Review of The Pseudo-Science Wars, by Michael Gordin

Recent reading by May 2017 … Dan Byrnes, review of Michael D. Gordin, The Pseudo-Science Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. University of Chicago Press, 2012. Gordin’s book is more important than it seems. (Gordin was a Professor of History at Princeton University when he wrote this book.)

And I need to defend this position, since as with the US writer Hemingway, we need a good bullshit detector here, about Velikovsky and his ilk, not Gordin.

G. K. Chesterton was quite wrong when he said that if people (he meant people in the English-speaking-world) will not believe in Christianity, they will believe anything. Chesterton is proved quite wrong by the Twentieth Century experiences of a Christian USA, which became a nation in which anything could and would be believed. Including pseudo-science, Creationism, including belief in UFOs – which might by the way be sourced in the old beliefs of American Indian tribes, this up-in-the-air matter remains very up-in-the-air.

The updated finding for our post-Chesterton era is that …. people will believe anything, including Christianity. Period.

We now by 2017 have a USA, an only-in-America, in which, apparently, it is possible to believe anything. We owe this situation partly to the Internet, the fact that anyone can post any fool opinion on the Net (and be believed by somebody), partly to a US education system that seems increasingly poor and which encourages ignorance, and … today, we live in days when denialism about climate change is widespread. Scientists, especially climate scientists, find that their scientific methods used to identify risks arising from climate change are allowed by the media to be questioned by idiots and ignoramuses.

The situation is so bad that I have no panacea, and indeed it has gotten worse, we now live in days of “fake news”. But I do know, from having been a journalist (and a one-time university Geography student), that most journalists are not qualified to discuss the weather, let alone qualified to discuss climate, which produces our weather wherever we happen to live. Enough said.

I also often wonder why/how the idea that the Earth will end one day soon, thus destroying all our lives, really, why is this idea so popular in the USA? Of all places? The answer is probably with Colonial American Christianity, from the Mayflower days, from the days of the Witches of Salem, with Millenarian Christianity, probably, with its eschatology, its belief that relatively few people will be”saved”during the End Times; most of us, like humanity during the Flood of Noah, will be left to perish. Poor us.

Millenarian Christianity, sometimes called “chialism”, is associated with an idea that “religion” will soon be associated with a major, and beneficial, change in society. Belief in an end-of-the-world can also be found in Islam, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, which leads me to suspect that such a belief should be regarded as universal – as well as destructive.

In Christian beliefs, there will be a Second Coming of Jesus and at the Second Coming, Jesus will not arrive as a harmless male baby, he will come as a fully-fledged Lord of Heaven – doing judging stuff big-time and so kiss goodbye your and my fantasies about continuing to have a nice life on Planet Earth. The idea that the world might or will end has been around for thousands of years in in one form or another, but it was really given a workout in the 1970s when Velikovsky and the zeitgeist popularised his book, Worlds in Collision, first published in the 1950s. Which was about, say, the 15 Century BCE, when Venus was ejected from Jupiter as something like a comet and came close to crashing into Earth. If you can believe that.

This notion was popular with readers but was found so unsatisfactory by scientists that very soon its publishers, Macmillan (a textbook publisher), mostly respected by scientists in the USA, let the publishing be done by Doubleday (not a textbook publisher). Velikovsky ended embarrassing a lot of people including himself – if we respect Science, that is.

And so we had Velikovsky using comparative mythology (based on old holy book writings, mostly Jewish), to drum up his bullshit science, bullshit astronomy, bullshit historical chronology and so on. Gordin thinks the Velikovsky thing blew up in the 1970s and had largely died by 1985. I was living in Melbourne, Australia, during the 1970s, and, indeed, the second-hand bookshops were full of copies of Velikovsky paperbacks; he’d become a sort of unofficial, one-man publishing industry.

