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Brave Thoughts Are Still Not the Truth

Article

Vitaly L. Ginzburg

Volume 29.1, January / February 2005

This is Dr. Ginzburg’s article from a Russian newspaper (Rossiiskaia Gazeta) in reply to an academic who supports pseudoscience and has accused the RAN Commission of seeking to suppress daring ideas.

The Academician N.P. Bekhtereva’s article “Censor of All Sciences?” forces me to make a number of comments regarding pseudoscience and my attitude toward it. Unfortunately, there are many obvious misunderstandings, confusion of concepts, and demagogy about this issue. I have already had to write about this more than once (in particular, in my book About Science, Myself, and Other Things, 2003). But I will have to repeat some things.

It would seem that the term pseudoscience speaks for itself—it is theories and statements contradicting scientific knowledge. But, you know, they are not static. Science is developing all the time and therefore, to put it bluntly, consists of two parts. First, from firmly established and repeatedly confirmed scientific truths and laws. Second, especially in the field of new, so-called “frontier” directions—in science everything is in ferment and the struggle of ideas is ongoing. Some are victorious and others turn out to be incorrect and are thrown out by the scientific community.

Thus only theories, constructs, and statements contradicting firmly established facts and theories can be declared pseudoscience. Let’s say that astrology is unquestionably a pseudoscience. Other examples of pseudoscience or, as they sometimes say, parascience, include various designs for mechanisms and instruments that supposedly operate in violation of the Law of Conservation of Energy or classical mechanics. But I must emphasize that it is of course impossible to declare ideas and theories pseudoscience that have not yet been refuted in an experiment or as a result of strict mathematical analysis.

All qualified scientists and, I daresay, all members of the RAN Commission to Combat Pseudoscience and the Falsification of Scientific Research, which was created in 1998, understand this. Its appearance was a somewhat belated and forced measure. An appeal adopted by the RAN Presidium characterized the situation [see the preceding article “Demagogues Against Scientific Expertise” for its text].

There is no room here to discuss the work of the Commission. An article by its chairman, Academician Eh. P. Kruglyakov, “Trafficking in Ignorance,” published in June 2003, gives a certain picture of it. The facts cited in it are literally scandalous and demand a fitting reaction from the authorities and scientific community.

Unfortunately, the fight against pseudoscience has not drawn proper attention either from the RAN Presidium or other “state” academies (mainly the RAMN [Russian Academy of Medical Sciences]), nor from the so-called “public” academies. The attractiveness of the title “Academician” has led to the appearance of dozens of “academies,” which are often far from modern science. It would be useful if these “academies” were to fight for the purity of science, including in their own ranks.

Here’s a specific and recent example. It was reported in one of the newspapers that a Doctor of Technical Sciences and Academician of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences (RAYeN), O. Grinkevich, developed a thermogenerator with an efficiency of about 200 percent, that is, in violation of the Law of the Conservation of Energy. Is it really not the duty of the RAYeN to verify the statements of its members? Not much is required to do this.

Now about N. P. Bekhtereva’s article. With its subtitle, “There exists no authoritative criteria of ‘correctness’ in the knowledge of the new,” I think the overwhelming majority of scientists would agree completely. But what does this have to do with the struggle against pseudoscience and the Commission’s activities?

Unquestionably, no scientific statement can be considered pseudoscientific a priori. Eh. P. Kruglyakov does not declare the work of the associates of the Brain Institute to be pseudoscience; his criticism is mainly in regard to a phrase that figures in one of the interviews of the lead researcher: “Right now is the wrong time to express very bold ideas because the Academy has a Commission on Pseudoscience” and also her letter to President V.V. Putin with a proposal to “introduce a method of instruction in ‘alternative viewing’ in the country’s special services.”

The phrase cited seems no less insulting to the members of the Commission to which I belong than the words of its chairman which offended N.P. Bekhtereva. But, knowing what a “spoiled/tainted telephone” is and not having the original text of the interview and the letter to the President, I think it is impossible to discuss this issue in detail. Moreover, I should talk about my role in this “story.”

In 2002, I was sent an article by N.P. Bekhtereva entitled “O pryamom videnii” (“Direct Viewing”), published in an academic journal, Fiziologiya cheloveka (Human Physiology). At about the same time, corresponding member of the RAN V. B. Braginsky and Moscow State University Professor S.P. Vetchanin visited a “direct viewing” demonstration in one of the university’s departments. They insisted that the children who were supposedly “seeing” with their eyes blindfolded also have their eyes covered with other bandages. Under such conditions the “phenomenon” disappeared. Therefore the Moscow State University professors concluded that in their “original” bandages the children were peeking, which was reported to the university’s administration, where it seems that such demonstrations were stopped.

Since I am not a physiologist I didn’t try to investigate anything, but on October 1, 2002, I wrote a letter to RAN Vice President N.A. Plateh (who oversees our Commission) in which I proposed that this matter be immediately investigated, for example by creating a commission of experts. And I also added, “To avoid misunderstandings I should stress that I do not suspect the associates of the RAN Brain Institute of pseudoscientific activity. I only suspect that they have fallen victim to swindlers, but, of course, this can only be proven after expert examination.”

N.A. Plateh sent this letter to the RAN Biological Sciences Branch, which informed me that it was coordinating “the membership of an expert commission which would include representatives of the RAN who deal with problems of fundamental science and clinical specialists.” Obviously they have not “coordinated” it yet, but we hope that an expert commission will be created at some point to clarify this question.

If this commission comes to a positive conclusion about the existence of “direct viewing,” I will be only too glad to congratulate St. Petersburg scientists on a great scientific achievement. The suspicion that the Commission to Combat Pseudoscience is interfering with scientific exploration is completely unfounded. Like many of my colleagues, I think that press reports about sensational discoveries ought to be well-substantiated and verified. If this is only about assigning a priority, then it can be achieved by sending an official letter to the RAN. However, as far as I understand it, no question of a priority has arisen in the study of “direct viewing.”

Translated by Gary Goldberg

Vitaly L. Ginzburg

Vitaly L. Ginzburg is with the P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute, Moscow, Russia, where he formerly headed the Theory Group. With Lev Landau, Ginzburg formulated a theory that explained in detail certain important questions about superconductivity. In December 2003, Ginzburg and physicists Alexei A. Abrikosov (Argonne National Laboratory) and Anthony J. Leggett (University of Illinois) were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions concerning superconductivity and superfluidity. E-mail: ginzburg@lpi.ru.