In 1950, Immanuel Velikovsky published a book entitled, Worlds in Collision. This work, which involved decades of research, subsequently became a best-seller. However, it also inspired unprecedented backlash from the scientific community, which became known as the Velikovsky Affair. Who was Velikovsky and why were his ideas derided by established scientists?
Who was Immanuel Velikovsky?
Immanuel Velikovsky was an independent, multidisciplinary scholar who researched in fields such as astronomy, physics, ancient history, and comparative mythology. He was also a proponent of catastrophism, which is the theory that Earth has been greatly impacted in the past by sudden, violent events such as comet collisions and volcanic eruptions.
In 1950, Velikovsky released Worlds in Collision. It proposed that “many myths and traditions of ancient peoples and cultures are based on actual events.” His work noted that Venus, which is the second brightest object in the sky, was not observed by ancient astronomers. Based on historical texts and his reading of the physical evidence, he suggested that Venus was a relative newcomer to the solar system, having been ejected from Jupiter around the 15th century BCE. Furthermore, he thought that Venus originally had an irregular orbit. This caused numerous catastrophes on Earth which were subsequently recorded in ancient texts.
The Velikovsky Affair?
Velikovsky was a polymath and thus, not easily dismissed as a kook or a fraud. So, the scientific establishment went after him in a different fashion, in what would become known as the “Velikovsky Affair.”
According to David Stowe’s essay, The Velikovsky Story: The Scientific Mafia, Velikovsky “became the target of nearly universal abuse and derision.” During the Velikovsky Affair, he was shunned and essentially blackballed from college campuses. He was also “rigorously excluded from access to learned journals for his replies.” The Senior Editor at Macmillan who helped publish his book was fired as was the director of the Hayden Planetarium who “proposed to take Velikovsky seriously enough to mount a display about the theory.” In regards to the Velikovsky Affair, the Italian probabilist Bruno de Finetti reportedly described the scientific establishment as a “despotic and irresponsible mafia.”
Analyzing the Velikovsky Affair
The Velikovsky Affair deserves to be scrutinized in two ways. First, the merits of his ideas must be considered. While criticizing some of Velikovsky’s work, no less an expert than Mike Baillie (see: Did a Comet Cause the Black Death?) is generally supportive of some of his basic ideas.
“Velikovsky was almost certainly correct in his assertion that ancient texts hold clues to catastrophic events in the relatively recent past, within the span of human civilization, which involve the effects of comets, meteorites and cometary dust…But fundamentally, Velikovsky did not understand anything about comets…He did not know about the hazard posed by relatively small objects…This failure to recognize the power of comets and asteroids means that it is reasonable to go back to Velikovsky and delete all the physically impossible text about Venus and Mars passing close to the earth…In other words, we can get down to his main thesis, which is that the Earth experienced dramatic events from heavenly bodies particularly in the second millennium BC.” Mike Baillie, Exodus to Arthur: Catastrophic Encounters with Comets
We must also scrutinize the response of the general scientific community. As a recent study observed, creative ideas are often rejected in favor of the “tried and true.” This is just as accurate in science as it is in business or any other field. Unfortunately, some scientists are so eager to discredit things they view as pseudoscience that they end up blocking progress. In the case of Velikovsky, he disagreed with the so-called “consensus science” of the time and found himself blackballed as a result.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Science is hardly the apolitical field it is portrayed to be in the popular media. Original thinkers are often either forced to conform or face professional destruction at the hands of the consensus. Hence, the shameful Velikovsky Affair. However, progress dictates that we must always remain skeptical of “consensus science,” no matter how difficult it is to do so.
“Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.” ~ Michael Crichton, Speech: Aliens Cause Global Warming