Anti-Nonsense Activism

Amidst public prayers against coronavirus held in Moscow, Alexander Panchin, a Russian biologist and science activist talks to us about religion, science, and anti-scientific trends in Russian society.

Alexander on a poster for his event "Scientists Against Myths: Protection from Pseudoscientific Viruses"

Alexander’s passion for science started young when his father temporarily relocated the family from Russia to the United States for work at the University of California San Diego biology lab. Boyhood days spent at the lab with his father left a lasting impression. When he and his family returned to Russia, Alexander decided he would also become a biologist and move to the US.

Now having graduated with a Ph.D. of his own in biology, Alexander works as a Senior Researcher at The Institute for Information Transmission Problems. As for moving to the US, Alexander says: “so much cool stuff started in my life that I wasn’t interested in leaving anymore.”

The “cool stuff” Alexander is referring to is his parallel career in science popularization. Alexander spends much of his time sharing the passion for science with other Russians less exposed to scientific ideas. Through his lectures, books, and TV appearances, Alexander works to dispel pseudoscientific and anti-scientific beliefs – which he terms “obscurantism” – that are popular among many Russians.

Alexander argues these beliefs – which include extrasensory perception, homeopathic practices, the denial of evolution, the denial of the link between HIV and AIDS, flat-Eartherism, and blanket opposition to genetic engineering – have a significant negative impact on Russian society: “Alternative healing methods can harm people, drain their money, or lead them to reject real medical help… [The prohibition on genetic engineering] in Russia could cause Russia to fall behind in developing that technology.” According to the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Science, in 2013 67% of Russian women turned to psychics for help with medical or other issues. According to the Chief Moscow Cardiologist many Russians turn to fortunetellers, psychics, and magicians to get medical help, spending around $30 billion dollars a year, compared with only $17 billion spent on getting medical services abroad.

The Demand for Science

Alexander’s work as a science popularizer began at the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. As a biology student, he was used to a tedious process of trying to publish his scientific work and prove his worth to publishers at scientific journals. Writing for the general public felt different. “In science, it may take years to publish an article. Several rounds of peer reviews are usual. You have to work really hard to convince the editor that your paper is worth anything. In scientific journalism, the editors and the readers ask you to write more. It’s a whole different kind of publishing experience”. Alexander was struck by just how many people were trying to understand modern science and the answers it offers to socially significant questions.

Alexander with a fresh batch of his book Sum of Biotechnology

He describes how the most compelling aspect of his work is the real-world impact he can have on people’s lives. “Sometimes people text me, for example, a mom of a schoolkid wrote me once that her son read my book The Sum of Biotechnology, became interested in genetic engineering, and now studies it in university. Or a story of a woman who was going to become a nun, but saw my debates with a priest on TV, changed her mind and now has a boyfriend.”

Salvation vs. Evolution

Appearing on TV is perhaps the best way for Alexander to reach and persuade people like that aspiring nun. He has appeared repeatedly on “I Don’t Believe! Conversation with an Atheist,” a program broadcast on the religious TV channel Spas (“Salvation”), which is owned by the Russian Orthodox Church. The program has the self-stated goal of reaching “those who haven’t yet come to God” to convince them “that in his life too there is a place for God.” Alexander turned the premise of the program on its head, deciding to treat it as an opportunity to reach a demographic that is rarely exposed to scientific ideas.

A screenshot of the debate video from Alexander's YouTube channel with more that 1.2M views

As he sat across archpriest Alexey Batanogov, who wore a full black cassock and a golden cross around his chest, Alexander struck a much more casual look while just as clearly conveying what he stands for – a DNA molecule across the chest of his t-shirt alongside an illustration of humanity’s evolution from apes.

The debate was a runaway success. So much so that the channel’s management called the program and asked that it not re-air his episode and delete it from Spas’ YouTube channel. Unsurprisingly, this attempted censorship had the opposite effect, creating hype around Alexander’s appearance. (You can still find the video on Alexander’s YouTube channel, where it has more than 1.2 million views.)

