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Properly analyzed, the collective mythological and religious writings of humanity reveal that around 1500 BC, a comet swept perilously close to Earth, triggering widespread natural disasters and threatening the destruction of all life before settling into solar orbit as Venus, our nearest planetary neighbor.
Sound implausible? Well, from 1950 until the late 1970s, a huge number of people begged to differ, as they devoured Immanuel Velikovsky’s major best-seller, Worlds in Collision, insisting that perhaps this polymathic thinker held the key to a new science and a new history. Scientists, on the other hand, assaulted Velikovsky’s book, his followers, and his press mercilessly from the get-go. In The Pseudoscience Wars, Michael D. Gordin resurrects the largely forgotten figure of Velikovsky and uses his strange career and surprisingly influential writings to explore the changing definitions of the line that separates legitimate scientific inquiry from what is deemed bunk, and to show how vital this question remains to us today. Drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished material from Velikovsky’s personal archives, Gordin presents a behind-the-scenes history of the writer’s career, from his initial burst of success through his growing influence on the counterculture, heated public battles with such luminaries as Carl Sagan, and eventual eclipse. Along the way, he offers fascinating glimpses into the histories and effects of other fringe doctrines, including creationism, Lysenkoism, parapsychology, and more—all of which have surprising connections to Velikovsky’s theories.
Science today is hardly universally secure, and scientists seem themselves beset by critics, denialists, and those they label “pseudoscientists”—as seen all too clearly in battles over evolution and climate change. The Pseudoscience Wars simultaneously reveals the surprising Cold War roots of our contemporary dilemma and points readers to a different approach to drawing the line between knowledge and nonsense.
Princeton historian Gordin provides an often compelling but sometimes plodding account of the scientific and cultural impact of Immanuel Velikovsky's book, Worlds in Collision, which soared to the top of bestseller lists in 1950. The book claimed that various physical upheavals of a global character have been caused by extraterrestrial agents that, he argued, could be identified. For example, sometime around 1500 B.C.E., a massive comet was ejected from Jupiter and became trapped in the earth's gravitational and electromagnetic fields, wreaking such havoc as the catastrophes described in the biblical stories of Exodus. Scientists fiercely rejected Velikovsky's claims, but, Gordin argues, he ushered in a popular belief in pseudoscience. Gordin (Red Cloud at Dawn) provides a detailed historical sketch of the writing of and reaction to Worlds in Collision, and Velikovsky's impact on the scientific community and popular culture. Gordin explores how other fringe scientists often embrace Velikovsky's ideas, and the independent development of creationism, eugenics, and parapsychology. Gordin points out that pseudoscience is the shadow of science, for science will always exclude some domains and findings as outdated, incorrect, or irrelevant. Pseudoscience, he concludes, can be removed from contemporary science with better peer review of journal articles and books and with more scientific literacy.