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ASIMOV'S GUIDE TO THE VELIKOVSKY AFFAIR
Ralph E. Juergens
As Carl Sagan sees it, there's a need for Isaac Asimov: "In this technological century, we need an interface between science and the public, and nobody can do that job as well as Asimov. He's the great explainer of the age."
And Asimov, author of eight or nine score books lately tending toward such titles as Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, and Asimov's Guide to Science, publisher of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, undoubtedly agrees; he readily admits to being a genius.
But interfacer Asimov gives this much in return: "The most effective critic of Velikovsky is, in my opinion, Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan, and as far as I know, he [supposedly in contrast to Velikovsky] has no emotional, willing-to-die-for-him supporters except me."
Nevertheless, as a compulsive explainer of received opinion in science and everything else, Asimov intrudes on Sagan's territory now and then to take a few pot shots of his own at Velikovsky. In the most recent such foray, he tries to explain (away) what happened to Velikovsky and to Worlds in Collision in 1950.
Seldom, if ever, accused of modesty, Asimov brags that ever since he was a child he could remember everything he read. "Even today I don't have to research most of my books. The stuff is in my head, and all I have to do is check the facts after I've finished writing."
The details of this latter procedure are unclear. Does this mean that facts diverging from the finished "explanation" are summarily expunged?
To judge from Asimov's recapitulation of the Velikovsky affair (Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, October 1974), this must be the essence of his method. It seems hardly believable that he so much as consulted Carl Sagan or Johnny Carson before submitting his finished product to Ben Bova, the editor of Analog.
Asimov starts from the premise that all "Velikovskians" are paranoid; they "revel in claims of having important forces against them, and of being constantly hounded by orthodoxy and by conventional science. There is no account of Velikovsky's theories by anyone who favors them that doesn't begin with the events of 1950, which are portrayed by the Velikovskians as a kind of crucifixion." As might be expected from such an introduction, those events take on quite another complexion when portrayed by Asimov, who manages to conclude that the suppression of Worlds in Collision was something of a boon to Velikovsky.
Who could disbelieve "the great explainer of the age" when he begins his narrative with an open invitation – "Let us see what happened." – and two faultless statements of fact: "In 1950, Velikovsky was about to publish his book 'Worlds in Collision' and Macmillan was his publisher."? Yet from this point on in Asimov's five-paragraph synopsis of "what happened" – excluding a three paragraph digression intended to establish that Velikovsky failed to measure up as a "scientist" – there is scarcely a statement that isn't either a distortion of the truth or an outright lie.
Asimov characterizes Eric Larrabee's preview of Worlds in Collision in Harper's for January 1950 as the book itself appearing "in first serial form" and "touted as having been written by a 'scientist' ". He accuses the editors of Harper's of having "puffed the article as detailing scientific proofs of the miracles of the Bible"; apparently here the vaunted Asimov memory gives evidence of short-circuiting as well as a propensity to distort the record: In 1950 Reader's Digest published an article in which Editor Fulton Oursler emphasized the corroboration for Biblical history – not "proof of miracles" – to be found in Velikovsky's work.
Next comes the "big lie" that sets the stage for Asimov's principal revisionist arguments: "What's more, Macmillan planned to publish the book as part of its textbook line."* [See original advertisement opposite. – LMG]
See? All these academics, having been grounded in the subject matter for weeks by articles in Harper's, Reader's Digest, and Collier's, were going to be demanding a textbook from which they could teach the subject next semester, and Macmillan, ever sensitive to market trends, was going to provide that text and make a killing.
What could be more ludicrous? But Asimov is nothing if not audacious, and he knows that the value of a lie depends on the audacity of the liar.
Armed with this bit of "new information," we can understand the motives of the book-burners. To enlist our further sympathies, however, Asimov reminds us of the tenor of the times: "Some scientists are highly idealistic about the nature of their calling and 1950 was a bad year for them. McCarthyism was beginning; anti-intellectualism was in the air; scientists were getting a bad press from the super-patriots. Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley, a strong liberal, had been sniped at by the bully-boys, and to him, Velikovsky's claims of proving the Biblical miracles by a farrago of astronomical illiteracies were something that would simply damage science further."
Never mind that it was Shapley himself who resorted to "McCarthyist" methods weeks before the late Senator from Wisconsin made his first public statement about communists in government and years before the term McCarthyism was coined to characterize such methods. Never mind that the "sniping" at Shapley by the "bully-boys" was in fact an investigation by a legally constituted federal body into charges that he had been a "fellow traveler" with subversive organizations. Never mind that Velikovsky never claimed to be "proving the Biblical miracles," that, quite to the contrary, his work suggested that there was nothing at all miraculous about certain events commonly discarded as unbelievable "miracles". Never mind that the work Asimov describes as "a farrago of astronomical illiteracies" was described in 1950 by Walter S. Adams, director of Mount Wilson Observatory, as a well-balanced exposition of known facts about the solar system.
Never mind the facts or the unbiased opinions of professional scientists. Paint the picture that makes Shapley a sympathetic character, of whom it can be said, "So he exploded, and demanded that Macmillan not publish 'Worlds in Collision' as a scientific textbook." Compound the lie to make it more believable.
