The Pseudoscience Wars: Who Safeguards Science?

by Alice Gregory | October 15, 2012

IN THE MONTHS  since Todd Akin, the GOP candidate for Senate in Missouri, made his career-crushing gaffe about “legitimate rape,” columnists and medical professionals countrywide have publicly debunked his “understanding” as misogynist and ignorant, a symptom of loony right-wing fringe. Akin’s assertion that “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” has been called “just nuts” in The New York Times, “folklore” on, and “pseudoscientific” by publications including The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Post, and the Kansas City Star.

Akin’s prominent takedown was just one recent example of America rising up to fend off the scientifically deluded. (A similar reaction greeted Michele Bachman when she claimed the HPV vaccine causes autism.) But the line between science and pseudoscience is not necessarily as clear-cut as we might expect.

“No one in the history of the world has ever self-identified as a pseudoscientist,” writes Michael D. Gordin in the first line of The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. “To their minds,” he continues, “they are doing science, full stop. This does not mean they are necessarily correct—lots of people are mistaken about what they are actually doing.” Gordin, a professor of history at Princeton and a slyly funny writer, devotes much of his introduction to workmanlike definitions of pseudoscience, which like obscenity, he wearily explains, is only identified on an ad-hoc basis: we know it when we see it. He insists that pseudoscience is not the same as bad science: “on the imaginary scale … it is off the grid altogether.” Individual pseudoscientists are hated by real scientists; the work of pseudoscientists is only ever identified as such—“a term of abuse”—when their colleagues from across the line of legitimacy feel threatened. Cue the country-wide ostracizing of Akin.

But make no mistake: Gordin’s sympathies are not with the occult. His fascination with pseudoscience is more like a negative method: the experts define the boundaries of their domain by fending off the quacks. For Gordin, pseudoscience is an instrument by which he takes the temperature of the past. “Each use of pseudoscience,” he observes, “is tied intimately to its historical context. If you want to know what science is or has been, show me the contemporary pseudoscience.”

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This imperative is not rhetorical—it is the premise of his book. As Gordin’s subtitle promises, The Pseudoscience Wars centers on a single figure around which defunct theories, elaborate hoaxes, and politically problematic researchers orbit. Had you been a well-educated reader of mainstream publications—such as this one!—in 1950, you would have been familiar with the name Immanuel Velikovsky. A Russian-born psychoanalyst, Velikovsky was, for a few years, a human lightning rod for Cold War America.

Worlds of Collision, Velikovsky’s first book, was published in the spring of 1950 by Macmillan, then the leading publisher of scientific works and textbooks. In it, Velikovsky—already on the record about the benefits of weather modification and King Solomon’s apparent knowledge of radium—hypothesized that in the fifteenth century B.C., Jupiter emitted a comet (Venus) that passed Earth, altering the tilt of its axis and causing the various catastrophes alluded to in early scripture and mythology. Rains of fire, split seas, and civilization-destroying floods—these were not metaphors, but real-world phenomena created by “extraterrestrial agents.” In a typically wry passage, Gordin writes: “The book was, and remains, an enthralling read. It also required, to account for the events described … outright contraventions or at least severe modifications of the conventional understandings of celestial mechanics, physics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, and biology.”

Before its April publication date, Worlds of Collision was excerpted in Harper’s; upon publication, it immediately became a both a best-seller and source of fury. It was reviewed terribly in scientific journals—“errant nonsense”—and only a bit better in the mainstream press: the review in The New York Times was accompanied by “an illustration of an occult mage in the cosmos”; Alfred Kazin took it, per Gordin, as a “diagnostic marker of the contemporary age”; and Harold Ickes, the former Secretary of the Interior, wrote, in this magazine, a “peculiar page-long piece” that joked about love relations between the planets.

