This is point of inquiry for Monday, November 19th, 2012.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney one of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, the think tank Advancing Reason, Science and Secular Values in public affairs and at the grassroots. So long before the modern complementary and alternative medicine fad or the UFO craze, there was the man whom you might call the original pseudo scientist. His name was Emmanuel Vilakazi. He had a wild theory about a comet that turned out to be Venus, shaping the course of human history. We’ll get to that. And he tangled with Carl Sagan about it. And with the scientific community about it. And then he was mostly forgotten, but no longer, because Princeton historian of science Michael Gordon has tracked down Vlachos Ski’s personal papers. And in his new book, The Pseudoscience Wars, Emmanuel, Villa Korski and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. I love that Gordon uses Zelikow’s gives example to show how he laid the groundwork for other pseudosciences. In many ways, it’s kind of like they followed in his footsteps. Michael Gordon is professor of history at Princeton University and director of the program in Russian and Eurasian Studies there. He has written widely in the history of science with a focus on the Soviet Union and the early nuclear age. The Pseudoscience Wars is his fourth book. Michael Gordon, welcome the board of inquiry.
Thank you very much, I’m glad to be here.
I want to tell you I love the title of your book, especially the subtitle, The Birth of Modern Fringe. And this is sort of the story of the original Krank, Emmanuel Vlachos. He hope I’m saying it right. So to start out, tell us who he was. We’ve kind of forgotten him.
Yeah. Yeah. He’s actually dropped almost entirely off people’s radar screen. But for about 30 years, from 1950 to 1980, he was a household name. They didn’t start out that way. He was born in the city of Vitesse, which is now in Belarus, but was then in the Russian empire. It was a major center of the Jewish enlightenment. Marc Chagall for examples from there when he was five. He moved to Moscow eventually. He was a small child, then trained up as a physician at the University of Moscow, then emigrated shortly after the revolution to Berlin and then to Tel Aviv, which was at that point in the mandate of Palestine. In 1939, he moved to New York on a sabbatical and ended up never leaving. In 1950, he published this bestselling book, Worlds in Collision, which is what the core of the Pseudoscience Wars book is about. And then in 1952, settled down in Princeton. Lived in a house and just wrote, opined, published more many more books and then died in 1979. But the real part of his life that I follow and that most people who might remember the name will click to is that 1958 1979 period.
And you are in Princeton as well. So this is not any coincidence, right? I mean, you’d have archives there.
We have archives there. It’s kind of surprising that we do. He had no association with the university. His house is just across the street from where mine is. And it turned out that it was now somebody else lived there. And when he died in 79, his widow kept the papers that he’d accumulated over the course of an entire career of writing. So it has fan mail, hate mail drafts, correspondence with publishers, articles about him, articles he thought should have been about him. But don’t reference in all that. And after his widow died, his two daughters, both of whom are still alive and in their 80s, decided to give them up for posterity. And they ended up being given to Princeton’s library, which took a long time to catalog them. And in 2005, they appeared. I’d heard this name when I was in middle school, browsing through the stacks of books in libraries about UFOs and things like that. The name rang a bell. I thought I would look at them and I sort of never stopped. They’re just fascinating material.
Well, let’s get into the substance of this wild idea that, you know, I have heard of it. I know you say us have heard of it, but I’m a Sagan, right? So I’ve got it. I know the ones who have something to do with very, very odd behavior of the planets.
So the basic idea started when he was reading through lots of ancient myths because he was interested in the historicity of Moses. And he looked at the stories in the Hebrew Bible about pillar of fire by night, pillar of cloud by day, earthquakes, floods. And then he started reading more broadly in Chinese myths, the Vedic myths from South Asia, Mesopotamian narratives, Egyptian ones, Mayan ones. And he’s noticed that they all have the same stuff. Rings of fire from the heavens, Vulcan volcanoes erupting, floods, earthquakes, cracks in the earth, things like that. And he thought maybe they’re not just separate events, maybe they’re not hallucinations. But what they are is one big event. And it had to be cosmic meaning coming from the heavens if it was gonna be seen by everybody around the world at the same time. So what he thought then is if we believe that we take the myths, correlate them, get a synchronicity, we can figure out from the various reports what the event actually was and what the event was, is that at some points a comet erupted from Jupiter. Sometime later it hurtled towards the earth, got trapped in gravitational but mostly electromagnetic union with earth floating in the heavens, tilting the earth’s crust, rupturing it. And after several decades of this, it settles down. As Venus, the Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor, which therefore was born in the collective witness of humanity at around fifteen hundred B.C., people saw that happen.
