Last Updated in 2007
Sunday, December 26, 2010
|From time to time I find I have things to say
that don't quite fit the standard VIEW format. The Velikovsky Affair
surfaces now and again as one of them. I no longer find it very
interesting except as a kind of sociopathy: neither Big Orthodox Science,
nor Velikovsky's supporters, nor the promoters of skepticism about Big
Science come off very well here.
Science, when done right, remains the best means of advancing human knowledge, and the notion that we don't know anything, and can't know anything, and everything we think we know is false, is bunkum: we all know we live longer and better (in the physical sense) than our ancestors; that we know more about the Universe than was known in, say, the 13th Century; that we may still believe nonsense, but there is less nonsense about the nature of the world than there used to be. Spiritually we may not be so well off, and I suppose there are those who say we'd be better off diseased and ignorant but with the right spiritual beliefs, but outside cocktail parties and undergraduate bull sessions there aren't many people I want to know who believe that. I have my doubts about this era, but they don't involve regretting that I have teeth and feel pretty good at my age.
THE FOLLOWING LINKS ARE TO BOOKMARKS IN THIS DOCUMENT. You may just skip this section and read stuff in the order it appears here, beginning with the Spring 2000 note that caused me to put this all together.
For my concluding view on this affair as of January 2009, click here.
Updates and such, in reverse order: that is, newest first.
And a letter on paleoclimatology and Velikovsky that draws some useful conclusions.
For a not unreasonable summary on this, see Morrison and my answer.
My latest addition to this (June, 2002) is a "bottom line comment" and a quite definitive account of the AAAS meeting and Velikovsky's impact on the sciences by David Morrison. And another recommendation of Chapman and Morrison, Cosmic Catastrophes.
And there is more from Norman Levitt as a sort of footnote.
I append a letter received in March, 2000.
I have added a short error report.
This page generated a discussion of the First Dark Age that appears on another page.
And a fairly long exchange of letters (December, 2000) on the subject of, was Velikovsky an obvious fool, and if so, what should be done about him? Because my correspondent in this has said that on reflection he prefers not to be named. The conversation is still worth recording.
Worlds Still Colliding by Leroy Ellenberger (February 2001)
I've just been over to http://www.monadnock.net/fanspaces/hogan/, which has a number of essays by James Hogan on various subjects. He has actually dared re-open the question of Velikovsky. That will win him no friends at all. For those wondering what the Velikovsky Affair was about, you can get something of an introduction over there from Hogan, and it's well worth the ten minutes or so it will take. It will also spare me summarizing the old man's theories, which were, well, outlandish. But then no one is more outlandish than, say, Heisenberg...
I recall many years ago Stefan Possony got me interested in The Velikovsky Affair. Steve was a political scientist, and as he liked to describe himself, an intelligence officer, not a scientist. He was also a polymath, who had a grasp of the effects of technology; of the people I have known, I think Marvin Minsky, onetime Donner Professor of Technology at MIT, is the only person with a similar broad based understanding of technology itself. Of course Possony and I wrote THE STRATEGY OF TECHNOLOGY, a book available on line here.
In any event, Steve was interested in the Velikovsky affair not because he really cared whether Velikovsky was right, but because of the vehemence with which Big Science attacked the old man. As a result I spent a good bit of time looking into Velikovsky's claims. In doing so I found that in general of the scientists who made any attempt to look at him with an open mind, the astronomers thought his astronomy was whacko, but his archeology was sound; while the archeologists thought his archeology pretty silly, but admired his astronomical thinking. I also dug into De Grazia's The Velikovsky Affair, which looked into the reaction against Velikovsky. I concluded that there was little doubt that Velikovsky was unfairly treated. On the other hand, it was hard to make sense of his theories, which on their face were absurd: but if his theories were so manifestly not merely wrong but silly, then why did so many educated people take him seriously enough to use questionable tactics to suppress him?
Eventually I came to the conclusion that not only was Velikovsky wrong, but he would stoop to something close to fraud, although I may be the only person who noticed one of the instances of that: Velikovsky "predicted" in one of his books that Linear B would prove to be Achaean Greek, a startling prediction for the time. Now, I find, he didn't make that claim in the original manuscript of his book, but added it in galley proof: which is to say, he added it just after Michael Ventris, who proved that Linear B was in fact Mycenaean, had circulated his newsletter-formatted "Mid Century Report" -- and Velikovsky had seen a copy although he never acknowledged that in any way. Now it was astute of him to realize early on that Ventris was right, but that's not quite the same as reaching the conclusion from within his own premises, which in fact had to be mildly strained to let him derive that conclusion.
[August 2000: that above paragraph contains a mistake. Ventris's Mid-Century Report asked questions, and got a bunch of wrong answers which were the consensus on the scholarly community on what Linear B might prove to be. But in 1951 Ventris sent mimeographed copies of a DECIPHERMENT of some Linear B tablets into Mycenaean Greek to his scholarly mailing list. Then in summer, 1952, a new tablet was found, and found to be readable as Mycenaean Greek. Thus by October 1953 when Velikovsky made his "prediction" that Linear B would prove to be Greek, he was saying nothing more than the general buzz of the archeological scholarly community who had known it for a year; and it is very difficult to believe that Velikovsky didn't know that. But everyone was keeping quiet about it so that Ventris could make his announcement himself and garner the kudos for it; a courtesy that isn't so common nowadays.
I now have a copy of my February 1975 GALAXY column on this subject, and I'll get someone to type it in or maybe I will try to use my new HP scanner to read it. Then I will put it up here.]
There were other instances in which Velikovsky turned out to have appropriated the conclusions of others without acknowledging them; and some of his archeology turns out to be just plain dead wrong.
Which still does not invalidate his central conclusion, which is that some bizarre astronomical event dominated history in the early Bronze Age, bringing about not only the First Dark Age in which writing itself was nearly lost, and much of civilization crumbled -- an event not adequately explained by anyone I know. The First Dark Age is quite real.
Velikovsky postulated that the planet Venus erupted from the planet Jupiter, nearly hit the Earth, and eventually settled into its present orbit. This is a pretty startling claim. It's not likely to be taken seriously on its face, being considerably less likely than, say, the claim that the odd events Ezekiel depicts in the Old Testament were his attempts describe an encounter with an alien space ship. On the other hand, Velikovsky wasn't entirely without evidence, and Hogan summarizes that fairly well. Most was derived from archeological astronomical records, but it has long been a principle of astronomy that an observation is not negated merely by its age. Eventually, Velikovsky persuaded enough people that Big Science had to pay attention.
The attention they paid was shameful. One group of otherwise reputable scientists actually threatened the MacMillan company, which had originally published Velikovsky's book, with a boycott of their text books on the grounds that a company that would publish a popular work like Velikovsky's was probably so tainted that their textbooks were contaminated and worthless. MacMillan took the extraordinary step, unprecedented in my experience, of ceasing to publish a book on the best selling list and allowing Doubleday, which had no text line, to have a surely profitable book. The leader of this particular bit of scientific inquisition was Harlow Shapely, Harvard astronomer and otherwise respectable scientist.
Another bit of attention was arranging a 'debate' at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Velikovsky, an aged psychiatrist with a thick Viennese accent -- he was of Freud's generation and had been a junior associate of Freud -- was pitted against Carl Sagan, and if there was a referee or moderator he didn't do much. Sagan wisecracked through the whole 'debate', never once confronting anything Velikovsky said, and mostly using his verbal skills to ridicule the old man. It was as shameful a thing as I ever saw Carl do.
Alfred de Grazia, a political scientist at NYU did a book now out of print on the whole affair; it was, I think, the reason Possony got interested. I used to have a copy.
Hogan has some new thoughts on Velikovsky, but I think they are based in part on faulty recollection of what Velikovsky actually said and predicted. Taken as a whole, Velikovsky's specific hypotheses are, in my judgment, quite beyond belief. On the other hand, his general hypothesis, that there were astronomical terrors in the Bronze Age and memories of them have come down to us in myths and legends, has always seemed to me to be well worth taking seriously and is in fact very probably true.
I once spent a week on Santorini with Spyridon Marinatos, the Greek archeologist who concluded that the Atlantis legend arose from the historical catastrophe of the Thera eruption -- Thera is the ancient name for the island of Santorini -- and while he was ridiculed for his views when he presented them, they're now pretty widely accepted. Marinatos also found a number of archeological sites on Santorini that support his views. The Thera eruption is now thought to be the largest single energy event in the historical memory of mankind.
I forget whether Velikovsky incorporated any of Marinatos' hypotheses into his own theories. People forget that Velikovsky had a number of books in which he presented multiple theories, some contradicting others he had made. He eventually tried to prove that Oedipus and Ankhnaten were one and the same person, a rather extraordinary stretch. As I said, many of his 'predictions' are pretty worthless, and the way to take Velikovsky, in my judgment, is as an early starting point for reconsidering what we know about both astronomy and the Bronze Age; not as a specific source of hypotheses.
Hogan, on the other hand, does a pretty good job of drawing some instructive conclusions from the Velikovsky Affair, and if you've read all this, you certainly ought to read what he has to say. There's even evidence, unconvincing to me, but evidence, that Velikovsky's most bizarre theory had some merit.
Another thing that needs rethinking is the whole Darwinian notion of gradualism vs. catastrophism: and that's another can of worms. Catastophism is getting popular again, after a long period of being denounced. I know some of that: I was, at one time, reviled as some kind of primitive creationist for my view that Darwinian gradualism is so contrary to the evidence that it need not be taken seriously. I still believe that. Hogan has a good essay summarizing why. And of course Lucifer's Hammer is a novel about a catastrophe.
Anyway, go read Hogan. http://www.monadnock.net/fanspaces/hogan/ You'll like him, whether you agree or not.
And now a thoughtful comment:
I, too read most of Immanuel Velikovskys books in the 1970s and 1980s. Believed them for a while. From what I gather, Velikovsky only proposed these books as theories and asked for scientists to help corroborate them or to refute them using the science that they knew.
I recently spoke with a very distinguished astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, Dr. Don York. I asked him what he thought about Velikovsky and about the Shapley and Sagan incidents. Both are covered in Velikovskys book "Stargazers and Gravediggers." Dr. York expressed sadness at the vehemence of the attacks from "Science" (note the capital S). He also commented to me that nothing Dr. Velikovsky did used the scientific method.
Of course, nothing Marshall MacLuhan (whom I also studied) used that methodology either.
