CAGW Science – or what if Velikovsky had won

The LRB recently dedicated some thoughts to the Science/Pseudoscience battle at the times of Immanuel Velikovsky. It’s especially interesting considering what has happened since, with catastrophism ruling for years in matters of climate science.

The review (by Steven Shapin) is available for free and in full at the LRB website.

It really reads like a slightly modified version of contemporary CAGW, starting from its enormous, mysterious popularity, inclusive of some cult-like admiration for The Man:

[...] By the late 1960s and 1970s, Velikovsky’s books must have been in most American college dorm rooms. [...] Velikovskianism had gained so much traction in America that in 1974 there was a huge set-piece debate over his views at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His scientific opponents reckoned he was ‘quite out of his tree’, while some of his acolytes – and these included an assortment of scientists with appropriate credentials – were of the opinion that Velikovsky was ‘perhaps the greatest brain that our race has produced’.

There was also something akin to the invention of the Hockey Stick accompanied by the deletion of the Medieval Warming Period:

Although Worlds in Collision was a pastiche of comparative mythology and planetary astronomy, its major purpose was a radical reconstruction of history.

Mainstream science of course was not on Velikovsky’s side. Still, the behavior of the “community” won’t surprise anybody familiar with Climategate:

Elite scientists, notably at Harvard, reckoned that they might be able to control what Macmillan published when it was represented as science. A letter-writing campaign was organised to get Macmillan to withdraw from its agreement to publish the book; credible threats were made to boycott Macmillan textbooks; hostile reviews were arranged; questions were raised about whether the book had been peer-reviewed (it had); and, when Worlds in Collision was published anyway, further (successful) pressure was exerted to make Macmillan wash its hands of the thing and shift copyright to another publisher. The editor who had handled the book was let go, and a scientist who provided a blurb and planned a New York planetarium show based on Velikovsky’s theories – admittedly not the sharpest knife in the scientific drawer – was forced out of his museum position and never had a scientific job again.

Just like with Climategate, none of that made the “elite scientists” look any good:

From an uncharitable point of view, this looked like a conspiracy, a conspiracy contrived by dark forces bent on the suppression of free thought and different perspectives – and the Velikovskians took just that view. [...] ‘Perhaps in the entire history of science,’ Velikovsky said, ‘there was not a case of a similar violent reaction on the part of the scientific world towards a published work.’ Newsweek wrote about the spectacle of scientific ‘Professors as Suppressors’ and the Saturday Evening Post made sport of the establishment reaction as ‘one of the signal events of this year’s “silly season”’. [...]

Einstein, in whose Princeton house Velikovsky was a frequent visitor, was one of them. Interviewed just before his death by the Harvard historian of science I.B. Cohen, Einstein said that Worlds in Collision ‘really isn’t a bad book. The only trouble with it is, it is crazy.’ Yet he thought, as Cohen put it, that ‘bringing pressure to bear on a publisher to suppress a book was an evil thing to do.’

So why would the scientists be doing evil things?

It was American scientists who went ballistic over Velikovsky, not historians, and one purpose of Michael Gordin’s probing and intelligent The Pseudoscience Wars is to ask why they responded to Velikovsky as they did. [...] Scientists in the years after World War Two were upset by Velikovsky because, Gordin argues, they felt insecure, uncertain of the new authority and influence they had apparently gained by building the bomb and winning the war. [...]

First, there was concern that political support might translate into political control. [...] And there were the McCarthyite witch-hunts, some of which targeted distinguished scientists. How much autonomy did American scientists actually have? How vulnerable was that autonomy to the dictates of politicians and to the delusions of popular culture? No one could be sure.[...]

We know that the climate answer to that has been a full cooperation between some politicians and some scientists, mutually supporting each other.

In another analogy with the present, the pseudoscience side went for self-fulfilling diagnoses of mental illness among opponents:

The greatest ingenuity of Velikovsky’s thought lay in its merging of naturalistic catastrophism and psychoanalytic theory. [...] what was the violence of scientists’ opposition to Velikovsky’s ideas but a persistence of that same tendency to deny the catastrophic truth of what had happened to the human race, how very close it had come to obliteration? The fact that the scientists were leagued against him was precisely what Velikovsky’s theories predicted. It was further evidence that he was right. What the scientists needed, indeed what the culture as a whole needed, was therapy, a cure for collective amnesia.

Shapin turns the table around, and embarks in a good explanation on why so many people are attracted to catastrophism, an explanation that applies to Velikovsky fans like to Gore supporters:

Here are the reasons for the enormous appeal of Velikovsky’s theories to Cold War America, and, specifically, to the young, the angry and the anxious. Lecturing to campus audiences, Velikovsky told the students what they already knew: the world was not an orderly or a safe place; Armageddon had happened and could happen again:

  • The belief that we are living in an orderly universe, that nothing happened to this Earth and the other planets since the beginning, that nothing will happen till the end, is a wishful thinking that fills the textbooks … And so it is only wishful thinking that we are living in a safe, never perturbed, solar system and a safe, never perturbed past.

Alfred Kazin, writing in the New Yorker, understood that this was part of Velikovsky’s appeal, and tellingly linked the great pseudoscientist with the Doomsday warnings of orthodox atomic scientists: Velikovsky’s work ‘plays right into the small talk about universal destruction that is all around us now’, he said, ‘and it emphasises the growing tendency in this country to believe that the physicists’ irresponsible scare warnings must be sound.’

The review ends with a brief discussion on how to evaluate what is scientific knowledge (with Shapin strangely unfamiliar with Sagan’s famous quote “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“), plus a history of how the term “pseudoscience” came into being, once again reminding the reader of contemporary debates, in this case about blogging:

By 1964, some of Velikovsky’s scientific critics were drawing a [...] lesson from the affair: the nuclear chemist Harold Urey was concerned ‘about the lack of control in scientific publication … Today anyone can publish anything,’ and it was impossible to tell the signal of truth from the noise of imposters. We must return to the past, Urey urged, when there was a proper intellectual class system and a proper system of quality control: ‘Science has always been aristocratic.’ In a society insisting on its democratic character, that was not a wildly popular position, though doubtless it had appealed to the scientists who tried to prevent the original publication of Velikovsky’s book and who sought to block his later efforts to publish in mainstream scientific journals.

Even the very end of the review is still relevant:

if it struts around the barnyard loudly protesting that it’s a duck, that it possesses the very essence of duckness, that it’s more authentically a duck than all those other orange-billed, web-footed, swimming fowl, then you’ve got a right to be suspicious: this duck may be a quack.

And that’s where mentions of 2,500 IPCC scientists and 97% consensus spring to mind.