Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
Pseudoscience and the Need to Combat It

Nauka i Zhizn' N 11, 2000; http://www.nkj.ru/archive/articles/5372/

In the journal "Nauka i Zhizn'" N 8, 2000 I read with surprise the letter of N. Zayats entitled "A Struggle of Ideas Has Always Existed in Science". Undoubtedly, a struggle of ideas has always existed in science, still exists, and will exist, but it is completely wrong to deny on this basis, as N. Zayats essentially does, that there is a deep difference between science and pseudoscience. The reasoning of N. Zayats and like-minded people (and there are many of them) is not new. It boils down the following. Many valuable leading-edge ideas met with rejection at one time and their authors were even persecuted. Or, pursuing another tack, progressive scientific theories and fields of research are declared to be pseudoscientific. It is sufficient to mention Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, and in the Soviet era genetics, cybernetics, relativistic cosmology, and much else. So it's as if today nothing valuable does not suffer under the banner of combating pseudoscience and, to put it bluntly, innovators in science are silenced. Moreover, how do you define where science ends and pseudoscience begins? In particular, why can you believe "the old people" in the Russian Academy of Sciences' (RAN) Commission to Combat Pseudoscience? Generally speaking, the age-old question arises: who is to judge? For it is completely obvious that no titles or even real scientific merits in the past guarantee that the "judges" cannot err in assessing a particular proposal or scientific work.

All these views are well known, and to the members of the Commission to Combat Pseudoscience in particular. But the critics of their activity unfortunately do not know even the very fact of its creation, the procedures which reigned under totalitarian regimes, or have forgotten about them, but also are not familiar with the current state of world science and scientific information. As a member of the editorial board of Nauka i Zhizn' and a member of the above RAN Commission I consider myself obliged to give some explanations.

Persecutions of leading-edge science, dramatic episodes of which are the burning of G. Bruno at the stake (1610) and the trial of Galileo (1633), occurred under conditions of Church dictatorship, under conditions of a lack of freedom. In the 20th century the support of racist and other unscientific theories by a crazed Hitler and the persecution of leading-edge science by "the light of all the sciences", Stalin, were also manifestations of, so to speak, the fruits of a lack of freedom in a totalitarian system. It has been documented that the Lysenko era with its "Michurin teaching" and rejection of genetics became possible only as a result of Stalin's tyranny. The resistance of a majority of Soviet biologists was simply put down by force, those who disagreed were banned from work, and some were also arrested (the most famous example was the tragic fate of N. I. Vavilov). However one assesses the level of democratic reforms in today's Russia it cannot be denied that our science is now sufficiently free. No one dictates to physicists, biologists, and even sociologists what opinion they should have. The Church (or, at least, the main Christian religions) now also do not dictate their "laws" to science and in general do not interfere in its development (see [2] for more detail). Therefore there are no grounds to fear that some people like Lysenko or their group, relying on the aid (or to put it more correctly, the dictate) of the State or the Church, can interfere with the development of science. This development is characterized at the present time by an international spirit and broad exchange of opinions, as a result of the publication of scientific journals and books, in particular. The use of the Internet and other electronic communications media made such an exchange especially quick and unhindered.

An enormous amount of experimental and theoretical knowledge has already been accumulated in science, especially in its larger fields such as, for example, physics and biology. This knowledge is diverse. Firmly established facts and constructs are the most important part. Classical mechanics, the creation of which was completed to a considerable degree by Newton back in the 17th century, can serve as an example. Only in the 20th century was it determined with all certainty that classical (Newtonian) mechanics was not absolutely accurate and not applicable at velocities (say, the velocities of particles) comparable to the speed of light, c=3x105 km/s and, generally speaking, at the atomic and still smaller scales. The velocity of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, v, is about 30 km/s and the relativistic correction is v2/c2 , ~ 10 -8. The movements of satellites and interplanetary probes also need such corrections. This is done on the basis of Einstein's Theory of Relativity which extends classical mechanics, in particular. On Earth speeds comparable to the speed of light are not encountered in the movement of various mechanisms and machines. Therefore, when various inventors or pseudoscientists, and there are as many as you like, claim that the laws of classical mechanics are violated in their mechanisms or experiments then the diagnosis is clear. We are dealing with mistakes and pseudoscience.

