In the previous post in this series we discussed the August 1950 issue of “Astounding Science Fiction”
Despite John W Campbell (the editor of “Astounding) promising to host a lively debate about dianetics, airing both pros and cons, the letters page proved disappointing.
Four of the seven letters that appeared there were published were by people with vested interests in the success of dianetics – and the longest by far was written by L Ron Hubbard himself.
I thought Hubbard’s letter was worth examining in detail, because it demonstrates how he was already well-practised in the rhetorical tactics he would later use to defend Dianetics and Scientology without actually addressing the issues.
A Lone Sceptic
Before we move on to Hubbard’s letter, we should take a look at the only passage among the reader’s letters which expressed scepticism about dianetics (see image right). It is reasonable to suppose that this writer:
- Represents the sceptical respondents (whose opinions were not published)
- Hubbard’s letter was aimed at addressing this attitude
Hubbard’s had, indeed, made extraordinary claims for dianetic processing – that it would raise your IQ, give you total recall, enable you to grow new teeth and cure most diseases. He had no objective evidence to support any of it.
Hubbard’s only option now was to brazen it out and exploit the attitude displayed by the letter writer when he says “[…] who wouldn’t want to believe in it?”
Thomas Huxley wrote, “The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification”. However, the majority of the readers of “Astounding” were not scientifically trained. In the total absence of verification, Hubbard would rely upon the tendency for some to indulge in wishful thinking. This approach would serve him well.
The reader’s letter was addressed to Campbell (a true believer’) who replied on behalf of the magazine, “It is no hoax. It will be history”. He would live to regret his enthusiasm.
Hubbard’s Letter (pp 152 – 156)
Hubbard claims that 2,000 letters about dianetics were received by his publisher (and an additional 200 more were arriving every day). Of these, he says that only 15 were critical and only one was hostile.
I suspect that a rather higher proportion of letters expressed scepticism, and Hubbard used them to identify his readers most common objections to dianetics. His letter in “Astounding” was designed to defuse those objections
In the absence of any evidence to support his claims made, Hubbard had to fall back upon rhetoric to persuade sceptical readers to suspend their disbelief in the hope that they would be swept along in the excitement and not ask too many awkward questions.
Some correspondents already ‘wanted to believe’ and to see extraordinary things and Hubbard’s “Dianetics Foundation” would soon supply an uncritical social environment which would generate ‘evidence’ to satisfy this need. He only had to keep the momentum going and persuade them that it is worthwhile to join.
In the following I will illustrate ten of the techniques of persuasion that Hubbard used in this letter.
(1) There is a Conspiracy Against Us
Less than fifteen of these letters were adversely critical and only three were thoroughly “agin” Dianetics; in that one of the three was from a young gentleman who was on the verge of receiving his master’s degree in psychology, the bitterness of the letter is easy to understand and one is rather moved to feel sympathy with the writer.
Hubbard offered dianetics for publication in several journals of psychology before it appeared in “Astounding”. He was declined. After the book was published, the American Psychological Society resolved that, “these claims are not supported by empirical evidence of the sort required for the establishment of scientific generalizations” and reviews of it by psychologists and psychiatrists were universally scathing.
Hubbard’s response was to portray psychology as a practice that had been rendered obsolete by dianetics. Psychologist and psychiatrists were therefore desperate to invalidate it, in order to protect their own interests.
The implication is that readers of “Dianetics” will be better qualified than psychologists with an MA degree, and can laugh at those stuck-up college kids who just missed the boat.
This theme is expanded upon later in the letter,
It is to be remembered, too, that many individuals have a stake in past methods and theories relating to the mind and that such individuals see in Dianetics an economic threat or a threat to personal prestige.
(2) 2,000 People Can’t be Wrong… Can They?
Hubbard claimed that there were only 3 dissenters among his 2,000 letters and observed that,
A score of two thousand in favor to three against rather tends to swallow up the opposition
2,000 enthusiasts evidently can be wrong – it does not matter how many believe if the evidence is not there, and Hubbard offers no credible evidence whatsoever in support of dianetics.
Incredibly, later in the very same letter, Hubbard states,
Above all, don’t worry about whether people accept Dianetics or not. A majority opinion does not necessarily establish the truth of anything
So, according to Hubbard,
- A majority opinion for dianetics among “Astounding” readers supports it
- A majority opinion against dianetics should be ignored, because it proves nothing.
Even at this early stage, Hubbard was a complete sophist. For him, the only purpose of argument was to persuade others that whatever he believed at the time was true. He did not even bother to be consistent.
(3) Appeal to Authority
The publication of the article seems to have saved several lives. And it has gained very considerable report for the new science. Over fifty medical doctors and psychiatrists wrote letters couched in terms of high approval. Not one single individual whose profession was intimately connected with mental work and who was experienced with it found fault with Dianetics; indeed, it seems that those who best understand through professional work the problems of the mind are those who most readily grasp and accept Dianetics. The roll call of professionals intensely interested in Dianetics now contains some of the most prominent authorities on the mind in the United States.
Nobody has the opportunity to ask how lives were saved and no examples of letters from any of those “doctors and psychiatrists” are offered.
Hubbard is not consistent here , either. In the last paragraph, we were asked to pity a young man who had just received a supposedly obsolete degree in psychology. Now, letters from psychiatrists are offered as authoritative support for dianetics.
TIME will shortly devote space to Dianetics as has Pathfinder. […] Few national publications, in the next few months, will not carry stories on Dianetics, space having been arranged for by them in the past two months.
