From 1951 -Two Classic SF Writers and L Ron Hubbard Argue About Dianetics in “Marvel Science Stories”

Marvel coverMarvel Science Stories | Special Feature – The Dianetics Question: A Controversy| L Ron Hubbard, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey | Portraitist Carl Burgos | May 1951 | Download whole issue as .pdf |Download Article Only as .pdf (Click on the grey ‘download through your browser’ button in new tab).

This issue of the pulp science fiction magazine, “Marvel Science Stories” was published in May 1951 – one year after the first article describing “Dianetics” appeared in “Astounding Science Fiction.”

During this time, the editor of”Astounding”, John W Campbell ( initially an enthusiastic convert) had promoted dianetics for all he was worth.

However, by March 1951 the dianetics fad had run its course in “Astounding” (you can follow the rise and fall of dianetics in “Astounding Science Fiction” here).

“Marvel” took this opportunity to capitalise on the interest in the subject that had been generated by “Astounding” among SF fans  by publishing a written debate between Hubbard and two prominent SF authors.

Hubbard didn’t get the easy ride he’d had from Campbell.  Although Theodore Sturgeon rather sat on the fence, he was far from enthusiastic and Lester del Rey dismissed dianetics as absurd pseudo-science.

This kind of thing article had been published before. The SF author James Blish had given a generally favourable assessment of “Dianetics” in another pulp SF magazine, “Planet Stories“, in November 1950 – only six months after its introduction.

However, by May 1951, when”Marvel” joined the fray, the SF community seems to have tired of the hype surrounding dianetics. They were apparently prepared to kick Hubbard a bit, while he was down.

Here’s how the ‘debate’ was presented:

marvel contents page.pdfLets examine them in that order.

Homo Superior – Here We Come (L Ron Hubbard)Hubbards portrait in Marvel.pdf

Hubbard opens with a convoluted anecdote which deploys his two favourite tactics – presenting a scare story about controversial aspects of psychiatry, and making unsupported claims about the efficacy of dianetics.

He describes a girl who was supposedly,

Being carefully observed in a state mental institution after a long series of electric shocks, and her doctor was on the point of deciding that there was no more hope for her to completely recover, and no hope for getting her out of the hospital except through a pre-frontal lobotomy.

Today, this girl is living a normal life with her family. She has just successfully completed a business course [and] has secured a job […].

This is dianetics at work. The two persons who have worked with this girl had no previous training in mental therapy, and used only dianetic processing.

Needless to say, absolutely no evidence for these claims is presented. Hubbard does claim that “The Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation is preparing evidential material that will soon be published” – however nothing convincing ever emerged.

He continues to his real pitch – selling dianetics as self-improvement. He describes someone who is, as a result of studying the subject, was “[…] far more dynamic, and yet makes fewer people angry. He is a better human being.” That’s a bit of a come-down from those wild medical claims.

Hubbard is clearly peeved by Lester del Rey’s article (which has seen in advance) but he answers none of its criticisms. Instead, he attacks del Rey himself – and uses dianetics to do so:

The viciousness of Mr del Rey’s attack displays so clearly the abberative force behind it, that no defence on this matter should be necessary.

In other words: ‘dianetics is valid because it shows that my critics are irrational for opposing it. The only sane people are those who accept dianetics’. There’s a circular argument.

Hubbard’s reasoning goes downhill from there. del Rey is charged with arguing that the “common sense” of laymen is inferior to qualified medical opinion (huh?) and his opponent is charged with condemning dianetics only because he has neither practised nor understood it.

Hubbard closes with some very questionable “proof” of the efficacy of Forrest J Ackerman 1951dianetics – a long quote from his own literary agent the flamboyant Forrest J Ackerman (incidentally misspelling Ackerman’s name with only one ‘r’).

You get the feeling that Hubbard now has followers, and his heart’s not really in the business of defending dianetics in print any more.

Perhaps this partwas actually Hubbard writing in Ackerman’s name. Perhaps not. Either way, it is unconvincing. For a start, Ackerman has a vested financial interest in Hubbard’s literary success.

Ackerman presents Hubbard’s best fiction (now dated and obscure) as if it supported his claims to have invented a new Science. Sorry Florrie – that just doesn’t follow.

