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Open letter to science editors

Scientific Objectivity and Scientific Research:

Velikovsky's Challenge to the Scientific Establishment

Sidney Willhelm

Dr.  Willhelm is an associate professor of' sociology at the State University of New York (Buffalo).  The paper published here was first read at the Velikovsky Symposium, Lewis and Clark College (Portland, Oregon), August 18, 1972.

As articulated by its adherents, the scientific format supposedly provides the greatest assurance for advancing knowledge and ridding ourselves of prevailing myths; it is, in its purest expression, the guarantee that truth will emerge in spite of prejudice, faith, and inaccuracies.  "Objectivity" is perhaps the foremost expression of the scientific spirit; detachment, a non-committal attitude, ranks as the hallmark for scientific inquiry.  It is this quality which provides the scepticism to question on-going explanations so that truth might derive at least out of refutation.

When reading the literature addressed to what has been aptly described as the "Velikovsky Affair," the notion of "objectivity" plays an important role among the vigorous supporters of Velikovsky as well as the very few critics who simultaneously call for an "objective" hearing for Velikovsky's theories.  A violation of objectivity is said to have occurred in the reception given to the many views presented by Velikovsky.  It is not, consequently, any challenge to scientific inquiry predicated upon objectivity per se which disturbs such supporters and critics, but rather the failure to conform to this essential ingredient.

"It is my contention that the 'objective' perspective has sociological significance and accounts, in part, for the reception given to new ideas.  And unless we come to appreciate the sociological dimensions of science and thereby perceive the intrinsic follies resulting from the 'objective' myth, we are bound to repeat, once again, the kind of response given to Velikovsky."

Alfred de Grazia has written an excellent account outlining the basic conditions of scientific investigation for what he calls the "rationalistic reception system" and how Velikovsky assiduously abided by such demands without, however, winning acceptance from most astronomers (1).  Journals devoting special attention to Velikovsky have been inordinately sensitive to objectivity: the Yale Scientific Magazine expressed its viewpoint by claiming, "We feel that the worth of his [i.e., Velikovsky's] ideas can be determined only through objective consideration, and this issue [of the  Yale Scientific Magazine] is an attempt to free scientific debate from invective."; (2) and in calling for "A Look At the Evidence," the editors of Pensée note that "Detached evaluation may be the hallmark of true science, but it is difficult to remain dispassionate when contemplating the scientific community's role in 'the Velikovsky affair"' (3).  Furthermore, conformity to objectivity is the proclamation among the antagonists; Professor Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin argues that "...every scientific man, every man who devotes his life sincerely to the advancement of knowledge, commits himself to certain loyalties.  His loyalties are to principles, not to dogmas. . . " (4).  So stated, the declaration is being made that science is not unmindful of its "loyalties," but is, rather, thoughtful and reflective toward its criteria for determining the worth of new ideas.

Objectivity means, furthermore, that science is a value-free endeavor; its purpose is the realization of truth unencumbered by any values extraneous to the pursuit.  Nothing can stand in the way of advancing this ambition since science, through strict neutrality, detaches us even from on-going societal values; there can be no vested interest inasmuch as value-neutrality towards science for science's sake.  Formulated in such terms, science owes its progress to the workings of externalistic forces, to objective facts and not to subjective feelings.  Strict adherence to scientific methodology is mandatory to avoid the pitfalls of going astray from the neutrality posture.

It is my contention that the "objective" perspective has sociological significance and accounts, in part, for the reception given to new ideas.  And unless we come to appreciate the sociological dimensions of science and thereby perceive the intrinsic follies resulting from the "objective" myth, we are bound to repeat, once again, the kind of response given to Velikovsky.

Objectivity and Professionalized Inquiry

By cloaking scientific activity with the aura of detachment, scientists can avoid coming to terms with one of the most crucial aspects of social activity generally, namely, accountability (5).  The declaration of neutrality leaves the pretense that scientists can remain aloof from any element or degree of social responsibility.