The end product of Dr. Velikovskys work encouraged two things, which were not encouraged in the 1950s and early 1960s when his more controversial books were most popular.
First, he encouraged broadening educational horizons within university curricula. This has resulted in the merging of several disciplines and the creation of more general studies programs. This has also encouraged students of the sciences to broaden their endeavors to include other disciplines so that serendipitous discovery would become a more regular occurrence in the various disciplines. The best outworking of that ideal to date is the Human Genome Project, which brings together molecular chemistry and biology into molecular biology and further fuses that with cybernetics and computer programming, as well as database design.
Interdisciplinary study has become more common.
Second, his theories, whether wrong or right, backed up by fact or speculation, encouraged us to think of a planet that may have experienced catastrophic changes in the pastand perhaps the "recent" past. Present theories of dinosaur extinction presently include giant meteor impact. No one would have ever thought to look for the evidence found just off the Yucatan Peninsula of a large, glancing impact that is included in the most recent theory of extinction if scientists were determined to continue to assume a slowly-evolving never changing planet Earth.
As Velikovsky wrote, "I lit many fires in the halls of science, but the torch I carried was only for illumination."
Thank you for your commentary.
I think this credits Velikovsky with more humility than I discovered when I met him at that fateful AAAS Meeting. I interviewed him and found him less articulate, but nearly as arrogantly convinced of his correctness, as Carl Sagan. But I could have caught him at a particularly bad time. But I agree, Velikovsky may have had a beneficial effect on American Big Science. Certainly we now pay more attention to odd views like Alvarez on the Dinosaur Killer.
Interesting treatment of Velikovsky, and its true that even a scoundrel which is, I think, a fair description of someone whod appropriate Ventris research without giving creditisnt necessarily always wrong.
As to the Dark Age that followed the 13th-century BCE breakdown, it was indeed very dark; literate civilization disappeared from mainland Europe and most of Anatolia, and was gravely set back in the Middle East. Ive just finished books 1 and 2 of an SF series set in that period, by coincidence, and have been doing a good deal of research about it. ("Island in the Sea of Time").
My own theory is that the systems collapse was so total because of the extremely centralized structure of the Bronze Age palace economies.
Evidently most of them came to an almighty sharp peak; they were very highly developed redistributive systems, enormously elaborated versions of a single noblemans household grown to the size of an entire state. Money hadnt been invented, and the market played a surprisingly small role; these were Oriental Despotisms of a starkly elemental kindin the time of the Ur III dynasty in Mesopotamia, the death of a single sheep can be traced in many separate documents in the central archives of a state that covered the whole of whats now Iraq. That one even seems to have had labor camps and huge slave-manned workshops as really important features in its economy.
This over-centralization was especially true in the peripheral areas (like the Mycenaean sphere) where the collapse was worst. The Aegean states were miniature second-hand copies of the Near Eastern monarchies, a thin layer rather than a longstanding growth.
For example, the Mycenaeans dont appear to have used writing for anything but palace account keeping; there may not have been more than a hundred or two scribes/literate persons in the whole of Greece. The Linear B writing system, like many Bronze Age scripts, was an abortionextremely complex, ambiguous, in some ways more like a code than an alphabet. It was exceedingly difficult to learn, requiring many years of tutoring under the guidance of an expert. (Some signs had as many as _seventy_ alternative meanings, depending on context.)
When the palaces burned and the specialists were killed or scattered, everything collapsed beyond hope of recall. The Iron Age cultures that arose in the next millennium tended to be much more resilient, because they were more decentralized and less dependent on bureaucratic absolutism.
I pretty well agree with that analysis. I had a book contract to do a story about the Fall of Atlantis, postulated as the Minoan civilization, and I spent time tramping around the Greek mainland, and the islands, and Crete, and of course Santorini. I spent several days with Marinatos at his excavation on Thera. My problem was that the Minoan Civilization was good, and it was destroyed by the gods, or by a volcano, or natural disaster, through no fault of theirs, and I didn't like that story. So I never wrote it. One day I may do one. The First Dark Age was dark indeed.
Joat Simeon (who turns out to be my several times coauthor S. M. Stirling) Replies:
The First Dark Age also provides an illuminating example of how fashions in archaeological interpretation interact with actual research.
For some time now, "diffusionist" and "migrationist" intepretations have been in deep disfavor in archaeological circles, particularly in the English-speaking worldColin Renfrews work comes to mind. Thus evidence of folk-migrations in the period after 1250 BCE tended to be interpreted away. (Eg., saying that Greeks just suddenly decided to start making swords with Central European styles.)
However, even Renfrew has been reconsidering this lately. It now looks as if the principle ancestors of the Philistines were actually Greeks, later assimilated linguistically by the West Semitic peoples among whom they settled. The Sea Peoples and the various hordes who were washing around the eastern Mediterranean at the time certainly included peoples from Italy and adjacent islands, and Anatolia was equally certainly invaded on a massive scale by the proto-Phyrgians and Armenians.
Id say the pottery and metal-artifact evidence indicates that groups from as far away as the Danube Valley were involved, or even northern Europeans. Theres no basic reason why not; you can walk from Denmark to Greece in a month, and very large numbers of people have done it with not much more technology than the Late Bronze Age had available. The Cimbri of 100 BCE, judging from the number of their fighting men in the last battle with Marius, must have numbered at least 250,000 all up, and they were only part of that horde. Julius Caesar turned back a comparable number of Helvetii when they tried to leave whats now Switzerland and enter the Roman domain.
I have known most of my life that the Philistines (Palestinians) were the remnants of the Minoan Civilization, who were themselves a mixture of Achaean and whatever people inhabited the islands before the Greek invasion. Graves's theory of a Zeus (Ius Pater, Sky-worshipping) invasion of people who revered the Great Military Family impacting on a mother-goddess people has always seemed about right to me. There isn't a lot left of the older people except in their myths, of course. The Mycenaeans were very efficient until the collapse of their culture.
Dear Dr. Pournelle,
Back in the middle 1970s I too became very interested in Dr. Velikovsky and his writings. I read all of them and still have three of his books (Worlds in Collision, Earth In Upheaval, &; Ages in Chaos).
Velikovsky's second published volume, "Earth In Upheaval", is really the one that reestablished catastrophism as a respectable academic concept. It's also the most noncontroversial of his books since it was simply a compilation of long ignored and unexplained anomalous archeological and geological findings (frozen mammoths in Siberia, clay figurines from under lava flows in Idaho, etc.) To the extent Velikovsky relegitimized Catastrophism, it was by refocusing attention on these known but ignored data. The controversy surrounding Worlds In Collision was what attracted attention to the second book.
I also notice that in the later books ("Ages In Chaos", "Ramses II and His Time", and "Peoples of the Sea") Velikovsky mostly dropped the controversial astrophysics and concentrated on reconstructing ancient history and archeology.
You are quite right about Sagan and his disgraceful performance. I didn't attend the AAAS meeting but Sagan replicated his non-refutation in his book "Scientists Confront Velikovsky". A better title for it would have been "A Scientist Refuses to Confront Velikovsky." I think Sagan's oral and written non-response did as much as anything to lend an aura of respectibility to the Doc's views and perpetuate the controversy. It's as if he accepted the con side of the debate and then defaulted on purpose.
At the time Velikovsky seemed very reasonable and even heroic to me. But his pose as the "Lone Ranger crusading for scientific truth and free academic inquiry" is very far from reality. Further study of Velikovsky's works showed me that he had several hidden agendas at work.
Velikovsky and His Agendas.
1. A Historical and Archeological Justification for Zionism. The ultimate theme of his ancient history work is best summarized as: "An Archeological and Historical Title Search for the Modern State of Israel." He accomplished that by bringing the fields of archeology and ancient history into complete concord with Exodus, Joshua, Judges and through to II Kings.
Along these lines two points ought to be remembered by anyone considering ancient history according to the Doc:
a. Velikovsky's father, Simon Yehiel Velikovsky was, with Theodore Herzl, one of the founders of modern political Zionism and an early Zionist pioneer in Palestine. He died there in 1937 aged 78. See the Dedication in "Ages In Chaos".
b. One of Velikovsky's admirers interviewed him in the late 1960s at Princeton. After a long discussion on several points this supporter was directly and very forcefully reminded by the 'Doc' not to forget what was really most important. And that was the modern State of Israel.
Certainly the conduct of Shapely's campaign was not his finest hour. Sagan definitely hit new lows without adding anything constructive.
Given the time "Worlds In Collision" first appeared (1950) and the context of recent Holocaust, Israeli independence, Stalinist Lysenkoism and other politicizations of science, Shapely &; Company's response is understandable if unfortunate. I have no doubt Shapely and others largely viewed Velikovsky's work as another attempt to distort science to the service of partisan political goals. But contemporary events made it impolitic for them to directly say so.
2. Anti-anti-Semitism. Among what I consider the Doc's 'stretchers' was ascribing the origins of anti-Semitism to the 3d Century B.C. Egpytian priest Manetho and an alleged scholastic error of Manetho's that supposedly led to the identification of the Jews with the Amalekites in the Greco-Roman world. This probably worked on anyone who hadn't read the Book of Esther in the Old Testament.
3. Apologia for Freudianism. "Oedipus and Akhnaton" appeared in the 1970s when the entire concept of Freudian psychoanalytics was coming under increasingly heavy attack in the psychiatric and general medical field. As you yourself pointed out, the "Doc" was a junior associate of Freud himself.
Velikovsky was far from the guileless crusader for Pure Academic Truth he costumed himself as being. This guy had strong hidden agendas at work and pursued them with vigor.
Yours Truly, Mark A. Gallmeier Port Charlotte, FL
Herewith, my letter commenting on David Morrison's review of the Sagan biographies in current SKEPTIC:
Sagan and Velikovsky
David Morrison is to be commended for being the only reviewer so far to include Velikovsky in his review of the two Sagan biographies by Keay Davidson and William Poundstone (Vol. 7, No. 4). This is because Velikovsky played a bigger role in Sagan's career as a critic of pseudoscience than UFOs and the face on Mars and because Sagan's treatment of Velikovsky holds lessons for skeptics which, unfortunately, the biographers and Morrison seem not to appreciate.
