Book review: The Pseudoscience Wars by Michael Gordin

A little while back I read The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe by Michael Gordin, a history professor at Princeton. It’s a case study of how professional scientists react to what they see as “pseudoscience”–something that has many of the trappings of real science but is not real science, at least not in the view of professional scientists. It’s a good read, working well as a narrative about the life and times of an unusual character. The story contrasts in interesting ways with that of other “pseuodsciences” with which I’m more familiar, like “creation science” or opposition to climate change science. And the book has implications for contemporary issues I care about, in particular peer review and scientific publishing. I recommend it highly. If you want to know more about why, read on!

The book tells the story of Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979), a Russian born Jew and Freudian psychoanalyst. Velikovsky emigrated to the US in 1939. Velikovsky’s research on ancient myths, originally intended as a project in the psychological interpretation of ancient history, eventually led him to publish Worlds In Collision in 1950. In that book, Velikovsky drew on on purported evidence from ancient texts to argue that in the 15th century BCE, Venus was ejected from Jupiter as a comet and passed close to Earth. This changed Earth’s orbit and axis and resulted in massive global catastrophes recorded in ancient texts. The book became a bestseller and caused a firestorm of controversy. The storm later revived in the 1960s and early ’70s, when Velikovsky (who had continued to pursue and publish his ideas) became a countercultural hero to US college students. But despite Velikovsky’s best efforts, his ideas mostly died with him. He and the massive public controversy surrounding his work are mostly forgotten today, even though only a few decades have passed. Gordin tells the story of Velikovsky and his ideas by drawing heavily on Velikovsky’s correspondence and extensive unpublished writings, as well as on the correspondence of his allies and opponents.

Gordin’s book isn’t about whether Velikovsky’s claims were true. Gordin’s interests lie elsewhere. He uses Velikovsky’s story to argue that calling something “pseudoscience” is an act of boundary drawing–and such acts are always contestable. It’s infamously difficult to unambiguously separate “science” from “non-science”, and Gordin argues that it’s actually impossible. One intriguing way he makes this argument is to talk about Velikovsky’s own difficulties drawing boundaries around his own work, policing his own fringes. Velikovsky attracted followers and supporters–but those followers and supporters brought to the table their own ideas, their own interpretations of Velikovsky’s work, and their own suggestions about how it should be pursued. Any discipline, field, or program of inquiry, in order to exist at all, has to draw boundaries that define what it is and what it isn’t.

One way the boundary between science and non-science gets drawn is via peer review. Gordin talks at length about this, and what he found may surprise you. This was one of the most interesting and thought-provoking aspects of the book for me. Gordin notes that one reason astronomers were so upset by Worlds In Collision is that it was originally published as nonfiction by Macmillan, then the most respected publisher of scientific books (especially textbooks) in the US. Getting published by Macmillan was a stamp of serious approval. Outraged astronomers initially accused Macmillan of failing to have Velikovsky’s book peer reviewed–but in fact, Macmillan had had it peer reviewed, in the usual way. The reviewers were all perfectly reasonable choices, and while they all had serious reservations about the correctness of Velikovsky’s claims, they all recommended that the book be published, so that its claims could be exposed to scrutiny. Velikovsky correctly accused his opponents of organized efforts to suppress his ideas (astronomers organized a boycott of Macmillan, and in fear of losing its textbook market Macmillan sold the rights to Worlds in Collision to another publisher). But Velikovsky was no exemplar of openness. As noted above, he himself spent much effort exercising oversight on anyone who wanted to promote his ideas, and purging those who deviated from orthodoxy.

As a blogger, I’m well aware of widespread concern, mostly among more senior scientists, that blogging is just a way for people to do an end run around peer review and publish crazy ideas. So I was very interested to read senior scientists back in the 1950s and ’60s complaining about how it had become too easy for anyone to publish anything, and quite explicitly longing for the days when science was “aristocratic” rather than “democratic”. And remember: their complaint was prompted by a book that went through peer review! Further back, think of cases like Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a bestseller in its time (at the dawn of science as a profession), despite widespread and vociferous criticism from the leading experts of the day. I conclude that scientists have been complaining about how it’s too easy for anyone to publish “pseudoscience” for as long as there have been people who call themselves scientists! Which of course is exactly what you’d expect on Gordin’s thesis that, in order for any distinct discipline or intellectual activity to exist, its practitioners have to police its boundaries. So if you long for the “good old days” when it was difficult or impossible for “pseudoscientists” to publish their work and get the public to notice it, sorry–those days never existed!

