There is a sad reality to the otherwise hilarious non-time machine "time machine" story that came out of Iran this week: It's making the otherwise legitimate Iranian scientific community look bad, even though it knows—just like you—that the inventor of the world's first functional, laptop-case ready crystal ball is a total quack. We were a bit skeptical in bringing you this strange futuristic tale on Thursday, when we couldn't turn up the actual interview cited by The Telegraph, which reported that Iranian "scientist" Ali Razeghi had developed an iPad-size machine that can "predict five to eight years of the future life of any individual, with 98 percent accuracy."
Of course, nobody in their right mind would believe that the contraption was real. But it was relevant in the context of the world's state of scientific disbelief when it comes to Iran: Beyond the ongoing enrichment program that's apparently ramping up the country's nuclear capabilities, there have been news reports of fake space monkeys and fake fighter jets and drones built by Photoshop, all the product of Iran's notorious propaganda machine. But a closer look at how the state-run media itself covered the would-be time machine reveals that Iran was in on the joke, too—just not those poor actual scientists in Tehran and beyond.
Example A: The Story Was a Tool of Ridicule
That's what news Iranian news agency Tabnak wrote, describing the widespread Western coverage of Razeghi's prediction device, pointing out the liberties outlets took with running with the story. (C'mon, it was just asking for a DeLorean!) Our Google Translate can only get us so far, but it's fair to say that the Telegraph (and a whole bunch of other places) did not take Razeghi's claim at face value. Sometimes you have to dig deeper than a fake scientist:
Example B: No One Should Have Used the Word 'Scientist"'
Well, we wouldn't call Donald Trump or Bill Murray a scientist, right? A reader pointed us out to this story from Iran's Shargh newspaper, containing an actual interview with Razeghi. Again, we're severely handicapped by our dependence on Google Translate, but it turns out Razeghi is a serial inventor, with over 180 patents in 10 years, and he doesn't seem to want to answer any questions about his education:
I'm Ali Razeghi, Director of the Center for Strategic guidance inventions and innovations, and at present I am working on setting up the center. I am 27 years old and about 10 years that I have been working in the field of inventions and innovations.
And educational background ...?
I have about eight years of research experience. And education? I have work experience and study ... often ask me about education, because they do not have to ... I do not ever answer.
If Razeghi were in the U.S. we probably wouldn't have used scientist without quotation marks. But that's still how The Telegraph characterized him in the story that helped the claim go viral—in its headline and its first sentence, which also noted that he had "registered 'The Aryayek Time Traveling Machine' with the state-run Centre for Strategic Inventions." A patent king does not make a scientist.
And About That 'Centre for Strategic Guidance Inventions'
State-run, eh? And he's the director? And that's where the big time machine patent went down? We tried Googling around—albeit in English—for the "Center for Strategic Guidance Inventions and Innovations" before publishing our original story Thursday, and, well, we only found stories related to Razeghi. It wasn't even on the Fars propaganda site where The Telegraph claimed to have picked up the story in the first place. A reader named Anushirvan Khwarazmpour solved that mystery for us, stating that the "strategic" center isn't an official organization at all:
Mr Razeghi (the pseudo-scientist) had merely some claims of invention. He hadclaimed to be “the head of Iran’s Center for Strategic Inventions”. This alleged “center” (“markaz e hedāyat e rāhbordi e mokhtare’in va ebtekārāt e keshvar” = Center for Strategic Orientation of Inventors and Inventions of the Country !) is not an official organisation at all. See e.g. the registration notice (in Persian):
Many people in Iran can register such "center" with fancy titles. Just to make a comparison, look at" Quantum AetherDynamics Institute" for a typical example of American pseudo-science.
Surely, a reporter would not call this (alleged) fancy "institute" and its personnel as "scientists" or "researchers"; otherwise s/he would receive harsh criticism from the American scientific communities ...
So What Now?
Well, that same reader had some insight into the problems facing the scientific community in Iran:
I’d like to emphasize that the burgeoning Iranian scientific community is under tremendous pressure from (at least) two sides: first, the repressive autocratic Islamic regime which aims at its total subjugation (or even, annihilation in the case of modern humanities), and second, the international powers in terms of harsh sanctions, severe limitations on international scientific collaborations and access to research facilities.
That's probably a more useful—though exponentially less humorous—look at the pressures facing Iran's science programs. Maybe the world shouldn't just scoff at "Iran's New Fake Inventions" based on whatever the what Iranian propaganda machine is pumping out this week. That isn't to say that you can't laugh at Iran's junk Photoshop science, but know that at least some Iranians are shaking their heads, too. And if you're looking for humorous real stories, we will always have Ukranian killer dolphins, right?