And so scientists were like, get out of town or they weren’t even get out of town. They’re like, we’re not even going to dignify this. Which were they?
They were more to get out of town. Usually when something like this gets published, which which we’re saying contradicts just about all of celestial mechanics, paleontology, geology, etc., it’s usually ignored. I mean, that’s usually that’s standard practice. And this is why I think the modern fringe was birthed at a particular period, because before then, the standard practice was to. Either debunk sometimes politely or to say nothing. And that’s not what happened. The book came out in April 1950, but even before it came out, there were these advanced press pieces saying what an interesting book it’s going to be. And scientists went crazy, in particular, astronomers writing denunciations of the book, which they hadn’t seen yet because it hadn’t been released. And then when the book came out, outraged reviews appeared in almost every newspaper. And the book, as you might expect, started selling really well. That made the scientists even more upset. And they threatened to boycott the publisher, Macmillan, which is now the publisher of the journal Nature, but was at the time also a scientific publisher and published. About 70 percent of their sales came from textbooks. It was the most prestigious scientific publisher in the U.S. and they threatened to boycott it.
The press freaked out and gave it free of charge to Doubleday, which didn’t have a textbook division. And they got a best selling book for free. And that scandal, that sort of outraged. Get out of town. I can’t believe that you’re making these claims. It’s irresponsible. It’s scandalous. That just fueled the fire more and made people more interested to see what the fuss was about.
Is there a lesson here that you would generalize about?
It seems to me that there’s two there are two big peaks of the bellicosity, or there’s this 1950 moment and then he’s around, but he’s kind of quiescent until the late 60s when the student movements get very excited about him. And when that happens, Carl Sagan enters and says, well, we should stop this. This is lunacy. We need to somehow debunk this and ignoring it’s not working. So what we need to do is have a big event where we engage with it and refuted. But that also made it more popular when he did that in 1974.
So that’s the second phase is when Carl Sagan gets in and tries to smite Vlachos aski intellectually.
And this why things not working.
Yeah, well, I got a question, though. 60S student movements, they dug Ayn Rand, Jarrod Tolkan and Vlachos ski. Like what was up with these people?
It’s it’s it’s actually totally fascinating, right?
There’s part of what’s going on, and that’s part of what’s going on, is that there’s this counterculture that people think of as being a bunch of hippies protesting the war. And there were hippies protesting the war. But there’s also these Ayn Rand people. There are these neo evangelicals believing that apocalypse is coming. There are ellacott skins.
They’re like it’s it’s it was a crazy, amazing period. Not like that now, but back to the debunking. Yeah. Is it what the lesson one might learn? Well, it seems that when certain conditions happened to obtain, you only make things worse when you try to be incredibly aggressive because you generate news by doing that. And so it creates a culture of sensationalism. People want to know what the fuss is about. I would hesitate to prescribe what to do with something emerges that you think is dangerous because saying nothing. There’s plenty of instances. We’re saying nothing is a very, very bad idea and stuff spreads as well. But one shouldn’t be surprised that certain reactions that can be cast as hysterical or overreacting generate a backlash.
I want to remind our listeners that Michael Gordon’s new book, The Pseudo-Science War, is Emmanuel Villa Koski and The Birth of the Modern Fringe is available through our website. Point of inquiry dot org.
And yet the fact that you just said he’s forgotten, I mean, doesn’t that suggest that his ideas were beaten in some way?
I, I, I wish I could say something like that, but I don’t think that’s how stuff works. What ended up happening is he had a series of acolytes that gathered around him. So he’s popular in the 70s among students. But then there are people who actually were in close correspondence, wrote letters to the editor. Kept everything publicized in 1979 after he died. That dissipates pretty rapidly. And by 1985, you almost never hear about him anymore. And it seems like the movement required his energy to sort of charismatic presence to keep going. And it just couldn’t sustain it. So it wasn’t like the debunking arguments haven’t changed. Those were the same arguments made in 1950. What changed was the internal power of the movement that dissipated. And I don’t know what that says for implications. Should we ride things out?
