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Open letter to science editors

 

FORUM

Notes on Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky

P.P.M. MeinckeAssociate dean and professor of physics, University of Toronto

The very mention of the name Velikovsky evokes a wide spectrum of response ranging from awe to flickers of scorn.  The historians of science are rushing to document as fully as possible this phenomenon of modem times.  But most of what we are witnessing is nothing new or unique to our times.  It is simply the birth pangs of new and different ideas struggling for recognition and acceptance in the hostile world of established doctrine.

Some of these new ideas are successful, while many wither and die at an early age.  It is the noble grandeur of Velikovsky himself, the respect he commands from his spellbound listeners, and the breadth of his ideas that put this struggle to the forefront.  He is a hero in the public eye, challenging the scientific establishment.

What the public does not seem to realize is that this kind of struggle goes on all the time in science.  The usual picture of a typical scientist is that of an open-minded person ready and willing to accept new ideas.  But scientists are only human beings, and human beings need time to study, think through and test new ideas; and, as with most human activities, time is the one thing that is always in short supply.  If a new idea does not have a sufficient number of roots in or points of contact with the existing climate of opinion, it will be some time before such an idea is studied carefully and critically.  I have seen this sort of thing happen many times in my own areas of interest.  Ideas can be around for years before they suddenly catch on.

The scientist who cloisters himself for many years, studying all aspects of a problem in order to provide an overall unifying picture of a wide variety of events, is particularly prone to this difficulty of finding acceptance for his ideas.  He has become so steeped in the knowledge of the details of his model that it is difficult for him to communicate the overview, the feeling for the model that is so essential to understanding.

The shocking part of the Velikovsky affair is the suppression of the publication of his ideas.  It is indeed a sad commentary on the nature of established science if Velikovsky was denied the right to publish a rebuttal paper in a journal which had already published an article criticizing his ideas.  I have certainly seen papers containing new ideas which challenged the accepted views turned down by referees, but this usually means the author has not put forward his case in a sufficiently clear and straightforward manner.  Good ideas should always win out eventually, but the time to success can usually be shortened if certain "selling" techniques are employed.  In Velikovsky's case, however, there appear to be more than the normal number of obstacles in the path of the publication of his ideas.  It is bad enough to have one's ideas ignored, but to have them suppressed is intolerable.

Obviously it is extremely difficult to publish all ideas, and some selection is necessary.  My own opinion is that the selection should not be based so much on whether or not the idea is thought to be wrong, but rather on how much the idea will stimulate further thought on the subject.  It does not seem to me to matter whether or not Velikovsky's ideas are correct in all their details.  There are thousands of incorrect theories published in the scientific literature.  What is most important is that the ideas stimulate thought and experiment, and move us eventually to a wider and deeper understanding of nature.  The fact that Velikovsky suggests such a wide variety of ingenious experiments to test his theories certainly is in the best scientific tradition.  He obviously has a keen mind which clearly grasps many of the intricacies of modern experimental techniques, and he has made some extremely ingenious suggestions about the application of and limitations of these techniques.  It would indeed be unfortunate if some of these experiments were not done simply because they were suggested by Velikovsky.  Many of the most interesting discoveries have been made in the course of experiments designed to look for something entirely different.  However, choices must be made in this area as well, because there is simply not enough time or money to do everything; and often the choice is made to take a small step in a well defined direction which will yield tangible results, rather than a speculative leap into the unknown.

In spite of the response to his work in many quarters, I am sure that anyone who has met Velikovsky will agree that he is a brilliant and gentle man, filled with an enormous passion for his work.  Whether or not history proves him right, one has to admire and respect this prodigious human being.

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