To put it more succinctly, claims or constructs which contradict firmly established scientific data are pseudoscientific. Of course, one can allow the subject of what to consider "firmly established" into the discussion. The answers to such questions are known; without this no science is impossible (we're talking about the criteria of reproducibility, accuracy of measurement, etc.). By the way, it is necessary to stress that the classification of a particular claim as pseudoscience is a historical category. For example, before Newton occasionally any statement about the movement or influence of bodies that was wild from today's perspective could not be called pseudoscientific. What has been said is especially clear using the example of a well-known pseudoscience astrology. Before the laws of the movements of the planets became known, that is, before Newton, the falsity of astrology was not evident. But now, as has long been the case, it is absolutely impossible to have any doubt about its falsity. V. G. Surdin, a specialist in this field, kindly agreed to write about this in the following article, but I will limit myself to the comment that I consider the publication of horoscopes to be a disgrace. Respected, serious newspapers like the New York Times never print and can not print any such thing. [Translator's note: horoscopes are usually printed on comics pages and the NY Times also does not have a comics page. The Washington Post, alas like most American newspapers, has both a comics page and a daily horoscope!]. This is the realm of the so-called yellow press. Here, unfortunately, horoscopes have appeared even in Izvestiya, on the whole a decent newspaper (meaning in post-Soviet times) since September 1999. In addition, in recent years it has begun to publish openly anti-scientific articles. Evidently, the desire to somewhat increase circulation is stronger than [its] principles. By the way, I strongly disagree with the widely-held opinion that horoscopes are something harmless and simply an amusement. People who know the value of such "forecasts" do not read them, of course. Those who read them might believe this nonsense and ruin their lives. The irresponsibility of newspapers which publish horoscopes as well as any anti-scientific "material" and their literally antisocial conduct shock me. The appeal of the RAN Presidium [3] is a summons to think about this.

The struggle against obvious, so to speak, pseudoscience like astrology, the violation of the laws of mechanics, and attempts to build "perpetual motion devices" are, however, not the main purpose of the RAN Commission to Combat Pseudoscience. All educated people, say, schoolteachers, can and should oppose such pseudoscience. The main task of the Commission and in general, sufficiently qualified specialists, is to look into more complex cases, when not everything is immediately clear to everyone.

A good example is the question of torsion fields and these generators of these fields. Four types of fields are known to modern physics: gravitational, electromagnetic, the "weak" or beta field, and the so-called "strong" field (responsible, in particular, for nuclear forces). Theoretically, some other fields might exist but the most careful experiments conducted by various groups of physicists in various countries have not been able to detect them. This means that if in general they exist then they are responsible for only negligible forces which even the best existing equipment has been unable to detect. But such forces called torsion [forces] have supposedly been detected and used in some Soviet and Russian laboratories. All the work in the field of generating and using torsion fields is typical pseudoscience. Academician Eh. P. Kruglyakov (who, by the way, is the Chairman of the Commission to Combat Pseudoscience) has been engaged in unmasking the torsion fields scam[4]. Academician Ye. B. Aleksandrov and I have also had a hand in this criticism and it is unfortunately characteristic that we have been unable to publish our article [5]. The problem is that A. Valentinov, a journalist from the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta who propagandizes torsion pseudoscience, is mentioned in it but our newspapers are reluctant to criticize a "colleague" or print refutations. Such are now the bitter fruits of such an enormous achievement as freedom of the press; in a number of cases it is turned into license and irresponsibility. But this already another subject.

L. Leskov, a professor at MGU and an academician of the RAYeN [Russian Academy of Natural Sciences] who has published relevant articles in the 5 January 2000 issue of Izvestiya and the 30 November 1999 issue of Rossiyskaya Gazeta, has also engaged in the defense of pseudoscience and the "research" of torsion fields in particular. They also contain insults against the RAN Commission to Combat Pseudoscience and Eh. P. Kruglyakov particularly. I have already had an opportunity to respond to L. Leskov [6] but Kruglyakov's replies have not been published either by Izvestiya or by Rossiyskaya Gazeta; such is freedom of the press in their understanding. By the way, one of Leskov's accusations against the RAN is that it allegedly does not criticize "its own" pseudoscientists. The assertion is completely wrong, which is clear even in the example of Academician A. Fomenko who promoted and widely advertised a certain "new chronology" of historical events. But these are blatant antiscientific fabrications, which was shown in articles [7,8] published in Vestnik RAN.

