The text below is an [expanded] version of a letter that appeared in Summer 1986 _Skeptical Inquirer_ X:4, pp. 380-381. The writer was formerly Senior Editor and Executive Secretary of the now defunct journal _Kronos_.


A lesson from Velikovsky

by Leroy Ellenberger



Martin Gardner's review of Henry Bauer's _Beyond Velikovsky_ (_SI_, Summer 1985) [reprinted in Gardner's _The New Age_] shows that lessons for combating pseudoscience still remain to be learned from the Velikovsky controversy.  In retrospect, Velikovsky is a pathological case insofar as scientists (and other experts) easily perceived how wrong Velikovsky was, but were ineffective in setting forth a valid refutation that was convincing to informed readers.  Bauer shows that much of the early criticism, when not dogmatic rejection, was fallacious, erroneous, or irrelevant.  Even Carl Sagan conceded as much in _Scientists Confront Velikovsky_; yet his analysis of _Worlds in Collision_ was also seriously flawed as _Kronos_ showed in _Velikovsky and Establishment Science_.  [Sagan never acknowledged the _Kronos_ rebuttal. Also see the Velikovsky letters in 9/80, 4/81 & 6/82 _Physics Today_.] Correcting the mistakes of critics diverted attention from examining Velikovsky's ideas.

In concentrating their efforts on _Worlds in Collision_, critics ignored Velikovsky's other books, especially _Earth in Upheaval_ [except for S.J. Gould in _Ever Since Darwin_], and a host of quite impressive articles written by technically qualified people, e.g., Robert Bass (professor of physics and astronomy).  Many well-educated sympathizers understood that Velikovsky was wrong on certain issues; but, in the belief that there was some underlying truth to Velikovsky's scenario, they took consolation from [four key] ignored and unrefuted articles [that emerged in the mid-1970s in _Pensee_ and _Kronos_.*]

[There were many opportunities after the AAAS symposium in 1974 for critics to deal with the secondary literature; but it became clear that science's reply to Velikovsky ended with the symposium and that "the process of reasoned disputation" espoused by Sagan had only one round and did not extend to Velikovsky's defenders.  No critic or book reviewer, with Robert Jastrow as the lone exception, ever pointed out any of the mistakes peppering Sagan's analysis. Jastrow was the only critic to whom Sagan responded, in 12-29-79 _NY Times_.   Thus, mention of the secondary literature was excluded from the letter forum in _the Humanist_ following their Nov/Dec 1977 Velikovsky-Sagan "debate."  While Joseph May cited it in the 1979 _Zetetic Scholar_ dialogue, the critics who participated ignored it.  Seemingly fresh and independent criticism such as that in E.C. Krupp's _In Search of Ancient Astronomies_ and Jastrow in 12-2-79 _NY Times_ and in Sep/Oct 1980 _Science Digest Special_ ignored it.]

To be effective in public controversies, scientific critics must deal skillfully with the issues as they are perceived by the public.  Failure to do so diminishes the credibility of the critics, gives consolation to supporters, and prolongs the controversy among informed observers. [In the July 1981 _Technology Review_, S.L. Solnick concluded that "until serious scientists can 'explain the unexplained' to the public's satisfaction, the circus atmosphere will remain."]  As long as critics "disproved" Velikovsky while ignoring supporters such as Bass, the controversy looked to many as a dispute between opposing "experts."  [This is precisely the impression created by George Abell's review of _Scientists Confront Velikovsky_ in _SI_ II:2 and his letter in _SI_ III:2 in which the critics were endorsed and supporters, discounted and dismissed.]

As it turns out, the impressive technical articles supporting Velikovsky are as lacking in substance as Velikovsky's use of sources that Bob Forrest has convincingly discredited, as in _SI_, Winter 1983-84.**  Thus, [despite all of Velikovsky's references, no credible "historical" evidence for his cataclysms exists.  Also,] the "wild motions" invoked by Bass in 1974 to explain Velikovsky's orbit shuffling do not apply to planets in our solar system and his arguments that disrupted orbits can settle down quickly are actually groundless.

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.

