A CLOSE ENCOUNTER of the third kind--direct contact with an alien, Well, not exactly, but Immanuel Velikovksy's idea of a cataclysmic history of the planets forms about as otherworldly a scientific hypothesis as was ever aired at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Still, it was an AAAS invitation that brought Velikovsky into its midst on February 25, 1974, although the AAAS's goal was to dispute his challenge to the conventional view of science.
Carl Sagan, professor of astronomy and space sciences at Cornell, summed up the low opinion of Velikovsky held by most scientists when he said, "Where Velikovsky is original he is very likely wrong; and where he is right the idea has been preempted by earlier workers. There are also a large number of cases where he is neither right nor original."
Since 1974, Sagan has rewritten and expanded his attack on Velikovsky for publication in the new book, Scientists Confront Velikovsky. In addition to Sagan's remarks and the transcribed speeches of three other AAAS symposium participants--a sociologist, a statistician, and another astronomer--the collection contains a fresh treatment of Velikovsky by a NASA astronomer. The fact that Velikovsky's contribution--which along with Sagan's speech highlighted the meeting--is missing from the book is at first surprising. However, examination of the history of the Velikovsky controversy and of the publishers' unpublished correspondence with him makes the absence of Velikovsky's participation in the collection seem almost unavoidable.
Velikovksy, who had practiced psychoanalysis before studying the history of man and the cosmos, first introduced himself to the physical science community when he sought out Professor Harlow Shapley, then director of the Harvard Observatory, to gain comment on and an evaluation of his concept of cataclysmic history. Shapley refused to read it. Despite his ignorance of Velikovsky's detailed arguments, Shapley nevertheless felt sufficiently informed to tell a colleague--who had read Velikovsky's work--that Velikovsky's conclusions were "pretty obviously based on incompetent data." When MacMillan published Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision in 1950, Shapley led his colleagues in criticizing the company for printing a "hoax," going so far as to threaten to terminate Harvard's important relationship with the MacMillan textbook division if it did not stop publication. Shapley also encouraged a member of his Harvard staff, Dr. Cecilia Paye-Gaposchkin, to compose a slanderous review of Worlds in Collision before she had ever read the book.
MACMILLIAN EVENTUALLY folded under the pressure, transferring publication rights to Doubleday, which lacked a textbook branch, and firing two editors involved in the matter. Worlds in Collision was a public success however, with total sales of over one-half million copies. Velikovsky published three more books on related subjects in 1952, 1955, and 1960.
By this time he had attracted a core of committed disciples who interpreted the refusal of mainstream scientific journals to publish articles by him (a stance often extended to advertisements for his books) as evidence for a grand anti-Velikovsky conspiracy.
Dietrick Thomsen, senior editor of Science News, best characterized these devotees when he said:
In dealing with Immanuel Velikovsky one runs into certain kinds of people with voluminous literary output, painstaking attention to detail, and, lately, access to Xerox machines.
Through several books and a series of articles in Pensee magazine--a journal devoted almost exclusively to defending Velikovsky--Velikovsky's supporters put forward their cabal theory. They identified the scientists' vested interest in their own theories and their general tendency to adopt new concepts much less readily than new facts as primary forces behind the anti-Velikovsky front.
In response to these accusations--as well as Velikovsky's assertions that recent space missions and experiments had confirmed his predictions--Sagan came up with the idea of the AAAS forum. While Gaposchkin was still labeling Velikovsky's books as nonsense (at the same time as she admitted not having read any of them), Sagan and the others had recognized that by ignoring and slandering Velikovsky, scientists had made him into a public martyr. Direct confrontation was called for.
Of the three physical science critiques offered of Velikovsky's cosmic conception that appear in the book, Sagan's is the most accessible to the non-scientist. Sagan uses basic physical and chemical theory to attack the ideas of repeated planetary collisions and of the involvement of a comet in the stopping of the earth's rotation (along with the falling of manna from Heaven). He concludes, "To rescue the hypothesis requires special pleading, the vague invention of new physics, and selective inattention to a plethora of conflicting evidence."
The validity of Sagan's arguments is not immediately self-evident, but the post-symposium rebuttal offered by Velikovskyites to Sagan does not seem sufficient to resurrect Worlds in Collision. For instance, the rebuttal, appearing in Pensee states that Sagan had ignored the possibility that the molten state in which he says a comet would be ejected from Jupiter could later serve as a possible source of Velikovsky's hypothetical, captured-comet-turned-planet Venus's heat. Sagan reasonably argues, however, that rather than staying in a molten mass the ejected material "would have been entirely reduced toa train of self-gravitating small dust particles and atoms, which does not describe the planet Venus particularly well."
Sagan comes the closest to offering a general analysis of Velikovsky's work, but such an approach is difficult. Velikovsky's writings cover so many disciplines and so loosely employ scientific jargon that most specialists find his work inaccessible or unintelligible. As Isaac Asimov points out in his forward to the book, it is this very writing style which enables Velikovsky to convince laymen that he actually knows enough astronomy to speak with authority.
Asimov terms Velikovsky an exoheretic--a scientific heretic whose realm of training and expertise lies outside of the professional scientific community. According to Asimov, because exoheretics are never right, Velikovsky need not be taken seriously. However, since exoheretics are never taken seriously, it seems presumptuous of Asmivos to say that they are never right.
Norman Storer, who provides the "sociologist's perspective" to the book, offers a more defensible rationale for ignoring Velikovsky types:
Over the long run, the scientist's time is far better used if assertions of scientific truth coming from nonscientific sources are rejected out of hand... than if each and every such claim is accepted seriously and patiently subjected to detailed testing.
Storer also offers a weak argument to the effect that McCarthyism was the reason for Velikovsky's rough reception. However, the straightforward and courteous manner displayed by the book's publisher and editor in their correspondence with him indicate that for whatever reason Velikovsky is getting better treated today. Ironically Velikovsky released this collection of letters to his followers because he felt they showed a continuation of his mistreatment.
VELIKOVSKY ULTIMATELY declined to submit material for the book because he was refused the right to wait until he had seen all of the other contributions before writing his own lengthy defense. That would have amounted to a debate, a balanced discussion of ideas the scientific community felt of "too little weight" to consider seriously.
Yet Scientists Confront Velikovsky will not stop such debate; it will instead encourage it. Only education of the people will reduce their gullibility towards pseudo-science. An educated public would not buy Velikovsky any more than they would protein hair conditioners, timed release aspirin, Geritol, or other such fakes. Until then their ignorance will most likely bring scientists into many more close encounters of the Velikovsky kind.