The September 1950 issue of “Astounding Science Fiction” provides a wonderful insight into how the most intelligent, capable and educated people can let wishful thinking run away with their critical faculties.
This month, in the same magazine that he was still using to actively promote L Ron Hubbard’s dianetics, the editor, John W Campbell, published a sceptical article and a book review by L Sprague De Camp. Both were excellent.
The article concerned religious, literary and scientific hoaxes and misinformation. It included an extended passage about medical quackery. It is a compendium of fringe ideas which De Camp proceeds to debunk. He even analyses how it is that some scientists fall for such nonsense, and offers advice on how to spot pseudo-science. He describes Campbell, Hubbard and dianetics to a tee, without ever referring to any of them.
De Camp’s book review examined Emmanuel Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision“. This was based on the scientifically illiterate ‘theory’ the world’s history and mythology were influenced by catastrophes brought by a wandering comet (which has since settled down and become the planet Venus). De Camp took Velikovsy apart.
It is a terrible irony that, at the very same time Campbell published De Camps sceptical articles, the most influential pseudo-science of the last 65 years – dianetics – was right under Campbell’s nose and he could not see it for what it was. Instead, he was enthusiastically promoting Hubbard’s invention in “Astounding”, and would continue to do so.
To emphasise Campbell’s absolute commitment to dianetics, page two of the magazine is devoted to an advertisement encouraging readers to take out a subscription (and buy back issues) on the strength of Hubbard’s dianetics article. It defines dianetics as:
The first true Science of the mind. Dianetic techniques regularly cure all psychosomatic and psychological troubles. For further information see ASF Vol. XLV, No 3 Pgs 43 – 87.
No doubts there, then. Once again, Campbell is putting his reputation and that of the magazine squarely behind L Ron Hubbard’s creation.
Campbell’s editorial (starting on page 4) does not mention dianetics for once. In consequence, it’s one of the entertaining exercises in contrary thinking for which Campbell was noted.
In “The Analytical Laboratory” (a regular feature which tabulated readers letters and rated stories in previous issues with a ‘score’) Campbell observes, “Maybe the May Issue – which stirred some three thousand readers to write letters – got people in the writing mood” on page 106 . Hubbard’s dianetics article had, of course, appeared in May.
A Sceptic Steps Up – And Nobody Listens
The non-fiction article by L Sprague De Camp begins On page 121 . This cheerfully assassinates some popular fringe ideas of the time and discusses scientific hoaxes and frauds (Lysenkoism gets a mention). In one remarkable passage he writes,
[…] There are scientists and “scientists”. And authentic scientists, while mostly fine fellows, are not above human weakness. They may, for example, lend loud support to irrational doctrines outside the fields in which they are expert and by giving aid and comfort to fakers, forgers and hoaxers in these fields may, in effect, become their accomplices.
This could have been written with John W Campbell in mind. He was both scientifically qualified and a loud supporter of irrational doctrines which were outside of his field. Among other things he advocated:
- The “Dean Drive” an (impossible) form of reactionless propulsion
- The “Hieronymus machine” which was supposed to amplify latent psi powers such as telepathy
- Dianetics – which presented itself as a ‘science of mental health’
Campbell’s field was physics – he had obtained a BSc degree in physics from Duke University in 1932. During his studies, his reputation as a fiction writer grew and, after he graduated, he made his living from writing and editing rather than as a working scientist.
He knew nothing of ‘mental healing’ but his word as a bona fide scientists meant a lot to the readers of “Astounding”.
On page 165 De Camp observes that, “Medical quackery, of course, furnishes the richest field for the hoaxer and describes the practices of a doctor Abrams who,
[…] asked patients to send a drop of their blood on a piece of blotting paper, which he’d analyse in a “dyanamizer” connected to the forehead of an assistant who faced east stripped to the waist in dim light. The operator tapped the assistant’s belly and diagnosed the patient’s disease from the resulting sounds.
[…] He developed a magnificent scheme of quackery including an association, a magazine, a school and travelling lecturers, and left over a million dollars.
The previous issues of “Astounding” has included letters offering membership of Hubbard’s new ‘dianetic institute’ which would soon publish a magazine, teach dianetic techniques and charge for attending lectures by L Ron Hubbard. The parallels were there to be seen.
Many commentators assume that Hubbard’s money-making schemes were original. In fact, they only seen to be because, 65 years later, after almost all of the fringe groups he copied have died out.
Why Do They Do It?
De Camp has three answers,
For one thing, money. […]
Besides the spurs of fame and fortune, men may commit hoaxes from simple fanaticism. That is, they are so avid to see a question answered in a certain way that they will fake the results to prove what they want to see proved. Like the pyramidologist whom the archaeologist Pertrie once caught in the vestibule of the burial chamber at Kufu’s pyramid trying to file down a granite boss to the size required by his theory.
