The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringeby Michael D. Gordin
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Properly analyzed, the collective mythological and religious writings of humanity reveal that around 1500 BC, a comet swept perilously close to Earth, triggering widespread natural disasters and threatening the destruction of all life before settling into solar orbit as Venus, our nearest planetary neighbor. Sound implausible? Well, from 1950 until the late 1970s, a huge number of people begged to differ, as they devoured Immanuel Velikovsky’s major best-seller, Worlds in Collision, insisting that perhaps this polymathic thinker held the key to a new science and a new history. Scientists, on the other hand, assaulted Velikovsky’s book, his followers, and his press mercilessly from the get-go. In The Pseudoscience Wars, Michael D. Gordin resurrects the largely forgotten figure of Velikovsky and uses his strange career and surprisingly influential writings to explore the changing definitions of the line that separates legitimate scientific inquiry from what is deemed bunk, and to show how vital this question remains to us today. Drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished material from Velikovsky’s personal archives, Gordin presents a behind-the-scenes history of the writer’s career, from his initial burst of success through his growing influence on the counterculture, heated public battles with such luminaries as Carl Sagan, and eventual eclipse. Along the way, he offers fascinating glimpses into the histories and effects of other fringe doctrines, including creationism, Lysenkoism, parapsychology, and more—all of which have surprising connections to Velikovsky’s theories. Science today is hardly universally secure, and scientists seem themselves beset by critics, denialists, and those they label “pseudoscientists”—as seen all too clearly in battles over evolution and climate change. The Pseudoscience Wars simultaneously reveals the surprising Cold War roots of our contemporary dilemma and points readers to a different approach to drawing the line between knowledge and nonsense.
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THE PSEUDOSCIENCE WARSIMMANUEL VELIKOVSKY and the Birth of the Modern Fringe
By Michael D. Gordin
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Grand Collision of Spring 1950
During the first few months of 1950, it seemed that American scientists had completely lost their heads. Were they apprehensive at the announcement of President Harry S. Truman on January 31 that the United States would undertake a crash program to develop a hydrogen bomb, launching the thermonuclear age? Was it the shock of the arrest on February 2 in Great Britain of German-born physicist Klaus Fuchs for wartime espionage at the Manhattan Project, whose secrets he had shared with the Soviet Union? Or perhaps anxiety about the February 9 speech of the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, in Wheeling, West Virginia, in which he declared that he had a list of card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the State Department, and some of those he named were prominent scientists?
Not exactly. The uproar was over a book that had not even been published yet. The initial agitation began in January and concerned the advance press for a trade book due to appear in April from the Macmillan Company, at the time the most distinguished publisher of scientific works (especially textbooks) in the nation. It was entitled Worlds in Collision, by a man named Immanuel Velikovsky. This text does not lend itself to being summarized without a significant degree of distortion. Writing in the 1980s, Velikovsky critic Henry Bauer noted that it was impossible to condense the book "in a completely unbiased fashion; one selects what seems most significant, and opinions about what that is will inevitably differ." In a somewhat higher register, Velikovsky for the rest of his life resisted all attempts to represent any of his books' arguments in brief, and especially not that of Worlds in Collision. As he noted in his memoir of the events discussed in this chapter (published posthumously in the 1980s): "I cannot compress Worlds in Collision any more than it is in its present form in a book—there I have not left a sentence that I deemed superfluous." Indeed, the first fusillades were launched not by the book but by summaries, serializations, and condensations. A few decades ago, a writer on Veli kov sky could expect that almost everyone had read or heard of Worlds in Collision—for then it seemed that everyone had. Now, as in 1950, we begin with a précis.
