The Road From Science Fiction to Self-deception – Dianetics and Scientology in “Astounding Science Fiction” (Part 11)

Download Issue as .pdfASF october 1950

The October 1950 issue of “Astounding” contains L Ron Hubbard’s follow-up to his long article in the May issue (discussed here  in One | Two | Three parts) which had introduced dianetics.

Hubbard’s new article is entitled, “The Analytical Mind”. It’s another long haul, so we will examine it, in detail, in  the next part of this series.

In this post, I would like to discuss the attitudes of writers who worked for “Astounding” and the readers who patronised it with reference to the contents of the October 1950 issue.

It seems to me that the stories, readers and writers of “Astounding” can be placed at different points on  a rational – irrational continuum. At one extreme are the careful, rational people like L Sprague De Camp who wrote sceptical articles and  carefully thought-out stories. Then there were the purveyors of power fantasy, whose fiction provided an escape from a disappointing reality. Next, there were those whose writing mistook fiction for reality. Finally there was the occasional outright fraud.

There are examples of each type in the the pages of this issue. Taking a closer look at them, and the historical context in which they operated, may help us understand why so many people took dianetics so seriously in the 1950s


The Rational – Irrational Continuum in “Astounding Science Fiction”

L Sprague De Camp – The Rational Face of  “Astounding”

L Sprague de Camp 1950We met L Sprague De Camp in the previous part of this series – a scientific sceptic, who pulverised a variety of pseudo-science in two non-fiction articles. Privately, he did not take dianetics seriously for a moment. He represents the ‘rational wing’ of “Astounding”.

He was not alone. The science fiction writer Alfred Bester encountered Campbell at the height of his enthusiasm for dianetics. He read a manuscript  copy of “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” which Campbellpresented him withm and judged it  to be  incomprehensible nonsense.

Isaac Asimov, was intensely loyal to Campbell, because he had helped launch his writing career. Nevertheless he was saddened by Campbell’s enthusiasm for fringe ideas – especially dianetics. There were many others.

It seems to me that De Camp represents one extreme of a continuum which existed in the world inhabited by the pulp science-fiction writers and fans of the 1950s – the rational story-teller.

hand of Zei title page.pdfDe Camp was a man who enjoyed stories, and knew the difference between imaginative play and fantasy. His  four-part story, which begins in this issue, “The Hand of Zei” (page 6) is a case in point.

De Camp’s Zei series  takes an explorer to a planet whose exotic inhabitants and society are a tribute the fantasy world of Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars stories.

However, while Burroughs’ hero travelled to Mars by standing out in the open, staring at the planet and wishing to go, De Camp’s protagonist travels there in a spaceship. De Camp’s world of Zie is also more carefully thought out, and every aspect is supported by a scientific rationale.  It’s an entertaining story which respects the difference between fiction and fantasy.

Raymond F Jones – Scientific Power Fantasy


An Illustration from “Discontinuity” pg 94

Also in this issue is a story entitled, “Discontinuity” by Raymond F Jones (pg 76).  In it, scientists perfect a process which transforms ordinary people into intellectual supermen and saves the world.

Jones’ story is a power fantasy – a temporary escape for readers from a disappointing reality and a type of story that often appeared in “Astounding”. It promises them achievement without effort.

People who read (or write) fiction which offers a comforting alternative to reality are, perhaps, a little more vulnerable to self-deception, so the move a little further down the rational-irrational continuum than De Camp’s approach.

John W Campbell, Conspiracy Theorist

behind the flying saucers.pdf John W Campbell’s editorial (beginning on page 4)  is devoted to the question of ‘flying saucers’ – another fad that was (significantly) taking hold at the same time as dianetics.

This was the subject of a book, advertised on a full page (164) at the end of the magazine.

Campbell opens his editorial discussion as an apparent sceptic. He suggest that that there is just not enough reliable evidence to support the ‘extraterrestrial visitors’ thesis offered to explain observations of what we would now call UFOs.

