Sunday, October 29, 2006

An object lesson in Wiki research
This post should serve as a lesson in the importance of the two source rule and why we should be careful using Wikipedia to research controversial topics.

The other day, I planned to do some research on my woolly mammoth chapter featuring the Velikovskians. I went to the Wikipedia looking for some definitions that I might link to. The words for the day were "uniformitarianism" and "catastrophism."

Uniformitarianism is the name given to the to underlying assumption of the Earth sciences that most of the features of the Earth are the result of small changes accumulating over a long period of time. It is the geological equivalent of evolution. As such it has a passionate opposition among radical religious fundamentalists and non-religious fringe theorists. For decades, the opposition to geological uniformitarianism has rallied around an idea called catastrophism, which claims that the most important factor in shaping the Earth has been sudden, violent events including, but not limited to, the Biblical flood.

There are actually two ideas involved in uniformitarianism. The first is simply that change in geology happens at a gradual and almost imperceptible rate. The other is that the forces of change have not changed over time. The forces we see at work now are the same forces responsible for change in the past. When self-proclaimed catastrophists rail against uniformitarianism, they usually reject both of these ideas.

Both "uniformitarianism" and "catastrophism" appeared as descriptive terms in the early nineteenth century at about the same time as history of the ice ages was discovered. Uniformitarianism went on to become something of a dogma in the Earth sciences, though never as total and oppressive as the catastrophists claim. Geologists knew that major earthquakes, landslides, and volcanic eruptions could shape the Earth, but they minimized the importance of such changes. The dogmatic streak in geological uniformitarianism probably peaked around the 1920s when Bretz's Missoula Floods and Wegener's continental drift theories were both rejected without a fair hearing. It's a testament to the scientific method that both ideas hung on and eventually did get a fair hearing and the acceptance they deserved.

You don't hear much about Immanuel Velikovsky anymore, but for three decades he was the best-known voice of anti-establishment science in the United States. Velikovsky's books sold millions in hardback. At his peak, his supporters managed to create an entire parallel intellectual structure complete with journals, conferences, and schisms. Velikovsky's ideas had two main parts, and both drove the established intellectual community nuts.

Velikovsky was born to a Jewish family in 1895 in, what is now, Belarus. He was a committed Zionist (in the original sense of the word, not in the current pejorative sense). He visited Palestine in 1914 and emigrated there in 1924. He played a significant role in the founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was a physician and psychiatrist, and published academic papers in the latter field. In 1939 he brought his family to the US to spend a sabbatical year working on a historical project. The outbreak of the war in Europe stranded him in the US and his historical project consumed the rest of his life.

Velikovsky's original idea, inspired by Freud's book Moses and Monotheism, explored the possibility that the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaton was the same person as the legendary Greek king Oedipus. Stranded in America, with extra time on his hands, he began to look for evidence of the Exodus in the literature of non-Hebrew peoples. He thought he had a good candidate in the Egyptian Ipuwer Papyrus. Unfortunately, this document was dated several centuries earlier than the traditional date of the Exodus. To bring them into sync, Velikovsky needed to reduce the length of Egyptian history by about three hundred years. He also needed to find a naturalistic explanation for the miracles associated with the Exodus. This led him into catastrophist geology.

By 1949, Velikovsky had written his theories up as two books. The prestigious publisher Macmillan was prepared to publish them. Velikovsky's historical theory was revolutionary enough. He rearranged the 19th through 26th dynasties of Egypt and eleiminated an entire dynasty (he claimed the 19th and 26th were the same). What really gained him attention was his catastrophic theory of the Earth.

Velikovsky explained the miracles of the Old Testament by suggesting a complicated astronomical scenario. Sometime prior to 1500 BC, an enormous chunk of the planet Jupiter launched itself into space, leaving behind a giant red scar. This chunk of Jupiter would eventually become the planet Venus, but for the time being, careened through the inner solar system as a giant comet.

The comet Venus crossed the path of Earth at least twice. The first passage caused the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus story. At this time Venus knocked the Earth off its axis, killed all the mammoths, rained hydrocarbons on the Middle East, which soaked into the ground to become petroleum deposits, rained carbohydrates on the Middle East, which fed the escaping Hebrew slaves, and produced floods, mountain risings, and most catastrophic events described in the mytologies of all peoples. Fifty-two years later, Venus returned again to restore the Earth to its old axis and stop the sun for an hour so Joshua could kill more Canaanites at Beth Horon.

After that, Venus knocked Mars out of its orbit. Mars encountered the Earth a couple times, again adjusting its orbit and axis. Eventually, everyone settled into their current orbits sometime around the dawn of classical Greek history.

Velikovsky had some extreme ideas, too, but didn't develop them in public, leaving them to his followers.