No one who knows what Velikovsky actually wrote can agree with Morrison's comment: "Sagan's critique of Worlds in Collision is brilliant popular science writing" because it is replete with invalid arguments, misrepresentations, inaccuracies, erroneous physics, and his own knife-twisting brand of condescending ridicule. Hence Sagan's analysis is hardly a proper vehicle with which "to reassure the public of science's basic fair mindedness," as Morrison states. Dr. Jerry Pournelle, a physicist, science fiction writer, and no fan of Velikovsky's, who witnessed the encounter between Sagan and Velikovsky in 1974, has written "Sagan wisecracked through the whole 'debate', never once confronting anything Velikovsky said, and mostly using his verbal skills to ridicule the old man. It was as shameful a thing as I ever saw Carl do."
Sagan failed to explain why Velikovsky is wrong in a way that would influence positively those, including many with PhDs in technical fields, who find merit at some level in Velikovsky's ideas.
Sagan's biggest technical error is in his "Appendix 3" on the cooling of Venus and it is worse than "a bit too glib and rhetorical," as Morrison remarks. What Sagan shows has nothing to do with cooling, but instead is the trivial identity that the amount of heat radiated to Venus in about an hour at 6000 K equals the amount of heat radiated from Venus in 3500 years at 79 K, as Dr. George R. Talbott explained in Kronos IV:2, 1978, and as I reported in my April 1981 letter in Physics Today, which was ignored by Sagan at the time and denied in my last corresondence with him in April 1996.
The book Velikovsky and Establishment Science (1977), edited by L.M. Greenberg and W.B. Sizemore, contains rebuttals to all of Sagan's main points against Velikovsky. These rebuttals were never answered, not by Sagan, and not even when Morrison and Donald Goldsmith, editor of Scientists Confront Velikovsky, participated in the dialogue on Velikovsky in Zetetic Scholar in 1979.
The encounter between Sagan and Velikovsky in 1974 at the AAAS session titled "Velikovsky's Challenge to Science" cannot properly be called a debate, as Morrison and others do, because their two papers were written independent of each other and Sagan left the meeting before the discussion session in order to appear on Johnny Carson.
Contrary to Morrison's account, Sagan did not organize the AAAS event. He merely endorsed the suggestion first made by Walter Orr Roberts. The organizers of record were Ivan King, Donald Goldsmith, and Owen Gingerich. In addition, all the conferences and journals that stimulated public interest in Velikovsky's ideas were in the 1970s, not the 1960s as Morrison states.
Although Velikovsky withdrew his paper from Scientists Confront Velikovsky over policy differences concerning the space allowed for rebuttals, his paper WAS published in three other sources: Pensee VII (1974), The Humanist (Nov/Dec 1977), and Kronos III:2 (1977) titled Velikovsky and Establishment Science. Interestingly, Velikovsky's paper was complete for distribution at the meeting in 1974 whereas Sagan's paper was not completed until over two years later in 1976 by which time its length had increased by 50%.
Support for Velikovsky existed in a context that most critics, especially Sagan, ignored. If a skeptic wishes to influence the beliefs of people having an interest in a topic, it is imperative that the skeptic address the issues as perceived by them. Thus, it is ironic that while many commentators applauded Sagan's slick and facile, though thoroughly flawed, critique of Velikovsky it was the rank incompetence of that effort that created a rallying point around which support for Velikovsky flourished far longer than it would have had Sagan produced an accurate and technically competent critique. In 1974 I was fully prepared to follow the arguments whereever they went, but Sagan's AAAS paper went beyond the pale of responsible criticism and made no attempt to address the issues as they were perceived by the readers of Pensee, whose interest had sparked the need for the AAAS session in the first place.
--Leroy Ellenberger, Author of "An Antidote to Velikovskian Delusions", Skeptic 3:4, 1995, < abob.libs.uga.edu/bobk/velidelu.html >, St. Louis, MO, firstname.lastname@example.org
I am not sure what to make of this, but I have to agree, although I think there are plenty of rational arguments in refutation of Velikovsky, Sagan didn't make them; or if he did, they were so buried in irrelevance as to hide them well. And I completely agree that a valid confrontation of Velikovsky in 1974 would have ended the matter: the slick job done which ignored Velikovsky's arguments in favor of "trust me I'm a scientist and this man is mad, ho ho ho" did little to reassure those who thought Big Science incapable of thinking outside the box...
Mr. Ellenberger has a much longer article along these lines at
My own views have not much changed. Velikovsky was dead wrong, but the Velikovsky Affair showed some serious problems with Big Science's abilities to cope with radical ideas. Velikovsky's value, such as it was, was to get people thinking about catastrophe in the Bronze Age.
Here is what the letter refers to:
by David Morrison
Davidson writes [in Carl Sagan, A Life] that "Sagan believed he had to do more than champion science; he had to attack its antithesis, pseudoscience. He was an especially effective opponent of pseudoscience because he was not an "establishment" figure. Š Sagan was too young, light-hearted, and prolific a speculator to be dismissed by pseudoscientists as just another academic party pooper. Hence, in the mid-1970s as his writing and television career took off he came to be perceived as the most effective critic of the pseudoscientific wave in pop culture." Let's look briefly at [one example] of this confrontation.
During the 1960s, the pseudo-cosmologist Immanuel Velikovsky developed a substantial following, with "scientific conferences" and "technical journals" devoted to examining his peculiar ideas about planets spinning from their orbits and careering through the solar system within historic times. There were also a number of scholars and journalists who felt that Velikovsky had been badly served by attempts made by Harlow Shapley and other influential scientists to discourage the publication of his sensationalist 1950 book "Worlds in Collision". Velikovsky and his followers taunted the scientific establishment for its unwillingness to give his ideas a fair hearing. Against this background, Sagan organized a public debate at the 1974 annual meeting of the AAAS, with Velikovsky invited to present and defend his views. As Davidson writes [in Carl Sagan: A Life]: "The debate would constitute, in effect, an apology to Velikovsky [for previous slights from astronomers], giving him the opportunity to submit his ideas to direct scientific scrutiny. The debate's ultimate goal was not to reassess Velikovsky's ideas (hardly any scientist took these seriously), but, rather, to reassure the public of science's basic fair mindedness."
The high drama of the event centered on the confrontation of the octogenarian patriarch Velikovsky and his young, brash critic, Sagan. It was a clash of immense egos on both sides. Sagan aimed his remarks (published in extended form in "Scientists Confront Velikovsky" edited by symposium co-organizer Donald Goldsmith) primarily at the public and science journalists, and by most accounts he was hands-down winner. Many people credit this debate as the beginning of the end for the Velikovsky cult, which is today reduced to a handful of obscure cranks.
Sagan's critique of "Worlds in Collision" is brilliant popular science writing, not really a serious technical discussion of Velikovsky's ideas (most of which hardly deserve such scrutiny). A few of Sagan's arguments, especially concerning the probabilities of planetary collisions, are a bit too glib and rhetorical. This infuriated the Velikovsky supporters, who perceived that Sagan not only was attacking their hero, but that he also did into take them seriously enough to engage in what they would consider a true scientific debate. They still damn Sagan for the "scientific inaccuracies" in his presentation. Ironically, while many scientists criticized Sagan for stooping to engage with an obvious crank, Velikovsky fans castigated him for not engaging more seriously, for taking the easy way out by making the old man look ridiculous.
Some academic critics from outside the physical sciences still question how Sagan and other astronomers could reject Velikovsky without reading his books and carefully studying his ideas. Perhaps they don't understand how readily someone with sound technical training and physical intuition can recognize pseudoscience like that of Velikovsky. You don't have to consume an entire meal of spoiled food to recognize the problem -- one or two bites is enough.
While I can agree with part of this, I think Morrison (who has done an admirable job of making catastrophism a scientifically viable hypothesis) misses the point. A AAAS meeting is supposed to be a serious scientific confrontation, not a pop show. Sagan ought to have been ashamed of himself.
For instance: "playing to the science press." Most of the science press corps attending a AAAS meeting is composed of highly educated and highly qualified people, some with scientific credentials. The annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers is held at AAAS and for good reason. Sagan didn't play to us: he played to the popular press corps, the naive types who were not looking for a scientific discussion and wouldn't know how to cover one. He didn't say one damned thing that was news to any of us who had done our homework; he was looking for headlines and publicity, and got them, and used the old man to help him draw a crowd.
It wasn't a debate it was pure showmanship, complete with gestures, posturing, poses, and the rest.
As to this being the beginning of the end for Velikovsky, perhaps, but I think this confuses cause and effect. It certainly wasn't the beginning of the end, anyway: Velikovsky was well on his way out, each successive book selling less well than the predecessor.
More to the point, Velikovsky had made his real point (even though he didn't know what it was).
There were two parts to Velikovsky's theories. One was a bunch of astronomical nonsense, that, if any large part were true, had fifty Nobel prizes in it: if any large part of Velikovsky's specifics were true, then not only is the history of the solar system different from what we imagined then [it is] but all of celestial mechanics as we thought we understood it was in a dreadful mess [it wasn't]. There were other implications for relativity, the nature of gravity, and electro-mechanical effects, all of which had to be different from what we supposed if any specific parts of Velikovsky's cosmology had merit. In a word, the old boy was wrong, wrong, wrong, and in some places simply silly. That wasn't hard to show.
The second part of Velikovsky's theory was quite true. He postulated, prior to 1960, that the solar system wasn't the quiet uniform place most textbooks imagined, and the history of the earth wasn't the long, quiet, almost uneventful progression that the Darwinists at that time thought they needed to make their theories on the origin of species work. Velikovsky postulated a series of catastrophes, some of them taking place recently enough that they were remembered in myth and legend and possibly even in written historical documents. Now he wasn't alone in that postulate -- and he wasn't the only one ridiculed for making it either.
It is hard for those who didn't live through the 40's and 50's to realize just how firmly the uniformitarian hypothesis was rooted, and just how much ridicule was heaped on those who rejected it. To postulate catastrophes in history was to reject Darwin, and take sides with the Biblical literalists. Now of course this is not true: my high school science teachers at Christian Brothers believed in catastrophes in history for very good scientific reasons, and neither they nor the Roman church insisted on the literal truth of the Bible, Noah's Flood as anything other than a local event, or Genesis in 7 literal days. I learned the theory of evolution in a Catholic school in the state of Tennessee (while the Scopes law was still on the books); I also was introduced to the riddle of what happened to produce the First Dark Age in the Bronze Age, to look underneath Exodus to see if there were not historical counterparts to the Biblical history, and the like; and I can guarantee you that people who had been taught that sort of thing were not welcomed as undergraduates in the 1950's. Believe me. I was thought a troublemaker for asking about such things.
