I think it is fair to say that I wouldn’t be the first to observe that the behaviour of identical twins can often be strangely synchronous. Usually, this mutual mimicry extends to little more than having the same taste in woolly jumpers or sharing career interests – even, perhaps, a shared taste when it comes to choosing sexual partners. However, in the case of the Bogdanoff twins, the self-similarities found new horizons when they contrived to die of the same cause within six days of each other. Tragically, neither twin thought it necessary to vaccinate against Covid-19, and neither twin proved to be beyond the virus’s deadly clutches. Remarkably, however, this example of faithfully coordinated overconfidence is probably the least bizarre aspect of their shared lives. In fact, there is absolutely nothing about the lives of the Bogdanoff twins that comes anywhere near falling within the bounds of the normal.

The Notoriety Gene

It could be argued that, for Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff, Bohemian notoriety was quite literally programmed into their DNA. Born to Maria Dolores Franzyska Kolowrat-Krakowská and the painter, Yuri Mikhaïlovitch Osten-Sacken Bogdanoff, they were actually brought up by their maternal grandmother, Bertha. Bertha was of the noble Kolowrat family of Bohemia and was married to a member of the Austrian princely house of Colloredo-Mannsfeld; however, she fell from grace after becoming pregnant to the African American tenor Roland Hayes. As a result of this scandal she was forced to forfeit access to her four elder children and all of her palatial homes. Even so, it was she rather than her illegitimate daughter who would go on to bring up Igor and Grichka.

Despite or because of this unconventional background, the Bogdanoff twins went on to find fame within France as dual hosts of a number of TV programmes that provided a heady cocktail of science and science fiction.1 Nevertheless, fame and fortune proved insufficient to satisfy the genetic birthright of the Bogdanoff twins – to live up to Bertha’s legacy they needed to spice up their lives with a little notoriety. Whether by design or accident, they achieved this, courtesy of the so-called Bogdanoff Affair.

A Case of the Reverse Sokal

It all started when the Bogdanoff twins sought to bolster their credibility by gaining suitably impressive academic qualifications. To that end, Grichka gained a PhD in mathematics from the University of Burgundy and, not to be outdone, Igor obtained a PhD in theoretical physics from, naturally enough, the same place. To cement their academic careers the twins published a series of five papers in peer-reviewed journals.2 And that is where the controversy started.

In October 2002 an email was sent by University of Tours physicist Max Niedermaier to University of Pittsburgh physicist Ezra T. Newman, pointing out that the papers appeared to comprise nothing more than “delightfully meaningless combinations of buzzwords taken from string theory”. The concern was that the papers had been written as a hoax, along the lines of Alan Sokal’s infamous effort that had fooled supposedly respectable journals specialising in cultural studies.3 It would appear that deficiencies in the peer review process were just as much a problem in mathematics and physics as they were in the ‘softer’ scientific subjects.

Discussion of the papers rapidly became a big deal on the internet, with some individuals defending the papers whilst others were not only derisive of the twins’ efforts but also of the system that granted them their PhDs and published their papers. The twins denied that they had set out to hoax anyone, leading some to dub their efforts a ‘Reverse Sokal’, meaning that no hoax may have been intended but the peer review system had shot itself in the foot nevertheless.

The controversy continues to this day, although the best informed views do tend to be on the side that dismisses the papers as meaningless gobbledygook. For example, luminaries such as physicists David Gross, Carlo Rovelli, and Lee Smolin have all declared the Bogdanoff papers to be nonsensical. Indeed, in 2010 an official report from the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) concluded that the papers “cannot in any way be considered a scientific contribution“, before adding that, “These theses have no scientific value…Rarely have we seen a hollow work dressed with such sophistication.” 

Rather than placing themselves at the heart of scientific respectability, all the Bogdanoff twins had succeeded in doing was to demonstrate that, at heart, even the most prestigious of scientific subjects can be tainted by poor quality work that is getting through peer review. And yet all of this could have been avoided if journal editors had heeded the opinions of one particular peer reviewer:4

“It would take up too much space to enumerate all the mistakes: indeed it is difficult to say where one error ends and the next begins.”

But the Bogdanoff twins were not finished yet. There was still scope for them to dig themselves a bigger hole.

The phoney professors

In response to what the Bogdanoff twins saw as defamation of character, there followed a series of court cases with varying results. When they could be bothered to turn up in court, they enjoyed some success, albeit much to the chagrin of a scientific community that couldn’t see how the law can arbitrate on matters of scientific merit. However, the legal avenue did little to restore the academic reputation of the Bogdanoff twins, and so they resorted to a different approach. Perhaps their critics could be cowered into silence if Igor and Grichka were to become fully tenured professors.

One morning in 2005 the world woke up to discover that the twins had been appointed professors of cosmology at the Megatrend University, Serbia.5 As such they were in charge of the Megatrend Laboratory of Cosmology, which sounds very prestigious until one realises that no such laboratory exists. But what can one expect when someone is taken on by a university run by a rector that was ultimately forced to resign for having claimed he had an economics PhD from the London School of Economics when that institution had never even heard of him? The fact is that Megatrend University was a diploma mill that would give anyone a degree or a staff position if they paid enough money. Suffice it to say, the arrangement with the Bogdanoff twins was mutually beneficial – the twins got some academic kudos whilst the university obtained a couple of high profile staff members who didn’t even need to be paid a salary.

