In Velikovsky We Trust:
Mass Appeal and the Scientific Establishment in 20th Century America
Post-WWII America teemed with exuberance, ushered in by an era of stability and economic prosperity. It had just won, for the sake of democracy, a global confrontation that led millions of men, women and children into graves. But this America, eager to cling on to its reputation of prestige abroad, also abounded in paranoia and skepticism as social currents and movements threatened its relative peacetime stability.
Reflecting on the period, sociologist Norman W. Storer writes that “the Cold War was at its chilliest, Congress was obsessed with atomic secrets, and Senator Joseph McCarthy was waiting in the wings. Blacklists were drawn up, loyalty oaths were required, and to be a scientist was to be a potential traitor; the Oppenheimer Hearings in 1954 were perhaps the culmination of this growing national paranoia.” It was an age of conformity and to deviate from the social norm, from the standard scientific protocol of the time, was to be questioned, suspected or marginalized from society and towards the fringe — home to the borderline or outright treasonous, unpatriotic and illegitimate.
It was in this national climate in 1950 that Russian scholar and expat, Immanuel Velikovsky, published Worlds in Collision, a controversial work that expounded several arguments, all of which “presupposed a reformulation of geology, paleontology, archeology, and celestial mechanics, not to mention ancient history.” He used comparative mythology of ancient texts to argue that the world experienced a series of planetary collisions and near-collisions, the implications of this argument begging for a serious re-examination of the knowledge of the world as was known and scientifically accepted then. Science was hung up to dry, awaiting a full examination by the public and it took almost two decades before the scientific community rallied against Velikovsky by publicly calling into question the validity of his claims. In 1977, prominent scientists published their refutations in Scientists Confront Velikovsky in an effort to finally put to an end the credibility of Velikovsky’s catastrophic ideas. The tide of science had begun to weather the edifice of possibility that he had constructed.
Even with the benefit of historical hindsight, this paper does not seek to cast judgement on the validity of Velikovsky’s claims — what is factually correct and what is mere pseudoscience or non-science. Nor is this an attempt to examine his ideas or the refutations of his dissenters (the catastrophist vs. uniformitarian debate) in painstakingly close detail. Rather, this paper aims to answer a central question: why was Velikovsky, despite his condemnation by the scientific community, popular among youth and adults?
Renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan, one of Velikovsky’s most vocal opponents, posited a possible explanation, stating that Velikovsky and his idea of planetary collisions validated religion and “in some sense… holds out a promise of the cosmic connectedness of mankind.” Young people, in particular, were “put off by the occasional pomposity of scientists; or are concerned by what they apprehend as the dangers of science and technology; or perhaps merely difficulty understanding science.” While Sagan’s analysis is plausible, it homogenizes Velikovsky’s group of supporters and fails to take into account the internal tensions and diversity that existed among them.
Thus, by using official unpublished and published material from Velikovsky’s archives held at Princeton University, as well as a plethora of primary and secondary sources, I argue that Velikovsky’s appeal to non-science youth and adults was not so much about the validation of religion (although there were clear religious overtones undergirding their support), but more so about the hostility towards the so-called “scientific establishment” that seemingly sought to suppress not only religion, which was still popular, but freedom of inquiry, freedom of speech and intellectual curiosity.
To provide a structural roadmap, this paper is divided into four sections. The first briefly summarizes Velikovsky’s controversial theories and its implications for scientists, followed by a second section that gauges the social and intellectual climate in which his theories were being operationalized by religious supporters. Third, I will examine the anthropology of his non-religious base and their motives for support. Lastly, I conclude with an analysis of two pro-Velikovsky student publications, Pensée and Kronos, to illustrate how college students, in particular, responded to his claims. The extent to which Velikovsky’s support base of youth and adults alike was driven by abstract notions of freedom, as opposed to strict religious fundamentalism, will become evident.