Had Sagan chosen to read Velikovsky's work instead of merely skimming to find dramatic points to make, he might have pointed out that while Velikovsky was wrong about what CAUSED the catastrophes, he was right about there having been such.
That would have made the whole fiasco worth while. As it was, by ridiculing the old man and making a point of saying he had never read him, Sagan lent new life to the conspiracy view, and slowed the progress of real understanding. The irony is that Sagan, and Morrison, were themselves pioneers in discovering the real history of the solar system, which was hardly uniform, and Morrison has done some of the best popular work on documenting just what catastrophes have happened and some of their effects. For more from Morrison, see below
We continue the discussion of Velikovsky
Regardless the perceived merits or demerits of Sagan's critique of Worlds in Collision, the objective fact of the matter is that it did not appeal to those who were partial to Velikovsky's ideas and provided enough fodder for years of reaction, even obsessive over-reaction, that has not stopped to this day.
Typically, Velikovsky and his minions replied to all criticism that they perceived to be erroneous or otherwise actionable if they could put a negative spin on it, as was the case in Pensee times with the critics William Straka, prof of physics at U. Delaware, and William Stiebing, prof of history at U. New Orleans. In retrospect, Stiebing's archaeological criticisms were more on-point than those of Straka in the physical sciences. Other critics, such as Martin Gardner, Isaac Asimov, and L. Sprague de Camp, were always considered fair game for reply since they made many careless errors.
However, Velikovsky and his troops never replied in earnest and in a timely manner to Abraham Sachs' prepared remarks delivered in debate with Velikovsky at Brown University in March 1965 http://abob.libs.uga.edu/bobk/vsachs.html . Sachs's critique shows that a critic can be acerbic and have a bit of fun at the same time making penetrating and valid points, in contrast to the farrago of errors Sagan produced. Although Sachs' Address circulated in samzidat fashion such that John North would quote it verbatim in his review of Velikovsky Reconsidered in June 25, 1976 TLS, it was not published formally until 1992 in Aeon 3:1 when it was an appendix in my article.
Sachs' critique was so devastating that Velikovsky never completed his rebuttal when he returned to Princeton at which time he prepared final, typed rebuttals to the other three speakers on the panel at Brown. Finally, in 1996 in Stephen J. Gould and Immanuel Velikovsky (Ivy Press), Lynn Rose finally criticized Sachs posthumously with a few distinctly peripheral points (e.g., does it really matter whether or not Hommel was really senile when Sachs says he was?) that do not undermine or discredit the primary thrust of Sachs' remarks. If Velikovskians could really have refuted Sachs, they would have done it long ago even though the Address was not formally published. In April 1979 when Peter James vetted Sachs' Address at my request, the only criticism he mentioned was that current scholarship would opt for Lake Urmiah, instead of Lake Van, for the "sea" into which Shalmaneser pushed the opposing army.
Another critic whose valid analysis the Velikovskians ignored is Michael Friedlander, prof. of physics at Washington University, who confronted Velikovsky, Rose and Toni Paterson at Philosophy of Science Association annual meeting at Notre Dame in Nov. 1974. In the event Friedlander quoted several instances where Velikovsky had quoted sources fraudulently (e.g., changing Lyttleton's "it is even possible" to "must" concerning the origin of Venus from Jupiter by fission), but Velikovsky would not concede a thing. When Pensee X reported on the meeting, it said Friedlander did not have a prepared text; but his paper was published in the conference proceedings along with those of Rose and Paterson. Kronos later reprinted these latter two pro-Velikovsky papers, but not Friedlander's, which considering the tenor of the times after the AAAS would have been fair game for a typical Velikovskian assault.
And I would be remiss were I not to mention Jerry Pournelle's article on Ages in Chaos in the Feb. 1975 Galaxy science fiction magazine which Velikovsky ignored despite the editor's explicit offer of space for a rebuttal from Velikovsky; and make no mistake that Velikovsky did not see this article because I got my copy from Velikovsky's files. Readers of this posting may obtain a photocopy of this article plus the reader comments for $1.00 to cover costs sent to Leroy Ellenberger, 3929 Utah Street, St. Louis, MO 63116 USA.
So, while Sagan and other critics made easy targets for Velikovskian rebuttals, there was a small number of critics whose comments were so penetrating that they were ignored, thereby creating the false impression among subscribers to Velikovsky publications that Velikovsky was critic-proof.
Leroy Ellenberger, "Per Veritatem Vis"
"An Antidote to Velikovskian Delusions"
Again I have little to add to this. Thanks.
Dear Mr. Pournelle,
RE: The Velikovsky Affair.
I have been following this whole absurd exercise since I was 12 years old when I read Ages in Chaos, and Worlds in Collision. I later read Earth in Upheaval, and that silly book about Akenaton. All this reading left me prfoundly convinced of the essential silliness of Velikovsky's ideas.
I was twelve when I read both Ages ... &; Worlds ... I couldn't believe how DUMB they both were. Nothing I have learned since has made me cease to consider Velikovsky as anything but a high IQ fool, crank etc..
The desire and need to believe explain Velikovsky's followers. After all they are members of the TRUE FAITH and the rest of us sinners in darkness. What amazes me is that even many who consider Velikovsky's work worthless spend large amounts of time and spleen attascking those who ridicule Velikovsky!
Chief among the sinners is the late Carl Sagan who committed the wicked crime of not taking Velikovsky seriously. For this crime Mr. Sagan has been repeatidly excommunicated and damned. Having read Velikovsky's self induced idiocies, I fail to see the error in laughing at Velikovsky and ridiculing him. Nonsense needs to be laughed at!
Why Sagan is damned and Velikovsky protected in this manner is beyond me. If a twelve year old boy can read Velikovsky and come away thinking Velikovsky's theories are stupid and DUMB why should any Scientist take him seriously at all.
The only mistake I see that Sagan and the others made was to talk about Velikovsky at all. If Velikovsky had gotten into the public sphere at all the proper response, in my view, would have been deafening laughter.
As for the specific "errors" in Sagan's critique well they pale into tiny trivia compared to Velikovsky's continual never ending errors that seem to pack every page of his books. To mention just one example Velikovsky refers to wars between the Aztecs and Toltecs in the late eighth and early seventh centuries before Christ!
It is such a pity that silence did not greet Velikovsky's asine endeavors sparing us the "persecution" of this alleged "victim" of "Big Science". The only untold damage done was by Velikovsky to serious study.
What is all that supposed to demonstrate? Clearly you are far more intelligent than I am.
Since Velikovsky was merely a fool, any tactics to suppress him are fair, and laudable? I fear I cannot agree.
I will point out that a fair number of people have been thought fools and clearly wrong. Most of those were. But not quite all, including a Swiss patent clerk who said that there was something fundamentally wrong with Newton. And others. There are rules for sorting out which absurd propositions are truly absurd and which are something else.
The silly book about Akhenaton came out quite late in the game.
And Velikovsky was right about one thing that most of his critics insisted was absolutely crazy: that there had been catastrophes, both in history and prior to history. Impossible. All was smooth and uniform, you know. Clearly.
Dear Mr. Pournelle,
Thank you for your prompt reply to my e-mail. I appreciate it.
Regarding your comments. In my e-mail I do not say that any and all means to "suppress" Velikovsky's views were or are "laudable". I do not in any way support efforts to suppress or limit the freedom to publish or distribute para-science or paranormal nonsense. The right to publish includes the right to publish "crap". My point is that a much better or "proper" response to Velikovsky would have been to ignore him, the same way the vast never ending stream of similar para-science is ignored.
Regarding my reference to to Velikovsky as an high IQ fool I stand by that characterization. In the book Beyond Velikovsky, Baur refers to Velikovsky has an "ignoramous" and a "crank" in regards to science. My characterization is similar.
When I read Velikovsky at the age of 12 I could not take him seriously and I found him very funny. Like so many Creationists , Flatearthers, Channelers, etc., Velikovsky is unintentionaly funny. Velikovsky if noticed at all would have been better laughed at. I do not think that beening ignored or laughed at is supression.
Sagan's chief mistake in this entire matter was to get involved at all and waste his valuable time on it. I have similar concerns regarding Scientists wasting time on Erich Von Danikin and Ancient Astronauts.
Regarding Newton and Einstein. This is a familar tactic of Velikovsky's followers to draw a implied comparison with them. Two points about this.
(1), For every Newton or Einstein there are 999 (or more) cranks, and those people dead wrong. Velikovsky was one of the cranks.
(2), In Cosmos without Gravatation, Velikovsky tried to overthrow Newton and replace gravity with electro-magnatism. Reading this piece settled for me for all time my opinion of Velikovsky.
Velikovsky tried to "overthrow" Newton, Darwin and Einstein. He failed.
Regarding the debate concerning Uniformism and Catastrophism. That debate is centuries old going back and forth in terms of what school is dominate. Certainly this debate goes back at least to the Greeks. I do think that you may be exagerating the dominance of Uniformism 50 years. To give one example the theory of the moon being torn from the earth due to centrifigal force and leaving the pacific basin goes back to the 1930's if not earlier.
I note that you did not reply to my question about why so many individuals are so hard on Sagan et al and so soft on Velikovsky's much more serious errors of logic and science. Again why the need to create an image of the wicked Sagan against the Velikovsky?
How about three more dubious Velikovsky contentions to illustrate why I can not take him seriously. Hatshetsupts expedition to punt becomes the Queen of Sheba's visit to Isreal. (Egypt is Sheba!). Velikovsky's contention that the moon's craters are only 3000 years old. (very dubious!).
Velikovsky's contention that the Greek's + Roman's identified Venus with Pallas-Athena. (again very dubious!) One could go on and on but what is the point.
Regarding the disgraceful attempt to pressure the publisher of Worlds in Collision, and various other stupid attempts to supress Velikovsky, I have only the most complete disaproval of such attempts at limiting freedom of expression. Again a "proper" response would have been to ignore Velikovsky not waste time supressing him. The effort to supress him also spectacularily backfired and generated far greater fame and sales then Velikovsky would have had otherwise.
Again I would like to thank you for your comments and prompt reply. I realize that my rather supercilious tone may have struck a nerve with you which is why I have tried to be more serious in this reply. However I just cannot take Velikovsky seriously except in terms of free speech.
No, the right response would have been to listen to what he said and see if any of it made sense. Some of it did. His discovery of all those ancient records of catastrophes both as history and as myth were correct. He put the wrong interpretation on them and ended being absurd; but his central thesis, that something happened that was not accepted by the conventional historians was absolutely correct.
