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Open letter to science editors

 

Review

GUARDIANS OF THE BOUNDARIES OF SCIENCE

  •  Nature, Isaac Asimov, and others

  •  Today isn't 1950

From an editorial in Nature (April 12, 1974), titled, "Science Beyond the Fringe":

"It would have amazed the Victorian steadfasts of science how confused some of our attitudes towards science still are.  Instead of the logical world they hoped for and tried to work in there is a discernible tendency for the public and even some practitioners of science to turn their backs on science and become preoccupied with the bizarre and the magical....

". . . Velikovsky is enjoying a revival at a time when real astronomy and the earth sciences have never been more fascinating.  How long will it be before psychiatrists are inundated with requests for more research into possession by devils from people who have seen the film The Exorcist?

"It is difficult to know why these beliefs beyond science have such a following and whether it is genuinely on the increase, but presumably it is closely tied to a prevailing mood of the questioning of established values and a disbelief that science has more than marginal relevance to the human condition."

Despite efforts by many of Velikovsky's supporters and critics to de-emotionalize and objectify the resurgent discussion of catastrophism, and to eliminate mutual name-calling, we now stand in the midst of the most concerted campaign to discredit Velikovsky by smear since the early 1950's.  The means are perhaps more subtle, but not very.  Words like "charlatan," "fraud" and "crackpot" are generally out—replaced by efforts to associate Velikovsky with "fringe science," "cultic followers," "irrationalism," and mysticism."

In reading certain editorials in scientific journals, one receives the impression that the strong walls of Science stand in imminent danger of being breached at several points by the growing public interest in parapsychology, Eastern religions, astrology, the occult—and, of course, Velikovsky.  Some of these writers simply express their amazement at the amount of ignorance and superstition still remaining in the scientifically advanced countries, despite long efforts by scientists to educate the public.  Others are alarmed at the threat this superstition poses for the integrity of the scientific process.  All, it seems, are concerned about the general state of communication between scientists and the public.

Perhaps no one contributes more directly to such communication than the science writer, or popularizer.  And perhaps no science writer of our day has received wider recognition, both within and without science, than Isaac Asimov.  It is of some small interest, then, that by the time this article appears, Analog magazine (October, 1974) will have published a lengthy piece on Velikovsky by Asimov.

Asimov's most notable contribution is to suggest that, since "crackpot" doesn't sound very nice, even when applied to Velikovsky, we ought to simplify the word to "CP."  In what for Asimov-enthusiasts must certainly rate as a very sad exhibition, this author of over 150 books devotes his entire article to a discussion of "CP-ery," with Velikovsky as his example.  He offers no discussion of fact; even the famed Asimovian wit shows itself lamentably pallid and sour.  One could at least have hoped for a more spirited attack.

Last February's AAAS symposium on Velikovsky was ostensibly designed as a model scientific inquiry for the edification of the public—an effort to reduce the discussion of Velikovsky's work to dispassionate, scientific terms.  It is noteworthy and ironic, therefore, that the current anti-Velikovsky smear campaign has followed directly upon that symposium. (Pensée, Spring, 1974, p. 44 contains a summary of the symposium press accounts.)  More specifically, the current vogue of the term "fringe science" seems to derive from symposium panelist Carl Sagan's characterization of Velikovsky.  Further, Sagan's explanation for Velikovsky's "appeal" was widely parroted around after the symposium: "it is an attempted validation of religion.... Velikovsky attempts to rescue not only religion but astrology."

One can safely assume that efforts to link Velikovsky with every sort of cause "beyond the fringe of science" will continue-in our day that seems to be a safer form of dismissal than the scathing, unconsidered denunciations of the Fifties.


"When Velikovsky is proven correct, I will cheerfully admit I was wrong; and I will also go skating in Hell, which will then have frozen over." Isaac Asimov (private communication to Robert W. Bass, 23 August 1974)

It all raises an interesting question: How ought Velikovsky's supporters to respond?  Here, too, things have changed over the past couple of decades.  There are scientists-many of them-now willing to stand up in Velikovsky's behalf.  Certainly reading Asimov's inanities strikes fear into the hearts of none of those researchers now undertaking catastrophist investigations.  The atmosphere is different today than it was during the period which so many of Velikovsky's antagonists, in justification of their nervous response to Worlds in Collision, like to call the "McCarthy era."

This new atmosphere is well illustrated by a letter to Nature from an English scientist (P.  Warlow) responding to that publication's editorial: "I want no part in any science which operates with a closed mind, and I will encourage the young, and the old, to drift from such a way of thinking, though I hardly need to.  Your own editorial will do that well enough by itself."

In sum, those who defend the researches spawned by Velikovsky's work can now afford the luxury of sitting back and listening pleasurably to the current spate of self-defeating rhetoric about fringe science-perhaps even sympathizing with the plight of their attackers.  After all, the Guardians of the Borders of Science have not had an easy time of it down through the centuries.  We may grant that their current unease is justified; surely, for Velikovsky, it is also a good sign.

PENSEE Journal VIII

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