Actually, at this point the image in Asimov's photographic memory becomes entirely unrecognizable, yielding up the faulty information that Shapley "threatened . . . he would lead a move to withdraw other textbooks from their [Macmillan's] list." Shapley threatened no one; he contented himself with a Machiavellian sneer: "It will be interesting a year from now to hear from you as to whether or not the reputation of the Macmillan Co. is damaged by the publication of 'Worlds in Collision'."* He threatened no "move", much less a move so bland as the withdrawal of textbooks; such a move was tried later against Doubleday, with little effect. What Shapley did, of course, surreptitiously and without the fanfare of a threat, was to organize an extremely effective campaign to discredit the author of Worlds in Collision by dishonest means and a boycott of Macmillan textbooks that brought the publisher to the point of complete capitulation within two months of the first appearance of Velikovsky's book.
Asimov brings his "sad" story to its end: "This, alas, was a mistake on Shapley's part. Macmillan capitulated (a mistake on their part) and turned the book over to Doubleday and Co., which had no textbook department and could not be pressured. Doubleday published it as a trade book."
According to history thus "explained," it would appear that Macmillan never printed or sold one copy of Worlds in Collision. In fact, however, it was precisely Macmillan's publication of the book in defiance of hints of retaliation from Shapley and his henchmen that triggered the boycott of the firm's textbooks and the campaign to smear Velikovsky.
According to Asimovian history, Doubleday felt no pressure when it took over the publication rights to Worlds in Collision. In fact, however, it was immediately deluged with letters of protest. George B. Cressey, a geologist at Syracuse University warned: "You may make some money by adding this title to your list, but you surely impair your reputation with the informed public." David C. Grahame, associate professor of chemistry at Amherst College, was more explicit: "Scientists are now engaged in an active boycott of the Macmillan books . . . I trust you can be dissuaded." Fred Whipple, then chairman of the astronomy department at Harvard University, wrote to Doubleday's subsidiary, The Blakiston Company: "Newsweek has unwittingly done the Doubleday Company a considerable amount of harm. They have made public the high success of the spontaneous [sic] boycott of the Macmillan Company by scientifically minded people. This in turn amounts to organizing a boycott of the Doubleday Company by the thinking people who buy books." And Harlow Shapley wrote to Blakiston, which then published a series of Harvard books on popular astronomy: "If your regular dependable grocer should quietly commence to work off shoddy goods on you, you would naturally lose confidence in the grocer and probably change . . . and the Harvard Observatory, which also has its reputation to protect, is thinking about a reputable grocer." Douglas M. Black, president of Doubleday, commented several years later: "I have seen scores of letters from distinguished scientists who wrote: 'If you publish that book I will never buy another book with your imprint,' and others wrote: 'If you publish that book I will not submit my manuscript.' . . . The significant thing about the Velikovsky episode . . . was that the people who live by academic freedom resorted to terrorism, and tried to keep his book from being published."
Let us note that Asimov ends on a note of truth: Doubleday indeed published Worlds in Collision as a trade book; so did Macmillan.
Sagan's good friend and admirer recapitulates his warped tale: "That was the extent of the persecution and the attempt at censorship. Wrong though the reaction of some astronomers was, there was no attempt to suppress the book as a book; merely to withdraw from it any official label as 'scientific.' This was still wrong, but it falls far short of true persecution." To Asimov, then, what happened to Velikovsky in 1950 was little more than a near-coincidence of trivialities.
And the final insult: "Velikovsky certainly did not suffer as a result. 'Worlds in Collision' has been a best-seller ever since it was published. For all the self pitying martyrized claims of the Velikovskians, not one copy of his books was ever not sold because any scientist prevented its sale. In fact, had there not been that misguided attack on Velikovsky, the book would undoubtedly not have done as well."
Again we may quote Douglas Black: "Velikovsky's book stayed in print. It didn't do very well . . ." Obviously, Velikovsky was damaged; then and there he had ample grounds for a defamation suit, but he chose to roll with the punches, and American jurisprudence is the poorer for his good sportsmanship.
"Not one copy of his books was ever not sold because any scientist prevented its sale." This flagrant prevarication brings to mind an incident at the 1967 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New York, as described several months later by Matthew Harris, then Velikovsky's editor at Doubleday.
Like most publishers of books of interest to scientists, Doubleday & Company had a booth to display its current titles at the convention hall. At the suggestion of the director of college-book sales, Harris personally delivered advertising posters and copies of Velikovsky's four books – Worlds in Collision, Ages in Chaos, Earth in Upheaval, and Oedipus and Akhnaton – to the booth and arranged them in a display. He then returned to his office.
Not long afterward he received telephone calls from two other Doubleday people who were manning the booth, both questioning the wisdom of exhibiting Velikovsky's works at a get-together of scientists. Passing conventioners were already expressing outrage and bad-mouthing the publisher.
Harris, however, refused to permit the dismantling of his display, and the offending posters and books remained in prominent view to the end of the meeting. When it was all over, sales records at the booth showed that of some 200 book orders taken, 28 – the largest block for any book or series of related books – were for Velikovsky's titles.
The convention sales staff reported that the most vociferous objector to the Velikovsky display was another author of numerous Doubleday books – Isaac Asimov.