MOSCOW — The award ceremony had all the trappings of legitimacy: a trendy loft venue not far from the Kremlin; a rapturous, inquisitive, and mostly young audience; and a jury made up of top scientific minds.
The prize at stake, however, was not about whose research had been the most cutting-edge or who had made the greatest contribution to Russian science that year. The jury, instead, was charged with determining who had been most successful in “bringing the light of ignorance to the masses.” Those voting cast their ballots into a tin-foil hat.
In the end, October’s inaugural “honorary member of the pseudoscience academy” award went to Irina Yermakova, a biologist and regular commentator on Russian national television. Yermakova is on the record as believing that men, as a sex, evolved from early hermaphrodite Amazonians. She’s one of Russia’s leading anti-GMO campaigners, claiming that genetically modified foods are actually an American bioweapon aimed at committing genocide against Russia. In handing her the award, Russia’s scientific community was seeking to demonstrate that, even in trying times, it hasn’t lost its sense of humor. The event organizer, Alexander Sokolov, a science journalist and award-winning author, issued a defiant proclamation from the stage: “Let as many people as possible see that science is alive in Russia and that it can defend itself!”
Except there’s growing evidence it can’t.
Science is under assault in the land that has produced some 17 Nobel Prize winners in the sciences. It’s not just that funding has been slashed (though it has) or that the field struggles with corruption and brain drain (though it does). Members of the scientific community say one of the biggest issues they face is the recent embrace of pseudoscientists like Yermakova by the Russian state. The Kremlin has elevated and institutionalized their ideas, often mixing them with a healthy dose of anti-Western rhetoric for good measure.
Yermakova, for example, in addition to her TV spots, has appeared as an expert before the Russian parliament, where populist lawmakers use her to back up their case against genetically modified foods. “Russia has been pressured into GMO after its accession to the [World Trade Organization],” majority party member of parliament Yevgeny Fedorov told state channel Rossiya 24 in 2014 in words that echoed Yermakova’s views. “This is political pressure; its goal is to create risks of sterilization” to shrink the Russian population, he said. Russia passed a law in July banning production of genetically modified foods, despite repeated protests by the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Other believers in fringe pseudoscience who have been elevated to positions of authority include Mikhail Kovalchuk, a physicist from Vladimir Putin’s inner circle who presides over the Kurchatov Institute, a nuclear energy research institution. Last year (the same day Moscow began its bombing campaign in Syria), Kovalchuk gave a presentation to Russian senators warning that the global elite, overseen by the United States, is developing a special human subspecies — a genetically different caste of laboring “servant people” who eat little, think small, and reproduce only on command. (Buried beneath the wacky conspiracy theory and anti-Western hyperbole was a lobbying pitch for more state funding so that his institute could stay ahead of the curve on groundbreaking research.)
In some cases, these figures have already done real damage. Kovalchuk is one of Putin’s top science advisors, a veteran senior member of his science council who is also the brother of Yuri Kovalchuk, a man the U.S. government has called the “personal banker” to senior Russian officials. Kovalchuk’s connections were expected to make him an eventual shoo-in for Russia’s top academic post as president of the Academy of Sciences. The academy’s membership, which selects both members and leaders in democratic votes, unexpectedly resisted Kovalchuk, however; his bid to become a full member of the academy, a requirement to head it, was rejected in 2008.
This and other moves by the academy to reject Kovalchuk are believed to have led to a backlash in 2013, when the Russian government moved to dismantle the institution: It took away most of the academy’s property, diluted its ranks by combining it with the less rigorous agriculture and medical academies, and curbed its independence, subjecting it to the supervision of a newly created state agency for scientific organizations. The reforms have done “great damage” to the academy, an institution that dates back to the 18th century and serves as the nerve center for a network of Russian scientific institutions, said science journalist Alexander Sergeyev. They’ve buried scientists in paperwork and subjected them to the control of non-scientists. Meanwhile, Kovalchuk’s Kurchatov Institute is becoming increasingly powerful and has assumed control over some of the academy’s research centers.