A new image

By now the twins had established such a reputation for eccentricity, and had courted so much controversy, that changing their physical appearance to look like aliens seemed a natural thing to do. And so they both pursued a course of plastic surgery that raised their cheekbones and extended their chins to extremes that could only be described as alarming. Of course, true to character, they categorically denied that any plastic surgery was involved, and referred instead to mysterious ‘high level technologies’ that they were pioneering. No doubt the additional notoriety suited the twins down to the ground as they continued their high profile lifestyles, causing a ‘stir around the world’ whenever they turned up to a prestigious event. In some ways, therefore, professing to possess a superhuman immune system that was impervious to Covid-19 was all part of the game – in life, as in their academic work, it was difficult to see where one error ended and another one began.

The Bogdanoff Legacy

The Bogdanoff twins did not just encourage conspiracy theories, their whole lives were based upon the theme of conspiracy and the blurring of the line between science and fiction. In their terms, they were hugely successful and even managed to die in splendid thematic synchrony. But what can we say regarding their true legacy? Such was their fame and notoriety that the internet is now awash with memes (some of which were started by the twins themselves) that attest to a superhuman existence.6 Indeed, when reading them, one is reminded of the introductions that the Stig enjoyed on Top Gear:

  • Some say that nation states entrusted their gold reserves with the twins and that they learned to speak fluent french in under a week.
  • Some say that they owned 99% of DNA editing research facilities in the world and even the Rothschilds would bow down before them.
  • Some say that they invented cryptocurrency and they were in regular contact with the archangels Michael and Gabriel.
  • And some say that they owned Nanobot research labs around the world and that you are likely already to have Bogdabots inside your body.

All we know is that they were called the Bogdanoff twins7 – RIP.

Notes:

[1] Of particular note were the ten years they spent hosting the science fiction programme Temps X.

[2] In Igor’s case, having three papers published was also a condition of him obtaining his PhD.

[3] Alan Sokal is probably best known for his hoax since it remains a favourite scandal amongst those who are keen to point out how little value can really be placed in the fact that a paper has been peer reviewed. The Bogdanoff Affair serves a similar purpose.

[4] This was Eli Hawkins, acting as a referee on behalf of the Journal of Physics A.

[5] Megatrend University is the fourth largest university in Serbia. Founded in 1989, it currently boasts over 3,500 students.

[6] Bogdanoff memes are not intended to be taken seriously. A good list can be found here.

[7] We don’t even know that. Some say they should be referred to as the Bogdanov twins.

14 Comments

  1. Fascinating. Even when memes are blatantly false, they are persistent because many still believe them. Like scientology. In fact, the more blatantly false the better, maybe, as all the strong cultural narratives are essentially complete fairy-tales. Not heard of these guys before, but it looks like before their demise they had one area of study genuinely under their belt, how to design the best memes!

    Like

  2. They say that fact is stranger than fiction, and in this case it seems to be. Thanks for this strange tale, John. Never a dull moment at Cliscep.

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  3. Andy,

    I suspect that most of the memes are tongue-in-cheek but the same cannot be said for the Bogdanoff Affair. I first came across it in relationship to string theory and I didn’t immediately make the link when I read of their deaths. They just struck me as a fascinating pair and well worthy of my first attempts to write an obituary.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Weird post – is that post photo real ?

    have followed string theory,dark matter etc for years, can’t help but think “when you don’t know the answer just say so”

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  5. Dfhunter,

    “when you don’t know the answer just say so”

    It is interesting to note what the two gentlemen who approved Igor and Grichka’s theses have said since. Firstly, for Igor:

    “All these were ideas that could possibly make sense. It showed some originality and some familiarity with the jargon. That’s all I ask.”

    And in the case of Grichka:

    “I had given a favorable opinion for Grichka’s defense, based on a rapid and indulgent reading of the thesis text. Alas, I was completely mistaken. The scientific language was just an appearance behind which hid incompetence and ignorance of even basic physics.”

    The problem is one of quality control in the world of academia – see my earlier article, “The Plover and the Crocodile”. When technical subjects are involved, it can be difficult for a non-qualified quality controller to arbitrate. Peer review is supposed to eradicate that problem but clearly it does not.

    The same problem arises when the lay public has to judge who is right when they see two experts arguing over a technical subject such as climate change. Gavin Schmidt once famously declared that climate sceptics only superficially appear to know what they are talking about but, unfortunately, this is often enough to fool the public. Once again, it is worth noting how easily even so-called experts can be fooled. No one likes to admit that they just don’t know.

    And yes, the photo is for real.

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  6. Wow. Their deaths were big news here in France, but I didn’t know any of that. They were very famous for appearing on talk shows, and apparently were good “vulgarisateurs” of science. (There’s nothing vulgar about vulgarising something – it just means popularising it by explaining it in simple terms for the plebs.) I thought they were just Brian Cox seen in a fairground hall of mirrors.

