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Open letter to science editors

 

On the Need for "Serious Scientific Meetings"
An Editorial Statement

"None of us in the scientific community believes that a debate about Velikovsky's views of the Solar System would be remotely justified at a serious scientific meeting."

Ivan King
AAAS symposium moderator

I

Pensée, since the inception of its "Immanuel Velikovsky Reconsidered" series, has urged the in-depth, discipline-by-discipline evaluation of Velikovsky's work within the context of established technical journals and scholarly associations. It is with a sense of relief that our editors have welcomed each new indication that an established and reputable scientific body might accord Velikovsky's hypotheses the detached and uncompromising analysis they deserve.

Hope for the beginning of such a process glowed brightly, it seemed, when, last July, the American Association for the Advancement of Science scheduled a symposium to consider Velikovsky's view of the Solar System. Surely, whatever the biases of the participants, some further light would be shed on at least a few of the difficulties contained in Velikovsky's conclusions. Surely a profitable avenue of research or two would be carefully outlined so as to hold out hope for further illumination of unsolved questions. And surely if, as stated, one purpose of the symposium was to right a wrong--to offer rational discussion where before was only slander and silence-then the gathering would encourage continued discussion and research, within "legitimate" channels, until the problems Velikovsky poses are resolved.

Some Questions

We were hopeful. But, as the facts published in these pages demonstrate, that hope began to sputter even before Velikovsky and the other participants converged on San Francisco last February. And by the time the moderator had concluded his opening remarks, it was all but extinguished.

Viewed as an example of the scientific process, the exhibition in San Francisco justifies some of the harshest criticisms directed at institutional science. One pauses only out of bafflement: Why did the symposium moderator--after selecting for his panel an astronomer, a celestial mechanician, a mechanical aerospace engineer, and a student of ancient astronomical records--declare that "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"?

Why did not a single person among those chosen to speak against Velikovsky have any prior serious familiarity with his work? Would the AAAS have pursued any of its other inquiries in such a fashion?

Why was the symposium designed and executed in emotion-arousing terms as a judgment upon Velikovsky and his work, rather than a search for truth or an inquiry into particular questions and problems?

(The latter approach, demonstrated in the evening session by Irving Michelson, earned him the disrespect of the reporter from Science, who evidently assumed that Michelson had set himself the task of defending Velikovsky. In actuality, Michelson rigorously restricted himself to the questions of fact he had been invited to discuss. Apparently sensing weakness in Michelson's refusal to take a strong pro-Velikovsky stance, the reporter dismissed his presentation with a belittling remark in Science. Replied Michelson in a letter to that journal: "It was not my purpose 'to say something good about' Velikovsky's ideas, any more than it was my purpose to say something bad. If there were others blindly committed as pro or con, my purpose was to perform not an act of faith but an act of objective scholarship.")

Perhaps we are nitpicking. After all, the symposium was held. Widely heralded as an "atonement," and as the long-awaited "confrontation between Velikovsky and science," did it not accomplish its purposes, even if imperfectly?

Clearly it did not.

Ignorance of the Literature

What kind of science did we see in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel St. Francis? What kind of example was set by this effort to instruct the public in the fairness and rigor of the scientific method? Two criteria may properly be applied:

1) Any person purporting to discuss a man's theory must at the very least be reasonably familiar with the current scholarly discussion of the evidences for and against that theory. Yet, each of the three panelists who attempted to discredit Velikovsky last February manifested nearly total ignorance of this discussion, choosing instead to analyze a 1950 issue of Collier's magazine, fundamentalist interpretations of the biblical Exodus story, and vague recollections from undergraduate texts in mythology or else Worlds in Collision itself, without any reference to significant contributions from other researchers during the past 24 years on the points at issue. Is it any wonder that those who came to San Francisco hoping Velikovsky's work would be subjected to a genuine test left the arena disappointed?

To select but one example: If Huber, who set about interpreting the Venus tablets of Ammizaduga, had at least responded to the one major discussion of that subject vis-a-vis Velikovsky (L. Rose, "Babylonian Observations of Venus," Pensée, Winter, 1972-73), he might have furthered the current evaluation of Velikovsky's work, if only by acknowledging Rose's contentions and rebutting them. Instead, he brought to the tablets those very uniformitarian assumptions Rose had discredited, and, to no one's surprise, emerged with uniformitarian conclusions.

Would any scholar, addressing any other man's work in similar ignorance of the central contributions of others, have escaped with his reputation intact?

Begging the Question

2) Any person attempting to criticize a theory must first get into that theory, see it from the inside and on its own terms, or else his criticisms will amount to no more than a begging of the question, a dismissal of theory A on the grounds that it is possible to posit a different theory, B. The more radical a change of perspective and reinterpretation of the evidences required by the theory in view, the more imperative (and difficult) is the critic's responsibility to see it on its own terms.

None of Velikovsky's critics even made the effort. Beggings of the question abounded.

So it was that Carl Sagan (delivering a fatal blow, in the eyes of many reporters present) announced to the assembly that the odds against Velikovsky's series of close planetary encounters are "1023-to-one." What could be more decisive than such a "fact," offered on strictly mathematical grounds (one science reporter's words)? And who would bother to affirm that the physical model from which Sagan derived his odds (each encounter an "independent event") differed radically from the conditions Velikovsky's theory entails?

All this may indeed be pedantic. There are certain things everyone in the Grand Ballroom knew: Not one of Velikovsky's critics thought his theories worthy of genuine deliberation; like the moderator, each had long ago concluded that such deliberation would not be remotely justified at a "serious scientific meeting." And, like earlier critics, each made the mistake of approaching Worlds in Collision by a method he would never apply to any other inquiry. After all, it required only to dip into a quarter-century-old statement of the subject (foolishness is foolishness, no matter how much discussed), and then to refer to the textbooks for the correct answers (they are surely there; it's only a matter of finding them).

II

There were--to venture a more sanguine view--some beneficial results of the symposium. In fact, the event was redeemed by Michelson's "act of scholarship," and by at least the attempt (however feeble) at scholarship by the panel's lone sociologist, Norman Storer. We present Michelson's paper here, and in so doing we publish for the first time several finds which may prove vindicatory of certain of Velikovsky's more "outrageous" conclusions, including his contention that Earth's rotation could have undergone drastic disruption during historical times.

Some of the panelists made notable concessions, acknowledging that a number of criticisms previously aimed at Velikovsky are invalid. In addition, they alluded to some genuine difficulties in his theories. One wishes these had been elaborated, after the manner (presumably) typifying normal scientific exchange. As matters stood, we gained little from hearing them mouthed in the same breath with literally scores of other undetailed arguments from authority. We were left with the choice of simply accepting everything on that authority (which the scientific press seemed quite willing to do), or else rejecting everything out of hand because we recognized so much as spurious.

Nevertheless, the more genuine criticisms remain, and we make an effort to extract them here, setting them forth as a basis for further discussion. (Certainly many of these questions will be central in the forthcoming symposium at McMaster University.)

This issue carries notice that Carl Sagan will publish a paper in Pensée. We hope that by the time he presents his paper he--and any other of the panelists who might choose to submit his criticisms in printed form for public examination--will have decided that Velikovsky's work does, after all, justify serious discussion.

PENSEE Journal VII

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