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Open letter to science editors


For the Benefit of the Press

News reports of the San Francisco symposium constitute a fascinating study in their own right. Analysis of these accounts shows a number of misrepresentations occurring repeatedly, and often in strikingly similar phrases. We have selected the following brief excerpts from Newsweek (February 25, 1974), Los Angeles Times, Oakland Tribune, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner (all dated February 26), Philadelphia Inquirer (February 27), Science News (March 2), The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 4), New Scientist (March 7), New York Sunday News (March 10), Science (March 15), and London Observer (March 21).

1) Velikovsky is an obstinate defender of his ideas and sustains himself by sheer ego.

--"He is looking forward to what he doggedly insists will be his ultimate vindication. 'I have been proven correct too many times,' he said." (Newsweek)

-- "At 78 years of age, he seemed hardly touched by the thoroughness with which a panel of scientists dismissed and refuted the ideas he has developed during the past 35 years. He clung doggedly to the idea that the earth has suffered near collisions in the past 5000 years with both Venus and Mars.... But none of this (Sagan's attack] appeared to shake Velikovsky. After each attack, he strode stiffly to the podium and in slow, thick syllables, repeated his claims and dismissed as biased the charges against him." (Chronicle)

--"And if his theories seemed to be torn to shreds, he remained self-assured behind a steel shell of dignity." (Inquirer)

-- "Immanuel Velikovsky is full of years, vision, ego and dignity.... All Velikovsky succeeded in achieving, in his angry reaction to Sagan's paper--'it is easy to make jokes'--was to demonstrate his complete misunderstanding of molecular spectroscopy. But he kept his dignity. . . ." (New Scientist)

--"Velikovsky was, as always, an impressive figure. Unbowed despite his 79 years and speaking in resonant (if heavily accented) tones, he demonstrated the unshakeable belief in himself that was truly imposing. . . . all modern astronomers erred consistently; but Velikovsky--Velikovsky could do no wrong." (Sunday News)

-- "After 24 years of cosmological debate at a distance, two worlds finally collided at an opening session of the AAAS meeting here--Immanuel Velikovsky's world and almost everyone else's." (Science)

-- "Velikovsky himself appeared quite unshaken. He returned to the podium after each new onslaught to defend his work and accuse his attackers of bias.... he was not about to change a single sentence in his books." (Observer)

2) Velikovsky leads a cult of blind, often youthful supporters who do not understand the methods of science.

-- "But while his many young adherents in the audience of approximately 500 people cheered him on and hissed at the scientists opposing him, the consensus was that Velikovsky came off a poor second in the debate." (LA Times)

--"The followers were among the thousands of persons who, since Velikovsky published 'Worlds in Collision' in 1950, have become entranced with this eccentric scholar's catastrophe-filled tale of the recent history of the solar system." (Chronicle)

--"Isaac Asimov, on the other hand, several years ago wrote that the controversy is likely to continue simply because 'there is no belief, however foolish, that will not gather its faithful adherents who will defend it to the death."' (Science News)

--"Mr. Velikovsky's critics in the scientific community still anxiously considered the Velikovsky 'cult,' as they derisively call it, a threat to the processes by which science is conducted." (Chronicle of Higher Education)

-- " [Velikovsky] has a band of young supporters indistinguishable from followers of the Guru Maharaj Ji.... a nervous chairman hovered at his elbow, fearful of interrupting in the certain knowledge that any attempt to bring Velikovsky to the point or curtail his musings would be immediately interpreted as yet another example of establishment discourtesy by the acolytes below, straining for the slightest nuance. . . ." (New Scientist)

--"To them [the large group of followers who accompanied Velikovsky] the session was another indication that the master could do no wrong. Every statement supporting Velikovsky was applauded lustily, while contrary evidence got a cooler reception.... Some observers see the Velikovsky movement as a sort of religion, complete with true believers who accept the leader as the one source of revealed truth. To Velikovsky's followers, however, the picture is simple: he is right and everyone else is wrong, on the basic scientific facts." (Sunday News, article entitled "The Maverick Doctor Who Leads a Comet Cult")

-- "it wasn't Velikovsky's theories that angered the professors so much--though they were heretical enough--as the fact that thousands of their students swallowed them with an almost religious fervor, and saw the craggy, white-haired scholar as a wronged genius." (Observer)

3. "Worlds in Collision" is tinged with mysticism.

