The Horror of Russia’s Charlatan “Science”

Paul Goble reports:

A group of Russian scholars working both in that country and abroad have called on President Dmitry Medvedev to come to the defense of scientific research against the demands of politicians and businessmen who in some cases have been promoting “scientific charlatanism” and even a new wave of “’Lysenkoism.’”

In an open letter to Medvedev and to Yuri Osipov, the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences,  the lettter, which has attracted nearly 40 signatures so far, says that “a situation has arisen at present in Russia in which the importance of science and education is not understood by the majority of the population and even by a significant portion of government employees.”

This ignorance of what science is about, the authors say, “has led to the flowering, in fact financed by the government of scientific charlatanism, ‘Lysenkoism,’ the conduct of pseudo-scientific conferences and the appearance of an enormous number of ‘innovation’ projects and ‘inventions,’” that specialists have serious doubts about and that have generated criticism abroad.

In recent months, the authors note, “there has been aggressive pressure on the Russian Academy of Sciences from the side of a number of politician figures and there have been calls to liquidate the Academy’s Commission on the Struggle with Pseudo-Science and of Falsification of Scientific Research. We consider the situation that has arisen to be critical.” If such safeguards are eliminated or overridden, their appeal continues, then the government and people of Russia risk wasting enormous sums on scientifically problematic and even harmful programs much like the notorious Lysenko projects of Soviet times. Consequently, the authors of the appeal say, they feel compelled to bring this to the attention of the president.

Judging from the text of the appeal, the proximate cause behind this effort is Moscow’s new “Pure Water” Project, an effort that the signatories suggest entails steps which will harm the health of Russian citizens. At present, they argue, the Academy’s Commission on the Struggle with Pseudo-Science is almost the only body standing in the way of this project. Appeals like this one reflect growing concerns inside the Russian scholarly community that the older system of reviewing projects is breaking down and that individuals and groups which stand to profit from exploiting state efforts at “modernization” are winning out over pure and applied peer-reviewed science.

And such appeals are also an indication of something else: the way in which Russian scholars working in the Russian Federation and those working abroad are able to use the Internet not only to cooperate in their scientific work but also to form their own lobby to protect and promote science. Consequently, even if this appeal falls short – and the forces that these scientists are up against are very large and very powerful – it is likely to serve as a model for others in the future, something that could help promote the genuine modernization that President Medvedev says he wants rather than the project-style approach that other leaders in Moscow seem committed to.

NOTE:  To add your signature to the petition, send e-mail to RUSSAclub@gmail.com

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31 responses to “The Horror of Russia’s Charlatan “Science”

  1. Russia has always been an authoritarian state and therefore pseudo-science is inevitable here; what the Tsar wants the Tsar gets and as Stalin put it, ‘if the facts are against us, so much the worse for the facts’

  2. Francis Smyth-Beresford

    Hello, pot – meet kettle. Speaking of “ignorance of what science is all
    about”, did the indispensable Paul Goble happen to mention that in the
    2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Russian
    Federation outperformed the United States in both Science and
    Mathematics?

    http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=1

    The PISA tests began in 2000, and are repeated every 3 years; 2006 is
    the most recent for which I could find released results. In 2006 “…the
    average score of U.S. 15-year-olds in mathematics literacy was 474,
    which was lower than the OECD average of 498. The average mathematics
    literacy score in the United States was lower than the average score in
    23 of the other 29 OECD countries for which comparable PISA results were
    reported…” Gee, 24th out of 29; that’s pretty poor. But we’re not
    talking about math here; we’re talking about science, so let’s see how
    America fared there – Oooooo, not so well, I’m afraid. “In science
    literacy, the average score of 15-year-olds in the United States was
    lower than the average score in 16 of the other 29 OECD countries…”
    Well, 17th out of 29 is better than the math debacle, anyway.

    http://nces.ed.gov/timss/table07_1.asp

    http://nces.ed.gov/timss/table07_3.asp

    The erosion of America’s edge in science and mathematics is acknowledged
    to varying degrees, and some agencies prefer to rely on national opinion
    surveys, which reliably say “nope, we’re doing great”. However, although
    the U.S. still offers excellent education programs in the science
    disciplines, attendance in those programs by foreign graduate students
    passed the levels of American science students in the late 90′s, and have
    been on an opening trajectory since .

    http://www.futureofinnovation.org/PDF/Benchmarks.pdf

    Today’s students are tomorrow’s science professionals. Those
    15-year-olds who performed so poorly in 2006 ought to be ready to enter
    the job market right about now.

