Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
Freedom of speech, the fight against pseudoscience, and "journalistic ethics"

Novaya Gazeta N? 45, Kentavr column, 26 June 2008

Speaking on 29 May at the general meeting of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN) V. V. Putin noted in particular, "I consider it the civic and professional duty of scientists to maintain constant communication with the mass media in the fight against pseudoscience, obscurantism, prejudice, and extremism".

Reading these words in the 30 May issue of Rossiyskaya Gazeta I felt satisfaction but a feeling of bitterness arose at the same time. The problem is that I am especially intolerant of pseudoscience and have already fought it for a number of years insofar as I have been able. I have written a number of articles and in 1998 initiated the creation of the Commission to Fight Pseudoscience and the Falsification of Scientific Research in the RAN. I would not say that the leadership of the RAN has given this Commission proper attention. It is sufficient to say that until 2005 the only employee of the Commission staff was a single Presidium worker who, moreover, mainly dealt with entirely different matters. Another characteristic criterion of the [RAN's] "attention" in the fight against pseudoscience is the fact that Academician Eh. P. Kruglyakov, the chairman of the Commission, was neither in the last nor in the newly-elected Presidium. There are 58 members in the Presidium right now and one could conclude that the fight against pseudoscience occupies no higher than 59th place among the missions of the RAN. I think that this is not the case but what has been said is nevertheless rather typical. Meanwhile I am convinced that the fight against pseudoscience must occupy one of the central places in the RAN's work. In fact, in order to fight any pseudoscience one needs to be convinced that it is really a pseudoscience and not some new word in science. It is obvious that authoritative expert review is needed in order to do this. Who can and should do this, if not the RAN?

In spite of insufficient attention the Commission (and primarily its Chairman, Academician Eh. P. Kruglyakov), nevertheless works and it has definite accomplishments. I include in them three books by Eh. P. Kruglyakov, "What is Happening to Us?" (1998), "Swindlers Posing as Scientists" (2001), and "Swindlers Posing as Scientists II" (2005). The Commission has also published three bulletins "In Defense of Science" (Moscow, Nauka, 2006, 2007, 2008). There are many articles in these bulletins about science, religion, and pseudoscience.

We have tried to attract the attention of the power structures to pseudoscience. For example, Academicians Ye. B. Aleksandrov, Eh. P. Kruglyakov, and I wrote a letter to President V. V. Putin and, by the way, in order that the letter did not get lost, RAN President Yu. S. Osipov was asked to send this letter to the administration of the RF President. We did not receive a reply.

I want to dwell on my own work and will limit myself to the question of astrology. As everyone knows, astrology is based on the assumption that the position of heavenly bodies (the Sun, the Moon, the planets, and comets) at the moment of a person's birth somehow have an effect on the fates of people and if one knows the position of the heavenly bodies at the moment of a person's birth his fate will be determined by this position. Astrology was born in antiquity and was closely associated with the concepts of astronomy. It is true that astrology was already being criticized in ancient times but it was then impossible to call it a pseudoscience for its fallaciousness was not strictly proven. But already in the 17th century such arguments appeared as a result of the discovery of the Law of Universal Gravitation and the creation of the principles of celestial mechanics. The main thing here is that the force of universal gravitation on the Earth is very small even from Jupiter. At the present time the data of physics and biology leaves no doubt about the mistakenness of astrology. But the results of examining the accuracy of horoscopes (astrological predictions) are especially convincing for the general public. In fact a large number of people were examined who were born at the same time and it turned out that, as a rule, several years later they had completely different fates. The absurdity of astrological predictions is especially clear if they are made, so to speak, "by constellations". As everyone knows, as observed from the Earth the Sun moves in the heavens and passes through 12 constellations in a year (in our time this is not exactly accurate, but this is a detail). People born, for example, between 22 September and 23 October are called Libras for during this time the Sun is in the constellation of Libra. And so usually astrological predictions are given in newspapers for all Libras or for the other constellations. For example, in the 4 June issue of Izvestiya, when I am writing these lines, this prediction and advice is given to Libras: "The stars have already sensed it, it smells of a lot of money. The heavenly bodies are calling on you not to spend ever-increasing wealth on doctors but, on the contrary, only on yourself and those close to you. The most important thing is that these customary expenses do not harm your health". Perhaps the most interesting thing is this "advice" is given to all Libras and there are more than 500 million on Earth (in fact, right now a little more than six billion people live on Earth; you divide the number by 12 and it is just 500 million). I have not mentioned the horoscope itself. But how can one give advice to many millions of people? I simply cannot imagine a rational person taking this nonsense seriously.

