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 Gordin tells the story of Velikovsky and his ideas by drawing heavily on Velikovsky’s correspondence and extensive unpublished writings, as well as on the correspondence of his allies and opponents.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.