    • Yes FSB (though you are sounding a lot like RTR/VOR), but the difference is that Russia is a land of pseudo science.

      Hell, with all their “genius” level students, they still can’t design a SLBM that works properly.

    • Dude, what good are bright students if they’ve got nowhere to apply themselves in once they leave school?
      And that’s exactly the situation in Russia, in fact in case you didn’t know, all most of the brightest students, who don’t feel like going into business or starving to death, end up in the US. The brain drain that started in the early 1990′s has never stopped and while should it, if speaking to high school students at a high school science fair not so long ago, none other than our president Dmitriy Medvedev told them plainly that if they wanted to work in science in Russia they had to be prepared to be poor because in Russia researches and teachers have always been poor and have always worked not for money but for their beliefs.
      That, I think, is the reason why even though our high school kids score so high in various mathematics skills assessments, nothing really ever gets invented in Russia, because all those bright students eventually either emigrate or become alcoholics or just go insane like that mathematician from Saint Pete

      • Igor, do we have numbers on “they’ve got nowhere to apply themselves in once they leave school”?

        “most of the brightest students, who don’t feel like going into business or starving to death, end up in the US” – do you have the numbers on “brain drain”, i.e. young scientists emigration?

        I do.

        Check the GERD/ GDP rate for Russia in UNESCO’s 2005 (!) report. It’s almost equal to that of the UK.

        http://www.unesco.org/science/psd/publications/sc_rp_05.shtml

        And it’s rising.

        We have 2,1% of the world’s total spending on R&D, compared to the French 3,8%, or British 3,3 (but have in mind the difference of GDPs).

        “the number of researchers in Russia, 3 400
        per million inhabitants, is the third-highest in the world,
        after Japan (5 100) and the USA (4 400)” – that’s called by UNESCO a recovering from the 90ies.

        Check the sources, and don’t just think your country is always wrong.

        • But your GDP is the equivalent of Portugal, not of the UK.

          • “But your GDP is the equivalent of Portugal, not of the UK.”

            http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2009/01/weodata/weorept.aspx?sy=2009&ey=2009&scsm=1&ssd=1&sort=country&ds=.&br=1&pr1.x=55&pr1.y=10&c=182%2C922%2C112&s=NGDPD%2CPPPGDP&grp=0&a=

            The UK 2,159.320 (PPP GDP, 2009)
            Russia 2,145.764 (PPP GDP, 2009)
            Portugal 228.337 (PPP GDP 2009).

            Andrew, you seriously need to check the data each time before you post something here.

            • Sorry, that is adjusted GDP.

              Take out the Purchasing Power Parity, and the situation is quite different.

              Meanwhile, your actual economy is smaller than Portugals:

              Why Russia Matters Less Than We Think

              All of which begs the question: Why do we suddenly care so much about Russia? Its economy is still smaller than Portugal’s, its nuclear stockpile is no match for our own (not to mention its Soviet-era early warning radars barely work), and its foreign ambitions, as George Kennan predicted generations ago, have been mostly contained. Plus, given its current demographic trends, some analysts predict Russia’s population could sink below 100 million by 2050, making it smaller than Mexico.

              …….

              Russia’s economy is resurgent. Yes, but contrary to claims by Russian officials that theirs will be the fifth largest economy by 2020, Russia is still light years behind the rest of Europe. As Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations points out in the Wall Street Journal, Russia’s economy, despite its strong growth, has only just eclipsed the Benelux countries (when the purchasing power parity metric is scrapped).

              http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lionel-beehner/why-russia-matters-less-t_b_79243.html

