Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John W. Campbell

The doctor’s dilemma

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In 1949, when John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard prepared to reveal dianetics to the world, one of their first orders of business was to recruit their fellow writers to the cause. Numerous authors—most famously Alfred Bester—have provided accounts of their efforts, and occasionally, they worked, most notably in the cases of Theodore Sturgeon and A.E. van Vogt. Another obvious prize was Isaac Asimov, with whom Campbell had perhaps the closest working relationship of any author of the time, although Asimov was arguably the writer least inclined to be sympathetic to Hubbard’s theories. He had written disparagingly in his diary of “Hubbard’s dabblings in amateur psychiatry,” and when he and L. Sprague de Camp finally read the first article on dianetics in Astounding, he was no more convinced than before: “Neither Sprague nor I were in the least impressed. I considered it gibberish.” Yet he remained unwilling to confront his old friend and mentor about it directly. After Campbell made one last attempt at a hard sell, Asimov resisted, leading the editor to complain about his “built-in doubter.” But Asimov never seems to have revealed the full extent of his contempt for dianetics, perhaps because he was afraid of risking a valued friendship, or at least an important market for his fiction. (His fears on that front may not have been justified. After Lester del Rey criticized dianetics openly in print, he was told that he would never be able to sell to the magazine again. He responded by writing up a submission and delivering it to Campbell in person. On his arrival, the editor greeted him warmly: “I guess we’re not going to talk about dianetics, are we?” And he bought the story.)

Recently, I came across a fascinating piece of evidence about Asimov’s state of mind at the time, in the form of an actual review that he wrote of the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. (The exact provenance of this article remains a mystery to me, and I’m happy to throw it out to any readers here for help. I found the original manuscript in the Asimov collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, dated June 19, 1950, and a clipping of the piece is available online. Unfortunately, neither source indicates where the item first appeared, apart from the fact that it was evidently a newspaper in New York. As far as I can tell, Asimov doesn’t mention it in his memoirs, and I haven’t seen it in bibliographies of his work. My very rudimentary attempts to track it down haven’t gone anywhere, and I’ll try again when I have time, but anyone out there who cares is welcome to give it a shot.) It was published after Asimov claimed to have already dismissed Hubbard’s work as “gibberish,” but anyone looking for a similar takedown here will be disappointed. Here’s how it opens:

L. Ron Hubbard is an optimist. He believes the human being to be essentially sane and good, and the human mind to be, potentially, a perfect thinking machine. Furthermore, he proposes a new technique of mental therapy which, he claims, is so simple that it can be supervised by almost anyone who reads the book and so effective that, properly handled, it can eradicate all neuroses and most diseases.

Asimov continues with a concise but accurate description of Hubbard’s ideas, including the assertion that the patient’s memory can be brought back to “a pre-natal state,” and his treatment of it leaves little doubt that he read the book carefully.

Yet in stark contrast to his private statements and his later characterization of his response in his memoirs, Asimov bends over backward to avoid criticizing the book in any meaningful way. After a brief summary, he writes:

That the book is startling is evident, I believe, even from the short description of its contents here. It might even be dismissed out of hand as incredible were it not for the fact that Freud’s theories (to say nothing of Einstein’s and Galileo’s) must have seemed equally startling and even incredible to their contemporaries…What can one say…except that these days it is a brave man indeed who would dismiss any theory as unbelievable. The author invites investigation of his claims by psychiatrists and medical men, and it would be interesting to see what they say.

Asimov is careful to hedge his language—the article is full of phrases like “he believes,” “he proposes,” “he claims”—but the overall tone is one of studied neutrality. Every now and then, there’s a hint of his underlying skepticism, although you have to look hard to see it:

Of course, if what Hubbard claims for dianetics is true, there will be no stopping it. One man will “clear” another, until within the lifetime of those living today, all the world will be free or almost free of disease, insanity, and evil. On the other hand, if Hubbard is mistaken, we are led to the melancholy conclusion that the world will continue as is.