Of course, the Commission to Combat Pseudoscience and the RAN as a whole will unmask pseudoscientists regardless of where they work or their titles or jobs.

It is necessary to dwell on one more very important question, possibly even the most important one within the framework of this note. It is clear from the letter of N. Zayats, the articles of L. Leskov, and other similar publications that their authors consider or would like to consider the RAN Commission to Combat Pseudoscience as some collective goon squad capable of impeding the development of science, the advancement of new ideas, etc. If I had not thought that N. Zayats is simply an ill-informed person and "does not know what is happening" then I would have considered his comment that the Commission can "close the path to science" to modern "Einsteins", etc. a serious insult. In fact, such opinions and accusations, if they are not demagogy, are the fruits of the utmost misunderstanding. The problem is mainly in the misunderstanding of what qualified people understand as pseudoscience. As already stated above, only claims, constructs, "theories", etc. like astrology, the creation of torsion generators, and "new chronology" firmly refuted by modern science can be called pseudoscience. But by no means can various theories and ideas, even [ones which are] unorthodox from the point of view of a majority of scientists, whose incorrectness has not been proven be considered pseudoscience. As they say, truth is specific. Therefore I will illustrate what was said in an example which at one time found reflection on the pages of Nauka i Zhizn'.

Many (and I among them) consider the General Theory of Relativity (OTO), whose creation was mainly accomplished by A. Einstein in 1915, a work of genius, in a certain sense the pinnacle of theoretical physics of the 20th century. However any sort of canonization of OTO, a misunderstanding of the possibility of developing it, etc. would contradict the entire spirit of modern science. There is in fact no such canonization, the OTO is criticized, and attempts are made all the time to construct substantially different and more general relativistic theories of gravity (see [9], for example).

In particular, Russian physicist A. A. Logunov criticizes the OTO quite vigorously and along with colleagues has tried and is trying to construct another relativistic theory of gravity (RTG). Logunov was so entranced by his theory and was so confident in its perfection that he did not limit himself to publication of relevant articles in scientific journals but also did this in popular literature, in particular in Nauka i Zhizn' [10]. Regardless of the substance of the matter I think that controversial theories in physics, and not only physics theories which require the analysis of much scientific knowledge to understand them, ought not to be discussed in popular science literature [11]. But this is already another and probably controversial issue. One way or another I consider myself obliged to also publish my opinion in Nauka i Zhizn' [12] in connection with the publication of the article [10], for I consider Logunov's criticism of OTO completely groundless. As regards the RTG itself, then I did not see and do not see any basis for attempts to construct a theory of gravity in the way adopted in the RTG. But such an opinion is evidently still not any sort of proof of the incorrectness of the RTG. One can only learn the fate of this theory as a result of a detailed analysis of it by specialists and, of course, by comparing the theory with an experiment. The first has already been partially undertaken in the literature, in which the authors regard the RTG negatively (see the references in [11,12]). As regards an experiment then the RTG is naturally constructed so that it does not contradict certain results which were successfully considered within the framework of the OTO (see [9, 12]). A. Logunov and his co-authors recently came to the conclusion when developing the RTG that the remarkable black holes (Nauka i Zhizn' has written about them more than once [13]) do not exist within the framework of this theory. I am confident that in the issue of black holes the OTO is correct and not the RTG. But until this is proven this is only an opinion. In such a situation it would be impermissible to declare the RTG a pseudoscience and, of course, did not do this and am not doing this but I have cited here an example of the discussion about the OTO and RTG in order that N. Zayats and his sympathizers understand that not one responsible person, not to mention the RAN Commission as a whole, is tossing out or can toss out accusations of pseudoscience without a proper basis and well understands the difference between scientific disputes and the defense of completely ignorant pseudoscientific claims.