“In the Beginning”: Velikovsky’s theories
Velikovsky, in an undated and unpublished manuscript titled In the Beginning, which elaborated on the concepts outlined in Worlds in Collision, made the bold and highly contentious claim that “this world came into existence out of chaos of fluid driven by the divine past” — namely, that this chaos consisted in the near-planetary collisions of Saturn, Venus, Mars and Earth (among other planets) coined the “Deluge.” This narrative of the Earth’s beginning was consistent with Biblical narratives in the Book of Genesis, cross-cultural ancient mythologies and folklore that stressed the significance of planets for their “appearance” and “havoc” they arguably wrought on Earth. There had to be some reason for the planets’ deification, Velikovsky argued. “In its truest sense,” he continued, “[his theory] is a conception of worlds built and reshaped with the purpose of bringing creation closer to perfection.” No longer would historical legends, folklore and Biblical narratives be relegated to the fringes of scholarly inquiry and denied their authenticity. Using comparative mythology, he sought to legitimize their usage as credible, if not corroborating, evidence of some sort of cosmic unity; the Deluge that was written and verbalized in various ancient accounts.
The implications of this were enormous. By calling into question the basic tenets of accepted scientific knowledge then, most of which subscribed to the intellectual camp of uniformitarianism (which denies the idea that planetary collisions occurred), Velikovsky set himself up for intense scrutiny by the scientific community. He labeled scientists “the moderns,” or those who “denied their ancestors’ wisdom, even their integrity, because of an all-embracing fear of the past.” In drawing his inspiration from the Bible and other culturally authoritative texts, while juxtaposing their purported truth from the non-truth and narrow-mindedness of modern-day scientists, Velikovsky managed to inject morality into the debate; putting not only the credibility of ancient ancestors on the line, but also their integrity in a rhetorical attempt to bolster the urgency and cross-cultural appeal of his claims. Continuing this line of reasoning in another unpublished manuscript, Saturn and the Flood, he noted that:
“The moderns, however, had to their disadvantage the dogmatic belief in uniformitarianism — a hypothesis raised to the status of fundamental law, based on a preamble that no cataclysmic events ever took place in shaping the world and the life of it. I had to count with both short-comings — the fear that could degenerate into superstition and worship of the planetary deities… and the fear that made modern man a dedicated partisan of uniformitarianism… the late-comers denied their ancestors’ wisdom, even their integrity, since almost all their message was but an anguished effort to communicate their awe, engendered at seeing nature with its elements unchained.”
As will be discussed in further detail below, Velikovsky’s self-elevation towards the status of martyrdom–a non-modern scholar seeking to unearth suppressed truth–played well into many of his supporters’ anxieties regarding religious oppression and more importantly, freedom of thought and inquiry in a society witnessing McCarthyite censorship and Cold War tensions. Here, perhaps more telling than his actual theories, Velikovsky’s displayed skepticism towards scientists themselves set the stage for what would become a heated debate that threatened to dismantle, or at the very least destabilize scientific institutions. At the forefront of this intellectual battleground were young and adult supporters whose arguments resonated tandemly with the ideals of freedom and justice. But before proceeding any further in the discussion, it is crucial to first define and characterize the demographic of Velikovsky’s supporters by asking–who exactly were they?
“Breathing Life into the Bible”: Religious controversy in America
Over thirty unpublished “fan mail” letters to Velikovsky reveal that his support base was geographically, politically and culturally diverse — ranging from high school students, military men, single and working-class mothers, Christian ministers and seminarians, adult engineers, college students, historians, humanities aficionados and secular professors from all regions of the United States, even touching on some European support. By stratifying Velikovsky’s base by age only — divvying them up as young and old — Sagan, in his aforementioned critique, misses the nuances inherent in such a diverse landscape of people who rallied in support of Velikovsky for a multitude of reasons.
With that established, of equal importance was the religious climate of the 1950s extending all the way to the 1980s. As Michael D. Gordin points out in Pseudoscience Wars, post-war America was financially prosperous, the beacon of international notoriety and prestige, a “heavily fortified domain of American science.” During this period, as Ronald L. Numbers highlights, major scientific breakthroughs were being made and creation science (another movement which also emphasized a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis) was under attack in court, which catalyzed a seismic shift in power dynamics from churches to scientific institutions, the latter being increasingly charged with acting as the gatekeepers of truth. The authority of the Bible, dismissed as a religious esprit de corps, was becoming less and less legitimate in the eyes of scientists (if it was ever legitimate to them at all).