Consequently, as objectivity justifies the detachment from accountability, then the basis of elitism within a discipline is founded; power can be exercised under the pretense that one could not possibly be defending one's own vested interest inasmuch as science requires absolute neutrality toward everything.  In the case of Velikovsky we find the elite's righteousness, and those firmly in command of astronomy in the citadel of Harvard University showing their wrath by appealing to objectivity.  Velikovsky's proponents had the choice either to challenge the notion and thereby undermine one of the most fundamental pillars of science, or else accept the validity of objectivity and, consequently, the condition of the dispute laid down by the elite.  The Velikovsky adherents chose the latter course of action.

An assault upon objectivity must be undertaken not only to undermine the repression of scholarly elitism, but also to bring the discipline in line with empirical data.  Time and again both sides call for evidence, and there can be little doubt but that Velikovsky himself finds self-sustenance, despite the hostility, in his truly extraordinary command of data.  The supporters of Velikovsky insist, correctly, that the resisting coterie elite in astronomy ignore the need to introduce evidence to override Velikovsky.  Yet this observation does not inform us how the elite could justify its reluctance to own up to facts)         The implementation of the scientific approach predicated upon value neutrality i.e., objectivity— undermines the very subject matter which was initially intended for exploration.  In the stead of empirical data we find the constant endeavor to create theories to test theories; hypotheses are generated in terms which, supposedly, will elucidate an existing theory more fully or explicitly.  Such, in fact, is the very endeavor of the academic profession: one is expected to be a professional in order to implant objective scholarship, and this can only be accomplished by posing inquiries logically connected with established theories rather than coping with anomalies discovered within phenomena.  Indeed, objectivity toward facts compels us to disguise facts; we are obliged to distance ourselves from the realm of data selected for examination in order to avoid any charge of bias in scientific discovery.  Objectivity, then, moves us away from empirical validation and into theory—with the fatal flaw that we engage in futile evaluation of rival hypotheses at the expense of facts.  The professional scholar is one who is disturbed and whose curiosity is aroused, not by the incongruity of evidence, but by formulating hypotheses drawn from existing theory.  As a result, "The scientific problem [about which the professional scholar is curious] becomes a kind of crossword puzzle whose solution satisfies esthetically and may even convey some random knowledge.  But all this is [rather] irrelevant for the systematic, theoretical knowledge of a reality worth knowing" (6).  Note, however, that Velikovsky's curiosity was aroused not at all on the professional basis of objectivity in keeping with the parameters of on-going theoretical issues, but by evidence which emerged from historical accounts.  In The American Behavioral Scientist, Ralph E. Juergens writes, "Reflecting upon events in the life of Moses, Velikovsky began to speculate: Was there a natural catastrophe at the time of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt?" (7).  And in the Yale Scientific Magazine we have this account: ". . . Velikovsky was first struck by the idea of a 'great catastrophe' as the explanation of some of the historical anomalies he had encountered in his research" (8).  The gatekeepers among professional astronomers became vehement, then, not only because Velikovsky lacked the professional credentials demanded by disciplinarians, but also because he posed his inquiry on the basis of actual events rather than upon theoretical problems derived from a theory conjecturing about a reality in keeping with professional objectivity.

It is the firm commitment to "objectivity" which justifies professionalized explorations; "for objectivity strictly adhered to necessarily involves passivity" (9).  Being value-free, the professional scholar supposedly allows methods to define the parameters of his investigation: hypotheses should be derived in keeping with rules of logic.  Such a procedure enhances detachment, for greater objectivity is accomplished when methods, rather than the person, outlines the parameters for investigation; this is the professionalized achievement of rationalist thought— "to think is to invent without believing" (10).  Velikovsky, in such terms, was not a professional scholar, for he attached significance to an anomaly he created out of his research of the evidence; it was an act of creation, not discovery.

As we allow theoretical demands of a profession to dictate the nature of phenomena, then objectivity realigns the very subject matter of a discipline.  When Newton's prescribed uniformity in natural phenomena was transformed into reality so that uniformity became a viable fact in astronomy to the exclusion of catastrophe, all theories thereafter had to be built upon the Newtonian concept to attain professional recognition in astronomy.  Furthermore, disciplines themselves became dependent upon orderliness as a precondition for survival; were uniformity to collapse, then an entire discipline, such as physics, could no longer prevail inasmuch as orderliness is so essential to a scientific field of study.  Since any discipline is predicated upon an ordered universe of data for inquiry, disciplinary scholarship must crumble as the orderly universe it professes crumbles.  Faced with disarray within the very fabric both of what is to be examined and the discipline attempting to organize upon the premise of order, the fear of anarchy leading ultimately to anomie spreads within a profession.