--"The majority [of scientists], in fact, are adamant in the opinion that most of these theories are wildly inaccurate--representing little more than a pastiche of pseudo-scientific obscurantism, heavily larded with appeals to faith and simplicity." (Newsweek)

-- "As he left, a scientist muttered, 'A real crackpot.' " (Chronicle)

-- "So why, if Mr. Velikovsky's-theory is so full of holes, has it proved so popular? Among the speculations offered here were that it fits in with increased interest in unidentified flying objects, extrasensory perception, and various quasi-scientific fads." (Chronicle of Higher Education)

-- "Velikovsky shares with some psychical researchers the ability to cast a cloak of scientific respectability over an essential mysticism." (New Scientist)

--"So why is Velikovsky so popular? Sagan offered a few guesses.... 'Worlds in Collision' is, at its heart, 'an attempted validation of religion,' which uses scientific notions to say that the biblical stories are literally true. And Velikovsky attempts to rescue not only religion but also astrology: the outcome of wars, the fates of whole peoples, is determined by the position of the planets.' (Sunday News)

4) Sagan left Velikovsky unable to answer and left his theory in shreds.

-- ". . . "the consensus was that Velikovsky came off a poor second in the debate. His answers to specific questions posed to him by the scientists were almost invariably long-winded and evasive." (LA Times)

--"And in the unkindest cut of all Sagan dismissed Velikovsky's claims to being the first to predict such recently confirmed facts as that Venus has a hot 600-degree surface temperature, and that Jupiter emits radio noises." (Chronicle)

--"In a 57-page review of 'Worlds in Collision' he took Velikovsky's theory apart piece by piece.... The audience of several hundred in the first of two sessions, sat rapt.... The old man himself, not the best of public speakers, could not begin to answer point by point after Sagan was done heaping sarcasm upon ridicule. Sagan missed the second session and Velikovsky never did get a chance to fight back. He refused to back down." (Inquirer)

-- "Sagan's 56 pages of criticism would ordinarily be sufficient to lay to rest for all time such a picked-apart theory, but Velikovsky's supporters are not easily dissuaded, and the controversy is sure to continue." (Science News)

-- "Only astronomer Carl Sagan succeeded in rattling the great man.... All Velikovsky succeeded in achieving, in his angry reaction to Sagan's paper ... was to demonstrate his complete misunderstanding of molecular spectroscopy." (New Scientist)

-- "To some of the scientists in the crowd, it had begun to seem like overkill, but Sagan--Velikovsky's bete noire--was still to come. An articulate man with a switchblade wit, Sagan barely had time to skim through his 57-page paper before dashing off to a prior commitment in Los Angeles. ... All this left Velikovsky fuming." (Science)

--"But it was Dr. Carl Sagan ... who delivered the unkindest blow by dismissing Velikovsky's claims that space missions are proving him right. . . (Observer)

  • This statement by Sagan found a place in virtually every article, either paraphrased or directly quoted: "Where Velikovsky is original he is very likely wrong; where he is right, the idea has been preempted by other workers. There are a large number of cases where he is neither right nor original." It was cited in Newsweek, NY Times, Chronicle, Courier-News, Science News, Chronicle of Higher Education, New Scientist, Sunday News, Science, and Observer.
  • In not one of the articles was a single claim by any one of Velikovsky's opponents examined critically. This includes even oft-cited, yet near-ludicrous statements such as Sagan's estimation of the volume of manna required by Velikovsky's conclusions.
  • In no article was Michelson or his presentation mentioned, with two exceptions: 1) Science dismissed Michelson's paper out of hand (See Michelson's letter to Science, reprinted in this issue); 2) The Chronicle of Higher Education carried the following observation: "Mr. Velikovsky also received mild support from another panelist--Irving Michelson ... who argued that Mr. Velikovsky's controversial claims about the nature of electrical forces in space 'are certainly not at variance' with the laws of classical mechanics. However, Mr. Michelson told a press conference he has no personal feeling as to whether events occurred as described by Velikovsky."

The lack of notice accorded Michelson's paper prompted science writer Frederic Jueneman to remark that he considered his forthcoming news story in Industrial Research to be the potential "news scoop of the year"--the first published report on two pathbreaking findings. The "scoop" is due for publication in May, two and one-half months after the symposium!

One might draw any number of conclusions from the overall news coverage of "Velikovsky's Challenge to Science." We restrict ourselves to the observation that the event, as actually executed, was clearly for the benefit of the press. Authoritative claims, dramatically stated, were of great import; findings of science mattered not at all.


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