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Dejan Vinković

Science and Society Synergy Institute
Bana Jospia Jelacica 22B
40000 Cakovec, Croatia
e-mail: dejan_at_iszd.hr
Mind Exercises
March 2013
My interview with La Libre Belgique

La Libre Belgique asked me about pseudoscience in Croatia. Here you can find the complete interview. The published version is here: WWW, scan (a short version translated in Croatian: "Sekte i gurui prodiru u hrvatske institucije").

Q: How did pseudoscience practice get so much power? Do they give money to public services to get their support?

This question perplexed me for a long time because I assumed that people running public services are capable of understanding dangers of pseudoscience infiltrating their institutions. Under these assumptions bribes would be the only way how to introduce such practices. But the reality of what is actually happening is far more disturbing: people who believe in various aspects of pseudoscience hold all kinds of public offices without consequences when those beliefs shape their decisions. Dangers of pseudoscience are almost completely ignored in Croatia, despite warnings from the Council of Europe and international organizations that document such dangers. So, the question becomes - why is the Croatian society so oblivious to such practices? How come that the Croatian public television finances and publicly defends pseudoscience shows and anti-vaccination documentaries, without any reaction from institutions that oversee their work?

Q: Do you have a story to illustrate those facts? An instance of a patient who suffered from such pseudoscience practice? (to make the problem easier to understand)

There are, for example, documented cases of parents endangering the health of their kids because they believe in various pseudoscientific health theories. But probably the most extensively documented case of the failure of the state to sanction the use of medical quackery happened three years ago when the head-master of an elementary school spent a considerable amount of money on quackery health products. They were supposed to keep the school children and teachers from getting cancer and protect them from non-ionizing radiation, "negative energy" of human thoughts, magic, spiritual entities, bewitchment, etc. Such a practice is clearly illegal for public servants under the Croatian Law, but the official investigation by the Ministry of Science, Education and Sport yielded shocking reports - the inspectors concluded that the head-master did not break the law because the "inventor" of these products had a certificate issued by HUPED (Croatian Federation for Natural, Energy and Spiritual Medicine). HUPED is a society of practitioners of quackery medicine or unconventional medicine. HUPED is just a non-governmental organization and its certificates are legally void. The school board did not accept the Ministry's reports and eventually fired the head-master, who then sued the school. The case is still in the court.

Q: How can we know who is corrupted and who is not? Can we still trust the health system and even the government?

I think we still can trust the health system, but I am not sure that the general public shares this view. Cases of corruption, malpractice, and the rising cost of health services undermine this trust. On the other hand, even though medical quackery is sanctioned by the Criminal Law, quackery is a flourishing business because the law is seldom enforced. When it comes to government, surveys show a very low trust in political institutions, but also a very low trust in other people. This situation is ideal for individuals who prey on the people's desire for simple answers and seemingly cheap alternatives. The economic crisis accelerated these trends.

Q: How do you explain the success of HUPED?

I think their success comes from three coexisting factors. First, they have sympathizers in various public offices. Second, pseudoscience is not recognized by policy makers and academic sector as a serious threat. And third, the academic sector, which should react by default, is still struggling with the notion of their engagement in public debates on science topics, because of a strong tradition that "real" scientists are suppose to avoid public engagement. This is why we have a situation that one medical doctor promotes her anti-vaccination pseudoscientific book without any serious public opposition, while the Croatian Medical Chamber defends her "right for a different opinion", instead of revoking her licence. Or a university rector (a physicist by profession) who claims that dowsing used by employees in his office who searched for "negative energies" is beyond his expertise and he cannot comment on it, even though the Labour Law dictates the protocol on protection of employees' health. There are many examples like these.

Q: Which group is the most powerful in Croatia? Scientology?

We do not have exact data to answer this question. No one actually cares to look into it.

Q: You said "We are witnessing pseudoscience hijacking the mainstream political debate on public health issues". How is that possible? How do they do concretely to hijack the debate?

A strange trend emerged in recent years. The Catholic Church is by far the largest and the most influential religious institution. It also has a very clear stand against the New Age practice, expressed in the document "A Christian reflection on the New Age" published by Vatican in 2003. Indeed, at one moment they were the only serious opposition to HUPED. The Catholic Church in Croatia has supported science and scientific advancements. But now pseudoscience is glorified by the Croatian clergy in their political war against the current government who introduced sex education in schools. They traded their legitimate stand based on their moral matrix for a hard core pseudoscience. The public conflict full of mischaracterizations of science erupted like never before. This happened on the top of a persistent promotion of pseudoscience in Croatian media.

Q: What solutions could be taken to stop the confusion within the Croatian academic sector? How can we inform people if even the academic sector and the national television do not understand the threat?

I do not know. An average citizen is not exposed to any source of information that would help him or her learn how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. At the same time, we expect from people to make rational decision on issues that require some basic scientific literacy. I expect things to get much worse before they start getting better. The only hope is that the EU institutions will force Croatia to adopt more advanced methods of policy making to start behaving more responsibly.

Q: What are the origins of the problem? I know the first group was groups (e.g: New Age) arrived in Croatia in the 80's. But why did they come to Croatia? Is it because Croatia was in transition and political instability?

When these trends arrived to ex-Yugoslavia, the political system was quite stable under the communist regime. The regime was also often quite repressive against medical quackery or similar practices. But in a democratic society this process has to be more cautions to balance between rights of individuals and illegal dangerous practices. In Croatia no one cared to oversee this process and this left an open gate to various predatory groups.