Cover the American Scientist, 1950, with article about Cybernetics and a section trashing L Ron Hubbard's Dianetics

An article from the 1950 American Scientist authored by Yvette Gittleson is based on author Norbert Wiener's new book called The Human Use of Human Beings, subtitled Cybernetics and Society, (Wiener first published Cybernetics in 1948.) The article includes a discussion and critique of L Ron Hubbard's "employing the use of engineering" as it pertains to a total lack of science in Dianetics, and observes the fact that Hubbard "had cybernetics, and got it wrong." See if you can't find what Hubbard may have used in concept from Wiener, as Cybernetics was a best-seller at the time. This is yet another voice that shares more in concept of what Hubbard used for his own work as he sneakily pinned the credit on his own lapel. The section about Dianetics is titled, De Profundis Via Dianetics

Autumn Issue
Volume 38 October 1950 Number 4
Article on Page 603-609

Sacred Cows in Collision

author Yvette Gittleson

Norbert Wiener has just published a new book (1) outlining for the general reader his revolutionary ideas in regard to communication, human and mechanical. For this exposition, called the The Human Use of Human Beings and subtitled Cybernetics and Society, Wiener has omitted entirely the mathematical framework of his theory and has developed its possible social implications. The result is very readable, not very long, and exceedingly venturesome in scope. Much of it is highly controversial.

The author states that the purpose of this new book is "both to explain the potentialities of the machine in fields which up to now have been taken to be purely human, and to warn against the dangers of a purely selfish exploitation of these possibilities..." The first aim has resulted in a lucid, demathematized restatement and extension of the principles of communication and self-regulation set forth two years ago in Cybernetics. (2) The second aim is an outgrowth of Wiener's patent uneasiness, natural or acquired, at the social consequences implicit in his theory. Here the author's agile intellect reaches out into the past, the present, the future; into economics, legislation, education, the arts, medicine, and war; into every corner of human life and human effort. Had it not been stated with such exquisite simplicity at the outset, the theme would be smothered beneath the color and richness of the variations.

Through all the vast territory which his roused social consciousness obliges him to explore, Wiener seems to be urging two chief propositions, expressing respectively Wiener the engineer and Wiener the humanitarian; on the one hand, the parallel between machines and brains; on the other, the superiority of the brain's role to the machine's. For example, on two adjoining pages he says: "It is my thesis that the operation of the living individual and the operation of some newer communication machines are precisely parallel" (p. 15, italics supplied); and "It is a degradation to a human assign him a purely repetitive task in a factory, which demands less than a millionth of his brain capacity" (p. 16). Is the difference between human behavior and machine performance only quantitative essentially? Does the parallel refer to operations, and the distinction to the sphere of operation? It is not always clear, in the contrapuntal development of the argument, just how Wiener the engineer stacks up on his own ethical scale. If however, the implications---and applications---of the cybernetic principles are correctly interpreted, the laws of communication and self-regulation which form the basis for those similarities that exist between the human brain and self-correcting mechanical calculators reveal, not the simplicity of brains, but the potentialities of machines.

Wiener believes that we have only now reached the point where we are in a position to appreciate fully the significance of the discovery of the vacuum tube, and that in the light of this awareness our present age emerges as the threshold of a second industrial revolution. He is much concerned that this revolution work for man rather than against him. He feels that his own possible contribution to this end has been in showing that it is possible to build machines that can do as much of the routine, noncreative work now being done by human beings so that human brain power may be released for effort at a more appropriate level. This is what he means by the human use of human beings, and this is what he regards as the real message of his book.

On August 20, however, the New York Times and the Herald Tribune each published a full-page headlined review of the The Human Use of Human Beings. The Times review was headed "A Machine-Eye View of Why We Behave Like Human Beings"; the Herald Tribune editor used the line :The Next Industrial Revolution: an Age of Machines That Think." These are good headlines because they do what headlines are supposed to do, which is to attract interest. But, in the opinion of this reviewer, they contribute to a mal-emphasis in regard to the cybernetic approach which should be corrected and which Wiener is in this very book attempting in theory to correct, even though he sometimes seems actually to be playing his right hand against his left.

Cybernetics presents no evidence that machines think creatively, even though they can compute accurately on the basis of the data fed into them. Nor do machines hold the key to why we behave like human beings: they illustrate the fact that some problem-solving operations which human beings perform, machines can perform also, and that the processes common to mechanical calculation and brain functioning cover much more territory than was formerly thought possible. Machines have come this far: they can operate on the basis of past experience (performance), and in this sense they can remember and learn. But this learning is highly specific: machines cannot generalize; they cannot imagine; they can reckon on the past but not on the future. Machines can increase understanding of the mechanism of learning, memory, discrimination, and (possibly) neurosis; the one thing that machines ipso facto cannot demonstrate is why some if us behave like human beings. This, I believe, is not because human behavior transcends natural laws, but because it is subject to natural laws in addition to those to be found operating in calculations present or future.

The point may perhaps be clarified by an example from a field much simpler than that of thought. Certainly the mist ubiquitous reference to a mechanical device as a means of approaching the understanding of physiological phenomena is the comparison of the human eye to a camera - an overworked analogy to be found in virtually every textbook in which the human sense organs are described at an elementary level. All optical instruments, organic and inorganic, perform certain operations in common, and experimentation with physical optical systems is of much (though limited) usefulness in attempting to understand the eye as an image-forming instrument. Anyone who has attempted to understand the visual process in detail and as a whole, however, knows that physiological optics is in many ways very different from geometrical optics.

