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Open letter to science editors


The Logic of Theory-Testing:
Some Criticisms of Mackie

MacKie has pointed out (Pensée, Winter, 1973, p. 6) that some of Velikovsky's claims are quite general, and that others are more specific.  But when MacKie discusses the testing of the specific claims, and when he discusses the effect that the truth or falsity of some general claim might have on some more specific claim, it seems to me that MacKie's remarks display a certain amount of logical confusion.

MacKie suggests that Velikovsky has put forward at least two, possibly three, major General Theories and a large number of Specific Theories stemming from them."  He then suggests that if the general theories ". . are disproved, the specific theories become irrelevant.  On the other hand some of the specific theories could be drastically modified, or even disproved, without affecting the general theories."  MacKie has in mind two main general theories: (1) ". . that catastrophes of global extent have afflicted Earth in the past," and (2) ". . . that planets of the solar system have come into near contact with each other in the past (and that when such near contacts involved Earth, terrestrial cataclysms occurred)." MacKie sees (1) and (2) as ". . to some extent independent of one another.  Presumably (1) could be true without (2) and vice versa."  Finally, MacKie says, "The numerous Specific Theories follow from the general ones and support them." (By specific theories, MacKie has in mind such things as the dates that Velikovsky has assigned for the more recent catastrophes.)

MacKie would agree that the independence of two claims means that either one could be true without the other's being true, and that either one could be false without the other's being false.  But then MacKie should not speak of theories that are "to some extent" independent of each other; theories either are or are not independent of each other, on purely logical grounds, and this independence is not a matter of degree.

What is more important, however, is that MacKie is wrong in any case in treating (1) and (2) as independent of each other.  I agree that (1) could be true and (2) false, but surely if it is true that (2) Earth has come into near contacts with other planets with the result that "terrestrial cataclysms occurred," then it must also be true that (1) "catastrophes of global extent have afflicted Earth."  Thus (2) implies (1), and the relationship between these two general theories is not even "to some extent" one of logical independence.

How is a general theory like (1) or (2)—call it "G"—related to a specific theory, "S"?  MacKie describes S as "stemming from" G.  Later on, the point is stated less metaphorically when he says that the specific theories "follow from" the general theories.  So let us suppose that S does follow from G. Then if G were true, S would also have to be true.  Similarly, if S were definitely false, then G, from which S follows, would also have to be false.  How, then, can MacKie maintain, as he does, that ". . the specific theories could be drastically modified, or even disproved, without affecting the general theories"?

It might be suspected that what MacKie really wants to say is, rather, that G follows from S: that would at least permit. him to make his claim that S could be disproved without affecting G. Unfortunately, this would not be compatible with his other claim, that the specific theories "follow from the general ones," and he would still be in trouble.

After his preliminary remarks on theory testing—remarks that I consider untenable—MacKie proceeds to the main business of his paper, which is the testing of Velikovsky's theories of catastrophism on the basis of radiocarbon dating procedures.  MacKie believes that these procedures will ". . demonstrate the contemporaneity, or otherwise, between major environmental changes (such as alterations in the sea level, in the extent of the ice sheets, volcanic eruptions) and human events (such as migrations and the destruction of cities and cultures)."  But here again MacKie's approach appears to me to be undermined by logical difficulties.  How can radiocarbon dating of events prior to twenty-seven centuries ago be applied to Velikovsky without begging the very questions at issue?  For radiocarbon dating procedures have been based on a number of uniformitarian assumptions, such as the constancy of cosmic radiation in the vicinity of Earth, the constancy of Earth's magnetosphere, the constancy of oceanic temperatures, acidity, volume, and so on.  These are only the explicit "constants"; the implicit ones, which are so "obvious" that few would bother to state them, are that no other planet has approached close to Earth, that the orbit of Earth has not changed to any significant degree, that the obliquity of Earth has not changed to any significant degree, and so on.  But Velikovsky's catastrophism suggests that several thousand years ago these "constants" may have been considerably different from what they are now, different enough that we have to be extremely careful in evaluating the results of radiocarbon dating procedures, even if those procedures are being employed only to demonstrate contemporaneity, rather than to demonstrate the age in real years.

The difficulty is that we are supposed to be testing catastrophism against uniformitarianism, and that radiocarbon dating is not neutral in that conflict.  What MacKie must do, before gathering radiocarbon findings as a test of catastrophism, is to demonstrate that catastrophism is compatible with the reliability of radiocarbon procedures in determining contemporaneity or non-contemporaneity.  Among other things, this means that he must refute the claim that frequently "one and the same carbon age corresponds to two historical ages" (Pensée, Fall, 1972, p. 41).  Unless and until MacKie has established the reliability of radiocarbon dating procedures on the basis of facts and arguments that take no stand on the issue of uniformitarianism versus catastrophism, MacKie cannot, without begging the question, use radiocarbon dating procedures in resolving that issue.

