|Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society|
|Pseudoscience and its propagandists|
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"The notion of the existence of torsion fields (according to the hypothesis, such fields exist around every rotating body, including around elementary particles – Editor's note) provokes a protest from any professional physicist. There is not as yet been one publication in refereed science journals where the detection of this field has been reported in experiments". This quote is from an article by Academician Eh. P. Kruglyakov published in Rossiyskaya Gazeta in May 1998. But here is an opinion about this from one of the representatives from Rossiyskaya Gazeta's Science Department, "As before, we will write about interesting research and interesting scientists without being afraid to view the surrounding world in an untraditional manner; even if they are mistaken in the process, inasmuch a negative result is, I repeat, also a result". However, as the editorial board of Vestnik RAN thinks, it is impermissible to waste enormous state resources to obtain a result whose mistakenness is obvious to professional physicists from the entire course of the progress of science. Therefore this is why it has decided to publish the article of Academicians Ye. B. Aleksandrov and V. L. Ginzburg, not initially intended for this publication at all, on the pages of the journal.
Freedom of the press is one of the most important achievements of post-Soviet Russia. But unfortunately this freedom is often turned around into propagandizing purely negative phenomena – fascism, pornography, and all sorts of charlatanism and pseudoscience. The elimination of shortcomings in the mass media is a large and multifaceted problem. We would like to dwell here only on its aspect which pertains to pseudoscience. The support for pseudoscience in the mass media is produced by a misunderstanding of the characteristic features of science by some journalists and also by their carelessness. As everyone knows, truth is concrete and therefore we will illustrate this statement with an example of the activity of a certain A. Ye. Akimov and the discussion of this work in the press.
For about 10 years A. Ye. Akimov with a number of colleagues convinced various "power" and defense agencies that they had made a fundamental discovery which should solve all the USSR's problems, first and foremost supplying it with a new wonder weapon; an ideal communications system in all media not subject to interference or interception and operating instantaneously at any distance; and an inexhaustible source of energy. A complete list of the applied professions of the "discovery" occupied 40 points, encompassing medicine, agriculture, housing construction, transportation, ecology, etc. Akimov's group has received financing for these promises for about 10 years and in 1986 gave rise to a special structure in the USSR GKNT [State Committee for Science and Technology]. In 1989 this structure sent proposals to specialized scientific research institutes and even several academic institutions about participating in a program to introduce "torsion technologies". It was reported that the program was based on the results of 30 years of top secret basic research which had led to the discovery of new fields, forces, and radiation called by different names: "torsion", "spinor", and "microlepton". Massive financing was allocated to the program, 20 to 40 million rubles a year for each participant. With such a scale this entire enterprise finally became known in the scientific community from whom it had been concealed by a curtain of secrecy. This led to a scandal, after which the question arose about the responsibility for the money which had been wasted and the professional incompetence of the participants. An inquiry was begun in the spring of 1991 and concluded after the dissolution of the USSR when the USSR GKNT and many of the ministries and agencies involved in this research were dissolved. (Additional details of this story are described in Eh. P. Kruglyakov's article "On the Wrong Side of Science" in the 19 May 1998 edition of Rossiyskaya Gazeta).
However, when the scandal was forgotten the supporters of "torsion technologies" again began to become active in search of the lost money. Inasmuch as the advantages of secrecy had already been exhausted they decided to influence those who had money through the mass media. The science department of Rossiyskaya Gazeta became the mouthpiece (the article in the 27 June 1997 issue by A. Konorov and the article in the 19 May 1998 issue by A. Valentinov). Defending the position of the "torsioneers", A. Valentinov used the already common image of the Academy of Sciences as a collection of conservatives monopolizing the right to truth and trying to stifle courageous innovators. Valentinov scornfully speaks of the losses incurred as, in his opinion, justified by a scientist's right to "a mistaken direction of inquiry" and reminds [the reader] of the value of negative results. We see in all this the deepest misunderstanding of the substance and logic of modern science, one dangerous to its future.
Popularizers represent the progress of physics as a chain of revolutions, that is, radical changes. In fact, from the time when physics became a science it has mainly been an evolutionary accumulation of knowledge and facts which do not change with new discoveries but are complemented or refined. Just as in mathematics no new discovery can change the number ?, the same is true in physics where nothing can change the laws of Archimedes or Faraday. The so-called "revolution in physics" at the start of the present century, the clearest representatives of which were Einstein and Bohr, did not refute Newton and Galileo, but complemented their mechanics in that area of velocities and scales where mankind did not yet have experience.