Gordin is good on the larger context of the time, arguing fairly persuasively that the reason astronomers chose to attack Worlds In Collision publicly (thereby giving it a lot of free publicity and surely helping to boost its sales) was because of then-fresh memories about the progress of Lysenko’s biology in Russia. It was felt that failure of scientists to speak out sufficiently forcefully and publicly against Lysenko had helped him rise to power. Gordin also draws interesting contrasts between the progress of Velikovsky’s ideas, and those of “creation scientists”. American “creation science” in something like its present form has its roots in the 1960s, and its founders actually had some brief contact with Velikovsky, due to their shared interest in the effects of purported recent global catastrophes. For various reasons “creation science” was better able to police its own boundaries than Velikovsky was able to police his, and so became a movement that outlived its founders and still exists today.

For me, Gordin’s book functioned in part as a companion piece to The Price of Altruism, Oren Harman’s recent biography of George Price. Although he was a chemistry Ph.D. and worked on the Manhattan Project, George Price was very much a fringe scientist, with half-brilliant, half-crazy ideas on all sorts of things (most of which he failed to fully develop or publish). He was also a difficult personality. So, not so different from Velikovsky in many ways. Except that Price eventually came up with some big ideas that did pan out scientifically (the application of game theory to animal behavior, and the Price equation). Although even then, those ideas only gained a foothold with the help of established evolutionary biologists (John Maynard Smith and Bill Hamilton, respectively). I suspect that many scientists reading Gordin’s book might resist his thesis–that there’s no clear, bright line separating science from pseudoscience, or scientists from cranks–on the grounds that Velikovsky’s ideas were just obviously not scientific, and Velikovsky himself obviously a non-scientist. This is the “I may not be able to define pornography pseudoscience, but I know it when I see it” view. But if that’s your view, the example of George Price should give you pause. There are infinitely fine gradations from science to pseudoscience, and scientist to crank. Ecologists and evolutionary biologists are comfortable thinking about such fine gradations in their own work–the boundaries between different ecosystems, or between true “species” and mere “varieties”, are famously fuzzy. We should be “preadapted” to be comfortable with the fine gradations from someone like Maynard Smith, to someone like Price, to someone like Velikovsky.

Finally, a point Gordin doesn’t make, but could have. Anyone who thinks that the reason “pseudoscience” flourishes is because the “general public” isn’t sufficiently well-educated will have a tough time explaining the history of “pseudoscience” over the last 150+ years. The average educational level is higher today than it was in the 1950s, and much higher than it was in the 1850s. But yet “pseudoscience” has been around for all that time, and shows no signs of going away (or getting any worse, as far as I can tell). Anti-vaccine campaigns, anti-GMO campaigns, intelligent design, opposition to climate science, unorthodox ideas about economics, health fads…like Velikovsky’s catastrophism, none of that stuff flourishes because of lack of education, or even lack of the right sort of education. So if you want to oppose that stuff (and I do!), focusing on “better education” is unhelpful. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for good education! I just don’t think that even the most well-educated society would be free of “pseudoscience”, or even have less than we have right now.

19 thoughts on “Book review: The Pseudoscience Wars by Michael Gordin

  1. Very interesting post, Jeremy. I think that traditional formalism in science can actually increase the proliferation of pseudoscience because it makes it so simple to use a caricature of a scientific convention to add weight to the bogus statement (Association Fallacy). It is easy to make an obviously false statement seem scientific just by using pretentious, jargon-filled phrasing.

    If anything, blogs and other popular outlets of scientific research reduce this effect because they separate scientific ideas from elaborate and specialised language. This reduces the impact of pseudoscientists who obfuscate the truth by using big words.

