Before there was hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, before there was climate change denial or Intelligent Design, there was Immanuel Velikovsky.
I first encountered “pseudoscience” in the 1950s when my brother got Martin Gardner’s Fad’s and Fallacies in the Name of Science1Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Dover, 1957) from the library. We were amused by flat- and hollow-earthers, claims about the Great Pyramid, quack doctors, and other matters. I didn’t know that one day I’d teach “The Fringes of Science” as a college course, or correspond with and write about those on the fringes. Even less did I think that challenges to mainstream science would become important in American society and politics.
This past Christmas I was given a copy of The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe2Michael D. Gordin, The Pseudo-Science Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (University of Chicago, 2012). by historian of science Michael D. Gordin. I’m not going to review this book from 2012 or debate the author’s view of the word “pseudoscience” now. (Another discussion is here.3https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pseudo-science/) But the “modern fringe” has become even more influential during the past eleven years, and Gordin’s discussion of two of its precursors, Immanuel Velikovsky and Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, sets the stage for the present situation.
Gordin says on page 1 that “‘pseudoscience’ is a term of abuse, an epithet attached to certain points of view to discredit these ideas”.4Gordin, The Pseudo-Science Wars, p.1. There’s a parallel in the way “heresy” is tossed around in religious disputes, but the latter word does have a proper meaning. Within a given religious tradition, heresy is contradiction or denial of an accepted teaching of that tradition, not just a term of abuse.
The label “pseudoscience” isn’t used for scientific work that’s just sloppy or for once promising theories that turned out to be wrong. Fred Hoyle resisted the big bang theory in cosmology well after most people in the field were convinced by observational evidence that it was was correct. But no knowledgeable person calls Hoyle a “pseudoscientist.”
Gordin is getting at “the demarcation problem” which philosophers of science debate. Can we distinguish objectively between science and non-science? In C.S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength there’s a conversation between a young sociologist and a renowned chemist. When the young man uses the phrase “with sciences like sociology …”, the chemist interrupts with “There are no sciences like sociology.”5C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (The Bodley Head, 1945), p.83. Is there an objective way to decide whether or not sociology is a science in the same sense that chemistry is?
“Soft” sciences like sociology do differ from “hard” sciences like chemistry. Practical and ethical constraints on experimental studies of human societies come to mind. But sociologists can use observational data about groups in order to understand how people interact in societies. We can’t experiment on stars either but in a sense nature has done billions of those experiments for us. Astronomy is, in fact, sometimes said to be the oldest of the sciences.
Challenges from the East
Then we come to things that get labelled “pseudoscience.” Gordin introduces two by men born in the old Russian Empire, Velikovsky and Lysenko.
Velikovsky, born in 1895 in what is now Belarus, was a Jew who took that tradition seriously. Trained in medicine and psychoanalysis, he was in practice for years in Palestine before coming to the United States in 1939. He first came to widespread attention in 1950 with the publication of Worlds in Collision.6Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (Macmillan, 1950).
The basic claims there can be sketched briefly. A few thousand years ago Venus was ejected as a comet from the planet Jupiter. After an encounter with Mars, its orbit passed close to the earth, causing geological upheavals, storms, and rains of stones and hydrocarbons in a series of encounters over a number of years. Centuries later Mars also had close encounters with the earth, again causing startling phenomena.
Velikovsky argued that biblical stories of events associated with the Exodus (plagues, Red Sea crossing, Sinai theophany) and the conquest of Canaan (the sun “standing still”) were explained by the encounters with Venus. He also appealed to records and myths of the Egyptians and other countries, though the dating was off. Ancient records had to be altered, which Velikovsky would do in Ages in Chaos7Immanuel Velikovsky, Ages in Chaos (Doubleday, 1952). and other books.
Spectacular claims marketed by an important publishing house were bound to attract the general public, but might have gotten little reaction from scientists. Worlds in Collision, however, was brought out by Macmillan, a major publisher of scientific texts. Scientists, and astronomers in particular, reacted strongly and negatively. The uproar was such that within months Macmillan transferred the book to another publisher, Doubleday.