Of course, there was no evidence to support dianetics, either. Campbell’s scepticism was curiously selective.

USAF SaucerCampbell  concludes with a subtle suggestion that, if there is a core of truth in these reports, it is the result of observers spotting secret projects undertaken by the Atomic Energy Commission into ‘anti-gravity’ aircraft. He points out that the security which surrounds nuclear installations would make it easy to conceal such projects.

The same kind of attitude endures today, in the conspiracy theories surrounding ‘Area 51’.

Campbell gives readers a hint of  real invincible nuclear-powered US aircraft which would defend them from the bombs of the Soviet Union. This is the point of balance between fantasy and fraud. Campbell is offering a theory for the ‘flying saucer’ reports. He does not offer any evidence for it – but he is not claiming it is true, either. Whether or not you believe is up to you.

L Ron Hubbard  – Pseudo-scientific Fraud

Hubbard’s contribution to this issue is his article about first foundation.pdfdianetics entitled, “The Analytical Mind”(which we will examine in the next post in this series) and an advertisement for the his ‘dianetic foundation’

The advertisement appears on the  first page of “Astounding”in the form of an “Announcement”.  It is selling membership of “The Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation”

The first page of the magazine, facing the contents page, was a prime spot normally used to sell the subscriptions upon which the financial health of any pulp magazine depended. The fact that Campbell allowed Hubbard to take it, confirms his commitment to the cause.

Campbell apparently sincerely believed that L Ron Hubbard had invented a new science, which would revolutionise human society and deserved a Nobel Peace Prize.

Campbell practised dianetics, was part of Hubbard’s ‘inner circle’ and wanted the subject to be researched in a systematic way and he enthusiastically supported Hubbard’s ambition to create a ‘Dianetics Research Foundation.’

Hubbard exploited this vulnerability to the hilt and benefited from invaluable publicity – an now income. It cost $15 per annum to become and “Associate Member” of  “The Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation.” This was a substantial sum of money for readers of “Astounding” – a year’s subscription to the magazine (12 issues) only cost $2.50, including postage.

What’s more, the only benefit of associate membership seems to be the receipt of “Bulletins issued by the Foundation periodically to Associate Members.” Hubbard was selling newsletters, written by himself, for the same price as a substantial magazine.

Finally, “Professional Membership was “[…] only open to those trained at the Foundation”. Hubbard was planning to:

  • Planning to charge money to ‘train’ people to deliver ‘dianetic therapy’
  • Promising trainees professional status.
  • Planning to charge an subscription for ‘Professional Membership’ (likely to be significantly more the $15 ‘associate membership’ charge).

L Ron Hubbard whiting decisively tips the balance from fantasy to fraud. In his articles about dianetics, and the activities proposed for his ‘foundation’ he is presenting fiction as if it were reality (and exploiting it for money).

For example, he claims that the ‘Dianetic therapy’ described in his book will make them superior to ‘ordinary’ humans. If they train with him at the new ‘Dianetic Research Foundation they will earn the respect and income due to a medical professional. If everyone receives this therapy, it will bring about a golden age of peace an prosperity.  All he asks for in return is a (substantial) sum of money.

Hubbard had no evidence whatsoever to support any of his claims – but never hesitated to assert that he did. According to Hubbard, his claims had been demonstrated again and again, without exception in ‘research’ and ‘case studies’  – none of which actually existed. The people who sent him that cheques did not care about this – they wanted to believe.

Hubbard may have believed his own claims. However, the fact that he could not back them up, and the amount of money he extracted from his followers suggests that he was, nevertheless, a fraud who had taken in John W Campbell and, through him, many of the readers or “Astounding”.

The Readers

There is only one reader’s letter in this issue which mention dianetics (on pg131). One reader describes to Campbell the  articles and stories she and her husband had most enjoyed during the last two years of “Astounding” and notes,

“Dianetics”, of course, will last as a top article. I don’t know if this because of your personal enthusiasm or not, but we’ve sent for the book. The “Aphrodite Project” was exciting; we wished it were authentic.

