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Open letter to science editors


The Genesis of a Symposium

Walter Orr Roberts, astronomer, atmospheric scientist, and a past-president of the AAAS, was the first publicly to suggest a symposium on Velikovsky's controversial works. After reading a copy of the first issue in Pensée's "Immanuel Velikovsky Reconsidered" series, Roberts wrote to editor Stephen L. Talbott (18 July 1972):

Perhaps the AAAS could be interested in holding a symposium on scientific logic using the Velikovsky case as a specific study. Perhaps the symposium should be narrowed down to a smaller point, in order to try to reach a conclusive position. For example, one might take the matter of Velikovsky's arguments regarding electrical charges on the sun and in the planetary system.... the argument could be narrowed down and one might come to an answer as to whether Velikovsky was right....

In any event, I do agree with the editors of the journal that the public deserves a better assessment of the validity of Velikovsky's work than it has received to date ....

Roberts followed up on his own suggestion in a letter to an AAAS official, stating that, in his view, "the symposium should be narrowly directed at some specific topic--like, for example, Velikovsky's notion that Venus is a new member of the planetary family of our sun. . . ."

Talbott pursued the matter in a November 15, 1972 letter to Roberts, mentioning that the symposium suggestion had been passed along to astronomers Carl Sagan and (the late) Gerard Kuiper. "We are," wrote Talbott, "quite pleased with the way things are 'loosening up,' and Velikovsky's work is receiving serious discussion. We can easily foresee the day when the professional/technical journals will have taken up the matter and we can bow out."

In reply to Talbott (3 January 1973), Roberts reported that Sagan, a Cornell University astronomer and a frequent critic of Velikovsky, had written to him (Roberts) endorsing both the idea of a symposium and the concept that it "should confront some rather specific and limited point." Roberts added: "Both Sagan and I, on the other hand, feel so heavily burdened down with other tasks that we do not feel able to take any major initiative in arranging such a symposium. To be profitable, it would have to be enormously carefully done."

That is where the issue stood until June 1, 1973, when the AAAS, in Science magazine, invited proposals for symposia to be held at the 1974 annual AAAS convention. Through Dr. C. J. Ransom, an AAAS member, the editors of Pensée submitted a proposal for a symposium titled "Venus--A Youthful Planet?"

Dated June 11, the synopsis read as follows:

An analysis and critique of the views of Immanuel Velikovsky (Worlds in Collision) as they bear on the question of the age and characteristics of the planet Venus. In view of the increasing interest in Velikovsky's work among scientists and the general public, such a symposium, restricted to this one topic, could perform a valuable service in setting the discussion of Velikovsky's theories on a sound, cautious, and scientific footing.

Subjects treated could include:

1. The evidence concerning, and the mechanical feasibility of, Velikovsky's contention that Venus originated from Jupiter in historical times.

2. Possible explanations for Venus' retrograde rotation.

3. Are there hydrocarbons in Venus' cloud envelope, as Velikovsky has claimed and others have disputed?

4. How did Venus achieve its current temperature?

5. Does the historical evidence concerning Venus tell of unusual movements in the past?

Such a symposium is likely to draw as diverse and multi disciplinary (and emotionally charged) an audience as any AAAS gathering. Attendance would probably be high. Care in the planning would have to be taken to insure a cautious, low-key, fair, and profitable proceeding.

The review committee in the AAAS meetings office (letter of July 9) found itself "unable to accept" this particular proposal, but not, it turned out, before a decision to go ahead and hold a Velikovsky symposium had been made. The event would be sponsored by, and wholly under the control of, the Astronomy Committee of the AAAS. Its members were Donald Goldsmith (assistant professor of astronomy, State University of New York, Stony Brook); Ivan King (professor of astronomy, University of California, Berkeley); and Owen Gingerich (Harvard professor of astronomy and the history of science).

