Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Literary Disasters

One of the most celebrated literary disasters of recent time is the story of AConfederacy of Dunces, a book that was rejected by two dozen publishers before it wasprinted--and won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. The success did the author, John Kennedy Toole,no good. Despondent over his repeated failures to find a publisher, he had committedsuicide. The book was submitted to a publisher by his family and published posthumously.

In 1950 another publishing disaster of a different order occurred. Another author,rejected more than a dozen times, finally found a publisher. Unlike A Confederacy ofDunces, which was a work of merit that was too long neglected, this book was a work ofno merit that was hailed as a masterpiece. The author was Immanuel Velikovsky, and thebook was Worlds in Collision.

Who Was Velikovsky?

Velikovsky supporters are fairly vociferous and this page has generated a number ofexchanges. Thus, interspersed with my original comments are additional notes inspired bysome of these exchanges. To any future correspondents, I repeat, respond to the challenge I raise above. If you expect me to bepersuaded by Velikovsky, you should be able to tell me what you would accept as refutationof his ideas. Are you open-minded enough to accept that possibility? 

Immanuel Velikovsky was born in Vitebsk, Russia in 1895. After receiving his medicaldegree, he practiced in Europe and Palestine, then studied psychiatry in Vienna under apupil of Freud, His involvement with Jewish scholarly journals brought him into contactwith Albert Einstein, and the two became lifelong friends. (Velikovsky's supporters referoften to favorable comments Einstein made about Velikovsky, but Einstein had a history ofbeing gulled into embarrassing positions by people eager to use his reputation. Also, onecan easily imagine Einstein not wanting to embarrass a good friend. Finally, for all hisbrilliance in physics, Einstein was simply not very well-informed on astronomy, geology orarchaeology, the fields where Velikovsky's errors are most glaring.) Shortly before WorldWar II, Velikovsky came to the U. S. For unknown reasons, he did not enter medicalpractice but seems to have become a librarian and custodian at Columbia University.(Velikovsky supporters dispute this but Velikovsky himself said that for ten years he"daily opened and closed the Library at Columbia University.") With easy accessto a vast library and plenty of time to read, Velikovsky immersed himself in ancienthistory. He had already been struck by the similarities between the life of the Egyptianpharaoh Akhenaton and the Greek legend of Oedipus, King of Thebes. In conventionalchronology, Akhenaton predates the Oedipus legend by centuries.

Akhenaton, incidentally, has been rather romanticized by modern writers. He attemptedto do away with the Egyptian pantheon (and the political power of the priests) andinstitute the worship of a single god, Aton. He appeals both to our monotheistic idealsand our admiration for those who take on the Establishment. Unfortunately, the resemblancebetween Akhenaton and the ideals we value most in our own culture is superficial at best.Aton-worship was a cold, sterile elitist nature worship. The god in Egyptian myth whoheard the plea of the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed was Amon, but Amon was thechief target of Akhenaton's "reform." Akhenaton sought to institute an austerereligion that would appeal to the upper-class elite while suppressing the major source ofsolace to the lower classes. Even the Old Testament, not noted for its tolerance of otherreligions, seems much more restrained in its attitude toward Egyptian beliefs than it isof other religions, like those of Assyria.

If, as Velikovsky thought, the legend of Oedipus describes Akhenaton, then theestablished chronologies of the ancient Near East might be seriously in error. Could therebe a connection between the erroneous chronologies and the catastrophe stories of the Bookof Exodus and the legends of other cultures? Velikovsky found apparent support for thisidea in the writings of an Egyptian, Ipuwer, who described turmoil in Egypt in terms verysimilar to the Book of Exodus. In conventional chronology Ipuwer dates from 500 yearsafter Exodus and is describing a period of political upheaval entirely different from theplagues in the Book of Exodus. Velikovsky became convinced Ipuwer and Exodus weredescribing a single great natural catastrophe. The result was Worlds in Collision.