This brings us back to the perils of using Wikipedia as the sole source of research on controversial subjects. The current Wikipedia article on "Catastrophism" is short and unbalanced. It doesn't mention modern creationists at all. It devotes one section to Velikovsky, but none to other influential catastrophists such as Charles Hapgood. The Evowiki entry on "Catastrophism," while also short, is much more balanced.

During the week that I checked Wikipedia, the "Catastrophism" article had eight sections. The additional section (which was online from October 15 - 22) dealt with one particular Velikovsky follower, John Ackerman, and raised the total wordcount for Velikovsky related material to almost half of the the total article. To any student depending on Wikipedia as a source, this would have given them the impression that catastrophism was essentially about Velikovsky, or that he was, at least, the most important person in developing the concept. Neither of these conclusions would have been correct.

What was the idea Ackerman had that someone thought needed to be added to the Wikipedia? The Ackerman section, added by an anonymous author, reads in its totality:
Velikovsky/Ackerman Catastrophism

The ideas of Velikovsky have been greatly advanced since 1998 by John Ackerman (Firmament, Chaos, and Peleh: Hidden Knowledge)in recent years, using new interpretations of ancient myths in the Rig Veda, Hindu, Egyptian, Greek and Roman myth and data from NASA planetary missions. This work has revealed a 3000 year period of repeated close encounters of Mars and Venus with the Earth from 4000 to 687 BC. In fact, all myths composed during this period were meant solely to describe the events that were taking place in the heavens close to the Earth. Ackerman has used detailed interpretations of these myths to deduce a scenario of recent cosmic encounters, which shows that all of these cultures were observing the same bodies. These encounters explain ancient stories of the erratic motion of the Sun, the 360 day calendars found in almost every ancient culture. The oceans and atmosphere of the ancient planet which Ackerman calls priori-Mars were completely transferred to the Earth during this 3000 year period when it was in a geosynchronous orbit only 33,000 km (surface to surface distance) distant. Only as a result of these infusions of volatiles did the Earth become capable of supporting the present population of mankind. These encounters were involved in the biblical miracles at the Exodus, the defeat of Sennacherib at the time of Hezekiah, the flood of Noah and the fall of manna (ambrosia, soma) from 'heaven.' The final departure of priori-Mars from the vicinity of the Earth took place when its solid iron core exited the planet through what is now called the Valles Marineris, and was deflected into the inner solar system, forming what scientists call the 'planet' Mercury, while the mantle drifted outward and collapsed in on itself to form the diminutive 'planet' Mars, which has been found to have a partially liquid iron/sulfur core. The V/A catastrophism also reveals many facts still unknown in uniformitarian (academic) circles, concerning the other planets. 1. Jupiter and Saturn are not gaseous, but comprise primarily water in the form of gas hydrates. 2. Venus is a new planet, only 6000 years old. 3. Terrestrial planets are formed catastrophically from vast plasma clouds that rebound from high energy impacts on the giant gas hydrate planets. As a result each terrestrial planet has a unique age. The biblical 'firmament' was priori-Mars, which was 800 million years older than Earth. It was the 'spaceship' that carried the 'elohiym to the Earth.

The anonymous author presents Ackerman's theory as if it has already been recognized as the best interpretation of the available facts. That's not the case. Most scientists are unaware of Ackerman's theory and, if they were, almost all would reject it. Imagine the poor student who reports that Venus is only six thousand years old.

Recently, I have seen a number of references to kids being fooled by the brilliant parody site Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and writing research papers about the fictitious invertebrate. I don't know if it's true. A number of teaching sites use the tree octopus as an example of a professional looking site that sounds legitimate, but isn't. At least it is clearly a parody. Material, which appears for the first time in a Wiki entry, is harder to evaluate. Is something new because the article was incomplete and needed this information to be complete? Or is it new because someone is trying to pull something over on us and they just haven't been caught yet.

The answer isn't censorship, filtering the internet, or any other solution that aims to protect kids from objectionable information. The only thing that will help students when faced with bad science or bad history disguised as alternate viewpoints or honest controversy is to learn critical thought. They need to learn a healthy suspicion about the appearance of authority, while learning how to recognize earned authority.

* This summary doesn't do justice to Ackerman's ideas. His dramatic narrative of the history of our solar system makes Velikovsky's planetary pinball look bland by comparison. Ackerman is typical of the generation of Velikovsky followers that ran with his ideas after the old man's death. Some of the others of this group have postulated that the Earth was once a moon of Saturn, that dinosaurs are proof the Earth once had a much weaker gravitational field than it does now, and that electricity is a more important force in celestial mechanics than gravity. My woolly mammoth chapter on the Velikovskians (coming soon!) will only touch on these ideas. Most of them deserve their own full post treatment.

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