King carried the committee's idea to Velikovsky in a personal visit to the latter's Princeton home on July 13. The meeting was cordial, the two men found themselves in evident harmony, and no blocks seemed to threaten the symposium plans. As a title for the event, King suggested "World-Views in Collision: Velikovsky's Description of Our Planetary System." After some discussion, they agreed on the simpler "Velikovsky's Challenge to Science."

Goldsmith wrote to Velikovsky on July 30, to confirm King's invitation, as well as to outline the symposium. This outline, together with matters discussed during King's visit to Velikovsky, would later become the basis for a heated dispute that nearly scuttled the symposium.

The symposium is planned to consider the suggestions you have made concerning our planetary system.... Because the time available for the symposium is only three hours, we have planned to focus the attention of the participants on the nature and motions of the planets. This does not mean that discussion of the earth and moon in detail would not be allowed, but it does (I hope) mean that participants will pay most attention to the planets (in particular, I imagine, to Venus and Jupiter). The co-organizers of the symposium are myself, Prof King, and Prof. Owen Gingerich of Harvard University.

As you can see from the enclosed description of the symposium, three of the speakers have been chosen: yourself, Prof. Carl Sagan (Cornell University), and Prof. J. Derral Mulholland (University of Texas). In addition, three more speakers will be chosen as indicated in the symposium outline; one of these should be a person well acquainted with your views.

The enclosed symposium outline contained the following synopsis:

The theories proposed by Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky concerning the origin, nature, and motions of the objects that form our planetary system have aroused controversy since they were first proposed more than 20 years ago. Some scientists have been reluctant to examine Dr. Velikovsky's proposals in detail because of the great degree to which they differ from generally accepted notions of the nature of the planets. Furthermore, because Dr. Velikovsky's writings include a detailed discussion of the dating of historical or pre-historical events, most astronomers have been unable to follow his re-evaluation of the usual chronology assigned to these events. However, some scientists have been willing to consider Velikovsky's ideas, and in this symposium both pro- and anti-Velikovsky speakers, as well as a sociologist who will examine the reception of unpopular scientific ideas, will give talks that should help others to evaluate Dr. Velikovsky's proposals.

"What disturbs the scientists is the persistence of these views, in spite of all the efforts that scientists have spent on educating the public."

During the last week in July Frederic B. Jueneman, Director/Research for Innovative Concepts Associates of San Jose, and author of a regular feature--"Innovative Notebook: Scientific Speculation by Jueneman"--in Industrial Research magazine, telephoned King to inquire as to the events leading up to the decision to hold the Velikovsky symposium. According to Jueneman:

King stated that it was the intent of the symposium to take another look at Velikovsky's work, since there was a rising groundswell of interest, particularly at Berkeley, and that this would be an attempt to bridge the gap between the public and science. I asked if this might also be a move to stem the criticism by various groups against the AAAS for the actions of its members in the Velikovsky affair. He said it was, to some extent, and that only individual members of the AAAS were responsible for the excesses against Velikovsky, not the AAAS itself.

I asked whether the panel had been filled, but apparently at that time only Dr. Sagan was definite. However, King asked if there were any of whom I knew in the physical sciences, of some prominence, who were also familiar with Velikovsky's work ... since the panel was to be made up from the "hard" sciences.

It is evident that at that time--midsummer, 1973--the symposium was still scheduled to focus on a fairly limited field of inquiry: the nature and motions of the planets. There was as yet no indication that King had begun to feel the pressures that were to change the entire complexion of the symposium within a very few weeks.

Late in the summer of 1973 Talbott invited King to submit a statement on the symposium and its purposes for publication in Pensée. King responded favorably, but took the occasion to remark about an earlier, "unfortunately worded" advertisement for Pensée. The ad appeared in the May, 1973 issue of Intellectual Digest, and carried a statement that the AAAS is "under increasing pressure to hold a symposium to clarify the scientific status" of Velikovsky's work.