Worlds in Collision

The general thesis of Worlds in Collision is that the Earth underwent vastcataclysms in early historic times. The planet Venus, says Velikovsky, is only 3500 yearsold. It was expelled as a comet from Jupiter, creating the Great Red Spot as a sort ofCaesarian scar, then repeatedly passed close to Earth, stopping its rotation, re-startingit, changing its axial tilt, causing the Plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, andother disasters chronicled in the world's mythologies. The geologic effects on the Earthwere, as one might imagine, immense: tsunamis, great movements of the crust, earthquakes,vast outpourings of lava. Organic chemicals drifted down from Venus to supply theIsraelites with manna and fill the world's oil reservoirs. (Golda Meir, late PrimeMinister of Israel, once remarked that it took Moses forty years to lead the Hebrewsthrough the desert to the only place in the Middle East that had no oil!) Finally, Venussettled down into the most circular orbit of any of the planets. A few centuries later,Mars went on a smaller rampage, passing close to Earth and causing various disasters.Velikovsky developed these theories at length in Worlds in Collision and itssequels, Earth in Upheaval and Ages in Chaos.

The Response to Velikovsky

Velikovsky's images of great catastrophes and sweeping events, skipping from place toplace and culture to culture, had a vast appeal. Not only did the public like Worldsin Collision, but even sober literary critics like Horace Kallen, Clifton Fadiman,Fulton Oursler and John J. O'Neill acclaimed its scope and drama. To American science,under attack by Joe McCarthy's Congressional committee and swamped by a wave ofpseudoscience that included the big post-war flying saucer craze and would later spawn theBridey Murphy reincarnation  mania as well, the public and literary acclaim for Velikovsky was the laststraw. Harlow Shapley, a noted Harvard astronomer, informed Macmillan Publishers that hewould no longer publish his astronomy text through them as long as they published Worldsin Collision. Other scientists followed suit. Embarrassed, Macmillan turned therights to Worlds in Collision over to Doubleday, which by now had an instantbest-seller on its hands.

Scientists are nearly unanimous now that the boycott of Macmillan was a tacticaldisaster. The controversy guaranteed that Worlds in Collision would top the chartsand it cast Velikovsky in the role of persecuted genius, oppressed and censored by anunimaginative establishment. No one, however, not even Shapley, ever suggested thatVelikovsky be censored or prevented from publishing. The issue was how Velikovsky shouldpublish. Macmillan owed its reputation as a publisher in part to the work of authors likeShapley, and customers had come to expect high standards of quality from their scholarlyworks. Yet Worlds in Collision was never reviewed by a scientist, and to publishit under conditions that might lead the general public to think it belonged on the samelevel as Macmillan's other academic works was a serious lapse of publishingstandards bordering on fraud. The"good" news, if you can call it that, is that a similar boycott today would beanswered with "don't let the door hit you on the way out." Publishers havediscovered that junk science is so lucrative that they would not hesitate to dump areputable work if they were presented with an ultimatum.

The Physical Evidence

Could Velikovsky's ideas be true? How can we test them? If there were some obviousphysical mechanism for moving planets around and changing their rotations the wayVelikovsky claims, we might have reason to believe him. It would take as much energy asthe Sun emits in a year to expel Venus from Jupiter. The normal laws of planetary motionare known well enough for us to send spacecraft to Saturn and beyond, arriving only a fewmiles off target and a few seconds off schedule after a trip of a billion miles and yearsin duration, but the normal laws of planetary motion will not move planets the wayVelikovsky says they moved. Velikovsky postulated electromagnetic forces, but there is noknown way such forces could originate in the Solar system. There are many thousands ofknown double stars in orbit around one another, but we have never seen any undergo thesort of violent orbital changes Velikovsky claims took place in our solar System. The lawsof physics offer little encouragement to Velikovsky.

If electromagnetic forces can affect the orbits of the planets, it's veryunlikely that they turn on and then completely off. There ought to be at leastsome effect now. The orbits of interplanetary spacecraft would be observablyaffected if that were so, The Pioneer  spacecraft, beyond the orbitof Pluto, are deviating very slightly from their predicted path, a deviationthat seems due to the way they re-radiate heat from the distant Sun. Even aminiscule electromagnetic effect would be noticed, if it existed.