“Time” and “Pathfinder” were both respectable names in the publishing industry at the time Hubbard was writing, and this claim might have briefly added some credibility to dianetics. However, the first “Time” article did not come until 1951, and it was not complementary. After the establishment of Scientology, Time returned to Hubbard with a classic critical article: “Scientology the Thriving Cult of Greed and Power“.
“Pathfinder” was a weekly news magazine that collapsed in 1954. If anyone can help me find an article on dianetics (or confirm that none appeared) I would be most grateful.
(4) Don’t Alienate Religious People
Several readers seemed to be interested in how Dianetics stood in relationship to God and the Infinite Mind. Some assumed that it proved Man’s spirituality, some assumed that it disproved it.
In the next paragraph, Hubbard is careful to establish that dianetics is silent on the subject of God. In the 1950s, Christian practice played an even larger part in US culture than it does now. Hubbard did not want to offend potential customers.
(5) Present Only Anecdotal ‘Evidence’
A general query, contained both in the letters and conversations I have had lately with various readers of this magazine, has to do with how one overcomes opposition to Dianetics on the part of one’s friends
Hubbard describes how to do this with a story about how “[…] a writer for this magazine” who knew nothing about dianetics, but was nevertheless violently opposed to it, was ‘converted’. This unnamed writer allegedly suffered a ringing in his ears after an aeroplane flight. Tormented by this he consulted someone practising dianetics and,
He was told that it was possibly a quinine abortion attempt with his mother saying, “It just won’t stop. My ears go on ringing and ringing and ringing until I’m almost crazy.”
Hubbard claims that, when the ringing in his ears went away, this was enough to bring make him an enthusiastic student of dianetics. Cynics would suggest that such symptoms generally go away of their own accord, and fringe treatments are often credited with a cure simply because they just before this happened.
(6) Accuse Others of Your Own Faults
[…] scathing denunciation of that “trash” knew nothing about Dianetics, had made no tests, had read no data or axioms and was generally uninformed about the subject. If that professor were to qualify as a scientist, he would have to lay aside such extreme emotionalism, for science is a matter of facts, not of opinions.
This straw man is told that,
Dianetics shapes up in the form of laboratory tests as prettily as you please and is, indeed, the experimental system the psychologist needed in order to qualify himself as an exact scientist and to render him immune from the brickbats which are continually being pitched at him by the physical scientist
In actual fact, the only rigorous experimental tests that have examined the claims of dianetics performed by respectable institutions both falsified its basic premises. Words spoken when people are ‘unconscious’ do not register upon, nor effect their minds, and dianetic processing does not improve a person’s intelligence or intellectual abilities.
Hubbard’s ‘research’ has never published in any form.
(7) Flatter Your Supporters and Demonise the Opposition
A strange thing is happening and will continue to happen. There is a direct ratio between the brilliance of a mind and its ability to understand and work Dianetics
Hubbard asserts that it is the brightest brightest people who benefit the most from dianetics, and the “[…] lower strata” who are the most resistant. This designates Hubbard’s customers as superior individuals and anyone who criticises dianetics as untermensch.
If you think the comparison with Nazi ideology is over the top here, consider this passage:
[…] one sees with some sadness that more than three quarters of the world’s population will become subject to the remaining quarter as a natural consequence and about which we can do exactly nothing.
There has rarely been a more chilling example of the tendency towards power fantasy in pulp science fiction. Even so soon after the Second World War people seem to have lapped it up.
(8) Promise the Customer Something He Wants
In the discussion above, it is ‘casually’ mentioned that,
[…] no good professional practitioner would work for less than $15.00 an hour and usually charge more.
This would be a fortune for many of the readers of “Astounding”. The promise of ‘professional’ status would likely appeal to them, too. Hubbard exploited this up to the hilt, providing training and impressive-looking certificates to anyone who cared to pay to undertake his courses and attend his ‘seminars’ and lectures.
(9) Promise That There Are No Risks – Only Benefits
I call your attention to the fact that so long as you use standard technique without diluting it with hypnosis or drugs or some preconception, you are utterly and entirely safe, your patient is safe and nothing whatever can happen that will injure anyone. A long, long series of experiments has demonstrated this. Any case is better opened than left closed, even when the auditor is entirely unskilled.
Dr Joseph Winter, one of Hubbard’s original inner circle, eventually came to believe that ‘dianetic therapy’ undertaken by laymen was potentially dangerous, and published a book which said so.
However, Hubbard was unconcerned with the liability that his ‘therapists’ were exposing themselves to because he had provided himself with a get-out clause in the same paragraph – “[…] as long as you use standard technique”.
In other words, if anything goes wrong during a session, it is the practitioners fault for not following the technique correctly. If it goes well, this shows that dianetics is effective. This Catch 22 argument is still used by Scientology today.
The last provision (that dianetics works “[…] even when the auditor is entirely unskilled”) is also used in Scientology as an excuse for allowing children to audit adults – which can be seen in this Dutch undercover video (beginning at 18′ 29″).
(10) Get the Customer Involved
We are opening an institute for training professional auditors because so many psychiatrists and psychoanalysts and medical doctors have expressed a desire for special training. Probably institutes will be opened in various parts of the country as soon as we get around to it. A foundation has been formed for the control of such institutes.
The Dianetic Foundation was subsequently set up… and collapsed, partly because dianetics did not live it up its claims and partly because Hubbard used its income as if it personally belonged to him. In the process, he lost control of the copyright to “Dianetics”. However, he acquired the institutes’ mailing list, invented Scientology and made a comeback.
However, at this time the dianetics still promised to be a lucrative enterprise, especially with the support of Campbell and “Astounding”. To underline this, the last page of the magazine contains an advertisement for Hubbard’s book.