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Open letter to science editors
VELIKOVSKY'S PLACE IN THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE
Henry H. Bauer
Ask an historian of science what's exciting or new, and you're likely to
something like this, from the Preface of a recent book: "Would the study of
material culture and craft practice become a broad and productive new genre
or remain an embellishment of familiar intellectual, institutional, and
That illustrates, I think, what a distinguished historian of science,
Holmes, recently admitted: "historians of science write about issues ...
are interesting only to themselves", in other words, issues in the academic
field of "history-of-science" rather than issues of what has gone on within
science. So too with most of the philosophy of science, virtually all the
sociology of science, an overwhelming part of so-called science-policy
studies; the vast majority of what has come to be called the
study of science-STS, "science, technology and society" or "science and
technology studies"-all these supposed interpreters of science speak
primarily to themselves rather than offering insights about science that
others can make use of. That, of course, is but one concrete instance of the
over-specialization of academic discourse that has crept up on us during
century, especially the second half of this century. Meta-analysis is
becoming the rage: analysis of issues gives way to the analysis of analyses,
and even the analysis of analyses of analyses. One might say that meta-
science has metastasized.
So "the history of science" is nowadays an ambiguous phrase. It could mean
something that scientists would be interested in, something about the
development of science; or, it could mean something that historians of
science rather than scientists find of interest.
That's a long introduction to a brief conclusion as to Velikovsky's place in
the history of science: he is well remembered in the historians' history-of-
science, in the interpreters' historyof-science; but not in the scientists'
story of what has happened in science. The evidence of this is quite
straightforward: Velikovsky features in the literature of the history,
philosophy, and sociology of science, not in the literature of science
Another necessary distinction is that between individual learning and the
collective knowledge of humankind. We honor effective teachers for
stimulating individual learning, though very few teachers contribute
new to humankind's collective understanding. That's why we deplore the
"publish-or-perish" approach and insist that teaching be valued at least
equally with research; and that's why, in my book about the Velikovsky
Affair, I suggested that many of us bear a debt of gratitude to Velikovsky
for having stimulated thought and even action that has served us well and
that we might have missed if it weren't for his initiatives; it's irrelevant
in this respect that Velikovsky contributed nothing new to humankind's
I encountered the Velikovsky Affair close to the beginning of my move from
scientist-more specifically, chemist-to interpreter of science. What I
learned from the interactions among Velikovsky, his critics, his supporters,
and associated pundits shaped my view of what interpretation of science
to be. I learned among other things that scientists no less than laymen need
to be educated about the nature of scientific work; and I learned that many
interpreters and pundits of science need such educating as well.
As I set out to be that needed sort of educator, like every teacher I kept
uncovering more and more points of my own ignorance, I began to understand,
especially perhaps through the work of John Ziman and Michael Polanyi, that
science is not a matter of individuals trained in a clear-cut scientific
method applying that method to generate objective knowledge, it is rather a
matter of overlapping communities producing purported or presumptive
knowledge whose reliability depends on the extent that communal interactions
are open, honest, disinterested, skeptical. In my recent book, Scientific
Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method , I've noted some
implications of that view: the need to distinguish well-tested textbook
science from tentative frontier science; the light it throws on the
differences between the natural and the social sciences; and more.
Velikovsky's work raised among other things the issue of interdisciplinarity,
which continues to be much talked about as well as aimed for. I've found
that a very interesting subject. My experience as a Dean of Arts & Sciences
enabled me to see how deep-seated and consequential are the differences
between the various academic or intellectual domains; so much so that C. P.
Snow's category of "two cultures" captures the real truth that these
differences are cultural ones. Engineers and sociologists differ not only in
that the one knows about machines and the other about human groups: they
differ in what they mean by "knowing something"; in the relative value they
put on practice and on theory; in their views on a variety of such
unrelated matters as politics or religion. Whether this stems more from
self-selection in our choice of profession, or from the training we
experience and internalize after making the choice, the fact of the matter
remains quite plain, illustrated in numerous observations that I've reviewed
elsewhere. . That fact of cultural differences needs to be accommodated in
any attempt to design or practice interdisciplinarity. It fits well with the
rule of thumb that close, continual interactions among people from different
disciplines is by far the best way of generating properly interdisciplinary
work or working teams. It also makes plain that individuals who seek to
practice interdisciplinarity must first acculturate themselves thoroughly
into each of the disciplines that they wish to draw on.