Is there physical evidence for the catastrophes? There are large areas where lava hascovered vast expanses, such as the Columbia Plateau of the U.S. or the Deccan region ofwestern India. Often, though, the lava flows are separated by layers of soil formed byweathering or water-laid sediment, indicating a long interval between flows. The flowswere laid down in a short time geologically, but a long time in human terms. A thousandlava flows over a million years comes to one every thousand years. Velikovsky cites theselava flows as evidence, but the physical evidence itself says no. Radiometric datingplaces the Columbia flows 15 million years ago and the Deccan flows about 70 million, not3500 years ago. Nowhere on the earth is there evidence for vast volcanic outpourings,floods, tsunamis or fracturing of the crust 3500 years ago.

Catastrophe Myths

What evidence, then, is there? The principal line of evidence, and the one thatpersuades many people, is Velikovsky's vast array of legends. Like many a Biblicalfundamentalist, Velikovsky interprets, adds, and deletes liberally while insisting he isadhering literally to the evidence. Legends of horned monsters in the sky are interpretedas references to the crescent Venus seen at close range; scaly celestial beings areassumed to refer to cratered planets, and so on. A major embarrassment to Velikovsky (andbelievers in the Biblical Deluge) is the absence of flood legends from Africa. Velikovskythe psychiatrist interprets this absence as "collective scotoma" (blind spot), acollective amnesia designed to repress the memory of a great trauma. Omitted details havebeen suppressed or forgotten, extraneous details are later additions, and so on. Givensuch an array of data and freedom to interpret, the legends can be made to fit any theory.

Certain legendary themes do crop up around the world, and disaster legends are common.Some, like the Native American legends connected with Crater Lake, correspond closelyenough to an actual geologic catastrophe to be possible accounts of the event. Manycatastrophe myths undoubtedly recall real but local disasters. We should also not discountthe possibility that the legends are ingenious interpretations, attempts to explain how aremarkable landscape feature came to be. Primitive peoples may lack advanced technology,but they're not stupid. (Indeed, a subtle racism pervades most historical pseudoscience -pre-technological peoples were too dumb to have any ingenious or creative ideas.) Legendsalso travel by diffusion; everyone likes a good adventure story, all the more so if thestory-teller adds local color. Hardly a year goes by that some radio station doesn't do aremake of War of The Worlds, adapted for its listening area. The book by H. G. Wellsoriginally described an attack on England, the famous 1939 broadcast put the landingoutside New York, and every major city in the U.S. has been "attacked" since.Every good story-teller likes to add to his repertoire, and there's no reason ancientstory-tellers should have been any different. They were no less adaptive and inventivethan we.

The problem with using legends is that they can be interpreted in so many ways.Scientific creationists use much of Velikovsky's material in support of the BiblicalDeluge. As science writer Isaac Asimov pointed out, legends of talking animals are ascommon as catastrophe myths. If we accept the catastrophe myths as literally true, then isit not also possible that animals once could talk? If the talking animal stories areinventions, why not the catastrophe stories? Here again we encounter the double standardof the pseudoscientist; we have two types of myths with no apparent reason to prefer oneabove the other, yet one is promoted arbitrarily to the level of scientific evidence whilethe other is relegated to the status of mere imagination.

But Velikovsky makes it all look so consistent. Surely he couldn't put all thoselegends together so neatly unless his theory was true? Variations on this theme come upwith just about every type of pseudoscience. The startling truth is that theories thathang together pretty well logically and are reasonably consistent with most of theevidence are a dime a dozen in science. Its easy--anyone can construct one. The key to theproblem lies in the qualifiers "pretty well," "reasonably consistent," and "most of the evidence." The difference between a mediocre theory anda good one is that the good theory is as nearly as possible entirely consistentwith all the evidence. You can make any theory look good if you are free todisregard or rearrange key bits of evidence. All you have to do is rearrange thechronology of the Near East and deny conventional dating methods and you can come up witha marvelously consistent catastrophe theory. A successful theory also provides soundreasons for choosing it over rival theories; it either shows that the rival theoriescontain fatal flaws, or it so far outperforms them that there is no longer any comparison.Velikovsky meets none of these criteria: he has to deny or evade well-establishedscientific findings, he gives us no reason for accepting his interpretation of the legendsover many other equally plausible interpretations, and his theory is not so far superiorto existing theories that we should choose it despite its flaws.