Believers in, and peddlers of, pseudoscience now occupy positions throughout the Russian government. Anton Vaino, Putin’s virtually unknown chief of staff, who was elevated to the post in August, published academic work in 2012 on the “nooscope,” a baffling mystical instrument that he claims can forecast and control society and the economy by scanning the universe. The Kremlin’s ombudswoman for children, Anna Kuznetsova, appointed in September, reportedly believes in telegony — the archaic theory that a woman’s child bears the traits of all her past sexual partners. “Such people in power is a new trend that shows that the authorities are no longer afraid of people that are overt carriers of pseudoscientific ideas,” Sergeyev said. “On the contrary, the authorities are ready to accept them and to be under their influence.”
The Russian government’s seeming vendetta against legitimate science is no coincidence, critics say. The Kremlin has discovered that pseudoscience fits its present ideological needs.
In September, the academy’s special commission to fight Russian pseudoscience published a report that found that its rise was in part tied to the country’s growing isolation and nationalism. Russians who reject global scientific norms have treated this ideological shift as an opportunity to lobby for government support for their projects. The report concluded that unscientific ideas and projects have thrived in recent years in part by “speculating on pro-regime ideologies.” Kovalchuk, for example, has theorized that Russia could stay ahead of Western science by funding an undefined field he calls “convergent technologies”; another argument, currently popular in Russia, is that established methods for fighting the spread of HIV, such as condom use, are in fact an American tool to weaken Russia. “The pseudo-patriotic rhetoric that surrounds these para-scientific topics allows their lobbyists to rise to a level far higher than their competence,” the academy’s report said.
Meanwhile, the growing link between nationalism and pseudoscience has allowed pseudoscientists to accuse their critics of being unpatriotic Russophobes. Anatole Klyosov, a Russian biochemist who worked in the United States before veering off into genetics, last year opened a Moscow-based “academy” for DNA genealogy, a field he claims to have discovered and upholds as a “patriotic science.” In the 10 books he has published since 2010, Klyosov has advanced outlandish claims, including the idea that the human species originated in the Russian North and that the view that humans derived from Africa is an expression of Western political correctness.
In 2015, a group of scientists from various fields wrote an open letter saying Klyosov’s writing could fuel hatred by “attracting readers whose nationalist and political ambitions are not satisfied with the world’s scientific body of knowledge.” Klyosov responded in his latest book, which he called Lies, Insinuations, and Russophobia in Modern Russian Science, dismissing his critics as members of a “fifth column.”
In addition to creating a climate that supports pseudoscience, the Kremlin seems to be making efforts to cut off legitimate Russian researchers from the outside world, said Sergeyev, who is part of the academy’s pseudoscience-fighting commission. Whispers last year indicated some universities are reviving the Soviet-era requirement that administrators vet scholarly papers before publication while others have imposed a ban on professors giving interviews without first receiving permission.
Russia has a mixed historical legacy when it comes to science policy. Science in the Soviet Union enjoyed relative prestige, especially fields that had applications for the military, space, and nuclear research. Students, beginning from a young age, were encouraged to pursue physics and mathematics in particular (the country’s proud stock of Nobel laureates and Fields medalists attests to the success of those efforts), and universities headhunted promising students to work in secret government labs in relatively comfortable conditions.
But the country has also long been susceptible to the potent combination of political power and pseudoscience. Research on an idea known as the Torsion field theory, for instance — which claimed to be able to explain telekinesis and levitation, among other phenomena — secretly received funding from the Soviet military and the KGB in the 1980s despite rejecting basic principles of physics.
The darkest example of state support for pseudoscience comes from the period between the 1930s and the 1960s. That was the heyday of a biologist named Trofim Lysenko, who became a darling of Joseph Stalin.
Lysenko was everything the dictator wanted in a scientist: a plain-spoken man from a peasant family, eager to put science to work for the people. Appointed to head the Soviet agricultural academy in 1938, Lysenko went on to set Soviet science and agriculture back decades by promoting baseless ideas, including methods for transforming rye into barley, and insisting that schools reject Mendelian genetics.