More than that, his rejection of the uniformitarian hypothesis, which was what was at stake, was correct, and it was that challenge that set off his critics. It was no more difficult for them to believe that Venus swung about in its orbit than that there were catastrophes in both historical, archeological, and geological times. THAT was what had to be suppressed. And was.
As to high IQ fool, you are clearly a lot smarter than me. I read his records, and they made a lot of sense. His physical explanations were incorrect, but he called to evidence some real events that needed explaining. No one was trying to explain them.
I am glad there are people smart enough to know the truth from age 12 after first reading. I am not one of them. I did, however, point out that most people who challenge the scientific standards are wrong, and I do not see why you act as if I did not say it.
The reply to this was another iteration of the above message, to which I made a brief reply. Finally, with my reply being perhaps the only reason to publish all this:
Thank you for your prompt reply to my follow up to your previous reply. I think we have a real basic disagreement here. I see Velikovsky as one of a long line of "fools" "cranks" etc., who have made a huge popular splash. I just don't see the difference between Velikovsky and the vast assortment of sellers of pseudo/para-science of this age, past ages or the future. So lets agree to disagree.
Even fools deserve elementary courtesy. To take the trouble to schedule a “debate” at a AAAS meeting and then use that as a means of being non-responsive and insulting to an elderly man certainly was intended to inflate Carl Sagan’s ego (although that would be difficult to do) but accomplished little else. What was the point?
[December, 2010: in reviewing this I see I was harder on Carl Sagan than I intended. Carl was a friend. We were not close but we knew each other a long time. He went out of his way to attend a AAAS panel I co-chaired with Rolf Sinclair in Washington DC at a time when getting to DC from Ithaca was made nearly impossible by the weather. Carl was incorrect in many of his political opinions, but when he functioned as a scientist he played by the rules of science. In his debate with Velikovsky he made little pretence of playing by the rules of science.]
If Velikovsky was not worth taking seriously then he should not have been taken seriously. Harlow Shapley should not have gone to his publisher to get his book suppressed. The AAAS doesn’t bother with debates over the Flat Earth or the Hollow Earth or the Rosicrucians. Someone decided Velikovsky was good enough publicity to draw crowds that the AAAS apparently couldn’t draw without him. Someone was jealous of his sales and decided to get his publisher to cancel a best-selling book (which was then published by Doubleday). If you believe that this is the normal treatment to be given to fools and idiots then you are probably not very cognoscente of the history of scientific debate. The Velikovsky Affair is interesting for two reasons:
1. The extraordinary measures taken by Big Science to suppress him. Why bother with just any old fool?
2. The hysteria on the part of the uniformitarians who simply could not brook any challenge to their “long time uniform conditions” hypothesis required for their theory of evolution by gradual stages. We now know that in both historical and geological times there have been real catastrophes wiping out whole species; those could not happen under the theories of the then dominant camp of evolutionists. Now we know better, and understand that evolution can and does take place in part triggered by catastrophes which change conditions rapidly. The old uniformitatian group which staged the ritual auto-de-fe for Velikovsky (who was in fact an old arrogant man, but no one deserves that kind of intellectual ambush) are themselves about as discredited as Velikovsky. The old man was vilified for challenging uniformitarianism. That challenge turned out to be vindicated. There have been catastrophic events in both human history and geological history. None of that was admitted at the time of the Velikovsky affair.
I will probably publish this exchange.
(February 2001) Now some new material from Leroy Ellenberger:
I am looking forward to the publication in Skeptic of David Morrison's article on the Velikovsky controversy which will contain the results of his recent poll among scientists, "Velikovsky's Influence on Science". While the results Morrison got from his sample were pretty unanimous, it might have been instructive had there been two additional questions:
Would you agree to be on the program for a Velikovsky-related conference? Yes or No.
If "No", would you agree to be an invited speaker at a Velikovsky-related conference with transportation, lodging and meals paid by the organizers? Yes or No.
The reason I ask is that there was a time when it was appropriate for scientists to engage Velikovskians at conferences in the hopeful interest of "consciousness raising" missionary work, e.g., the June 1974 Symposium at McMaster University sponsored by Pensee magazine where David Morrison, Derek York, James Warwick, Michael Nieto, and Willis Webb were speakers at their own expense, along with a host of Velikovskians, including Velikovsky.
However, times have changed and the Velikovskians and their successors have shown that their only interest is to impugn the integrity of mainstream science and explore "exotic" branches of science that might be enlisted to support their planet-juggling fantasies. Thus, the maverick astronomer Halton Arp with his supposedly non-cosmologic red shifts and plasma physicist Anthony Peratt at Los Alamos National Laboratory were invited speakers last September in Portland, OR, at the Neo-Velikovskian "Saturnist" conference sponsored by David Talbott's Kronia Group. Incredibly, both will be featured presenters at Kronia's "Intersect2001" conference this July in Laughlin, NV, <http://www.kronia.com/intersect.html>. Others who have enjoyed Kronia's largess recently include astronomers Victor Clube (with his competing astronomical catastrophic model) and Tom Van Flandern (with his heretical exploding planet hypothesis), geologist Robert Schoch (who claims a very early date for Egypt's Sphinx), and independent scholar Zecharia Sitchin (of 12th Planet fame who also requires a $12,000 appearance fee).
Many scientists believe cults such as Velikovsky and related ought best be left alone to wither and die, but this can be an extended process so long as Talbott has access to recently successful entrepreneurs with more money than good sense so that real scientists such as Arp and Peratt can be recruited to give these "alternative science" conferences an undeserved veneer of respectability. Perhaps some scientific Good Samaritan or two or three might be motivated to spend a few days in Laughlin, NV, between July 6 to 9, 2001, in order to keep the proceedings honest, considering invited speakers, regardless their true beliefs, refrain from calling a spade a spade when confronting Saturnist planetary fantasies at such meetings. The following text provides more background by way of an expanded version of my "Velikovsky Update" that will accompany Morrison's article.
David Morrison's survey article on the Velikovsky controversy, coming in Skeptic magazine, will contain much new material, esp. the results of his survey among scientists concerning how Velikovsky impacted (or not) their education and careers and the first critical examination in print of the progaganda in Lynn Rose's 1972 article in Pensee I (reprinted in Velikovsky Reconsidered) "The Censorship of Velikovsky's Interdisciplinary Synthesis". It will be accompanied by a sidebar providing an update on developments since 1985, the terminus of Morrison's discussion, which date marks the publication of Henry Bauer's highly acclaimed Beyond Velikovsky (U. of Illinois Press) and the disproof of Worlds in Collision on the basis of the evidence in the Greenland ice cores. The following text is an enhanced and enlarged version of this sidebar. Comments welcome:
Worlds Still Colliding
A Velikovsky Update
The reaction by many Velikovskians to the litmus test in the ice is a study in classic cultic delusion. One might have thought that the Velikovsky movement would have ended with the crucial test in Kronos 10:1, 1984, of the Greenland ice cores the absence of a visible layer of debris specific to Velikovskys scenario - that disproved Velikovsky's planet-juggling catastrophes, which had been proposed by R.G.A. Dolby in SIS Review 2:2, 1977. Such a rational expectation proved to be wrong, making all the claims to "interdisciplinary synthesis" and urgings for "objective re-examination" of the evidence a charade.
In Kronos 12:1, 1986, &; 12:2, 1987, Lynn Rose (then Prof. of Philosopy at SUNY-Buffalo), one of many critics, granted the antiquity of the ice, but, unable to find any trace of Velikovskys catastrophes therein, claimed Velikovskys signal is the ice at depth in the so-called brittle zones, deposited between the Venus and Mars episodes when supposedly Earths axis had no tilt. However, this ignores the fact that the ages of the brittle zones do not coincide with Velikovskys dates; nor does it explain why the ice should be brittle. Rose assumes Velikovsky was correct and ignores the concordance of tree rings and ocean sediments with ice cores. In 1990, Rose refused to defend his ice core arguments against this writer at the Reconsidering Velikovsky conference in Toronto.
In The Velikovskian 2:4, 1994, Charles Ginenthal rejected the antiquity of the ice entirely, claiming that the bulk of it was deposited almost overnight.
Sean Mewhinney, who does not suffer fools gladly, refuted Rose in 1990 with "Ice Cores &; Common Sense" in Catastrophism &; Ancient History 12:1 &; 12:2, and Ginenthal in 1998 with "Minds in Ablation" <http://www.pibburns.com/smmia.htm>, exposing their absurdities in exhaustive detail. Rose has yet even to acknowledge either Dolby or Mewhinney.
Others who have at least resisted the litmus test in the ice include Al DeGrazia, C.J. Ransom, Lewis Greenberg, Shulamit Kogan, Warner Sizemore, Fred Hall, Clark Whelton, Alasdair Beal, Bernard Newgrosh, Hugo Meynell, Dave Talbott, Irving Wolfe, and Gunnar Heinsohn. This denial of the clear message from the ice cores is an example of invincible ignorance, reminiscent of the flat earthers reaction in 1870 to Alfred Russel Wallaces proof of the Earths curvature on the Old Bedford Canal.
Most Velikovskians in America have also spurned the modern catastrophist alternative to Velikovskys scenario proposed by British astronomers Victor Clube and Bill Napier. These neo-catastrophists use myth to inform our understanding of the ancient sky but reject Velikovskys colliding planets. For them, humanitys archetypal fear of comets and the origin of sky-combat myths result from Earths intermittent, energetic interaction with the Taurid meteor stream during the past 10,000 years. Although not accepted by most astronomers, at least this hypothesis does not contradict the laws of physics. Regardless, Velikovskians reject it because they stubbornly cling to Velikovsky's two most fatal flaws: (1) equating gods with planets when a planet was only one of many visible manifestations of a deity and (2) believing Venus was once a comet when it is too massive ever to have had a visible tail as real comets do.
Most surviving Velikovskians now accept that Worlds in Collision and Ages in Chaos are seriously flawed, if not completely wrong. Many therefore propose that the real interplanetary catastrophes occurred earlier than Velikovsky claimed, often in the context of the Saturn theory, inspired by an unpublished Velikovsky manuscript. The Saturn theory envisions Earth as part of the polar configuration that orbited the Sun such that a nearby Saturn loomed continuously over the north pole as a rotating crescent. Saturnists claim mythology preserves the record of that alignment and transition to the present Solar System by 2000 B.C.E. The rotating crescent motif, unsupported by any independent, contemporary evidence, is only a figment of the imagination. The ice cores also contain information that contradicts the former existence of any "polar configuration." Having failed to make a prima facie case <ftp://ftp.primenet.com/pub/lippard/cle-antidote>, the Saturnists shift the burden-of-proof by challenging critics to prove their model wrong.
