Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Pseudoscience Wars by Michael D. Gordin

Source of book: I own this.


I had this book on my list, and found a cheap used copy. I usually read books like this from the library, but our system didn’t have it, so I went the used book route. 

 Just to clarify at the outset: this is not a book about what is and isn’t pseudoscience. It isn’t a comprehensive look at the Pseudoscience Wars™ in general. Rather, it is a history of what is generally acknowledged as the original pseudoscience war, between the scientific establishment and Immanuel Velikovsky beginning in the 1950s. 

 Wait, WHO? 

 I imagine most of us, particularly my age or younger, will be saying that. Before reading this book, that was my thought too, although, as I read it, I reached back in the recesses of my memory to some of the Young Earth Creationist stuff I absorbed as a Fundie kid. Not that Velikovsky was a friend of the YEC movement or anything. He thought they were nuts. They hated him as an atheist even while citing his works as “proof” of catastrophism. Older generations might remember some of the controversy surrounding him, but basically, he fell off the map after his death in 1979, and his ideas have become just another flavor on the fringe. 

 So, who was Immanuel Velikovsky? And what did he claim? Well, let’s see. He was a psychologist by training, born in what is now Belarus. He lived in Israel and the United States later. And his claim to fame was a book entitled Worlds in Collision.

 In that book, Velikovsky made some rather bold and unorthodox assertions about history and science. The genesis (so to speak) of his ideas was his belief that the various stories in world mythologies were not mere exaggeration or local events, but accounts of global catastrophes that actually happened. In order to make this work, Velikovsky argued for a series of “alternative” timelines to various human histories - otherwise the dates failed to line up as he wanted them to. This meant, among other adjustments, changing the ancient Egyptian calendar and annals about 600 years so they lined up with the Hebrew Bible. (Velikovsky was Jewish, although not religious, and apparently believed that his people’s sacred book was the most accurate of ancient texts. Which sounds kind of familiar, actually…) With this new timeline, Velikovsky argued that the human race had a collective amnesia of the global trauma which still affected us, and caused mainstream scientists to react to him with anger and denial rather than acceptance. (Hey, that too sounds like Evangelical gaslighting…) 

 It gets better! These global catastrophes were caused by….wait for it….a giant comet which is now the planet Venus nearly hit the earth, causing it to spin on a different axis, prolonged a day (hello, Joshua!), and pelted the earth with hydrocarbons that both made the sky catch fire (multiple myths) and gave us our crude oil reserves. Whew! That’s a lot. Oh, and this also disrupted the orbit of Mars, which made its own near collision and set of catastrophes some years later. 

 To make at least an attempt at a scientific basis for this, Velikovsky proposed that “gravity” as such was a myth, and that the force we experience as gravity isn’t a function of mass, but of electromagnetism.

 Yeah, it starts getting a bit out there once you dig in. And the key thing here is that Velikovsky didn’t start with astrophysics and then formulated a new theory based on science. Rather, he started with psychology and anthropology, then sought a scientific explanation for the psychological theories he invented. In fact, the book literally began as a project about Freud’s last work and kind away from the author into a totally different discussion. By most definitions, this puts it in the category of pseudoscience. The definition, however, is murky, as the author persuasively demonstrates throughout the book. Outright quackery is one thing, but pseudoscience thinks and often acts like legitimate science, and the border often only becomes clear in retrospect. 

 In the actual historical event, Velikovsky’s theories have aged very badly. As ludicrous as they were back then, subsequent scientific discoveries - and not just in astrophysics, but also the very historical and anthropological disciplines Velikovsky relied on - have consigned them to the dustbin of history. 

 So why was there such a huge kerfuffle? That is in large part what this book seeks to explore. 

 It is not an accident, according to Gordin, that the first true pseudoscience war occurred when it did. In the aftermath of World War II and the first atomic weapons, the reputation of science was at a high mark. At the same time, the cost of knowledge had skyrocketed. No more could dilettante aristocrats make earth-shaking discoveries in their labs. Science required money, time, and resources. Thus, when pseudoscience threatened to grab some of that money, mainstream scientists felt threatened. 