Recognizing disciplines as cultures and not just fields of knowledge
inevitably raises epistemological questions over which there's no consensus
among philosophers, sociologists, and others: What is knowledge? What can we
know, and how can we come to know it?
Like others who were trained first in one of the natural sciences, I find
compelling the view that scientific knowledge is a map-like sort of
knowledge, a knowledge of how things happen, of how to do things, of what
follows if a certain thing happens-operational knowledge, not ontological or
causal. When science explains "why" a thing happens, it is in reality
describing only how it happens, under what circumstances. That view is
faithful to the history of scientific discovery: theories survive only for
long as they fit with what actually happens in the world.
An obvious, inescapable yet often neglected corollary is that scientific
theories are not truth, not even presumptive truth: they are simply the most
useful way, at any given time, of rationalizing a certain selection of
natural phenomena. Usefulness in science most often means heuristic value,
reflecting the degree to which fruitful further research is stimulated.
Utility is also judged, of course, by how well a theory can replace a set of
observations by serving as a shorthand way of describing those observations.
Neither of those attributes of a theory, however, necessarily has to do with
its truth in any commonly used sense of the notion of truth. The history of
science has convincingly taught that wrong theories can be very useful
in bringing about progress, through pointing to research that turns out to
fruitful; that's nicely captured in Wolfgang Pauli's often-quoted
of mediocre work as "not even wrong". That we use theories because they
permit accurate calculation even if their basis is quite wrong, is
demonstrated by the routine use, for many decades now, of wave equations and
particle equations to predict the behavior of things that are certainly not
waves or particles.
The confusion between scientific thought and truth is pervasive, and plays a
great and greatly mischievous part in the public controversies about such
matters as Velikovsky's claims, or in general in disputes between
science and unorthodox claims, or in such bickering as that between
and "Religion". Truth connotes something humanly meaningful. But science is
limited to describing the world "out there"; it cannot truly elucidate what
it is that exists, let alone why, and it is the "why" that would mean
something about human existence. The trick, for each one of us, is somehow
to fit a properly "scientific" description of humankind's environment into a
world-view whose most humanly significant aspects-moral right and wrong,
-are outside the competence of science.
Velikovsky was concerned to uncover things of human significance. The
substance of his claims includes much interesting and instructive material
about history, legend, human belief, religion; a great deal of that can
reasonably be believed by any rational person who chooses to do so. But
that's outside science, which can only proceed, as it always has,
opportunistically and operationally; more and more, through intense
specialization. On the one hand, outsiders can often and rightly perceive
that what "science" says is faulty, or sometimes even patently not true.
What outsiders cannot usually do, however, is to improve science's
understanding: that requires acculturation into the specialist culture. Let
me give a few examples of this little-understood opinion.
Mainstream American archaeology insists that the earliest time at which
entered the Americas is given by the dates of the earliest settlement sites
so far discovered. But that's almost absurd: it is quite unlikely that we
have discovered the earliest sites! Nevertheless, that realization helps not
one whit to advance the state of archaeological knowledge nor to indicate
where one might most fruitfully look for earlier sites.
Or take the recommendations as to life-style and diet with which we're
regaled. As one who has benefited from angioplasty and cardiac by-pass
surgery, I take some interest in them. As I left hospital on one occasion, I
was given a sheet listing what to eat and what not to eat; and already there
were several inked-in corrections representing "the latest" belief. No
sensible person follows slavishly these ever-changing recommendations,
particularly perhaps since they are incapable of accommodating differences
individual metabolism. As a friend of mine once expostulated to his doctor,
"You mean if I do what you tell me, I'll live forever?" These
recommendations are just the current best that medical science can offer.
They're obviously inadequate, but realizing that doesn't indicate how to
Alternative medicine is unproved and therefore dangerous; yet a terminally
person might well benefit more from that than from orthodox treatment.
My daughter's morning sickness was not helped by any of her gynecologist's
suggestions, but it was greatly relieved by acupuncture and homeopathy; yet
the theories pronounced by the practitioners of those approaches are
I happen to believe that the Loch Ness monsters are real animals; yet I know
that I cannot prove their existence, that my belief is at the same time
outside science and yet rational.
And so on. Science, in other words, is a highly technical and specialized
pursuit whose theories are suited to further progress in science, but they
are not necessarily useful truths for human living.
