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Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision

Reading something they can understand, that seems to make sense, that presents itself as technically competent, non-scientists are easily gulled by fake science.  --Henry H. Bauer

The less one knows about science, the more plausible Velikovsky's scenario appears.... --Leroy Ellenberger

I would not trust any alleged citation by Velikovsky without checking the original printed sources. -- Michael Friedlander

In 1950, Macmillan Company published Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision, a book which asserts, among many other things, that the planet Venus did not exist until recently. Some 3500 years ago in the guise of a gigantic comet, it grazed Earth a couple of times, after having been ejected from the planet Jupiter some indefinite time earlier, before settling into its current orbit. Velikovsky (1895-1979), a psychiatrist by training, did not base his claims on astronomical evidence and scientific inference or argument. Instead, he argued on the basis of ancient cosmological myths from places as disparate as India and China, Greece and Rome, Assyria and Sumer. For example, ancient Greek mythology asserts that the goddess Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. Velikovsky identifies Athena with the planet Venus, though the Greeks didn't. The Greek counterpart of the Roman Venus was Aphrodite. Velikovsky identifies Zeus (whose Roman counterpart was the god Jupiter) with the planet Jupiter. This myth, along with others from ancient Egypt, Israel, Mexico, etc., are used to support the claim that "Venus was expelled as a comet and then changed to a planet after contact with a number of members of our solar system" (Velikovsky 1972,182).

Furthermore, Velikovsky then uses his Venus-the-comet claim to explain several events reported in the Old Testament as well as to tie together a number of ancient stories about flies. For example,

Under the weight of many arguments, I came to the conclusion--about which I no longer have any doubt--that it was the planet Venus, at the time still a comet, that caused the catastrophe of the days of Exodus (181).

When Venus sprang out of Jupiter as a comet and flew very close to the earth, it became entangled in the embrace of the earth. The internal heat developed by the earth and the scorching gases of the comet were in themselves sufficient to make the vermin of the earth propagate at a very feverish rate. Some of the plagues [mentioned in Exodus] like the plague of the frogs...or of the locusts, must be ascribed to such causes (192).

The question arises here whether or not the comet Venus infested the earth with vermin which it may have carried in its trailing atmosphere in the form of larvae together with stones and gases. It is significant that all around the world people have associated the planet Venus with flies (193).

The ability of many small insects and their larvae to endure great cold and heat and to live in an atmosphere devoid of oxygen renders not entirely improbable the hypothesis that Venus (and also Jupiter, from which Venus sprang) may be populated by vermin (195).

Who can deny that vermin have extraordinary survival skills? But the cosmic hitchhikers Velikovsky speaks of are in a class all of their own. How much energy would have been needed to expel a "comet" the size of Venus and how hot must Venus have been to have only cooled down to its current surface temperature of 750 Kelvin during the last 3,500 years? What evidence is there that any locust larvae could survive such temperatures? To ask such questions would be to engage in scientific discussion, but one will find very little of that sort of discussion in Worlds in Collision. What one finds instead are exercises in comparative mythology, philology, and theology, which together make up Velikovsky's planetology. That is not to say that his work is not an impressive exercise and demonstration of ingenuity and erudition. It is very impressive, but it isn't science. It isn't even history.

What Velikovsky does isn't science because he does not start with what is known and then use ancient myths to illustrate or illuminate what has been discovered. Instead, he is indifferent to the established beliefs of astronomers and physicists, and seems to assume that someday they will find the evidence to support his ideas. He seems to take it for granted that the claims of ancient myths should be used to support or challenge the claims of modern astronomy and cosmology. In short, like the creationists in their arguments against evolution, he starts with the assumption that the Bible is a foundation and guide for scientific truth. Where the views of modern astrophysicists or astronomers conflict with certain passages of the Old Testament, the moderns are assumed to be wrong. Velikovsky, however, goes much further than the creationists in his faith; for Velikovsky has faith in all ancient myths, legends, and folk tales. Because of his uncritical and selective acceptance of ancient myths, he cannot be said to be doing history, either. Where myths can be favorably interpreted to fit his hypothesis, he does not fail to cite them. The contradictions of ancient myths regarding the origin of the cosmos, the people, etc. are trivialized. If a myth fits his hypotheses, he accepts it and interprets it to his liking. Where the myth doesn't fit, he ignores it. In short, he seems to make no distinction between myth, legends, and history. Myths may have to be interpreted but Velikovsky treats them as presenting historical facts. If a myth conflicts with a scientific law of nature, the law must be revised.

