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A View from Russia: Popularization of Science as a Tool against Antiscience

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Boris Shmakin

Volume 20.4, July / August 1996

In Russia, as well as in many other countries of the world, many parapsychologists, astrologers, so-called nontraditional medical doctors (mainly charlatans), specialists on UFOs, etc., are involved in pseudoscientific “investigations.” Very often they use radio, television, and newspapers to publish articles on various topics of pseudoscience. Why is such activity still not unmasked?

There are at least three reasons:

  1. The leaders of mass media organizations are not educated enough to recognize and expose pseudoscientific “theories.” They don’t ask advice of real scientists, probably in order to conceal their naivete; and scientists themselves are, as a rule, not sufficiently active in the struggle against antiscience.
  2. Real scientists understand the limitations of general knowledge. They sincerely acknowledge that many puzzles of nature are not yet understood. Parascientists, on the contrary, are confident in their “achievements”; they pretend to be more certain.
  3. In the 1930s and 1940s some attempts were made in the former Soviet Union to end investigations in such important fields as genetics and cybernetics. After such oppression was disclosed and lifted, biologists and physicists — along with pseudobiologists and pseudophysicists — felt freedom. The latter demanded respect for their “new ideas’ and they portrayed themselves as fighters for truth.

When real scientists are active, they can expose pseudoscience. A well-known scandal happened in 1991, when physicists of the USSR Academy of Sciences demanded that government cease to support charlatans working on “microlepton fields’ (distant biological influence of army and civil inhabitants with “torsion radiation”). About $500 million had been spent on such “investigations.” Fortunately, the Supreme Soviet Committee stopped this waste of money. The Academic Department of General Physics and Astronomy at a special session on July 9, 1991, characterized this case as “organized activity of pseudoscience with specific features of large-scale bluff.”

In the 1990s the government of the Ukraine allocated much money to a man named Bovbalan for realization of his ideas to move clouds and cyclones, to cause rains in drought areas, and so on. This episode became known to the public only a year ago.

Even in the circles close to the president of the Russian Federation there are “believers’ in miracles. The newspaper Moscow News (weekly, Nos. 29 and 30, 1995) published a story about General George Rogozin, who is the deputy chief of the Presidential Security Service. His hobby is studying occultism, telepathy, astrology, etc. As the newspaper stated, Rogozin prepares the astrological “forecasts’ for the leaders of the country.

We should not be astonished when in a Russian television program astrology was characterized as an “applied science”; and when we regularly watch on television such “specialists’ on astrology as former doctor of sciences in chemistry V. Velichko or former physicist Tamara Globa.

I am a member of the International Academy of Information, which has headquarters in Moscow. There are many divisions organized by scientific specialization or by regions of activity (as our Irkutsk Division, for instance). The leadership and divisions of the academy have taken much positive action. But recently I was shocked to learn that one more division was named: the “Division of UFOlogy and Bioenergoinformatics”! Isn’t that a shame for the scientific community? We are trying to overrule this disgraceful decision, but it is difficult to find the source of such a mistake.

One more shameful situation happened in the Russian Parliament. Members invited a “soothsayer”—Raisa Soumerina—to talk to them. She tried to determine who in the government is “constantly erring,” who is “stamping his feet,” etc. And the members of the Parliament were listening to this delirium! Professor of physics E. P. Kruglyakov, the corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, called this case a symbol of “degradation of authorities’ (Nauka v Sibiri, weekly, Nos. 47 and 48, 1995).

There are a few ways to struggle against pseudoscience. One is to check publications and television programs prepared by astrologers, parapsychologists, etc. in order to find their mistakes and to disclose false “facts’ and bogus “theories.” This is being done by the NLO (UFO) Commission of the Russian Academy of Sciences and by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in the United States and elsewhere. But we are never sure that the results will be as widely available to the public, radio listeners, and television watchers as are false claims. In every case scientists can be labeled “oppressive” or “fighters against new ideas.”

Another way is the popularization of real science, its laws, and its achievements. Everywhere we can use the possibilities to teach: in schools, universities, in television and radio programs. But maybe the best way of popularization is to publish books and articles in popular journals.

Such publications should not only be correct and understandable; they must be very interesting, written by scientific authors skillful in popularization.

In Russia we had examples of good, popular books on mathematics, physics, biology, and geology (including mineralogy and geochemistry). Repeatedly reprinted, these books attracted the attention of adults and teenagers for decades. One of the most popular books amongst teenagers — my contemporaries — in the 1940s was the collection of romantic short stories by the well-known Russian mineralogist and geochemist A. E. Fersman, named Reminiscences about Stone. There are twenty-five stories, from three to nine pages each, connected with the brightest memories of the author’s life.

“Saami’s Blood” described the legend about the origin of the rare mineral eudialyte, red in color, in the Lovozero Mountains of the Kola Peninsula. “Testa Nera” (from the Italian for “black head”) was a folk story telling why crystals of polychromatic tourmaline on Elba Island have black tops. “Blue Stone of Pamirs’ was about the deposits of lapis lazuli in one of the mountain creeks with an appropriate name, Lajvar-Dara (Lazurite Creek).

“Proceeding to Sulfur” documented the story of the discovery of rich deposits in the center of the Kara-Kum Desert.

“The Kiss” was about the unexpected gratitude of a Mongolian guide who had to be threatened to show the way.

In the final chapter, the author calls upon young people to explore vast territories of Siberia, to discover ores and waters under their feet, and to invent new methods of metal extraction. He cited the words of the great Russian scientist of the eighteenth century, Michael Lomonosov: “Metals and minerals will not come to the yards themselves, they demand eyes and hands to be found.”

Hundreds and thousands of youngsters became students in geology and geography departments of universities after reading this book and many other books written by Fersman and his colleagues, for example, geologists V. A. Obruchev and I. A. Efremov. I will cite just one sentence from Obruchev’s popular book Foundations of Geology: “What does a stream whisper running along a ravine?”

These authors wrote their books (sometimes science fiction, such as Plutonia by Obruchev and Andromeda Nebula by Efremov) to show not only interesting facts and fantastic landscapes, but also principles of nature and specific features of life in expeditions. They tried to attract readers’ attention to many puzzles of science, and to the excitement and happiness of divining them.

To my regret I cannot think of any members of the Russian Academy of Sciences of recent years who have written books for a wide circle of readers. It means that scientists do not consider the popularization of science to be one of their important functions.

One of the results is that, in many popular Russian journals such as Nauka i Zhizn (Science and Life), there are some poor scientific stories and even pages of parascientific attempts “to explain” something not understandable. In the bookstores, really scientific books are sinking in the seas of books with pretentious titles, such as Everything about Life, Secrets of Health, Stars Recommend, etc.

Let us stop being passive in situations when we have to act! Let us demand that mass media companies consult with real scientists when they publish or show something connected with science and nature. Let us write popular books and articles in order to demonstrate real scientific achievements and to make the truth stronger and more evident.

Boris Shmakin

Boris Shmakin teaches in universities and works in geochemistry and mineralogy of endogenous processes in the Vinogradov Institute of Geochemistry, Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences, P.O. Box 4019, Irkutsk, 664033, Russia.