Where Are the Pseudohistory Wars?


Michael D. Gordin is professor of history at Princeton University. His most recent book, "The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe," was published this past fall by University of Chicago Press.

Credit: Wiki Commons/HNN staff.

Why don’t we hear about “pseudohistory” more often? Historians have plenty of terms to denigrate works about the past that they think are substandard, misguided, or just plain crazy. (You can use your imagination to populate the list.) But we do not, in general, deploy the notion of “pseudohistory.”

Pseudohistory as a concept is derived directly from pseudoscience, a term with rather broad currency both among scientists themselves and the lay public. Some consideration of how scientists use it to police their own borders not only illuminates the problem that the term was designed to solve, but also perhaps suggests how we have accomplished similar ends in the past, and might in the future.

The root issue is what noted philosopher of science Karl Popper called the “demarcation problem.” This task is, in its simplest form, delineating those practices that characterized the production of reliable scientific knowledge from, on the one hand, just plain “non-science,” and, on the other, those doctrines that claimed to be scientific but fell short. These latter were labeled pseudosciences, and Popper developed his famous criterion of “falsifiability” to account for the difference. This is not the place to rehearse the various criticisms of this doctrine (I discuss several in my recent book, The Pseudoscience Wars), but suffice it to say that even absent Popper’s solution, scientists are stuck with the problem. The challenge of differentiating reasonable hypotheses from imposters also applies to historical inquiry, and we might learn something about how to address our own demarcation problem by looking at how scientists, in practice, solve theirs.

They do not generally do so by applying rigid epistemological criteria or philosophical litmus tests. Rather, every day, individual investigators make decisions about whether to read this paper, attend that talk, approve this manuscript for peer review, or toss another into the recycle bin as the work of a “crackpot.”

At certain times, however, some scientists don’t act this way, don’t simply ignore the offending doctrine. Instead, they label it “pseudoscience,” relegating it to a parallel universe of dangerous nonsense. The act of labeling something “pseudoscientific” happens only at moments when individual scientists see their community as threatened, moments that escalate into a vigorous purge of the offending doctrines. Cranks don’t make themselves into pseudoscientists; scientists make them so. It is a powerful label and performs a lot of important cultural work.

Consider the particular episode at the core of The Pseudoscience Wars: the cosmic catastrophist theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, as published in 1950 in his runaway bestseller, Worlds in Collision. In almost four hundred footnoted pages, Velikovsky argued that if one read the various mythological traditions from around the world, especially the material from the ancient Near East such as the Hebrew Bible, one found patterns that could only be explained as eyewitness testimony of a global catastrophe. Here’s the cataclysm in the briefest of outlines: a comet almost hit Earth, became locked in gravitational and electromagnetic interaction with it for decades, wreaked massive havoc, and eventually settled down as Venus. That is, Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor was born before the eyes of humanity. Scientists reacted vociferously with accusations of pseudoscience, and in a matter of months Macmillan Press transferred the book to Doubleday under threats of a boycott. The story of Velikovsky’s career on the scientific fringe only begins there, however. In the 1960s and 1970s, he experienced a revival on college campuses across North America, and once again his book became a touchstone for vituperation on the part of establishment scientists.

Worlds in Collision enraged them. For it to be true, most of what scientists thought they knew about astronomy, geology, paleontology, and physics would have to be scrapped. But what about the historians, who might have been no less aggrieved? The evidence for Velikovsky’s scenario, after all, was resolutely historical, mishmashing the accepted chronology of Egyptian history (for starters). In the 1970s historians occasionally cited flaws in the evidence and argument of Worlds in Collision and more often its fellow bestseller, Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (which claimed that the gods worshipped by ancient civilizations were, in fact, alien visitors), but nothing like what the scientists did. The general reaction was silence. As a result, the battle over Velikovskianism was waged on the plains of science, and not those of history.

To me, there seem to be two explanations for the divergence. First, although the historical verdict was overwhelming that Velikovsky, von Däniken, and their ilk were egregiously mistaken, the line between wrong history and pseudohistory was blurrier. The kind of unanimous consensus that exists around certain scientific claims (such as the stability of planetary orbits) is relatively rare in historical inquiry, and historians often tolerate a much wider realm of disagreement. Second, and perhaps more important, history as a profession did not see itself as persecuted or vulnerable in the 1950s or 1970s to nearly the degree the scientists did, who were under disproportionate scrutiny by both McCarthyist crusaders and the flag-bearers of the student counterculture. It seems that the conditions for the eruption of “pseudohistory wars” were absent.

That may no longer be true. Historians do face a demarcation problem, although we deploy a sliding scale of terms to resolve it (consider the distinction between allegations of “revisionism” and “conspiracy theory,” for example). While we tend to focus on our disagreements -- for that is the stuff of our craft -- there are enormous areas of consensus of which we would do well to remind ourselves. In our age of the “crisis of the humanities,” the manipulations of history standards by the Texas State Board of Education (among others), and the politicization and even criminalization of scholarly historical inquiry worldwide, the threats do not necessarily seem as far off as they did in Velikovsky’s day.

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