At first, it doesn’t seem hard to understand why Asimov was reluctant to come out against dianetics in print. He knew that Campbell was all but certain to see the review, and he appears to have written it with precisely one reader in mind. Yet there’s also a deeper tension here. The year before, Asimov had accepted a position as an instructor at the medical school at Boston University, and he would spend much of the next decade worried about his job security, as well as how his work in science fiction would be perceived. (When the dust jacket of his first novel, Pebble in the Sky, mentioned the school by name, he was nervous enough about it to speak to the dean, James Faulkner. Faulkner asked if it was a good book, and when Asimov said that his publishers thought so, the dean responded: “In that case, the medical school will be glad to be identified with it.”) Yet even at this delicate moment, he allowed his byline to appear on a review in which an instructor in biochemistry failed to express any reservations over such elements as “memories at the cellular level.” The only possible conclusion is that Asimov, remarkably, was still more concerned about what Campbell would think than about his colleagues in Boston, and it led him to remain neutral at a time in which such writers as Lester del Rey were publicly attacking dianetics. Frankly, I’m surprised that he even agreed to write the review, which could hardly have benefited him in any meaningful way. To the best of my knowledge, Asimov never explained his reasoning, or even mentioned writing it at all. For obvious reasons, it was never reprinted, and Asimov clearly preferred to forget about it. But its last lines were undeniably prescient: “It will be interesting to wait and see. It shouldn’t take more than a few years to check up on dianetics.”

The invisible library

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Over the last week, three significant events occurred in the timeline of my book Astounding. The page proofs—the typeset text to which the author can still make minor changes and corrections—were due back at my publisher on Wednesday. Yesterday, I received a boxful of uncorrected advance copies, which look great. And I got paid. This last point might not seem worth mentioning, but it’s an aspect of the process that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. An advance payment for a book, which is often the only money that a writer ever sees, is usually delivered in three installments. (The breakdown depends on the terms of the contract, but it’s roughly divided into thirds, although the first chunk is generally a little larger than the others, and the middle one tends to be the smallest.) One piece is paid on signing; another on acceptance of the manuscript; and the last on publication. In practice, the payments can get held up for one reason or another, and in my case, nearly two and a half years passed between the first installment and the second. That’s a long time to stretch it out. And it points to one of the challenges of the publishing industry, which is that it’s survivable only by writers who have either an alternative source of income or a robust support structure. This naturally limits the kinds of voices and the range of subjects that it can accommodate. I don’t think that I could have written this book in under three years if I had been working a regular job, and the fact that I managed to pull it off at all was thanks to luck, good timing, and a very patient spouse.

But it also provided me with fresh insight into one of my great unanswered questions about this project, which was why no one had ever done it before. A biography of John W. Campbell seemed like such an obvious and necessary book that I was amazed to realize that it didn’t exist, and it was that moment of realization that inspired this whole enterprise. If anything like it had been attempted in the past, even in an obscure academic publication, I don’t think I would have tackled it in the first place. One explanation for its absence is that the best time for such a book would have been in the late seventies, when such writers as Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl were publishing their memoirs, and by the time various obstacles had been sorted out, its moment had come and gone. And it’s also true that Campbell’s life presents particular challenges that might dissuade potential biographers. It would have been a tough project for anyone, and one of my advantages may have been that I underestimated the difficulties that it would present. But the simple fact, as I’ve come to appreciate, is that the odds are against any book seeing the light of day. This one hinged on a combination of factors so unlikely that I have trouble believing it myself, and if just one of those pieces had failed to fall into place, it never would have happened. Maybe someone else would have tried again a decade from now, but I’m not sure. If it seems inevitable to me now, that’s another reason to reflect on the many books that have yet to be written. (Even within the field of science fiction, there are staggering omissions. There’s no biography or study of Leigh Brackett, for instance, and I strongly encourage someone else to pitch it before I do.) This book exists, which is a miracle in itself. But for every book that sees print, there’s an invisible library of unwritten—and equally worthy—books behind it.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2018 at 8:33 am

The bedtime story

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Earlier this morning, I finally got my hands on the companion book to James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, which is airing this month on AMC. Naturally, I immediately looked for references to the four main subjects of Astounding, and the passage that caught my eye first was an exchange between Cameron and Steven Spielberg:

Spielberg: The working title of E.T. was Watch the Skies. Which is sort of the last line from The Thing. I just remember looking at the sky because of the influence of my father, and saying, only good should come from that. If it ain’t an ICBM coming from the Soviet Union, only good should come from beyond our gravitational hold…He was a visionary about that, yet he read all the Analog. Those paperbacks? And Amazing Stories, the paperbacks of that. I used to read that along with him. Sometimes, he’d read those books to me, those little tabloids to me at night.

Cameron: Asimov, Heinlein, all those guys were all published in those pulp magazines.

Spielberg: They were all published in those magazines, and a lot of them were optimists. They weren’t always calculating our doom. They were finding ways to open up our imagination and get us to dream and get us to discover and get us to contribute to the greater good.