If, occasionally, historical evidence does not square with formulated laws, it should be remembered that a law is but a deduction from experience and experiment, and therefore laws must conform with historical facts, not facts with laws (11).

One of the characteristics of a reasonable explanation is that it be a likely story. To be reasonable, it is not enough that an explanation simply be a possible account of phenomena. It has to be a likely account. To be likely, an account usually must be in accordance with current knowledge and beliefs, with the laws and principles of the field in which the explanation is made. An explanation of how two chemicals interact, for example, would be unreasonable if it violated basic principles in chemistry. Those principles, while not infallible, have not been developed lightly, but after generations of testing, observations, refutations, more testing, more observations, etc. To go against the established principles of a field puts a great burden of proof on the one who goes against those principles. This is true in all fields which have sets of established principles and laws. The novel theory, hypothesis, explanation, etc., which is inconsistent with already established principles and accepted theories, has the burden of proof. The proponent of the novel idea must provide very good reasons for rejecting established principles. This is not because the established views are considered infallible; it is because this is the only reasonable way to proceed. Even if the established theory is eventually shown to be false and the upstart theory eventually takes its place as current dogma, it would still have been unreasonable to have rejected the old theory and accepted the new one in the absence of any compelling reason to do so.

the scientific community's response to Velikovsky

Velikovsky was bitterly opposed by the vast majority of the scientific community, but the opposition may have been elicited mainly because of his popularity with "the New York literati" (Sagan 1979, 83). It is doubtful that many scientists even read Velikovsky, or read very much of Worlds in Collision. A knowledgeable astronomer and physicist would recognize after a few pages that the work is pseudoscientific twaddle. But the New York literary world considered Velikovsky a genius on par with "Einstein, Newton, Darwin and Freud" (Sagan, ibid.). To the scientific world it might be more accurate to say he was a genius on par with L. Ron Hubbard. A number of scientists even threatened to boycott Macmillan's textbook division as a sign of their disgust that such twaddle should be published with such fanfare, as if the author were a great scientist. According to Leroy Ellenberger, "when the heat was applied by professors who were returning Macmillan textbooks unopened in protest and declining to edit new textbooks Macmillan gave the book over to Doubleday, which had no textbook division."

Velikovsky is certainly ingenious. His explanations of parallels among ancient myths are very entertaining, interesting and apparently plausible.  His explanation of universal collective amnesia of these worlds in collision is highly amusing and equally improbable. Imagine we're on earth 3,500 years ago when an object about the same size as our planet is coming at us from outer space! It whacks us a couple of times, spins our planet around so that its rotation stops and starts again, creates great heat and upheavals from within the planet and yet the most anyone can remember about these catastrophes are things like "....and the sun stood still" [Joshua 10: 12-13] and other stories of darkness, storms, upheavals, plagues, floods, snakes and bulls in the sky, etc. No one in ancient times mentions an object the size of earth colliding with us. You'd think someone amongst these ancient peoples, who all loved to tell stories, would have told their grandchildren about it. Someone would have passed it on. But no one on earth seems to remember such an event.

Velikovsky explains why our ancestors did not record these events as they occurred in a chapter entitled "A Collective Amnesia." He reverts to the old Freudian notion of repressed memory and neurosis. These events were just too traumatic and horrible to bear, so we all buried the memory of them deep in our subconscious minds. Our ancient myths are neurotic expressions of memories and dreams based on real experiences.

The task I had to accomplish was not unlike that faced by a psychoanalyst who, out of disassociated memories and dreams, reconstructs a forgotten traumatic experience in the early life of an individual. In an analytical experiment on mankind, historical inscriptions and legendary motifs often play the same role as recollections (infantile memories) and dreams in the analysis of a personality (12).

The typically unscientific theories and fanciful explanations of psychoanalysis seem even less credible when applied to the entire population, yet to the New York literati, in love as they were with all things Freudian, speculations such as these guaranteed one's genius.

It is not surprising that when one thumbs through any recent scientific book on cosmology, no mention is made of Velikovsky or his theories. His disciples blame this treatment of their hero as proof of a conspiracy in the scientific community to suppress ideas which oppose their own. Even now, more than fifty years later, after all of his major claims have been rejected or refuted, Velikovsky still has his disciples who claim he is not being given credit for getting at least some things right. However, it does not appear that he got anything of importance right. For example, there is no evidence on earth of a catastrophe occurring around 1500 B.C.E. Former Velikovsky disciple Leroy Ellenberger notes that

the Terminal Cretaceous Event 65 million years ago, whatever it was, left unambiguous worldwide signatures of iridium and soot. The catastrophes Velikovsky conjectured within the past 3500 years left no similar signatures according to Greenland ice cores, bristlecone pine rings, Swedish clay varves, and ocean sediments. All provide accurately datable sequences covering the relevant period and preserve no signs of having experienced a Velikovskian catastrophe.*

Current disciples think Velikovsky should get credit for anticipating catastrophism of the type that ended the reign of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. Critic David Morrison thinks otherwise.