    • Hmm, maybe. Although there are lots of ways to obfuscate besides using technical jargon. And Velikovsky, for instance, wrote for a popular audience. Worlds In Collision didn’t succeed because Velikovsky obscured the craziness of his scientific claims by mimicking the formal style or obscure jargon of scientific journals.

  2. Without having read his book I don’t think I can agree with Gordin’s thesis. Not because of the “I can tell it’s pseudoscience when I see it” argument. But the difference between science and pseudoscience is pretty clear cut when you think about the way they are done and for what reasons. The examples of pseudoscience you gave (creationism, climate change opposition) show this: here claims are made based on deliberate misinterpretation of data, models and the scientific method with the political and societal goal in mind to discredit other claims. This is the total opposite of how science works that does not have any such goal and where such misinterpretations are (often slowly) named, discussed and clarified. Now this boundary can be blurred with scientists having their own hidden agenda (financial interests, power struggles at universities, competition for funding etc). but in general it works.
    I admit that this may be a definition thing because with my definition I guess Price’s more erratic work (that I don’t know) and Velikovsky’s work are not necessarily pseudoscience, just weird (in hind sight or even in light of what was known then) scientific ideas. Which have been slain by the scientific method and exactly this is what is not happening in pseudoscience where ideas are kept on artificial life support mechanisms by the ideologies which need them for their own survival.

    • Hi Arne,

      You should read Gordin’s book, and/or Harman’s. Velikovsky and Price were not willfully biased or politically motivated or whatever. And people like them aren’t rare.

      As to whether it’s useful to define pseudoscience as deliberately biased science aimed at achieving some political or social goal, I doubt it. Because just as science shades into pseudoscience, motives shade into one another too. For instance, Velikovsky and his “counterculture” followers weren’t willfully biased–but that doesn’t mean they were motivated purely by some distinterested search for truth. And on the other side, Gordin notes that national governments at the time were just starting to get involved in science funding in a big, systematic way. Scientists at the time had mixed feelings about this. They liked the additional resources and the stature that accompanied those resources, but they worried (correctly) that government funding of science inevitably would shape the direction of science and the motivations of scientists.

      Look, financial and other motivations of the sort you describe are important, I’m not denying that. But science isn’t scientific because of the motivations of individual scientists. In fact, it often works *despite* the motivations of individual scientists. So I don’t think you can draw a clear-cut distinction between science and pseudoscience based on personal motivations.

      • Now I have to read it. For now please note that I don’t mean to say that Velikovsky and Price (and many others) were willfully biased or politically motivated and I don’t say that scientists are free from personal biases or not driven by more than an urge to understand things. Of course they have (we, I have) these sometimes hidden and unconscious agendas and an important part is to be aware of these biases by being honest to ourselves, declaring possible conflicts of interests etc. My point is simply (as yours is and Joachims, right?) that science works despite these motivations/biases/agendas because of the way it is done (maybe not because of the reasons, you are right there). If people publish grazy ideas they get scrutinised and tested and at the end established or discarded. Usually by other scientists and over long time spans.

        But this is the clear difference to pseudoscience: pseudoscientists immunise their ideas to this criticism often with the help of conspiracy theories, dogmas and a priori discrediting any counter evidence. I agree that within the scientific community there are people who call themselves scientists and still immunise their ideas, but in total the scientific community does not do it. We are usually pretty sceptical of our colleagues work. Within a pseudoscientific community, this is not the case: people clap each other’s shoulders for coming up with any support for the pre-conceived ideas they share.

        So I maintain for now that there is this clear cut between science and pseudoscience in the way it is done (maybe not in the motivation) but I will read Gordin’s book, have a look at his arguments and will try to not disregard them simply because they speak against a long-held personal conviction.

      • Sure. Although even there, doesn’t peer review function in part as an immunization mechanism? Remember, the astronomers who opposed Velikovsky regarded it as a failure of peer review that his ideas were ever published. A failure of immunization. This wasn’t the attitude of just a few isolated astronomers, either.