As an example of the malleability of myth, in 1910 in The Original Garden of Eden Discovered, J.M. Woolsey explained the lunar theory of mythology in which the Moon was "the throne of all the gods and the key to all mythology." In his 1987 paper "The Bedrock of Myth," suppressed by Aeon, Roger Ashton showed that the major themes in the "Saturn myth" can be explained by botanical forms.
Since conventional physics precludes any such arrangement of planets, Velikovskians have adopted the plasma-theoretic electric universe model, propounded by civil engineer Ralph Juergens, as a deus ex machina. Supposedly the Sun is an electric discharge powered by an influx of electrons. Based largely on various analogies, this theory has no quantitative basis and is disproved by everything known about the Suns behavior <http://www.geocities.com/Tim_J_Thompson/electric-sun.html>. Juergens work is carried on by the Holoscience project <http://www.holoscience.com>, promoted by retired computer systems engineer Wal Thornhill, now a "physicist" on the basis of his 1964 B.S.
What of Velikovskys revision of ancient history? Chronology revisionists exist today in two schools: modest and drastic. The modest revisionists shorten Egyptian chronology less drastically than Velikovskys 500 year compression, eliminating only a century or two by various schemata; e.g., <http://www.centuries.co.uk>. The drastic revisionists claim, in essence, that the second millennium B.C.E. of Egyptian and Near Eastern history is a fiction that duplicates the first millennium. John Crowe provides a survey of activities in this area <http://www.knowledge.co.uk/sis/ancient.htm>.
Today, interest in Velikovskian studies resides primarily with four groups: (1) Saturnists are the most visible with the journal Aeon <http://www.tebra.net/~ev.cochrane> and Kronia Group <http://www.kronia.com> (founded in 1988 by Dave Talbott whose earlier efforts with Pensee arguably led to the 1974 AAAS symposium where Carl Sagan clashed with Velikovsky), which publishes the electronic newsletter Thoth, produces the Mythscape video series, and runs the kroniatalk listserve. Their alternative-science conferences include invited speakers with bona fide scientific credentials, such as plasma physicist Tony Peratt and astronomer Halton Arp, who provide a veneer of scholarly respectability. (2) Charles Ginenthal founded The Velikovskian in 1992 and has produced several books and sponsored annual conferences. (3) The diversified Society for Interdisciplinary Studies in England, established in 1974 <http://www.knowledge.co.uk/sis/>, publishes Chronology and Catastrophism Review. (4) The Velikovsky Archive is a web resource <http://www.varchive.org> containing many manuscripts, lectures, and correspondence. The journal Kronos, which folded in 1988 after twelve volumes, is survived by its press, a publisher of Velikovskian and related tracts. Catastrophism &; Ancient History ceased in the mid-1990s.
The resistance of Velikovskys successors to all the contradictory physical evidence mounting since 1977 and their failure to embrace Clube and Napier's model indicate they are congenitally incapable of changing their core belief, namely recent interplanetary catastrophism. By contrast, the revolutionary terminal Cretaceous impact 65 million years ago was accepted during this same time by most scientists within a decade; see J.L. Powell, Night Comes to the Cretaceous (New York, 1998).
Leroy Ellenberger is a chemical engineer with graduate degrees in finance and operations research. He was Executive Secretary and Senior Editor for the Velikovsky journal Kronos, confidant to Velikovsky, and Devil's Advocate for Aeon. His "An Antidote to Velikovskian Delusions" appeared in Skeptic 3:4, 1995 < http://abob.libs.uga.edu/bobk/velidelu.html >. Mr. Ellenberger can be reached at < email@example.com >.
I think I have said about all I want to on this. At AAAS this February in San Francisco I happened to be reminiscing with some of the old timers in the science press corps who had been at the AAAS meeting at which Sagan confronted Velikovsky. I was rather surprised by the unanimity among the press corps: Sagan grandstanded, and did not address Velikovsky's points. He played to the popular press, ignoring science, and trying for pro-Sagan headlines. And it was a bloody shame. So say I and so say they all...
Here is the story I was reminded of recently, while watching the film "A Beautiful Mind", on how the distinguished mathematician Ralph Abraham got interested in Velikovsky's orbital pin-ball back in the mid-60s when he was teaching at Princeton.
Velikovskians and related denizens of the fringe have been trading on Abraham's work for the past several years in an attempt to generate a sense of legitimacy for Velikovsky's and related scenarios. Norman Levitt sent me this story just over a year ago in response to my sending him my "Velikovsky Still Colliding" < http://abob.libs.uga.edu/bobk/velstcol.html >, which was written for Skeptic magazine, and that version contained a reference to Abraham. For context, this interaction between Levitt and Abraham occurred at the time when (1) the Velikovskian Cosmos and Chronos study group was founded at Princeton, (2) Velikovsky was "ambushed" at Brown University by Abraham Sachs <http://abob.libs.uga.edu/bobk/vsachs.html>, and (3) Velikovsky later exorcised his demons against Princeton sophomore Kim Masters (see end of text in URL above) in The Daily Princetonian.
From Norman Levitt
The mention of Ralph Abraham in this context was somewhat jarring. I'm afraid that I, personally, am responsible for bringing Velikovsky to Abraham's attention, though I did so in the most casual way, with the most innocent intentions. It happened about thirty-five years ago in the common room of the Princeton Math Dept., when I was a grad student there and Abraham on the junior faculty. I just happened to mention Velikovsky because Abraham was then working on the qualitative dynamics of classcal celestial mechanics, a subject that, through the ideas of Smale, Moser, etc., was beginning to develop some of the concepts that were to amalgamate into "chaos theory." Rather to my surprise, Ralph said that Velikovsky's notion didn't strike him as crazy because of such examples of violations of structural stability in Newtonian mechanics such as Moser's "Moon Bus." I thought Ralph was going out of his way to be generous because of his well known enthusiasm (which most of us shared at the time to one degree or another) for all things countercultural and antiestablishment.
Abraham has been a very astute and productive mathematician at times. But, more than anyone I know from that era, he bought into the entire 60's mythos without reservation or skepticism. I still remember his rapid transformation, within a couple of months, from Ivy League preppy to full-blown hippie! I and most of my friends flirted with the '60's culture (and more than flirted, so far as politics is concerned) but Abraham plunged in headfirst, never emerged, and apparently has been living out his life as a fossil hippie for all these many decades. (I shall not regale you with Abraham anecdotes, but most of my personal memories of '60's weirdness (pharmaceutically induced and otherwise) are involved with Ralph and his circle of friends, with whom I hung out from time to time.) In sum, I think it's somewhat misleading to think of Abraham as a cynical mercenary in the fashion of some of the professional "science heretics." He's more the true-believer type.
I also note again my theory that the Velikovsky craze amongst some sociologists, notably A. de Grazia, had something to do with the emergence of contemporary "science studies," with its arrant hostility to "official" science and its messianic conviction that sociology is the Master Theory of Everything.
Norman Levitt, Math, Rutgers
Actually, de Grazia wasn't, as I recall, a Velikovsky believer, nor was Possony: both were interested in the pathological reactions of the science community. De Grazia's The Velikovsky Affair was much more about Harlow Shapely and his people than about Velikovsky. It shows that scientists can be subject to the True Believer syndrome...
[If you got here through a Wikipedia link, you probably want to go to the TOP of this page and start there. This is one of many discussions in the Chaos Manor web site.]
To repeat: The Velikovsky Affair was much more about Harlow Shapely and his people than about Velikovsky. It shows that scientists can be subject to the True Believer syndrome...
And here a very good (if long) account of the AAAS meeting and an assessment of Velikovsky by David Morrison, whose book with Clark Chapman, Cosmic Catastrophes, remains one of the best refutations of the long-held uniformitarian hypothesis I know. Uniformitarianism was a form of Political Correctness in science, and it was from its defense that many of the frantic efforts to refute Velikovsky were born.
Herewith David Morrison:
TEXT IS TAKEN FROM "VELIKOVSKY AT 50" BY DAVID MORRISON, PUBLISHED IN SKEPTIC (2001)
THE AAAS DEBATE
Thanks to his claims of successful predictions, Velikovsky’s star was rising in the early 1970s. He received many invitations to lecture at universities, even at his old nemesis, Harvard. He also spoke at NASA’s Ames and Langley Research Centers. Quite a number of faculty and students (mostly from the humanities and social sciences) took up his cause, and a journal (Pensee) devoted to his ideas began publication.