What might have been a scientific debate between geneticists and agronomists like Lysenko who rejected natural selection turned into something else entirely with Stalin’s overt support for the latter. The government amplified Lysenko’s slander against his opponents (state media discredited geneticists as “misanthropic fruit fly lovers,” proponents of eugenics and imperialism), and hundreds of Russian scientists who challenged his ideas were sidelined, exiled, or killed. The most famous victim of what came to be called Lysenkoism was Russian ethnobotanist Nikolai Vavilov, who dedicated his life to eradicating famine and created the world’s largest collection of plant seeds in St. Petersburg. Vavilov came to be highly critical of Lysenko’s ideas, however, and as a result was labeled a traitor and died in prison in 1943.
Lysenkoism was summarily discredited, and the taboo on genetics discarded in the 1970s and 1980s, after the departure of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a Lysenko supporter. Meanwhile, Vavilov’s name now graces several prestigious Russian institutes, including the Institute of General Genetics in Moscow. In recent years, however, Lysenko has crept back into the realm of respectability, riding on the coattails of the rehabilitation of Stalin himself.
In 2014, a book that was at least partially sponsored by a state grant from the Ministry of Communications — titled Two Worlds, Two Ideologies — represented the argument between Lysenko and opponents as one between “patriots” and “national traitors.” Articles praising Lysenko appear regularly today in national newspapers: One 2015 article in the newspaper Kultura erroneously said, “Agricultural methods developed by the academic are still used in the entire world.” It continued: “If one were to analyze facts objectively, one would have to say that Lysenko was without question an extraordinary man.”
“Pseudoscience exists in all countries, but it is like cancerous cells: A healthy organism rejects them and does not let them grow,” said Svetlana Borinskaya, a geneticist who works at the Institute of General Genetics. “A sick organism is not able to react.” There are signs in Russia that the cancer is taking hold: An annual study by the Higher School of Economics, a research university in Moscow, found in 2015 that the number of Russians who felt that science and technology bring more harm than good was 23 percent. The ratio of positive to negative views of science places Russia 30th out of 31 countries in a ranking of how much they value scientific progress; the study called it a “worrying signal.”
“Even educated people are starting to talk about reptilians that have taken over and are plotting in the world government,” Borinskaya said. The influence of such ideas on Russian society has been strong enough that one news website, Gazeta.ru, has created a special subsection in its science department called “Obscurantism” to expose fake science. “Pseudoscience and obscurantism harm real researchers and harm the public,” said Gazeta.ru’s science editor, Pavel Kotlyar. “They harm the elderly babushkas who absorb the nonsense about various health gadgets and water filters.”
Russian scientists have begun to fight back. In addition to the pseudoscience academy award and several independent popular science projects, a group of online vigilantes has been exposing widespread fraud in Russian Ph.D. dissertations since 2013 as part of a project called Dissernet. The practice is widespread in the social sciences, Andrei Rostovtsev, one of Dissernet’s founders, told me. The fake dissertations are then defended in corrupt dissertation councils in what amounts to a vast criminal business that has impaired entire fields, particularly economics.
Many of these fraudulent dissertations were produced by people who go on to become parliamentarians, Rostovtsev said. Others serve the Kremlin as politically convenient “experts”: After Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 went down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, for instance, Moscow brought out of them, Ivan Andriyevsky, on state television to back up its theory that MH17 had been shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet. Andriyevsky showed a crudely altered satellite image of a plane to a reporter as evidence. A few days later, Dissernet looked into his dissertation and found that 17 of 26 pages in the work on Russia’s defense industry, for which he received a Ph.D. in economics, had been copy-pasted from other work, with heavy plagiarism on most of the other pages as well.
Rostovtsev describes Dissernet as a symbolic tool for Russia’s legitimate research community to maintain its reputation and build solidarity but doubts it will help hold any Russian officials directly accountable. The same is likely true for the academy’s pseudoscience award, whose trophy shows a sad reptilian creature posing like The Thinker and sitting atop an Egyptian pyramid. A few days after the pseudoscience ceremony, I called the organizer, Sokolov, to ask if Irina Yermakova had yet to collect it. She had not.
Photo credit: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images