              Russia by the Numbers
              Author:
              Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
              December 17, 2007
              Wall Street Journal
              After meeting with leaders of the European Union recently, Vladimir Putin boasted that the surging Russian economy has overtaken that of Italy, and will overtake Francein 2009. Such astonishing claims have become commonplace in statements by Russian officials, who insist Russia will become the world’s fifth largest economy by 2020.
              Mr. Putin’s popularity at home—and his standing abroad—rest in large part on economic performance, so it’s worth looking closely at these forecasts. They are based on a system of measurement called purchasing-power-parity (PPP), under which economists try to assign every good—from rice to subway fares—the same price world-wide. (The conventional method, by contrast, takes the price of goods produced locally and translate them into dollars at the current exchange rate.) PPP inflates the size of poor economies in which food and the other basics of life are cheap. In the Russian case, black bread, vodka and run-down apartments pump up GDP.
              The effect can be dramatic. Measured in conventional terms, Russia, far from overtaking France in two years, is actually less than half its size—$1.22 trillion vs. $2.52 trillion. At current growth rates, their GDPs will not be equal for 17 years. All those people who sneered about the puny Russian economy of the 1990s—no bigger than the Netherlands, they said—need to update their numbers, but not by much. After eight years of strong growth, the Russian economy—in conventional terms—is now as big as the Netherlands plus Belgium and Luxembourg.

              Of course, which system of measurement is “right” depends on what you want to know. If you’re interested in a country’s place in the global economy, then exchange-rate measures are for you. If you want a feel for living standards, then purchasing-power-parity can, carefully used, be a helpful tool. And not just to measure food consumption: During the Cold War the U.S.government estimated the Soviet military budget by asking how much it would cost for the U.S. to produce the same fighting force. Once you assigned Red Army conscripts the same wages as American volunteers, Soviet defense spending looked a lot scarier. You might say this is what Mr. Putin is trying to do for his entire economy.
              There are, however, two problems with the way Russian officials treat these GDP estimates. First, they use the PPP numbers to measure something—their global economic standing—that the conventional numbers measure better. You have only to play with international trade figures for a while to see how underdeveloped Russia’s role in the world economy remains. How much, for example, would you expect the United States to trade with a country that might soon overtake France? The U.S.exported five times more toFrance in 2006 ($24.2 billion) than to Russia ($4.7 billion). This year the U.S. still exports more to the Dominican Republic than toRussia. And U.S. two-way trade with Malaysia is twice our two-way trade with Russia.
              Perhaps, you say, Russian-American trade is atypical, and looking at Russia’s trade with its closest neighbor—Europe—would paint a different picture? Yes, but not as different as you might think. As Peter Mandelson, the EU’s trade commissioner, put it recently, Russia’s exports to the EU are, apart from energy, “about the same as those of Morocco or Argentina”—slightly less than 3.5% of Europe’s total imports.
              The EU’s energy imports fromRussia are, of course, about twice that level, or 7% of all imports—a big number
              . But it too should be kept in perspective. Between 2000 and 2005, Russia’s share in European natural gas imports dropped, from 50% to 42%. European politicians say they want to diversify their sources of supply. They’re talking about something that may already be happening and can be pushed further.
              There is a second problem with Russian leaders’ economic claims. If we use PPP figures as intended—to compare living standards—we will be at least as impressed by how far Russia has to go as by how far it has already come. Just consider per-capita GDP growth in Russia,France and Italy. Under Mr. Putin, Russian per-capita income—even in PPP terms—has gone from somewhat less than a third of the level of France andItaly to somewhat more than a third. This increase is good news for Russian consumers, but they remain Europe’s poor relations all the same.
              Interestingly, Mr. Putin himself used to make this point when he first became president. To underscore how poor his country was, and how urgent it was to reform, he observed that it would take 15 years of 8% economic growth for Russia’s per-capita income to equal Portugal’s. This was a particularly brutal comparison, because Russians saw Portugal not as a rich European state but as a poor one. (And how humiliating to be compared to such a small country.)
              These days, Mr. Putin does not use the Portugal comparison so much—the urgency of reform is less on his mind—so here’s the update. With all its growth Russia is gaining ground, but the absolute gap between the two countries is only modestly narrower than when Mr. Putin first compared them—just over $12,000 then, just under $11,000 now. Meanwhile, the gap between Russia and both France andItaly has widened slightly. Even if Russia keeps steaming ahead, it will probably not catch up with Portugal until 2020
              —and by some estimates, long after that.
              These comparisons do not detract from the Russian economy’s extraordinary growth. Its transformation is a huge opportunity for anyone who is a part of it. The reason, however, is not that Russiahas catapulted itself into the ranks of the rich, but that it is still relatively poor. The low base from which it is growing means that strong increases can continue for a long time before petering out. (Just ask European machinery exporters: Their sales to Russian companies quadrupled between 2000 and 2006.) Similarly, the low living standards of the Russian people mean that the leveling off of their consumption surge is decades away. It’s good politics—and maybe even good geopolitics—for Mr. Putin and his colleagues to claim they’ve come further than they have. But we’ll understand today’s Russia better if we don’t believe them.

              http://www.cfr.org/publication/15081/

              • Another 5-screener? You are hopeless.