 But there was more to it than that. Not long before, a Soviet geneticist named Lysenko had managed to take over the Soviet academy with his unorthodox ideas (that genes weren’t inherited as much as they were changed by the environment - so building the ubermensch wasn’t just about Eugenics, but about creating an environment where good genes would develop and be passed on to future generations.) Lysenko then got the opposing scientists declared traitors and then fired and incarcerated. So, yikes. And then there was Joseph McCarthy on the warpath against anyone perceived as “communist,” and skeptical of science in general…

 There is a heck of a lot more too, but that’s why you should read the book. 

 In the actual event, Velikovsky managed to talk Macmillan into publishing the book in its science category. This was problematic because then the mainstream universities threatened to pull their publishing from Macmillan in retaliation (the book was eventually published by another publisher as a “popular” book), and a war ensued. Velikovsky was furious, and accused the mainstream establishment of censorship, and so on. The reverberations of this still echo today in any discussion of pseudoscience, pseudomedicine, and outright quackery. 


During the pseudoscience wars, doctrines that were relegated kicking and screaming to the “fringe” began to respond by deploying new arguments against the establishment, claiming not just that mainstream science was incorrect or incomplete, but that scientists were engaged in a conspiracy to suppress new knowledge.

 No pseudoscientist thinks he or she is one, of course. And drawing that line isn’t always as easy as one might think. 


Every discussion of demarcation at its core hinges around this fundamental tension between innovation and crackpottery.

 In addition to this, there is the question of resources, as I noted above. Should scientists spend valuable time refuting non-mainstream ideas? Ignore them? And what happens when the public takes a crackpot idea and runs with it? (Exhibit A: pretty much everything Il Toupee says…) As astronomer said about Worlds in Collision, “No amount if lying will alter the truth--but lying can alter the willingness of a people to accept the truth.” 

 And what about when the idea is so outside the mainstream as to make it difficult for any coexistence to work? As the author says about Worlds in Collision


The book was, and remains, an enthralling read. It also required, to account for the events described--near collisions of planets, comets the size of Venus, the transformation of a hydrocarbon/petroleum tail of the comet into carbohydrate manna for the Israelites--outright contraventions or at least severe modifications of the conventional understandings of celestial mechanics, physics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, and biology. 

In figuring out a response, mainstream scientists tried to define pseudoscience, starting with their analysis of Lysenko. The author lists four factors which are most commonly used to describe pseudoscience. After listing the factors, Gordin then shows their limitations. The factors are (simplified by me for this post): (1) claims that are sufficiently wrong to be pseudoscience (2) rejection of scientific methods such as controlled experiments (3) elaboration and justification of the conclusions in terms of philosophy or ideology (4) intervention in the scientific process by church or state or other outside, unscientific force. 

 Like current pseudoscientists, Velikovsky spent his life trying to gain scientific credibility. In one case, he leveraged his friendship with Einstein to that effect. The thing is, the two were friends - most likely because, as Jewish ex-pats who spoke German fluently, they shared a common language and experience. (And, of course, most German speakers had Nazi connections.) In any event, Einstein thought Velikovsky’s ideas were crazy. And told him so. 


Einstein answered that Velikovsky had “the stuff to thoroughly disprove even the table of multiplication with your historical-philosophical methods. Of the applause of the laymen, who have a secret grudge against arithmetic, you can be assured.” 

 And then...of course…the book talks at length about Henry Morris, and his relationship to Velikovsky. The parallels (as well as the differences) are fascinating. YEC has consistently been described as pseudoscience, and it fits pretty well. (If you want, go down the rabbit hole at Joel Duff’s blog, which is excellent.) Count me in the group of “liberal” Christians who believe that YEC has done a great disservice to the reputation and practice of Christianity by “detracting from the gospel of Jesus Christ by adding to it the human foolishness of pseudoscience.” 

 Gordin has done is research on YEC, by the way. I appreciate his discussion of George McCready Price, the Adventist founder of “flood geology,” and a big influence on Henry Morris. Price was arguably the first major advocate for the YEC viewpoint, arguing for a literal six day creation 6000 years ago, back in the 1870s. As Gordin points out:


At the time, this was decidedly a minority position among American Christians.

 Like a lot of the litmus tests for Evangelicalism (particularly white evangelicalism) that we take for granted today - abortion, social darwinism as economic policy, culture wars - Young Earth Creationism is a relatively recent phenomenon. 