Wrote King: "Let me assure you that there has been no pressure whatever. The original idea of the symposium came from a distinguished astronomer who believes that Velikovsky's astronomical ideas are totally misconceived. It was taken up by the governing committee of the astronomy section of the AAAS without outside intervention. We asked Walter Roberts' opinion about it, and he agreed that it would be a good contribution to a AAAS meeting."

King went on to say that "the phrase 'clarify the scientific status' can easily be misunderstood, when it appears in a text that includes the words 'acceptable' and 'vindication.' The planning of this symposium does not in any way imply that Velikovsky's ideas on astronomy are any more acceptable than they were 20 years ago. It is the persistence of support that is the striking phenomenon. Since the AAAS feels a responsibility for communication between scientists and the public, it is a perfectly reasonable thing to discuss the impact of a movement on that same public."

King's words signalled the underlying attitude of the symposium organizers. Wholly absent was the idea of an objective evaluation of Velikovsky's suggestions concerning the solar system; in its place was the conviction that a misinformed public needed educating.

As promised, King submitted a statement for publication in Pensée. His covering letter of November 28 assured the editor that the statement "expresses accurately and faithfully the views of the symposium organizers and of the others in the AAAS who have supported the idea," although the wording was King's own.

The piece never saw publication. Rather, it was followed by a rapid-fire series of letter exchanges which, for a while at least, left the entire symposium in doubt.

King's 500-word explication of the symposium's rationale heavily emphasized the role of the AAAS in furthering communication between science and the public. AAAS meetings do not usually feature "the presentation and discussion of new results within individual sciences"--a function reserved for "more specialized societies." Velikovsky, King continued, would have physical scientists revise their ideas on how planets move--and this solely on the basis of a historical synthesis which is not even accepted by historians. Scientists, however, regard the challenge "as of too little weight to take seriously." Further, "What disturbs the scientists is the persistence of these views, in spite of all the efforts that scientists have spent on educating the public. It is in this context that the AAAS undertakes the Velikovsky symposium. This is not a debate on the correctness of Velikovsky's view of the planetary system; none of us in the scientific establishment believes that such a debate would be remotely justified at a serious scientific meeting. Nor do we intend it, on the other hand, as an occasion for public castigation of a heretic."

Talbott immediately sent a copy of King's statement to Velikovsky, observing that "the results of the symposium are clearly already prejudiced before it starts. If, as King says, they are not interested in the 'correctness of Velikovsky's views of the planetary system,' why did they invite astronomers to take part? Mulholland must certainly feel insulted by such remarks."

Velikovsky was understandably dismayed by the tone and content of King's statement. On December 3, 1973, he wrote to King:

Dear Prof. King:

This morning I received with a letter from Steve Talbott also a copy of your letter to him and a statement by you for Pensée. I cannot conceal from you that it was quite an unpleasant surprise.

When visiting me in Princeton and inviting me to participate in the symposium of the AAAS, you clearly stated the purpose of the symposium, namely, to discuss my work at a detached academic forum, with physical scientists participating in pro and con discussion in a dignified atmosphere, different from the undignified atmosphere which has persisted over 20 years with no scientific arguments ever presented, by which procedure the scientific establishment alienated itself from the general public; and furthermore with one or two historians of science illuminating the sociological aspects of the story.

It is true that you have admitted to me of not knowing my work, and when subsequently I found that you had not yet studied the book I gave you (I believe it was Earth in Upheaval), nor carefully read Pensée, I suggested that the only proper course for you to pursue is that of an admitted agnostic, unless you are prepared to acquaint yourself with my work.

By your behavior then and by what you said I cannot imagine that you came to me with the intention of inviting me to a meeting arranged with the idea that my work carries "too little weight to take seriously" and with no intention of a "debate on the correctness of Velikovsky's views of the planetary system. " Why did you invite Prof. Michelson to take part? Since I cannot imagine that you acted in bad faith, I must assume that you were urgently approached by a number of "guardians of the dogma," who in the past have made themselves known by their vituperations, not arguments, and thus will be known in the history of science as obscurant[ists]....