Nor is it legitimate for MacKie to confine himself to published radiocarbon tests in trying to resolve that issue, if he has not first established that there has been no pre-publication discarding of those test results that were incompatible with uniformitarianism or with other aspects of orthodox historiography.  Unlike MacKie, I am fully persuaded that from the very inception of radiocarbon dating it has been the standard practice to scrap "contaminated", "statistically inconsistent", or "historically impossible" readings.  If MacKie restricts himself to published dates, even though he knows of others, is he not obligated to examine the criteria that have influenced the decisions to put some dates in scholarly journals and others in wastebaskets?  I am confident that an examination of those criteria will inevitably lead to the conclusion that a collection of published (that is, "approved") tests is of little worth as a basis for a statistical evaluation of catastrophism.

Lynn E. Rose


I will comment on Dr. Rose's points briefly and in the order in which he made them.

(A)  The two general catastrophic theories I defined can be independent; presumably (2) could be true without involving Earth.  The bracketed clause was inserted only to make clear the conditions in which the two theories do become interlinked, that is when Earth is involved in (2).

(B)  Concerning the interrelations of specific and general elements in Velikovsky's theories, thinking of actual examples rather than abstract S's and G's should make all plain.  It is surely obvious that catastrophic interpretations of separate terrestrial phenomena—based on the general theory that catastrophes have occurred—could be wrong in various ways without automatically invalidating the general theory.  By leaving out 'some of' in his quotation Rose distorted my meaning ("some of the specific theories could be disproved without affecting the general theories").  Obviously if all the specific theories were disproved the general theory would become untenable but I did not dispute that.

(C)  The comments on radiocarbon dating betray some uncertainty on the subject.  There are three obvious ways in which the value of C-14 as a relative dating technique could be nullified (leaving aside the question of the reliability of individual samples in relation to their contexts).  The first is if, at certain periods in the past, the concentration of C-14 in the atmosphere was markedly different in separate parts of the world for long enough periods for these differences to have been absorbed into organisms living at the times concerned.  This does seem rather unlikely but should be revealed by another tree-ring chronology, built up in Europe for example, and carbon-dated.

Work at the Neolithic 'lake village' at Auvernier, Switzerland, has produced a floating tree-ring sequence several centuries long and the series of C-14 dates obtained for it showed fluctuations in the local atmospheric concentration of C-14 which closely matched the equivalent section on the tree-ring chronology from Arizona (1) (early 3rd millennium B.C. in real years).

The second way would be if there had been wholesale contamination of organic material by old carbon during catastrophes (from eruptions, falls of petroleum, etc.) in amounts which varied in different areas.  Contrary to what Rose says, the obliquity of the ecliptic, the length of the year, the rate of cosmic radiation and the constancy or otherwise of the magnetosphere need have no effect on the value of C-14 as a relative dating tool unless the effects on the atmospheric reservoir or on the organic samples varied geographically at any particular epoch.  Even then the resulting invalidation of C-14 would apply only to those epochs.  The third way in which the value of the technique for relative dating might be reduced is dealt with in the next paragraph.

(D)  The question of C-14 ages having more than one equivalent in real years is certainly a problem but is one that appears to apply only to short phases of the past according to the Suess calibration chart (2).  However not all the experts seem to agree that the minor fluctuations in the graph are real though here again the work at Auvernier (1) may be suggesting that some are: the contrary has recently been argued from archaeological evidence in Britain (3).

It is amusing to reflect that such violent short-term fluctuations in the C-14 reservoir (presumably) might be interpreted as evidence that catastrophes have occurred, a conclusion which would surely appeal to Dr. Rose!

(E)  Unpublished dates of natural environmental changes, assuming that some exist, are unlikely in my opinion to affect any overall pattern presented by the large number of known dates.  As far as I know, no one has previously suggested that such dates for sea-level changes, eruptions and so on should be used to test for the occurrence of global convulsions so a uniformitarian motive for suppressing any can hardly have been in existence until now.  Neither has anyone, as far as I know, tried to correlate the destruction of civilizations and cultures in different countries by this means so the same should apply here.  Suppressions might occur for a variety of other minor reasons but the effect of this would surely be random as far as the catastrophic theory is concerned except in the field of ancient Egyptian history.

(F)  I gave no opinion as to whether some historical C-14 dates have been suppressed.

Euan W. MacKie

May 28, 1973


(1)       H. E. Suess and C. Strahm, "The Neolithic of Auvernier, Switzerland," Antiquity, 4S (1970), 91-99; also C. W. Ferguson, B. Huber and H. E. Suess, "Determination of the Age of Swiss Lake Dwellings as an Example of Dendrochronologically-calibrated Radiocarbon Dating," Zeitschrift für Naturforschung, 21 (1966), 1173-77.

(2)         H. E. Suess, "The Three Causes of the Secular C-14 Fluctuations, Their Amplitudes and Time Constants," Proceedings, 12th Nobel Symposium (Almqvist and Wiksell, Stockholm, 1970).

(3)         R. Burleigh, I. H. Longworth and G. J. Wainwright, "Relative and Absolute Dating of Four Late Neolithic Enclosures: An Exercise in the Interpretation of Radiocarbon Determinations," Proc.  Prehist.  Soc., 38 (1972), 389-407; Barbara and J. H. Ottaway, "The Suess Calibration Curve and Archaeological Dating." Nature, 239 (October 27, 1972), 512-13.

PENSEE Journal V

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