It might say that. You know, the smartest cranks have a legion of disciples who go out to, you know, then have a legion of disciples. I mean, I don’t know.
There’s certain movements like creationism, which is very long lived for one of these movements. And part of the reason for that is there’s an infrastructure for creationism. There’s institutes leads to procreation research in California. They have centers and they give grants and they publish journals. When you get that whole infrastructure going. You can keep that going for a long time. And the various denial’s movements have infrastructures. But these individual charismatic movements like John Denison’s Chariots of the Gods about ancient astronauts coming down to establish civilizations that only exist anymore and movies, that’s no longer a mass interest movement. And UFOs. Peter, out to there isn’t an establishment the same way. It flares up and dies away. So it it’s more it tells you something if you want to start up a fringe movement. I think you need to do is get the infrastructure going so that it doesn’t just hinge on you.
Now, you obviously you’re not just writing about this particular episode, but you’re using it to say many things about the nature of this elusive concept of pseudoscience. And you have a wonderful opening line of the book. You say No one in the history of the world is ever self-identified as a pseudo scientist.
That’s true. I mean, if you asks, there’s probably one. There might be one.
But even Bill Makowski once called himself that. But he called himself that an ironic scare. Quotes like you would have pseudo scientists have this kind of reaction. It’s much like the word heretic. There is nobody in the world who thinks that they’re a heretic. They think that they’re true believers of their religion and that the mainstream is wrong or the established churches are wrong. And the pseudoscience of the same way that people who are labeled pseudo scientists are labeled by other people, that they think they’re being scientists. Now, they can be wrong. Lots of people can be wrong about what they think they’re doing. But they think they’re actually doing science. And that’s part of the reason why it’s so hard to come up with a bright line to differentiate the pseudo scientists from the scientists, because pseudo scientist is kind of an empty category. No one would recognize themselves in it. And but what that doesn’t mean it’s useless. It means it tells us a great deal about what scientists think doesn’t belong in their field. And we can use it, therefore, to test to learn a lot about what the scientific community thinks its boundaries are, which is an extremely important thing to keep track of historically.
So you talk about that. But you also say that the novella Koutsky is kind of symptomatic of a lot of other pseudosciences and their styles.
Yeah. That we are definitely family resemblances. So what is that? What do you mean by that?
There’s a there are certain. It’s hard for me to know how to attribute this, and there are lots of people with differing views. Some people think there’s a certain personality type that is drawn to making the sorts of claims I’m about to tell you about. Other people think it’s just a function of circumstance and time, or it’s the nature of certain doctrines that they attract particular people. But the Lakoff scheme was symptomatic about him is a movement that doesn’t just say here’s a new effect that you guys have been ignoring. For example, parapsychology in the 1930s said here, here’s a new effect, that we actually have some kind of telepathic ability. It’s a very small effect, but we have it and you guys have ignored it. And that gets thrown out as a pseudo science, too. But it’s different from creating a whole alternative cosmology and saying the whole universe that you think you know, you don’t know all the facts that you think are facts aren’t. And I’ve reinterpreted 100 percent of the universe to be different. That’s a very different kind of that’s what I think of the modern fringe is like has that quality of a totalizing narrative as opposed to somebody saying we should pay attention to the shape, the bumps on your head because we can tell your personality from those. And we’ve ignored that feature. And phrenology was popular for a period. So I think there’s something there’s a family resemblance among these movements that have this universal, totalizing view. Creationism is one of those the Chariots of the Gods. People are like that. There’s a whole bunch of doctrines that have that quality. And he’s symptomatic of that moment. And that moment requires a bit of charisma, a bit of PR, and then you have to get the public interested in the alternative cosmology or it doesn’t stick.
And he did we also say something about conspiracy theories?
Yes. He had a conspiracy there. In other words, once the societies attacked him, he had a conspiracy theory.