[If anyone had exposed the vacuousness of Bass' papers in 1974, when supposedly there was a dialogue between Velikovsky's supporters and detractors in _Pensee_, I would never have gotten as involved with Velikovsky as I later did.  The only person ever to say anything to me about Bass was J.D. Mulholland who remarked: "Bass does not _do_ celestial mechanics, rather he _talks_ celestial mechanics.  I do not believe his conclusions, nor do I believe that they are firmly founded in rigorous mathematics.  They are largely hand-waving."  At the time, April 1978, this did not impress me; but after my own extensive research and discussions with such people as Tom Van Flandern and Victor Slabinski, _now_ I believe it.]

[The high point in the futile quest for quantitative vindication of Velikovsky's scenario came in 1978 when a paper by Peter Warlow in _J. Physics A_, a refereed journal, purported to show mathematically how easily the Earth could be turned over by a gravitational torque acting for 24 hours and produced by a Mars or Earth-sized body passing close to Earth.  Warlow envisioned that under such circumstances Earth would flip over as a tippe top.  Unfortunately, Warlow's analysis contained three mistakes which were readily identified by V.J. Slabinski, a COMSAT astronomer, who published his analysis in 1981 in _J. Physics A_.  Warlow's inversion would actually require an intruder 31% more massive than Jupiter, which is patently ludicrous.  Adjusting the calculation for a more realistic, and shorter, transit time raises the requirement to a body as massive as 62 Suns!]

For years Velikovsky and his supporters, e.g., Lynn Rose in _Velikovsky Reconsidered_, claimed that at close distances electromagnetic forces could rival, if not dominate, gravity.  Critics simply denied this.  Velikovsky's intuition on this point, however, is not borne out, not even in his often-repeated example of 7,000 gauss magnetic binary star.  Using generous assumptions, James Warwick recently [in 1984] showed that gravity overwhelms magnetism by a factor of over a billion.  All this and more are explained in my articles in _Kronos_ X:1, X:3, & XI:1.

In a review of Bauer's book in _Nature_ (April 25, 1985), Owen Gingerich observed, "Although science cannot prove a Velikovskian scenario is impossible, it might well prove that it did not happen."  This is a point Bauer was reluctant to concede [in his book] because so many "disproofs" have been either indeterminate or wrong.  However, the Terminal Cretaceous Event 65 million years ago, whatever it was, left unambiguous worldwide signatures of iridium and soot.  The catastrophes Velikovsky conjectured within the past 3500 years left no similar signatures according to Greenland ice cores, bristlecone pine rings, Swedish clay varves, and ocean sediments.  All provide accurately datable sequences covering the relevant period and preserve no signs of having experienced a Velikovskian catastrophe. [If the highly-touted Worzel ash was supposed to be cometary evidence for _Worlds in Collision_, as Velikovsky repeatedly claimed (even after it was known to be volcanic), then a similar layer of ash should occur in the ice cores; but it does not.  Instead of pursuing such crucial tests, Velikovsky and his defenders, e.g., C.J. Ransom in _The Age of Velikovsky_, dismissed them as biased by uniformitarianism and instead focused on space age discoveries on Venus, Moon, and Mars that were interpreted as supporting _Worlds in Collision_.] Although Velikovsky believed _Earth in Upheaval_ proved his scenario happened, his evidence can be explained without invoking [interplanetary] cosmic catastrophes.

While for the "true believer" no observational evidence is sufficient to prove the contrary, the open-minded are susceptible to reason and are the best target for efforts like CSICOP's.  [This is supported by the drop in subscriber renewals at _Kronos_ in 1985 after my "Still Facing Many Problems" appeared in X:1 and X:3.]  When R.G.A. Dolby first proposed the Greenland ice-cores as an empirical test of Velikovsky's ideas in 1977, he wrote me that he "did not really expect it to settle the matter one way or the other, but thought that the way it was handled by Velikovsky supporters might be revealing about the scientific content of their position." Indeed, one supporter with a Ph.D. in physics told me, "I know of nothing that can be called a 'crucial' test of V's concept" [C.J. Ransom], while another supporter wrote, "That the ice core data does _not_ contain strong acidity 'peaks' in or near years of Velikovsky singularities is sufficient _dis_-proof for me, even for the general scenario" [C.S. Sherrerd].  [However, Dolby's worst fears were confirmed by the reaction of Lynn Rose to the ice core evidence in _Kronos_ XII:1 (1986), later revisited more dismally by Charles Ginenthal in _The Velikovskian_2:4 (1994).  Rose's malfeasance was fully exposed by Sean Mewhinney in "Ice Cores & Common Sense", _Catastrophism & Ancient History_ XII:1 & XII:2 (1990). Ginenthal's escapist fantasies on ice cores are the subject of Mewhinney's "Minds in Ablation, Parts 1 to 6]

[After Mariner II confirmed the high surface temperature of Venus in late 1962, correct predictions came to play an increasingly important role in garnering support for Velikovsky.  However, as Lloyd Motz stated in a 10/63 _Harper's_ letter, "verified predictions alone do not validate a theory."  Despite this admonition, Velikovsky and supporters such as Ransom, Juergens, Greenberg, Willhelm, Rose and Paterson (the last two professors of philosophy) continue to use supposedly correct "advance claims" to win sympathy.]