An important element of scientific activity is the question of the publication of scientific articles and books. All serious scientific journals and book publishers select materials to be published. For example, articles which come to the journals are sent for review and at times are repeatedly discussed at editorial board meetings and only then accepted for publication or rejected. It is impossible to act otherwise; a filter is necessary. Otherwise journals will be full of pulp literature and they would not be read. But mistakes are possible in the filtering process; however a favorite theme of rejected authors is complaining about the incompetence or lack of objectivity of the reviewers or even of the entire editorial board of a particular journal. Being the editor-in-chief of the journal "Successes of the Physical Sciences" I well know how difficult our work is. I will not expand on this theme, but I should note that there are many journals right now and practice attests to the possibility of publishing any article of whatever value rejected by one journal in another. The main thing is that the era of electronic "publication" on the Internet has come where an article can be accessible to anyone who wants it. Such a means is already widely used [14]; it is cheap and works without the delays associated with the production of a printed version. All incoming articles are "registered" in the process and the readers themselves make the selection. As a result any sort of "clampdown" on new ideas and scientific information in general no longer occurs. Inasmuch as the RAN Commission to Combat Pseudoscience is repeatedly mentioned above it is fitting to also note that of course it does not have and does not strive to acquire the right to prohibit the publication of any book or article. The articles of Valentinov, Leskov, or Fomenko, can be published, but also criticism of them. We only give advice to the RAN Presidium and other bodies on the basis of the expert review that is conducted, but we fight pseudoscience in the press.

The great difficulties that are being experienced by science in Russia at the present time are not at all connected with a lack of information and an inability to publish scientific works. The problem is in the shortage of funds for equipment, not to mention the creation gigantic modern installations. The problem is the low wages of researchers and the "brain drain" associated with this. It is more shameful when money is spent on senseless pseudoscientific projects or "research". In broad terms it is no less important that today "the population of Russia is being duped by television and radio programs, and articles and books with an openly antiscientific content" [3]. Opposition to such phenomena and the struggle against pseudoscience in general along with the dissemination of genuine scientific knowledge are the very important tasks on the path leading out of the crisis, and on the path toward a flourishing of science, technology, and medicine in our country.

Footnotes

1. N. Zayats. A Struggle of Ideas Has Always Existed in Science, Nauka i Zhizn' N? 8, 2000, p. 22

2. V. L. Ginzburg. Reason and Faith, Vestnik RAN N? 6, 1999, p. 546. See also Nauka i Zhizn' N? 7, 2000, p. 22

3. Appeal of the RAN Presidium, Nauka i Zhizn' N? 11, 1999, p. 16

4. Eh. P. Kruglyakov. What is Happening to Us? Novosibirsk: Siberian Branch of the RAN Publishing House, 1998.

5. Ye. B. Aleksandrov, V. L. Ginzburg, Pseudoscience and Its Propagandists, Vestnik RAN N? 3, 1999, p. 199.

6. V. L. Ginzburg, Poisk Newspaper N? 7, 18 February 2000.

7. Yu. N. Yefremov, Yu. A. Zavenyagin, "The So-Called 'Chronology' of A. T. Fomenko", Vestnik RAN, N? 12, 1999. p. 1081

8. V. L. Yanin, The "Yawning Heights" of Academician Fomenko, Vestnik RAN, N? 5, 2000, p. 387

9. C. M. Will, Theory and Experiment in Gravitational Physics, Moscow, Energoatomizdat, 1985.

10. A. A. Logunov, A New Theory of Gravity. Nauka i Zhizn' N? 2, 1987, p. 38; N? 3, 1987, p. 60; see also N? 5, 1988, p. 66

11. V. L. Ginzburg, Popular Science Literature and Something about What., Anthology; V. L. Ginzburg, Physics and Astrophysics. Moscow, Byuro Kvantum [Quantum Bureau] Publishing House, 1995, p. 250

12. V. L. Ginzburg, The General Theory of Relativity (Is it Consistent? Does it Agree with Physical Reality?), Nauka i Zhizn' N? 4, 1987, p. 41; see also N? 6, 1988, p. 114.

13. S. Trankovsky, Black Holes in the Universe, Nauka i Zhizn' N? 8, 2000, p. 83.

14. J. Langer, Physicists in the new era of electronic publishing, Physics Today, N? 8, 2000, p. 35.

Academician V. Ginzburg

Translated by Gary Goldberg

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