Science and Catastrophism, from Velikovsky to the present day

by Prof. Trevor Palmer

Biography of Trevor Palmer
In 1950, when the gradualist-uniformitarian paradigm was supremely dominant, as it had been throughout the previous one hundred years, a new catastrophist scenario was launched into the world by Immanuel Velikovsky, a Russian-born psychoanalyst, in Worlds in Collision. This immediately received a hostile reception from the academic establishment, with attempts being made to get the publication of the book withdrawn. Not only did it challenge the prevailing uniformitarian paradigm by proposing that global catastrophes had taken place in the relatively recent past, but it maintained that the causes had been extraterrestrial (an almost unthinkable concept at that time) and, furthermore, this was argued largely on the basis of myths and ancient writings. In addition, Velikovsky challenged well-established key beliefs in astronomy, physics, biology and ancient history, long after it had become generally accepted that, because of an explosion in the amount of information available, no-one could possibly be an expert in more than one subject area. Following on from that, it was supposed that only those who were specialists in a particular area were qualified to express views about topics within it, and Velikovsky, although well-educated, was not recognised as an expert in any of the areas covered in Worlds in Collision.

One scientist who was sympathetic towards Velikovsky was Albert Einstein, who had known him for many years. Although rejecting Velikovsky's proposed mechanism, which involved close encounters with Venus and other planets, Einstein was convinced by his arguments that there had been catastrophes of extraterrestrial origin. He emphasised to Velikovsky the importance of making correct predictions, which would not in themselves establish a scientific theory as being correct, but could play a significant part in the process. Velikovsky predicted that Jupiter would be found to emit radio waves, which was confirmed shortly before Einstein's death in 1955. A few years later, a statement in Worlds in Collision that the surface of Venus would be found to be hot was similarly confirmed. In 1962, Science published a letter from an astronomer and a physicist which pointed out Velikovsky's two successful predictions, both completely against expectations, and continued by saying that although the writers disagreed with Velikovsky's theories, they urged, in the light of this development, that his ideas be given objective consideration. During the 1960s, a number of statements and predictions by Velikovsky were confirmed, whereas others (sometimes but not always because he had accepted the orthodox view of his time) were refuted. Velikovsky had incorporated a range of theories within his complex scenario, so the fact that some of them could be seen, in the light of subsequent developments, to be incorrect did not mean that the rest could be discarded, or that because some of them turned out to be consistent with new evidence, there was justification for concluding that the entire scenario must be correct. The correct predictions did, however, provide a requirement for Velikovsky's overall scenario to be given an objective examination, regardless of the unorthodox nature of its formulation, but that failed to occur.

Up to this point, Velikovsky had operated as a lone individual. However, during the 1960s, the efforts of political scientist Alfred de Grazia in producing a special issue of the journal, American Behavioral Scientist, and then a book, The Velikovsky Affair, documenting the unacceptable aspects of the reception given to Worlds in Collision and also the inherent difficulties faced by anyone trying to bring forward an interdisciplinary hypothesis in the 20th century, played a significant part in the creation of a Velikovskian movement. Pensée, the magazine of the Oregon-based Student Academic Freedom Forum, published a special series of 10 issues devoted to Velikovsky's ideas during the early 1970s, and there was a well-attended symposium in San Francisco in 1974 on the same theme, held under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This was unsatisfactory in the way it was conducted and in the way its presentations were reported, as acknowledged by conventional scientists, who nevertheless maintained that Velikovky's theories had been considered and shown to be unsustainable.

This symposium proved to be a point of bifurcation for the Velikovskian movement. Some seized on the imperfections of the process to maintain that Velikovsky's scenario had emerged unscathed. Others acknowledged that there might have been justification in some of the criticisms expressed about component details of Velikovsky's overall scenario. Modifications were suggested to overcome perceived problems, but difficulties continued to accumulate, as new findings came to light. Few aspects were rendered impossible, but many began to seem improbable.

Alternative scenarios therefore began to be proposed, arising out of Velikovsky's original ideas, but differing significantly in important details. Examples include the “Solaria Binaria” model of Alfred de Grazia and Earl Milton, the “Saturn theory” of David Talbott, Dwardu Cardona and Ev Cochrane, and the “coherent catastrophism” model of Victor Clube and Bill Napier.

Furthermore, conventional scientific views were becoming very different from what they had been when Velikovsky was writing Worlds in Collision. Mechanisms, including extraterrestrial ones, are now known to exist which could have caused major catastrophes on Earth. Also, as suggested by Velikovsky, electromagnetic forces are now seen to be far more important within the Solar System and its surroundings than previously supposed. Investigations of Venus have shown it to be nothing like the “sister planet” of the Earth envisaged during the 1950s, and have revealed a number of anomalous features. More widely, ongoing investigations of large-scale aspects of the Universe and of sub-atomic structure are demonstrating unequivocally the serious limitations of the current state of our knowledge and understanding.
Two conclusions seem to stand out. One is that, to address this complex situation, ways need to be found to encourage interdisciplinary research into the various issues. The funding and reporting systems operating in each specialist area work perfectly well in the majority of situations, but are not geared to cope with interdisciplinary study, which is where most major breakthroughs are likely to occur. The other conclusion is that evidence for global catastrophes of extraterrestrial origin, at least in the prehistoric past, is now incontrovertible, even though the effects are often downplayed (for psychological as much as for scientific reasons). In the more recent past, similar considerations apply, although the evidence for an extraterrestrial catastrophe is not so clear-cut. There is reason to suppose that significant natural catastrophes occurred during the period considered in Worlds in Collision, although not on the scale suggested by Velikovsky, and even more reason to suppose that major catastrophes had taken place over the previous 10,000 years. However, opinions differ as to likely cause of each of the catastrophic episodes.

Whatever views, positive or negative, may be held about particular aspects of Velikovsky's theories, the general advice he offered to an audience of graduate students in 1953 remains completely valid sixty years later: “What I want to impress upon you is that science today, as in the days of Newton, lies before us as a great uncharted ocean, and we have not yet sailed very far from the coast of ignorance...The age of basic discoveries is not yet at its end, and you are not latecomers, for whom no fundamentals are left to discover... I visualize some of you, ten or twenty or thirty years from now, as fortunate discoverers, those of you who possess inquisitive and challenging minds, the will to persist, and an urge to store knowledge. Don't be afraid to face facts, and never lose your ability to ask the questions: Why? and How? Don't be afraid of ridicule; think of the history of all great discoveries...Therefore, dare...Don't persist in your idea if the facts are against it; but do persist if you see the facts gathering on your side...In science, unlike religion, the great revelations lie in the future; the coming generations are the authorities; and the pupil is greater than the master, if he has the gift to see things anew. All fruitful ideas have been conceived in the minds of the nonconformists, for whom the known was still unknown, and who often went back to begin where others passed by, sure of their way. The truth of today was the heresy of yesterday. Imagination coupled with scepticism and an ability to wonder – if you possess these, bountiful nature will hand you some of the secrets out of her inexhaustible store. The pleasure you will experience discovering truth will repay you for your work; don't expect other compensation, because it may not come. Yet, dare.”
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Tuesday, October 02, 2012contact: d e g r a a m i @ g m a i l . c o m