Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Pseudo-Science Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe”

Pseudo-Science WarsThe Pseudo-Science Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. By Michael D. Gordin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Introduction, acknowledgments, abbreviations and archives, illustrations, notes, index. 291 pp. ISBN: 978-0-226-30442-6. Hardcover with dustjacket, $29.00 USD.

Virtually no one under the age of 45 has ever heard of Immanuel Velikovsky; almost everyone over 45 has heard of him, has an opinion about his ideas, and still discusses these ideas among themselves, at least once in a while. Velikovsky published in 1950 the path-breaking, but crackpot book, Worlds in Collision, a work that created a storm controversy both in the scientific community and among the general public.

Scientists criticized Velikovsky’s ideas as pseudoscience, and condemned them as being without foundation. His supporters were legion, however, and agreed with him that “The historical-cosmological story of this book is based in the evidence of historical texts of many people around the globe, on classical literature, on epics of the northern races, on sacred books of the peoples of the Orient and Occident, on traditions and folklore of primitive peoples, on old astronomical inscriptions and charts, on archaeological finds, and also on geological and paleontological material” (Worlds in Collision, preface).

In Worlds in Collision Velikovsky argued that about the 1500 BCE, Jupiter expelled from its core a wandering body that passed one of more times near Earth, changed Earth’s axis, orbit, and climate, and then settled into a stable orbit around the Sun where it became known as Venus. Numerous catastrophes recorded in myth, legend, and history, according to Velikovsky, resulted from this close encounter with a wandering Venus. The claims offered in the book found virtually no support in the scientific community; they were denounced in the most virulent terms in periodicals and from the podiums of many scientific meetings. Carl Sagan even took time in his classic Cosmos miniseries in 1980 to debunk Velikovsky’s ideas.

The position of the scientific community was well expressed by Harrison Brown in 1955: “All the defenses of Velikovsky’s views that have come to my attention have been written by nonscientists unfamiliar with the facts. Many of the defenders appear to believe that scientific arguments can be won with rhetoric or by taking a public poll and assessing how many persons are ‘for’ a d how many are ‘against’ the theory” (p. 106).

This debate, which raged for decades, died down after Velikovsky’s death in 1979 and the theory expressed in Worlds in Collision is a footnote of the history of science. Michael D. Gordin, a talented historian at Princeton University, uses this story to illuminate a key issue in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. How do we separate science—whether good, moderate, or bad—from theories that might have the accoutrements of science but are something else altogether? In other words, how to we know that some idea is scientific or pseudoscientific?

Some pseudoscience might be outright cases of fraud; such was not the case with Velikovsky who firmly believed he had found the answer a broad range of disasters, etc., recorded in various legends around the world. He presented a rationale argument, at least for many people and used everyone to read his book and make up their own mind. For the scientists he suggested they either disprove his theories—which were non-scientific and therefore non-testable—or teach the controversy. Sound familiar?

Rather than a sustained analysis of the Velikovsky affair, although there is more than enough of that in The Pseudo-Science Wars, Gordin uses it as a touchstone to explore other debates over scientific theory, or pseudo-scientific ideas, focusing on Freudian psychology, Lysenkoism, creationism, global warming deniers, and other related issues.

This raises the fascinating question that Gordin seeks to understand, where is the demarcation point between science and pseudoscience? I am more convinced than ever after reading this book that Justice Potter Stewart was right, when asked how to define obscenity, he could not do so but he knew it when he saw it. Astrology and phrenology were once respected scientific pursuits; few still believe they have anything to offer other than a mildly amusing diversion.

Likewise, cryptozoology is considered a pseudoscience involving the search for new species of animals thought to exist but which have not been found. The searches for Bigfoot, Yeti, or Chupacabra are often cited as examples of such silliness. Yet, scientists discover new species regularly—mostly they are microbial but recently the Tapirus kabomani was identified. It is a large pig-like mammal, which reaches a length of 4 ft., weighs about 243 lbs., and lives in the Amazon. In such an environment is cryptozoology a pseudoscience or not?

These are the core issues Gordin wrestles with in this fine book. Velikovsky’s theories, while riveting and strangely attractive, bore no relationship to anything that might be considered a scientific theory. Whether he was right or not concerning his ideas is unknown, and unknowable.

In that sense it is very much like the new creationism, which is neither testable nor resolvable one way or another. Gordin makes an important point at the end of his book. “Fringe theories proliferate because the status of science is high and is something worthy of imitating. They are a sign of health, not disease” (p. 210).

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Pseudo-Science Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe”

  1. mike shupp says:

    And next to Veloikovsky were the books on Atlantis and Lemuria and flying saucers. And water dowsing and Edgar Cayce and theosophy.

    Damn! Reading was such fun when I was a kid. What has happened to us all?


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