Objectivity and Scientific Data

Objectivity shields us from our value commitment, which delineates the very phenomena to be scientifically probed.  The proclamation of orderliness as true is an expression of optimism—the faith that we can know about nature and society because we can objectively discover rather than subjectively create phenomena, the faith that when we return to the universe it will be the same one we left.  A pessimistic outlook, on the other hand, would acknowledge a shattered universe, subject to rampant dissension and turmoil, and, possibly, bent upon violence, so that we must invoke order as a creative expression of our imagination (11).  In the pessimistic frame of mind we can cope with uncertainty rather than, as the professional with his optimistic inclinations, being so fearful that our various disciplines of study will disintegrate.  The point I am making here is that science is not a composite of objective knowledge, but an onward thrust, in its present state of affairs, of optimism wedded to the status quo of orderliness, and is unwilling to contemplate divorce since the break-up would mean the collapse of both discipline and professional organization.  Consequently, the very fields of inquiry get redefined as objectivity is pronounced in Newtonian fashion.  Astronomers no longer investigate the universe beyond and including the earth, but rather an ordered—a preordained order according to Newton (12)—universe.  In other words, the deliberate efforts to supplant any vestige of subjectivity with objectivity means that the advocates of scientism necessarily restructure reality to fit the methodology of science.  This is true in astronomy as demonstrated in the Velikovsky affair, but it is also correct for other disciplines as well.  "Nearly everything published in high energy physics. . ." Lynn Trainor, professor of physics at the University of Toronto, conveyed to Pensée, "is junk.  It has nothing to do with reality—it's a whole castle of cards ....  The fact that it is all a house of cards with very little reality to begin with is somehow ignored" (13).

Moving out of the physical sciences, we find widespread consternation over the deletion of values from the scientific enterprise.  "The omission from psychiatric theories of moral issues and normative standards, as explicitly stated goals and rules of conduct, has divorced psychiatry from precisely that reality which it has tried to describe and explain," Thomas S. Szasz maintains (14).  Wolfgang Köhler, a Gestalt Psychologist, conveys the same distress for psychology and denotes the inner turmoil for such spokesmen of scientific objectivity:

"Even before Behaviorism one particular class of human experiences was for a time excluded, namely, all value experiences.  Values were excluded as being merely subjective phenomena which could not be accepted as sound scientific material ... Human living [however] would simply collapse if all value experiences and corresponding activities were suddenly to disappear.  Is the psychologist permitted to ignore the most important parts of his subject matter?  And is not his decision to deal only with neutral facts strangely at odds with his own contempt of values?  Clearly, his own love of neutral facts and his contempt of value are clear instances of powerful valuation" (15).

The historian, Charles Beard, made the same observation for political science: "We are therefore confronted by an inherent antagonism between our generally accepted political doctrines, and the actual facts of political life . . . Shall we in the field of political science cling to a delusion that we have to deal only with an abstract man divorced from all economic interests and group sentiments?" (16).  Value-neutrality designed, supposedly, to assure objectivity has been carried to such an extreme in political science that, according to the view expounded by Philip Green and Sanford Levinson, ". . . contemporary American political science has often been rendered irrelevant to vital political concerns by the pursuit of petty methodological purity ... this supposedly pure—i.e., value-free—work has always been strongly influenced by personal value-judgments, which with few exceptions have been supportive of the political status quo in the United States and have generally conveyed a false picture of political life in western democracies"(17).  And when Noam Chomsky introduced the subjective dimension by insisting that linguists examine the infinite number of sentences humans can compose (rather than continuing with the classification of finite elements of human languages expected under the orthodox perspective), the definition of linguistics argued by the structural linguists, with its intense requirement for objective verification and exacting techniques for discoveries void of mental entities, could no longer persist (18).