You no. Before then, he thought he was just proposing an alternative vision of the history of the Earth and the history of the solar system. And he was convinced it was pretty much right. So people would understand his point of view and then they would change.
Instead, they left him out of the out of the meeting.
Yeah. They laughed, but they laughed also with a lot of anger. And when they reacted that way, he thought, well, what’s going on here is that establishment science isn’t just wrong.
It’s a conspiracy to block the truth from getting out. He had a psychological mechanism for it. He was trained as a psychoanalyst in the 30s, had a psychoanalytic mechanism for how that worked. But he came to believe that there’s tons of results that confirm his point of view. But they’re just they’re just denied. They’re not published. They’re put in a drawer because they so contradict the established point of view that people think they’re mistakes when really they’re accurate. And that conspiracy theoretic culture, I think, is something of the moment of the early 1950s with red baiting, the rise of McCarthyism, which got that name starting in the early and early 1950s, and a culture where you thought everything that you knew was being undermined by hostile forces and the local school kind of fed off that particular framework. And you can see traces of that in the DNA of these fringe movements. Now, the totalizing conspiratorial point of view.
Well, it seems like everybody uses that argument now.
I mean, everybody, you know, the creationists, intelligent design people, the global warming deniers, I mean, it’s always a conspiracy. I mean, I think, you know, Rick Santorum actually pretty explicitly had a conspiracy theory about climate science. Are you saying that, like, they wouldn’t have come up with it otherwise? To me, it’s sort like it is just the end of occurs to you when everybody’s attacking you, if you’re really defensive about it and they want to back down.
It’s hard to know whether the counterfactual, whether it wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But if you look at the fringe movements earlier, things like parapsychology cryptozoology, Loch Ness Monster stuff, things like that, spiritualism, sciences, people wrapping, automatic writing, they don’t have this conspiracy theory argument. You don’t see it in late 19th century Britain, early 19th century Britain, late 9th century United States, Germany, before World War, before the Nazis takeover. I’m 33. You just don’t see that kind of argument. That argument comes about in mid 20th century and then net. Then you see it everywhere. It really does pop up everywhere. Isabella Klasky, the vector by which it comes into everything. I don’t know. But he’s certainly symptomatic of that problem.
Does this mean we can hope that someday it’ll go away again?
I’d hate to. I don’t want to predict anything, but it’s imaginable. Circumstances do change and certain things enter and leave discourse. But right now, what we’ve mostly been seeing is stuff entering discourse and staying.
I want to remind our listeners again that Michael Gordon’s new book, The Pseudo-Science War, is Emmanuel Vella Koskie and The Birth of Modern Fringe is available through our website Point of inquiry dot org. Now.
The book is also about this horrid old demarcation problem. And so where do you come out on this?
I mean, is is it all just subjective or can science really claim to actually be science versus these guys?
I wouldn’t say it’s all subjective. I don’t think there’s any bright line or even a list of criteria. You can’t walk around and say, OK, science has peer reviewed journals and falsification and this and that. And if you have these like eight criteria or you have six of the eight, your science. And if you don’t have six of the eight, you’re not. And if you’re not and you claim to be scientific, you’re a pseudo scientist. I don’t think we can do that. There’s there’s some philosophical reasons I go into in the book about why I think the established criteria don’t work. But I think the more general problem, which is discussed it more at length. And the conclusion is. That these people think they’re being scientists. So when they think they’re being scientists in the creationists do think they’re being scientists. They look at what science does and they say, oh, well, they have peer reviewed journals. We should have peer reviewed journals. And they do. We should make predictions because that’s what science does. So they make predictions about what certain fossil strata with certain strand fossils, you’ll find a particular strata and so on. Because the way scientists learn to be scientists is by watching other scientists, the way people who are called pseudo scientists learn to do what they do is by watching other scientists. So if you create your list of criteria and say this is definitive, this is what science is. They’ll just do that. And so they will mirror what the establishment says is the establishment. So I don’t want to say I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t listen to what scientists say about the sciences. Not at all. But I do think that if you if you’re hoping that there will be a litmus paper, that you can sort of dip into your pseudo science and see if it’s pseudoscientific or not, you’re not going to get that. The best we can do is consensus. What is the established consensus of the relevant scientific field at the time? That’s not perfect because in nineteen hundred, the consensus was that there was an ether on which light waves traveled and that turns out to be wrong. But it’s better than anything else. And it’s what we have. So when there’s a consensus like anthropogenic climate change is happening, that’s something to be taken very seriously and not just dismissed on a whim.