However, interestingly enough, a 1982 New York Times poll revealed that almost half (44%) of Americans during this time period still believed that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Evidently, scientific knowledge as defined and safeguarded by scientists did not infiltrate citizens’ core beliefs nor topple the edifice of religious theism with the same rapid pace at which it was overturning the legality of religious laws (namely, creation science) in court. The ground for popular parlance domination was being ripened for an intellectual confrontation between religion and science, a debate that Velikovsky’s unconventional ideas promised to catalyze.
In a letter to Velikovsky, Jean Huntsinger, a member of the United Lutheran Church of America, showers praises on him “for this factual treatise” and does not “mean to give the impression of pride, but, of gratefulness; that God, in the fullness of time and His mercy, should count us worthy of having you.” Echoing that religious sentiment, imbued with appreciation, H. Kirkbridge, a military veteran, writes that “there are millions of my kin scattered throughout the world who have no place at all in which to worship God because of the horrors and trammels of pagan superstition… we are just not allowed to worship God singly; the Almighty is in a man-made stew…You have given me back the Bible…” While both letters reverberate with Christian overtures, they also reveal a deeply-rooted sense of resentment towards the status quo, which was perceived to be hostile towards religion. A “pagan” society, one devoid of spiritual truth and emptied of Biblical meaning, is painted and eulogized in their lamentations. A Sunday school teacher, Arline Lambert, corroborates this depiction by writing to Velikovsky with the stroke of pride at past bygones revived: “Can you imagine what that has meant to me as a Sunday School teacher, and to my classes? You’ve made the bible live, again” (my italics). In claiming that Velikovsky gave them the Bible back and single-handedly attributing to him this success, without engaging much with the specifics of his theories (they hardly contested them), it becomes evident that these handful of supporters were not so much driven by the general prospect of religion, but rather a desire for its vindication and a return to its pre-scientific eminence. Implied in this language of return is the recognition of loss or disenfranchisement, adding credence to my hypothesis that even Velikovsky’s religious supporters drew upon the American concepts of freedom. A Jewish father Henry Adler writes “I desire more of your works to prove to my children that their father is not stupid.” In Velikovsky, they saw a savior in whom to channel their rage over purported Christian oppression in a country whose institutions of knowledge were becoming increasingly secular.
Anti-establishment as anti-science
Not all of Velikovsky’s supporters were driven by religious zeal or a sense of discriminatory persecution; many of them, according to letters, were not religious at all. It would also be historically incorrect to say that these non-religious supporters were anti-establishment for “the point was not opposition to an establishment, but what the establishment signified to those who opposed it.” In this case, while many during this era were undoubtedly distrustful of the government (such as President Ronald Reagan) or church institutions (scientists themselves), many young people and non-science supporters of Velikovsky were motivated by an overall suspicion of science as an institution; the so-called “scientific establishment” that sought to censor, stifle and discredit what they perceived to be correct, if not plausible information that begged for further inquiry.
Young people, specifically college and high-school age students, displayed an intellectual curiosity, even if seen as misplaced through a contemporary lens, that is often downplayed by Velikovsky’s dissidents like Sagan as ignorance or religious zealotry. Supporters of his were well-versed in Bertrand Russell’s Western philosophical concepts, ancient history and Christian eschatology from an academic standpoint. Jerry Lee Clark, a high school senior, expressed a deep enthusiasm for scholarly inquiry, spending his free time reconstructing the ancient chronological timeline according to Velikovsky’s theories; not necessarily taking his claims at face value, but rather engaging with the ideas, formulating new questions and seeking out more answers in other works. Another high school student, Thomas Roderick Dew, wrote to Velikovsky:
“Perhaps some (or many) of the details of your theory are not correct, I do not possess the vast store of knowledge necessary to weigh them properly… however, as you point out, it is impossible for so much dovetailing evidence to be merely the product of coincidence… whether or not it is correct, I believe your work is of incomparable value because it is the first attempt (that I know of) to unify and tie together the knowledge gained in the much too specialized and isolated branches of modern science.”