Velikovsky focuses narrowly on encounters between the Earth and planets -- Mars and Venus. While he refers to Venus being accompanied by debris, the dominant agents of his catastrophes are tidal, chemical, and electrical interactions between planets, not meteoritic impacts. Remarkably, Velikovsky did not even accept (let alone predict) that the lunar craters are the result of impacts -- rather, he ascribed them to lava "bubbles" and to electric discharges. I see nothing in his vision that relates to our current understanding of interplanetary debris and the role of impacts in geological and biological evolution. I conclude that Velikovsky was fundamentally wrong in both his vision of planetary collisions (or near collisions) and in his failure to recognize the role of smaller impacts and collisions in solar system history.

If anything, says Morrison, "Velikovsky with his crazy ideas tainted catastrophism and discouraged young scientists from pursuing anything that might be associated even vaguely with him" (Morrison 2001, 70). Morrison polled 25 leading contemporary scientists who have played a significant role in the development of the "new catastrophism" and not one thought that Velikovsky had had any significant positive influence on "the acceptance of catastrophist ideas in Earth and planetary science over the past half-century." Nine thought he had had a negative influence (Morrison, ibid.).

Morrison points out several other misleading claims about Velikovsky being right. For example, Velikovsky was right that Venus is hot but wrong in how he came to that conclusion. He thought it was because Venus is a recent planet violently ejected from Jupiter and having traveled close to the sun. Venus is hot because of the greenhouse effect, something Velikovsky never mentioned. As to the composition of the atmosphere of Venus, Velikovsky thought it was hydrogen rich with hydrocarbon clouds. NASA put out an erroneous report in 1963 that said Mariner 2 had found evidence of hydrocarbon clouds. In 1973 it was determined that the clouds are made mainly of sulfuric acid particles. Velikovsky was also right about Jupiter issuing radio emissions, but wrong as to why. He thought it was because of the electrically charged atmosphere brought on by the turbulence created by the expulsion of Venus. The radio emissions, however, are not related to the atmosphere but to "Jupiter's strong magnetic field and the ions trapped within it" (Morrison 65).

One of the few scientists to criticize Velikovsky's work on scientific grounds was Carl Sagan (Sagan 1979, 97), who was criticized even by Velikovsky's opponents for committing fallacies, making errors, and being intentionally deceptive in his argumentation. Henry Bauer does not even mention Sagan in his lengthy entry on Velikovsky in the Encyclopedia of the Paranormal (Prometheus 1996), unless he is making an oblique reference to Sagan when he writes about "some sloppy or invalid technical discussions by critics purporting to disprove Velikovsky's ideas." Whether Velikovsky's critics were fair-minded or not, there can be no denying the scientific indifference and incompetence of Velikovsky. He seemed satisfied that his study of myths established events which science must explain, regardless of whether those events clashed with the beliefs of the vast majority of the scientific community. In this he is like L. Ron Hubbard proposing engrams, which require cellular memory, while not indicating that he was aware that such a hypothesis needed to be explained in light of current scientific knowledge about memory, the brain, etc. Both are like the so-called "creation scientists" who would create science anew if needed to justify the truth of their myths.

The essence of Velikovsky's unreasonableness lies in the fact that he does not provide scientific evidence for his most extravagant claims. His claims are based on assuming cosmological facts must conform to mythology. In general, he offers no support for the plausibility of his theory beyond an ingenious argument from comparative mythology. Of course, his scenario is logically possible, in the sense that it is not self-contradictory. To be scientifically plausible, however, Velikovsky's theory must provide some compelling reason for accepting it other than the fact that it helps explain some events described in the Bible or makes Mayan legends fit with Egyptian ones.

a final word

Some readers have been influenced by Velikovsky's defenders who claim he was accurate in some of his more important claims. For example, Velikovsky was right that Venus is hot. However, he was wrong in the way he came to that conclusion. He thought Venus was recently ejected from Jupiter and had traveled close to the Sun. Neither claim is true. Venus is old and is hot because of the greenhouse effect, something Velikovsky never mentioned.

