Catastrophism: The Pseudoscience Wars


Steven Shapin reviews Michael Gordin's The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe, in the LRB:

Fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, a chunk of stuff blew off the planet Jupiter. That chunk soon became an enormous comet, approaching Earth several times around the period of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and Joshua’s siege of Jericho. The ensuing havoc included the momentary stopping and restarting of the Earth’s rotation; the introduction into its crust of organic chemicals (including a portion of the world’s petroleum reserves); the parting of the Red Sea, induced by a massive electrical discharge from the comet to Earth; showers of iron dust and edible carbohydrates falling from the comet’s tail, the first turning the waters red and the second nourishing the Israelites in the desert; and plagues of vermin, either infecting Earth from organisms carried in the comet’s tail or caused by the rapid multiplication of earthly toads and bugs induced by the scorching heat of cometary gases. Eventually, the comet settled down to a quieter life as the planet Venus, which, unlike the other planets, is an ingénue at just 3500 years old. Disturbed by the new girl in the neighbourhood, Mars too began behaving badly, closely encountering Earth several times between the eighth and seventh centuries BCE; triggering massive earthquakes, lava flows, tsunamis and atmospheric fire storms; causing the sudden extinction of many species (including the mammoth); shifting Earth’s spin axis and relocating the North Pole from Baffin Island to its present position; and abruptly changing the length of the terrestrial year from 360 to its present 365¼ days. There were also further shenanigans involving Saturn and Mercury.

If this story makes you feel even the slightest stab of recognition, you’re probably at least fifty years old, because it’s a summary of the key ideas in Immanuel Velikovsky’sWorlds in Collision. Published in New York in 1950, the book is now almost forgotten, but it was one of the greatest cultural sensations of the Cold War era. Before it was printed, it was trailed in magazines, and immediately shot onto the American bestseller lists, where it stayed for months, grabbing the attention and occupying the energies of both enthusiasts and enraged critics. The brouhaha subsided after a few years, but the so-called Velikovsky affair erupted with greater violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the author gathered a gaggle of disciples and lectured charismatically (and at times incomprehensibly) to large and enraptured campus audiences. Velikovsky’s story was chewed over by philosophers and sociologists convinced of its absurdity, some trying to find standards through which one could securely establish the grounds of its obvious wrong-headedness, others edgily exploring the radical possibility that no such standards existed and reflecting on what that meant for so-called demarcation criteria between science and other forms of knowledge.