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Fantasia which is neither history nor science

“The sciences dealing with the past, stand before the bar of common sense on a different footing. Therefore, a grotesque account of a period some thousands of years ago is taken seriously though it be built by piling special assumptions on special assumptions, ad hoc hypothesis on ad hoc hypothesis, and tearing apart the fabric of science whenever it appears convenient. The result is a fantasia which is neither history nor science.”

—James Conant, Ph.D. (Harvard) chemist and former President of Harvard University, Science and Common Sense, Yale University Press, 1951, Chapter Ten, The Study of the Past, pp. 258–295; quote on page 278.

In this book, Conant set out to show how science works, and he did this by referring to various ‘case histories’ to illustrate his points (his method as stated in the Preface). In chapter 10 on the study of the past, in the context of historical geology and paleontology (“the sciences dealing with the past”), he used Emmanuel Velikovsky’s book Worlds in Collision as an example of how wild speculation can take over. That is, he used Velikovsky to make a more general point about how “the sciences dealing with the past” can generate fantasias. His comments were certainly not limited to Velikovsky’s particular example, as is clear from the quotation and the context. We recognise Conant’s comment as also highly applicable to evolutionary scenarios about the past, although we don’t know if he had these in mind.