Review of Michael D. Gordin, 'The Pseudoscience Wars'

Catastrophe Theory
February 6, 2013

Once it would have been possible to jump right into a discussion of Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (University of Chicago Press) with the reasonable assumption that readers would have at least a nodding acquaintance with the maverick psychoanalyst’s ideas.

But today -- as Gordin, a professor of history at Princeton University, notes -- few people under the age of 50 will recognize Velikovsky’s name, much less know of his theory of the traumatic impact of cosmic catastrophes on human history. It was a heated topic for discussion in the 1970s. I recall seeing a poster for a meeting of Chaos and Chronos, a student organization dedicated to Velikovskian matters that once had clubs on many U.S. college campuses. This was as late as 1980 or ’81. (Which only corroborates Gordin’s point, for I am approaching the half-century mark at an alarming speed.)

So, first, a lesson in now-dormant controversy.

Although he published several other books during his lifetime, plus a few more posthumously, Velikovsky presented his core argument in a volume called Worlds in Collision (1950). It was an attempt to formulate the key to all mythologies, or at least an explanation of some of the more striking stories and beliefs of antiquity. Drawing on sources both classical and obscure, he showed that cultures all over the world preserved narratives in which the world passed through incredible catastrophes: the earth shook, the heavens darkened, the sun stood still, floods wiped out society, fire or stones or both fell from the sky, and so on. The cultures that preserved the tales explained the events as a manifestation of God’s wrath at humanity, or as the consequence of gods’ behavior toward one another.

An orthodox Freudian, Velikovsky had no use for Jung’s nebulous ideas about archetypes in the collective unconscious. His theory was more concrete, if no less strange. The far-flung legends all made sense as distorted accounts of a series of astronomical anomalies beginning circa 1500 B.C.E., when (he argued) a huge mass of matter broke off the planet Jupiter and spun off into space. It passed dangerously close to Earth a couple of times before eventually settling into orbit as the planet we now know as Venus.

Its comet-like transit through the solar system generated a series of events, both in outer space and here below, that continued for the better part of a thousand years. Earth and proto-Venus came near enough to affect each other’s orbits, and that of Mars as well. Bewildered by the strange things happening in the sky, mankind endured terrestrial upheaval on an incredible scale -- tectonic disasters, weird weather, and shifts of the planet’s axis, for example.

Once, when proto-Venus came close to Earth, its atmosphere permeated our own long enough to precipitate a fluffy, snow-like substance made of hydrocarbons. And so it came to pass that the Israelites received the manna falling from heaven that the Lord did send to nourish them.

Well, it’s a theory, anyway. Harper’s magazine ran an article about Velikovsky’s book in advance of its publication. Other, less sober publications followed suit, presenting Worlds in Collision as demonstrating the literal (albeit distorted) truth of events recorded in the Bible. The response by scientists was less enthusiastic, to put it mildly. The word “crackpot” tended to come up. Velikovsky’s interdisciplinary erudition impressed them only as evidence that he was profoundly ignorant in a number of fields. The American people would be dumber for reading the book, and so on.

Upon seeing the early publicity for Velikovsky’s book, some scientists were so disgusted that they wrote to Velikovsky’s publisher, Macmillan, to complain. Worlds in Collision had been listed in the firm’s catalog as a scientific work. The letter-writers considered this disgraceful, and warned of the potential damage to the press’s reputation in the scientific community. After a few university science departments canceled their meetings with Macmillan’s textbook salesmen, the publisher became alarmed and sold its right to the book to Doubleday.

Velikovsky was unhappy about this, but the deal was hard on Macmillan as well. At its peak, Worlds in Collision was selling a thousand copies a week, despite being a rather pricey hardback. The backstage furor soon died down, as did public interest in Velikovsky’s claims. By 1951, his ideas must have seemed as if they would have no more of a future than the other big fad of the previous years, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. (The scholarly literature seems to have overlooked this bit of synchronicity, though I’m sure there is a master’s thesis in it for somebody.)

The Worlds in Collision affair might have been forgotten entirely if not for a special issue of the journal American Behavioral Science devoted to the whole matter, published in 1963. The contributors were interested not so much in Velikovsky’s ideas as in how scientists had responded to them – with peremptory dismissals based on the Harper’s article, emotional rhetoric, and behind-the-scenes pressure on his publisher. It amounted to censorship and the repression of ideas – the assertion of scientific authority against a theory, despite the lack of serious engagement with the book itself.

Velikovsky and Albert Einstein both lived in Princeton, N.J., during the 1950s, and Velikovsky could quote remarks from the physicist’s letters and conversation suggesting that Worlds in Collision was at least interesting and worthy of a hearing. This was by no means the only thing Einstein had to say. Gordin quotes a number of occasions when Einstein described Velikovsky as “crazy” -- and clearly he regarded the man as a pest, at times. But it's not difficult to imagine why the most famous Jewish immigrant in postwar America might develop sympathetic feelings for someone of a comparable background who seemed to be facing unfair persecution. Besides, they could speak German together. That counted for a lot.

