Liquidation of the Commission for Combating Pseudoscience of the Russian Academy of Sciences: not against science, but against freedom
The decision to transfer the two most famous public commissions – combating pseudoscience and counteracting the falsification of scientific research – into the formal structure of the Council of Experts of the Russian Academy of Sciences was made in December 2022 within the Russian Academy of Sciences itself. Popularizers-activists announced the actual liquidation of the commission.
The curator of these commissions, Academician Kalmykov, correctly replies that everything will be as before.
More moderate commentators, such as former vice-president of the Russian Academy of Sciences and vice-chancellor of Moscow State University Alexei Khokhlov, point out that the key role here is played by individuals, not structures, and express restrained pessimism: will there be units of the right caliber in the new structures. Either way, this is the obvious end of an era of internal rebellion among scientists.
The only success
Strictly speaking, the commission (until 2018 it was one structure) has never been the moral tuning fork its supporters want to present it with. It was not neutral and not in the sense that it stood on the side of science – it represented a complex of views of its members, going far beyond the boundaries of scientific knowledge and far from being socially indisputable.
Its founder, Nobel laureate Vitaly Ginzburg, is a figure of considerable scale who simply has no equal in today’s Russian reality. Of course, he was on the side of science – in the 1950s he signed a letter condemning the activities of Trofim Lysenko. But he identified with science a radical, almost militant atheism. And in this politically far from communism, he was of the flesh and blood of the Soviet regime, an exemplary scientist from “Nine Days in One Year”, a representative of physics as the epistemological queen of sciences. I am not personally encroaching on the freedom of religion and views of Vitaly Lazarevich, but his aggressive atheistic attitude as a public figure was of little constructive for the commission’s activities, because it automatically cut off believers from the audience. I agree, you are unlikely to take advice on vaccinating your child from someone who tells you from the door, “Believer? Fool!”
The year 2010 was an undoubted success for the commission chaired by another very significant scientist – Eduard Pavlovich Kruglakov. The Commission supported and partly led the fight against the so-called Petrik filters – a non-working method of water purification proposed by the scandalous “inventor” Viktor Petrik. Despite the support of such a political heavyweight as the then chairman of the State Duma, Boris Gryzlov, the state Clean Water program created under these filters was suspended.
But this success, in fact, remained the only one. From 2016, the committee tried to test the format of the memorandum – an expert opinion, which was also presented in the media and widely publicized. The first memorandum, on dermatoglyphs, went almost unnoticed, but the second, on homeopathy, did indeed cause great public outrage. However, for some reason, the issuing of the memoranda was stopped, and the commission will be remembered as “those who fought against homeopaths.” Then the commission turned to internal expertise, criticizing the non-scientific approach of Roscosmos or considering the work of individual members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, whose circle was supplemented by former medical and agricultural academies.
It was probably at this point that the public examination was abandoned – it turned out to be two chairs that you cannot sit on at the same time. Either you publish the memorandum in the name and authority of RAS, or you fight for the purity of the academy – but then you lose RAS as a tool for self-legitimation.
The results of more than 20 years of the commission’s activity are ambiguous. Its own ambitions were, of course, conceived on a state and social scale – the fight against the clericalization of education and the already mentioned success of the state water purification program. However, the further she went, the more her work became limited to what in English could be called a “sermon to the choir”: it was a workshop organization of scientists, expressing her aspirations, fears and interests. Working with Dissernet, the committee voluntarily assumed the function of independently examining the work of RAS members and candidates (for which it had enemies in the academy) – an important matter, but fundamentally activist – in theory, this function should be performed by the Higher Attestation Commission (HAC) at subsequent stages of the dissertation defense ), and then – the scientific community itself.
The commission’s public statements – the same uncompromising fight against homeopathy – expressed the views and priorities of the most active members of the commission, who enjoyed the struggle itself. But is homeopathy the most dangerous anti-scientific (or quasi-scientific) phenomenon for the average Russian? It seems that the anti-vaccination movement, the use of arbidol, or, for example, absolute illiteracy in economic and legal matters, could apply for this title with no less success. But for speaking out against Arbidol, I personally once hinted at a brick being pounded on my head, and social science was not at all within the commission’s field of interest.
Nevertheless, the reasons for the actual liquidation of the commission (or commissions – after their separation there were two, separately for pseudoscience and separately for forgery), it seems, were not the victory of homeopaths, anti-vaccineists or astrologers – opponents of the natural-scientific view of life – but lie solely in social sphere. Science as such is an indispensable right to independent assertion, even (and especially) when it goes against the mainstream. Thus, the influential Welsh philosopher Harry Collins generally proposes seeing science as a tool, even a model, of democracy: its values of transparency, independence and selflessness, openness and vulnerability to criticism, and collective achievement are close to those of democracy.
With the outbreak of war in Russia, all civil rights and freedoms are systematically curtailed, and the right to free expression is one of the first. In such a situation, a semi-rogue public body with a state structure, which after a decade of moderate opposition finally came under the direct control of the government, looks like an anachronism. And its silent dismantling is a sad but logical sign of the era.