The discussion quickly moves on to other subjects, but not before hinting at the solution to a mystery that I’ve been trying to figure out for years, which is why the influence of Astounding and its authors can be so hard to discern in the work of someone like Spielberg. In part, it’s a matter of timing. Spielberg was born in 1946, which means that he would have been thirteen when John W. Campbell announced that that his magazine was changing its title to Analog. As a result, at a point at which he should have been primed to devour science fiction, Spielberg doesn’t seem to have found its current incarnation all that interesting, for which you can hardly blame him. Instead, his emotional associations with the pulps were evidently passed down through his father, Arnold Spielberg, an electrical engineer who worked for General Electric and RCA. The elder Spielberg, remarkably, is still active at the age of 101, and just two months ago, he said in an interview with GE Reports:

I was also influenced by science fiction. There were twins in our neighborhood who read one of the first sci-fi magazines, called Astounding Stories of Science and Fact. They gave me one copy, and when I brought it home, I was hooked. The magazine is now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and I still get it.

And while I don’t think that there’s any way of verifying it, if Arnold Spielberg—the father of Steven Spielberg—isn’t the oldest living subscriber to Analog, he must be close.

This sheds light on his son’s career, although perhaps not in the way that you might think. Spielberg is such a massively important figure that his very existence realigns the history of the genre, and when he speaks of his influences, we need to be wary of the shadow cast by his inescapable personality. But there’s no denying the power—and truth—of the image of Arnold Spielberg reading from the pulps aloud to his son. It feels like an image from one of Spielberg’s own movies, which has been shaped from the beginning by the tradition of oral storytelling. (It’s worth noting, though, that the father might recall things differently than the son. In his biography of the director, Joseph McBride quotes Arnold Spielberg: “I’ve been reading science fiction since I was seven years old, all the way back to the earliest Amazing Stories. Amazing, Astounding, Analog—I still subscribe. I still read ’em. My kids used to complain, ‘Dad’s in the bathroom with a science-fiction magazine. We can’t get in.'”) For Spielberg, the stories seem inextricably linked with the memory of being taken outside by his father to look at the stars:

My father was the one that introduced me to the cosmos. He’s the one who built—from a big cardboard roll that you roll rugs on—a two-inch reflecting telescope with an Edmund Scientific kit that he had sent away for. [He] put this telescope together, and then I saw the moons of Jupiter. It was the first thing he pointed out to me. I saw the rings of Saturn around Saturn. I’m six, seven years old when this all happened.

Spielberg concludes: “Those were the stories, and just looking up at the sky, that got me to realize, if I ever get a chance to make a science fiction movie, I want those guys to come in peace.”

But it also testifies to the ways in which a strong personality will take exactly what it needs from its source material. Elsewhere in the interview, there’s another intriguing reference:

Spielberg: I always go for the heart first. Of course, sometimes I go for the heart so much I get a little bit accused of sentimentality, which I’m fine [with] because…sometimes I need to push it a little further to reach a little deeper into a society that is a little less sentimental than they were when I was a young filmmaker.

Cameron: You pushed it in the same way that John W. Campbell pushed science fiction [forward] from the hard-tech nerdy guys who had to put PhD after their name to write science fiction. It was all just about the equations and the math and the physics [and evolved to become much more] human stories [about] the human heart.

I see what Cameron is trying to say here, but if you’ve read enough of the magazine that turned into Analog, this isn’t exactly the impression that it leaves. It’s true that Campbell put a greater emphasis than most of his predecessors on characterization, at least in theory, but the number of stories that were about “the human heart” can be counted on two hands, and none were exactly Spielbergian—although they might seem that way when filtered through the memory of his father’s voice. And toward the end, the nerds took over again. In Dangerous Visions, which was published in 1967, Harlan Ellison wrote of “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” It was the latter version of the magazine that Spielberg would have seen as a boy—which may be why, when the time came, he made a television show called Amazing Stories.