Many years ago, to various audiences, I introduced my good friend Tim
as a Dean-maker because his adventures had stimulated me in directions that
included a term as Dean of Arts & Sciences. I could say much the same sort
of thing on this occasion. My fascination with the Velikovsky Affair began
the mid-1970s, it made clear to me that I wanted to change from doing
chemistry to commenting about science, and in 1978 I took a position as Dean
of Arts & Sciences and progenitor of a Center for the Study of Science in
Now I can look back at my first effort in science studies, my analysis of
Velikovsky controversy, from a somewhat more informed vantage point. Perhaps
I can make some repayment for the stimulation I gained from it by attempting
what historians do so well: to see people in the context of their time,
thereby deepening our understanding of that time and, in turn, further
deepening our understanding and appreciation of those who lived in that
Velikovsky's energy and talents were extraordinary and prodigious. Yet like
all of us, he was of his time and of his place. His attitudes and beliefs,
toward science and toward knowing, were far from his alone. His views formed
at a time when positivism still held sway. Science, it had become generally
agreed, could produce positively new and positively reliable knowledge.
Rigorous thought coupled with dedicated research and scholarship could carry
knowledge to a higher level. Though distinct disciplines were growing and
flourishing, there was little hindrance to moving from one to another.
Talented individuals could independently and individually add to humankind's
store of understanding. To be an all-round scholar, a polymath, could still
be a magnificent aim rather than a deluded impossibility. For an energetic
and talented man of Velikovsky's time and place, it was not absurd to aim to
make the sort of major contribution that he thought he had wrought, through
the independent research that he carried out.
I caught some glimpses of how it felt in that time and place through my
intellectual mentor, Bruno Breyer-born 1900 of assimilated Jews in Zagreb,
educated at Vienna, Leipzig, Berlin, Bonn, and Padua, M.D. as well as Ph.D.,
multi-lingual as a matter of course as well as of necessity, a man of both
scientific and the literary cultures to whom scholarship and everyday life
were inseparable. Among other things I caught a whiff of the hierarchical,
authoritarian circumstances of continental scholarship, whose normal
self-possession and dignity of manners would seem to us, in our present
and at this distance in time, unwarrantably and unbearably arrogant.
I've come across these attitudes in a number of different circumstances. A
dozen years ago, I chanced upon the Wilhelm Reich Museum in Rangeley, Maine.
As I looked around, I recognized an ambiance in which my mentor Breyer would
have felt very much at home. That led me to read quite a lot of and about
Reich, and I came to see him as a man of Velikovsky's ilk as well as of
Breyer's. When, years later, I had occasion to read about the career of
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, I was struck by the parallels between him and Reich;
I mused over what seemed such minor eventualities that, in cumulation, led
mainstream fame for the one but rejection and calumny for the other. And
there are plenty of other examples of men of charisma and intellectual power
who worked in roughly similar fashion at roughly similar times, some of them
winning acclaim and others a less approving notoriety. Among the latter are
such figures as Rudolf Steiner or Alfred Korzybski. Among the former, the
eminent Ostwald or Nernst, I forget which, who is reputed to have
"Was die Chemie fordert, das bestimme ich "-"Chemistry says what I say it
says". And also of course there fits among the remembered names of those
times, that of Sigmund Freud, whose ambiance I caught something of through
often-told family stories: my paternal grandmother was governess to Freud's
children, and my father is named after one of them. I suspect I'm the only
person here who once shook the hand of Sigmund Freud.
I want to see Velikovsky, then, as representative of a major tradition of
grand, individual scholarship. But even as he embarked on and carried out
his life's major work, positivism was collapsing. Our interpretation of
science and of knowing was being changed through the instigation of such
thinkers as Karl Popper, Robert Merton, Derek de Solla Price, Thomas Kuhn.
We now apprehend science as more the product of a coherent community than of
Our present image of science, as is the wont with such images, is that of a
romanticized past. We are nostalgic for heroes, for leaders, for thinkers
who really and fully know their own minds (as well as ours). We want to
believe that great advances can be made by great individuals; we want to
believe grand claims made by charismatic individuals. So, given the
opportunity, we become entranced.
The opportunity to be charmed comes rather readily, for even though the
scholarly interpreters of science know that positivism is dead, hardly
else does; there remain extant such publicly visible self-professed
of positive scientific truth as the Committee for the Scientific
of Claims of the Paranormal. The Velikovsky Affair shows clearly enough that
Velikovsky's scientific critics of the 1950s, no less than Velikovsky
himself, spoke out of a thoroughly positivist belief; and no less so did
Velikovsky's social-scientific supporters of the 1960s. (And, it seems to
admittedly from only cursory acquaintance, post-Velikovskian or neo-
Velikovskian supporters and critics still share a rather positivist stance.)