So you think that there’s nothing we could actually say about the behavior of a science denier that would. You know, give it away, because to me, one thing that I know, they dress themselves up in all of the lovely trappings of science. But I mean, the thing about it is that they don’t change their minds. Right. And I know that I know that scientists sometimes can be quite rigid as well. But the community progresses and they might even have to leave some people behind when it does. Whereas with the sort of the fringe, quote unquote, Pseudo-Science movements, it’s really it doesn’t of being ideology and it does end up being something that they’ll never give up. That it’s not really opened a refutation. What about. I mean, how far can you go with that?
I think it would depend on a case by case basis because the creationists do change over time that that they say like, well, this kind of geologic effect is impossible. Or this thing they change how old they think the earth is. Intelligent design you might think of as a paradigm change within creationism or they’ve come to accept micro revolution in certain circumstances. And some it’s certainly the case that some people don’t change their mind about anything. And that’s a give away sort of that. The person, whatever they’re doing, is not behaving entirely rationally. And when scientists do that, that’s also a give away. But there’s other things that scientists will ever change their minds on. Electrons exist. They they believe that atoms exist. That’s not going away. So there are many. There are many areas where there is enormous consensus and a general agreement that’s not open to refutation. And that’s the part that I think we lose sight of when we focus on these French people and their insistence. This is right. I’m never going to change my mind. Regular scientists do that, too. We happen to believe they’re correct for all sorts of reasons. But there is a building up of dogma. This is one of the things that Thomas Coon observed 50 years ago so well that there is an established way of thinking that it’s actually pretty stable for periods of time. It might then tumultuously change or it might not. You said I’m getting it.
You know, it’s interesting you bring up Kyun because it turns out that he and Val Korski were like right there in the same neighborhood. What was the story with them?
They never met each other, as far as I can tell. Not for lack of trying. I’m Delacourt Ski’s part bellicosity wrote him lots of letters saying, you know, Professor Coon, I understand you’re interested in scientific theory change. I have a scientific theory that is changing everything. I have all these papers in my house that you can look at if you’re interested. He told lots of historians of science that none of them took him up on it. So he tried to get Coon to be interested. Coon deliberately refrained from comment and seems to avoid any kind of attempt which would get him and bellicosity in the same room. Other historians of science at Princeton did meet with bellicosity at various events because he was a man about town and Einstein spent a lot of time with bellicosity in the last 18 months or so of his life. So basically, he had contacts with these communities.
Einstein? Yeah, likewise. So Einstein hadn’t met bellicose get first in the 20s.
They were part of a joint publishing project, part of a Zionist project about establishing the university, Hebrew University, Jerusalem. But then they re met in Princeton. And Einstein was extremely hostile because he remembered the 1950 catastrophe, literally, and publishing lies. And then slowly, from 1953 to 1955 and Einstein’s death, Della Kosky used to go over to his house and they would chat in German for a while and talk about their theories. And Della Koskie would try and persuade Einstein that he was right and Einstein would listen to him for a while. And every third or fourth or fifth meeting, Einstein would blow up at him.
But he always came back and they can have this conversation, I think, to actually get along. Einstein didn’t endorse any of the theories, but I would hope he’s thinking in one of the books for having read an early manuscript, which he does read, and he gives him comment and says like this.
This particular quotation is well used. This argument strikes me as not persuasive. I don’t believe this Venus thing is very explicit about the Venus thing. But he I think there are things about Einstein that he about bellicosity that Einstein quite liked and was interested in this person. And also, Einstein was quite allergic to situations when people would circle the wagons and demonize someone for having incorrect views or speaking heretically. It has happened to him in the 1920s with the anti Einstein League Against Relativity. And in 1954, he saw it happen to Oppenheimer when his security clearance was stripped. And Oppenheimer was then the director of the Institute Event Study where Einstein worked. And he and his phone logs with other people makes reference to the Oppenheimer event and then talks about bellicosity in very similar contexts, very similar language. So I had a bunch of reasons why he was interested in this person. That doesn’t mean he endorsed them.
