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Not a Mountebank

In response to:

Eternal Riddles from the June 14, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

Martin Gardner continues the Punch and Judy game of taking turns with Carl Sagan in bashing Immanuel Velikovsky over the head. Since Velikovsky’s cosmic theory that Venus was ejected from Jupiter and caused perturbations on earth which were recorded in folk history is shot through with childish errors of chemistry and physics, one wonders why they continue their game instead of permitting the theory to succumb to its own errors. They justify their attacks on the basis that their real target is the anti-intellectualism that they feel is behind the widespread appeal of Velikovsky’s book, Worlds in Collision, which is still attracting attention twenty-five years after publication. However, I find it difficult to accept this as a complete explanation of their savage personal attacks on Velikovsky (“charlatan,” “fraud”) when he is obviously a sincere, if mistaken, individual.

It has struck me, after a careful reading of the criticisms of Velikovsky’s book, that the critics have taken a Fundamentalist position which may explain their excessive emotionalism. According to them, the book can be of no value since the author indulges in ridiculous confusions of hydrocarbons with carbohydrates and shows a complete lack of understanding of the laws governing the heat of vaporization of solids. The same conclusion, of course, can be applied to the Bible. Should we discard this ancient text because it is full of unscientific statements? Is it possible that Velikovsky may have hit upon an insight into the origin of some of our folklore even though his explanation is scientifically unsound?

Fortunately, some sober and less emotionally involved scientists are beginning to take a new look at Velikovsky’s cosmic theory and are asking, as objective scientists, whether such a stimulating idea could be modified so that the basic laws of nature would not be violated. In the November 9, 1979 issue of Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, Dr. Michael Rowan-Robinson, a mathematician, dares to suggest that such revisions are possible. As an example, he writes that if a massive long period comet were first noticed toward Jupiter and then appeared as a bright evening or morning star, this would eliminate almost all of the refutations offered against Velikovsky. What would remain is his evidence from ancient texts that this event produced catastrophic effects on the earth, the most interesting part of Worlds in Collision. One might even picture a number of such comet-like bodies originating from Jupiter itself.

It is not easy for me, a scientist, to defend Velikovsky when his cause has been taken up by people who believe in UFOs, that plants can communicate, and similar nonsense. However, scientists must consider possible explanations even when they arise from unlikely primordial ooze. Personal attacks have no place in scientific debate.

Daniel L. Kline

University of Cincinnati Medical Center

Cincinnati, Ohio

Martin Gardner replies:

I have just reread my review of Carl Sagan’s new book and I can find no place where I call Velikovsky a charlatan or a fraud, two nouns that Dr. Kline puts inside quote marks as if I or Sagan or both of us had used them. Nor have I been able to find a use of either epithet by Sagan.

I fully agree—and I think I can also speak for Sagan—that Velikovsky is “obviously a sincere, if mistaken, individual.” One could say the same thing about Trofim Lysenko or Francis Gall, the father of phrenology. All the great pseudoscientists of the past, who won a popular following, were sincere and mistaken. Indeed, sincerity is the main attribute that distinguishes a pseudoscientist from a mountebank.

As for Dr. Kline’s second point, I readily admit that Velikovsky is not always wrong. Considering the scope of science and history covered in his books, it would be astonishing if he did not occasionally get something right. Gall was right in believing that parts of the brain have different functions, but that doesn’t turn phrenology into a science. Astrologers are experts in predicting where planets will be, but that doesn’t make astrology a science.

On Dr. Kline’s final sentence, it all depends on what “personal attack” means. It is one thing to attack a pseudoscientist’s character or life style, quite another to attack his scientific ignorance. I have never read a line by Sagan or myself that I would consider a “savage personal attack” on Velikovsky. Would Dr. Kline consider Thomas Huxley’s debate with Bishop Wilberforce a savage personal attack, or Clarence Darrow’s rhetoric at the Scopes trial a savage personal attack on William Jennings Bryan? Vigorous attacks, yes, but they were directed toward a man’s ignorance, not his integrity.

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