chemistry and Life). Then the story with Smena almost repeated itself. The article was prepared for publishing, but about a year later I was notified that it was rejected. «The reason: although we, of course, are adversaries of charlatanism in science, but in this article there are too many personal attacks, and it is rather inappropriate for us (the magazine) to pick out a particular personality and trample it with muddy boots.» Having taken this remark into consideration, I rewrote and adapted my article towards a softening of the tone, renamed it, and removed the epithet «former» everywhere. And after repeated inquires I received from the editorial staff the response: «Unfortunately, the article «From Paul to Saul» cannot be published in the Khimiya i Zhizn'.» That's all!
At about the same time I tried to respond to a rather remarkable article by Michael Dmitruk2. It could have been forgotten except that its heroes recently surfaced in Argumenty i Fakty3. Here is a synopsis of my article With a Sledge-Hammer on Physics and Common Sense:
Doctor of medical sciences Yury Sukhanov and engineer-physicist Vladimir Kosmachov observed that when they weighed ampoules with blood plasma, out of a clear blue sky their weight unexpectedly now decreased and now increased by one thousandth.
As everyone knows, the weight of a body (in terrestrial conditions) is formed from its mass m, the mass of the Earth M, and the distance between the centers of gravity of the body and the Earth R (and, of course, the gravitational constant).
In conditions of a clean experiment none of these values can change. In particular, to change the distance between the centers of gravity of the ampoules and the Earth such a displacement of masses inside the Earth would be necessary that it would provoke an enormous catastrophe.
So in spite of M. Dmitruk's sensational article the weight of a body (in the strict sense of the word) in laboratory conditions could not change noticeably. But why the reading of the scales did change — is a separate question. It is unknown what kind of scales were used — whether spring balance or beam scales, mechanical or electronic scales, what measures of cleanliness were taken, and whether fluctuations of atmospheric pressure were taken into account, and so on.
If the rhetoric of Dmitruk's article had been confined to a statement of these unfortunate oscillations then there would have been nothing to write about: there are a lot of not-so-competent experimenters in the world. But Sukhanov and Kosmachov declare (and Dmitruk picks it up with admiration) that they are able of predicting earthquakes on the basis of these oscillations.
«... during the last year and a half we have been able to predict (for ourselves) about 1500 earthquakes».
Let's divide 1500 by a year and a half — and we get about a thousand earthquakes per year, that is, approximately three a day. Seismologists confirm this figure. The question arises: what then do our incomparable prophets predict? Three earthquakes a day which can be foreseen anyway without any predictions? Maybe, their exact time? Let us listen to the «engineer-physicist» V. Kosmachov:
«— The swinging of the weight begins in an interval from 5 to 15 hours before the earthquake.»
Splendid. The scattering is such that it overlaps the mean interval between earthquakes. Are any comments required?
The journalist Dmitruk informs us of an interesting detail:
«As turned out, it is more convenient to measure not the weight itself, but the rate of its change — the so-called gradient.»
As everybody knows, a gradient is a vector function of a scalar field. The weight of a body isn't a field, but a single value. It has not and cannot have any a gradient, but only a time derivative as maximum.
A pair of quotations better characterize the level of scientific training of our wondrous experimenters.
«In the opinion of scientists, the terrible shaking that the Earth received during the solar eclipse has initiated destructive processes in its interior. And 4 days after the (doomsday(a destructive earthquake in Turkey occurred.»
Again this gross ignorance — the conception of the «danger» of a solar eclipse.
But what about the earthquake in Turkey — it took place, didn't it? Yes, it had. Soon after the eclipse. But even the ancient Romans has pointed out a logical error that was widespread even in those times: post hoc — ergo propter hoc. That is: after it — means because of it. Let's recall an historical fact.
In the 1930s Soviet sculptor, archeologist and anthropologist M.M. Gerasimov developed a method of reconstructing a human face using the skull. By the help of this method he reconstituted sculptural portraits of some historical persons and was about to unseal Tamerlane's tomb for this very purpose. But the superstitious people of Samarkand were opposing: a legend existed that if the great general's and tyrant's ashes were disturbed then blood wars and other disasters would begin. The scientists disregarded the superstition. The tomb was unsealed — attention! — on June 18, 1941!4
So, if anybody considers that the one guilty of the Turkish earthquake was a solar eclipse, then according the same logic he must consider that the one guilty of the assault of fascist Germany at our country was not Hitler but Gerasimov.