It’s interesting that Ackerman dials Hubbard’s hype back a little – but his claims for the state of Clear are still remarkable. he assures us that Clears have no psychiatric problems, need only 4 hours sleep a night and not only recall but also re-experience everything that has happened to them, in this and previous lives, with photographic clarity.

For anyone who wants to actually see a clear, Ackerman explains that one of their talents is the ability to avoid attention. After all,

[..] ‘normal’ people would want to poke at them and probe, 25 hours a day, demanding “What tricks can you do? Prove to me that you’re a clear!”

Finally, Ackerman assures us that he, and 6,000 other people in LA have seen a clear in the person of Sonya Bianca. He evidently did not know that her presentation  in the Shrine Auditorium in August 1950 as ‘The World’s First Clear” was a humiliating calamity for Hubbard (or perhaps Hubbard, hoping that word had not got around, was going for a big bluff).

Bianca certainly did not demonstrate her photographic memory. When questions were invited, a member of the audience, having heard Bianca was studying physics, asked her to recall a simple formula. She couldn’t. Neither could she remember the colour of Hubbard’s tie when his back was turned.

The audience laughed and jeered at Hubbard, then left. SF writers and fans were starting to do the same.

How To Avoid a Hole in the Head (Theodore Sturgeon)

About Theodore Sturgeon

Sturgeon's portrait in Marvel.pdfTheodore Sturgeon was the model for the Author Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout.  In Vonnegut’s early novel, “God Bless You Mr Rosewater” he observed of Trout, “His prose was frightful. Only his ideas were good.”

That’s a fair criticism of Sturgeon. However, people didn’t read pulp science fiction to learn about perfect literary form – they wanted novel, interesting ideas and a sense of wonder with their adventure stories. Sturgeon was very good at this.

One of his best novels is entitled, “Some of Your Blood“. It’s a psychological horror story/mystery with a happy ending. The therapist who brings that happy ending about was probably modelled on an (infeasibly effective)  practitioner of dianetics.

How to Avoid a Hole in the Head

Sturgeon opens with the observation that the subject of dianetics polarises opinion and makes a plea for “general openmindedness and progressive thought [rather] than a rundown of dianetics” (presumably he means ‘rather than running dianetics down’).

He’s not initially concerned with the truth or falsehood of Hubbard’s creation, but offers both sides of the argument some advice about conducting a civilised debate, instead.

For example, he advises those who “Are agin it” to, “read the more understandable parts of the (acutely badly-written book) […] and then try the therapy yourself before you start shooting your mouth off”. Back in 1951 this was a reasonable point – although some would argue that the ‘theory’ of dianetics was so incoherent and unsupported that objectively testing it was hardly worth the effort.

in passing, we should note that Sturgeon was supposed to be the “Middle of the Road”commentator, and calling Dianetics (the book) “acutely badly-written” was not a good start for Hubbard.

Sturgeon also advise opponents to “stop making such a fuss” about the similarity between Freudian ideas of the unconscious and Hubbard’s reactive mind. In doing so, he inadvertently highlights the fact that dianetics is mostly plagiarised psychoanalysis.

Some of his advice to supporters of dianetics is still valid today. For example, “Only a fool with accept the whole because he finds one or two of its parts acceptable.” Also, his observation that blind faith is dangerous and “L Ron Hubbard” is not the Messiah.

Unfortunately, he then goes an spoils it all by observing that “dianetics, for all its effectiveness is not a panacea” and “Don’t get so cocky as you acquire experience in auditing that think you can throw the ground rules out.” All you can say to this, many years later is ‘show me the evidence for the effectiveness of dianetics’. In fact, this is precisely what the next author, Lester Del Rey, does say.

Sturgeon appears to have tried dianetics out for himself, and fallen for it to some extent. However, back in 1951, he made an admirable (if naive) case for a fair minded assessment.

Del reys portrait in Marvel.pdfSuperman – COD (Lester del Rey)

About Lester del Rey

Today, Lester del Rey is remembered more for his work as an editor and publisher than for his fiction.

When pulp magazines started to give way to radio and television, science fiction was one of the few genres which successfully made the transition to book publishing. Authors gradually commanded better wages and had more time to polish their work – with the help of good editors like Del Rey – leading to SF with real literary quality.