        Or look at the people in Velikovsky’s movement, many of whom were adamant that the movement needed legitimate journals that would properly peer review alternative catastrophist theories, and criticisms of catastrophism. Would the movement have ceased to be fringey pseudoscience had Velikovsky’s followers succeeded in starting such journals?

        Or think of the recent kerfuffle about a legit psychology journal that published an ESP study. (side note: before he made his name as an evolutionary theorist, George Price was most famous for a polemic he published in Science, attacking ESP studies as unscientific). Or think of cold fusion, an idea that still has hundreds of adherents among people with chemistry PhDs, and that has journals with peer review and everything.

        As Joachim notes, focusing on examples like Velikovsky on the one hand, and the science with which your most familiar on the other, does indeed make it seem like there must be a clear bright line here. But there’s not, it’s a gradient. In the middle are people like Price. A bit closer to you and me are scientists who are mainstream in most respects but have one or two really off-the-wall ideas. Etc.

        I don’t know that it’s any easier to draw a clear, bright line between science and pseudoscience based on practices than it is to draw one based on motivations. Though of course many folks have argued otherwise. In the Friday links I’ll be linking to an old speech of Feynman’s about “cargo cult science” and how to distinguish it from real science. Personally, I’ve absorbed too much Wittgenstein to see many clear, bright lines in the world. 😉 (Wittgenstein is a philosopher who talks a lot about the imprecision of even apparently-precise definitions, and the vagueness of even apparently-clear concepts. And about how this imprecision and vagueness nevertheless doesn’t undermine our ability to communicate clearly in ordinary circumstances. Similarly, I don’t think the inability to draw a clear, bright line distinguishing science from pseudoscience undermines our ability to do science, or prevents us from legitimately pushing back against creationism or catastrophism or etc.)

        p.s. I once saw a really excellent play called Blue/Orange. It was about a mental patient being evaluated for release from hospital by a psychologist. The patient seems to be perfectly normal in every way–except that, when shown an orange, he insists that it’s blue. The play was very carefully calibrated to shake up the audience’s intuition that there’s a clear-cut difference between “sane” and “crazy”, and did so very effectively.

  3. I agree with you, Jeremy, or Gordin for that matter. A lot of stuff that passes as good science is just as crazy as Velikosky’s idea. I remember that I simply could not believe Orgel and Crick were earnest about their “Directed Panspermia” idea, when I first read it.

  4. Fair points. And yes, I think peer review can function as an immunisation and we should be aware of this bias in science and overcome it. Also, this immunisation didn’t work here: Velikovsky’s ideas got published, Gordin has written a book about it, you this blog post etc. I see this as a success of science and its method. And we shouldn’t forget that immunisation can be a good thing, too. I hope I haven’t stretched the metaphor too far now :).

    I don’t know Wittgenstein very well. I am more familiar with Dennet’s work on gradualism and his stance that while some things are working in principle (separating science from pseudoscience on grounds of personal motivation, attitude and methodology) this doesn’t mean it works in actuality because of messy real-world details (like failing to separate science from pseudoscience because everyone has biases and agendas etc.). But I think that gradualism operates in nature (evolution etc,) but when pursuing cultural activities you need to make a stand (draw a boundary) in order to be able to meaningfully engage in these things. Don’t you say so in your post that this is necessary? Is this so contestable? Or does it not give as an ideal we can strive to reach even if we never will? And if so, is not a clear distinction between science and pseudoscience a good thing even if they are different only because we make them so?
    I don’t know.

    Thanks a lot for this post and discussion. Again more food for thoughts. I will read Gordin’s book.

    best wishes,

    Actually, why were Velikovksy’s ideas branded as pseudoscience and by whom? Was it because his ideas were grazy and not supported by empirical facts and counter to theoretical understanding? Was it by enraged astronomers who unjustly wanted to ward off a new, challenging idea they felt threatened by? Or because they simply felt they are bollocks? Or was it because Velikovsky actively tried to immunise his work and protect it from critical assessment?