 Speaking of recent phenomena, I was somehow completely unsurprised to find out that Velikovsky enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1960s among the Baby Boomers. If I were to pick a quintessential character trait of that generation (particularly the white, conservative ones), it would have to be the motto, “I got mine, sucks to be you.” But the susceptibility to pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, “alternative facts,” and rejection of science sure is apparent as well. Obviously not all, but good lord, look at what shows up in my Facebook feed from so many Boomers I know. And that’s before you get into the Bill Gothard phenomenon, or Fox News, or the alternative “medicine” industry. 

 With time, Velikovsky’s ideas were adopted by others - mostly on the fringe, which did not make Velikovsky happy. He tried to police his own fringe, but with limited success. Fun in this context was the mention of Erich von Daniken, whose ideas inspired the train wreck of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This part of the book is pretty amusing - things got weird really fast… 

 Whether it is with pseudoscience or even more fringy stuff, scientists are faced with an impossible choice, as the author notes. Astronomer Dennis Rawlins has the best quote on this issue in the book. 


“If one simply ignores the crank, this is ‘close-mindedness’ or ‘arrogance.’ If one then instead agrees to meet him in debated, this is billed as showing that he is a serious scholar. (For why else would the lordly establishment agree even to discuss him.) Irksome either way.” 

 This is so very familiar from my youth, when my family was immersed in both the Fundie subculture and its obsession with YEC, and also in pseudomedicine fads. It is that exact same Catch-22 that they deliberately place the establishment in. 

 So what is the cure? The book doesn’t really offer one, but does note that a number of advocates for Velikovsky eventually rejected his theories. Once they learned more of the actual science, they found the pseudoscience increasingly untenable. That is what happened to me regarding a LOT of the dogma I was taught - it didn’t survive a collision with reality. As Leroy Ellenberger said after he left Velikovskianism: 


“The less one knows about science, the more plausible Velikovsky’s scenario appears, especially when most of the discussion is hand-waving. Conversely, the more knowledgeable the reader, the easier it is to see that Velikovsky’s entire physical scenario is untenable. But unless a critic explains why something is wrong, the rejection is more ex cathedra than a credible refutation.” 

 This certainly matches my experience. As I learned more, the less I could believe of YEC and other dogmas. But also, it is hard to “refute” error when the person clinging to the error lacks the base knowledge to understand why the dogma is wrong. 

 The book ends with a look at our own time. Certainly pseudoscience hasn’t gone away. But Gordin draws a sharp contrast between pseudoscientists like Velikovsky and what he calls “denialists.” Velikovsky was wrong, but he was wrong in good faith. That is, he believed what he did genuinely, and without a nefarious agenda. 

 In contrast, denialists are hired guns for an agenda. They exist to protect powerful industries (such as the tobacco and fossil fuel industries), and use the tactics of the pseudoscience wars to create doubt - and achieve specific policy goals. While pseudoscientists are all over the place, and do not conspire or even often agree with each other, denialists are absolutely coordinated, centrally funded, and politically motivated. The lessons of the tobacco industry were learned well, unfortunately. The book is worth the read for this chapter alone. 

 This book is a little dense, and not the easiest read, because of its more academic purpose. It is thoroughly documented from primary sources, filled with direct quotes and historical events. It also intentionally remains fairly neutral in tone, focusing on the events rather than refuting Velikovsky. (As Gordin notes, plenty of books have already done that.) As a study of sociology and psychology as applied to pseudoscience, it is fascinating. 

 The Pseudoscience Wars was fascinating to me, and may be to you if you care about genuine science and how humans judge truth.


In addition to YEC, I will mention "Scientific Racism" as a modern day pseudoscience. Unsurprisingly, most of the white people I know who push YEC also have a habit of dragging out ideas from "scientific racism" when discussing protesters and police brutality.



  1. I’m reading Stamped from the Beginning, and it discusses the scientific racism used to justify slavery. I know you have his other book, but I think you’d like this one.

    By the way, most of the boomers I know are nothing like that. I’ve seen boomers show up in mass at demonstrations, and some look more like aging hippies. Also, a lot of boomers in the 1960s were involved in civil rights and anti-war demonstrations.

    1. I do want to read Stamped from the Beginning. :)

      Obviously not all Boomers go in for the conspiracy thing, and I know some great Boomers. But most of those posting way out their stuff that I know ARE Boomers. Just like pretty much every person who posts satire sites as fact, or with the "I know this is satire but it COULD be true of [political figure]" is a Boomer.