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Early Scientology / Dianetics - 1950


by Martin Gardner

Antioch Review - December, 1950

(Mr. Martin Gardner has published recently in "The Journal of Philosophy," "Scripta Mathematica," and "Philosophy of Science Quarterly.")

"The creation of Dianetics is a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his invention of the wheel and arch." This is the modest opening sentence of L. Ron Hubbard's recent book "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health."

An engineer and writer of science fiction, with no status whatever in psychiatry, Hubbard has created all by himself what he and his followers believe to be a revolutionary science of mental therapy. Already, dianetics threatens to become a cult of wide proportions, especially in Los Angeles, and no less a distinguished scholar than Frederick L. Schuman, professor of political science at Williams College, has become an enthusiastic convert. In a letter to the "New Republic" (September 11) protesting an unfavorable review of "Dianetics," Schuman wrote, "Not the book but the review, is 'complete nonsense,' a 'paranoiac system' and a 'fantastic absurdity.' There are no authorities on dianetics save those who have tested it. All who have done so are in no doubt whatever as to who is here mistaken."

There is not need to go into the weird mixture of myths which form the core of Hubbard's book, except to point out in passing that it revives the ancient superstition that experiences of the mother can leave an impress on the mind of a foetus within a day after conception. "What's that chronic cough?" Hubbard asks in his first published article on dianetics ("Astounding Science Fiction," May, 1950), and then answers, "That's mama's cough which compressed the baby into anaten [Hubbard's term for unconsciousness; derived from the words "analytical" and "attenuation"] when he was five days after conception. . . . What's arthritis? Foetal damage or embryo damage." And so on ad nauseam.

A few months before Hubbard's revelation, The Macmillan Company published Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky's "Worlds in Collision." The book throws together a jumbled mass of data to support the preposterous theory that a giant comet once erupted from the planet Jupiter, passed close to the earth on two occasions, then settled down as Venus. The first visit to the earth of this erratic comet was 1500 B.C., precisely at the time Moses stretched out his hand and caused the Red Sea to divide. The manna which fell from the skies shortly thereafter was a precipitate, fortunately edible, of suspended elements in the celestial visitor's tail. Fifty-two years later the comet's return coincided with Joshua's successful attempt to make the sun and moon stand still. The miracle of both Moses and Joshua were the result, Velikovsky informs us, of a temporary cessation of the earth's spin.

Although Velikovsky's work is a tissue of absurdities, and has been recognized as such by every geologist and astronomer in the country, it is astonishing how many who reviewed the book were caught off guard by the author's persuasive rhetoric. John J. O'Neill, science editor of the "New York Herald Tribune," described the book as "a magnificent piece of scholarly historical research." Horace Kallen, editor of the "Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences," wrote, "The vigor of the scientific imagination, the boldness of construction and the range of inquiry and information fill me with admiration." Ted Thackrey, editor of the "New York Compass," suggested that Velikovsky's discoveries "may well rank him in contemporary and future history with Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Darwin, Einstein. . . ." And the book received enthusiastic endorsement by those two eminent scientists, Clifton Fadiman and Fulton Oursler.

In view of the astonishing sales of the Velikovsky and Hubbard books, both totally without scientific merit, we may well ask ourselves if we are slipping back into an era of lurid and irresponsible science reporting. Perhaps the most alarming indication of this trend is the current widespread acceptance of the theory that flying saucers are space-ships from another planet. "True" magazine broke the news that the discs were piloted by Martians, but Frank Scully's recent best-seller "Behind the Flying Saucers," argues elaborately that they were flown here with the speed of light by inhabitants from Venus who are exact duplicates of earthlings except that they are midgets three feet tall.

Although one may censure publishers and magazine editors for printing such incredible nonsense without first seeking evaluation by competent scientists, the primary cause of the new flowering of pseudo-science seems to be a hunger on the part of a gullible public for sensational science news. The sudden success of atomic research, hitherto the subject matter of science fiction, is certainly a major factor in this trend. After splitting the atom, nothing seems surprising any more. In addition, widespread anxiety caused by fear of atomic war, together with other factors, seems to be turning the minds of countless frightened people toward religion and/or mental therapy. It is not hard to understand the mass appeal of dianetics, which offers a quick, relatively inexpensive, and painless shortcut to psychoanalysis; or the widespread interest in Velikovsky's theories which re-establish the historical accuracy of the Old Testament for orthodox Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.

