Worlds in Collision
Crackpot thinking. A topic near and dear to me. I find it fascinating why people choose to believe what they believe, and think that we all could use a little critical thinking when examining various theories and beliefs we come across. I’m of course not the first person to speculate along these lines, in 1953 Irving Langmuir coined the term “pathological science” to describe similar false scientific beliefs. However, his definition was a bit more narrow than what I mean by crackpot thinking.
To be specific, I define crackpot thinking as being thinking where people come up with a theory, and then obsessively search for evidence that supports the theory. This is the antithesis of logical and scientific thinking, basically because using this method one can find evidence that supports any theory. And if one is creative about finding such evidence and shoehorning it into the theory, an impressive body of evidence can be created to support the theory in question. To extend my definition further, crackpot thinking is a theory that if true, requires that extensive accepted historical and/or scientific evidence is simply wrong. In summation, crackpot thinking is where one proposes a theory that overturns large amounts of accepted scientific/historical knowledge and supports it by searching for evidence that fits the theory.
For example, I would not include belief in UFO’s or Bigfoot as crackpot thinking because if a UFO landed on the White House lawn or a truck ran over a bigfoot tomorrow…no scientific theories would have to be rewritten. While there may be poor evidence for and plenty of crackpot research into same, the basic premise that Bigfoot or UFOs may exist does not violate our logical, historical, and scientific understanding of the world. And by the same token it should be noted that historically some theories that were originally dismissed as crackpot thinking, rocks falling from the sky or continental drift for example, are now generally accepted scientific truths. Such theories are rare though, furthermore, credible scientific research into same provided logical and reasonable supporting evidence within decades of their origin.
My favourite crackpot theory is the Worlds in Collision theory espoused by Immanuel Velikoski in the 1950s. It was a bit of a deal at the time, mostly forgotten now, but his books are still in print and his theory still has adherents. Basically (hold on, this gets rough) he conjectured that in historical times the planet Venus had sprung from Jupiter, careered around the solar system passing close by Earth several times and thus explaining various calamities in the Bible and other mythologies, before settling down into its current orbit. During this tour of the solar system (you were warned) Venus perturbed the planet Mars which subsequently swooped by Earth a few times explaining other events in Earth’s early history. Whew, breathtaking really. Velikovski supported his theory with a vast array of ancient quotes and writings culled from years of reading.
I hardly know where to start. For this to be true, hundreds of years of physics going back to Newton have to be discarded. Then a tremendous amount of astronomy, history, and mythology would have to be rewritten. Geology would pretty much have to be scuttled, and archaeology and paleontology would require major revision. Who knew? The work of tens of thousands of brilliant scientists in multiple disciplines over centuries was simply wrong, all finally and helpfully corrected by a retired psychiatrist labouring in the dusty periodical shelves of the New York Public Library. As might be expected, scientists were unanimous in their derision. As was anyone who had any inkling of physics and orbital mechanics.
Veliskoski responded to this wave of criticism by writing a second book, Earth in Upheaval, where he didn’t draw on mythology and history at all. He carefully supported his theories using evidence from geology and other related disciplines. I had the misfortune to read some of this work at the urging of a friend. One can’t fault Mr Velikovski for not being thorough. He had carefully gone over vast quantities of scientific writing going back for centuries, and carefully selected paragraphs, sentences, and sentence fragments that supported his theory. The fact that these were all pulled completely out of context, and a vast number of them dated from centuries back and had long ago been clarified or refined by subsequent scientific research didn’t matter to Velikovski. Or his supporters.
As I said, if one wanted to mine a few centuries of scientific writings and pull out sentences that support a theory, any theory would have reams of “support.” There’s other ways Velikovski’s theories are nonsense pretty much on the face of it. They were even tested (reluctantly) by scientists on a few occaisions, the last in the seventies when ice cores from Greenland failed to show the evidence that his theory predicted. In some ways it’s sad, I mean, it would have been quite the sight if Venus and Mars had spun by Earth, our ancestors missed out on quite a show. It certainly would be nice and spectacular if some sort of cosmic pinball game could explain all of humanities myths and legends. Alas, scientists are just starting to understand why people believe the Moon landings were a hoax, let alone belief in all humanity’s myths.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit, is central to illustrating the post, and is a low resolution copy of the original. The image was obtained here, credit and copyright: Lynette Cook/Gemini Observatory. And no, the world is not going to end in 2012, I’m tired of seeing that theory too. Yeesh.)