The escape from values which is exonerated by scientific impartiality means, in the appraisal by the anthropologist, A. L. Kroeber, that "we are refusing to deal with what has most meaning in particular cultures as well as in human culture seen as a whole...... And as a result, Kroeber continues, "What we have left on elimination of values is an arid roster of cultural events which we are constantly tempted to animate by reintroducing the values we have banned, or else by back-handedly introducing values from our own culture (19).  And such is the case in the Velikovsky affair as astronomers avoid contemplation of catastrophe: objectivity with its inherent optimism of an ordered universe limits the range of inquiry so that physicists lament that the discipline would succumb should Velikovsky prevail.  What is actually being said is that physicists fear the collapse of their subject as they conceive the field —or, more precisely, as they prefer to conceive the field inasmuch as adherence to objectivity constricts the subject matter of all disciplines advancing the notion of orderliness.

A scientific creed, buttressed by the professional organization's insistence upon objectivity, has come to replace religious dogma.  Professionalism is the by-word and the mark of excellence for the truly matured scientist; it is intended to enshrine not only "the truth" but also the bearer of that "truth"— namely, the scholar of scientific investigation.  The scholar's ascendancy in the profession's hierarchy of membership and office-holding validates his claim for prominence and anoints his particular writings with an official imprimatur; the prestige conferred by professionalization of scholarship warrants respect from other bureaucracies such as the university, government, foundations, publishing houses, and business corporations.   Nonetheless, it has never been demonstrated that "objectivity" sustains accuracy; instead, as a canon of science, it is intended to convey the purity of innocence required for academic piety.  And the increased professionalization of objectivity decreases the exploration of theory vis-a-vis evidence in favor, as we have seen, of theory construction.

Objectivity and the Acceptance of Velikovsky's Views

It would now seem that the greater acceptance of Velikovsky's views confirms rather than refutes science's objectivity that in spite of all the hostility truth, at last, prevails because objectivity carries the day, sweeping aside the Old and bringing in the New Truth.  This, however, is hardly the case, and would be contrary even to Velikovsky's own analysis asserting the basis for the acceptance of new theories in science.  For Velikovsky effectively argues, in explaining the rise in popularity of the doctrine of uniformity, that social events nourished acceptance.  He contends, ". . . that in the climate of reaction to the eruptions of revolution [i.e., the French Revolution in 1789] and the Napoleonic Wars the theory of uniformity became popular and soon dominant in the natural sciences" (20).

We must not mislead ourselves and pretend that Velikovsky's theories in astronomy are somehow, in spite of the vigorous opposition, being tested in a systematic fashion in keeping with established scientific canons of objectivity, or that his views are being confirmed without acknowledgment.  Just as Velikovsky insists that the acceptance of uniformity flourished out of social dispositions for harmony in 18th century Europe, we must not feign scientific approval and declare that Velikovsky's own ideas are somehow void of social meaning as they gain acceptance in 20th century America.  The momentum of acclaim comes from the social dynamics of our day—not in harmony with the specifications of proper scientific inquiry, but with the demands of the power elite within American society.  It is because space explorations have been undertaken that so much evidence and interest essential to Velikovsky's theories have been collected and publicized.  And space explorations have not been the pure scientific enterprise touted to the public, but rather originated and persist today to fulfill military expectations.  It is most doubtful that so much of Velikovsky's formulations in astronomy would have been substantiated so quickly in the absence of a militaristic mentality now dominating this nation.  Thus, while it was the longing for peace and tranquility which apparently nourished notions of harmony in nature, today it is the momentum of militaristic destruction which introduces the greater reception toward Velikovsky's controversial interpretations.  Modern science owes its growth to wars and the threats of war (21).  And it may very well be that Velikovsky will be no exception to this generalization.  By the advocates of Velikovsky failing to challenge value neutrality so as to give social direction to the results of their efforts, there is the very distinct danger that the words of the anthropologist, A. L. Kroeber, which were quoted above, will ring all too real, namely: "What we have left on elimination of values is an arid roster of cultural events which we are constantly tempted to animate by reintroducing the values we have banned, or else by back-handedly introducing values from our own culture." (22)

