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The Pseudoscience Wars

Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe

The Pseudoscience Wars

Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe

Properly analyzed, the collective mythological and religious writings of humanity reveal that around 1500 BC, a comet swept perilously close to Earth, triggering widespread natural disasters and threatening the destruction of all life before settling into solar orbit as Venus, our nearest planetary neighbor.
Sound implausible? Well, from 1950 until the late 1970s, a huge number of people begged to differ, as they devoured Immanuel Velikovsky’s major best-seller, Worlds in Collision, insisting that perhaps this polymathic thinker held the key to a new science and a new history. Scientists, on the other hand, assaulted Velikovsky’s book, his followers, and his press mercilessly from the get-go. In The Pseudoscience Wars, Michael D. Gordin resurrects the largely forgotten figure of Velikovsky and uses his strange career and surprisingly influential writings to explore the changing definitions of the line that separates legitimate scientific inquiry from what is deemed bunk, and to show how vital this question remains to us today. Drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished material from Velikovsky’s personal archives, Gordin presents a behind-the-scenes history of the writer’s career, from his initial burst of success through his growing influence on the counterculture, heated public battles with such luminaries as Carl Sagan, and eventual eclipse. Along the way, he offers fascinating glimpses into the histories and effects of other fringe doctrines, including creationism, Lysenkoism, parapsychology, and more—all of which have surprising connections to Velikovsky’s theories.
Science today is hardly universally secure, and scientists seem themselves beset by critics, denialists, and those they label “pseudoscientists”—as seen all too clearly in battles over evolution and climate change. The Pseudoscience Wars simultaneously reveals the surprising Cold War roots of our contemporary dilemma and points readers to a different approach to drawing the line between knowledge and nonsense.

304 pages | 1 halftone | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


"What is the difference between science and pseudoscience? As the publisher of Skeptic magazine and the ’Skeptic columnist for Scientific American I am frequently asked this question. Believe it or not, it’a a hard question to answer. Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars is the best single volume I have come across in my vast reading on the topic. He clearly and succinctly captures all sides on the debate, is rigorous in his research and fair to both believers and skeptics, and his narrative reconstruction of the Velikovsky affair makes for gripping reading. The Pseudoscience Wars is destined to become a classic in science literature."

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American , author of The Believing Brain

“Few issues loom more important today than the boundaries and authority of scientific expertise. How do the boundaries get created and reinforced, and what work do terms like ‘pseudoscience’ do in the debates? By delving deep into one of the earliest border skirmishes of the modern age—the fascinating, beguiling case of Immanuel Velikovsky, his heterodox theories of human history and cosmic evolution, and the firestorm of protest they elicited from the scientific community—Michael Gordin offers us a roadmap of the modern fringe. Scouring extraordinary sources with his keen analytic eye, Gordin reveals the roots of today’s pseudoscience wars. Engrossing and illuminating.”

David Kaiser, author of How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival

“Those who are interested in how bad ideas start, how they diffuse, how they covet and resist confrontation, and how they wax and wane in popularity over time will find much food for thought in this gripping book.”


"Scholarly and highly readable.  . . . Gordin’s historical analysis of pseudoscience remains disturbingly relevant."


"A slyly funny writer. . . . Make no mistake: Gordin’s sympathies are not with the occult. His fascination with pseudoscience is more like a negative method: the experts define the boundaries of their domain by fending off the quacks. For Gordin, pseudoscience is an instrument by which he takes the temperature of the past. . . . . The Pseudoscience Wars is a relatively slim volume, but Gordin siphons into it an overwhelming amount of information."

New Republic

Table of Contents


Introduction: Bad Ideas

1 The Grand Collision of Spring 1950
2 A Monolithic Oneness
3 The Battle over Lysenkoism
4 Experiments in Rehabilitation
5 Skirmishes on the Edge of Creation
6 Strangest Bedfellows

Conclusion: Pseudoscience in Our Time

Abbreviations and Archives

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