                “Your GDP is the equivalent of Portugal, not of the UK”

                “Sorry, that is adjusted GDP. Take out the Purchasing Power Parity, and the situation is quite different.”

                Here is a “not-adjusted” GDP, from the same IMF, same 2009:

                Portugal: 209.139 BN USD
                Russia: 1,163.645 BN USD
                The UK: 2,007.049 BN USD

                Equivalent of Portugal?

                You’re an idiot.

                To which you respond citing an article of “Lionel Beehner”. A man that starts his article on Russian economics with words “mexovaya chopka”.

                “Mexovaya chopka”? Some kind of a Mexican drink?

                Or was it “Sopka”? “Popka”? “Stopka”? “Robko”?

                So what does the guy talk about? Economics?

                You’re still an idiot.

                To which you respond by the boldened words of “Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations” who claims that “Russia’s economy… has only just eclipsed the Benelux countries (when the purchasing power parity metric is scrapped)”

                Or really? So Russia’s economy might shade the sun there in Benelux? No lux in Benelux now?

                But let’s get over the wording, on the wings of Russian economy.

                Ask yourself – what exactly was “eclipsed” by “Russia’s economy” in 2008? The GDP of the three Benelux states?

                And do you know their GDP?

                Compared the overall GDP of Benelux to that of Portugal?

                You know what I must say for the third time in this post.

                Let me deliver a revelation to you, stupid.

                Putin, and all the others, comparing Russia to Portugal, were talking about the GDP per anima all the way.

                Which you did not understand.

                Now get away.

                • dude, what’s GPD per anima? I’ve heard of GDP per capita but anima is new to me what does it even mean?

                  • Per capita it is in English, sure. Still a very comprehensive phrase it is, if you speak Latin.

                    Well, capitae, animae, who cares about Latin, dude, when Russian economy eclipsed Benelux?:D

                    Now what’s a “GPD per anima”? Gallons Per Day is my best guess here, Igor. Do they drive, your capitae?:D

        • Dude, wake up and smell the s.h.i.t.e
          First of all the source you cited does not provide any figures on the number of Russian scientists moving abroad and settling there.
          A high ratio of expenditure on R&D to GDP only indicates that Russia claims to spend a lot on R&D, which in actuality means that in recent years more and more money has been appropriated under the guise of R&D expenditure.
          Take the state owned Russian Nanotechnology Corporation headed by our people’s most loved business/political celebrity Anatoliy Chubais; they took five (i.e. 5) years to develop nano-ink and burned through about 10 billion roubles (circa 350 million dollars US) in the process. And it’s no wonder if according to this article
          http://www.themoscowtimes.com/vedomosti/article/chubais-reveals-love-for-bmw/403077.html Rusnano pays him a compensation of 13.2 million roubles a year ($ 450 ,000) and that is taxpayers’ money, btw, since Rusnano, as I pointed out above, is a state owned corporation. And guess what, all that money qualifies as R&D expenditure and I bet that Chubais is not the only executive at Russia’s sundry state run R&D facilities that gets such a handsome compensation package.
          So the way our science works is this, the government starts a project or a company and then funnels huge amounts of money into it under the banner of R&D, the company/project takes forever to complete, usually, a single design, which usually proves to be so impractical that it could never be used in real life, they report another great achievement on TV, while all the money that had gone into the project/company winds up in the pockets of the top bureaucrats/Kremlin cronies who were put in charge of it. Such projects don’t demand top scientists, just people who can write up upbeat reports.
          Another project like this is the now infamous Bulava missile, they spent years developing it, then it failed all tests and finally, after nobody knows how many billions of roubles got appropriated, they announced that the whole concept was flawed from the very beginning.
          As for the number of researchers, well some time back Zhirinovsky bought membership in the Russian academy of sciences, I wonder if they counted him among those 3,400 ‘researchers’ I bet only a very small portion of this number do any actual research.
          And in conclusion, here’s a video for you to watch
          http://rt.com/Sci_Tech/2009-11-03/science-russia-career.html
          Hope Russia Today is a good enough source for you.