And such horoscopes are printed in our newspapers, including the aforementioned Izvestiya. Izvestiya is just a few months younger than me. My father even read this newspaper and I have read it since my youth. Therefore I could remain indifferent when several years ago Izvestiya began to publish horoscopes every day and I wrote a corresponding letter to the then Chief Editor of Izvestiya. I did not receive a reply. Several years later there was a new editor and I again wrote him a letter recommending that horoscopes not be published. Again, it was not worth a reply. Finally in 2005 I found out from the newspaper that a new General Director, P. Godlevsky, had appeared at Izvestiya. I also wrote him a long letter with an explanation of what astrology is and with advice to cease publication of horoscopes in Izvestiya. This letter was quoted in full in my article "Astrology and Science"*. I received this letter a month later:

"Dear Vitaly Lazarevich!
I share your views on astrology. I sent all the letters to Vladimir Borodin, the Editor-in-Chief of Izvestiya. In his opinion, astrological predictions can appear in the newspaper.
According to the charter of the joint stock company, "the editorial board of Izvestiya and the Editor-in-Chief have the right to decide the content of the newspaper by themselves. This way creative independence of the editorial board is guaranteed.
In connection with your request I cannot carry out your request to remove astrological predictions from the columns of the publication.
27 October 2005
Petr Godlevsky, General Director of the OAO of the Izvestiya editorial board".

Very touching. What a triumph of democracy. Too bad for me, the good old times of Izvestiya.

The members of the Commission to Fight Pseudoscience have no rights, of course. Not long ago I also wrote a letter to President D. A. Medvedev, even before his inauguration. I received a reply dated 20 April 2008 from A. Chesnakov, Deputy Chief of the RF President's Directorate for Domestic Policy. The reply mentioned the concern of the Directorate about the issues I discussed and reported that the materials I had sent had been forwarded "for additional discussion in the RF Public Chamber". In such cases they usually say, "Wait and see" but inasmuch as I am already 91 years old and sick, I prefer another wording, "If you're still alive then perhaps I'll see".

In connection with the discussion of the penetration of pseudoscience in the mass media I will touch on the issue of so-called journalistic ethics. It would seem well-known that authors have such a basic requirement of editors and journalists. It consists of an editor or journalist who conducts an interview having to coordinate any text inserted or changed with the author. It is a basic rule of journalistic ethics to follow this rule. In practice we encounter disregard for this rule all the time and also the presentation of authors and with demands not to mention other publications (newspapers) and the journalists working in these other publications critically. I have encountered this myself repeatedly but it would hardly be right to cite old examples here so I will cite only the latest in my experience.

In NG-religiya [the religion supplement of Nezavisimaya Gazeta] there appeared an article devoted to criticism of the letter of the 10 academicians to the RF President**. I wrote a reply to this criticism and naturally sent this reply to NG-religiya. They accepted the article without objection and it was published in the 21 May 2008 edition of NG-religiya. I should note that NG-religiya makes a good impression on me; they publish varied materials there and cover different points of view. Nevertheless, as they say, "[my] nature does not allow [it]". In my article that was published without coordinating with me they even changed the title, threw out a critical mention of the newspaper Izvestiya, and left out quite short comments. Fortunately, the article as a whole did not suffer but how can one change it without coordinating this with the author, if only by telephone?

Summing up, it seems quite evident to me that a completely abnormal situation has developed in our mass media. Two familiar questions arise: "Who is to blame?" and "What can one do?". It is the mass media that is to blame, of course. No one forces them to publish any sort of nonsense or to pursue an impermissible violation of journalistic ethics. But what can one do? Not to restore censorship and the bad memory of Glavlit [Translator's note: the Soviet-era censorship organization]? I see no other way except the creation of an Oversight Council which should operate openly and, so to speak, transparently, but at the same time this Council ought to have the right to "make the mass media understand" (of course, this also refers to television), prohibit the broadcast and advocacy of anti-scientific information and anti-scientific nonsense in general, and also to demand adherence to genuine journalistic ethics.

I foresee the reaction to such a suggestion from several fighters for human rights, for freedom of speech is one of these rights. I can ask them, "But why then do they not fight the prohibition on the use of profanity in the mass media and the placement of pornographic "materials"?

* This article was placed as a postscript in V. Surdin's book "Astrologiya i Nauka [Astrology and Science]" (Fryazino, "Vek 2", 2007) and also in issue N? 1 for 2008 of the journal "Nauka i Zhizn' [Science and Life]" and my book "Ob ateizme, religii i svetskom gumanizme [Atheism, Religion, and Secular Humanism]", Moscow, RGO, 2008. Finally, it is at the website, in the "Tribuna UFN" section.

** It is quite typical of the state of the mass media in Russia at the present time that it was very difficult to publish this "Letter of the Ten" which caused such a tumultuous reaction in the public. Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Izvestiya decided not to do this and only Novaya Gazeta published the article in the Kentavr supplement. By the way, at the present time it is in general very difficult to publish an article containing criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church. If even 10 academicians do not have an opportunity to give their opinion without difficulty then this is a bad symptom.

V.L. Ginzburg, Academician of the RAN

Translated by Gary Goldberg