I read Velikovsky sceptically, since there was nothing that I  (with my university education fresh in memory) knew about from astronomy or science, geology or ancient history, or Middle Eastern religion, that would support Velikovsky’s views. I sought the advice of a friend’s father who was a scientific geologist. This geologist confirmed my scepticism, but he did surprise me by admitting that reading Velikovsky had jolted him out of the usual old assumption used by geologists (Uniformitarianism, slow, boring, uninterrupted)  and made him wonder anew about Catastrophism (interruptive, sudden and surprising) happening from time to time.

There I left matters till years later I read Gordin, provoked by latter-day findings that in the USA in our Internet days, lots of folks will believe anything, even more than they did in the heyday of Velikovsky. What’s going on? Why would it be that the USA, of all countries in the world, rich and wealthy it is said, has become so truly-rooly only-in-America, the glad home of truly wacky ideas? Why not, well, Iceland? Or India, which has a large enough population to produce a large number of weirdos.

You’ll have to read something like Gordin’s book. Which is a bit dry, a bit slow, and doesn’t exactly tell us exactly what is scientifically wrong with Velikovsky’s views or findings – except in the footnotes. The footnotes are extraordinarily well-done, but of course they slow down a reading of Gordin’s text. The point might be that what Gordin calls “the modern pseudo-scientific fringe” in US life is actually bigger and more dangerous than we thought (in our current world of “fake news”).

But one useful thing Gordin does say, is that pseudo-science is mimetic – it imitates the form and/or substance of the fruits of proper scientific inquiry. Pseudo-science is – science as if.  In Velikovsky’s case, “as if” was written cosmologically large. However, I personally haven’t heard anyone mention Velikovsky, positively or negatively, for years. Whereas, other sorts of US nonsense I have heard mentioned, and too often; unfortunately it is repeated on Australian TV by Australian accents.

Velikovsky is not, I think, the Big Daddy of Pseudo-Science in the USA, but he does stand out, partly as he has a Russian-Jewish name, not an English-based US name. Velikovsky’s scientific nonsense spilled over into all sorts of other unscientific nonsense now popular in the USA; Creationism, religiosity of various kinds, astrology, many kinds of pseudo-science, and non-science or anti-science trends such as today’s anti-vaccination groups, anti-fluoride groups, and so on.

(The anti-vaxxers are right weirdos, encouraged as they are by the USA’s excess emphasis on individualism; they seem to thrive on denying that man is a social animal, liable from time to time to be infected by other social animals near him or her. Particularly with children who are forced by law to regularly gather in institutions known as schools.)

And so, watch out for US mind viruses, they’re deadly and today they’re transmitted not by books, as with Velikovsky, but by the Internet. Given the many weird things that folks in the USA believe today about so many things, including “fake news” … We note also with our heart sinking that a climate-change-denialist buffoon named Trump is currently president of the USA …

I can only say that what the USA needs today, apart from a reliable bullshit detector, is a good solid dose, never to be forgotten, of the usual set of journalistic questions which by the way precede the win-date, November 1783, of the American Revolution.These questions are deceptively simple-seeming … They are: how, what, when, where, why, who?

Because luckily for the rationalists amongst us, there is no bullshit on earth that can stand up for long to sustained attack from these questions. (Ends).

Author: Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes is an Australian poet, writer, historian, a one-time journalist in Tamworth NSW Australia (or, Country Music Capital, Australia). Born in Sydney in 1948, meaning in late 2018 he is aged 70! He is deeply interested in modern Australian history (since 1788), literature, poetry and music. He had a normal high school education plus several stints at university, ending with a double major in History/Psychology, then with an Honours degree in History. Of late, and as he gets older - in 2019 he will be 71 - he spends time compiling and recompiling old work, adding to this blog, and wondering deeply with the history of Australia since 1788, a relatively new country, which received up to 162,000 convicts from Britain, why there is such apathy to maritime history in general and in particular, such apathy to the question: who owned/insured the convict ships?

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