Petrikgate

A big scandal is going on in Russia. An inventor with no scientific degree and no serious scientific publications may receive a huge part of taxpayers’ money allocated to the national program called “Clean Water”. The total cost of this program would be 15 trillion rubles (500 billion dollars), and the money can be spent to buy water filters created by the inventor, for them to be placed in Russian kindergartens, schools, polyclinics, and other public places.

The inventor, Victor Petrik, claims that these filters have a capacity to make almost any kind of water drinkable. But many scientists are skeptical about these claims.

In December 2009, members of the Science Journalists Club (an informal association of Russian science writers, of which I am a member) wrote an open letter to the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). They compared Victor Petrik to infamous Trofim Lysenko — unorthodox researcher in the Stalin era whose activities ended up in oppressing genetics in the USSR. In this letter, Petrik is referred to as a would-be scientific wheeler-dealer, and the management of RAS is called on to make a thorough examination of Petrik’s inventions. More than 90 people (including science journalists, scientists and all who care) signed the letter, and the list is still growing.

RAS’s management that at first didn’t seem to be willing to take any part in the scandal, had to react. Yury Osipov, president of RAS, asked the head of the academic Anti-Pseudoscience Committee, Eduard Krugliakov, to sort out the issue.

The issue, though, is not easy to sort out. Inventor Victor Petrik is strongly supported by the speaker of Russian Parliament — Boris Gryzlov. Gryzlov is even indicated as a co-author of one of Petrik’s inventions. The symbol of the Russian ruling party — United Russia — is there in the upper right corner of the official web site of Victor Petrik’s company (www.goldenformula.net).

Boris Gryzlov doesn’t only support Petrik in his inventive work, but also defends him towards scientists. The words our speaker said at one of the innovation conferences at the end of last month are probably the brightest political event of the recent weeks. “Unfortunately, many initiatives face obstacles in the form of the Russian Academy of Sciences or bureaucracy, Gryzlov said. I even know there is an Anti-Pseudoscience Committee at RAS. This really makes me wonder: how can they take responsibility and determine what pseudoscience is and what it is not? This is a kind of obscurantism”.

It is worth noting that this “obscurant” Committee was created by the Nobel Prize winner Vitaly Ginzburg to fight numerous fake scientists who appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its present-day chairman, physicist Eduard Krugliakov, does his best to resist fake science in Russia. The Committee doesn’t have any means to prevent pseudoscientific activities, but it criticizes research and projects they consider pseudoscientific, and produces a regular bulletin “In defense of science”.

“I don’t think we should go back to the Middle Ages and create an inquisition,” Boris Gryzlov also said at the same day. Instead he probably implies it’s better to just try and give taxpayers’ money to Victor Petrik. Who, among other things, claims to have invented eternal batteries that take energy from the environment, ways to create precious stones, has discovered the secret of Stradivary violins, and so on. Another interesting thing is that, according to his official biography, Petrik was charged with fraud, blackmail, attempted robbery, etc. in the year 1984, and stayed in prison until 1989.

When trying to understand why something like this would happen in Russia it’s probably worth to remember Victor Petrik’s words that he said at the XXI International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg in June 2008, referring to his inventions: “Don’t try to understand anything! It’s impossible to understand! As soon as you try to use knowledge, you’ll misfire… you’ll fail!”

When Science Journalism meets Citizen Journalism

This article was written by Chao-Ping Hong (Taiwan), a Master student in the science journalism course at Delft University of Technology. Her assignment was to write an opinion article about the influence of citizen journalism on science journalism. I hope her fresh take will inspire you.

Twitter, hyperlinks, comments. Type, click, and send.  Without doubt, the evolution of technologies has brought us to a new media era, one that says “citizen journalism.”

From climate change to nanotechnology, bio food to energy plants, citizen journalism is shaking and shaping the structure of traditional science journalism. When discussing the risks and opportunities of citizen journalism with regard to science journalism, we, as science journalists, should rethink the nature and objectives of science journalism. “Should we question whether there has been a paradigm shift in the dominant belief system?” asked Denis Ruellan in “To think ‘citizen journalism’”.

The answer would definitely be yes. In fact, there seems to be various critical challenges as well as opportunities when it comes to citizen journalism, where neutrality and objectivity are most often questioned and discussed.

But, as science journalists, we shouldn’t regard citizen journalism as a threat. We should see it rather as a reinforcement which will bring forth opportunities in the re-creation of science journalism.

Engaging Participation
When we look at science journalism from a communication angle, citizen journalism can certainly inspire public participation of science. Take blogging as an example. The gathered force of human powers is creating dynamic agendas to meet the public’s demand to learn, understand and talk about science.

“Blogs offer a diverse range of sources and contributing citizen commentators, which is not possible through modern corporate mainstream outlets”, said Dr. Linda Kenix in “Blogs as Alternative”. Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU, says in his weblog PressThink that blogging provides freedom of the press sphere, creating an “open” system to everyone. With the alliance of citizen journalism, science and technology information would become more closely related to people’s lives, initiating and engaging more participants in discussions of science.

Generating Perspectives
Furthermore, citizen journalism could easily crack down the “hard science” to a wider spectrum of topics. The variety of opinions in citizen journalism could place science in a more ethical, social perspective, whereas traditional coverage of science news is mainly focused on technical views and factual details.

At ethics forums, heated discussions and debates spark over controversial issues such as nanotechnology, life-science, robotics, etc. Also, through comments and real-time feedbacks, readers have equal opportunities to react to technology issues, such as the government’s change of policy in the regulation of CO2 consumption or implementation of nuclear power plants.

Our Roles in the Re-creation of Science Journalism
Citizen journalism is a rapidly growing phenomenon that will inevitable challenge the nature of science journalism. Thus, as science journalists, embracing citizen journalism and its opportunities also means that we have to adapt ourselves to this paradigm shift intelligently.

We will have to learn to encompass and also filter out various sources efficiently in the dynamic information era, be familiarized with different means of media (forums, blogs, etc.), equip ourselves continuously with scientific knowledge, and be fully prepared to meet feedbacks from enthusiastic readers.

Most of all, we should always be thinking and practicing the important elements: objectivity and neutrality, with open perspectives and passions in communicating science to our readers.

When science journalism meets citizen journalism, it’s time for us to seek the potentials and opportunities in the re-creation of science journalism.