"This book is written for the instructed and uninstructed alike," Velikovsky declared on the first page of his preface. "No formula and no hieroglyphic will stand in the way of those who set out to read it. If, occasionally, historical evidence does not square with formulated laws, it should be remembered that a law is but a deduction from experience and experiment, and therefore laws must conform with historical facts, not facts with laws." This was the central claim of Worlds in Collision: that if one examined the global store of myths—Chinese, Mayan, South Asian, Norse, Aztec, but principally those legends of the ancient Near East, and especially those presented in the Hebrew Bible—one found repeated, and disturbing, patterns. Over and over again, the chronicles referred to a rain of fire, to battles in the heavens, to extended days or extended nights, catastrophic floods, barrages of stones from above, earthquakes, and so on. "The events were called miracles and were explained as subjective apperceptions or as symbolic descriptions because they could not be otherwise accounted for," but Velikovsky posed the hypothesis, and then claimed he had demonstrated as fact, that something had indeed happened to Earth, a series of global catastrophes that remained metaphorically veiled within the collective literary heritage of humanity. If one finds a correlation among many different peoples, there are several logical explanations: it could just be coincidence, or perhaps a case of diffusion, the story spreading from a single origin point. But Velikovsky opted for a third alternative: "In more than this one instance it is possible to show that peoples, separated even by broad oceans, have described some spectacle in similar terms. These were pageants, projected against the celestial screen, that, a few hours after they were seen in India, appeared over Nineveh, Jerusalem, and Athens, shortly thereafter over Rome and Scandinavia, and a few hours later over the lands of the Mayas and Incas."
What were these pageants, a light word to describe something represented as horrifically destructive in these fragmentary reports (if indeed they were reports)? Velikovsky presented his argument as three nested claims, each more specific than the last: "(1) that there were physical upheavals of a global character in historical times; (2) that these catastrophes were caused by extraterrestrial agents; and (3) that these agents can be identified." After presenting a fascinating montage of extracts of legends from around the world, pointing to the common symptoms of this global onslaught, he reached his first conclusion: sometime around 1500 B.C., at the moment of the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt under Moses's leadership, a massive comet was ejected from the body of Jupiter and hurtled toward Earth. It became trapped in a gravitational but also electromagnetic interaction with the planet, rupturing its crust, tilting its axis, and showering meteors on the population. It then stayed in an unstable interaction with Earth for several decades before finally settling into an orbit around the sun. "Under the weight of many arguments," Velikovsky wrote, "I came to the conclusion—about which I no longer have any doubt—that it was the planet Venus, at the time still a comet, that caused the catastrophe of the days of Exodus."
The ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, even manna from heaven, all of these things were true—they just were not miracles. ("Of course, there is no person who can [part the Red Sea], and no staff with which it can be done.") They were natural phenomena, the results of this catastrophe that nearly destroyed Earth. An event so terrifying, so cataclysmic, would of course be remembered in the oral legends of the world's peoples, and in the case of the ancient Hebrews became the central event of their monotheistic religion. Venus was the goddess of rebirth in the ancient world, the newcomer, Lucifer, the angel of destruction. (In Greek myth, Velikovsky was careful to identify the planet Venus with Athena, who burst fully formed from the head of her father, Zeus, instead of with Aphrodite, goddess of love.) For almost four hundred pages, Velikovsky laid out his evidence for this Venus catastrophe, as well as another near collision of Venus with Earth, this time caused by a Mars displaced by the Venus-Earth interaction, chronicled, according to Velikovsky, as the struggle between Athena and Ares in Homer's Iliad and as a series of calamities in the book of Isaiah. In its wake, due to a change in the length of the year, global calendrical reforms ensued between 747 and 697 B.C. He begged only one indulgence from the reader: he used an unconventional chronology when he synchronized Egyptian history with the events of the Hebrew Bible, which he promised he would defend in a subsequent work.
The book was, and remains, an enthralling read. It also required, to account for the events described—near collisions of planets, comets the size of Venus, the transformation of a hydrocarbon/petroleum tail of the comet into carbohydrate manna for the Israelites—outright contraventions or at least severe modifications of the conventional understandings of celestial mechanics, physics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, and biology. Astronomers could explain the solar system with astonishing precision using a series of gravitational equations that could not accommodate the shenanigans of planetary bodies, and many also claimed there was an unbroken chain of eclipses going back to the third millennium B.C., which excluded shifts in the poles or the orbital orientation of Earth. This was a book that courted controversy—and controversy it found. Scientists from numerous disciplines wrote both publicly and privately, excoriating the content of Velikovsky's theory and, especially, the publisher who lent to a man they perceived as delusional the imprimatur of Macmillan's respected name. This was one of the greatest publishing scandals of the postwar period, and it triggered the pseudo science wars. The tone and volume—meaning both the mass of commentary and the loudness with which it was delivered—of these rebukes was as unusual and idiosyncratic as the Venus catastrophe related by Velikovsky. There was simply nothing quite like it in postwar America.
