Using a hodgepodge of vague scientific claims, myths, and literary allusions, Velikovsky claimed in Worlds In Collision that the planet Venus dislodged from Jupiter sometime around 1500 BCE, narrowly avoided a collision with Earth, and settled into its present orbit around the sun.
The near miss left our planet literally shaken, changing our orbit and axis and inciting a host of natural catastrophes recorded in the myths and stories of various societies around the world.
A Schism of Opinion
Scientists rejected Velikovsky's claims out of hand, and with good reason-- his understanding of basic scientific principals was often flat wrong, his predictions stolen or too vague to test, and his claims contradicted by far more established and well-verified theories.
But the public weren't so quick to dismiss him. Worlds In Collision topped the New York Times bestseller list for eleven weeks (no small feat for a book rife with footnotes, obscure literary allusions, and grad school diction), and factions supporting Velikovsky sprouted up in big cities and college campuses around the world. His specter loomed large on the fringes of scientific discourse well into the seventies, occasionally bolstered by a new bit of press, until Velikovsky died and the public lost interest.
For anyone who studied astronomy or physics, Velikovsky's enduring legacy was both maddening and deeply puzzling. His acceptance by much of the public spoke to an indifference, even a downright distrust, of scientific orthodoxy. When considering a subject rooted in astrophysics, why would so many people take the word of a psychiatrist over hundreds and hundreds of astronomers and physicists?
Well, for one thing, Velikovsky was an intelligent man. He was educated and well-spoken, with the poise and bearing of an intellectual. He possessed an earnest confidence in his theory that never overextended into arrogance. His medical credentials gave him a veneer of scientific credibility-- he may not have studied anything even remotely related to the subject on which he spoke, but his doctorate was enough to get him into the lobby of the Ivory Tower. From there, finding a free balcony from which to spout his bizarre iconoclastic gospel was a fairly simple matter. Toss out a few buzzwords, cloak your argument in references to myths and legends, and you have a pretty convincing bit of theater. As with all great stories, you wanted to believe it.
But the biggest key to his success was, arguably, the care he took not to upend any beliefs the public held too dear. Venus exploding from Jupiter's belly is big and exciting. Esoteric complaints about Venus' atmospheric makeup and Newton's laws of motion got lost in the razzle-dazzle. If Velikovsky's theory had attempted to refute the existence of God, it would have raised some serious hackles. But it didn't.
God On Your Side
In fact, Velikovsky shrewdly tipped his hat to Christianity, claiming the catastrophes outlined in Worlds In Collision lent scientific credence to the miracles outlined in the Old Testament. Perhaps his most notorious example was that Venus' passing close to Earth temporarily froze our planet on its axis, suspending the sun long enough for Joshua to conquer Gibeon.
By using a seemingly scientific claim to reinforce a biblical passage, Velikovsky garnered his theory a great deal of social capital. Worlds In Collision transformed from an absurd hallucination by a crackpot pseudoscientist into a serious academic tome debated by two parties on more or less equal intellectual footing. On one side stood the Godless elites, their smug faces wrinkled with disdain; on the other was an earnest, intelligent, well-spoken underdog with the bible on his side.
The Velikovsky Affair, as it colourfully came to be known, reflects a larger problem within scientific orthodoxy. It is a crisis of reputation. The more we learn, the larger and deeper and abstract our thinking, the harder it becomes to accurately convey these ideas to the public. They become insular concepts, and the public is told they must accept them without reflecting on the evidence from which they came.
As a result, people not educated in a given discipline aren't likely to spot a fake based on his or her ideas alone. Much of Velikovsky's "evidence" was provably wrong, but most of us-- myself included-- would struggle to prove it wrong ourselves without the aid of a more informed party-- namely, a physicist or astronomer or expert in the given field.
But how do we know the expert is right? Because he's an expert? That's hardly a proof capable of sustaining the pressures of scientific rigour. Yet without a point of reference, fact and fiction can become hopelessly blurred. The truth (as the public sees it) then pivots on marketing. And the truth has never been the successful marketer's modus operandi.
This can be a serious problem. Take, for instance, climate change. Scientists are more or less unanimous in their opinion that burning fossil fuels has had a real and detrimental impact on Earth's climate. By contrast, a quarter of Americans believe climate change to be an unproven theory.
Why do they believe this? Because believing it might mean making some unpleasant changes to their lifestyle? Because a politician or celebrity or crazy uncle told them so? Because Al Gore's a filthy commie and everything he says is a lie? Who knows? Whatever the reason, what the latest evidence suggests about an issue and how people feel about that issue are by no means causally linked.
And when it comes down to making changes and implementing solutions to serious, perhaps even life-threatening problems, evidence takes a back seat to public opinion every time.
Science For the People
Science works best when it treats every hypothesis with absolute scrutiny, never dismissing an idea because it sounds wacky or clashes with the status quo. Unfortunately, no research department on Earth has the resources for that.
So what's the solution? I'm not sure there is one. A greater focus on scientific literacy in schools would help. but I think the bigger issue might actually be on science's end. We need to educate, not simply inform. Pronouncements on high might sound good, but they're easy enough to refute. There'll always be another guy with a bushier beard and a taller mountain making pronouncements of his own.