One month later, Dew followed up with Velikovsky, stating that he shared Worlds in Collision, among his other works, with his boarding school classmates and professors in Connecticut. This exchange reveals two main trends: an eagerness of students to intellectually wrestle with unorthodox ideas (and a willingness to concede to their lack of specialized knowledge) and a hostility towards “modern science,” the latter of which was seen as exclusionary, divisive and far-removed from the masses. To dismiss them as uneducated or ignorant would be a gross oversimplification that reduces the study of non-science subjects, particularly the humanities, as academically lackadaisical and mere frivolity.
Furthermore, this perception of the scientific establishment as exclusionary, pretentious even, trickled down to the core of supporters’ beliefs, many of whom condemned the institution as unfair and prematurely biased against Velikovsky. After speaking with multiple professors at the University of Rochester on the subject, a high school student laments that “after vigorously condemning your theories, they all admitted that they had not read any of your books.” Many attacked the “ad hominem diatribes” leveled against him; others disparaged the lack of neutrality displayed at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) 1957 panel convened to finally settle the validity of Velikovsky’s claims. Almost as if to balance the biased academic environment, students at the University of Minnesota-Duluth organized a panel for students and professors to discuss Velikovsky’s work (many of his letters were invitations to speak at such panels). In essence, many viewed Velikovsky as a martyr to a self-interested scientific establishment that was eager to vilify and silence him (even if many scientists did engage critically with his work).
Yet for many others, Velikovsky’s ideas genuinely explained previously unexplainable-by-science phenomena. Lionel Melvin of the North Carolina Wild Flower Preservation Society wrote to him stating that he could not explain the occurrences of tektites, otherwise known as glass meteorites, on his professional voyages until the idea of planetary collisions finally gave them credence. Others like Sally Guth were drawn to Velikovsky’s psychological appeal and the way his theories seemed to unify all elements of the universe into one cohesive narrative that made sense — “but what else can explain the affect your books have on people other than this profound relief upon being freed of their subconscious confusion about the universe, biblical history and mankind?” All in all, taken as a whole but without overwriting obvious differences, the core of Velikovsky’s non-religious supporters seemed to have sought answers to questions (the likes of which were different) that they believed remained unanswered by the scientific establishment; for if there were no unanswered questions or skepticism, there would be no need to turn to other sources of information.
Pensée and Kronos: student movements
A brief diversion into an analysis of Henry Bauer’s book, Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy (1984), although riddled with questionable evidence and lacking in objectivity (he supported Velikovsky, among other fringe theories like HIV/AIDS denialism, the Loch-ness monster, etc.), would be highly beneficial in illuminating the character of the student movement that Velikovsky inspired. Regarding his appeal to college students, Bauer posits that students in particular were all about “abstract, sacred values; uncompromising hostility toward all traditional institutions; uncritical acceptance of the rhetoric of the student leaders.” A close examination of both Pensée and Kronos, two pro-Velikovskian student publications, give some credence to Bauer’s argument.
Pensée, led by David Talbott, first found its home at Portland State University in 1966. A peer-reviewed student publication, it claimed the highest circulation (nearing 10,000–20,000 at its peak popularity) for all pro-Velikovsky ideas and opinion pieces. It ran a series of ten issues called “Immanuel Velikovsky Reconsidered,” all of which aimed to “examine the debates over cosmic catastrophism, including some contributions from Immanuel Velikovsky himself.” Its wide readership, however, did not come without controversy. Publishers of prominent scientific journals — Scientific American and Sky and Telescope among others — vehemently criticized the publication. Of Velikovsky’s supporters, one publisher wrote “they cry ‘foul’ because he is ignored and attempt to make an academic freedom case of it… the threat to academic freedom comes the other way around: by such tactics the Velikovsky party tries to compel interest by scientists in work in which they can find no interest.” Whether or not a compelling case for academic freedom can be made by either Velikovsky’s supporters or his dissenters (the validity of their arguments is beyond the scope of this paper), what matters is that there were such arguments made, which provides support for the notion that not only were students driven by “abstract, sacred values” such as academic freedom, but in launching their own media landscape, they were also hostile towards traditional channels of knowledge dissemination, namely prestigious scientific publications.