One of the fundamental problems revealed by Velikovsky's work is that most peopleseem to have no idea what constitutes a logical proof. Velikovsky himself seems notto. Nowhere in any of Velikovsky's works do we find anything remotely like a reallyrigorous proof. Velikovsky's method, which is like that of many scientists, is what onewriter termed "the method of multiply convergent irrelevancies." Velikovskypiles up myths and physical evidence that he claims is of catastrophic origin as if that,in itself, constitutes proof. A real proof that myths reflect real events would include acomplete listing of cultures examined, themes found in their nature myths, and mention ofany contrary myths or significant omissions. The myths would be presented in contextso that it would be clear what exactly each culture really meant by the myths. This datawould all be available and documented so that scientists with other interpretations couldevaluate the data. Then there would be a comprehensive listing of physical evidencerelevant to the hypothesis, including contrary evidence. Contrary evidence wouldhave to be explained (not explained away or ignored) or reconciled with the hypothesis. Inparticular, there ought to be many local natural features where the physical origin andthe local traditions about the formation of the feature are consistent. Would this be amassive effort? Yes, but given the ten years Velikovsky put into his works, it could havebeen done.

Successful Predictions?

Velikovsky's fans have pointed to a large number of allegedly successful predictions byVelikovsky. However, on closer examination, there's a lot less to these predictions thanmeets the eye. For one thing, many of Velikovsky's predictions are only vaguely related tolater events. Discoveries of interplanetary and galactic magnetic fields are supposed tovindicate Velikovsky. After all, he did speculate that electromagnetic forces played arole in altering the orbits of the planets at a time when few astronomers paid muchattention to magnetic fields. Velikovsky speculated widely, and his followers sometimesinsist that Velikovsky deserves credit for any discovery made in any field on which heever speculated. However, interplanetary magnetic fields are very weak: they can affectthe motions of charged particles emitted from the Sun, but the evidence for magneticfields capable of altering the motion of a planet radically in a matter of days or evenyears is exactly the same as it was when Worlds in Collision was first published: zero.

Recent tracking of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft has revealedextremely tiny departures in their trajectory from a perfectly Newtonian trajectory. Somephysicists have suggested that there might be a new kind of physical force at work.However, since no deviations have showed up in the paths of the planets, it seems that thecause lies in the spacecraft themselves. The best guess is that the spacecraft radiateheat asymmetrically, resulting in a tiny extra thrust on one side (and it's tiny).Surely if electrical and magnetic fields affect the orbits of the planets, it ought to behappening to some extent all the time, and it would take only a very tiny effect to bemeasurable in the motions of the planets.

Velikovsky's supporters refer again and again to Velikovsky's address to the PrincetonGraduate College Forum on October 14, 1953, in which he predicted, eighteen months beforethe actual discovery, that Jupiter should emit radio waves. Remarkably, they never quotewhat Velikovsky actually said during what is supposed to have been one of his greatestmoments. Ferte' refers to the discovery of radio emissions from Jupiter, "supposedlya cold body encased in thousands of miles of ice." Evidently Velikovsky expectedJupiter to emit radio waves for the same reason Venus does--because it is hot. Any objectabove absolute zero will emit radio waves, so a "prediction" of this sort is asafe, so-what prediction. Jupiter actually emits radio waves because charged particlesfrom the Sun are trapped and accelerated by Jupiter's magnetic field. Velikovsky no moreforesaw this discovery than anyone else. In no sense of the word did Velikovsky make areal prediction. Here again we find a total absence of anything resembling a rigorous,step-by-step proof, or any evidence that Velikovsky and his supporters understand what areal proof is. A real prediction that Jupiter should emit radio waves would include aspecific mention of the physical process responsible, as well as observational ortheoretical reasons why that mechanism should be present on Jupiter.