In reading the literature surrounding the Velikovsky affair, I find little indication that we are sensitive to the social realities of our time any more than Charles Lyell when setting forth the doctrine of uniformity.  By deliberate suppression of morality in the act of creation on the part of scientists, we have dismissed as irrelevant the issue of moral accountability so that space explorations become a cover for military needs.  Yet, it is an astronomer, not always appreciated by the proponents of Velikovsky, Fred Hoyle, who charged: "It is exactly what I have always felt about the space program—that the astronomers were being used as a facade of respectability for an essentially military project." (23)

Rather than being sensitive to the dangers of advancing militarism, we find in The Velikovsky Affair, a book so noteworthy for dealing with the nature of receptive systems in science, the claim that "There can be little doubt that in a totalitarian society, not only would Dr. Velikovsky's reputation have been at stake. but also his right to pursue his inquiry, and perhaps his personal safety." (24).  There simply is no sociological basis for such an indictment, but rather considerable harm is done by taking attention away from our social responsibilities to focus, instead, upon the mythical Cold War mentality of the fifties (25).  The rather remarkable research undertaken by Werner Von Braun in Fascist Germany and the outstanding space probes by scientists in the Soviet Union attest to the vigorous support totalitarian societies invest in scientific research rather than the closure which would overwhelm —immediately and decisively—Velikovsky.  Democracy does not vouchsafe any greater critical freedoms for new scientific theories than an autocratic regime.  Indeed, the argument could be made that democracy itself contributed greater hardship toward Velikovsky inasmuch as the book became popular with the public as a best seller; was popularized in such magazines as Collier's Magazine, The Reporter, Saturday Review of Literature, Harper's,—received coverage by numerous newspapers; and was given extensive book reviews.  "Going public," because of less stringent control over the press than in other societies, posed a kind of "democratic" threat to the establishment in astronomy. As Popular Astronomy explained in its June, 1950, review of Worlds in Collision by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, "We are giving greater prominence to this analysis of 'Worlds in Collision' than is usually accorded to book reviews ... This book has been brought to the attention of a large reading public by having been mentioned favorably in several popular magazines. . ." (26).  Scientific disciplines, being autocratic organizations, do not take democratization of scientific findings lightly; "going public" violates the aristocratic foundations of scientific professions and therefore meets with expedient hostility, as though dissemination of discoveries not receiving the official confirmation of the scientific elite invites contamination of scientific thought.

It is one of the more serious blunders among scholars to think that democracy nourishes free inquiry; there is the naive outlook that in the absence of state authority there is full freedom for scholars vis-a-vis the political system in America, that regimentation over ideas is not an explicit function of the state.  Such declarations merely anoint scientists with the freedom to control one another; insofar as that control remains in the hands of the American political elite, there will be no necessity for a formal state agency to regulate scholarly professions.  Reins remain extremely tight upon the creative person through the delegation conferred by the State; by keeping each other in line, scientists avoid direct State censorship.  Thus, the forces of resistance find a more difficult time to convince skeptics of the lack of true freedom of inquiry by the absence of an explicit state agency charged with thought control.


In summary, we need to recognize that scientific research is a social activity and, as such, it is a creation of social forces and not a reflection of pure intellect void of society's values.  I have tried here to demonstrate that "objectivity" itself is a value and, as such, has ramifications for the subject to be investigated, the disciplines organized to conduct the investigation, and the professions which emerge to solidify the scholarly disciplines within our society.  Furthermore, the reception given to revolutionary scientific discoveries is not in accord with logic but is in keeping with social developments; in the case of Velikovsky, the emergence of a militaristic state within American society seems to be a dominant social force in support of the space explorations which have come to provide the ever-increasing factual data relevant to Velikovsky's theories in astronomy.  The utility of knowledge still dominates research: "The ultimately decisive question," writes the political scientist Hans Morgenthau, "is not what man is able to know in view of the capacity of his brains, but what he wants to know from among the knowledge technically accessible to him." (27).  More to the point, it is not only what "he wants to know" but "who wants to know." And it seems to me that it is the military strategist who wants to know about space—and hence wants to know about Velikovsky to advance military tactics and control.  This is a rather ominous conclusion, but a consideration which has to be faced in spite of the call for objectivity.  Scientific accountability denied on the basis of value neutrality leaves a convenient void into which the military will most likely step.


(1)    A. de Grazia, "The Scientific Reception System," The Velikovsky Affair, de Grazia.  R. E. Juergens, and L. C. Stecchini eds. (University Books. 1966), pp. 171-231.

(2)    "YSM Viewpoint: A Scientific Approach to Velikovsky," Yale Scientific Magazine. 41 (April, 1967), 5.

(3)    "A Look at the Evidence," Pensée, 2 (May, 1972), 4.

(4)    C. Payne-Gaposchkin, "Worlds in Collision," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 96 (October 15, 1952), 519; emphasis supplied.

(5)    For a fuller discussion of this point, the reader is referred to several of my own publications: "Scientific Unaccountability and Moral Accountability," The New Sociology, I. L. Horowitz, ed. (Oxford, 1964), 181-87: "Elites, Scholars, and Sociologists," The Sociology of Sociology,  L.  T. Reynolds and J.  M.  Reynolds, eds. (David McKay, 1970), pp.  114-28.

(6)    H. J. Morganthau, Science; Servant or Master? (New American Library, 1972), emphasis supplied.

(7)    R. E. Juergens, "Minds in chaos: A Recital of the Velikovsky Story," The American Behavioral Scientist. 7, (September, 1963), emphasis supplied.

(8)    "A Short Biography of Immanuel Velikovsky." Yale Scientific Magazine, op. cit., 6.

(9)    E. Knight, The Objective Society, (George Braziller, 1960), p. 8.

(10) Alain as quoted by Knight.  Ibid., p. 127.

(11) This is a broader application of an important observation developed by Lewis M. Killian, "Optimism and Pessimism in sociological Analysis." The American Sociologist, 6 (November, 1971). pp. 281-86.

(12)  The ultimate source for the preordained orderliness within the universe, according to Newton. rests in the authority of God's domain.  That order is Divine decree in Newton's outlook is demonstrated when this renowned physicist deliberately excluded empirical data contrary to the uniformity concept.  See the outstanding analysis presented by L. C. Stecchini, "The Inconstant Heaven's." The Velikovsky Affair, op. cit., pp. 89-105.

(13)   L. Trainor, "Scientist, Philosopher and Poet." Pensée, op. cit., 44.

(14)   T. S.  Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness (Dell, 1961), p. x; emphasis supplied.

(15)   W. Köhler, The Place of Value in a World of Facts (Mentor, 1966), p. vii.

(16)   C. A. Beard.  The Economic Basis of Politics, compiled and annotated by William Beard (Vintage, 1957), pp.  67-68.

(17)   P.  Green and S. Levison. eds.. Power and Community (Vintage, 1970), p. vii.

(18)   See J. Searle, "Chomsky's Revolution in Linguistics," New York Review of Books, 18 (June 29, l972). 16.

(19)   A. L. Kroeber, The Nature of Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 402, 408; emphasis supplied.

(20)   I.  Velikovsky, Earth in Upheaval (Dell, 1968), p. 32.

(21)   For an elaboration upon this point see my chapter, "Social Mythology and Social Issues." Social Problems: Divergent Perspectives, L. T. Reynolds and J. M. Henslin, eds. (Holbrook Press, 1972): forthcoming.

(22)   See footnote 19.

(23)   F. Hoyle as quoted by R. E. Lapp, The New Priesthood (Harper and Row, 1965). p. 32.

(24)   "Foreword," The Velikovsky Affair, op. cit., p. 1.

(25)   The group of historians intent upon dislodging notions of the "communist" threat to the United States during the 1950s are referred to as " revisionists."  See D.  F. Fleming, The Cold War and Its Origins, 1917-1960 (Doubleday, 1961); W. A. Williams, The Contours of American History, (Chicago, 1966); G. Kolko, The Politics of War (Random House, 1968) and The Roots of American Policy (Beacon Press, 1967): J. L. Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War: 1941-1947 (Columbia University Press, 1972).

(26)   Quoted in The Velikovsky Affair, op. cit., p. 27.

(27)   Morgenthau, op. cit., p.10; emphasis supplied.


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