Standing Up for Reason: Russian Academia Fights Pseudoscience

Pseudoscience has found a comfortable home in Russia’s “anything goes” culture, and is routinely aided by propaganda and unscrupulous media outlets. But the scientific community has begun to fight back, and is looking at inventive ways to debunk irrational beliefs, non-scientific myths and interpretations. . . .

In 2015, a young team of Moscow-based scientists led by Alexander Panchin and his friend Stanislav Nikolsky launched the Harry Houdini Award project. Their proposition was that the extrasensory industry was bogus, and they called on magicians and psychics to prove them wrong.

Similar to “Battle of the Psychics,” the Houdini Award gives magicians an opportunity to demonstrate otherworldly abilities in a series of experiments. They even offered a reward of 1 million rubles ($12,900) to any person able to demonstrate such skills. Unlike “Battle of the Psychics,” the Houdini Award experiments are strictly scientific, and have removed factors of luck and dishonesty from the contest.

The scientists say anyone who thinks they have paranormal abilities can take part in the Houdini Award contest. When applying, Houdini nominees are asked to list their paranormal talents, and after that the organizing committee designs an experiment to test the claims.

“We can only test supernatural abilities that we can model in the course of an experiment. For example, we can’t test the ability to cure cancer or predict the future,” Nikolsky, co-founder of the project, said.

To win 1 million rubles, a nominee has to successfully complete two experiments — a preliminary one conducted in front of the press, and a final experiment, carried out in front of the experts. In 2015, the Houdini Award team tested five nominees. So far, unsurprisingly enough, no one has passed the preliminary stage.