Pseudoscience: A fringe too far

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David Morrison finds contemporary echoes in a history of 'science wars', from Velikovsky to Lysenko and beyond.

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

Michael D. Gordin University of Chicago Press: 2012. 304 pp. £18.50, $29 ISBN: 9780226304427

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From creationism and climate-change denial to cold fusion, pseudoscience pervades the media, often drowning out real science. Michael Gordin's scholarly and highly readable The Pseudoscience Wars uses Immanuel Velikovsky's 'cosmic catastrophe' theory — once a hugely influential recasting of ancient history — as the organizing principle for a discussion of modern pseudoscience and “science wars”. The book also covers Lysenkoism and young-Earth geology in depth.

Gordin, a science historian, asserts that scientists apply the label of pseudoscience — which he defines as “doctrines that are non-science but pretend to be, or aspire to be, or are simply mistaken for scientific” — only to ideas whose public appeal makes them seem threatening. His goal is to examine how scientists try to deal with the issue of 'outsiders' and understand their thinking, and what light the Velikovsky phenomenon sheds on that.

For much of the past half-century, Velikovsky's big idea both enjoyed public popularity and drew the opprobrium of scientists. A Russian immigrant to the United States, Velikovsky was a psychiatrist by training, yet thought of himself as a historian who used the insights of psychoanalysis to interpret the myths of early civilizations. He collected and correlated myths from the first and second millennia BC, many dealing with catastrophes such as the Egyptian plagues described in the Bible's Old Testament. Eventually, he began to propose cosmic events that could explain things that happened in the myths.

By the late 1940s, Velikovsky had convinced himself that Earth had nearly collided with Venus and Mars between 2000 and 800 BC. This grand synthesis was published in 1950 as Worlds in Collision, followed by several further books and dozens of articles. In spite of scathing criticism from other scientists, he never wavered from his conviction: a few weeks before his death in 1979, he said: “No one has disproved Worlds in Collision.”

The book became a best-seller. But Velikovsky wanted to be recognized as a bona fide scholar. He was stung by harsh reviews, including pressure from prominent scientists that resulted in the book being dropped by Macmillan (which publishes this journal), then the main publisher of science textbooks in the United States, and transferred to the trade publisher Doubleday.

Velikovsky sought scientific legitimacy by courting individual scientists, especially Albert Einstein, who, like Velikovsky, lived in Princeton, New Jersey. Gordin discusses these efforts and the mainly hostile reactions to them. Scientists recognized that Velikovsky's planetary collisions, and his suggestion that electromagnetism rather than gravitation dominated planetary motions, were (in Einstein's term) “crazy”. Velikovsky was simply not speaking the same language as the scientific community, yet his books were received uncritically by many of the public.

If the story had ended there, he would quickly have retreated into oblivion. But in the 1970s, Velikovsky became a symbol of the US counterculture. His reissued books hit the best-seller lists again; students invited him to speak on college campuses, and he acquired a group of enthusiastic disciples.

This assault from a crank baffled the scientific community. Gordin adds context with the tale of the agronomist and pseudoscientist Trofim Lysenko, whose theory of heredity, supported by Joseph Stalin, came close to destroying the science of genetics in the Soviet Union. One reason scientists so strongly opposed Velikovsky was the recent, chilling memory of Lysenkoism.

There are fascinating and alarming parallels between these outsider narratives and Christian creationists' use of pseudoscientific arguments to lend legitimacy to their cause. Henry Morris and John Whitcomb's 1961 publication The Genesis Flood (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing) became the foundation of the 'creation science' movement. Like Velikovsky, these authors postulated a catastrophic history of Earth, reinterpreting all geology in terms of a single universal flood, as described in chapters 6–11 of Genesis. They based their conclusions solely on a literal interpretation of scripture, and rejected Velikovsky's naturalist explanations.

Pseudoscience that has the support of organized religion or economic interests tends to survive much longer than the work of a lone eccentric such as Velikovsky. In his final pages, Gordin touches on a new phase of pseudoscience, practised by a few rogue scientists themselves. Climate-change denialism is the prime example, in which a handful of researchers, allied with an effective public-relations machine, are publicly challenging the scientific consensus that global warming is real and is attributable mainly to human consumption of fossil fuels. Deniers' questioning of the climate data and their attacks on the integrity and motivations of the scientists involved was exemplified by the e-mail-hacking 'climate-gate' scandal of 2009. This is perhaps the greatest threat from pseudoscience today.

Velikovsky and Lysenko may be largely forgotten, but other forms of pseudoscience are flourishing — among both the public and many politicians. Gordin's historical analysis of pseudoscience remains disturbingly relevant.

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  1. David Morrison is the director of the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe in Mountain View, California.

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