    • Re: your p.s., lots that could be said here, don’t want to spoil the book for you too much. Briefly, lots of astronomers thought Velikovsky’s ideas were crazy. The claim that Venus originated as a comet during recorded human history is just totally out of line with everything we know about the history of the solar system. And Velikovsky’s historical evidence involved a lot of interpretation of ancient texts and legends, and revision of ancient chronologies. For instance, Velikovsky claimed that the dates of some Egyptian texts were off by 600 years, and that when properly dated, the “catastrophes” reported by the Egyptians were simultaneous with the “catastrophes” reported by other ancient peoples. Historians and archaeologists also thought Velikovsky was way off base, but mostly just ignored him because they didn’t want to give him free publicity.

      And no, Velikovsky didn’t try to protect his work from critical assessment, at least not initially. He actively sought out reviews, feedback, and discussion from professional astronomers. Some of his most vociferous opponents after he published were astronomers with whom he’d corresponded extensively prior to publishing. Velikovsky also suggested to astronomers the sorts of observations that he thought they ought to try to make in order to test his theories. Velikovsky very much wanted to be taken seriously as a scientist. He even got to know Einstein a bit, and Gordin talks at length about what Einstein thought of Velikovsky’s ideas. Velikovsky’s followers often claimed that Einstein had endorsed Velikovsky’s claims or at least thought them worthy of serious research.

  5. I recently finished reading David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics which also stresses the fine distinction between quackery and science and is set in the same sort of counter-culture movement as the one that supported Velikovsky. Although I am not sure if this applies to Velikovsky (since his ideas clearly contrasted very well established astronomy and don’t seem to have even residual influence), Kaiser makes the case that what we might now perceive is hokum might actually be essential in helping us understand what hokum is when it first appears. The example he draws is to perpetual motion machines: anybody “building” one now quickly passes the I-know-it-when-I-see-it test, but when thermodynamics was first forming, explaining why specific proposals aren’t actual perpetual motion machines actually helped to advance physics.

    I am a little saddened by your final paragraph on how better education will not ‘cure’ pseudoscience, but I think I agree with it. It definitely fits my pet theory of the appeal of quackery: pseudoscientific stories are just more compelling for our minds.

    • Thanks Artem. I’d heard of Kaiser’s book, now I want to read it.

      I think you’re right that many cognitive biases and heuristics ultimately arise because our brains really want to see meaningful patterns in nature, especially ones that involve some sort of narrative or human-like agency. It’s a fascinating subject, in part because there are many situations in which those cognitive biases and heuristics are positively helpful–they give you the right answer, or at least a good-enough or useful-enough answer, and do so more quickly than if you carefully thought things through. The question then is, what sort of practices and institutions can we adopt in order to minimize the impact of those biases and heuristics in contexts where they’re not useful?

      Popular science writers Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen have a series of popular science books co-authored with humorous fantasy author Terry Pratchett, called The Science of Discworld. Ever read them? I recommend them, though only if you like Pratchett (personally, I love him, but his sort of silly humor isn’t everyone’s cup of tea). The books are set in Pratchett’s Discworld, a kind of fun-house mirror of our own world (for instance, as the name suggests, the Discworld is flat, as Earth was once thought to be). The books alternate chapters by Pratchett, telling the story (which involves a bunch of wizards creating a strange new spherical world like Earth, and then meddling with it) with chapters by Stewart & Cohen, commenting on the scientific issues raised by events in Pratchett’s story. The overarching theme of the books is that scientific explanations are narratives that help people make sense of the world, and that humans, even scientists, just can’t do without narratives, cognitively. The importance of narrative in human thought is a running theme through many of Pratchett’s pure fantasy books. If you haven’t checked them out, I think they’d be up your alley.

      Your post mentions Dawkins in passing. Interesting to note that Dawkins himself has been accused of falling prey to the sort of cognitive biases you identify, in focusing on genes and their “interests” as the key to understanding evolution. More on that in a future book review (the accusation appears in a recent book by Peter Godfrey-Smith)…

  6. Nice review Jeremy, makes me want to read the book! In a similar vein, in that it deals with the history of pseudoscientific views and how “real” scientists react to them, is Christine Garwood’s book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea. If you’ve not come across it I strongly recommend it; I reviewed it on my blog a while ago:

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