The long now

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In early 1965, Tom Wolfe noticed a book on the shelves of Ken Kesey’s house in La Honda, California, which had become a gathering place for the young, mostly affluent hippies whom the journalist had dubbed “the Beautiful People.” In Kesey’s living room, “a curious little library” was growing, as Wolfe recounts in typically hyperbolic fashion in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

Books of science fiction and other mysterious things, and you could pick up almost any of these books and find strange vibrations. The whole thing here is so much like…this book on Kesey’s shelf, Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. It is bewildering. It is as if Heinlein and the Pranksters were bound together by some inexplicable acausal connecting bond. This is a novel about a Martian who comes to earth, a true Superhero, in fact…raised by infinitely superior beings, the Martians. Beings on other plants are always infinitely superior in science fiction novels. Anyway, around him gathers a mystic brotherhood, based on a mysterious ceremony known as water-sharing. They live in—La Honda! At Kesey’s! Their place is called the Nest. Their life transcends all the usual earthly games of status, sex, and money. No one who once shares water and partakes of life in the Nest ever cares about such banal competitions again. There is a pot of money inside the front door, provided by the Superhero…Everything is totally out front in the Nest—no secrets, no guilt, no jealousies, no putting anyone down for anything.

He closes with a string of quotations from the character Jubal Harshaw, who had affinities to Wolfe himself, including the skeptical but grudgingly admiring line: “Ain’t nobody here but [just] us gods.”

One member of Kesey’s circle who undoubtedly read the novel was Stewart Brand, my hero, who pops up in Wolfe’s book as an “Indian freak” and later founded The Whole Earth Catalog, which became famous for a similar declaration of intent: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” (As I retype it now, it’s that one italicized word that strikes me the most, as if Brand were preemptively replying to Wolfe and his other detractors.) Much later, in the celebrated essay “We Owe it All to the Hippies,” Brand writes:

We all read Robert Heinlein’s epic Stranger in a Strange Land as well as his libertarian screed-novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Hippies and nerds alike reveled in Heinlein’s contempt for centralized authority. To this day, computer scientists and technicians are almost universally science-fiction fans. And ever since the 1950s, for reasons that are unclear to me, science fiction has been almost universally libertarian in outlook.

Heinlein and his circle don’t figure prominently in the Catalog, in which the work of fiction that receives the most attention is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But Brand later recommended the Foundation trilogy as part of the Manual for Civilization collection at the Long Now Foundation, which may have been a subtle hint to its true intentions. In the Foundation series, after all, the writing of the Encyclopedia Galactica is an elaborate mislead, a pretext to build an organization that will ultimately be turned to other ends.  An even better excuse might be the construction and maintenance of an enormous clock designed to last for ten thousand years—an idea that is obviously too farfetched for fiction. In an interview, Brand’s friend Kevin Kelly protested too much: “We’re not trying to be Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.” Yeah, right.

Brand himself was only tangentially inspired by science fiction, and his primarily exposure to it was evidently through the remarkable people with whom he surrounded himself. In his book The Media Lab, which was published in 1988, Brand asks the roboticist Marvin Minsky why he’s so interested in science fiction writers, and he quotes from the answer at length:

Well, I think of them as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now, maybe Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they’re just shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren’t very powerful. Whenever Pohl or Asimov writes something, I regard it as extremely urgent to read it right away. They might have a new idea. Asimov has been working for forty years on this problem: if you can make an intelligent machine, what kind of relations will it have with people? How do you negotiate when their thinking is so different? The science fiction writers think about what it means to think.

Along with Asimov and Pohl, Brand notes, the other writers whom Minsky studied closely included Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, Gregory Benford, James P. Hogan, John W. Campbell, and H.G. Wells. “If Minsky had his way,” Brand writes, “there would always be a visiting science fiction writer in resident at the Media Lab.” In practice, that’s more or less how it worked out—Campbell was a frequent visitor, as was Asimov, who said that Minsky was one of the handful of people, along with Carl Sagan, whom he acknowledged as being more intelligent than he was.

To be honest, I doubt that Asimov and Pohl will ever be remembered as “the important philosophers of the twentieth century,” although if they might have a better shot if you replace “philosophers” with “futurologists.” It seems a reasonably safe bet that the Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell casually tossed out in his office for Asimov to develop, will be remembered longer than the vast majority of the work being produced by the philosophy departments of that era. But even for Kesey, Brand, and all the rest, the relationship was less about influence than about simple proximity. When Wolfe speaks of “an acausal connecting bond” between Heinlein and the Merry Pranksters, he’s consciously echoing the subtitle of Carl Jung’s Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, which may be the best way to think about it. During moments of peak cultural intensity, ideas are simultaneously developed by different communities in ways that may only occasionally intersect. (On April 6, 1962, for instance, Asimov wrote to Campbell to recommend that he investigate the video game Spacewar, which had been developed just two months earlier at MIT. Campbell spent the next decade trying to get an article on it for Analog, which Albert W. Kuhfeld finally wrote up for the July 1971 issue. A year later, Brand wrote a piece about it for Rolling Stone.) And Brand himself was keenly aware of the costs of such separation. In The Media Lab, he writes:

Somewhere in my education I was misled to believe that science fiction and science fact must be kept rigorously separate. In practice they are so blurred together they are practically one intellectual activity, although the results are published differently, one kind of journal for careful scientific reporting, another kind for wicked speculation.