Against this backdrop, Carl Sagan of Cornell University and other astronomers decided to devote a symposium at the 1974 AAAS meeting to Velikovsky. Sagan wrote that “I and some other colleagues in the AAAS have advocated a regular set of discussions…of hypotheses which are on the borderlines of science and which have attracted substantial public interest. The idea is not to attempt definitively to settle such issues, but rather to illustrate the process of reasoned disputation, and perhaps to show how scientists approach a problem….” (23)
Donald Goldsmith of SUNY Stony Brook, one of the symposium organizers, wrote that “the stated commitment of the AAAS to the sharing of scientific ideas with the public, together with the public interest in his theories, provided sufficient reason to hold a symposium.” (24) Owen Gingerich of Harvard, another organizer, later recalled: “I remember two reasons for organizing it. First the Velikovsky supporters were arguing that scientists were close-minded and unwilling to listen to their good arguments, and we felt something should be done to defuse this claim by giving them a public platform. Secondly, and for me more important, my students were hearing a lot of pro-Velikovsky news, and no respectable astronomers were willing to take the time of day to explain to the general public why they didn’t take his scenario seriously…I don’t think there was any effort to convert the hard-core Velikovskyites, but simply to make arguments available to a broad general public.” (25) Velikovsky himself, however, took the invitation as a victory. He wrote that “the astronomers are on the defensive...They asked me to participate in the AAAS meeting. I did not ask.” (26)
The Velikovsky symposium was the most popular event of the 1974 AAAS meeting, drawing a crowd of nearly 1500. Since the principal speakers, Velikovsky and Sagan, both exceeded their time allocations, the symposium was continued in a special evening session. Although there were seven speakers, attention focused on Velikovsky and Sagan. Velikovsky, then in his late 70s, projected a vigorous image, tall, imperious, and confident. Sagan, little more than half as old, was equally articulate, confident, and charismatic. Their papers and subsequent comments provide an excellent overview of most of the astronomical areas of dispute between Velikovsky and “establishment science,” but little on ancient history or archeology. Velikovsky presented a succinct summary of his theory, with emphasis on his successful predictions. He received a standing ovation for his proud assertion that not one word of his writings needed revision. Sagan focused on 10 tests of Velikovsky taken from WIC. Their presentations are in proceedings volumes. (27)
Velikovsky’s supporters took little satisfaction in the outcome. They had come expecting to hear a reasoned scientific discourse conducted among equals. Instead they were hit with Sagan’s debunking, aimed not at them but at the general public. As Leroy Ellenberger later wrote, “Sagan’s analysis of WIC was not designed to appeal to the interested, informed layman who was interested in Velikovsky, yet also amenable to a reasoned, valid critique. Sagan’s analysis contained errors in physics that were never corrected.” (28) Velikovsky himself accused the symposium organizers of bias, with “no pursuit of scientific debate in mind... The scientific and semi-scientific press showed by its reports that it was orchestrated—the very sentences, and the very same errors of fact and number, appeared simultaneously in many reviews.” (29)
Sagan intended his “10 problems” to provide a definitive answer to Velikovsky as well as an example of how scientists analyze new hypotheses. However, Velikovsky and his followers considered Sagan’s paper to be an unforgivable catalog of errors. It may be useful, therefore, to assess Sagan’s 10 problems from the perspective of 25 years later. In doing so, I will use two terms common in the space sciences. One is “back-of-the-envelope” or “rough order of magnitude” estimates, abbreviated ROM. These are simplified calculations to obtain a very approximate numerical solution. Often a ROM estimate is sufficient to reject an implausible hypothesis. Second is the concept of the “strawman”—a simplified version of an idea that is used as a first rough estimate. Both ROMs and strawman arguments appear extensively in Sagan’s critique.
Problem 1: The ejection of Venus by Jupiter. Velikovsky had not explained how or when the Venus-comet got loose on a planet-crossing orbit, but he did say it was ejected from the Jupiter system. (Later he would suggest that Jupiter split apart as a result of interactions with Saturn). Sagan analyzed a strawman in which Venus is ejected from Jupiter like a bullet shot from a cannon. He used a ROM calculation to show that the energy of such an expulsion is more than sufficient to melt the proto-Venus and probably to splatter it all over the solar system. Unfortunately, he used a slightly wrong value for the escape velocity from Jupiter. This did not invalidate his ROM argument, but it undercut the credibility of the entire exercise for the non-science audience, who usually expect calculations by scientists to be precise.
Problem 2: Repeated collisions among the Earth, Venus, and Mars. Velikovsky had asserted that multiple collisions occurred between these three planets during roughly one millenium ending about 700 BCE. Sagan performed a ROM calculation of the probabilities of repeated planetary near-encounters. Since Velikovsky provided no information on the orbital dynamics that would make these events happen, Sagan tested a strawman in which the events are stochastic (unrelated), showing that the odds against such a series of near-collisions are absurdly high (one in 10^23). But Sagan did not consider coupled or resonant orbits, which would invalidate his strawman. His is also a post hoc probability calculation—after the fact, almost any specific sequence of events seems improbable, as Velikovsky correctly stated in his rebuttal.
Problem 3: The Earth’s rotation. Velikovsky asserted that the Earth’s rotation changed dramatically about 3000 years ago; in his preferred scenario it actually stopped, then began rotating again in the opposite direction. Sagan raised many valid objections to the idea that tidal or electromagnetic forces could have stopped the Earth’s rotation, let alone start it up again. These are among the principal flaws in Velikovsky’s scenario.
Problem 4: Terrestrial geology and lunar craters. In Velikovsky’s theory, the Earth suffered extreme geological disruption from the close passes of Venus and Mars. Sagan noted many contradictions between Velikovsky’s scenario and the geological record. There was not a general eruption of terrestrial volcanoes a few thousand years ago, mountains were not thrown up, and the lunar surface was not melted.
Problem 5: Chemistry and biology of the terrestrial planets. Sagan pointed out that Venus’s oxidizing chemistry is inconsistent with its supposed Jovian origin and noted many other problems in Velikovsky’s chemistry, such as the composition of the martian polar caps. Velikovsky responded by quoting old astronomical authorities in support, but that is beside the point, since these references had since been proved wrong.
Problem 6: Manna. Velikovsky concluded that manna (edible carbohydrates) fell on the Earth from Venus, perhaps manufactured by microorganisms out of the hydrocarbons of the comet’s tail. Sagan set up a strawman in which the Venus-comet shed manna over the entire inner solar system, and he used a ROM calculation to show that the quantity of manna exceeded the entire mass of the Earth—a reductio ad absurdum. The exercise doesn’t prove much, since Velikovsky never postulated a model to explain the production of manna, but it went over well with audiences and Sagan, like Velikovsky, was a showman.
Problem 7: The clouds of Venus. Sagan, who was one of the world’s experts on the atmosphere of Venus, effectively demonstrated that Velikovsky’s ideas on this subject were completely at odds with the facts, concluding “Velikovsky’s idea that the clouds of Venus are composed of hydrocarbons or carbohydrates is neither original or correct.” Velikovsky’s reply stressed that hydrocarbon clouds had been suggested by others, but again this is beside the point—by 1974 we knew the clouds were sulfuric acid, although Velikovsky could not accept that fact.
Problem 8: The temperature of Venus. Again Sagan was on solid ground, speaking as one of the originators of the greenhouse model for the atmosphere of Venus. (30) Velikovsky categorically rejected the greenhouse model as “contradicting the second law of thermodynamics” (31) and apparently believed it was a fabrication designed solely to repudiate his theory. He also continued to assert, in contradiction to the astronomical data, that Venus emitted more energy than it absorbed from the Sun. There was no contest here, with all the facts on Sagan’s side. Unfortunately, Sagan added a quantitative appendix on the heating of Venus during a close passage by the Sun that makes no sense to me and has been widely criticized, undercutting his temperature argument.
Problem 9: The craters of Venus. Sagan noted that the presence of craters on Venus (recently discovered by cloud-penetrating radar) contradicted the claimed youth of Venus. This is at best a weak uniformitarian sort of argument, based on an assumption of roughly constant impact rates to form the craters. However, Velikovsky thought the craters resulted from recent interplanetary electrical discharges and did not accept the idea of widespread impact cratering in the planetary system. Neither perspective is very edifying.
Problem 10: The circularization of the orbit of Venus and nongravitational forces in the solar system. Sagan pointed out that there is no evidence that electromagnetic forces play any role in planetary dynamics, and that even if such other forces were at work it would be extremely difficult to change an elongated orbit into a circle (and Venus has the most circular orbit of any planet). These are sound arguments, and neither Velikovsky nor his supporters provided a coherent theory to rationalize the planetary motions that were central to his theory.
My own judgment is that Sagan’s critique would have been stronger without Problems 1, 2, 6, 9, and Appendix 3. (32) But I can understand his use of strawman models and ROM calculations. One of the frustrations of dealing with Velikovsky is his vagueness and lack of quantitative reasoning. In the absence of any specific scenarios or models from Velikovsky, Sagan substituted his own strawman versions and showed how absurd they are. In their rebuttals, Velikovsky and his supporters repeatedly said that Sagan had misrepresented their positions, but they did not offer any real alternatives. Sagan wanted to illustrate scientific thinking and show how hypotheses could be tested quantitatively. But this meant nothing to Velikovsky. His supporters delighted in finding minor errors in Sagan’s paper (and he made quite a few), but they missed the big picture.
The AAAS debate and subsequent publication was successful from the perspective of the scientist-organizers, but it infuriated Velikovsky’s supporters. Instead of serious scientific discussion, Sagan aimed his presentation at journalists and the public, seemingly delighting in making Velikovsky look ridiculous. As a consequence, the AAAS debate actually strengthened the stature of Velikovsky among his supporters. >From the AAAS meeting until his death in 1979, Velikovsky presided over a number of “scientific symposia” devoted to his work and saw the publications of thousands of pages of “scientific papers” defending his theory. . . . . . .
THE REAL CATASTROPHIST REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE
Ironically, the year of Velikovsky’s death, 1979, saw the keystone work that heralded a new perspective on Earth history, one much more open to catastrophist ideas. Already Gene Shoemaker and other planetary scientists had established the important role of impact cratering in planetary history, while Stephen Jay Gould and other biologists had published evidence of punctuated equilibrium—a stepwise history of evolutionary change. In 1979 Luis and Walter Alveraz and their colleagues made the critical identification of extraterrestrial material at the KT boundary—evidence that the impact of a comet or asteroid about 15 km in diameter had triggered the mass extinction that ended the age of the dinosaurs. Within a few years the idea of short-term, catastrophic changes in geological and biological history had become acceptable, ending a century in which strict uniformitarianism held sway almost unchallenged. In this new perspective, the course of biological evolution on Earth was critically linked with the planet’s astronomical environment.
Was this new acceptance of catastrophist ideas related to the Velikovsky debates of the previous 30 years? Presumably the scientists who were now leading this revolution were aware of Velikovsky and his theory. Had he influenced them? Some of Velikovsky’s supporters argued that he should be credited with success on the broad issues of a catastrophic Earth history even if he was wrong in his specifics. The suggestion was now made that Velikovsky had been the prophet of this new attitude toward planetary history.
The opposite hypothesis is also possible—that Velikovsky with his crazy ideas tainted catastrophism and discouraged young scientists from pursuing anything that might be associated even vaguely with him. Velikovsky himself hinted at this interpretation in his AAAS talk when he said “I may have even caused retardation in the development of science by making some opponents cling to their unacceptable views only because such views may contradict Velikovsky.” (36)
Rather than debate this issue on philosophical grounds, I decided to ask a group of scientists who have been leaders in establishing the new paradigms in which occasional violent events, such as asteroid impacts, play a significant role in planetary and biological history. I sent my questions to 25 of these scientists, and received 23 answers. As noted in the table, very few of them claimed any influence on their own scientific careers, but nearly half thought that Velikovsky had an overall negative effect by tainting catastrophist thinking and holding it up to ridicule.