The continuous accumulation of knowledge makes the customary historical analogs completely unfair when, in justifying the latest pseudoscientific nonsense, they recall how some great person in the past did not believe in some "crazy idea" and turned out to be wrong. At the same time it is suggested that any random hypothesis has a right to exist (and financing!). Possibly this was right at the dawn of science when no one knew anything. But today only a hypothesis which is consistent with the enormous [amount of] available reliable knowledge deserves attention. The farther science progresses, the more it places limitations on fantasies with respect to fundamental hypotheses*. We will explain by an example from geography: before Magellan sailors could tell any tale about their voyages but today no one would believe a report that a new continent has been discovered – there is no room for it!
Nothing like this is happening in physics. Physicists know that the microworld and macroworld are controlled by four forces. Attempts to find a fifth force have already been conducted for 50 years without success. Physicists are aware in the process that they are searching for something so incredibly weak that it has so far escaped detection. Hypotheses about the interaction between rotating objects and spins, among other things, have long been discussed in serious physics from where Akimov picked it up. But considering the already complex picture of the world it was already clear that this interaction, if it exists at all, ought to be very weak so as not to conflict with known facts affecting the trajectories of the planets and the lifetimes of radionuclides, stars, galaxies, etc. It was necessary to devise refined experiments in which infinitely weak forces would be detected. Such experiments were done. In the first ones it was established that if such forces exist between polarized particles they had to be at least 11 orders of magnitude weaker than magnetic forces! This ceiling was later moved further back in work by researchers of the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Siberian Branch of the RAN [Russian Academy of Sciences].
And here against the background of this research there suddenly appear reports that 30 years ago in the Lubyanka a fifth force had been detected, omnipresent and powerful (stronger than the electromagnetic force) leading to a violation of the basic laws on which the world operates! For example, when Akimov declares the existence of an information channel with an efficiency independent of distance he contradicts the Law of the Conservation of Energy behind which stands the entire experience of humanity. Then, in the face of the Theory of Relativity, it is reported that the instantaneous dissemination of information is possible. But the Theory of Relativity, which composes one of the cornerstones of the principles of knowledge cannot be abolished, just like Pythagoras' Theorem cannot be abolished. Any physicist will say that this is nonsense! (It is curious that Valentinov greets the denial of one of Einstein's postulates by referring to the Pope and a Ph.D. from Ufa who is a member of the New York Academy of Sciences as authoritative experts with a clear subtext: this is not your Russian Academy! (Possibly Valentinov does not know that almost all members of the RAN and thousands of other scientists and non-scientists annually receive invitations to join the ranks of the 50,000 members of the New York Academy at a membership price of a little more than $100.
They can object to us that this is all theory, but Akimov's group is presenting the results of experiments. We respond: innumerable experiments conducted throughout the entire world and 50 years of practice in operating accelerators and nuclear reactors stand behind this theory. At the same time a faulty or falsified experiment can produce any result.
The correctness of an experiment is confirmed by independent expert review and independent reproduction. There was nothing like this in Akimov's work. The meager diagrams and photographs presented were not convincing and, referring to the secrecy and patent concerns, no one has been allowed access to the wonderful generators of "spinor radiation". Akimov's colleague, A. F. Okhatrin, has turned out to be more open but what he presented was simply a fantastic pile of nonsense (see Vestnik AN SSSR, 1991, N? 4, pp. 94-96). At a seminar at the A. F. Ioffe Physicotechnical Institute in St. Petersburg where in March 1996 professional physicists first became acquainted with this work, in reply to a question by Academician Zh. I. Alferov as to why not one single experiment had not been arranged before beginning broad introduction of the "discovery" Akimov's answer was: "You are right, it needed to be done, but we don't have enough money!".
One can imagine a great discovery having been held back from coming to light for a year or so because of the intrigues of evil-wishers. It has happened in the history of science that authorship has been transferred from one hand to another. But there was no precedent that in the 20th century a discovery was held back for 10 years in a single country and did not spring up in another. Even if one thinks that our secrecy was impenetrable, after 1991 the supporters of "torsion" fields have been trying with all their might to draw attention to their improbable promises. And no attention to them in the world! There has not been one attempt to reproduce the fantastic results. (At one of the closed meetings where Akimov reported about the transmission of information via a "spinor channel" someone from the "competent organs" asked whether similar transmissions have been heard from the US and do they have this secret. "No", smiled Akimov, "This is the only area of science where we have left America far behind". A sad victory!).