In 1960, Campbell tried to tear down those barriers in a single audacious move, when he changed the title of his magazine from Astounding to Analog Science Fact & Fiction. For most of his career, Brand has been doing the same thing, only far more quietly. But I have a hunch that his approach may be the one that succeeds.

Crossing the Rhine

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Zener cards

Note: I’m out of town today for the Grappling with the Futures symposium at Harvard and Boston University, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 1, 2017.

Two groups of very smart people are looking at the exact same data and coming to wildly different conclusions. Science hates that.

—Katie M. Palmer, Wired

In the early thirties, the parapsychologist J.B. Rhine conducted a series of experiments at Duke University to investigate the existence of extrasensory perception. His most famous test involved a deck of Zener cards, printed variously with the images of a star, a square, three waves, a circle, or a cross, in which subjects were invited to guess the symbol on a card drawn at random. The participants in the study, most of whom were college students, included the young John W. Campbell, who displayed no discernible psychic ability. At least two, however, Adam Linzmayer and Hubert Pearce, were believed by Rhine to have consistently named the correct cards at a higher rate than chance alone would predict. Rhine wrote up his findings in a book titled Extrasensory Perception, which was published in 1934. I’m not going to try to evaluate its merits here—but I do want to note that attempts to replicate his work were made almost at once, and they failed to reproduce his results. Within two years, W.S. Cox of Princeton University had conducted a similar run of experiments, of which he concluded: “There is no evidence of extrasensory perception either in the ‘average man’ or of the group investigated or in any particular individual of that group. The discrepancy between these results and those obtained by Rhine is due either to uncontrollable factors in experimental procedure or to the difference in the subjects.” By 1938, four other studies had taken place, to similar effect. Rhine’s results were variously attributed to methodological flaws, statistical misinterpretation, sensory leakage, or outright cheating, and in consequence, fairly or not, parapsychological research was all but banished from academic circles.

Decades later, another study was conducted, and its initial reception was very different. Its subject was ego depletion, or the notion that willpower draws on a finite reservoir of internal resources that can be reduced with overuse. In its most famous demonstration, the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice of Case Western University baked chocolate chip cookies, set them on a plate next to a bowl of radishes, and brought a series of participants into the room. They were all told to wait, but some were allowed to eat the cookies, while the others were instructed to snack only on the radishes. Then they were all given the same puzzle to complete, although they weren’t told that it was impossible to solve. According to the study, students who had been asked to stick to the radishes spent an average of just eight minutes on the puzzle, while those who had been allowed to eat the cookies spent nineteen minutes. The researchers concluded that our willpower is a limited quantity, and it can even be exhausted, like a muscle. Their work was enormously influential, and dozens of subsequent studies seemed to confirm it. In 2010, however, an analysis of published papers on the subject was unable to find any ego depletion effect, and last year, it got even worse—an attempt to replicate the core findings, led by the psychologist Martin Hagger, found zero evidence to support its existence. And this is just the most notable instance of what has been called a replication crisis in the sciences, particularly in psychology. One ambitious attempt to duplicate the results of such studies, the Reproducibility Project, has found that only about a third can be reproduced at all.

J.B. Rhine

But let’s consider the timelines involved. With Rhine, it took only two years before an attempt was made to duplicate his work, and two more years for the consensus in the field to turn against it decisively. In the case of ego depletion, twelve years passed before any questions were raised, and close to two decades before the first comprehensive effort to replicate it. And you don’t need to be a psychologist to understand why. Rhine’s results cut so radically against what was known about the brain—and the physical universe—that accepting them would have required a drastic overhaul of multiple disciplines. Not surprisingly, they inspired immediate skepticism, and they were subjected to intense scrutiny right away. Ego depletion, by contrast, was an elegant theory that seemed to confirm ordinary common sense. It came across as an experimental verification of something that we all know instinctively, and it was widely accepted almost at once. Many successful studies also followed in its wake, in large part because experiments that seemed to confirm it were more likely to be submitted for publication, while those that failed to produce interesting results simply disappeared. (When it came to Rhine, a negative result wouldn’t be discarded, but embraced as a sign that the system was working as intended.) Left to itself, the lag time between a study and any serious attempt to reproduce it seems to be much longer when the answer is intuitively acceptable. As the Reproducibility Project has shown, however, when we dispassionately pull studies from psychological journals and try to replicate them without regard to their inherent interest or plausibility, the results are often no better than they were with Rhine. It can leave psychologists sounding a lot like parapsychologists who have suffered a crisis of faith. As the psychologist Michael Inzlicht wrote: “Have I been chasing puffs of smoke for all these years?”