Lastly, men may commit hoaxes for the sake of a good joke. To fool others is one of the most tempting ways of expanding your ego by proving your own superior cunning.
These lines are prophetic. Like many people who had struggled for money, Hubbard was obsessed with accumulating it. Also, his reasoning and his ‘research’ only ever ‘proved’ whatever it was he wanted it to.
Most notably, in many of his tape-recorded lectures Hubbard can be heard to test the limits of this audience’s credulity with outrageous statements. He is plainly enjoying his new power to control and manipulate others.
On page 137 De Camp offers advice on how not to be fooled. This is still relevant today. Anyone who applied this advice to dianetics would have found it wanting.
On page 138 De Camp’s book review begins. It discussed Emmanuel Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision“, which was, at the time, climbing the best-seller lists alongside Hubbard’s book “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health”.
Velikovsy’s strange theory (described in the introduction, above) was by treated by De camp treated as an exemplary example of incoherent pseudo-science and demolished. We have to wonder how he could have reviewed “Dianetics”.
Things to Come: More Dianetics
Despite all this food for thought, in the feature “Things to Come”(pg 141) Campbell announces an article in next month’s “Astounding that is “[…] of major interest”. This is,
L Ron Hubbard’ second article on dianetics – “The Analytical Mind”. Anyone possessing one will, naturally, be interested. Dianetics is not simply a system of therapy; it is a science of the whole process of human thought. By this time many a pre-clear has – a know this from experience – begun to wonder if he ever does anything but “think with his engrams”. Be assured; you do. But you’ll find this article on how the analytical mind works fascinating whether you’re in dianetics not or not!
Campbell reveals his immersion in dianetics here, using coined terms like ‘pre-clear’, ‘engrams’ and ‘analytical mind’ as if they are household words. This must have puzzled many readers who missed the previous issues.
Campbell also announces the first instalment of the serialisation of L Sprague De Camp’s new novel, “The Hand of Zei”, which gets the cover.
If there was any doubt that Campbell missed the point of De Camp’s article, this is surely dispelled by the reader’s letters page (beginning pg152). It contains many reference to Hubbard’s last story in “Astounding” ( “To the Stars”) a discussion of thermonuclear weapons (before there were any) and the first dissenting voice to be published.
[…] When I open [“Astounding”] and find that one-third of it is given over to the promotion of some screw-ball hypothesis, hoax or obscure question which is not of general interest. (pg 161)
I suspect that there were more letters like this than Campbell the ‘true believer’ ever acknowledged and that he was rationalising them away, in the belief that the dianetic institutes would soon be producing evidence that would convince even the most hardened sceptic.
Campbell’s reply is dismissive:
Sorry if you find dianetics of no interest. It was my belief that knowledge of the human mind was of the most immediate and general interest because each of us possesses one.
Another letter writer praises Campbell’s “Conservative presentation of Hubbard’s article” (pg161) which makes me wonder of were reading the same magazine. Campbell, thus far, has never been anything but an enthusiastic and uncritical promoter of dianetics.
Was De Camp thinking of Hubbard and dianetics when he wrote the non-fiction article in this issue, or was it a coincidence that his thoughts on scientific fraud and fringe thinkers hit the bullseye with respect to Campbell and Hubbard?
It probably was a coincidence – but the juxtaposition made for a very strange issue of “Astounding”and demonstrated how Campbell had suspended his critical faculties with regard to Hubbard and dianetics.
The first page in this issue of “Astounding” was devoted to an advertisement using dianetics to encourage readers to subscribe. The last page is devoted to and advertisement for L Ron Hubbard’s book, “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” from its publisher.
L Ron Hubbard continued to cash in on Campbell gift of invaluable free publicity.
Twenty-five years later, in 1975, L Sprague De Camp published “El Ron and the City of Brass”, a critical assessment of Hubbard’s fiction in the fantasy magazine “Fantastic” . He concluded that Hubbard’s writing was marked by “slapdash haste and carelessness.”
De Camp also discusses the history of dianetics, and wonders why John W Campbell fell for it so hard (as described here by the SF Writer Alfred Bester). He suggests that,
Campbell, a brilliant man with a scientific education who became the greatest of all science-fiction magazine editors, had found active scientific research uncongenial and had made writing and editing his career. One can only speculate why, for many years, he lent himself to one unscientific or borderline idea after another. I suspect that. failing to become a famous scientist himself, he harbored the ambition to be at least the discoverer of such a scientist.
It’s sad that De Camp’s article, way back in September 1950, didn’t give Campbell pause. However, the fact that actually edited and published it without seeing it’s relevance to dianetics suggest that he held his belief in Hubbard’s creation for personal and emotional reasons, which overrode his undoubted intellect.
Anyone who wonders why clever people fall for the doctrines of incoherent groups like Scientology could do worse than study the life of John W Campbell.