There is still one more popular misconception, about the freedom of opinion in the exact sciences. From Valentinov's article it follows that a physicist can believe in the Theory of Relativity or not, it's some sort of freedom of belief. It needs to be said unequivocally that there is no unlimited freedom in the exact sciences because the laws of nature are objective and do not depend on the tastes of the servants of science. Opinions can exist only at the stage of discussion of a hypothesis. A confirmed hypothesis becomes a truth and does not permit a substantial difference of opinion. But if, nevertheless, polar opposite opinions are encountered then this is simply a consequence of the fact that living people, for whom errors are natural, are serving science. Today it is impossible to know everything, especially [things] outside one's professional competence. This was difficult even back in the beginning of the century. Butlerov believed in spiritualism and was an outstanding chemist at the same time (although another great chemist, Mendeleyev, made fun of him over this). Why doesn't geologist and petroleum specialist Academician A. Trofimuk, to whom Valentinov referred in his article, have his own opinion of the Theory of Relativity? But if a physicist does not believe in the Theory of Relativity then he is not a physicist. This is not a question of faith, but of knowledge.
Total secrecy brought great harm to our science and technology, depriving scientists of communication and removing development efforts from the control of the scientific community. But the story of "spinor" fields is a special case: this is not about a delay of progress but about its falsification, not that the public overpaid for modest results but it paid for fraud.
Having obtained a fair amount of freedom and influence, today's press does not have the right not to understand the extent of its responsibility for the fate of Russian science. Who gets the modest resources allocated to science from the present authorities depends to no small degree on the mass media. As Valentinov wrote in his article the journalistic profession is to "inform the public of what is happening, for example, in the Academy of Sciences. But also in the nuthouse!". If we consider information about the work of Akimov as reportage from the nuthouse then it has turned out well. But why did the newspaper allow him to act as if from the leading edge of science? The decision of an influential newspaper founded by the government to publish nonsense about a revolution in physics without consulting with experts seems irresponsible to us. If Rossiyskaya Gazeta does not believe the Russian Academy of Sciences it could have asked the US National Academy of Sciences for its opinion, for example.
We sent what was described above to Rossiyskaya Gazeta on 18 June 1998 in the form of a letter. However, neither our letter nor a letter from Corresponding Member of the RAN A. Cherepashchuk, Director of the P. K. Shternberg State Astronomical Observatory, was published. By the way, the article of Eh. Kruglyakov mentioned above, although it was printed in Rossiyskaya Gazeta it was not voluntarily but [rather] "through governmental structures", as Valentinov the editor of the science department of Rossiyskaya Gazeta recalled in his article (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 7 August 1998). This article was a response to Cherepashchuk's and our unpublished (!) letters. In it Valentinov reported, inter alia, that there is merit to propagandizing pseudoscience even from Soviet times. He has now multiplied this benefit by providing an "ideological justification" for his own actions. It turns out that we and our colleagues want to take away an alleged "freedom of the press enshrined in law" from Mr. Valentinov to write everything that comes into his head, and to report and support pseudoscientific fabrications and "news". We are allegedly calling for the restoration of censorship and expert review in order to "turn journalism into a convenient instrument to achieve our goals". What Valentinov's goal is we can only guess. Our goal is to promote the progress of science in Russia. To achieve it we also try to explain the nature of contemporary science and call upon honest journalists to be careful and not help charlatans.
Authors' postscript. We sent the initial text of this article to Rossiyskaya Gazeta in the form of a letter in order to defend Academician Eh. P. Kruglyakov from this newspaper's attacks. However, Rossiyskaya Gazeta not only did not publish our letter but quoted only one phrase (!) from it in its 7 August 1998 issue, and filled with new attempts to defend their "right" to propagandize pseudoscience. In reply we tried to publish this article in several newspapers but without success, although we agreed to a number of abridgments. There is a limit to everything and we do not plan to turn the article into a rollicking newspaper column. This is the situation in Russia right now – even members of the RAN are deprived of an opportunity to let their voice be heard against pseudoscience and its propagandists in popular publications. In such conditions we consider it proper to publish the article in Vestnik RAN unabridged.
* This does not, of course, mean that physics is exhausted. Figuratively speaking, the roots of the tree of physics are planted deeply, and their revision requires extreme circumspection. The top of this tree is expanding and bears more fruit with each year.
Ye. B. Aleksandrov, V. L. Ginzburg
Translated by Gary Goldberg
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