What about the authors of these two masterpieces of pseudo-science? Are they deliberate hoaxers, out to make a dishonest dollar, or are they sincere in believing their own theories? Unquestionably, the latter is the case. Occasionally a carefully planned hoax has fooled the public for a time, such as the famous Moon Hoax of the "New York Sun" in 1835, but such pranks are short-lived and soon exposed. Of a different character altogether is the work of the self-styled scientist, incompetent in his field, but living under a delusion of greatness and driven by unconscious compulsions to create off-trail theories of incredible complexity and ingenuity.

When Renaissance science first began to free itself from metaphysical bias, it was the rule rather than exception for courageous pioneers to find their work greeted with derision by their colleagues. Galileo had to battle not only church authorities but fellow scientists who were more preoccupied with Aristotle than with an experimental determination of how the world did, in fact, behave. As Aristotle's scientific authority declined, however, opposition to new ideas in science became more and more confined to areas where science clearly clashed with Christian doctrine. Since the turn of the century, even this area of conflict has become remarkably small, and widespread opposition by scientists to a legitimate theory, based on verifiable evidence and cogent reasoning, is an increasing rarity. For a contemporary scientist, often the quickest way to fame is to overturn a widely held theory. Einstein's work on relativity is an excellent illustration of how easily a revolutionary hypothesis can meet with almost immediate serious response, careful testing, and ultimate acceptance. Of course, there are exceptions, and there are always borderline areas where confirming evidence remains so debatable as to leave eccentric theories in legitimate dispute (for example, Sheldon's work on body types, large sections of psychiatry, and recent investigations in graphology). But if anything, science today leans backward in the friendly consideration of bizarre hypotheses.

Outside and quite apart from the cooperative process of communication and testing that goes on constantly within every branch of science, there are the lonely, isolated, hermit scientists. If their knowledge is meager and their I.Q. low -- as in the case of the late Wilbur Glenn Voliva of Zion City, Illinois, who believed the earth shaped like a pancake -- they seldom achieve a following among the general public, and are widely recognized as crackpots. If they are victims of sufficiently intense paranoid drives, they may be confined to mental institutions where they putter away their days perfecting perpetual motion machines and methods of trisecting angles; or writing unreadable, neologistic treatises on the inner secrets of the universe.

Occasionally, however, a milder paranoia combines with a brilliant, creative intellect. In such cases, the self-styled scientist's belief in his own greatness, together with his tendency to interpret lack of recognition as a form of persecution by stubborn and prejudiced authorities, effectively bars him from the social give and take of the scientific process. He retires like a hermit within his laboratory or study, to emerge later with tomes of vast erudition; usually written in a complex jargon of invested terms and phrases. Around the Master will cluster a group of ardent admirers -- either disciples whose own psychological demands find identification with those of the Master, or simply naive cultists who lack the knowledge to penetrate the Master's self-deceptions.

Classic works in the genre of pseudo-science fall broadly into two classes. There are those which have as a major purpose the rationalization of a religious dogma (such as Velikovsky's defense of the orthodox Jewish interpretation of Old Testament history) and the nonreligious theories (such as Hubbard's) which are a pure product of the author's delusions of scientific competence. Because the fantastic views of Velikovsky and Hubbard have been, and will continue to be, dissected elsewhere, it may be of interest to take a look at the works of two other hermit scientists, one religious and one nonreligious, whose contemporary theories in many ways resemble those of Hubbard and Velikovsky, but which are even more ingenious examples of scientific self-delusion. In doing so, we may catch something of the pretentious atmosphere and paranoid flavor which pervades such works.

As an illustration of the hermit scientist's rationalization of religious dogma, no better example can be found than the impressive geological speculations of George McCready Price. According to "Who's Who," Price is at present a retired professor of geology at Walla Walla College, a Seventh Day Adventist school in Washington. He enjoys the distinction of being the last, perhaps the greatest, of Protestant opponents of evolution.

Price's views are set forth at length in "The New Geology," a weighty college textbook published in 1923. So carefully reasoned is his approach that thousands of Protestant fundamentalists accept it today as the final word on the subject, and even the skeptical reader will find it difficult to refute without considerable background in geology.

The heart of Price's objection to traditional paleontology can be stated in a few words. The chief evidence for evolution, he points out, is the fact that fossils proceed from simple to more complex forms as you move from older to younger geological strata. Unfortunately, there is no adequate method of dating the ages of strata except by means of the fossils they contain. Thus a vicious circularity is involved. The theory of evolution is assumed in order to classify fossils in evolutionary order. The fossils are used to date the beds. Then the succession of fossils from "old" to "young" strata is cited as "proof" of evolutionary development.

