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The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe Hardcover – September 26, 2012

4.4 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"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)

"Gordin . . . is remarkably evenhanded. . . . This won't put an end to the debates that rage between legitimate scientific research and other fringe doctrines, but it does lay the Velikovsky affair to rest with fairness and clarity and will help to put into perspective many of the controversies swirling around today's scientific landscape. A good read for those interested in the history of science or pseudoscientific theories."

(Library Journal)

“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)

About the Author

Michael D. Gordin is professor of history at Princeton University and the author of a number of books, including Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; First Edition edition (September 26, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226304426
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226304427
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #569,876 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Gordin is professor of history at Princeton University, where he specializes in the history of the modern physical sciences and Russian history.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Not unlike a couple of others here, I came into this book, based upon the title and subtitle, expecting something a bit different. What I got is soemthing better. This is not a rehash of Velikovsky's ideas and the debunking or promotion of them, but rather a serious, widely-researched attempt to place the whole "Velikovsky Affair" into an historical and social perspective.

Expressing no overt opinion of IV's ideas or the speculations behind them, Gordin instead places them in their contemporary setting and examines how and why they provoked the types of responses they did. He presents only a thumbnail biographical sketch of IV, focusing on his background and the events of his life only as they pertain to the development of his ideas and how they color his (IV's) reactions to the reactions his books produced. He then follows how those reactions changed over time, both within and without established, academic science and the larger world.

Gordin uses Velikovsky as a template of a sort for the reception of, and reaction to, other ideas and ideologies that have arisen in the past 60 or so years and shows how Velikovsky's supporters and critics have influenced the examination of those other ideas. This is really a fascinating read.

And it is also a very good read. Gordin's writing is scholarly without being at all obscure and his straightforward, matter-of-fact prose serves his purpose here very well. His subject is interesting and engaging; his style doesn't have to be.

This is, I think, an important book for those interested in the history and culture of science in specific, and ideas in general, particularly in the ways that serious academics act and react to popular and populist ideas that claim to contradict or attack their work. Highly recommended here.
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Format: Hardcover
This is one of a few books that give Velikovsky a fair shake. Although not a supporter of Veliskovsky's theories, Professor Gordin treats his subject with the evenhanded analysis of a dispassionate science historian. The out-of-this-world (literally and figuratively) theories of Velikovsky - about the cosmos, formation of the planet, electromagnetic celestial mechanics and the effects of planetary genesis and orbits on human history, as described in many various ancient myths - are expressed in the book without derisive criticism.
Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) was a Russian born Jewish psychiatrist who established a practice of psychiatry and Freudian psychoanalysis in Palestine from 1924 to 1939. He published several papers in medical journals, in which he was first to suggest that specific changes in EEG (electroencephalogram) were diagnostic of epilepsy.

Although an admirer of Freud, Velikovsky set out to disprove the latter's claim, that Moses was a follower of the Pharoah Akhenaton or Pharoah himself, as Freud suggested in "Moses and Monotheism". Velikovsky postulated the theory that Akhnaten was the model for Oedipus in Greek mythology. This began a second career of research and writings in archeology, biblical investigation, and cosmology in which Velikovsky tried to change the accepted chronology of ancient Egyptian kings and dynasties by interpreting or misinterpreting ancient documents (Eg: the Ipuwer papyrus, Mesopotanian cuneiforms etc).
In 1939, Velikovsky travelled to New York, ostensibly to do research for his planned book "Oedipus and Akhnaton" but remained permanently in the USA after the WWll broke out.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'm a philosopher of science, and I read this book with the History and Philosophy of Science Reading Group at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2013. My assessment of the book is thoroughly positive, and I believe most of the other participants would agree. It is an engaging and fascinating narrative, easy to read through for pleasure, but still having enough depth and scholarly engagement for hard-nosed academics. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who enjoys reading about science (and its counterpart, pseudoscience).

Philosophically, Gordin's book is extremely interesting for its approach to (what we philosophers call) the "demarcation problem." How do you distinguish -- demarcate -- that activity we call science from non-scientific pretenders? Common examples in the second category include alchemy, astrology, phrenology (studying the shape of skulls), creation science, and science under the Nazi regime and Lysenko in the Soviet Union. More controversial or difficult cases include Freudian psychology, Marxism, and evolution by natural selection ("Darwinism").

A classic attempted solution to this problem is from the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper. Popper said that "falsifiability" was the crucial feature: If your hypothesis makes predictions that can be empirically refuted, then (and only then) is it science. Even today, scientists offer this solution when creation science (and intelligent design, a descendent better adapted to our regulatory environment) rears its head. But contemporary philosophers of science generally agree that refutation isn't as clear-cut as Poppers solution assumes.
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