Why so much outrage? An answer to this question must come in parts. I will defer explanations of the motivation of the scientists' behavior—and there are Velikovskian and non-Velikovskian variants—to the next two chapters, but there is one consistent refrain in this anti-Velikovskian discourse: publicity. As becomes clear from a dispassionate reading of all the reviews and letters, the scientists objected to more than the content of Velikovsky's theories. I do not want to be misunderstood here: these astronomers, geologists, and other scientists despised those claims, insisted they were deeply and utterly wrong, and minced no words in saying so. But the main target of their fury was not Velikovsky—he was a secondary target, to be sure—but Macmillan itself. The scientists objected to the press's involvement with this book and took additional umbrage at its vigorous (and effective) publicity campaign, which they unwittingly abetted through their angry outpourings. The debate ranged across the professional responsibility of the press and the authority to interpret science for the general public. It was about science in the postwar public sphere.
THE DAY THE EARTH DIDN'T STAND STILL
The January 1950 issue of Harper's Magazine hit the newsstands in late December, on the same cycle as every other month. A staple of American public discourse, this magazine included a spectrum of articles on different subjects, including a discussion of physicist Edward Condon's troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee. But this was not the piece that struck readers of this particular issue. Harper's writer Eric Larrabee had penned an article entitled "The Day the Sun Stood Still," a reference to the battle on the plains of Gibeon when the biblical Joshua ordered the sun to tarry in the sky so that the Israelites could be victorious—according to Velikovsky, a consequence of Venus's violently shifting Earth's axis—and echoed the following year in the popular science-fiction movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. Larrabee's article was "an attempt," he wrote, "necessarily condensed and incomplete, to offer a preview of Dr. Velikovsky's findings." In a few pages, Larrabee rather accurately described the book, the density of its footnotes (which struck many readers), and the fact that Velikovsky questioned such fundamentals of contemporary science as the predominance of gravity in the solar system. The basic point: "Dr. Velikovsky presents historical evidence that these ancient records were not incorrect at the time when they were made."
A feature article in Harper's is fairly high profile for an unknown author's first English-language book, and it came about in a circuitous fashion. As Larrabee recounted after Velikovsky's death, the initiative for this report came from the editor in chief, Frederick Lewis Allen, who was friends with Velikovsky's editor at Macmillan, James Putnam. Putnam had related Velikovsky's account of the Joshua story while the book was still in press—along with the surprising claim that Velikovsky believed that Central American myths of an especially long night, halfway around the world from the Middle East, were correlated with the Joshua story, thus indicating a common event. Allen enjoyed relating the anecdote at cocktail parties. When Macmillan began circulating materials about Worlds in Collision in late 1949, another editor at Harper's, Merle Miller, recalled the story, obtained the page proofs of the book, and assigned Larrabee to serialize it. When Larrabee demurred at the difficulty, they opted to present a summary instead. Macmillan had indeed planned an extensively coordinated publicity campaign, but this first volley happened at Harper's request. (Velikovsky would later claim that he was barely involved in the advance publicity.)
This was only the first of several condensations to be reprinted across the nation. Two (out of an advertised three) serializations appeared in the broadly distributed weekly Collier's on February 25 and March 25, accompanied by somewhat lurid illustrations of ancient Egyptians pelted by meteorites. The entire packaging by Collier's, even more than Harper's, attempted to inject Worlds in Collision into a debate about science and religion, with the editorial foreword noting that Velikovsky's theory, "among other things, challenges the Darwinian theory of evolution" by questioning uniformitarian, gradualist assumptions about Earth's history. The text, attributed to Velikovsky, declared that "the great Architect of nature sent a celestial body—a comet almost as large as the earth itself—close to our planet." Worlds in Collision itself studiously avoids this kind of religiously laden language, yet historian James Gilbert notes that Velikovsky's "science had little meaning or importance outside its religious context." This was clearly a key set of references for Velikovsky's readers, and Collier's, as well as a different adaptation by Fulton Oursler in Reader's Digest, promoted Velikovsky as rescuing biblical literalism. To further the point, a text box embedded in the first Collier's article entitled "The Greatness of the Bible" by Norman Vincent Peale, the famous pastor of Marble Collegiate Church, declared that "Dr. Velikovsky's work interestingly draws the attention of thoughtful people to the substantial basis of fact upon which the Old Testament was written."