And let’s just, you know, just to wrap up here. Let’s say we didn’t really talk that much about Einstein had a brush with him.
And then, of course, Sagan I mean, sell me exactly what Sagan I the reason I, I knew the name and I’m interested in the book in part is because I was you know, I just at one point as a kid, I devoured all Carl Sagan and there’s this long Vela Kosky thing in there. And I’m like, who is Vlachos?
Right. Exactly. Tell me what you come up with them now is you run across them and again.
Yeah, Sagan was very active in the 60s, about late 60s, about engaging with things like UFO theories and vlachos organism, because he saw that students were really excited about this stuff and they were stopping to go to regular science classes. And instead of devouring these books and he thought the establishment didn’t talk about it, that would be a problem. We need to engage with it, figure out a way of dealing with it. And so he tried to organize within the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a couple of forums on this. He organized one on UFOs in the late 60s and then some other people organized one on fellow Koskie in the early 70s. That happened in 74. And Sagan was the headliner of it. And he was really interested in engaging with it and refuting it. And he thought that would be a great thing to persuade people how proper science is done by showing it, talking to a heretic and refuting it and. He was also very interested in develop Korski matter himself because he was a specialist on planetary atmospheres and the atmosphere of Venus was a major topic of discussion among vlachos skins. And he was part of that conversation, too, of trying to show why the atmospheric evidence of the space age does not confirm Delacourt.
Would it be then fair to say that Sagan played his hand wrong? I mean, you know, you can’t.
I mean, today, I think, you know, when we look at the psychology of belief, psychology, of not denial of science, all that stuff. I mean, it seems like it’s quite clear that slicing and dicing an idea intellectually and thinking that that’s going to make it go away, I mean, it’s just really misunderstands how the works.
That part, I think he played his hand wrong. But on the other hand, it was definitely the case that advocates for Vlachos cure people who are just interested in flirting with the ideas and exploring them, thought that the establishment was arrogant and was standoffish and just refused to provide arguments. And that was a recruiting mechanism. That’s a very powerful argument. When people just won’t tell you why they think something is wrong, they’ll just say it is. And he thought that that arrogance needed to be dismissed, dissipated. And that’s a powerful argument it makes. Sagan’s heart isn’t the right place with that. The idea that you can just if you have enough science literacy everywhere, no one will ever think of fringe thing again. I just don’t think that’s how stuff works. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have scientific literacy. We should have as much of it as possible. But this stuff is still going to happen. And Sagan had a more optimistic take about it than I do.
What? So, yeah. And then then let’s end on that note. And that I mean, that really is the big issue. A more optimistic take than you do. Is there any lessons that you can take from the story of Ellacott, Ski and Sagan and this really batty idea in sleeze and say, you know, this is this is what we have to deal with going forward? I mean, we’re always going to have Pseudo-Science. There’s no way to refuted. We can’t even. I mean, can we say something more hopeful?
I don’t want to be entirely negative about. Yes. I think individual doctrines can be debunked and you can make them less and less plausible. But if you get rid of one another, one will emerge that the job is not done. Much like the job of science is not done. You’re always learning new things, always refining the theories, always learning new stuff. These new theories will always emerge as long as there are people who have an interesting idea.
However unorthodox it might be, and however badly it may end up developing into losable will always come forward with their attempts to come up with a new theory. And you can’t just assume that’s going to be over. Like, once you finish refuting this final night jouster away at this dragon and it’s gone instead. It’s I guess the optimistic thing is these things do go away. They some of them die off very rapidly, some of them die off on a long term scale. They are replaced by other things, but they’re different other things. And so we should debunk, engage, discuss, refute, and then we should get some rest and be prepared to do it again.
Well, on that note, Michael Gordon, it’s been great to have you on point of inquiry.
Thank you very much for having me. It’s been great to be here.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show, you can visit us at point of inquiry dot org. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. You can find us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations.
One of inquiries produced by Atomizing and Amara’s, New York and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney.