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

It's a battle for epistemological supremacy in this study of a catastrophist thinker, says Jon Turney

So this comet was ejected from Jupiter, you see, and got trapped by Earth's gravity. Bad news. Petroleum from its tail rained fire from the heavens. Earth lurched on its axis. When the comet escaped into its own orbit, it became the planet Venus. Mars was shifted, too, threatening Earth with further calamity. The biblical plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea and many other stories show that our ancestors witnessed all of this.

Your average intellectual, hearing someone relate this in a pub, probably reacts in one of two ways: back away unobtrusively in search of other conversation, or edge closer, wondering how this fascinating set of beliefs came to be.

Michael Gordin is in the second camp. He is intrigued because these ideas featured in a massively best-selling book published in 1950. After many denunciations, these notions went on to attract new adherents in the 1960s and 1970s. His own book sets the theories and their author in context, and considers what their contentious history tells us about society, science and its curious complement, pseudoscience.

The story of planetary mayhem was pieced together by Immanuel Velikovsky from his study of ancient texts. A Russian Jew who moved to the US in 1939, he was keenly interested in Jewish history. He was also a doctor and psychoanalyst, and his new reading of myth benefited from an analyst's eye. He became convinced that a concordance of catastrophes in the stories of many cultures meant that they were real events. They were no longer recognised as such, he argued, owing to collective amnesia born of unspeakable trauma. Gordin largely eschews comment on the accuracy of these theories, but it appears that Velikovsky reordered human history just as he re-narrated the lives of his patients. This time it was more than a personal, perhaps therapeutically beneficial, story. He reconstructed Earth's chronologies to fit his scheme, and also recast astrophysics, planetary science and the history of the solar system. He rejected the dominant uniformitarianism of the earth sciences, with its commitment to incremental change over aeons. His new catastrophes were not merely archaeological events, but part of recorded history.

This might have been dismissed as simply bunkum - on a par with, say, Scientology, which began around the same time. But for many researchers, Velikovskian catastrophism was worse. It was presented as science, but must be classed as pseudoscience. The way these two categories are bound together is the focus of Gordin's interest.

When Velikovsky published Worlds in Collision in 1950, it was a direct challenge to established science. Scientists reviewed it scathingly. Some protested to Macmillan, the book's scientifically respected publisher, that it had no place on their lists. Suggestions that a boycott of their lucrative textbooks might ensue persuaded Macmillan to hand on the book to Doubleday, which went on to publish Velikovsky's later volumes Ages in Chaos (1952), which offered more detail on chronology, and Earth in Upheaval (1958), which did so on geology. Scientists' protests had little effect on the rise in popularity of Velikovsky's ideas.

Nor did they hasten their decline, although Velikovsky and his ideas largely slipped from view after his death in 1979. That pub conversation is now pretty unlikely. Gordin observes that if you ask people under 50, hardly anyone knows who Velikovsky is. Surprised, I tried it, and he's right. The man who expected to be hailed as the new Copernicus has been gone just over 30 years. And although there are (of course) websites and a few societies upholding his theories, the story of his ideas is essentially over.

It is, however, absorbing to revisit. Gordin offers a richly detailed examination of the immediate context for scientists' antipathy - beginning in the days of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union and rabid anti-Communism in the US. He chronicles Velikovsky's largely futile attempts to garner support from those he saw as fellow scientists, including Albert Einstein, and charts the fortunes of his shifting band of adherents, with their own fluid agendas. By the 1960s, as the counter-culture took wing, the volumes explaining the new catastrophism were widely read by college students and their author was a popular speaker on university campuses.

Gordin also weaves in comparisons with other ideas, including phrenology and creationism, and with the counter-cultural stalwarts Wilhelm Reich, Charles Fort and Erich von Daniken. And he makes connections between the discussion of pseudoscience, the so-called "science wars" of the 1980s and 1990s (when some scientists saw a threat from a relativist turn in science studies) and the more recent disputes about climate science. Pseudoscience of the Velikovskian kind is invoked variously in these debates. In science warriors' polemics, it is used to show what happens when epistemological standards lapse. In denialist tracts, it serves to establish the existence of an extreme fringe against which the corporate-sponsored doubters of global warming can style themselves as advocating "sound science".

The literature on Velikovsky's theories - his own work, commentaries, critiques and defences - is large. His own archive is the prodigious accumulation of one who believed until the end that posterity would judge him a genius. Gordin navigates through all this with aplomb, explains the detail of the ideas clearly and does so in a pretty readable style - although his metaphors sometimes get the better of him. (I am still trying to picture the action signified by "circling the epistemological wagons".)

He argues that pseudoscience has no fixed meaning. As I contemplate his conclusion, I find I am more of a pluralist (not a relativist) than Gordin. He maintains that there can be no general theory of pseudoscience because the diverse doctrines tagged this way have little in common. That seems right. He does not mention the possibility that the same is true of the impressively wide range of activities labelled "science".

If so, that is one reason why boundary disputes are always flaring up. The absence of philosophical clarity about what counts as scientific means that science is always partly defined by what it is not - and its counter-object changes from time to time. Pseudoscience is used to label not the obviously non-scientific, but things that imitate science and do so illegitimately. The imitation happens because science is so successful. Yet it is successful, in scientists' eyes, only in so far as it manages to weed out the blatantly false theories peddled by pseudoscientists.

Can we generalise further from this account? The author works hard at the end of the book to elaborate the core contention with which he begins: "Individual scientists designate a doctrine 'pseudoscience' when they feel threatened by what the ideas represent about the authority of science, science's access to resources, or some other broader social trend." His argument convinces. But perhaps it is too general to be useful. Scientists, or at least some of them, almost always feel threatened by something. So while the close study of past disputes over science and pseudoscience can yield a few tactical hints for those caught up in the heat of debate, it does not give one much purchase on what kinds of things in future will end up labelled pseudoscience, or why. Gordin's is a well-realised account of a fascinating recent dispute about where the boundaries of science lie. Such case studies of recurrent phenomena are always worthwhile. Do they help in thinking about the next pseudoscientific novelty? I'm not sure. But read this entertaining book and decide for yourself.

The Author

Professor of history at Princeton University, "very undistinguished jogger" and fan of "macabre novels about the world after nuclear war", Michael Gordin was born in Bergenfield, New Jersey. He and his family spent time "early in the Thatcher years" in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire and then Israel before returning to the US.

Gordin now resides in Princeton with his wife, "as it happens, across the street from the house where Immanuel Velikovsky lived from 1952 until his death in 1979. It stands to reason that I only learned that after I had begun working on the book."

"I've been interested in science as far back as I remember," he says. "My father was a chemical engineer and I used to pester him with questions." Then in high school, history also "became something of an obsession". Keen to become a physicist, he attended Harvard University as an undergraduate. While there, he "learned that it was possible to combine history and science in a single discipline. That resolved some of the schizophrenia."

His connection to Velikovsky had a false start. "In my early teenage years I read heaps of books from the public library on unsolved puzzles, UFOs, topics like that. I remember there was a book called The Velikovsky Affair that I never took off the shelf. The name, however, stuck with me; perhaps it was my interest in Russia and his Slavic-sounding name. When I learned that Princeton had opened the Immanuel Velikovsky papers in 2005, it dislodged that memory, and I thought it was worth finally learning what I had passed over in my youth."

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

By Michael D. Gordin

University of Chicago Press

304pp, £18.50

ISBN 9780226304427

Published 9 October 2012

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