Velikovsky thought that the atmosphere of Venus was hydrogen rich with hydrocarbon clouds. NASA put out an erroneous report in 1963 that said Mariner 2 had found evidence of hydrocarbon clouds. In 1973 it was determined that the clouds are made mainly of sulfuric acid particles.

Velikovsky was also right about Jupiter issuing radio emissions, but wrong as to why. He thought it was because of the electrically charged atmosphere brought on by the turbulence created by the expulsion of Venus. The radio emissions, however, are not related to the atmosphere but to "Jupiter's strong magnetic field and the ions trapped within it" (Morrison 65).

For more examples of Velikovsky's illusory accuracy, I recommend David Morrison's article "Velikovsky at Fifty" (Skeptic magazine, vol 9, no 1, 2001). In response to one version of my comments on Velikovsky, in which I gave him partial credit for his vision of chaos in the skies, David Morrison wrote me:

Velikovsky focuses narrowly on encounters between the Earth and planets -- Mars and Venus. While he refers to Venus being accompanied by debris, the dominant agents of his catastrophes are tidal, chemical, and electrical interactions between planets, not meteoritic impacts. Remarkably, Velikovsky did not even accept (let alone predict) that the lunar craters are the result of impacts -- rather, he ascribed them to lava "bubbles" and to electric discharges. I see nothing in his vision that relates to our current understanding of interplanetary debris and the role of impacts in geological and biological evolution. I conclude that Velikovsky was fundamentally wrong in both his vision of planetary collisions (or near collisions) and in his failure to recognize the role of smaller impacts and collisions in solar system history.

In his article "Velikovsky at Fifty," Morrison argues that Velikovsky is given undeserved credit for influencing or being ahead of his time on the issue of catastrophism. He writes:

In preparing my Skeptic article "Velikovsky at 50" I corresponded with 25 leading contemporary scientists who have played a significant role in the development of this "new catastrophism" to ask what influence, if any, Velikovsky had on their work. The statements of these scientists indicate that none of them saw any value in Velikovsky's theories, and that Velikovsky's reputation sometimes impeded acceptance of their own work, or at least was an irritant when they described their work to the public. I was also struck by how easily these scientists (by their own report) rejected Velikovsky. Note that these are not conservative, ivory-tower academics, constitutionally prejudiced against new ideas. They have been among the most creative and revolutionary researchers in their fields. Like all successful research scientists, however, they are used to making quick judgments concerning which evidence is more likely to be accurate and relevant, which research directions more promising. This quick judgment against Velikovsky by scientists separates these academics from those who wished (or still wish) to give Velikovsky the benefit of the doubt, to look for some lasting value in his work.

In addition to Morrison's article, I also recommend "An Antidote to Velikovskian Delusions" and A lesson from Velikovsky by Leroy Ellenberger.

See also ancient astronauts, apophenia, and Zecharia Sitchin.


reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Bauer, Henry H. Beyond Velikovsky, (University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago, 1984).

Bauer, Henry H. "Immanuel Velikovsky," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Friedlander, Michael. The Conduct of Science (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972).

Friedlander, Michael W. At the Fringes of Science, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press,1995).

Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957), ch. 3.

Goldsmith, Donald (Ed.) Scientists Confront Velikovsky. (Foreword by Isaac Asimov) (Cornell University Press, 1977).

Morrison, David. "Velikovsky at Fifty - Cultures in Collision on the Fringes of Science" Skeptic, Vol. 9 No. 1, 2001.

Sagan, Carl. Broca's Brain (New York: Random House, 1979), ch. 7, "Venus and Dr. Velikovsky".

Velikovsky, Immanuel. Worlds in Collision (New York: Dell, 1972).

websites

Transcripts of the Morning and Evening Sessions of the A.A.A.S. Symposium on “Velikovsky’s Challenge to Science” held on February 25, 1974. Transcribed and Edited by Lynn E. Rose

Velikovsky's Address to the 1974 A.A.A.S. symposium

"An Antidote to Velikovskian Delusions" by Leroy Ellenberger

Top Ten Reasons Why Velikovsky is Wrong About Worlds in Collision by Leroy Ellenberger

A lesson from Velikovsky by Leroy Ellenberger

Worlds Still Colliding by Leroy Ellenberger

The Velikovsky Affair by Henry Bauer

Catastrophism page of Phib Burns

"Sitchin's Twelfth Planet" by Rob Hafernik

Velikovsky page

Ted Holden's Catastrophism Page He calls this stuff "an emerging science"

Firmament and Chaos - a page by John Ackerman whose imagination soars beyond Velikovksy's

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