His lasting legacy is probably his work editing del Ray books, with his wife, Judy-Lynn del Rey.

Superman – COD

del Rey goes straight for the throat, comparing what he sees as one of the appeals of dianetics  – namely, “The secret feeling that you’re basically superior to your fellow man” – with that of racism. He expands on this by explaining  the popularity of Hubbard’s book, “Dianetics” as due to the fact that, “It gives the credulous reason to believe that he can really the superman he always felt he was”.

As he continues, you wonder if del Rey isn’t getting in  a subtle personal dig at Hubbard.

[Dianetics] purports to be a science, which is the current catch-word to replace the older back-magic in the popular mind. The fact that it lacks  a fundamental scientific basis has little to do with the average, untrained reader’s idea that he is being scientific in trying out the “Experiments” – totally without controls or any basis of objective evaluation – in the book.

There’s  a valid criticism regarding scientific method – something Hubbard never understood. The reference to confusing science with magic is also fascinating, and still relevant today. However, you have to wonder if  del Rey had  heard rumours of Hubbard’s  strange activities with the pioneering rocket scientist and black magician Jack Parsons, and was taunting him. Hubbard’s peevish article certainly suggest that del Rey had hit a number of nerves.

del Rey than proceeds to take “Dianetics” apart, starting with Hubbard’s misuse of the terms ‘axiom’ and ‘theory’ and moving on from there. He even attacks Hubbard’s great revelation.

The dynamic principle of existence is SURVIVE according to him. Sheer gobbledegook. The principle of living is living! Or, if he means the “dynamic principle is the desire or struggle to survive – another thing – it sounds good, but it is a long way from certain.

Lester del Rey is one of the first to state that Hubbard’s writing often looks as if it makes sense, but dissolves into meaningless ambiguity the moment you inspect it closely – you are constantly left asking, “what does that even mean?” He won’t be the last.

Del Rey’s most damning criticism (which he pursues at great length) is the total lack of evidence for any of Hubbard’s many and various claims on behalf of dianetics.

There are all kinds of statements about demonstrable proof – but when we get done with the book, all we have is Hubbard’s word and the injunction to go out and try the therapy. […] True, he does give some rather interesting and sex-sadistic little stories as case histories, but they have about as much relation to case histories as the Doc Methuselah stories do.

For all his scepticism, del Rey tried hard to meet a ‘Clear’  – with no success. He observes, “Supposedly there are 270 such people. That should be enough to interest scientific investigation”. Then he ridicules Sturgeon’s weak notion that Clears concealing are themselves so as not to bothered by the curiosity of we mere mortals.

All Del Rey wants is to see results and not studies undertaken “by men who have a major stake in seeing dianetics accepted.” He points that he officers of the tax exempt  ‘Dianetics Research Foundation’ (including Hubbard) can “draw any salary they choose of themselves [and] arrange for a life-time, handsome source of income”.

That must have  irked Hubbard too. The Dianetics Foundations were getting into financial difficulties precisely because he had been too greedy, drawing too much money out for himself, and killing the Goose that was laying his golden eggs. Dianetics would file for bankruptcy eight months later, in February 1952

Del Rey closes by demolishing Hubbard’s peevish contention that he did not respect the common sense of the ordinary people who supported dianetics.

Common-sense indicated that dianetics is much too risky for its use generally, or for a parlour game. After all, if the common judgement had been used as a test, morphine would have accepted as a remarkable cure-all, second only to heroin.

Game, set and match.


5 thoughts on “From 1951 -Two Classic SF Writers and L Ron Hubbard Argue About Dianetics in “Marvel Science Stories”

    • It’s also possible he picked the term up from a story by Robert Heinlein Hubbard was a guest in Heinlein’s home for a while, and they knew each other quite well.

      Heinlein was very concerned for returning veterans. He had been invalided out of the US Navy because of TB, and spent his war doing weapons research. He helped out many returning veterans afterwards by giving them a place to live – and fell for Hubbard’s ‘war hero’ story hook, line and sinker.

      Hubbard only moved on when he found other free accomodation with the pioneering rocket scientist and ‘black magician’ John Whiteside Parsons, which is a whole other story.

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