[During _Pensee's_ time, comments about Velikovsky in the literature, especially science magazines, were discussed in the "Review" section.  Curiously, no notice was given Wesley Salmon's mention of Velikovsky in the 5/73 _Scientific American_:

  There is more to scientific confirmation than merely finding true   consequences. (This is a point that should be kept firmly in mind   when evaluating such work as that of Immanuel Velikovsky on the   basis of allegedly true predictions.)...In deduction, however, it   is an elementary logical error (known as "the fallacy of affirming   the consequent") to argue backward from the truth of the conclusion   to the truth of the premises. (p. 77)

Sagan never mentioned this fallacy in his AAAS paper, preferring instead to show that the predictions were wrong, as did Jim Oberg more convincingly in 7/80 _Astronomy_.]

While interest in Velikovsky has waned, he continues to be discussed, as in _Science and Unreason_ (1982) by Daisie and Michael Radner and by J.W. Grove in _Minerva_ 23:2 (1985) [incorporated in _In Defence of Science_ (1989)].  Although Bauer's book was completed before Velikovsky died in 1979, it is, with later additions, the most complete account of the Velikovsky controversy so far.  However, many key incidents are missing because they are not on the public record.  Velikovsky excluded much from his memoir _Stargazers and Gravediggers_ that did not suit the public image he cultivated. [He strived to minimize the commercial aspects of his writing while creating the impression that _Worlds in Collision_ was accepted primarily on its merits as a scholarly work.  However, when he first contacted Macmillan in November 1946, he had a letter of intent from the Hayden Planetarium for a Sky Show on his book when it was published.  The influence that this letter wielded after eight rejections without it should not be ignored in any historically complete story of the Velikovsky affair.]  We can only speculate what the situation would be today had Velikovsky's unreasonable terms not squelched a project with the Wolper Organization in late 1974 for a television special on _Worlds in Collision_.  [After Velikovsky's death, a feature film project foundered because his Estate insisted on a G-rated script.]

The foregoing is available in a longer, fully documented version including a list supplementing Bauer's references.  It may be obtained by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the writer at 3929A Utah Street, St. Louis, MO 63116.

                                             C. Leroy Ellenberger
                                             St. Louis, Mo.

Notes:

*R.W. Bass, "Can Worlds Collide?" _Kronos_ I:3, 1975, 59-72, adapted from _Pensee_ VIII, 1974; R.W. Bass, "'Proofs' of the Stability of the Solar System," _Kronos_ II:2, 1976, 27-45, reprinted from _Pensee_ VIII, 1974; R.E. Juergens, "Reconciling Celestial Mechanics & Velikovskian Catastrophism" in _Velikovsky Reconsidered_ (NY, 1976), 137-155, reprinted from _Pensee_ II, 1972 (in _Pensee_ this article led to exchanges between Juergens and Martin Kruskal of Princeton in later issues, and although Kruskal was on-point with his criticisms it looked to the lay reader that Juergens' rhetorical replies prevailed); L.E. Rose & R.C. Vaughan, "Velikovsky & the Sequence of Planetary Orbits" in _Velikovsky Reconsidered_ (NY, 1976), 110-132, reprinted from _Pensee_ VIII. N.B.: _Pensee_ VIII came after the AAAS symposium.

**I.e., "Venus and Velikovsky."  See also: Bob Forrest, _A Guide to Velikovsky's Sources_ (Santa Barbara, 1987); Sean Mewhinney, "El-Arish Revisited," _Kronos_ XI:2 (1986); and Henrietta W. Lo, "Velikovsky's Interpretation of the Evidence Offered by China in his _Worlds in Collision_," _Skeptical Inquirer_ XI:3 (1987).

Rev. 3, 9/97



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