What then is left for Velikovsky? He did predict Venus would be hotter than anyoneexpected, and that's about all. Lynn Rose, one of Velikovsky's staunch supporters,suggested three tests for evaluating the validity of a theory.

Scientific Bloopers

One recent correspondent asked me: "Please tell me who might have influenced youropinion on the gentleman.". My reply:

I've obviously read what Martin Gardner, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, among others, have had to say about him, but basically I reject Velikovsky because his science is junk. I don't need somebody else to tell me whether something is good or bad science. [This correspondent seems to feel I wouldn't regard Velikovsky as bad science if I hadn't been told by some authority figure. I consider the notion insulting.] For example, in the first few pages of Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky describes the standard paradigm of astronomy as saying that gravity pulls a planet toward the Sun (true) but the gravitational pull is balanced by a "push" (his word) outward. That's just plain incompetent. The planet's inertia causes it to tend to move in a straight line. If you could magically turn off gravity, the planet would fly off in a straight line tangential to its orbit. Gravity pulls the planet inward, and the balance between gravity and inertia keeps the planet in its orbit. Nothing is "pushing" the planet outward. If Velikovsky wants to challenge the existing paradigm, we ought at least to expect him to describe the existing paradigm accurately. An error that gross so early in the book tells me I'm dealing with junk, not science.

Velikovskians vilify Harlow Shapley for not reading Velikovsky's book. But when a bookcontains obvious incompetencies that can be spotted just at random, you don't need to readthe whole thing to conclude it's junk. We might call this the "pony fallacy"after the story of a father who tries to cure his son's excessive optimism by giving him apile of manure for his birthday. The child gleefully starts digging in it, saying"with all this manure, there's got to be a pony somewhere around here!" In reallife, when you find manure, it indicates only the likely presence of more manure.

Offsetting Velikovsky's successful predictions are a host of wrong predictions andoutright errors of fact. Velikovsky claimed that hydrocarbons from Venus' cometary tailfell to earth to form our petroleum reservoirs. Despite the term "oil pool,"petroleum does not collect in low spots as Velikovsky's model predicts; it collects beneathimpervious rocks as water in the pore spaces of rocks flushes the oil upward.Velikovsky predicted Venus would have a hydrocarbon-rich atmosphere. It does not; Venus'atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide. Velikovsky's supporters have amended his predictionafter the fact to Venus having some hydrocarbons, but even this prediction hasnot been borne out. Velikovsky claimed, according to Ferte', that Mercury was of recentorigin and was anomalously hot. Mercury is not anomalously hot, and its rotation is lockedto the Sun--3 rotations for every two revolutions around the Sun. Such a rotation lockcould only have arisen if Mercury had been subject to eons of tidal braking by the Sun.Mercury's day and night side temperatures are exactly what we would expect on an airlessworld with Mercury's rotation and distance from the Sun.

During his discussion of hydrocarbons, Velikovsky interjects discussions ofcarbohydrates so casually that he creates the clear impression he doesn't know thedifference between the two. When Isaac Asimov pointed this out in an essay, Velikovskiansbecame furious. One asked me how we know hydrocarbons can't naturally convert tocarbohydrates. The best answer is that if it did happen to any great extent, who wouldcare about oil spills? The hydrocarbons would convert by some means or other tocarbohydrates, be consumed by organisms, and that would be that. Another problem:carbohydrates contain oxygen, hydrocarbons don't. Most natural processes that combineoxygen with hydrocarbons end up breaking them down to carbon dioxide and water, not makingcarbohydrates. Surely if some purported conversion process could operate on a scalecapable of producing the Israelites' manna, it should be happening all over the place.If it did happen, it should be easy to reverse the reaction and generatehydrocarbons from biomass. Energy crisis solved! And a thorough reading of the entire passage, in context, reveals not a shred ofevidence that Velikovsky realized there is a difference between hydrocarbons andcarbohydrates.

