My recent series of posts about dianetics in “Astounding Science Fiction” have covered the 1950s fad for ‘dianetic therapy’ from the point of view of those who promoted and believed in it – predominantly SF readers and writers.
Although little or no dissenting opinion was published in “Astounding” this was by no means the case in the mainstream press. The reaction to L Ron Hubbard’s book there was almost universally hostile.
This post will examine two articles from the period. the first was a book review written by a doctor, which appeared in the serious US magazine “New Republic”. The second was an article written by a journalist published in the popular publication “Look”. They are representative of the ridicule and condemnation that dianetics attracted accross the whole range of the mainstream press.
The first article, by Dr Martin Gumpert, is available from its archive. It is introduced by a contemporary editor. This person observes that, while Gumpert may have gone a little over the top with his condemnation of dianetics, he was spot-on in characterising dianetics as a potentially dangerous pseudo-science.
In the first paragraph of his review, Gumpert links Hubbard’s book to another work of pseudo-science that was selling well at the time – Emmanuel Velikovsky’s book “Worlds in Collision“. This was based on the scientifically illiterate ‘theory’ that 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). “Worlds in Collision” was, ironically, the subject of a scathing review in “Astounding Science Fiction” at the same time that the magazine’s editor was using that publication to promote “Dianetics” for all he was worth.
The “New Republic” Review
While Hubbard certainly did write for a variety of pulp fiction magazines, and was best-known for the science he wrote under his own name, he was not a civil engineer.
Hubbard did take a course in civil engineering at George Washington University between 1930 and 1932. However, he failed to complete the first year coursework, and left without a degree.
An image of his transcript can be seen in the image on the left (click on it to see a larger version in a new tab). If he ever worked as a civil engineer, it was under false pretences.
However, Gumpert obviously read the book he was charged with reviewing most conscientiously. His description of Hubbard’s ‘thesis’ and claims is clear, accurate and lucid – if you want to know what dianetics was supposed to be about, read Gumpurt, not Hubbard.
The reviewer then proceeds to take those claims apart noting, along the way, that:
Whatever makes sense in his “discoveries” does not belong to him, and his own theory appears to this reviewer as a paranoiac system which would be of interest as part of a case history, but which seems quite dangerous when offered for mass consumption as a therapeutic technique.
This thought has occurred, at some point, to every new critic of dianetics and Scientology over the last 65 years.
The “Look” Article
While this article is written in a more popular style, it also gets its facts right. What’s more, it includes an examination of the lucrative activities of L Ron Hubbard’s short lived “Hubbard Dianetic Institutes,”
The author notes that Hubbard not only claims to be able to cure “[…] eye trouble, bursitis, ulcers, some heart difficulties, migraine headaches and the common cold” but also Tuberculosis (which was feared during this period as it was air-borne and incurable). Then, Hubbard hints that dianetics will soon be able to cure cancer:
“At the present time,” Hubbard concludes, “Dianetics research is scheduled to include cancer and diabetes. There are a number of reasons to suppose that these may be engramic in cause, particularly malignant cancer.”
You get the impression that Hubbard initially welcomed this kind of critical attention, on the principle that ‘any publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right’.
While this author also gets the details of the ‘theory’ and the claims made by dianetics right, conscientiously and accurately debunking his claims was possibly counter-productive – the press might have been better advised to simply ignore dianetics. For many counter-suggestible readers, the idea that ‘the establishment’ was almost universally hostile to dianetics was almost a recommendation.
Of course,the press could never ignore such a good, bizarre story because it would attract readers. Who could resist the story of a man who opens a book of outrageous pseudo-scientific claims with the modest words,
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.”
We are treated to Hubbard’s account of his supposed research at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital – but by this point in the article it has been made clear that nothing the man said could be taken seriously.
Both the review and the article are quite short, and worth a read. They reveal how dianetics was viewed, at the height of its influence, by the overwhelming majority who did not fall for Hubbard’s claims.