Price's own opinion is that all the beds were deposited simultaneously by the Great Flood described in "Genesis," in turn caused by an astronomical disturbance which sent a huge tidal wave around the earth. Fossils are the records of antediluvian flora and fauna. (The flood theory of fossils, by the way, has a long, distinguished history, having been defended by such authorities as Philo, Chrysostom, Tertullian, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, Martin Luther, and innumerable eighteenth and nineteenth century scientists. Addison once penned a Latin ode to it.) If this is true, then in outcrops where several or more fossil-bearing beds are found in one place, one would expect the fossils to be in reverse of the evolutionary order as often as conforming to it. This, Price declares, is precisely the case, and much space in his books is devoted to descriptions of "upside down" areas. To explain away these embarrassing beds, Price asserts, traditional geologists invent imaginary faults and folds. The following quotation on this point is a sample of Price's pleasant style:

". . . there is scarcely an artificial geological section made within recent years that does not contain one or more of these "thrust faults," or "thrusts." But the really important thing to remember in this connection is that it is solely because the fossils are found occurring in the wrong order of sequence that any such devices are thought to be necessary -- devices which, as has already been suggested of similar expedients to explain away evidence, deserve to rank with the famous "epicycles" of Ptolemy, and will do so some day."

It would be a mistake to think of Price's scientific knowledge as on the same level with, say, William Jennings Bryan's. It was, in fact, Price who was cited as the leading geological authority by Bryan during the famous Scopes trial. His books are well-written, packed with impressive erudition and indisputable evidence of sound geologic information. They are, of course, rationalizations of the Protestant fundamentalist's interpretation of the Old Testament, just as Velikovsky's book is a rationalization of traditional Judaism; but the religious motive is hardly sufficient to force a man of Price's intelligence into the curious role he has played. Other compulsions creep out when he refers to his sad task of "reforming the science of geology almost single-handed," and in such passages as:

"Twenty-five years ago, when I first made some of my revolutionary discoveries in geology, I was confronted with this very problem of how these new ideas were to be presented to the public. And it was only after I found that the regular channels of publication were denied me, that I decided to use the many other doors which stood wide open. Perhaps I made a mistake. Perhaps I should have had more regard to the etiquette of scientific pedantry, and should have stood humbly hat in hand before the editorial doors which had been banged in my face more than once. But I decided otherwise, with a full realization of the consequences; and I have not yet seen any reason for thinking that I really made a mistake. Some day it may appear that the reigning clique of "reputable" scientists have never had a monopoly of the facts of nature."

But enough of Price. Let us turn to a more colorful scientist whose work has recently become a lively cult among the more Bohemian intellectuals of New York and elsewhere -- the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich. Like Hubbard's dianetics, Reich's "orgone therapy" has no connection with religious dogma, but is present simply as a revolutionary discovery in biology and psychology.

Reich began his curious career in Austria as an orthodox Freudian, but later broke with the psychoanalysts, founding his own publishing house in Germany in 1931. He also severed his ties with the Austrian Communist Party, having served in the same cell with the writer Arthur Koestler. [1] Five years later, Reich opened an institute at Oslo, where he met with furious attack by Scandinavian biologists who insisted his knowledge was less than that of an undergraduate. Expelled from Norway, he came to New York in 1939 at the invitation of Dr. Theodore P. Wolfe, an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, and lectured for a brief term at New York's New School for Social Research. He now maintains a press in Greenwich Village, and research laboratories in Forest Hills, New York, and Organon, Maine.

In Reich's best known work, "The Function of the Organism," he compares himself to Peer Gynt, i.e., the unconventional genius, out of step with society, misunderstood, ridiculed. Society has the last laugh, he writes, until the Peer Gynts are proved right. In his latest publication, "Listen, Little Man," 1949, Reich likens himself to such persecuted figures as Jesus and Karl Marx. "Whatever you have done to me or will do to me in the future," he declares, "whether you glorify me as a genius or put me in a mental institution, whether you adore me as your savior or hang me as a spy, sooner or later necessity will force you to comprehend that _I have discovered the laws of the living_ . . . ."

A pamphlet by Dr. Wolfe, published by Reich's Orgone Institute in 1948, is called "Emotional Plague Versus Orgone Biophysics." The purpose of the booklet is stated on the cover:

"A vicious campaign of slander and distortion against Wilhelm Reich and his work was begun early in 1947. There is no telling where it will lead. This campaign has not been confined to magazine and newspaper articles, but an agency of the United States Government has been dragged into it."