In a short article, entitled When Was The Moon's Surface Last Molten?Velikovsky explains away ancient radiometric dates (three to four billion years) on lunarrock samples. Velikovsky notes, correctly, that heat does not affect the decay rates ofradioactive atoms. Therefore, he argues, the Moon' s surface could have been largelymolten only 3500 years ago without affecting radiometric ages! Now one critical assumptionin radiometric dating is that isotopes of a given chemical element (say Strontium 86, 87,and 88) are uniformly mixed to begin with. This is certainly true in a liquid, like moltenrock, and even true in solid rocks at high temperatures. Heating does not affect the decayrates of atoms like Rubidium 87, which decays to Strontium 87, but it does redistributeisotopes uniformly. Essentially, melting a rock resets the clock to zero, and theradiometric age of a rock is the last time its isotopes were reshuffled. If the Moon hadbeen molten 3500 years ago, lunar samples would yield very young ages. Velikovsky clearlydoes not understand radiometric dating.

Velikovsky inverted almost everything in planetary astronomy; the orbits of planets arebelieved stable, so Velikovsky makes them unstable. Astronomers believed Venus to betemperate and Jupiter cold, so Velikovsky makes them both hot. The Moon is consideredgeologically dead, so Velikovsky makes it recently active. The principal force on theplanets is said to be gravity, so Velikovsky invokes electromagnetic fields, too. Sinceastronomy in 1950 (and every other time as well) was imperfect, some generally-acceptedideas were bound to be wrong. If you formulate a theory that controverts manycommonly-held ideas, you are certain to be able later on to point with pride to somespectacular cases where you were right and the experts were wrong, especially if you havea coterie of loyal fans who are eager to accept anything even remotely correct as asuccessful prediction. There will be many more cases where you were wrong, but then, eventhe experts are wrong occasionally.

Recent history provides a good example of this sort of "success." Historiansare unanimous in saying Hitler's fanatical refusal to retreat cost Germany dearly. Theyalso generally agree that his refusal to retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1941 savedthe German army from being routed. Did Hitler make a brilliant decision? It's far morelikely that he simply blundered into a situation where his normal ineptitude happenedpurely by accident to coincide with reality. The occasional successes of pseudoscientistsare of exactly the same variety.

Science Goofs Again

Having made a serious tactical error in the boycott of Worlds in Collision,science compounded it in 1974 when the American Association for the Advancement of Scienceheld a symposium on Velikovsky's theories. To Velikovsky's supporters the symposium wasvariously an admission of guilt, an acknowledgment that Velikovsky's ideas had profoundeffects, or a last attempt by the Establishment to smash Velikovsky. The participants inthe AAAS Symposium, held in February, 1974, were Norman Storer, a sociologist; PeterHuber, mathematician; Velikovsky; J. Derral Mulholland, a well-known astronomer; CarlSagan, an even better-known astronomer; and Irving Michelson, aerospace engineer. Whichside came out better depends on whose account you read: the AAAS volume, entitled ScientistsConfront Velikovsky, or a pro-Velikovsky account by C. J. Ransom called The Age ofVelikovsky.

Viewer's of Carl Sagan's famous Cosmos series are no doubt baffled bya weird digression in Episode 4, Heaven and Hell, where Sagan discussesVelikovsky briefly. Cosmos was in production not long after the AAASsymposium, and the memories were fresh in Sagan's mind. However, the effect in Cosmosis disjointed - viewers unfamiliar with Velikovsky are left wondering "whatwas that all about?" There's not enough background given for viewersto understand the topic. It's easily the worst editorial mistake in the wholeseries.

Velikovsky died November 17, 1980, saluted by Isaac Asimov as the "Grand Old Manof the Fringe." A lively interest in Velikovsky continued for some years after hisdeath, especially in engineering circles, and as noted earlier, he still has adherents. Apoll conducted by Industrial Research in the early 1980's showed 80% of therespondents believing that Velikovsky deserved more serious attention.

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