The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe

Michael D. Gordin, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012), x + 291 pp., $29, ISBN 978-0-226-30442-7.

Immanuel Velikovsky was not the first to seek astronomical explanations for cataclysms on Earth when he published Worlds in Collision in 1950. Isaac Newton’s successor as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, William Whiston, posited a comet as the cause of the flood that sent Noah to his ark. But Princeton history professor Michael Gordin sees the publication of Worlds in Collision as the onset of Cold War pseudoscience, which is the topic of this book. Moreover, Velikovsky’s own massive documentation of his work — 65 linear feet of material now cataloged by Princeton University and available to researchers — enabled Gordin to be especially thorough in treating his subject (65 of the book’s pages are endnotes).

For those wondering how someone with a background in psychoanalysis like Velikovsky could come to develop a set of astronomical explanations for cataclysms in Earth’s recorded history, and a revision of that history that would move the dates of some events 600 years forward from their presently-established dates, Gordin informs us that Worlds in Collision began as a rebuttal to Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. Yet the only historians who challenged Velikovsky’s reconstruction of history were historians of science, and they did so on scientific grounds, as did the community of scientists, whose protests were directed more to publisher Macmillan, lest Macmillian’s publication of Worlds in Collision be interpreted as making the book to appear to be a legitimate work of science.

Velikovsky is best known to the scientific community for his skirmishes with it and his desire to be accepted by it. Gordin argues that Velikovsky also sought vindication for his historical reconstruction as well, by suggesting that Velikovsky was “motivated by a quest to rewrite the history of the ancient Near East so as to reconcile discordances that had some bearing on the history of the Jews” (p. 73), and by writing that “Velikovsky thought his major contribution was in history, not astrophysics” (p. 126). But in the end Velikovsky was never accepted by the scientific or historical communities. In the quest for scientific acceptance, Harry Hess, Albert Einstein, Lloyd Motz, Valentine Bargmann, and William Plummer granted Velikovsky the courtesy of a hearing but not the satisfaction of recognizing his ideas as valid. And radiocarbon dating made Velikovsky’s reconstruction of ancient history untenable.

Velikovsky nevertheless did sell a lot of books, and many readers became enthusiastic supporters, many of them college students. Groups devoted to Velikovsky’s ideas were formed, and similarly-devoted periodicals were published, and the last of Gordin’s six chapters describes these in detail. That some joined the movement in support of Velikovsky for the purpose of furthering their own ideas while others sought to push beyond what Velikovsky had done put Velikovsky in a position of wanting to be both in control of the movement and disassociated from it. Only the British Chronology and Catastrophism Review continues to publish today.

Gordin spends a great deal of his Introduction describing the difficulties of demarcating pseudoscience from science, especially because “Pseudosciences are the products of actions and categorizations made by scientists” (p. 15). Though he finds himself in disagreement with the demarcation criteria of Karl Popper, Irving Langmuir, and Philip Kitcher, he does agree with Martin Gardner that “pseudoscience is a fuzzy word that refers to a vague portion of a continuum on which there are no sharp boundaries” (p. 12). In his Conclusion, subtitled “Pseudoscience in Our Time,” he notes two points along that continuum in addition to the “pseudoscience” exemplified by Velikovsky. The first is studies of science by humanists and social scientists in the “science wars” of the 1990s. The second is denials of mainstream science, such as those described by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt in the cases of tobacco smoke (both primary and secondhand), acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change. Because of their questioning of the premises of mainstream science, humanistic “science studies” are regarded by the scientific community as a greater threat than Velikovskian pseudoscience. “Denialists” are established scientists who, though they may have been co-opted by industry, see themselves as legitimate, and even more legitimate than the scientists they are denying. Denialists see themselves as less threatening to mainstream science as compared with Velikovskian pseudoscience or humanistic studies. One issue which Gordin does not place along this continuum is creationism and “Intelligent Design.” Although the deniers described by Oreskes and Conway are vociferously opposed to creationism, Gordin’s only reference to creationism is to Velikovsky’s interaction with it in his penultimate chapter. Because I feel that denial of climate change and “Intelligent Design” are the two most serious present threats to mainstream science, I would have appreciated a comprehensive consideration of these issues in any discussion of “Pseudoscience in Our Time.”

John L. Roeder
The Calhoun School

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.