Chief signs of this "emotional plague" (Reich's term for the slander campaign) are two articles by Mildred Brady, one in "Harper's" (April, 1947), the other in "The New Republic" (May 26, 1947). The government agency is the Food and Drug Administration, at that time investigating Reich's "orgone accumulators." These are large, black-painted boxes of wood on the outside and metal inside. Patients rent them from the Institute then sit inside them to build up their orgone potential by absorbing the box's abnormally high concentration of orgone energy (a non-electro-magnetic radiant energy coming from outer space which Reich discover in Norway in 1939). "The Orgone Accumulator is the most important single discovery in the history of medicine, bar none," Wolfe writes.

The following paragraph from a letter of Reich's, published in the pamphlet, is revealing:

"It is an old story. It is older than the ancient Greeks whom we consider the bearers of a flourishing culture. . . . It was no different two thousand years later. Giordano Bruno, who fought for scientific knowledge and against astrological superstition, was condemned to death by the Inquisition. It is the same psychic pestilence which delivered Galileo to the Inquisition, let Copernicus die in misery, made Leeuwenhoek a recluse, drove Nietzsche into insanity, Pasteur and Freud into exile. It is the indecent, vile attitude of contemporaries of all times. this has to be said clearly once and for all. One cannot give in to such manifestations of the pestilence."

A word about orgone energy. Reich regards his discovery of it as comparable to the Copernican Revolution. A failure to accept it on the part of other psychiatrists is, of course, "resistance to a new concept." [2] In "Character Analysis" he interprets Freud's "Id" as the action of orgone energy in the body. The energy provides a biological and physical base for psychiatry, and to operate with the old Freudian drives is, Reich asserts, like trying to drink from a mirror image of a glass of water. In "The Function of the Orgasm" he describes orgone energy as blue in color (it has been photographed on Kodachrome film, Wolfe tells us), and adds that it is responsible for the Northern Lights, St. Elmo's Fire, lightning, the blue of the sky, electric disturbances during sun-spot activity, and the blue coloration of sexually excited frogs. "Cloud formations and thunder storms," he writes -- "phenomena which to date have remained unexplained -- depend on changes in the concentration of atmospheric orgone." In 1947 Reich measured the energy with a Geiger counter.

It is interesting to note in passing that Reich also attributes the flickering of stars to orgone energy. Another hermit scientist, Dr. William H. Bates, in his medical opus "Cure of Imperfect Eyesight by Treatment Without Glasses," had this to say about the same topic:

"The idea that the stars twinkle has been embodied in song and story, and it is generally accepted as a part of the natural order of things, but it can be demonstrated that the supposed twinkling is simply an illusion of the mind. . . ."

"While persons with imperfect eyesight usually see the stars twinkle, they do not necessarily do so. Therefore it is evident that the strain which causes the twinkling is different from that which causes the error of refraction. If one can look at a star without trying to see it, it does not twinkle. . . . On the other hand, one can make the planets or even the moon twinkle, if one strains sufficiently to see them."

Reich's most astounding discovery is reported in an article, "The Natural Organization of Protozoa from Orgone Energy Vesicles," in the November, 1942 issue of his "International Journal of Sex Economy and Orgone Research." In this paper, accompanies by microphotographs, Reich describes his observations of Protozoa being formed spontaneously from aggregates of bions. The bion is another Reich discovery. It is the unit of living matter, consisting of a membrane surrounding a liquid, and pulsating with orgone energy. Bions are constantly being formed in nature by the disintegration of both organic and inorganic matter. Under his microscope Reich observed bions grouping together to form various types of protozoa, and he has the photographs to prove it. Cancer cells, incidentally, are protozoa which develop from tissue bions. [3] To charges of critics that protozoa get into his cultures from the air, or were already on the disintegrating material in the form of dormant cysts, Reich simply answers that it isn't so, though he gives no evidence of taking adequate precautions against either possibility.

Disciples of Reich frequently defend him by saying, "Granted that his biological work is highly suspect, you'll have to admit he's made great contributions to the field of mental therapy." This may be true. But it has somewhat the same plausibility as a statement like the following: "Granted that Professor Ludwig von Hoofenmeister errs in his theory that stars are holes in an opaque sphere surrounding the earth, you'll have to admit he's making magnificent discoveries in his study of cosmic rays."

The reader may wonder why a competent scientist does not publish a detailed refutation of Reich's absurd biological speculations. The answer is that the informed scientist doesn't care, and would, in fact, damage his reputation by taking the time to undertake such a thankless task. [4] For the same reasons, scarcely a single classic in the field of modern scientific curiosa has prompted an adequate reply. The one exception is the work of the Russian geneticist, Lysenko, unimportant in itself, but with a wider significance because it strengthens a cultural paranoia, and dramatically highlights the conflict between a relatively free and a rigidly controlled science.