Having lost, whether under pressure or not, the original idea that guided you and your colleagues in initiating the symposium, and with it the sympathetic objectivity you professed when inviting me for Participation, I suggest that you should invite Prof. Roberts or Prof Seaborg to chair the morning meeting.

If upon some more reflection you still wish Pensée or any other organ to print your statement, I will feel free to print this letter, a copy of which is hereby being sent to Pensée.

Very sincerely,
[signed] Im. Velikovsky.
[P.S.:] Enclosed is a copy of the letter sent to me by Prof Goldsmith on July 30, 1973. I draw your attention to the first paragraph.

On December 6 King replied with a strong defense of the claim that his statement "correctly describes the attitude of the scientific community." He styled his letter "not for publication," in apparent reference to the last sentence of Velikovsky's letter, and he enclosed a revised version of his statement for publication. The revision consisted of a rather trivial substitution of words, so that two sentences of the statement now read:

Although the symposium necessarily includes a presentation of opposing views, we do not consider this to be the primary purpose of the symposium. None of us in the scientific establishment believes that a debate about Velikovsky's views of the Solar System would be remotely justified at a serious scientific meeting.

At about this time Talbott received the manuscript of a short article, "Climate of Opinion," written by H. C. Dudley, professor of radiation physics at the University of Illinois Medical Center. Evidently sensing the possibilities inherent in a symposium on Velikovsky's work, Dudley referred to the "neo-religious beliefs of those at the top of the scientific pecking order," and cited a pioneering physicist's observation: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it" (Max Planck).

Dudley offered this assessment of the symposium: "It would seem that now a goodly number of doubters would at least examine the evidence which has been supporting Velikovsky's predictions, but unfortunately many scientists, being quite human, will resist to the end such a change of viewpoint."

Indeed, King's letter to Velikovsky had made reference to "considerable scientific opposition" to the symposium.

More than one person outside the circle of organizers and chief "players" in the impending drama seemed to sense the ambiguous possibilities. Thus it was that Jueneman, in an Industrial Research news item on the symposium (December, 1973), wrote: "As a panelist, Velikovsky will be given about 30 minutes to defend his position, a rather brief time to counter 24 years of castigation . . ."; and "if the AAAS symposium ... is on the up-and-up, and not a contemporary court of inquisition, one may be moved to say, 'The fuse is lit!' "

Jueneman's concern intensified when he personally witnessed Sagan's facetious remark about "Velikovskian frogs" at the NASA Ames Pioneer 10 news conference (see Pensée, Winter, 1973-74, p. 57). In a letter dated December 11, he registered a protest with the office of Glenn T. Seaborg, a past-president of the AAAS, and now at the University of California, Berkeley:

... although the symposium should assuredly be held with typical professional decorum, it has come to my attention that Velikovsky will not be seriously considered except as a scholarly crank. I'm afraid that this approach does not do honor to the AAAS, nor its precepts, neither does it respect the scholarship and integrity of the symposium panelists themselves. In short, the "hearing" is not altogether on the up-and-up.

Secondly, something over a week ago I was at NASA Ames for the Pioneer 10 encounter with Jupiter, and by a peculiar happenstance Velikovsky was mentioned. Dr. James Warwick of the University of Colorado graciously gave him credit for the prediction of radio noises emanating from the Jovian planet. However, I was appalled when Dr. Carl Sagan seized the opportunity to misquote Velikovsky and then hold it up to the audience for ridicule ...

Since Dr. Sagan will be one of the more articulate members of the AAAS symposium panel next February, I fear that his approach may do more to give it a carnival atmosphere than a scholarly consideration of Velikovsky's work. And professional decorum will go out the window.

Jueneman concluded by urging Seaborg to "stabilize a situation which could easily precess into a circus."