Alexander describes his debate with Batanogov and other religious conservatives as win-win: “If my opponent is against the theory of evolution then I, as an evolutionary biologist, will just roast him about that and explain how modern science contradicts religious dogma. If he is not against the theory of evolution, then it’s already a victory: a scientist and a priest agree that evolution is a fact on Orthodox TV! And then I would ask him about the original sin of Adam and Eve who, according to modern science, never existed”.

Clericalization of Russia

Alexander later accepted an invitation to come back on the show and continues to see the program as a rare occasion when religion and science can have a fair debate. According to Alexander, these opportunities are becoming increasingly rare in other arenas of Russian life, where the Orthodox Church is gaining greater influence – particularly within state educational institutions.

“In the Russian constitution, church is separated from state, but our constitution is not as respected as in the U.S., for example. As a result, for the last 10-plus years, we’ve seen a consistent increase in religious propaganda at places of state education.”

In many Russian schools, religious studies have been introduced as “Basics of Orthodox Culture.” Because the government isn’t supposed to support one religion over another, children can, in theory, choose alternatives, such as “Basics of Islam”, “Basics of Buddhism” or “Basics of Judaism”, “Intro to Cultures of the World,” or “Basics of Secular Ethics.” However, there are often not enough teachers to ensure that children and their families are actually granted that choice.

The Orthodox Church is also expanding its influence within university theology departments: “In the West, theology departments exist as a historic tribute, and they gradually turn into secular religious studies. They don’t require the researcher to believe in the religion they study. In Russia, the emphasis is put on religious theology. We have three major religions, Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Every department of theology has a council or board that is subordinate to the respective religious authority. Any Christian theology department is basically subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church (RPC). It creates a system of direct subordination of a ‘scientific’ structure to a religious structure, which can’t be.”

Myth Busters

University theology departments also constitute a way for the government to channel money to the Russian Orthodox Church, which Alexander sees as symptomatic of a broader issue: “A general problem of the Russian mentality is that in Russia all kinds of [social] connections are too important. Many things are done by informal agreements, [there is] a lot of kickbacks, corruption, unethical behavior. These problems affect science as well.” The effects of unethical science and corrupt practices are significant, allowing for the marketing of untested medical products and the awarding of advanced academic degrees to officials with plagiarized dissertations.

Alexander and the broader Russian scientific community understand the systemic influence of the Orthodox Church and state institutions as requiring a united response. They form organizations that tackle corruption and the spread of unscientific trends. It accepts various forms: from a free online community Dissernet, which works on discovering and calling out plagiarism in scientific work, to a more official Russian Academy of Science affiliated Commission Against Pseudoscience. The latter invited Alexander to become its member.

The Commission was founded in 1998 by a Nobel winner Vitaly Ginsburg and it leverages the authority of the Russian Academy of Science to promote science and counter non-scientific beliefs. In addition to educational and awareness efforts, they are able to cooperate with government bodies and advocate for better regulation, as well as provide expert opinion to institutions such as the Ministry of Education and Science and Federal Anti-monopoly Service. Commission’s work is widely covered by media and often reaches a wide audience: for example, their declaration against homeopathy is believed to have reduced sales of homeopathic medicine by 500,000 items in the six months after its publication.

But despite some successes, Alexander believes the anti-pseudoscience effort is limited by a lack of prominent figures in its leadership.“Right now, we don’t have a scientist as prominent and famous as [the founder of the Commission against Pseudoscience] Ginzburg in our fight against obscurantism in Russia. There are great people, but none as renowned in scientific and public communities”.

As with many other fields of activism in Russia, progress in the promotion of science is often halting. But Alexander continues because he is fueled by sharing the joy of discovery that he found in his father’s laboratory as a boy. The same fuel that propelled him through his Ph.D. and onto national television screens. Today, Alexander approaches the challenge of sciences popularization through the same curious lens as his scientific endeavors, proclaiming only: “Let’s see!”

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