When the Cranks Rule

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Although accusations of persecution are rife in pseudoscience, ironically, it is much more common for pseudoscientists to persecute orthodox scientists whenever the pseudoscientists gain the upper hand. Consider these remarks by John C.Campbell on the use of dowsing rods to locate Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam (on the efficacy of the method, the necessary and sufficient comment is that we lost the war. More specifically, we lost the battle for the tunnels. Surely Marines with welding rods could be expected to find tunnels faster than the Viet Cong could dig them).

For the first time in human history, there now exists a situation in which the disciplined thinking techniques, and precision-observing techniques of modern science will be applied in a positive sense to the problem of a subjective phenomenon. "Positive" in that the research men will be commanded, ordered, and damn well required to stop using their talents to prove it isn't so, because their theories hold it impossible, and find out why it is so, because it works. Those scientists who are personally psychologically so oriented that they simply can't accept that notion will be simply brushed aside, and men who can and will see what's happening on their own campuses, and will sincerely try to understand this new order of phenomenon will be installed.

To put it bluntly, science will be ordered to arrive at a preordained conclusion (dowsing works), and any scientists who have the temerity to insist that the Emperor has no clothes will simply be purged. Campbell seems to savor the thought.

Cranks in the Soviet Union

It actually did happen in the Soviet Union, where a crank biologist, Trofim Lysenko, linked his evolutionary theories to Marxist ideology and became a good friend of Stalin. With connections like that, Lysenko simply purged his opponents to Siberia or worse. Not content with nearly wrecking genetics in the Soviet Union, Marxist ideologues attacked quantum mechanics in the late 1940's.

Cranks in Nazi Germany

In Nazi Germany, a pseudoscience of  "Aryan physics" was developed to replace relativity, many of whose developers were Jewish. The World Ice or Glacial Cosmogony cult was active in Germany in the 1930's. This cult believed that the planets, except Earth, were deeply covered with ice, that the Milky Way was made of gigantic ice blocks instead of stars (photographs showing the Milky Way to be made of stars were faked), and so on. They linked their beliefs to Nazi ideology, harassed orthodox astronomers, disrupted scientific meetings, and seem to have had ambitions of becoming the science arm of the Nazi Party. The Nazis managed to check that impulse. It is hard to find favorable things to say about the Nazis, but at least once they served the truth.

It's a good thing the Welt-Eis Lehre is largely forgotten, otherwise, like Velikovsky's followers, we'd have believers touting images of ice-covered moons in the outer solar system as proof of their theory. They'd ignore embarrassments like moon rocks (or claim the samples were faked). It would be interesting to see these people go up against Velikovsky followers over the question of whether Venus is covered with ice.

An American Example

For those who think it can't happen here, some sobering news. It has happened here. Before Laetrile became the great crank cancer hope in the 1970's, the ultimate cancer cure was Krebiozen, or "K". Originally developed by two Yugoslavs, Stevan and Marko Durovic in the late 1940's, Krebiozen caught the fancy of Dr. Andrew C. Ivy, a physiologist and vice-president of the University of Illinois. The president of the university, George C. Stoddard, ordered Ivy not to use Krebiozen in university clinics until he and the Durovics produced samples for analysis. They refused. Ivy found support among the trustees, who included former football great Red Grange, and had Stoddard fired in 1954. Health faddists have the unbelievable audacity to cast Ivy in the role of persecuted martyr in this episode.

In the 1980's, creationists attempted to have creation decreed to be the scientific equal of evolution by law. Having failed in the courts, they have retreated to the grass roots, attempting to gain control over local school boards. Doubtless teachers who refuse to conform, should the creationists succeed, will be disciplined. After the Scopes Trial of 1925, evolution almost vanished from American biology texts for three decades, and even now the creationist movement has caused publishers to soften or delete statements on evolution for fear of losing the approval of local Boards of Education. Until fairly recently, to take another example, students in some universities in the southern U.S. were expected to answer that blacks were inferior to whites on biology and psychology exams. Cases of pseudoscience attaining real power are rare, yet in nearly every case the pseudoscientists have launched a genuine persecution of orthodox science. But the worst is yet to be told.

The Church of Scientology, an outgrowth of L. Ron Hubbard's dianetics cult of the Fifties, became one of the most controversial of American religious cults. When, in 1977, Federal agents raided the cult's offices because, among other things, the cult had infiltrated Federal agencies and stolen Government documents related to investigations of the cult, public reaction was amusement as much as anything else. After all, the feds are big boys and can take care of themselves, and it was fun to see the tables turned and the Government being under surveillance. But there's another side to the story. One of the files seized was entitled "P.C. Freakout" and referred to "getting P.C. incarcerated in a mental institution or in jail".

 "P.C." was Paulette Cooper, and her crime was writing a book in 1971 called The Scandal of Scientology. She and her publisher were sued and forced to halt publication. Cooper was compelled, as part of the settlement, to sign a statement that 52 passages in her book were false or misleading, and to agree not to publish the book elsewhere. One wonders where the defenders of Worlds in Collision and other crank works were while this was going on, or what opponents of tort reform have to say about it. In November, 1972, a Scientology member, masquerading as a donation collector, entered her apartment and stole some of her personal stationery, which was then used to send a fake bomb threat. Cooper was indicted by a Federal grand jury, but after she passed a sodium pentathol examination, the Government dropped the investigation. Not until 1977 did the raid on Scientology headquarters uncover evidence that exonerated Cooper. The Church of Scientology regularly used the threat of costly libel suits to silence critics, and the tactic of using libel suits to silence criticism or even critical examination of controversial topics is becoming perilously common in many areas of American society.

Let's junk once and for all the myth of the "persecuted genius." These "persecuted geniuses" usually treat their "oppressors" with far worse malice than they, themselves, are treated. It's remarkable that the single most bizarre conspiracy in this whole discussion was a real rather than imaginary plot, and it was hatched by a pseudoscience cult.

Incidentally, Hubbard's early science fiction works are now regularly published in anthologies along with the works of respected science fiction authors, and his novel Battlefield Earth became a major motion picture in 2000. Shamefully, nobody in the science-fiction fraternity has protested this prostitution of science fiction. Nothing gratified me more than to see Battlefield Earth crash and burn. I didn't want it merely to fail; I wanted it to go down in film history along with Ishtar, Showgirls, and Myra Breckenridge. And it did.


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Created 8 July 1998, Last Update 02 June 2010

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