Results of poll on possible influences of Velikovsky on main-stream science (23 of 25 replying):
1. At the time you began your research in these areas, were you familiar with Velikovsky and his “theory”? Yes: 18 No: 5
2. At that time, had you read Worlds in Collision? Yes: 7 Partially: 8 No: 8
3. Did Velikovsky and his ideas influence your interest in research on more catastrophist concepts in Earth and planetary science, either positively or negatively? Positive: 1 None: 16 Negative: 5
4. Do you think that Velikovsky and his ideas had any significant influence on the acceptance of catastrophist ideas in Earth and planetary science over the past half-century, either positive or negative? Positive: 0 None: 14 Negative: 9
Even more than these numbers, their individual comments illuminate how these scientists, who have been on the cutting edge of recent geological and planetary science, look on Velikovsky’s influence. Following are representative examples: (37)
George Wetherill (Carnegie Institution of Washington geophysicist, authority on planetary formation, dynamics, and evolution): I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago at the time Worlds in Collision was published, and I was asked my opinion of it by nonscientific students whom I knew socially. I browsed through a copy they showed me, and learned enough about his ideas to explain why I felt them to be of no scientific value…Velikovsky and his ideas had no influence at all on my thinking about scientific phenomena.
Walter Alvarez (UC Berkeley geologist, originator of the impact theory of the KT extinction, author of T Rex and the Crater of Doom): [Velikovsky did not influence science] in any positive ways. I considered him part of the problem we faced in getting a hearing for the KT impact hypothesis, because his ideas, which were incompatible with the laws of physics, had confirmed many geologists in their view that people working on extraterrestrial causes for events in Earth history were not doing good science.
David Raup (U Chicago paleontologist, authority on mass extinctions and evolution, author of Extinction: Bad Luck or Bad Genes): [Velikovsky’s] reputation added to my general feeling of unease with catastrophism. . . [For the field generally] I suspect his influence was substantial—but almost entirely negative.
Richard Muller (UC Berkeley physicist, originator of the Nemesis hypothesis, author of Nemesis): As someone who was deeply involved in the controversies at the time, I feel very strongly that having Velikovsky pave the path definitely did not help!…It was an annoyance to answer some colleagues who would bring up Velikovsky, and ask what I thought about him. I tried reading some of his books at that point, but found them so annoying (because of their apparent disinterest in truth) that I never finished more than about 5 pages.
Jay Melosh (U Arizona geologist, authority on the physics of impacts, author of Impact Cratering): I was fully aware (and embarrassed) by his “theories”…Any influence was purely negative. I had to continually explain to audiences that, although some of the recent work I was doing sounded a little like his ideas, there was no connection and the time scales for the proposed catastrophes are totally different.
Peter Ward (U Washington paleontologist, authority on impacts and craters, author of Rare Earth): I read parts of Velikovsky as a sophomore in college. I remember not finishing it because I had a very good astronomy background and knew bunk when I read it. I was busy with more important stuff, so I read parts, laughed, and moved on.…I think it is so fringe that it had no effect on the positive “neocatastrophism” that is so useful to our science today.
Norm Sleep (Stanford U geophysicist, authority on the impact frustration of life on early Earth): His effect was, if anything, negative.…One of his followers was friends with an MIT student when I was there. The follower seemed to be a true believer and kept citing things from the Velikovsky book and demanding a conventional explanation of poorly cited data that had once puzzled some geologist. The reasoning went: if you can’t find a conventional perfect explanation in two minutes that satisfies me, then my crazy theory and only it must be right.
Jack Hills (Los Alamos National Lab physicist, authority on planetary impacts and dynamics): I [first encountered] Worlds in Collision in the astronomy section of my public library in 1958, when I was in the 8th grade. I opened it up at random and read a section where he had Venus passing near the Earth to produce the parting of the Red Sea and other nonsense. I spent no more than 15 minutes reading the book. I put the book back on the shelf. I recall being very indignant that it should be in the astronomy section.
Don Yeomans (Jet Propulsion Lab planetary scientist, authority on solar system dynamics, author of Comets): Within the scientific community, I don’t think his ideas were taken seriously enough to directly influence any research directions. However, his ideas were well known and endlessly discussed within the popular press…For me, the most memorable aspect of the Velikovsky affair was the zeal with which those outside the scientific community attacked scientists who pointed out the absurdities in Velikovsky’s ideas. I remember being struck by how strident amateur scientists were in railing against what they perceived as the narrow-minded, elitist, scientific establishment.
Michael Rampino (New York U geochemist, authority on terrestrial impact cratering and extinctions): My general feeling is that Velikovsky added nothing positive to the debates on catastrophism. No reputable astronomers or geologists took him seriously. His geology and planetary science were completely wrong, and I found that he used mostly out-of-date references for geological “mysteries” that had long since been cleared up. I have found that some scientists were impressed by the historical references, but agreed that the science was bunk, while historians criticized the history and chronology, but thought that the “science” was exciting. He was primarily a negative factor, often used to make the new catastrophism debates seem silly. [As a put-down], some scientists would say to me, “That sounds very Velikovskian”.
The statements of these scientists indicate that none of them saw any value in Velikovsky’s theories, and that Velikovsky’s reputation sometimes impeded acceptance of their own work, or at least was an irritant when they described their work to the public. I am struck by how easily these scientists (by their own report) rejected Velikovsky. Note that these are not conservative, ivory-tower academics, constitutionally prejudiced against new ideas. They have been among the most creative and even revolutionary researchers in their fields, and even lean favorably toward catastrophist ideas. Like all successful scientists, however, they are used to making quick judgments concerning which evidence is more likely to be accurate and relevant, and which research directions more promising.
23. Sagan in Scientists Confront Velikovsky, p. 44. 24. Goldsmith in Scientists Confront Velikovsky, p. 23. 25. Personal correspondence from Owen Gingerich to Leroy Ellenberger, 1997. In reviewing this manuscript, Gingerich added a point about why the AAAS meeting started over half an hour late (personal correspondence, December 18, 2000): “That was because Velikovsky insisted that he would not appear until given a permanent seat on the platform and his own microphone so that he could interrupt at any time. It took some persuasion to effect a compromise so that the show could go on.” 26. Quoted in Beyond Velikovsky, p. 156. 27. “An Analysis of Worlds in Collision” in Scientists Confront Velikovsky, Cornell University Press, 1977, and “My Challenge to Conventional Views in Science,” in Velikovsky and Establishment Science, Kronos Press, 1977. 28. Personal communication from Leroy Ellenberger, 2000. 29. In Velikovsky and Establishment Science, p. 19. 30. Sagan’s doctoral thesis at the University of Chicago was centered on the calculation of the warming of Venus by a thick atmosphere containing large quantities of carbon dioxide and water. By 1974, a series of technical papers by Sagan and colleague James Pollack had established this greenhouse mechanism on a solid footing and provided a generally accepted basis to understand the high surface temperature. 31. Velikovsky in Velikovsky and Establishment Science, p. 17. 32. My own analysis at the time, “Planetary Astronomy and Velikovsky’s Catastrophism,” was written after Sagan’s AAAS lecture and reflected some of the criticisms noted here. It was originally intended for the Velkovsky journal Pensee, but ended up being published in Scientists Confront Velikovsky, pp. 145-176, when the journal folded. . . . .
37. The author will send a more complete set of these responses in reply to e-mail requests sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My own view is that Velikovsky had more impact than appears from this: some was negative in that he stirred up strong defensiveness among the uniformitarians, and their old males to the outside, horns out last ditch defense discouraged some younger scientists from rethinking the uniform hypothesis. The younger people brooded, and perhaps more than will admit it got interested through old Velikovsky. And perhaps not. It's impossible to prove. It's also impossible to show, today, just how firmly entrenched the uniform universe hypothesis was among the people who controlled grants and tenure promotions: in that sense Velikovsky is useful in showing to just what lengths otherwise rational scientists will go in defending their orthodoxies.
But as the spacecraft got out there and the data flowed in, the evidence against the uniform hypothesis became overwhelming.
And do recall that as late as Pasteur's time the French Academy of Sciences rejected the notion that meteorites had any extraterrestrial origins or that stones did or could fall from the skies.
Cromwell said famously, "Gentlemen, I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think you that you may be wrong."
I am not sure that anything useful remains to be said about this subject.
This came in today July 18, 2006 and is useful:
Looking back at the Velikovsky Affair helps put perspective on the modern paleoclimatology and global warming flap. Velikovsky had a main central thesis. This was natural catastrophes of global scale caused by extra-terrestrial agencies had occurred in the past and were documented in Earth's physical structure. This was at a time when uniformitarianism was still the 'consensus' view among astronomers and most geologists. The scientific establishment of the time countered this by stating Velikovsky's methods were unsound, could not support his conclusions and were contrary in many places to well established theory, such as Newtonian orbital mechanics. Velikovsky then put on a hair shirt and spent the rest of his life posing as a wandering prophet without honor driven out of his home town.
So what's happened in the interval? We've discovered that planet wide cosmic catastrophes have happened in the past and continue to happen today. The Chicxulub "Dinosaur Killer" crater has been found off Yucatan and extensively explored, along with its global effects. It's now held responsible for most or all of the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. Evidence accumulates another asteroid or meteor strike triggered the Permian Triassic Extinction. We've even witnessed the titanic event of the Shoemaker-Levy comet strike on Jupiter, in real time on the Hubble ST.
Does any of this vindicate Velikovsky? No. Velikovsky's theories did not predict any of these findings. None of them were the events Velikovsky claimed had happened, such as Jupiter had extruded Venus, which caused the events in the Book of Exodus and also caused Mars to change its orbit, producing further disasters in the 8th - 7th centuries BC. No subsequent developments of his ideas by the Velikovskians predicted any of the modern discoveries, either. They were discovered by people working according to the rules of hard 'science'. 'Hydrocarbons' have been found in many regions in space. They just haven't been found in the one place Velikovsky predicted they'd be found, which was Venus' atmosphere. Velikovsky's multi-disciplinary findings drew strong attacks from many quarters. Astrophysicists attacked his overthrow of Newtonian orbital mechanics and archeologists and historians refuted his ancient history interpretations. These were strong warning signs.
Paleoclimatology and its associated school of 'Global Warming Is Caused By Industrial Man' is now exhibiting many 'Velikovskian' symptoms. Leading statisticians say their math is junk and their data is sparse. Leading meteorologists who really know something about weather prediction say the Paleoclimatologists are clueless about how the atmosphere really works. Paleoclimatologists explain tree ring studies in ways opposite to the explanations supplied by the original dendrochronologists and botanists who studied the trees ("bristlecone pines").