One of the marks of positivist confidence is the willingness to forecast
advances will be made, moreover that quite specific advances will be made:
that particular books will come to be written. In Beyond Velikovsky, I took
confidence of that kind as marking inauthentic science. That diagnosis was
confirmed for me when I saw in Korzybski's Science and Sanity , listed as
in preparation, 11 volumes identified by author and title as well as another
52 works identified by title only. But now I look at Kuhn's Structure of
Scientific Revolutions and detect there the same positivist confidence: for
the book is self-described as belonging to volumes I and II of the
Foundations of the Unity of Science, being volume 2, number 2 of the
International Encyclopedia of Unified Science - of whose later volumes we
hear as little nowadays as about those 52- or perhaps 63- works on General
Semantics . Insofar as his positivist leaning is concerned, Velikovsky was
the 1950s and the 1960s quite in the mainstream with respect to the
interpretation of scientific activity.
Velikovsky's determination to be given clear credit for his production
also to that time and place in which discrete discoveries could be assigned
to discrete individuals. Without adding to what I and others have written
about Velikovsky's precursors, let me just emphasize the degree to which
historians of science and of ideas now recognize that everything
intellectually substantial has precursors, that history is much more a
continuity than any series of discrete steps. That marvelous insight often
attributed to Newton, for example, "If I have seen further . . . it is by
standing upon the shoulders of Giants", has been re-discovered and re-
attributed countless times over the course of a couple of millennia. Indeed,
Stigler's Law tells us that "eponymy is always wrong": "a discovery is named
after the last person to discover it, not the first, because once a
has been named, no one else tries to claim it as a discovery" (and Stigler
validated his own law by showing that he was not the first to formulate it).
Some of Velikovsky's scientific critics waxed furious over what they called
his attack upon science. From the vantage of today's circumstances we can
see more clearly, perhaps, that Velikovsky's quarrels over the detailed
content of science were much less an attack on science than are the attacks
now stemming from intellectual relativists and social activists of various
stripes, as delineated by Gross & Levitt in their recent book, Higher
Superstition . These post-modernist attacks are on the very basis of science
itself, not merely on the validity of certain bits of knowledge or theory.
Velikovsky was of his time and place in believing in the possibility of
knowing; and he was driven by an urge to understand, not by the urge to bend
knowledge to the service of partisan ideology, as are today's barbarians and
know-nothings. Velikovsky thought that much of accepted science happened to
be wrong, but he didn't believe the enterprise of science to be a
activity vitiated from the outset by the impossibility of knowing anything,
all too many contemporary pundits do.
In many significant ways, then, Velikovsky was properly faithful to
humankind's level of understanding in his time. At our distance, I want to
suggest that it has become largely irrelevant, that Velikovsky's science was
largely wrong. After all, if we insist that everyone's worth be measured by
the degree to which their beliefs are objectively correct, then we're all in
the deepest trouble. It makes much more sense to follow the historians' path
of trying to understand people and events in their own context and, in
judgments of people's value or worth, to recall that "to understand is to
forgive", "to understand everything makes one tolerant" . Not doing that,
looking back and judging by what we now believe or know, is called by
historians-and it's definitely a pejorative term-presentism or whiggishness
(and it is not irrelevant to remark here that historians themselves reached
that understanding only rather recently).
Even error can leave beneficial by-products or spin-offs. In fact, if you
think about it, lots of error has left lots of beneficial by-products.
Everything we now value has its roots in the past, a past riddled with
mistakes and misunderstandings. Science progresses more by discarding things
proved wrong than by discovering absolutely right things; and we are slowly
becoming used to the corollary that what science now believes is not what
science will believe in the future. Quite specifically, consider some of the
more notorious people whom I've mentioned as sharing some of Velikovsky's
time and place:
Most whigs remember Wilhelm Reich only for the grand errors of his later
years, his spurious discoveries of orgone energy and of spontaneous
generation, his imagined battles against UFOs; yet some of Reich's
therapeutic insights and approaches remain useful, and his bringing together
of psychological insights and social activism was an important advance in
Korzybski is largely remembered whiggishly as a single-minded crank, yet
still-extant journals and societies illustrate his positive influence on
issues of expression and thought.