Why should American scientists have gotten so upset about this? Fads come and go, and Velikovsky was obviously wrong and unlikely to disturb serious scientific work.8In the early 1970s the journal Penseé was pro-Velikovsky but open to criticism. I submitted an article arguing that with Newtonian dynamics and gravitation, expulsion of Venus from Jupiter and its proposed effects upon the earth were very implausible. (The article was accepted, but Penseé went broke before it appeared.) Velikovsky and his supporters often pointed out that electromagnetic effects in astronomy were being discovered. But the claim of Velikovsky’s in his booklet Cosmos Without Gravitation (New York: F. Hubner, 1946) was both more radical and wrong. There he said (p.3) “Gravitation is an Electromagnetic Phenomenon”. But Gordin argues that what had happened recently in the Soviet Union seemed like an ominous sign to American scientists.
Lysenko was born in the Ukraine three years after Velikovsky. A supporter of the Russian revolution, he was trained as an agronomist. He studied the chilling of winter wheat seeds to make them behave like spring wheat, which was helpful for Soviet agriculture. But then he claimed that the descendants of these seeds would grow like their parents. That was Lamarck’s idea of inheritance of acquired characters, which has failed experimental tests and conflicts with the Mendelian genetics widely accepted by biologists in both east and west.
The idea that an organism’s heredity could be “shattered” by proper treatment seemed similar to the idea held by some communists, that the nature of a human population could be changed by revolution. Lamarckian views became popular in the USSR, Mendelian geneticists were persecuted, and Lysenko became powerful. In 1948 he announced that his attack on Mendelian genetics had been approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.9Gordin, The Pseudo-Science Wars, p.89.
I don’t find very convincing Gordin’s argument that vehement attacks on Velikovsky’s claims by American scientists were due to those scientists, most of whom were on political left, not wanting their criticisms of Lysenko to be seen as anti-Soviet rhetoric. The views of both were called “pseudoscience”, but the word was in use a century and a half before this.10See reference 3. In any case, the Velikovsky and Lysenko affairs are good markers for the emergence of “the modern fringe.”
The 1960s and beyond
Lysenko and his ideas continued to rule Soviet biology after Stalin’s death, but that changed quickly when Khrushchev fell from power in 1964. Lysenko became a legitimate target of criticism for Soviet scientists. He was removed from his influential position and, after investigations, disgraced.11Zhores A. Medvedev, The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko (Columbia University, 1969). Meanwhile criticism of Velikovsky quieted and he got little attention. But that was to change.
In the 1960s mainstream science, with other aspects of “the establishment,” came under suspicion. Velikovsky’s arguments for catastrophic events in the past allowed supporters to give less attention to the hard sciences and focus on history. I attended a 1974 lecture by Velikovsky, and before his talk overheard conversation between two historians. The gist of it was, “I’m skeptical about his historical arguments, but I hear that scientists are impressed with his work.” A discussion among astronomers might have reversed those judgments.
Velikovsky’s influence, but not acceptance by the scientific community, was shown by a symposium earlier that year of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he was confronted by Carl Sagan and other critics. He seemed “a force to be reckoned with,” but was aging and died in 1979 at the age of 84. Not all his supporters were “orthodox Velikovskians,” and with no single voice to speak for them, the “movement” ceased to be significant.
But the fringes of science were flourishing. In 1961 Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb, Jr. published The Genesis Flood12John C. Whitcomb, Jr. and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1961)., which would have a lasting influence on Christian anti-evolution movements. There were similarities between Velikovsky’s scenarios and the events that could be imagined if Biblical stories of the Noachic flood were literal history. But the authors of The Genesis Flood avoided being lumped together with Velikovsky. They emphasized the full inerrancy of scripture. Velikovsky, on the other hand, distanced himself from fundamentalists.13Gordin, The Pseudo-science Wars, p.151.
Morris was very influential into the 21st Century, writing numerous books and being one of the founders of the Creation Research Society and the Institute for Creation Research. Today the primary figure in the young earth, worldwide flood anti-evolution movement is the Australian Ken Ham, with his Creation Museum and full-scale model of Noah’s Ark in Petersburg Kentucky.
The fringe branches out
Since about 1990 the most significant attacks on evolutionary theory haven’t come from traditional opponents like Morris and Ham but from the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. ID proponents need not reject evolution outright, but they argue that some features of organisms point to an “Intelligent Designer”, also known as God. I wrote about Intelligent Design and its failings here recently, and refer to that article for details.14George L. Murphy, https://intelligent-design-science-and-theology/, March 15, 2020.
But there is more to that story than views of evolution. From early in its history the ID movement was associated with the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Internet searching will show that the institute favors politically and socially conservative views and positions that are advantageous to corporations. A search for “discovery institute climate change” will find a link to this video about “the global warming myth”.15https://www.discovery.org/v/30/
Such material from the Discovery Institute has a scholarly patina, but corporations can do their own promotional work. Industries that might be criticized because of damage from their products have founded “research” groups to develop industry friendly claims. In 1958, American tobacco companies founded the Tobacco Institute to develop arguments to deflect public attention from dangers of smoking.16https://tobaccotactics.org/wiki/tobacco-institute/ An article from the environmental organization Greenpeace gives an outline of such work by a major fossil fuel corporation.17https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/global-warming/exxon-and-the-oil-industry-knew-about-climate-change/exxons-climate-denial-history-a-timeline/[/mfn]
Cui Bono What are we to call all those endeavors? Venus wasn’t expelled by Jupiter and didn’t alter the earth’s rotation to bring about Joshua’s long day. Acquired characters aren’t passed on to offspring, the earth is more than a few thousand years old, and ID can’t point to “irreducibly complex” biological features. Climate change and associated global warming is real, fossil fuel use contributes to it, and smoking causes cancer. If the people and organizations we’ve considered were doing science, it was bad or poorly done science.
Were those things pseudosciences? I think most of those people thought they were doing science. Even those who produce certain results because that’s what their employers pay them for may be able to do the mental gymnastics needed to persuade themselves that they’ve really found the truth.
But there’s something else to consider. When a crime is committed by some unknown person or persons, investigators will ask themselves, “Who benefits from this?” Cui bono is the Latin phrase – “to whom the good?” We can ask something similar about dubious scientific claims — “what belief or belief system is supported by these results?”
Freud’s last book, Moses and Monotheism, made a strong impact on Velikovsky.17Gordin, The Pseudo-Science Wars, pp.57-64. It argued that Moses was not an Israelite but an Egyptian priest of the monotheistic religion founded by Pharaoh Akhnaton who got the support of Hebrew slaves. After the Exodus the Israelites supposedly tired of rules Moses wanted to impose and killed him, afterwards repressing that memory and developing the “cover story” that we have in the Hebrew Scriptures.
On the one hand, Velikovsky was intrigued by the way in which the concepts of Freudian psychology, such as the murder of the father figure, were used by the master of Freudian analysis. On the other hand, he was angered by the idea that the Jewish authority, Moses, wasn’t really Jewish, and by the idea that Jewish people could have been guilty of such a crime.
Could the entire scenario that Velikovsky later constructed have stemmed from a desire to vindicate the traditional Jewish picture of history? That certainly seems plausible. But that wouldn’t account for the astronomical Jupiter-Venus-Mars scenario that he used. Maybe he used ideas of previous authors about such events, but Velikovsky’s lack of real knowledge of physics and astronomy is obvious. When it came to such disciplines, he was just doing bad science.
Lysenko’s rejection of Mendelian genetics, as I’ve noted, was similar to the way communists pictured human nature being changed by revolution. The geological arguments of Whitcomb and Morris supported a certain understanding of biblical history and Christian doctrine. The intelligent design movement claimed to provide evidence for a Designer who could easily be equated with God. And research results that benefit corporations — well, benefit corporations by legitimizing their business practices.All those things are bad science, but bad in a particular way. They are tendentious science, work done not just to find out things about the world (though that may be one goal) but to support a particular belief system or way of doing things. Of course a lot of scientists do their work with the hope of getting tenure, finding a better position, making more money, or winning a Nobel Prize. But most of them won’t try to publish theories they know are wrong or falsify experimental results to get those things.