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Pseudoscientists and Their Worlds

Book Review

Donald Simanek

Volume 32.4, July / August 2008

Worlds of Their Own: A Brief History of Misguided Ideas: Creationism, Flat-Earthism, Energy Scams, and the Velikovsky Affair. By Robert Schadewald. Xlibris, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4363-0435-1. 272 pp. Paper, $19.99; hardcover, $29.99.

The word pseudoscience is a bit slippery. It suggests something “fake” or “fraudulent”—something that is not a science but pretends to be. We can easily name some of the classic examples: astrology, phrenology, homeopathy, parapsychology, and creationism. People who promote such pseudosciences have been called “paradoxers,” because they propose ideas that superficially seem plausible but on closer examination are internally contradictory or counter to what is possible in the real world. The term has been applied to circle-squarers, perpetual motionists, and those who believe the Earth is flat. Sometimes the term “fringe science” is used.

We must admit that in the history of science, some of the early “accepted” ideas would, if judged by the standards of today’s science, qualify as pseudoscientific: astrology, alchemy, geocentric solar system models, the luminiferous ether. So how do we distinguish science from pseudoscience?

Bob Schadewald had a continuing interest in fringe science and pseudoscience. This posthumous collection of his published and unpublished materials (skillfully edited by Schadewald’s sister Lois) is a highly readable account of several varieties of pseudoscience, including Flat Earth theories, perpetual motion, creationism, and predictions of the end of the world. The unifying theme is “fringe thinkers” who create their own versions of reality, contemptuous of the models of nature accepted by established mainstream science. Schadewald treats his subjects with respect and even sympathy (he knew many of them personally), but he clearly reveals why their ideas are flawed and misguided.

Here you will find the stories of colorful characters such as Immanuel Velikovsky, who rewrote the book on solar system astronomy; Charles Johnson, who was certain that Earth was as flat as a pancake; John Keely, who claimed he could tap etheric energy to power a freight train coast-to-coast on a gallon of water; and assorted creationists, who freely engaged in “lying for God.”

One might suppose that these folks and their worldviews have little in common. Surely one who believes the Earth is flat and one who believes it is hollow cannot think alike. But, as this book reveals, they have more in common with each other than they do with mainstream science. Looming large in their thinking and their motivations was a literal belief in the King James Bible. Velikovsky used biblical sources freely. Flat earthers’ beliefs were bound up with fundamentalist religious beliefs. Creationists and flat earthers have common historical roots, and I don’t know of a single perpetual motionist who was not also a religious fundamentalist. The flat earthers were united in their contempt for the idea of gravitational force. To them, it was a sufficient explanation to observe that “things fall because they are heavy.” Even here we find a parallel to Velikovsky, whose 1950 book Worlds in Collision and three subsequent books made much of electromagnetic interactions between planets and comets while dismissing gravity as nonexistent or relatively unimportant.

Velikovsky supposed that a comet was ejected from Jupiter, went careening around the solar system brushing Earth and Mars, and finally settled down to become the planet Venus. In several passes of Earth it managed to cause the walls of Jericho to tumble, interrupted Earth’s rotation (making the Sun appear to stand still for Joshua), caused the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and miscellaneous other seemingly miraculous events of recorded history. Few who read these books realized that Velikovsky had published a little-known pamphlet Cosmos without Gravitation (1946) in which he declared “The moon does not ‘fall,’ attracted to Earth from an assumed inertial motion along a straight line, nor is the phenomena of objects falling in the terrestrial atmosphere comparable to the ‘falling effect’ in the movement of the moon, a conjecture which is the basic element of the Newtonian theory of gravitation.” Velikovsky clearly rejected Newtonian gravity, replacing it with electromagnetic interactions.

Bob Schadewald recognized that some pseudosciences are relatively harmless, but he considered the creationists a serious threat to the integrity of science because of their political campaign to inject their religiously motivated philosophy into public-school science courses. For this reason he attended creationist conferences (calling them “great entertainment”) to see what they were up to and was on friendly terms with many of the prominent creationist spokesmen. But at the same time, he helped found the National Center for Science Education and served on its board. This organization is on the front lines in the battle to preserve the integrity of science in the schools against the efforts of creationists to redefine science to include the supernatural.

This book can be enjoyed on several levels, for Schadewald writes with droll humor, and many of his characters have comic dimensions. Included are his interviews with Immanuel Velikovsky and flat-earther Charles Johnson. Here is the story of naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, who in 1870 unwisely accepted a wager with flat-earther John Hampden on the flatness of the water in the Old Bedford Canal. John Worrell Keely’s story was fodder for late-nineteenth-century journalists, who delighted in reporting on his antics promoting machines that ran on etheric energy. Keely was a clever showman who kept his Keely Motor Company going for twenty-six years without producing a single product or paying a dividend to his wealthy investors. Nor did he reveal his secrets.

Concluding chapters on “The Philosophy of Pseudoscience” explore the common characteristics of these independent thinkers. This is an informative and entertaining book of continuing relevance, for pseudoscientific ideas of this sort never die but are continually reborn in new clothing.

Donald Simanek

Donald Simanek is an emeritus professor of physics at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. His website includes science, pseudoscience, humor, and satire.