Book Review

Science, Democracy, and the Ironies of Pseudoscience

9780226101729a review by Tim Lacy

The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe
by Michael D. Gordin
304 pages. University of Chicago Press, 2012

To enter the thought world of Immanuel Velikovsky, the Velikovskians, and Velikovskianism is to be absorbed into a fantastical language of largess. One hears unfamiliar terms such as cosmic catastrophism, geocentric catastrophism, flood geology, astral catastrophists, secularly-oriented catastrophists, and alternative cosmologies. Michael D. Gordin’s intellectual history provides a sense of the characters, context, and complexity that surrounded Immanuel Velikovsky, his fans, and his followers. It is a fascinating and sobering story that will be of interest to all concerned about science, democracy, and the public good.

Gordin argues that Velikovsky and “his doctrines were ground zero” for “the pseudoscience wars.” Those wars, which occurred from the late 1940s until the end of the 1970s, “raised scientists’ anxiety over the incursion of ‘pseudoscience’ among their students and the public at large to a fever pitch.” Those labeled ‘fringe’ responded, in turn, “by deploying new arguments against the establishment.” They most powerful counterargument, the one that resonated most with the public, was “that scientists were engaged in a conspiracy to suppress new knowledge.” This unfortunate dialectic, which began during the McCarthy era and its “nationwide panic about conspiracies,” resulted in what Richard Hofstadter termed “the paranoid style.” Gordin asserts that fringe scientists not only absorbed some of that style (especially through ‘mimesis’), but that the science-pseudoscience dialectic has become “fossilized in amber.”[1]

This unfortunate dialectic and its differing historical contexts is used by Gordin to introduce a number of still relevant themes and topics: the ongoing debate about demarcating good science from junk science; the problems of suppression, policing, and academic freedom in the sciences; the process of scientific peer review and the role of referees; the role of consensus; and the boundaries between history, science, and historians of science. The result is a book that speaks to our current predicament. Debates about the science connected to vaccinations, evolution, and climate change become more, and less, understandable after a close reading of Gordin’s analysis of Velikovsky and the Velikovskians.

Since the live fire behind the culture and intellectual wars chronicled in this book have ceased, some review of its main character and signal events is in order. Immanuel Velikovsky is of course Gordin’s protagonist. Born of Jewish parents in Vitebsk, Belarus (the “Pale of Settlement”) in 1895, Velikovsky received training as a physician and psychoanalyst. He obtained a medical degree at Moscow University (conferral date is unclear in the text, but probably around 1920). Velikovsky’s training in psychoanalysis occurred under the “distinguished Freudian Wilhelm Stekel” in the early 1930s. The Velikovsky family moved to Weimar Berlin in 1921. Velikovsky became a proponent of Zionism through his father, Simon, and his father’s acquaintance, Theodor Herzl, around this time. Zionism remained preoccupation for Velikovsky, such that he and his family moved to Tel Aviv in 1930. They lived there until 1939, when they moved to New York City. They moved once more to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1952. Velikovsky and his family remained in Princeton and in the United States until his 1979 death.[2]

Velikovsky’s Weimar-era interest in Zionism coincided with, and fed into, his desire “to make a name for himself as a scholar.” This desire resulted in Velikovsky obtaining collaborators for editing and writing a large collection of Jewish scholarship, eventually published in multiple volumes as the Scripta universitatis atque bibliothecae hierosolymitanarum (or Scripta) in 1923. Its goal was to ‘demonstrate the role played in the scientific world by Jews.” Collaborators included Albert Einstein, who served as editor, and Elisha Kramer, who would become his wife. [3] Gordin is not this speculative, but one gets the sense that this project did several things to Velikovsky. It gave him the confidence (or ego) to think in grand terms about philosophy, history, religion, and intellectual life generally. It also acquainted him with Jewish history and traditions (though, curiously, Velikovsky became neither an orthodox or reformed practitioner of Judaism). Finally it made Velikovsky a name in the Jewish community, which provided him with an automatic audience for later writings.

Freud also inspired Velikovsky to think in grand terms, particularly the formers Die Mann Moses und die montheistische Religion (1937), published in English as Moses and Monotheism in 1939. Velikovsky read it in 1939 in Tel Aviv, where the book “provoked outrage and inspired furious debates” in the Jewish community. Gordin reports Velikovsky hated the work, but was “both drawn in and repelled by the an argument that…proclaimed the power of psychoanalysis and…denigrated the origins and destiny of the Jewish people.”[4] Velikovsky’s engagement is confirmed by the fact that all of his future work would deal with elements of Jewish history, psychoanalysis, and myth. He would expand those topics to include physics and science, as well as ancient history and a preoccupation with catastrophism.

Velikovsky’s first and grandest taste of controversy on these topics came with the publication of Worlds in Collision in 1950. Gordin argues that this is the work that started the “pseudoscience wars,” but it was also a work, for Velikovsky, that began with his attempts to refute Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. It was transformed, however, when Velikovsky read something called the “Papyrus Ipuwer” and other writings about the geologic age of the Red Sea. Worlds in Collision and other books that followed were centrally concerned with historical catastrophic events. In 1974 he would confess this concern as an obsession, saying he became “the prisoner of an idea” (i.e. cosmic catastrophism) after he moved to the United States. This book and others are psychoanalytic and linked to Freud in that its central premise is “collective amnesia.” They “treat historical questions” and primary documents “from the perspective of psychoanalysis.” And Gordin rightly notes the context and logic: “Whatever the current attitude toward Sigmund Freud’s psychological theories, there is no question that during the first half of the twentieth century they were considered scientific by many physicians. …A psychoanalytically informed view of history was therefore at least party grounded in science.”[5] Thus we see, in Worlds in Collision, all the elements of controversy: catastrophism, historical speculation, psychoanalysis via collective amnesia, and science.

Scientific controversy arose, however, not merely in relation to Velikovsky’s use of collective amnesia. Rather, hot disputes arose in relation to the physics involved in the fantastical events about which humans supposed were supposedly traumatized.  According to Velikovsky, ancient accounts of catastrophe (one from around 1500 BC and other in the eighth century BC) from the Jewish, Greek, and Egyptian traditions, which included (in Gordin’s words) “rains of fire, immense earthquakes, tsunamis, dragons fighting in heaven” and “sun stopping,” were neither “metaphors or ecstatic visions.” Rather, the earliest was “caused by a comet that had been ejected from Jupiter” and had “almost collided with Earth, remaining trapped in gravitational and electromagnetic interaction” with Earth, precipitating “two separate incidents separated by fifty-two years.” This comet eventually “stabilized into the planet Venus.” To summarize, again in Gordin’s words: “Thus, Earth’s nearest neighbor was a comet born in historical times, as attested by proper interpretation of the records of the collective memory of humanity.”[6] A memory, furthermore, that had been repressed by historical actors due to the immense trauma caused. But “the veil of amnesia” could be pierced and “evidence uncovered” through “proper psychoanalytic interpretation.” Then Velikovsky—and no other—would carefully reconstruct and interpret the evidence.[7]

Other works by Velikovsky, published before and after Worlds in Collision, show his preoccupation with ancient history, historical theory, science, and psychology. Titles include: Ages in Chaos (1952, vol. I, meant as a companion to Worlds), Cosmos without Gravitation (1946), Earth in Upheaval (1955), Mankind in Amnesia (1982), Oedipus and Akhnaton (1960), Peoples of the Sea (1977, vol. II of Ages), Ramses II and His Time (1978, vol. III of Ages), Stargazers and Gravediggers (mss, no date), Theses for the Reconstruction of Ancient History (1945), The Third Exodus (1917), and Thirty Days and Nights of Diego Pires (1920). [Constructing this list brings to mind a significant annoyance in Gordin’s book: the lack of a bibliography of Velikovsky’s books, articles, and manuscripts. To find the publication dates above I had to extensively search both Worldcat and Gordin’s index. If an index seems indulgent, it could have been combined with another need: a chronology of significant events in Velikovsky’s life.]

Several great insights obtained from Gordin’s book are linked to the publication and reception of Worlds in Collision. Studying that book helps one understand values and perils of peer review, the demarcation debate, and attempts at suppression. One of the astounding facts in the history of Worlds is that it passed peer review with one of the great scientific publishers of the period, Macmillan. It made it through two rounds of review, with three reviewers in round one and two in the second. Gordin does note that refereeing was relatively new phenomenon in the late 1940s—“certainly not widespread before the 1930s in the United States.” He added that referees were selected by Macmillan editors “to fit their vision of the book” and the book’s status as a popularization of science. This resulted in two scientist reviewers “rejecting the science entirely but still endorsing the book.” In Gordin’s words, those scientists “saw their task as advising the press” on the book’s qualities but “not ‘protecting the public’ from erroneous views.” Despite Macmillan’s prominence in publishing scientific works, they saw Worlds in Collision as “a trade publication designed to appeal to the public.”[8] The term ‘trade’ here denotes the desire for revenue and profit, but Gordin does not explore further the economics of publishing the concurrent “paperback revolution.”

One of the great themes of The Pseudoscience Wars—the essence of the book even—is the fuzzy, complex, and contextual line between true science and fringe science. Peer review helps sort out that difference but, as noted above, it is an imperfect endeavor. Peer review, rightly done, helps brighten the line between consensus and perpetual disagreement. But even Alfred Einstein confessed “that ‘there is no objective test’ for when an unorthodox theory should be rejected or accepted.” The reflections of Martin Gardner (1914-2010), famous for his “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American (1956-81) and the author of more than 70 books, offered the most insight into the demarcation debate as it related to Velikovsky. According to Douglas Martin, who authored Gardner’s obituary for The New York Times, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould praised Gardner as follows, circa 1982: he was “the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us.” [9]

By way of principle, Gardner concurred with Einstein and felt that the polemical term ‘pseudoscience’ was sometimes warranted. Gardner wrote, in 1950 (per Gordin), that there “is no sharp line separating competent from incompetent research.” Furthermore, in relation to Velkikovsky, he added: “There are occasions when a scientific ‘orthodoxy’ may delay the acceptance of novel views, [but] the fact remains that the distance between the work of competent scientists and the speculations of a Voliva [the prominent Flat Earth theorist] or Velikovsky is so great that a qualitative difference emerges which justifies the label of ‘pseudo-science’.” Even so, Gardner noted that “pseudoscience is a fuzzy word that refers to a vague portion of a continuum on which there are no sharp boundaries.” There are no rigid and precise criteria that allow for thorough debunking and the drawing up of a hard line of demarcation. That said, an observation from Gardner provides a connection to Velikovsky’s fascination with Judaism and another important theme in Gordin’s book: history. Writing for the Antioch Review in December 1950, Gardner observed that Worlds in Collision was, at based, an attempt to justify the Old Testament (particularly by linking the Venus story to the Exodus, which showed Velikovsky’s deep goal of reconciling ancient history to the Torah and Judaic tradition).[10]

Although the popular story about Velikovsky revolved around demarcation, a potentially more interesting tale, at least for historians, involves Velikovsky as amateur historian. Gordin dives into this theme in The Pseudoscience Wars, particularly in chapter two. He classified Worlds in Collision as both an “inquiry into history” and a “unified science-history of catastrophism,” noting that Velikovsky’s “attention…had always been on history,” particularly the “historical significance of the Jewish people and the reliability of the Hebrew Bible” as a primary text. That attention, however, came with error. Velikovsky’s flawed historical thinking is evident in a maxim recorded by Gordin. Velikovsky believed, with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, that “a historical fact cannot be denied because of a physical theory, and if such a fact is established, the physical law must suit the fact, not the fact the law.”[11] Let that sink in. If Velikovsky could triangulate any historical ‘event’ with some ‘recognized’ primary resources (however steeped in myth), and come up with a an interpretation (a theory, however farfetched) that stitched together those ‘facts’, then both the documents and his interpretation were more powerful—to him and his followers, the Velikovskians—than any recognized sciences, whether geology, anthropology, math, chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy.

Velikovsky’s errors in historical thinking extended into areas beyond interpretation and the uncritical use of primary sources. He either refused to engage all potential sources, or he selected and emphasized those steeped in myth. He engaged in chronological gymnastics. Velikovsky reworked Hebrew and Egyptian chronologies by denying the results both carbon dating and corroborating evidence obtained from the deciphering of hieroglyphs and other archaeological work.[12] And of course the abovementioned psychoanalytic tool, collective amnesia.

Gordin wisely and plausibly postulates that the misclassification of Worlds in Collision as a work of science rather than history (i.e. myth) set off a train of events that kept Velikovsky in the news, longer perhaps than was necessary.  Indeed, because the reception of Worlds came first at the hands of scientists, debates about the book were structured as Velikovsky “versus obscurantist dogmatists too blind to see the merits of his new theory.” Overly aggressive scientists “fired the first shots of the pseudoscience wars” and “reoriented the conversation away from history and toward science.”[13]

Gordin meditated on history because Velikovsky himself would eventually claim, in 1972, that he was “a historian” and not a scientist (though Gordin shows that Velikovsky, in the 1950s, had wanted “to inch toward the scientific mainstream”). At the end of his chapter on Velikovsky as historian Gordin asks, “Where are the historians in these debates?” The answer is, basically, almost not present. Excerpt for a few, they generally ignored Velikovsky’s work. The University of Liverpool’s Kenneth Kitchen refused a close engagement because, if he were expose Velikovsky to the “several thousand more facts” needed to properly think historically, the latter would use the same “obscurantist dogmatist” retort. All opposed were Ivory Tower pedants, a “closed caucus” protecting their scholarly interests. As the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute director, Carl Kraeling, noted in 1950: “The silence of Middle Eastern scholars is more effective than the scandalous attempt at suppression by the academic astronomers.” At least one historian of science, Otto Neugebauer, attempted to engage Velikovsky. But the former’s refutation gained no popular traction in part, Gordin speculates, because Neugebauer did not focus exclusively on historical issues like Velikovsky’s chronological errors.[14]

The “suppression” mentioned by Kraeling came almost immediately, even though most astronomers and scientists chose to focus their opposition on Macmillan rather than Velikovsky. Gordin shows that few actually wanted Worlds banned or suppressed. The original goal was more of an unorganized boycott of Macmillan, which Gordin argues was an “economic tool designed to publish a commercial enterprise” rather than an intellectual tool used to deny Velikovsky academic or intellectual freedom. Marketing staff at Macmillan, and later at Doubleday (which took over Velikovsky’s contract after Macmillan could no longer handle the pressure from scientists), used the “suppression narrative” to increase sales. Indeed, the effectiveness of the that narrative was such that later scientists, like the historians mentioned above, caused many scientists to conclude that “sometimes attempts at opposition backfire and only make the demonized doctrine more popular.” It seemed that “overt hostility” stoked rather than doused flames. Writing a fellow chemist friend in 1967, seventeen years after the Velikovsky affair, Nobel Prize winner Harold Urey—a “leading statesman of science”—felt it had been “a mistake to pay any attention” to Velikovsky. If the big choices in responding to fringe science are to react, debunk, or ignore, most go with the last. Many responsible scientists after Velikovsky chose, in Gordin’s words, to “stay mum.”[15]

Not only was this a big lesson learned from Velikovsky affair veterans, it is also a lesson that Gordin seems to support. Societies that support free discourse can manage discussions, somewhat, even if no one party can control them. In the case of Velikovsky, scientists learned that their polemical opposition merely publicized the fringe.  Rather than having that publicity cause the public to shy away from Velikovsky, his followers, and Worlds in Collision, it kept the conversation centered on them. Opposition piqued rather than suppressed curiosity.

Gordin offers other lessons—more subtle if no more satisfying than the “stay mum” solution. Channeling Richard Hofstadter, particularly his 1965 work The Paranoid Style in American Politcs, Gordin recognized that a central feature of the fringe is “mimesis.” It is true that pseudoscience mimics and resembles “the essence of science.” Fringe scientists will outdo regular scientists in “the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry” (using Hofstadter’s words). Fringe scientists mimic in that they themselves engage in intense processes of demarcation. They call competing theories ‘pseudoscience’ and castigate the established science community for its closed-mindedness and uniformity. Velikovsky, for instance, accused regular scientists of “uniformitarianism.” Given the rabbit hole of complexity that is fringe thought, Gordin argues that “pseudoscience is an empty category, a term of abuse.” Because “pseudoscience is the shadow of science…cast by science itself through the very fact…[of] demarcation,” it is “inevitable.” Gordin concludes: “The mimetic features of these fringe doctrines make it impossible to come up with bright-line demarcation criteria that would make differentiating among them straightforward.” Even peer review goes only so far in terms of demarcation, since it too can be mimicked by the fringe. As Gordin notes, it “is not a magic solution.”[16]

Lest one think these are the conclusions of Gordin alone, he is backed by at least one contemporary philosopher of science, Larry Laudan. Gordin cites Laudan in his text. The latter asserts that no simple checklist will demarcate science and nonscience. “The object of the quest” for “a demarcation criterion” is, to Laudan, “nonexistent.” Terms like ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘pseudoscientist’ perform “only emotive work for us.”[17] However satisfying they are to employ, they are insufficient to end arguments.

This makes pseudo and fringe science a problem to be managed rather than eradicated. Control of the pestilence occurs through the careful and calm deployment of persuasive, educative rhetoric. The spectacle of “Ham on Nye” (i.e. Bill Nye debating Ken Ham on evolution v. creationism) is less effective than the long march of our citizenry through the liberal arts and our education institutions: pre-K, kindergarten, primary, middle, and secondary schools—plus a little college if our state budgets can manage it.

Given its American context and the politics lurking behind Gordin’s work, it is somewhat surprising that he never directly addresses democracy as a distinct topic. Gordin most often uses the term ‘public’ rather than democracy—even though ‘the public’ in his book is nested in the United States. Only once does Gordin hazard the association, arguing that the issues that surrounded Velikovsky in the 1950s “could not be resolved by democratic methods.”[18] Here I believe Gordin missed an opportunity, both internal and external to science as an institutional endeavor.

On internal lines, some discussion of how ‘consensus’ works in science—i.e. how ‘voting’ never explicitly occurs—would have been enlightening to those who do not understand how theories and laws become accepted in the scientific community. Gordin could have emphasized experimentation and the slow, hard-won accruals of knowledge that occur in the sciences. He could have discussed the presentist nature of scientific endeavor, and how theories and laws are validated in everyday scientific practice. Gordin does a reasonably good job of explaining why the ‘paradigm’ and ‘paradigm shift’ schemas will not work well in debunking Velikovskian ‘science’.[19] But Gordin could have used Kuhn positively to discuss the long and deliberate historical process of paradigm formation—how that process wins consensus by results and respect for deliberation.  It seems certain, for instance, that Velikovsky’s outsider status caused him to both misunderstand the ‘immovability’ of certain scientific truths and not receive friendly ‘fraternal correction’ in relation to his historical-scientific theories. As an outsider it was too easy for him to be cavalier with certain findings of physics and geology.

Thinking externally about science, in terms of its democratic publics, Gordin could have explored the reception of accepted, consensus science in a free society. That exploration might have revealed that scientists must always engaged in the building of a ‘scientific sensibility’ among the populace, via popular science and the work of people like the aforementioned Martin Gardner.  Without discussing the role of popularizers and the state of science education as of the 1950s, it is hard for the reader to know whether the contours of “The Pseudoscience Wars” were a given.  Perhaps it is not, for instance, always and everywhere true that demarcation is an impossible task. Maybe the postwar, Cold War period was fertile ground for rumors and fears, for a skittish democratic public? Was the postwar period, particularly the 1950s through the 1970s, one that was particularly lacking in deference to establishment science?  Did establishment science lose credibility in relation to perceptions of its bent for advancing destructive technology? The charge of ‘pseudoscience’ loses force when one feels that ‘science’ itself has become detached from the betterment of humankind.