Campbell’s promotion of Hubbard’s book had evidently persuaded even sceptical readers to buy Hubbard’s product and try it out.

However, these were people who had just lived through a World War, which had accelerated the advance of science and engineering. That conflict ended with the use of nuclear weapons – a scientific miracle. Then, it struck up again in the form of the Cold War – a terrifying stand-off which the Soviet Union which could turn ‘hot’ at any time. Stories of the aftermath of nuclear war constituted a well-recognised sub-genre of science fiction.

People did not generally understand the science (some of which was still a military secret) behind these advances. They did not know the difference between a scientific miracle and a pseudo-scientific claim and relied upon men like Campbell for reliable information. In the case of dianetics, he let them down, and L Ron Hubbard mercilessly exploited his weakness.

The Prototype for the Dianetics Fad?

shaver mysteryThis kind of thing had happened before.  In 1945, the editor of another science fiction pulp magazine – “Amazing Stories” had published stories by a Richard Sharpe Shaver, a writer who claimed that the things he described in his fiction were real.

Shaver relates an arc-welding accident in which an electric shock gave him the power to receive the thoughts of malignant entities who lived underground (the “Deros”). Their ‘mind rays’, he assured readers, were  responsible for most of the evil that befalls mankind.

People took this seriously, for a time forming groups which discussed “The Shaver Mystery”, and finding evidence of the activities of the malignant Deros in everyday life. Sales of “Amazing Stories” soared until the editor came to over-rely upon it, and the fad ran out of steam.


“Astounding Science Fiction” was a ‘broad Church’ which, at one time or another, embraced a variety of writers from rationalist debunkers to fantasy writers. Although the emphasis was on science fiction stories based on science (or reasonable extrapolations from contemporary scientific developments) in practice it embraced a wide range of styles.

“Astoundings” editor, John W Campbell, made it the leading periodical in its field – but he also occasionally upset the balance with his enthusiasms for fringe ideas. In the case of L Ron Hubbard and dianetics, he allowed wishful thinking to lead him astray. He mistook a power fantasy for a real scientific development because he wanted to believe in Hubbard’s promise. Hubbard made a fortune from Campbell’s mistake, which started him out on his infamous career as 20th Century guru and founder of Scientology.


6 thoughts on “The Road From Science Fiction to Self-deception – Dianetics and Scientology in “Astounding Science Fiction” (Part 11)

  1. Sorry, but your link to the PDF download doesn’t work—just goes to the JPG of the front cover at the moment. I’m enjoying this series as much for the chance to read old issues of ‘Astounding’ as for your cogent analysis of how Hubbard really got started in his con-trick 🙂

    • The link is now fixed! Please don’t apologise. It appears when I copied and pasted some text, the image URL overwrote the file link. I would not have noticed unless you had pointed it out. Thank you.

      What fascinates me is the huge effort that evidently went into the promotion of dianetics – by Campbell and others as well as by Hubbard.

      When you read about the début of “Astounding” you often get the impression that the May 1950 issue came out, and dianetics ‘took off’, just like that. Scientologists especially would like to be believe that Hubbard’s dianetics article attracted massive attention on its own merits as a thesis. It didn’t – its success was due to the huge amount of free publicity provided over an extended period of time, by a very popular magazine which catered to an ideal target audience. That publicity was priceless, and if Hubbard had not captivated Campbell’s mind and persuaded him to promote dianetics in “Astounding” so often, his creation would likely never have been heard of.

      An earlier version of dianetics had, of course appeared in “The Explorer’s Journal” and sunk without trace.

      PS: there seems to be a correlation between Scientology-watching and a long interest in science fiction.

