In January 2013, I wrote about Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, and pseudoscience, referencing Michael Gordin’s excellent book The Pseudoscience Wars (2012). Well, I’m writing about it again, to be included in a book about amateur investigation groups “sounding sciencey” and fooling the public. I went back to some of my old sources and found a good one. It’s nice to know that even though you forgot you ever thought about this thing before, you actually wrote it down, and now realize you were on the right track.

A fascinating discussion by R.G.A. Dolby (1975) provides a case study about a popular idea that was nearly universally rejected by orthodox scientists, sold directly to the public by a non-expert, and even involved religious connections. It is a classic case of what we call pseudoscience.

Immanuel Velikovsky wrote in his book Worlds in Collision in 1950 that a comet from Jupiter caused catastrophic disasters on earth and Mars and eventually became the planet Venus. These disasters could be correlated to events in the Old Testament of the Bible, he said. Velikovsky was not a scientist and provided no physical mechanism that made sense for these events to have happened as he described. He used historical documentation and speculation instead of astronomical calculations or other quantifiable methods. He also called upon a handy excuse, collective amnesia, to explain why we don’t teach this version of history. Scientists didn’t take him seriously, rejecting this absurd tale out of hand using established as well as tacit knowledge of how nature works. It made no sense. But Velikovsky supporters considered it revolutionary science and the idea was trendy and his books sold. It was science and pseudoscience in collision. A catastrophe, indeed.

Dolby describes the rise of Velikovsky’s popularity and subsequent community conflict as an example of the social and political nature of science, but also as an exhibit of how to judge when a new “science” is worthwhile. There are so many individuals who present revolutionary ideas; how do we know which ones to take seriously?

In a specialty field, a contributor is expected to present their arguments and supporting evidence in a formal paper to a reputable journal and be subject to peer review. If the paper gets published, the idea is deemed worthy of consideration by this unique community. The idea is expected to fit into the existing understanding of the field or improve upon what is known, citing literature of what has come before. Velikovsky’s catastrophism did not go this route.

The theory spanned disparate fields of study and the literature on physical sciences as cited revealed to Dolby that Velikovsky did not understand the foundations in this field.

There were plenty of other objective reasons for the scientific community to reject Velikovsky and his Worlds. The proposed theory, while explaining some anomalies, was too selective in scope and created more and greater anomalies than it solved; it did not address why the alternatives were not suitable; it was not defendable with evidence and by sound argument. Velikovsky bypassed peer review via science journal and appealed directly to the public. This created a subjective reason to reject it – it short-circuited and undermined scientific process and authority. His idea, thought ludicrous by reputable experts, was fashionable with the public and taken seriously.

The same scenario applies to theories presented to us by pop paranormal researchers. Ideas about alien visitation, Bigfoot, hauntings or demonic interference sound bizarre to scientific experts. As examples: alien hybridization with humans, Bigfoot as an alien pet or dimension-traveling creature, hauntings as emotion recordings in stone or water, ghosts as electromagnetic fields or as a result of quantum entanglement, etc. Paranormal topics and their cultural spin-offs (ghost, UFO and monster hunting hobbyists) become widely popular and a subject of media exposure because they serve some need in our society. These ideas about the source of paranormal activity also spans disciplines, making it difficult to fit into a standard scientific format. As proposed by paranormalists, spirit activities, anomalous aerial phenomena, and trans-dimensional zooform creatures are not explainable in terms of modern scientific knowledge. They would be revolutionary discoveries, if true. But the evidence, presented mostly directly to the public via TV and the internet, is weak and the supporting argument indefinite and confused. The pseudoscientific causal speculation sounds sciencey enough to fool most people into thinking there might be some credibility to it. Paranormal practitioners can wield their sciencey-sounding nonsense adroitly enough to be dangerous.

Looking back at the history of psychical research, parapsychology, ufology and cryptozoology, we can see that they have not followed the path of a genuine revolutionary shift in understanding. As Dolby describes, a revolutionary idea would result in a new stand-alone discipline that would eventually have a structure that would generate and test hypotheses, leading to progress in understanding. The new field would draw in researchers, it would flourish, be taken seriously, and generate new knowledge that would tie into existing knowledge to form an overall cohesive view of nature. Parapsychology was on its way along this path but has stumbled and not progressed as it should. The other fields mentioned remain publicly popular but have not generated reliable knowledge and furthered understanding after all this time. This is an argument in support of abandonment or wholesale change of these fields. However, fields pursued by amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs) have a different kind of  popular social value, so they continue to exist however incommensurate with scientific study. This amateur speculative sphere remains almost entirely separate from scientific fields and processes, pursuing their specific goals on their own terms with different language, methods and assumptions. Occasionally, the spheres clash. Or, people like me deliberately call attention to the disparities between the worlds to make a point.

Is ghost hunting, cryptozoology and ufology pseudoscience? Often, yes. But they don’t have to be. If such fields want to survive and flourish, they need to change their goals and processes to be actually useful to society in the long run and not just a fringe subject, fad, or television show genre.

Who remembers Velikovsky these days anyway?

Dolby, R. G. A. (1975). What Can We Usefully Learn from the Velikovsky Affair? Social Studies of Science 5:2, 165-175.

5 thoughts on “Paranormal investigators and Velikovsky sound similarly sciencey

  1. Egads, I’d hoped to never hear of Velikovsky and his bizarre ideas again. I grew up in the 1960s and was a science geek even then. His nonsense was dredged up on a regular basis in the popular press of the time, especially in science fiction publications. If I remember correctly, Isaac Asimov wrote a scathing debunking of his theories back in the day, as did pretty much everyone who knew anything about astronomy, physics, gravitation or even basic math.

  2. My favorite Velikovsky idea, which he advanced with utter seriousness,is that the common house fly originated on Jupiter, arriving via Venus to Earth about 700 B.C.

  3. > Is ghost hunting, cryptozoology and ufology pseudoscience? Often, yes. But they don’t have to be.

    Neither do self-described investigators in such genres have to (often incorrectly) purport to be conducting scientific research and activities if they’re not. Nobody makes them assert such claims, and there is indeed merit in pointing out when it happens.

    Sharon Hill has done a good job of clarifying the issue of inaccurately claiming to conduct scientific inquiry among fringe researchers. It’s a relevant topic that can be quantified. Credit is due.

  4. My favorite Velikovsky story is from “Venus and Dr. Velikovsky” (Carl Sagan, “Broca’s Brain”), a slightly revised version of a paper that he presented to the AAAS in 1974. According to him, he was discussing V’s work with a professor of Semitic literatures, and that professor thought that V’s discussions of works in those literatures were nonsense, but that he was impressed with V’s astronomy. CS had the opposite impression, impressed with V’s citations of myths and legends, but not with V’s astronomy.

    More generally, V had a way of seeming very learned, except when he was discussing something that one already knows something about.

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