Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
A One-Way Discussion

Rossiyskaya Gazeta 29 January 2003

Recently hope increased that Russia's future was however connected not with the endless exploitation of natural resources but with the use of its scientific potential and the adoption of high technology. In particular, the recognition of science as the state's main priority, the creation of the President's Council on Science and High Technology, an increase in the financing of scientific research, and the support of scientific personnel point to this. Against this background the anti-scientific trends which are often manifested in our society and also the dominance of rampant pseudoscience and obscurantism in the press and television look ugly.

The most recent examples: On 30 December 2002 on the TVS channel observer V. Solov'yev dedicated the entire "Smotrite, kto prishel [Look Who's Come]" program to a conversation with an astrologer. And on 16 January of this year it was the Kultura channel's turn: M. Shvydkoy presented a program with a quite descriptive name "One Can Only Trust Astrology". Inasmuch as he is the Minister of Culture of Russia this program takes on a special resonance. This was formally a discussion, although at a quite superficial and intolerable level.

Indeed, what is astrology? It says that a person's fate and sometimes that of the entire society and country depends on the position of the planets and stars in the sky. More specifically, if one knows a person's date of birth (or conception?) and the position of heavenly bodies at that time, one can supposedly predict his future. Faith in such predictions was natural 400-500 years ago when people not only did not know the structure of the universe but even of the solar system. But in the 16th and especially in the 17th centuries the great scientists Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and many others discovered the structure of the solar system and the laws of planetary motion. The validity of these laws has been successfully verified for several centuries.

This is how any genuine science operates – nothing and no one are to be taken at their word; their laws and claims are repeatedly verified and reverified. If such an approach is abandoned no scientific or technical progress is possible.

When assessing astrology from such positions that are generally known and accepted among educated people one can say that it is a pseudoscience. In the first place, the effect of the planets and the stars is negligible and cannot exert any appreciable influence on the human organism. In the second place, numerous and detailed comparisons of horoscopes with reality have shown their complete groundlessness. Examples of this are in the materials of my colleague Vladimir Surdin. I hope they interest the editor.

Why has astrology not yet been forgotten like some phlogiston or caloric? Evidently the reason is that it is closely associated with the complex social phenomena and processes in human society. For example, every sixth person on Earth cannot even read or write. It is of no importance or interest to such people why planes fly or televisions work. It is not surprising that they are treated by folk healers, believe in miracles and horoscopes, and in the existence of heaven and hell.

But how can one understand the position of many other people who are considered educated? Judging from the program on the Kultura channel their lack of education is simply shocking. By the way, I advise readers to check themselves and their acquaintances by asking a school question: why do the seasons change? From my observations many so-called "educated" people who consider people savages who don't know who wrote Eugene Onegin reply incorrectly. For these are questions of the same order…

But let's return to the Kultura channel program. Knowing the intellectual level of ministers of culture of the Soviet period I was glad that finally an educated person had been appointed to this post in Russia. But unfortunately this education was apparently quite one-sided. For culture is not only arts and literature. It is also science. It is an inseparable part of human culture.

Alas, the host of this program does not understand the difference between science and pseudoscience. Therefore, if I may say so, the discussion which took place on the program "One Can Only Trust Astrology" was at about the same level: astrology is good because it is ancient, only good astrologers need be trusted, etc. But it was permitted to be said casually and very briefly that astrology completely contradicts scientific knowledge and is a fraud, and not by the main participants of the "discussion".

In a word, programs about astrology on the TVS and Kultura channels are an apologia for pseudoscience which deceive and demean viewers.

In Soviet times the attitude toward astrology was contradictory: astrology and many other beliefs were not encouraged but, on the other hand, anti-scientific Lysenkoism, etc. was supported. A new era has arrived. In any event one would hope so. Russia is being turned into a democratic country. This also means freedom of speech. I think that we have it. However, this great blessing is often is turned into license and disrespect for the genuine interests of the people. There is no way that the publication of antiscientific materials, astrological "predictions" in particular, can be justified. I am not suggesting a revival of censorship, but self-censorship by journalists and open public monitoring of the mass media is necessary.

The flowering of pseudoscience is also explained by the fact that the quantity and extent of popular science literature in the country has been sharply reduced. A positive movement has been noted, however the activity by the RAN in this area is clearly insufficient. I think that the science publisher Nauka ought to publish popular science literature in sufficient variety and large quantities and sell such books at a low price. The RAN has such capabilities right now.

Vitaliy Ginzburg,
Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences [RAN]

Translated by Gary Goldberg