Beyond Velikovsky

Henry Bauer. Beyond Velikovsky. University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Henry Bauer, best known for his bibliographies of Loch Ness Monster literature, has written an excellent summary of the Velikovsky affair. I suspect that he started out sympathetic to Velikovsky, outraged by the actions of his more extreme critics, who organised book boycotts, sacked people and attacked Velikovsky without actually reading his work. This makes Bauer's critique of Velikovsky all the more damning, as he is revealed in these pages as a man who argued with total authority on subjects with which he was totally ignorant.

A new revelation to most of us is that Velikovsky was the author of a pseudo-scientific work called Cosmos Without Gravitation: Attraction, Repulsion and Circumduction in the Solar System, written in 1946, four years before Worlds in Collision. The general argument of that work seemed to be that electromagnetism and not gravitation held the planets in orbit. His rejection of gravitation was based on a list of 25 anomalies. It takes Bauer eleven pages to dispose of just one of these, admirably making his point that the proper demolition of pseudoscience is an immensely time-consuming business. Bauer shows that many of Velikovsky's so-called predictions are largely trivial, and were often just thrown in without any demonstration as to why the should occur.

There was no reason why Velikovsky should have been listened to by scientists: he had no expertise in the fields in which he was writing, no conception of what kinds of evidence scientists considered to be valid, and had no conception of the accepted canons for publication. Perhaps one can pitch this a little stronger that Bauer does: scientific journals regularly receive unsolicited manuscripts of often considerable length and turgidity, on subjects about which the authors are almost totally ignorant. They do not have the time or inclination to take them seriously; why should they have to do so just because this particular one received a ballyhooed commercial publiation?

Faced with this situation the scientific community could not just drop everything and spend weeks on a detailed refutation, yet it felt compelled to respond. The result was a selection of often very foolish, dogmatic and ill-considered rebutals by people who knew "in your guts you know he's nuts", but found it very difficult and/or time consuming to prove it. Without this onslaught it is probable that Velikovsky would have faded into obscurity: with it the legend of the martyred genius was born.

Many of Bauer's conclusions about science, the confusion between scientific knowledge and truth, the reasons why unorthodox claims are rarely taken seriously, have a wider application to many 'fortean' fields. For example, he points out that, while not ideal, the tacit consensus of experts in a given field is the best way of judging claims in the real world; that science cannot deal with isolated anomalies that run counter to the theories built up from scores of well established facts; that eyewitness testimony and the 'testimony of tradition' in particular have a very low status within science.

Bauer also shows the numerous semantic tricks which both believers and sceptics resort to in order to sway opinion.

There are certain weaknesses in the book - the account of science is perhaps simplistic and over idealistic; the power of world view to mould observation and 'fact' is not emphasised. More importantly, I do not think Bauer really deals with the external factors which gave emotional power to the arguments on both sides. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson from Magonia 22, May 1986.


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