Velikovsky was enraged by the treatment of his work in Collier's (although not, at least according to his archives, by the Reader's Digest version). The process of serialization was not smooth. Velikovsky, worried about the way previews of his theory might prejudice its reception, wanted complete control of the images and the writing. The process was the opposite of the Harper's case in almost every way, leading to recriminations and bad feeling on both sides. Over fifteen years later, one of the two excerpters recalled the drafting sessions with horror:
He [Velikovsky] was infuriated by everything, by our introduction, by our excerpting, by our footnoting. All because we did not present his stuff as unquestioned truth supplanting all previous "erroneous" theories. He was not only a supreme egomaniac, but he was evangelical about it. He was Mahomet, John the Baptist, and St. Paul rolled into one. He had found the long-secret truth and would proclaim it to the world, which should bow down and thank him, but which instead doubted, questioned, and tried to silence. He was a pretty good paranoiac, too.... [F]inally he leapt from the table, when I was being insistent on one point, and came back with a pistol or revolver, which he placed on the table beside him, saying something like, "Now we'll see how this will be handled."
It is impossible to know what actually happened over that kitchen table on New York City's Upper West Side as both sides labored to a deadline, but Collier's certainly did not harm Velikovsky's sales, bringing him a vast readership among sets less self-consciously intellectual than the Harper's crowd.
That intellectual set, however, also included some readers less delighted by Velikovsky's proposed innovations. One such reader was Harlow Shapley, director of the Harvard College Observatory and, next to Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the most widely recognized scientists in America. (He had been president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1947 and was a prominent advocate of liberal causes in an America increasingly ensnared in anti-Communist politicking.) In mid-January 1950, Shapley sent a letter to the Macmillan Company, listed in the Harper's article as the prospective publisher of the book, in which he stated that he had heard a happy rumor that Macmillan would not in the end publish Worlds in Collision. He hoped this was true and wanted to confirm with Macmillan. He mentioned that he had discussed the argument presented by Larrabee with several scientists, including the president of Harvard University, chemist and science administrator James Bryant Conant, and all were "not a little astonished that the great Macmillan Company, famous for its scientific publications, would venture into the Black Arts without rather careful refereeing of the manuscript." If they had not yet vetted the book and realized that it was nonsense, he urged them to do so now. In conclusion, he called Velikovsky's theory about the sun standing still "the most errant nonsense of my experience, and I have met my share of crackpots."
In fact, as he surely recalled, he had met this one. On April 13, 1946, Shapley was the speaker at a forum at the Commodore Hotel in New York, discussing world government (one of his many political interests). Velikovsky, wanting to consult with the great astronomer about his new theory of the solar system, approached Shapley and began a conversation. We only know the content of their discussion from letters written in spring 1950 in the aftermath of Shapley's démarche to Macmillan, so what follows must be taken with a grain of salt on both sides. According to Velikovsky, after outlining the basics of his theory, he said to Shapley: "I wish you would agree to read the book manuscript; and if you will be satisfied at its reading that my thesis is supported by sources to an extent that it deserves some laboratory investigation, would it be possible to undertake one or two rather not complicated spectroscopic analyses?" Shapley claimed that he was busy, although if Velikovsky would have someone of stature recommend the text to him, he would take a look at it, and that Velikovsky should write about the tests to Fred Whipple (himself an astronomer of no mean distinction), who was then in charge of experiments at the observatory, and "if possible, we will do it for you." Velikovsky suggested Horace Kallen as the referee (about whom more soon), and in parting Shapley said: "And believe me, if you have proved in your book that in historical times there occurred a change in the constitution of the solar system, there is no thing in my power I would not do for you." Two days later Velikovsky wrote to Shapley asking for spectroscopic tests for the presence of argon and neon in the atmosphere of Mars, and two days after that letter, he proposed a search for "gaseous hydrocarbons ... in the absorption spectrum of Venus." (Velikovsky believed these gases should be present as a result of contact of atmospheres during the near collisions chronicled in his manuscript.) A month later Shapley, through his secretary, declined to do any tests for Velikovsky. And there, apparently, the matter rested.
Excerpted from THE PSEUDOSCIENCE WARS by Michael D. Gordin Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Michael D. Gordin is professor of history at Princeton University and the author of a number of books, including Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
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