I’m not saying that Rhine’s work didn’t deserve to be scrutinized closely, because it did. And I’m also not trying to argue that social psychology is a kind of pseudoscience. But I think it’s worth considering whether psychology and parapsychology might have more in common than we’d like to believe. This isn’t meant to be a knock against either one, but an attempt to nudge them a little closer together. As Alex Holcombe of the University of Sydney put it: “The more optimistic interpretation of failures to replicate is that many of the results are true, but human behavior is so variable that the original researchers had to get lucky to find the result.” Even Martin Hagger says much the same thing: “I think ego-depletion effect is probably real, but current methods and measures are problematic and make it difficult to find.” The italics, as usual, are mine. Replace “human behavior” and “ego depletion” with “extrasensory perception,” and you end up with a concise version of the most widely cited explanation for why psychic abilities resist scientific verification, which is that these phenomena are real, but difficult to reproduce. You could call this wishful thinking, and in most cases, it probably is. But it also raises the question of whether meaningful phenomenon exist that can’t be reproduced in a laboratory setting. Regardless of where you come down on the issue, the answer shouldn’t be obvious. Intuition, for instance, is often described as a real phenomenon that can’t be quantified or replicated, and whether or not you buy into it, it’s worth taking seriously. A kind of collective intuition—or a hunch—is often what determines what results the scientific community is likely to accept. And the fact that this intuition is so frequently wrong means that we need to come to terms with it, even if it isn’t in a lab.

Captain Kidd and the Redhead

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If there was one constant in the very complicated life of L. Ron Hubbard, it’s that he was fascinated by piracy. As a teenager in Helena, Montana, he and his friends dressed up as pirates for the town’s annual Vigilante Day Parade, with earrings made out of brass hoops from his aunt’s curtains, and won the prize for “Most Original Cast”—an award that is still mentioned in his official biographies. In college, he organized the notoriously unsuccessful Caribbean Motion Picture Expedition, an attempt to sail a hired schooner from Baltimore to the West Indies to film pirate scenes for newsreels: “Scenarios will be written on the spot in accordance with the legends of the particular island, and after a thorough research through the ship’s library, which is to include many authoritative books on pirates.” Hubbard’s output as a writer included such stories as Under the Black Ensign, the satirical Typewriter in the Sky, and Murder at Pirate Castle, the latter of which he turned into the Columbia Pictures serial The Secret of Treasure Island, and his fantasies persisted into World War II. After Hubbard was given command of a patrol vessel in Massachusetts, in an assignment that was terminated under unpleasant circumstances, John W. Campbell wrote of his friend and colleague: “He’s got two stripes now, and was soon going somewhere to pick up some command, so he’s back on sea duty, and evidently going to get somewhere near what would really suit his mentality—a chance to be a privateer.” And a few years earlier, in an article titled “Yesterday, You Might Have Been a Pirate,” Hubbard had written:

I am sure that if I had followed the sea two centuries ago I would have drifted into freebooting. Not for the romance of it, nor for the wild life, nor even for the fighting. I am one of the radical rabble who likes a little personal freedom, a fairly good meal and who dislikes punishment. Yes, I would have undoubtedly fallen in with pirates and my heels would have swung, most likely, from some execution dock.

But Hubbard’s identification with the figure of the pirate may have gone even deeper. In Monitors, the very strange memoir that I mentioned here last week, the pulp writer Arthur J. Burks recounts an incident in which a monitor, or spirit guide, told Hubbard—whom Burks calls “Redhead”—about one of his past lives:

“You were once…” Redhead was informed, and the name of a famous pirate of some centuries previous was given to him. To this his first response was a gasp, followed by: “Since I can remember that guy has been my hero. I’ve dug up chanteys that were sung in his time. I’ve assembled material about him. I’ve read books and stories about him, have even prepared radio skits about him. If this is true, I wonder if such self-worship is justified?”

