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Open letter to science editors


"Velikovsky's Challenge to Science"

The following account of the AAAS symposium, "Velikovsky's Challenge to Science," was compiled by the staff of Pensée. Together with the texts of the papers by Irving Michelson and Velikovsky, it represents the most extensive coverage of the event in print.

In one sense we begrudge the space allotted to this story. There is much research going forward which merits immediate publication, but which has been temporarily squeezed out of our pages by this narrative of events falling primarily under the heading, "The Velikovsky Affair. " We had hoped the "affair" was left behind us, but such is apparently not the case. With our next issue we will return to a more extensive selection of papers dealing with the scientific and historical questions at issue.


At the editor's request, Professor Carl Sagan has agreed to provide a paper for publication in Pensée.

With this notice we issue an open invitation to all symposium participants: the pages of Pensée will remain accessible to you for response, criticism, or correction of the symposium coverage contained here.

A Day of Confrontation

The event began auspiciously enough. As 8 a.m. approached, a crowd of some 1000 onlookers, joined by a large and curious press corps, converged on the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel St. Francis, having been informed--via an addendum to the printed program--of the last-minute switch from a smaller, inadequate-sized hall. Technicians for the National Film Board of Canada had already set up floodlights and a movie camera to record the proceedings.

Many of those present had read in that morning's San Francisco Examiner that "Velikovsky, Gell-Mann, Seaborg, Sagan, Margaret Mead--the brightest stars in the science galaxy-are in town this week for the 140th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science." And the fact was that Immanuel Velikovsky, after nearly a quarter-century of total ostracism by organized science, had been invited to participate in a symposium on his work at the annual meeting of the prestigious AAAS.

"This was the confrontation with conventional science which Velikovsky, the archcatastrophist, had sought since the early 1950's," announced Science magazine. "When it finally came, the encounter lasted seven hours, four on the morning of 25 February and three more in the evening. At the end, each sphere--Velikovsky, and the panel of scientists who volunteered to debate him--declared itself the winner. . ."

Science News proclaimed, "It was time for a scientific day of atonement": ". . . partly because of a persistent sense of guilt over what Velikovsky's harshest critics now concede was a shabby breach of academic freedom, the AAAS invited the 77-year-old author to debate his views in a public forum."

But of course there was more to it than that. As Walter Sullivan, science editor for the New York Times, noted in his report from San Francisco, "It is evident that 24 years after Worlds in Collision first appeared, there is a revival of interest in his [Velikovsky's] theories." Indeed, as events were to reveal, it was such interest which, more than any desire to make atonement, provided the necessary stimulus for the AAAS to undertake its symposium on "Velikovsky's Challenge to Science." And as the facts--both before and during the symposium--would clearly show, the symposium's organizers saw the dampening of this interest as their primary mission.

On that Monday morning in the St. Francis one could understand--though hardly sympathize with--their concern. The audience, which would at one point accord Velikovsky a standing ovation, sat avidly from 9 a.m. (the meeting was convened one hour late) until 1 p.m., when the session was forced to vacate the room. There was no mid-morning coffee break, and yet in large part those attending seemed disappointed when the moderator, Berkeley astronomy professor Ivan King, was forced by the clock to close the meeting.

That closing came before the last speaker--mechanics professor Irving Michelson--had a chance to present his paper, which was deferred until the evening session. The postponement of Michelson's presentation was unfortunate, particularly in that he alone, of those panelists who confronted Velikovsky's work, chose to engage his subject in the manner of a scientist analyzing the evidences, rather than as a high priest pronouncing judgment. But the evening crowd (when Michelson spoke) was much smaller than the morning, and the daily press reporters had already filed their stories that afternoon. In any case, the press as a whole seemed quite content with the judgment that was pronounced. As Robert Gillette wrote in Science, "most of the reporters present in the Grand Ballroom of the St. Francis Hotel seemed to regard Velikovsky as the loser."

Thus, the San Francisco Chronicle's Charles Petit wrote of "the thoroughness with which a panel of scientists dismissed and refuted the ideas [Velikovsky] has developed during the past 35 years," and described Velikovsky's refusal to accept such dismissal as "dogged." George Alexander of the Los Angeles Times announced that "the consensus was that Velikovsky came off a poor second in the debate." (A bibliography of all press commentary cited here and below is contained at the end of this article.)

That consensus, however, was not a matter of unanimity. Norman Melnick of the Examiner noted that "The verdict is not yet in on Immanuel Velikovsky." Science writer James Hazelwood of the Oakland Tribune acknowledged that Velikovsky, in trading verbal punches with his detractors, "gave at least as much punishment as he received."

The event itself is difficult to describe, being by no means a tidy affair. The audience, which exhibited mixed, though largely pro-Velikovsky sympathies, punctuated the proceedings with applause, laughter, and an occasional rude shout followed by hisses of disapproval. The morning session opened with the moderator officially "deploring" the length of Velikovsky's intended address. The sociologist, Baruch College professor Norman Storer, then offered lame excuses for the behavior of those scientists whose concerted actions in the 1950's produced the spectacle now known as the Velikovsky Affair. (Velikovsky, said Storer, did not possess any "credentials," and could only "marginally be distinguished from the myriad of crackpots"; science was already "under attack by right-wing forces in American society.")

There followed a series of broadsides fired off by Professors Peter Huber, J. Derral Mulholland, and Carl Sagan, with Velikovsky's prepared lecture coming between Huber and Mulholland. The hurried question-and-answer periods between lectures--the clock pressing at all times--yielded exchanges of limited value. Velikovsky--pitted against four hostile panelists in the morning session, with but a few minutes to offer spontaneous reply to a breathtaking series of claims and charges ranging from cuneiform matters to celestial mechanics--performed as well as could be expected under the circumstances, drawing upon powers of memory and a grasp of the issues which must at times have startled his antagonists.

The proceedings left many observers wondering how the organizers or participants imagined that knowledge might be advanced through such an onslaught of authoritative assertions--with no in-depth focusing on particular sets of evidence to determine with what voice that evidence really speaks. Nor did Velikovsky help his own case by accepting the game. Short of amassing the same quantity of evidence exhibited in his books, there was absolutely no way he could adequately respond to the barrage of charges leveled at him. Had he simply pointed out the profitless nature of the proceedings, selected a few of the charges, addressed them directly without ramifying his remarks unduly, the discussion periods might have served to provide a more substantial clarification of issues.

Velikovsky did, however, score a number of important points; moreover, his opponents made concessions in several fields, and in at least one instance called attention to further evidence in his support, whereas the best of the scientific arguments brought against him hinged on debatable or conjectural conclusions from known and supposed facts; the worst of them stemmed from misunderstanding or deliberate misrepresentation of his work. Furthermore, Illinois Institute of Technology professor Michelson, in a remarkably cool, quantitative, and largely unnoted coup, announced the results of calculations throwing several of Velikovsky's most controversial suggestions into startlingly new perspective. In addition, he offered the conclusion that Velikovsky's contentions "are certainly not at variance with classical mechanics." Ironically, Michelson's presentation brought no discussion from the panel--only a muddled effort by Mulholland to dismiss the paper out of hand (see below).


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