27.2.14

IDEAS IN COLLISION

Michael D. Gordin. The Pseudo-Science Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

The ‘Velikovsky Affair’ began in 1950 with the publication of his book Worlds in Collision, which proposed a radical revised cosmology. Venus was a newly created planet created from material ejected by Jupiter and causing catastrophic changes on Earth, leading a global flood which is recorded in the legends and sacred writings of many cultures. Initially the book was published in America by Macmillan, a company which was identified with scientific publishing, and the book was promoted as part of their science non-fiction catalogue.

What happened next depends largely on your view of Velikovsky’s ideas. Either a bullying academic establishment attempted to silence the paradigm-busting views of a scientific pioneer, or responsible scientists challenged the irresponsible promotion of pseudo-scientific ideas from an eccentric theorist.

Of course in this case, as in so many controversies, there is rather more to it than that. Velikovksy’s principle claim, that a variety of earthly disasters had been the result of close encounters with the planet Venus, was not intended as a challenge to contemporary astronomy and cosmology, but remarkably as a counter-attack to a theory of Sigmund Freud and to bolster Velikovsky‘s own Zionist ideals.

Freud’s last book, published in Germany in 1937 was Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion, published in English as Moses and Monotheism, which argued that the biblical Moses was actually a priest of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton’s monotheistic sun religion, and that Judaism resulted from a mixing of his ideas with those of a Midianite cult. Naturally this outraged many Jews, few more so than Velikovsky, and the rest of his writing career was largely aimed at countering Freud’s assertions by, among other things, confirming a biblical chronology which would make sense of the dating of the Israelites' flight from Egypt and other events in Old Testament history, and linking them to legends of catastrophic changes recorded in the religion and mythology of other cultures.

Velikovsky therefore saw his work as being primarily about history and religion, and only secondarily as a challenge to conventional ideas about astronomy and cosmology. Before its publication a number of scientists, including physicists and chemists, had given Worlds in Collision a cautious approval. C. W. van der Merwe, a professor of physics at New York University, concluded in a report to the publishers, “as a scientist, particularly a chemist, I can find no great flaws in his deductions”, and some of those who disagreed more fundamentally still supported its publication as a contribution to debate.

Even those who criticised Macmillan for publishing the book largely confined their criticism to the fact that the title had been promoted as part of the publishers scientific list rather than their general readers' output, and when future editions were transferred to Doubleday, a publisher with a general trade catalogue and few academic interests, there was little criticism from scientists. Although scientists expressed their indignation, and there were threats from some of a boycott, the idea of a mass campaign by hundreds of scientists against Macmillan seems to have become something of a myth in itself.

Much of the scientific discomfort provoked by Velikovsky’s publication was a result of mainstream science being involved in other pseudo-scientific controversies at this time, particularly Lysenkoism, which had crippled Soviet academic research into genetics, and had provoked a political divide amongst some Western scientists; and eugenics, which was attempting to re-establish respectable credentials after Nazism and the gas-chambers. These, and other controversies, including the development of nuclear weapons had left many scientists uncertain about the future of their disciplines and prickly about challenges such as Velikovsky’s.

After a few quiet years, the Velikovsky controversy flourished again in the counter-culture atmosphere of the sixties, where a convenient narrative of the plucky underdog against ‘The Man’ caught the imagination of college students in America and across the Atlantic. Gordin examines the crucial role of the student magazine Pensée in promoting this interpretation. By now Velikovsky’s own writings had moved into a more overtly historical and theological context with titles like People of the Sea and Ages in Chaos, and into further counter-Freudian arguments in Mankind in Amnesia.

Ironically, towards the end of his life Velikovsky found himself fighting his own battles against pseudoscience as neo-creationists and ancient-astronaut proponents began to appropriate his writings to promote their own theories.

Gordin provides a complex yet clear path thorough the thickets of this controversy; he illuminates more than just the Velikovsk affair, providing an insight into the nature of ‘pseudoscience’ and its relationship to scientific orthodoxy. Anyone interested in the history of science, the nature of pseudoscientific ideas, and science’s relationship with society and culture should read this well-documented and sourced book. (I commend the way the references are linked page-by-page to the text.) -- John Rimmer.


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