Macmillan allegedly received upward of one thousand letters of dissent, mostly from scientists, enraged that a publishing house previously so reputable had sullied its image (and theirs). Gordin, who has a deviant taste for archival insults, quotes from some of the most vivid: “annotated clap-trap”; “a new low in the ethics of the publishing business!”; “on a level far below science-fiction.” All the while, Worlds of Collision was selling a thousand copies a week, and Velikovsky remained curiously unhurt, taking comfort in the story of Galileo—shunned by his contemporaries, celebrated by history—as pseudoscientists are wont to do.

To illustrate the extent to which pseudoscience illuminates history, Gordin has organized his book as a series of diversions, each one indirectly explaining his subject. Many passages—of vastly different lengths—are introduced as “detours,” though of course they are the substance of the book. Gordin first peels off from Velikovsky himself with an early chapter chronicling the boycott of Macmillan by professors nationwide—their use of the publisher’s textbooks in the classroom gave the instructors unprecedented economic influence. Even if reading about decades-old publishing scandals is not your idea of a good time, Gordin’s telling of the Macmillan boycott is weirdly thrilling.

Other chapters seek to explain the historical context into which Velikovsky’s book was released and received—why such an obvious crank was worth getting upset about in the first place, apart from the fact that his book was selling extraordinarily well. Timing, Gordin maintains, was everything: “The American scientific community was at that moment in tremendous flux, having emerged from World War II with greater visibility, greater funding, greater prestige, and greater power than it had ever had before—and consequently significant anxiety.” Gordin spends pages and pages plodding through both the history of Soviet genetics and the successful re-imaging of eugenics, setting up the political precedent for Velikovsky’s charged reception.  

The Pseudoscience Wars is a relatively slim volume, but Gordin siphons into it an overwhelming amount of information, often leading readers waist-deep into the reeds in his effort to prove that context can ascribe relevance to the wackiest of theories. His “detours” are necessary to our understanding of the stakes and contradictions of Velikovsky’s poor reception, but they could be condensed—and not by peer review. Gordin has the professorial quality of being able to retroactively explain tens of his own pages with a pithy one-liner; one wishes occasionally for more of this concision.

But Gordin shines when sketching personalities with primary sources. The book’s most delightful section recounts Velikovsky’s attempt to restore his own credibility by courting the friendship of Albert Einstein, who lived only “a longish walk” away from him in Princeton, New Jersey. Their acquaintanceship is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking: Velikovsky wanted Einstein’s respect and endorsement, Einstein wanted only a Jew with whom he could speak German. Einstein, who had a soft spot for people whose novel ideas had been quelled, shrugged Velikovsky off in letters. “I consider him gifted, but uncritical,” he told his longtime companion. And he reported to a colleague: “No, it really isn’t a bad book. The only trouble with it is, it is crazy.”

By the 1970s, Velikovsky’s work was the subject of its own interdisciplinary society and journal, but he was still receiving criticism from the most important scientists in the country. Stephen Jay Gould dismissed him in writing, and Carl Sagan on PBS. And by the time of his death in 1979, Velikovsky was almost entirely forgotten. Today his name occasionally shows up in scientific circles as a sort of synonym for “crackpot,” and—perhaps predictably—there are troves of oddly designed websites devoted to keeping his theories alive.

The day after Akin “misspoke,” Dr. John C. Willke, the former president of the National Right to Life Committee, explained non-contraception to The New York Times in now-notorious specificity. Key words included: “uptight,” “sperm,” “vagina,” “deposited,” and “tubes”—intentionally the verbiage of medical procedure, not belief. In the context of pseudoscience, his rhetoric is easy to understand. Of course proponents of “legitimate rape” feel the need to explain it by way of process and mechanism: nobody is more preemptively specific than he who predicts dispute. “Fringe theories proliferate because the status of science is high and is something worthy of imitating,” Gordin writes. “They are a sign of health, not disease.” His optimism is convincing and appreciated. We need a good prognosis now more than ever.

Alice Gregory is a writer living in New York. 

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