The monitor added: “In the rare books department of the Public Library, in this particular book, is an ancient oil painting of your former self, done by the Big Hero’s painter friend, which you may scan with interest.” On hearing this, Hubbard promptly went to the library, and Burks writes of his response:

He was paler than is normal even for a Redhead when he returned. “I found the rare book,” he said, “and its title is as we have been given. I found the portrait of my former self too. And listen, folks, if I wore the same costume I could pose for that picture myself! It’s my portrait.”

As far as I know, Hubbard never spoke publicly about this past life in particular—although he didn’t hold back from claiming elsewhere to be the reincarnation of Cecil Rhodes. But it’s tempting to identify this pirate with Captain William Kidd. Hubbard alludes to him briefly in an article on the Caribbean Motion Picture expedition that was published by his college newspaper: “According to Hubbard, the strongholds and bivouacs of the Spanish Main have lain neglected and forgotten for centuries, and there has never been a concerted attempt to tear apart the jungles to find the castles of Teach, Morgan, Bonnet, Bluebeard, Kidd, Sharp, Ringrose and l’Olonnais, to name a few.” In the officially sanctioned book The Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard, William J. Widder mentions an unpublished manuscript titled “Shades of Captain Kidd,” in which “a map to Captain Kidd’s legendary treasure on Mona Island leads two U.S. engineers in Puerto Rico to a hidden cache of a vastly different—but dangerously valuable—kind.” As for the painting that Burks mentions, his description matches the portrait of Kidd pictured above by Sir James Thornhill, who, according to the writer Harold T. Wilkins, “either visited the cell in which Captain Kidd was confined in Old Newgate, or drew a sketch when the prisoner was on trial for his life in the Old Bailey court.” (It appears as a plate in Wilkins’s book Captain Kidd and his Skeleton Island, which was published in 1937, or just a few years before Hubbard’s alleged exchange with Burks’s monitor. Wilkins was the author of several books on pirate treasure, as well as the occult, and he certainly seems like an author that Hubbard might have read.) And to my eyes, the Kidd in the portrait does look a little like Hubbard.

And it isn’t hard to see what might have drawn Hubbard to Kidd. Just as he was fascinated by the figure of Saint Helena, who had searched for relics in the Holy Land, he would have been justifiably interested in the only pirate known to have actually buried any treasure. Hubbard returned obsessively to this idea throughout his career, and after founding the Church of Scientology, he reached the point where he could pull others into his delusions. He claimed to have buried gold and diamonds in Africa in his past life as Rhodes, and as Russell Miller writes in Bare-Faced Messiah:

On the south-east coast of Sardinia…Hubbard mustered the crew on the well deck for a briefing. Standing on a hatch cover so that he could be seen, he told them he was on the threshold of achieving an ambition he had cherished for centuries in earlier lives. This was the first lifetime he had been able to build an organization with sufficient resources, money and manpower to tackle the project they were about to undertake. He had accumulated vast wealth in previous lives, he explained, and had buried it in strategic places. The purpose of their present mission was to locate this buried treasure and retrieve it, either with, or without, the cooperation of the authorities.

It led to a treasure hunt throughout the Mediterranean, where members of the Sea Org were deployed to various sites to search with metal detectors. Nothing was ever found, but for Hubbard, the quest may have been its own reward. As he wrote in “Yesterday, You Might Have Been a Pirate”: “I believe the pirate had a reason for existence. I know that if I were sent back into those centuries I would have followed the more comfortable profession. I know the Caribbean to be soft and glamorous and kind, and if I had had to turn pirate to enjoy it, I would have run a Skull and Bones up the truck. And to hell with the Navy!”

The Worlds of If

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As I prepare for my upcoming presentation this weekend at the Grappling With the Futures conference, I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution of psychohistory, the fictional science that figures prominently in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. When it comes to describing how psychohistory is actually supposed to work in practice, however, the original stories aren’t much help. At first, the definition of the field might seem clear enough. If you initially encountered the trilogy in book form, it’s right there in the text, in an entry from the Encyclopedia Galactica:

Psychohistory: …Gal Dornick, using nonmathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli…Implicit in all these definitions is the assumption that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large for valid statistical treatment.