Martin Gardner writes about "the anthroposophical poppycock of Rudolf
, yet dozens of schools that owe something to Steiner's then-progressive
ideas about education continue to flourish, to be highly regarded and
What were progressive ideas of Steiner and his time influenced, for example,
the Schwarzwaldschule in Vienna, recalled with respect in such memoirs as
those of Peter Drucker , where my mother was once a pupil and several of her
Sigmund Freud, if we are to believe a torrent of debunking recent works, was
wrong in just about every particular, and untrustworthy to boot. But even if
so, innumerable among us have gained much from his writings or from trying
use his ideas and insights.
Being wrong is human. I like to recall with my daughters the occasion when
they began to use the refrain, "No one's perfect, not even Daddy". My own
mentors Breyer, Iredale, Elving were quite often wrong. Their feet were made
of the same clay as are ours. Nevertheless their influence on me was
wonderfully beneficial; and I'm often conscious of that, and of the fact
therefore I do some things not only because of them but to some extent on
their behalf. They have a genuine measure of immortality as they live on in
We do our forebears no service by seeking, in this new time and place, to
disguise their errors or, far worse, to re-commit mistakes that they made.
After all, there are many other things to recall about them than their
In sum total, it's obvious enough that everything we hold dear and good
to us from them, because there's no other place or time where it could have
I suggest that one can honor Velikovsky's memory without stint by focusing
the beneficial influence he or his work had on many of us and by reflecting
on what he enables us to understand better about his time and place.
Robert E. Kohler, Lords of the Fly, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Frederic L. Holmes, "Antoine Lavoisier and the conservation of matter",
Chemical & Engineering News, 12 September 1994, 38-45 (at p.39).
Henry H. Bauer, Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy,
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method,
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992 (c), 1994 (p).
'Josef Martin' (pen-name of Henry H. Bauer), To Rise Above Principle: The
Memoirs of an Unreconstructed Dean, Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
1988, especially Chapters 15 & 16; Henry H. Bauer, "A Dialectical Discussion
on the Nature of Disciplines and Disciplinarity", Social Epistemology, 4
(1990) 215-227; "Barriers against Interdisciplinarity: Implications for
Studies of Science, Technology, and Society (STS)", Science, Technology, &
Human Values, 15 (1990) 105-119.
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian
Systems and General Semantics, International Non-Aristotelian Library
Publishing Company, 1933.
Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1970 (2nd ed., enlarged). It is quite interesting to note
the people listed under the grand project of the International Encyclopedia
of Unified Science: editors Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, Charles Morris;
Committee of Organization, those three plus Philipp Frank, Joergen
Joergensen, Louis Rougier; Advisory Committee, Niels Bohr, Egon Brunswik, J.
Clay, John Dewey, Federigo Enriques, Herbert Feigl, Clark L. Hull, Waldemar
Kaempffert, Victor F. Lenzen, Jan Lukasiewicz, William M. Malisoff, R. von
Mises, G. Mannoury, Ernest Nagel, Arne Naess, Hans Reichenbach, Abel Rey,
Bertrand Russell, L. Susan Stebbing, Alfred Tarski, Edward C. Tolman, Joseph
My paperback copy of the 2nd edition of Kuhn's book has on the front cover
the modifying "Toward" in front of "an International Encyclopedia of Unified
Science". The back cover tells us that "Circumstances during World War II
the death of Professor Neurath ... Limited the scope of the Encyclopedia"
which was evidently the grand vision of an individual belonging to some
positivistic time and place.
Robert Merton, On the Shoulders of Giants, San Diego: Harcourt Brace
lovanovich, 1985 (Vicennial ed.; 1st ed., New York: Free Press, 1965).
S. M. Stigler, "Stigler's Law of Eponymy", Transactions of the New York
Academy of Sciences, Series II, 39 (1980) 147-58; see also I. J. Good, "Who
discovered the GodKoheleth Law?", Journal of Statistical Computation &
Simulation, 21 #1 (1985) 78-88.
Cited by Joel Cohen, Science, 14 May 1971, 674.
Paul R. Gross & Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and
Quarrels with Science, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Attributed to Madame de Stael in Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett,
Boston: Little, Brown, 14th ed., 1968, p. 502b.
Martin Gardner, Fads & Fallacies In the Name of Science, New York: Dover,
1957 (1st ed., In the Name of Science, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1952).
Peter Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander, New York: Harper & Row, 1978.