Kronos, which ran from 1975 to 1988, was less popular than Pensée but carried its torch after the latter collapsed as a result of internal conflicts among editors and with Velikovsky himself. It, too, published a series, “Velikovsky and the Scientific Establishment,” in 1977 which included two pieces by Velikovsky (who had advocated for Pensée’s termination). In his defense, he wrote:
“In the behavior of the scientific establishment the desperate resistance that bedevils human society found its expression… those who prefer name calling to argument, wit to deliberation, or those who point a triumphant finger at some detail that they misinterpret, yet claim that my entire work ought to collapse, and boast of their own exclusiveness as a caste of specialists — as if I claimed omniscience and infallibility…” (my italics)
His empathic, warlike language perhaps reflects the highly personal, combative and ad hominem nature of the debate itself. In no moment during this lamentation does he mention God or appeal to religion, yet in every line he launches a verbal attack on the “behaviors” of the scientific establishment that he collectively views as resistant, elitist and pretentious in its conviction of infallibility and victory. He goes as far as characterizing it as cancerous to society’s freedom (“…that bedevils human society”). Meanwhile, he positions himself as the very opposite of the establishment — fallible, humble, inclusive; the tried and worthy “underdog” that, like Albert Einstein before him, was a victim of censorship (and which perhaps explained Einstein’s brief support for Velikovsky during this time). His appeal was not tinged with scientific evidence, r even religious undertones, more than it was on an emotional-societal cathexis.
Given the targeted audience and date of the publication, it is safe to theorize that his supporters, at least the college students and professors reading and putting together these pieces, did not draw from these statements an overt religious calling, but rather an impassioned exhortation to protect and defend freedom of speech, of expression and of inquiry that was seemingly threatened by the scientific establishment.
It is perhaps among the greater historical misconceptions that Velikovsky’s supporters, like Carl Sagan claimed, were wholly driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of science, out of a religious zeal that left no space to wrestle with controversial questions of time, of chronology, of supposed truth and historical concordances. There were undeniably supporters who were won over by the implications of Velikovsky’s religious overtures, deemed as forms of personal vindication in a secular society; just as there were those completely out of tune with scientific facts to the point where fundamentalism was closer to their ideologies than anything else. Nonetheless, caution must be exercised in painting a cohort of individuals with a broad historical brush. Buried deep in his personal archives and published material, Velikovsky inadvertently revealed to us another side of his supporters, one that obscures this commonly-held narrative of pure religiosity and ignorance that Sagan advanced; for the evidence available to me suggests that the reality may have been more nuanced than that.
Religious and non-religious, young and old, female or male, student or non-student, many of Velikovsky’s supporters were driven partly, if not fully, by the American ideal of freedom — the freedom to openly express one’s religion without the government interfering (as had happened with creation science), the freedom to pursue one’s own interests (without censorship), the freedom to question the status quo as it stood (without scientists acting as elitist gatekeepers). As Gordin put it, “Velikovsky served as a middle ground for people of all political persuasions” and his personal correspondence with supporters reveal exactly that. Skepticism of scientific institutions, specifically manifested in Velikovsky’s own defense of his theories, undergirded this protective instinct of supporters; this seemingly irrational drive to defend a discredited scholar like Velikovsky, whose very disrepute among scientists perhaps strengthened his argument after all: that scientists cannot be trusted.
This essay has been readapted from an original essay written by the author for a Princeton University course.
Abbreviation — IVP
Immanuel Velikovsky Papers; Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections C0968, Princeton University Library.
Storer, Norman W. Scientists Confront Velikovsky, edited by Donald Goldsmith. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Greenberg, Lewis M. and Warner B. Sizermore, eds. Velikovsky and Establishment Science. Glassboro, NJ: Kronos Press, 1977.
Bauer, Henry. Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy. Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Gordin, Michael D. The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Pennock, Robert T. and Michael Ruse, eds. But Is It Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy, updated edition. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009.