It is difficult to know whether pseudoscience is an inherent problem in democracies if one has no baseline of comparison. For instance, what other seemingly ‘fringe science’, by perception anyway, has actually forwarded something that the scientific community accepted before the public? Perhaps a comparison to the various findings of scientific medicine, particularly those associated with public health, might be fruitful? If one could compare successful educative campaigns in the sciences, the reader could assess, by difference, how effectively the scientific community communicated its message over time. Maybe the scientific community has a messaging problem that extends well beyond debunking the so-called pseudosciences? Or maybe it just had a messaging problem in the American postwar period?

These questions and points show, at a minimum, that more historical work is needed before we can declare, definitively, that fringe science is a permanent problem and that suitable bright lines of demarcation can never be satisfactorily achieved. It may be a permanent problem in the United States, insofar as its public continually reviews and critiques its institutions with democratic lenses. If it is true that the United States sufficiently educates its public to be at once independent skeptical thinkers and poor scientific thinkers, then demarcation will indeed be an ongoing problem. That the sufficient condition is not presently true does not mean it will always be untrue. But, so long as it is true, the fringe sciences will always have a following in such a society—and more “pseudoscience wars” will likely occur. If specialist scientists, furthermore, feel little or need to translate their latest findings for the public, then it seems guaranteed that skepticism and poor relations will continue.  This is less a problem of demarcation and gullible publics than a problem of misinformation and poor leadership in the sciences.

None of my questions about the scientific community, its leadership, its publics, and its democratic setting diminishes the importance of Gordin’s text. Through the story of Immanuel Velikovsky and his followers, The Pseudoscience Wars touches on deeper issues that haunt the landscape today. Gordin enables the reader to understand how fringe sciences and dissent persists in the face of strong science to the contrary. The introduction (titled “Bad Ideas”) and conclusion (“Pseudoscience in Our Time”) are alone worth the price of the book.  Both should be required reading for all aspiring and current intellectual historians. The book is brief (212 pages of text) and accessible, so it could be fruitfully used in undergraduate courses (in history and the sciences) dealing with the role of the sciences in postwar America.  Indeed, I hope this book is widely read and discussed—as well as used as a basis for further study.



[1] Michael G. Gordin, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 4-5, 203.

[2] Ibid., 14-15, 52-5, 64.

[3] Ibid., 53-5

[4] Ibid., 57.

[5] Ibid., 4, 50, 60-1, 231n2

[6] Ibid., 5-6, 61.

[7] Ibid., 71.

[8] Ibid., 30-32.

[9] Ibid., 123; Douglas Martin, “Martin Gardner, Puzzler and Polymath, Dies at 95,” The New York Times, May 24, 2010, New York edition, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/24/us/24gardner.html.  Almost nothing, amazingly, has been written about Gardner at the USIH blog.

[10] Gordin, 12, 50, 101, 223n19. For more on Gardner: “Interview with Martin Gardner,” Notices of the American Mathematical Society (June/July 2005), http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/1420714/posts.

[11] Gordin, 49, 64, 71

[12] Ibid., 67

[13] Ibid., 49, 51.

[14] Ibid. 73-7, 116.

[15] Ibid., 46, 164, 178, 210.

[16] Ibid. 1, 202-3, 206, 208-9.

[17] Ibid., 10-11.

[18] Ibid., 106.

[19] Ibid., 9-10.

Tim Lacy is the author of the newly published (and soon to be reviewed here) The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea. He is the Academic Support Advisor and Assistant Professor, Loyola University, Chicago. He is a founding member of SUSIH.

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