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  7. Geoff,

    Yes, as I’ve said before, I only knew of the name in the context of the Bogdanoff Affair in physics, and had absolutely no idea that they had such a high profile in France. Their deaths caught the attention in the UK but only, I think, because of the Covid-19 angle. As I read into their background it just seemed to get increasingly bizarre. Telling their story was too much of a temptation to resist, though I should say that the Bogdanoff Affair remains the most relevant aspect as far as this site should be concerned. Over at ATTP there has been much righteous indignation that certain academics have been suggesting that a bit of science denial might not be such a bad thing:

    https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2021/12/27/maybe-a-little-science-denial-is-actually-in-order/

    My article can be read as a counterpoint to the ATTP protests.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. John – thanks for the ATTP link – liked the end
    “Addendum:

    After writing this post, I came across a blog post by Sylvia Tognetti called Revisiting Post-Normal Science in Post-Normal Times & Identifying Cranks. At the end of the post is a link to a much longer article which discusses how post-normal science either appears to have been made for the denialist crowd, or has been hijacked by them. It presents a number of examples where post-normal scholars seem to have either promoted arguments that are similar to those being promoted by the denialist crowd, or where post-normal science has failed to distinguish between those engaging in good-faith disagreements and those acting in bad-faith.”

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  9. ps – Andy or John can comment on “good-faith disagreements and those acting in bad-faith.”

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  10. Dfhunter,

    Amongst those who comment regularly at ATTP there does seem to be a lot of antipathy towards Science and Technology Studies, with more than a hint that it harbors climate change denier sympathisers. So it isn’t just a case of the STS guys being unable to identify the bad actors, it is also a question of them being bad actors themselves. To my mind, their preoccupation with STS is a bit of an excuse for an interdisciplinary spat between academics and it somewhat misses the point. When all is said and done, the issue is just one of quality management and whether academics generally, and scientists in particular, are doing a good enough job of it. Also, I don’t think the average scientists can be assumed to understand how decision-making under uncertainty operates in practice. If these are concerns enough to warrant a bit of science denial, I say so be it. However, there is tendency over at ATTP to declare anyone who disagrees with their opinions to be engaging in a bad faith disagreement, so if professionals were to argue from the quality management and decision analysis standpoint they are also likely to stand accused of bad faith disagreement. In fact, that is exactly how they treated me.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “After writing this post, I came across a blog post by Sylvia Tognetti called Revisiting Post-Normal Science in Post-Normal Times & Identifying Cranks.”

    When one identifies those who disagree with various scientific orthodoxies as ‘cranks’ (an individualistic pathological shortfall), one has lost the thread already. The literature on ‘denialism’ is unfortunately full of same, along with the not much better ‘nefarious and systemic lying’ aka bad faith that is so often flung about, and indeed at John per above. Yet clearly there are far more fundamental things going on than this regarding bulk scepticism, for instance the ~45% of US citizens that don’t believe in evolution are most certainly neither cranks nor systemic liars. That there is an *innate* or instinctive scepticism bequeathed to us by evolution is rarely recognised. Which means it’s frequently confused with rational or scientific scepticism in some circumstances, and ‘crankiness’ or whatever in others. And it’s never recognised that this motivation can sometimes be perfectly apt, triggered by cultural elements or group-think that is only dressed-up as science, and sometimes can be completely inapt, triggered by the flat and inarguable certainty of replicable science that *looks* to the instinctive detection mechanism to be like a cultural consensus, when it is not. Society lauds public (i.e, inexpert) scepticism that eventually helps to turn over wrong or outdated dead-weight consensuses, which hold back progress, and heavily stigmatizes public (i.e. inexpert) scepticism that impedes scientific advance / spread with inappropriate resistance. But they both come from the same behaviour! And whether innate scepticism, or rational scepticism based on knowledge, and notwithstanding corporate scams have occurred, most objections still have nothing do with either ‘crankiness’ or nefarious lying / bad faith. Much of the literature on denialism is riddled with the kind of rhetoric that is often held up as ‘proof’ of bad faith, and some of the folks producing this literature have on occasional been called out for their own ‘bad faith’ by other experts in their home fields, even from people *on the same side* in their own field. Essentially, denialism or bad faith is just a meaningless stigmatisation that anyone can throw at anyone, avoiding both the actual topic issues and what also what, generically, really motivates (different types of) scepticism.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Andy,

    I agree entirely. The ‘arguing in bad faith’ accusation is the sort of general prejudice that the accusers usually claim to be above. It’s similar to the problem of cognitive bias – something that by definition affects us all but in practice is deemed only to afflict the sceptic. The fact is that such vices and frailties are universal and so cannot be used by one group to characterize the other. So when I see such accusations being made, I tend to suspect that a substantive argument is being avoided in preference for a bit of ingroup/outgroup distancing.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. PS. Another thing to bear in mind is this. It is often said that one should play the ball and not the man. However, one is absolved of this obligation if by playing the man one can claim the ball doesn’t exist.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. PPS. I should have said “However, one can persuade oneself that one is absolved…”

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