The hermit scientist is usually ignored. No eminent authorities bothered to "refute" Ignatius Donnely's "Ragnarok" [5] or his even more painstaking work on Atlantis. No one has refuted Piazzi Smyth's brilliant volume on the Great Pyramid of Egypt, Captain John Symmes' hollow earth theory, or Philip Goesse's "Omphalos." This latter work, by Edmund Gosse's father, argued that just as Adam and Eve were created with navels which indicated a past event which had not occurred, so the world was created with a fossil record of a post geologic history that never took place. The theory is, in fact, irrefutable and consequently much sounder than the views of Velikovsky or Price. It has afforded Bertrand Russell with several happy illustrations of epistemological principles.

Occasionally a philosopher or writer is taken in by the work of a brilliant hermit and produces a book or essay in defense of it (e.g., Aldous Huxley's "The Art of Seeing," 1942, a defense of Dr. Bates), but the professional scientist prefers to ignore it, or perhaps study it with tolerant amusement. Such neglect, of course, only strengthens the convictions of the self-declared genius. "My previous larger treatise on this subject," writes Price in a later work, "The Phantom of Organic Evolution," "has not been answered. It will not be answered. But it has been ignored, and probably will still be ignored, because very few even among men of science, have the patience to follow carefully a completely new line of argument based on unfamiliar facts." And Velikovsky has patronizingly remarked ("New York Times Book Review," April 2, 1950, p.12), "If I had not been psychoanalytically trained I would have had some harsh words to say to my critics."

Thus it is that probably no scientist of importance will present the bewildered public with detailed proofs that the earth did not twice stop whirling in Old Testament times, or that neuroses bear no relation to the experiences of an embryo in the mother's womb. The current flurry of discussion about Velikovsky and Hubbard will soon subside, and their books will begin to gather dust on library shelves. Perhaps Tiffany Thayer will appoint them honorary members of the Fortean Society, that remarkable institution devoted tot he writings of Charles Fort, dedicated to the frustration of science, and the haven of lost causes.


  1. See Koestler's reference to Reich in his contribution to "The God That Failed," edited by Richard Crossman, 1949, p. 43.] [return]
  2. Hubbard likewise regards opposition to his views as unconscious resistance. "Anyone attempting to stop an individual from entering dianetic therapy," he writes, "either has a use for the aberrations of that individual or has something to hide." [return]
  3. Both Reich and Hubbard are concerned with cancer therapy. Hubbard writes, "At the present time dianetic research is scheduled to include cancer and diabetes. There are a number of reasons to suppose that these may be engramatic ["Engram" is Hubbard's term for a mental record of a consciously forgotten experience] in cause, particularly malignant cancer." [return]
  4. It should be emphasized that the isolation of a scientist, the novelty of his theories, or the psychological motivations behind his research provide no grounds whatever for the rejection of his work by other scientists. The rejection must be solely on the basis of the failure of his work to meet standards of scientific adequacy. It is not within the scope of this paper, however, to discuss technical criteria by which hypotheses are given high, low, or negative degrees of confirmation. Our purpose is simply to glance at several examples of a type of scientific activity which fails completely to conform to scientific standards, but at the same time is the result of such intricate mental activity that it wins temporary acceptance by many laymen insufficiently informed to recognize the scientist's incompetence. Although there obviously is no sharp line separating competent from incompetent research, and there are occasions when a scientific "orthodoxy" may delay the acceptance of novel views, the fact remains that the distance between the work of competent scientists and the speculations of a Voliva or Velikovsky is so great that a qualitative difference emerges which justifies the label of "pseudo-science." Since the time of Galileo the history of pseudo-science has been so completely outside the history of science that the two streams touch only in the rarest of instances. [return]
  5. Velikovsky's brief footnote reference to this book does not indicate how remarkably similar it is to his own work. Donnelly's thesis is that earth's Glacial Age, and earlier epochs of diastrophism, were due to brushes with a comet. Over 200 pages are devoted to legends which Donnelly, like Velikovsky, believed to be memories of the last brush. Concerning Joshua's miracle, Donnelly, writes: "And even that marvelous event, so much mocked at by modern thought, the standing-still of the sun at the command of Joshua, may be, after all, a reminiscence of the catastrophe. . . . In the American legends, we read that the sun stood still, and Ovid tells us that 'a day was lost.' Who shall say what circumstances accompanies an event great enough to crack the globe itself into immense fissures? It is at least, a curious fact that in Joshua (Chapter X) the standing still of the sun was accompanied by a fall of stones from heaven by which multitudes were slain." [return]

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