In any case, their friendship also made it easier to argue that Velikovsky just might be too far ahead of his time. In the mid-1960s, students at Princeton University formed a discussion group on Worlds in Collision, and Velikovsky himself spoke there – the first of what became many lectures to packed halls. Given the spirit of the time, having been rejected and anathemized by the scientific establishment was, in its own way, a credential. Among young people, Velikovsky enjoyed the special authority that comes when mention of one’s ideas is sufficient to annoy, very noticeably, one’s professors.

In 1972, the editors of Portland State University’s student magazine Pensée turned it into a forum defending and developing Velikovsky’s ideas. Papers were peer-reviewed, sort of: they were submitted to scholars and scientists for vetting, though most of the reviewers were sympathetic to Velikovsky (and, it sounds like, also contributors). Pensée’s first all-catastrophism issue clearly met a need. It had to be reprinted twice and sold 75,000 copies, after which the journal’s circulation settled down to a still-remarkable 10-20,000 copies per year.

And if any more evidence of his status as countercultural eminence were needed, the American Association for the Advancement of Science held a Velikovsy symposium at its annual conference in February 1974. The most famous participant was the astronomer Carl Sagan, who challenged the author’s supposed scientific evidence for the cosmic-catastrophe scenario at considerable length. Velikovsky and his supporters were angry that all of the invited speakers were critical of his work. But the organizers invited Velikovsky himself to respond, which he did, also at considerable length. The symposium may not have vindicated Velikovsky, but it gave him an unusually prominent place at the table

He died in 1979, and five years later Henry Bauer (now an emeritus professor of chemistry and science studies at Virginia Tech) published Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy (University of Illinois Press). It was the first book-length analysis of the whole saga and, for a long time, the last. Most of the secondary literature on Velikovsky appearing since his death resembles the material about him published during his lifetime, in that it is polemical, for or against. The one published biography of Velikovsky that I know of, drawing on his own memoirs, is by his daughter.

So Gordin’s The Pseudo-Science Wars belongs to the fairly small number of studies that do not simply pour the old controversies into new bottles. In that regard, the title is something of a fake-out. The author doesn’t treat Velikovsky’s catastrophism as a variety of pseudoscience. He is dubious about the concept, both because it is applied to too many phenomena that don’t share anything (what do astrology, cold fusion, biorhythms, and the study of how ancient astronauts shaped human evolution really have in common?) and because no one has established an epistemological “bright line” to distinguish science-proper from its pretenders. The word’s real significance lies in its use in shoring up the authority of those who use it. Calling something pseudoscience is more profoundly delegitimizing than calling it bad science.

Happily the author spends only a little time on Sociology of Deviance 101-type labeling theory before getting down to the altogether more compelling labor of using archival material that was unavailable to Bauer 30 years ago -- especially the theorist’s personal papers, now in Princeton’s collection. Velikovsky was something of a packrat. If he ever parted with a document, it cannot have been willingly. The Pseudo-Science Wars fills in the familiar outline of his career and controversy, as sketched above, with an abundance of new detail as well as insight into what Gordin calls “the development of Velikovskian auto-mythology.”

We learn, for one thing, that tales of a deliberate campaign of letter-writing and well-organized pressure on Macmillan through the threat of a boycott have little evidence to back them up. Accounts treating Velikovsky as an American Galileo typically suggest that his opponents wanted to prevent his ideas from receiving any hearing at all – that they were, in principle if not in method, book-burners.

But the existing documents suggest that the scientific community was chiefly troubled at seeing Worlds in Collision issued under the full authority of a major science and textbook publisher. A number of scientists responded by exerting pressure on Macmillan, but Gordin says the letters “were disorganized, uncoordinated, and threatened different things – some not to buy books, some not to referee manuscripts, others not to write them.”

Textbooks represented up to 70 percent of the publisher’s revenue, so professorial displeasure “had to be taken seriously. Macmillan could not afford to call it a bluff.” Once Worlds in Collision was sold to Doubleday (a trade publisher) scientists were content to mock the author’s grasp of geology, chemistry, celestial mechanics, etc. – or simply to ignore the book altogether.

Velikovsky converted the episode into a kind of moral capital, and Gordin demonstrates how shrewdly he and his admirers used it to build a scientific counter-establishment -- what one might otherwise call a full-scale pseudoscience. The analysis requires a number of detours, heading into territory where intellectual historians seldom venture – as in the sad tale of Donald Wesley Patten, author and publisher of The Biblical Flood and the Ice Epoch (1966), who ultimately proved too Velikovskian for the fundamentalists, and vice versa.

For a long time it seemed as if no one could go beyond Beyond Velikovsky. Gordin's book does not replace the earlier study, which remains an interesting and valuable book, and certainly worth the attention of anyone trying to decide whether to explore the terrain in more detail. But The Pseudoscience Wars puts the catastrophist’s ideas and aura into a wider and thicker context of ideas, people, and institutions -- a remarkable array, spanning from the Soviet genetics debates of the 1940s to today's fractious niche of (please accept my sincere apology for this next word) post-Velikovskyism.

Speaking of which, let me end with a prediction. While reading Gordin, it crossed my mind that the scenario of upheaval in Worlds in Collision might well speak to the sense of how precarious our little ball in space really is. Americans are not a thrifty people, but we do tend to recycle our cultural phenomena, and if there is one 20th-century idea that seems a likely candidate for 21st-century revival, it is probably catastrophism.



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