This seems fairly straightforward. But it wasn’t added to the series until the hardcover edition published by Gnome Press in 1951, for which Asimov wrote a new opening chapter called “The Psychohistorians.” When the novelette “Foundation” originally appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding, the word “psychohistory” was used only once. We’re informed that Hari Seldon is “the greatest psychologist of all time,” and that he has the ability “to unravel human emotions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future” using “simple psychological technique.” But we aren’t told how—just what. Psychohistory isn’t a method here, but a claim about results.

It’s also possible that Asimov himself had only a vague idea about it. As I’ve noted elsewhere, psychohistory seems to have been largely the brainchild of John W. Campbell, who was more interested in what it could do than in how it would work. The year before, in the nonfiction article “The Science of Whithering,” L. Sprague de Camp had written in the magazine:

If there were such a science, what would it be like? It would have a body of observable facts, and would overlap with history, anthropology, sociology, economics, vital statistics, and perhaps one or two other sciences. Students of the science should be able to observe uniformities among these facts, deduce laws from these uniformities, and from the laws make predictions that are later borne out by observation.

And the method didn’t even need to be scientific. At the time, Campbell was also editing the fantasy magazine Unknown, and on May 6, 1942, he told one of his most valued contributors, Anthony Boucher, that he was considering a standalone issue devoted to prophecy: “The philosophy of prophecy, the record, through the past, of the various classes of prophecy, and the problems of the prophet.” He continued:

Second, there would be the main section consisting of prophecy. This would be devoted to several different types of prophecy concerning the present world situation and, specifically, the war. Who’ll win (and if the prophets have the sense God gave little green apples, the answer to that one’s going to be easy for them to figure out) and, more important, how, by what route, by licking who first, and when. When will Japan be knocked out? When will Italy fold? When’s Hitler going down to defeat?

This last statement is remarkably revealing. What Campbell wanted were predictions, specifically ones related to the war. As Hitler rewrote the map of Europe, the anxiety to knew what would come next—which is one to which I think we can all relate these days—became overwhelming, and the source didn’t matter, as long as it was “borne out by observation.” At this moment of global crisis, Campbell was willing to seek answers from astrology, numerology, and the prophecies of Nostradamus. (The prophecy issue, notably, never appeared, thanks largely to what Campbell characterized as an inability to find “competent fanatics”: “Nobody with any reputation or ability in the fields I wanted was willing to name names and date dates.” The italics are mine.) Psychohistory was simply a way to express these impulses in language that would feel at home in a science fiction magazine. Even Asimov, who never seems to have been altogether comfortable with Campbell’s ideas, was driven by much the same motivation. Decades later, he had a revealing exchange about the origins of the Foundation series in an interview with James Gunn:

Asimov: Mind you, this was also a time when I’d been living through the Hitler era in the 1930s, where no matter what anyone did, Hitler kept winning victories, and the only way that I could possibly find life bearable at the time was to convince myself that no matter what he did, he was doomed to defeat in the end. That he couldn’t win.
Gunn: Psychohistory is against it.
Asimov: That’s right…I suppose that was my literary response to my own feelings, which have no basis, I suppose, except that it made me feel better.

It was a longing that expressed itself equally well as psychohistory or prophecy, and it was about to assume its most convincing form. Not surprisingly, the science fiction magazines of the period often published stories that presented alternative outcomes for the war, including some that ended with victory for the Axis. Anthony Boucher justified this in a letter to Campbell that was published in Astounding in June 1943:

We are not, thank God, prophets. We don’t write what we feel sure is going to happen, but what, under certain circumstances, might happen…Now we aren’t expecting an Axis victory, any more than we are expecting worldwide tidal waves or planetary collisions or the invasion of little green men from Alpha Centauri. These disasters are all, with varying probabilities, present in one or more of the possible Worlds-of-If. And the more we write about ingenious ruses by which the Axis secures victory…the less apt those ruses are to succeed, and the more certain we can be that my sons and your daughter will inherit, in deepest truth, the best of all Possible Worlds.

Science fiction, in other words, was a way of generating models of potential outcomes and working through their implications. The real psychohistorians were the science fiction writers and fans, and psychohistory was a veiled way for the genre to talk about itself and its claims for foreseeing the future. Campbell might have been content to leave it there—but he was unable to leave well enough alone. In 1950, the year before the Foundation series appeared in hardcover, another author wrote: “The social organisms which we call states and nations behave and react in every respect as though they were individual organisms…The social organism behaves in a manner which can be graphed on the tone scale.” It was L. Ron Hubbard, who called the concept “political dianetics.” And he and Campbell were about to start a foundation of their own.

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