And, at last, the peak of gross ignorance — the «fatal» time 8:40. I cite:
«Firstly, we'll be able to avoid big trouble if everyday at 8:40 we stop all business for 20 minutes and pray for God to forgive us sinners.»
«And it (the violence of the geophysical field. — P.T.) mostly occurs about 40 minutes past 8 o'clock (plus or minus 10 minutes), Moscow time. Yu. Sukhanov and V. Kosmachov have many statistics of catastrophes that occurred in those fatal 20 minutes.»
«But it looks like catastrophes have not only a diurnal rhythm but also hourly one. Remember: the plane YAK-40 crashed at 8:40, «Concorde» — at 16:40 (Paris, July 25, 2000), the first explosion on the submarine «Kursk» occurred at 11:30 (according to some data — at 11:38...).»
Well, and the «statistics» of catastrophes in these «fatal» 40 minutes past n o'clock is presented. Having data on 1000 earthquakes per year (plus a multitude of catastrophes of another kind) one can present «statistics» even much richer than that in the article, for any time of day. For instance, for 17:25. Or for 3:50. In other words, by means of strained statistics one can «prove» whatever one likes.
Besides, an hour as a time unit — 60 minutes — is a conditional, quite arbitrary unit (introduced by the ancient Sumerians), having no relation to nature. And that's why a daily fear of times of day 6:40, 7:40, 8:40, 9:40 an so on is the same foolishness as a fear of Mondays or of those chemical elements whose names begin with a certain letter.
I sent this article to Khimiya i Zhizn'. The editorial board began to defend the experimenters and the journalist with vehemence, although rather awkwardly. As to the displacement of the center of gravity, it was pointed out to me that (allegedly) «cataclysms don’t occur by themselves. Suppose that inside the Earth there is a cavity and within the cavity a small body rotates (do you remember Obruchev's novel "Plutonia"?), but let the body be located off-center.» The reference to a novel that doesn't stand up to any criticism from the physical point of view is very curious. One could as well refer to Baron Munchausen's Adventures. And as to the gradient, they stubbornly told me that weight has it all the same. In brief, publication didn't occur.
A melancholy conclusion suggests itself: the wild outburst of charlatanism and obscurantism that continues in our country for already a second decade couldn't be of such a grandiose scale but for the active support of every kind of swindlers and overturners of natural laws from ignorant and/or unprincipled journalists. And it seems to me that our national disgrace will not stop until journalists, firstly, consider it necessary to raise their natural science knowledge at least to the secondary school level, and, secondly, screw up their courage and call things by their proper names: primitive superstitions — as primitive superstitions, gross ignorance — as gross ignorance and charlatans and swindlers — as charlatans and swindlers. And the most essential: «revolutionaries» of every sort must without fail be accountable to reasonable people's criticism. There ought not be any "most-favored-nation treatment" for pseudoscience!
Peter A. Trevogin, candidate of technical sciences
Translated from Russian by the author
Translation edited by Gary Goldberg
1 E. Kruglyakov. Swindlers Posing as Scientists. Moscow, Nauka, 2001. It is collected articles, published in different periods of time, mainly on the (torsion( swindle (completely or partially): Lieutenant Schmidt's New Children [an allusion to Ilf's and Petrov's famous picaresque novel 'The Golden Calf. — P.T.]; Does the Rossiyskaya Gazeta Understand the Freedom of Press Correctly?; Following Footprints of Evil Forces and others, as well as a whole section titled Torsional Wars.
2 M. Dmitruk. 8.40, Moscow Time. Magazine «Chudessa i Priklucheniya» (Miracles and Adventures), No. 3, March 2001.
3 The Earth Vibrates. Did the Scientists Solved the Riddle of Cataclysms? (Argumenty i Fakty( No. 40, 2003.
4 4 days later, on June, 22, the Great Patriotic war has begun (the assault of Hitlerite Germany at the USSR).
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