On December 18 Jueneman received a call from King, who, Jueneman reports, "had talked with Seaborg and read my news item in the December issue of Industrial Research, and was somewhat miffed at my approach to the symposium in the news article." Jueneman adds:

I gathered that King's conversation with Seaborg had had some effect, as he said that he would try to get Sagan to tone down his off-the-cuff remarks, that Sagan had enough intellectual weapons at his disposal without resorting to ridicule. As in my news item account, he balked at what I stated were the premises of the symposium, which he himself avowed during our conversation back in late July or early August. King promised to send me a copy of his statement for publication in Pensée, which he did, as indicative of this change of philosophy--although he denied that there was any change whatsoever. Our conversation closed on a note of agreement, in that the fuse was indeed lit!

Talbott wrote to King on December 21:

After examining your statement, we find that it does not tally with the letter from Professor Goldsmith to Velikovsky concerning the nature of the symposium, nor with the more recent description of the symposium in Science ... I should also remark that we believe your appraisal of the attitude among scientists toward Velikovsky to be quite incorrect.

However, it is not our disagreement with your statement, but rather prudence which leads us to the following decision: We will not print your statement prior to the symposium. Should we do so, we would also feel obliged to print Velikovsky's letter in reply, and such an airing of strong differences could possibly destroy the symposium, and would certainly raise its emotional level. We feel certain that this would be fully as distasteful to you as to us.

And King, in turn (8 January 1974), replied: "I am very sorry to hear that you refuse to print a statement with which you disagree. It is the truth nevertheless, and my statement is in no way inconsistent with those of Goldsmith." He also responded negatively to Talbott's suggestion that the piece be published after the symposium so as to avoid a public flare-up before the event: "My statement was intended for publication before the symposium, not after. I therefore cannot grant you permission to publish it after the symposium."

King's position forced a difficult decision on the editors of Pensée. Should his statement be published prior to the symposium, together with Velikovsky's response, Goldsmith's original synopsis of the symposium, and a strong editorial statement calling for fairness and warning of the likely outcome of the San Francisco gathering, as it was now being defined by King? Or should the whole dispute be kept behind the scenes in the hope that some positive advance in the scientific understanding of Velikovsky's work might nevertheless result from San Francisco?

In the end the latter course was chosen.

Meanwhile, Professor Lynn Rose of the State University of New York at Buffalo, one of Pensée's editors, expressed concern over the trend of events in a January 14 letter to Talbott about "the King question":

Velikovsky's letter to King puts the matter very well, especially in diagnosing new pressures on King that seem not to have been operative before. It is rather awkward to bring the originator of a theory to a scientific gathering, and then let it be known that the theory is not under discussion, but only the state of affairs that has led to the growth and spread of the theory. Velikovsky's presence at the AAAS is not being regarded as analogous to the scientist's presence in the laboratory; it is being treated as analogous to the virus' presence in the laboratory.

This would be an intolerable situation for most people, but I think that Velikovsky can handle it. His understanding both of himself and of his opponents, his ability to make his case to the audience, and his unequalled grasp of the facts and of the issues, should enable him to make a good showing, even in the face of a hostile chair and a predominantly hostile panel of speakers. My main worry is that the schedule may be deliberately (consciously or unconsciously) rigged so that Velikovsky is not given time or opportunity to answer. I fear that he might be given five minutes to answer hundreds of errors.

(Rose's fear was not unfounded. Precisely such situations had developed on numerous past occasions when Velikovsky had been invited to face panels of hostile speakers--perhaps most notably in 1965 at Brown University, where Velikovsky faced four hostile panelists and was given "equal time" to refute literally scores of charges thrown out to the audience as "facts" concerning his work.)

King's activities were not confined to drafting statements and chiding Jueneman for his story in Industrial Research. Late in December Talbott learned in a telephone conversation with a professional scholar of good reputation that she had written to King suggesting that the symposium organizers would make a mistake in not inviting an archaeologist to sit on the panel. King replied that the mistake was for her, as a real scholar, to pay any attention to Velikovsky's work.