      • Thanks for fixing it 🙂 Campbell was a good SF editor, a mediocre scientist and a lousy judge of character: he later fell for the ‘Dean Drive’ which supposedly generated “reactionless” force, defying Newton and making anti-gravity possible—which proved as science-fictional as H.G. Wells’s ‘Cavorite’. Campbell also tends to confirm the intermittent correlation between believing in Scientology and a far-right conspiracy-theory mindset. But then again, he did write the superb SF novella Who Goes There?, so he wasn’t totally irredeemable.

        • Campbell also fell for the truly weird ‘Hieronymus machine’ in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

           Hieronymus Machine

          This time his support of the inventor in numerous editorials was not appreciated. because he favoured the ‘Symbolic Hieronymus machine‘.

          This consisted of symbols written on paper to represent components of the machine (like the ‘circuit diagram’ above) which (according to Campbell) worked as well as the hardware version, because it focussed and directed the psi powers of the ‘operator’.

          The inventor took umbrage at Campbell’s suggestion that the symbolic version of his device was magical in nature and objected to Campbell’s accounts of his ‘research’. It seems to me that it was was , in fact, a variation on the practice using text and ritual to focus the will) – magic dressed up as electronic engineering.

          This idea bears a striking resemblance to ‘Radionics’, a form of remote medical ‘diagnosis and treatment’ invented by a George Delawarr.

          The fringe political groups that Campbell became involved in (including the John Birch League) were, indeed extreme right wing, even for the US during the Cold War.

          Later on in the series, I will get to my theory of why Campbell and some of his intelligent, educated writers and fans took dianetics seriously, while others immediately saw it for the incoherent nonsense it was. Maybe one day I will look into the issues that contain Campbell’s thoughts on the Hieronymus machine as a kind of postscript.

          I have a scan of an early copy of “Who Goes There” and many of Campbell’s stories were published in “Astounding” under pseudonyms. I was looking for way to work that in, too.

          • The Hieronymus machine is obviously a latter-day version of Albert Abrams’s proto-radionic gizmos: Like Hieronymus’s “symbolic machine” (a reversion to talismanic magic, surely?) at a pinch Abrams could dispense with mysterious black boxes: a blood-sample on blotting-paper held to the forehead of a male assistant—stripped to the waist and sitting facing in a certain direction—could be diagnosed from the sounds made by Abrams tapping the assistant on his solar plexus. But his devices like the ‘Dynomizer’ or the nasty-sounding ‘Oscilloclast’ and ‘Autoclast’ were obviously more profitable; unlike De La Warr and Hieronymus, who seem to have genuinely believed in their inventions, Abrams was a conscious fraudster.

            There’s a Jehovah’s Witness connection too: in the 1920’s the cult’s leader “Judge” Rutherford became convinced of the virtues of the ‘Electronic Radio Biola’, another black box invented by a follower; sold them too, through the pages of ‘The Golden Age’, predecessor to ‘Awake!’ magazine, as a cure for almost all ailments. That was nothing compared to Rutherford’s other crank beliefs: that aluminium saucepans were poisonous, that eating radium was good for one’s health, that vaccination was a medical plot to spread disease, or that blood-transfusion was prohibited in the Old Testament… Considering how many thousands of unnecessary deaths this latter piece of nonsense still causes among 8 million or so faithful JWs every year, it makes Hubbard’s quackeries look almost benign.

            • It’s amazing how so many fringe ‘thinkers’ seem to gravitate towards variations upon a very few basic ideas. Sometimes this happens because those ideas are already ‘out there’ in the cultic milieu in another form. However, they often come up with the same old same old independently, and genuinely believe that it’s original to them.

              I suppose if you are going to make make unfalsifiable claims (especially ones that try to piggyback on the prestige of real science) in an age when we know so much more that we used to (and have made that knowledge more accessible) you have a limited palette to paint with.

              As for the JWs, the harm they have done, down the years, demonstrates the importance of not allowing irrational movements which advocate and practice quack medicine (e.g. Scientology) to become self-sustaining.

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