        • And, Dmitry it’s not about my country being wrong or right it’s about it being in denial about the actual state of affairs here.

          • Igor, no, it’s not about Russia. It’s about numbers and myths.

            Before this idiot arrived to tell us of Russian-Portugese-sized economy that eclipsed Benelux and shaded the mexovaya chopka, I was asking, do we have numbers on “they’ve got nowhere to apply themselves in once they leave school”?

          • No, Russia Today is no better than BBC or France24: they have no numbers. They just imagine “the actual state of affairs here” and there.

      • And here’s another article with numbers from a US-based NGO quoting the Moscow News:

        http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/2008-74-29.cfm

        • Dude, in this last article you linked to, I especially liked this paragraph

          “But only few highly qualified scientists relocated to their home country or moved back into the profession. “Some biologists returned from the U.S. and Sweden to Moscow to work on genetic projects. Now western specialists are arriving because of grants, but then leave when the grant is finished,” said a member of The Russian Academy of Sciences.”

        • IT workers are not scientists.

        • In science like everywhere else – money talks BS walk, scientists will go where there are grants/money but in Russia our officials like to keep most of the money for themselves, leaving only scraps for the people who do the actual work, and nobody smart enough likes to work for leftovers from the big man’s table

          • “So the way our science works is this, the government starts a project or a company and then funnels huge amounts of money into it under the banner of R&D”

            “money talks BS walk, scientists will go where there are grants/money but in Russia our officials like to keep most of the money for themselves”

            Etc.

            Igor, just want to remind, I live in Russia. the same country. I heard this all. I agree to some points you make.

            But, again, do you have any numbers? Numbers, shares, graphs, databases – whatever but guesses and accusations made by jounralists?

            Because I just do not want to discuss beliefs.

  3. Voice of Reason

    Andrew // May 11, 2010 at 11:47 am
    But your GDP is the equivalent of Portugal, not of the UK.

    False. But in any case, if you read the news, you would have found out that most of the reported GDP for Greece, Portugal, Spain (and quite a lot for UK too) came from simply borrowing money.

    You can read about the despicable $1 trillion (one trillion!!!!) bail-out package worked out for these European thieves. $250 billion of this amount will come from the IMF, of which 70% will come from us, American taxpayers.

    The most ironic thing is that since Russia is now a creditor nation, Russian taxpayers too will pay for the lavish lifestyle of the Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese.

    • No matter how many times you repeat it, you are not a part of “us”

      • Voice of Reason

        RV,

        I am indeed not part of YOU. What gave you this weird idea that I am part of YOU? And you are not part of us. You and I hold totally diametrically opposed positions on almost all political issues.

        Get used to it.

        • Don’t get started, dude:D

          US is still ok and you can occasionally meet an idiot or two anywhere.

        • You bet. You try too hard to show everybody that you are an American, and when tries too much it’s suspicious. And spare me this “us American taxpayers.” Post your tax return and then we’ll see. Otherwise, I am sure I give away more in tips than you pay in taxes.

          • Voice of Reason

            RV,

            Are you serious? You want to post your tax return for the entire world to see? If so – put your money where your mouth is.

            Or do you want me to post my tax return without you posting yours?

            The deal is on. I will post my tax return and you will post yours. Where, when and how do you want us to do it? Let’s get specific.

            • I am not trying to prove I am “an American taxpayer,” but you are flipping over yourself trying to do that.

              On the other hand, maybe I am wrong, there are some Americans who hate their country. You are probably one of those, together with Chomsky and Jane Fonda.

              Never mind the tax return. Forget it.

            • Voice of Reason

              RV,

              You didn’t answer my question as to how and where you want to post your tax return. Why are you now being so shy suddenly? Since you wanted me to post my tax returns, you find posting personal tax returns to be no big deal. So, post oyurs.

              Why not? Afraid to admit that you are a welfare cheat? Or maybe you are here in USA illegally? Or maybe you are not even in USA?

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