Goldsmith came to the defense of King in a January 16 letter to Velikovsky. Here was further confirmation of Velikovsky's surmise that many scientists were up in arms over the very idea of the symposium:

I would like to ... say a few words in defense of Ivan King, who showed me some of the correspondence that you and he have had when I visited California last month.

In my opinion Dr. King is one of the most upright men I know, or for that matter have heard about. His support for the idea of a AAAS symposium dealing with your ideas has brought him under attack from astronomers who still feel that the best way to meet your suggestions is to ignore them. I ask you to consider whether if Dr. King has been willing to continue working to hold the symposium despite the fact that he does not believe in your ideas and despite this opposition, is he not entitled to the presumption that he must believe fairly strongly in the importance of giving a hearing even to those whose ideas are considered wrong by most, if not all, of the scientists with whom he is in contact?

And Velikovsky replied (21 January 1974):

I have your kind letter of the 16th. I gladly believe you that Prof King is a most upright man; then I am also right in my assumption made in my letter to him (December 3) that he must have come under strong pressure on the part of those who for now decades employed the stratagem of excluding my work from discussion in scientific literature or evaluating it in scientific meetings.

King's belated change, in self-defense, as to the purpose of the symposium, and insistence on printing, in advance of the symposium, a most prejudiced statement, cannot but be judged as ill thought through. The evaluation in advance not only of the purpose but also of the outcome of the symposium on the part of the one who should chair the meeting and speaks for the organization is most unseemly by any standards...

A much simpler answer to his and your critics would be in saying that exorcism never won over unconventional thinking--and at a free and unprejudiced forum, sina ira, matters of science need belatedly to be aired....

Goldsmith wrote back to Velikovsky (30 January 1974), stating that the organizers and Velikovsky simply must "agree to disagree." Thus, approximately one month before the symposium, formal communication between Velikovsky and the organizers was terminated, leaving a distinct chill in the air.

As late as the end of January, according to H. Wilber Sutherland of the National Film Board of Canada, King was still defending his position forcefully. In a letter requested by Talbott (19 February 1974) Sutherland reported:

I called Dr. King on the afternoon of January 28. He asked me the nature of our film, which we were making. I gave him a quick description including two comments concerning the extraordinary reaction of the scientific community to Dr. Velikovsky's work when it first came out and concerning the apparent growth of scholarly interest in his work in recent years and the surprising fact that the AAAS at this point in time felt it desirable to have him give a paper and to have other scholars speak to his work.

Dr. King immediately picked up these two points and rebutted them. He stated that there had been no scholarly reaction to Velikovsky's work but rather to the disturbing widespread public response to Velikovsky's work...

Dr. King went on to state that as to the second point there was absolutely no suggestion whatsoever that the symposium being held by the AAAS was in any sense an indication that the scientific community regarded Velikovsky's ideas as valid. He indicated that rather it was being held because of the continued persistence of the public following and the conviction of a number of scientists that it should really be spoken to and the issues made clear and that the proper body for this was the AAAS.

Nothing in the record suggests that King was in any way swayed by the controversy that had developed over his attitude toward the symposium. Nor did his performance on the day of the symposium, including a patronizing and supercilious manner in his contacts with Velikovsky on the rostrum, indicate any last-minute change.

The actual printed convention program contained a curious mixture of all that had gone before:

From his studies of historical records, Immanuel Velikovsky has concluded that close encounters between the Earth and the planets Mars and Venus occurred at about 1500 B.C. and 775 B.C. This suggestion has met with great disbelief from most astronomers, though public interest in Velikovsky's ideas has continued to maintain the controversy. What are the arguments for and against Velikovsky's suggestions? How has the scientific establishment dealt with his work? Can any nonscientist make contributions to the advancement of scientific thought, or is the day of the independent scholar now over-at least in astronomy?

The implication that Velikovsky is a "nonscientist" could not have gone unnoted.


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