Saturday, November 3, 2012

Harvard University vs. Immanuel Velikovsky

The London Review of Books' Steven Shapin reviews the new book on the man — Catastrophism. An excerpt:
    When Velikovsky’s bizarre story about planetary hi-jinks was so energetically puffed up in 1950, the American scientific establishment was presented with a choice, a choice endemically faced by orthodoxy confronted by intellectual challenges from alien sources: do you ignore the heterodox? Do you invite it to sit down with you and have a calm and rational debate? Do you crush it? There were scientific voices counselling Olympian disdain but they were in general overruled. Still, pretending to take no notice of Velikovsky might have been the plan had Worlds in Collision not been published by Macmillan, a leading producer of scientific textbooks, and packaged not as an offering to, say, comparative mythology or as popular entertainment, but as a contribution to science. Elite scientists, notably at Harvard, reckoned that they might be able to control what Macmillan published when it was represented as science. A letter-writing campaign was organised to get Macmillan to withdraw from its agreement to publish the book; credible threats were made to boycott Macmillan textbooks; hostile reviews were arranged; questions were raised about whether the book had been peer-reviewed (it had); and, when Worlds in Collision was published anyway, further (successful) pressure was exerted to make Macmillan wash its hands of the thing and shift copyright to another publisher. The editor who had handled the book was let go, and a scientist who provided a blurb and planned a New York planetarium show based on Velikovsky’s theories – admittedly not the sharpest knife in the scientific drawer – was forced out of his museum position and never had a scientific job again.

    From an uncharitable point of view, this looked like a conspiracy, a conspiracy contrived by dark forces bent on the suppression of free thought and different perspectives – and the Velikovskians took just that view. An establishment conspiracy centred on Harvard had sought to control scientific thought; the conspirators had closed minds and wanted to close others’ minds; they refused to engage with Velikovsky’s ideas at the level of evidence, to show exactly where he was wrong. When Velikovsky made specific predictions of what further observation and experiment would show, his enemies declined to undertake those observations and experiments. This was the way the Commies behaved, Velikovsky’s allies suggested. Analogies were drawn from the history of science seen as the history of martyrs to dogma. Velikovsky figured himself as Galileo and his opponents as Galileo’s critics, who wouldn’t even look through the telescope to see the moons of Jupiter with their own eyes. ‘Perhaps in the entire history of science,’ Velikovsky said, ‘there was not a case of a similar violent reaction on the part of the scientific world towards a published work.’ Newsweek wrote about the spectacle of scientific ‘Professors as Suppressors’ and the Saturday Evening Post made sport of the establishment reaction as ‘one of the signal events of this year’s “silly season”’. Some scientists who were utterly convinced that Velikovsky’s views were loopy had qualms about how the scientific community had treated him. Einstein, in whose Princeton house Velikovsky was a frequent visitor, was one of them. Interviewed just before his death by the Harvard historian of science I.B. Cohen, Einstein said that Worlds in Collision ‘really isn’t a bad book. The only trouble with it is, it is crazy.’ Yet he thought, as Cohen put it, that ‘bringing pressure to bear on a publisher to suppress a book was an evil thing to do.’

    The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.’


    Was science meant to aim at the greatest possible explanatory scope, trawling as many disciplines as necessary in search of unified understanding? What in orthodoxy could rival Velikovsky’s integrative vision? Authentic science made specific predictions of what further observation and experiment would show. Velikovsky did too. Was science ideally open to all claimants, subjecting itself to all factual criticisms and entertaining the possibility of radically new theoretical interpretations? Who behaved more scientifically – Velikovsky or the Harvard ‘suppressors’?

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