For purposes of brevity, three important facts only may be noted. In the first place, the pupil of the eye, theoretically likely to prove the most important single factor in determining acuity at the peripheral level, is not constant but is responsive to many influences both internal and external. Furthermore, the distribution of photosensitive elements in the retina is not uniform; these cells are densest at the fovea and become progressively sparser peripherally in every direction. Finally, the quantitative relations between photoreceptors and optic nerve fibers, and between optic nerve fibers and elements of the central nervous system, do not preserve a one-to one correspondence except possibly in the fovea. These conditions, and many others signify that to appreciate the human visual process in any adequate detail it is necessary to proceed far beyond anything that a camera can demonstrate; it is necessary to make full use of the facts of the anatomy and physiology of the eye as well as the facts relating to its optical properties; it is necessary, most especially, to concentrate on central rather than peripheral events. In other words, a camera can illustrate in general how the eye operates as an optical instrument, but not how it behaves as an eye or why we see like human beings. Nor can a mechanical computer show how the human brain operates except at a level of automatic responses, however complex these responses may be.

Undoubtedly machines will be built that will approximate the brain much more closely than any yet designed. This should be expected to contribute further to knowledge of some of the principles governing brain functioning and malfunctioning, and it should also contribute to a more effective society in which the value of human beings is enhanced rather than diminished. Wiener gets at this by way of parallels between brain and machine, but it seems to the present writer that these happy consequences can follow only if the limitations of the mechanical-brain analogy are also recognized clearly and kept in mind. Cybernetics and the electronics industry will not provide brains at a level where a human brain ought to operate. There are some things that cameras can do better than eyes can, and some things that calculators can do better than brains can; but in a good society no brain should be in competition, economic or other, with a machine.

De Profundis Via Dianetics

The popular overemphasis on the mechanical-brain analogy is reflected at its worst in a best-selling horror called Dianetics. (3) Possibly the only justification for mentioning this book in print is not that its expounds a cure but that it illustrates a syndrome. Cybernetics is the big new idea of the times, and it is my opinion Hubbard (who never mentions the word) has got cybernetics, and got it bad; this is to say, he has got it wrong.

Dianetics (Gk, dianova, thought) is, according to the subtitle, The Modern Science of Mental Health, and, according to the physician who writes the Introduction, the first science of mind. There is, in the opinion of this reviewer, some reason to doubt that no other science of the mind exists although if one (unjustifiably) excludes experimental science and restricts the territory to the clinical field only, the accusation is not so absurd, therapy being at present more an art than a science. "The creation of dianetics," the author states, "is a milestone for Man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his inventions of the wheel and arch" (p.ix). He states further: "With the techniques presented in this handbook the psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and intelligent layman can successfully and invariably treat all psychosomatic ills and inorganic aberrations....The release can be done in less than twenty hours of work and is a state superior to any produced by several years of psychoanalysis, since the release will not relapse" (all italics supplied). These are ambitious claims; they suggest the absolutism of the fanatic more than the skepticism of the scientist.

The fact that the book is not the work of a psychiatrist is not a matter of grave concern nor in itself a valid cause for criticism. As the healing powers of Lourdes and Mary Baker Eddy bear witness, psychotherapy is where you find it. The fact that the author is identified by his publisher as "mathematician and theoretical philosopher" is, however, mildly alarming.

Dianetics, its creator avows, is not psychoanalysis, not hypnosis, not narcosynthesis. It is rather an exact science, comparable to physics and chemistry, but simpler, and is essentially engineering, but simpler!The theory is the theory of mechanical calculators; it assumes that the mind is incapable of error, that "any person, aberrated or clear computes perfectly on the data stored and perceived." (p. 16, italics the author's).

Scorning (he implies the methods of other forms of psychotherapy, Hubbard employs (he says) the methods of engineering. (4) Certainly the frame of reference is that of engineering. But the method in practice, which achieves and controls the dianetic reverie, clearly borrows heavily from any and all likely therapeutic techniques, including free association, and suggestion and autosuggestion, the whole deftly overmaneuvered and fantastically oversimplified in interpretation.

The terminology, formally presented in a glossary, is quite acceptable. For example, the term auditor for the therapist is apt enough, as are the terms preclear and clear for the subject before and after the course of treatment: similarly, aberration, analytic mind, and reactive mind are meaningful concepts. On the whole, however, one has the impression that it is the terms that are new, that the old structure of psychoanalysis is still very much in evidence. Special mention should perhaps be made of the term engram, which is fundamental to the theory. This is defined by Hubbard as "a cellular trace of recordings impinged deeply into the very structure of the body itself," and is of course a concept familiar to all students of Gestalt psychology as fundamentals to the trace theory of memory. (5) In dianetics, however, engrams are the villains of the piece, "the single source of aberrations and psychosomatic ills," and they have to be "erased"; in this context they are recognizable as the unrecalled impressions, festering below the level of awareness, which compromise the subject matter of psychoanalysis.

There are two ideas in this book which impress the reader as "new" --- startlingly new: (1) the pre-clear returns, on his "time track," to the traumatic event, rather than recalling it; (6) and (2) the extent of time subject to recall includes the entire prenatal period, from the moment of conception. In the face of these assumptions, the recall of very early infantile experiences through the techniques of psychoanalysis or hypnosis, and even the controversial data relating to a general prenatal memory, admitted by several reputable analysts, is pretty prosaic stuff.

These two ideas raise some interesting questions. This reviewer would like to know, for example, by what criteria dianetics decides that the subject, particularly in his wanderings through his intrauterine past, returns rather than remembers --- or remembers imaginatively --- or imagines. Furthermore, many of the pre-clear's difficulties are the result of misinterpretations of prenatal engrams containing impressions produced by the spoken word, the misinterpretations frequently being attributable to the absence of visual data to supplement what is "heard." It is not clear why, if the foetus "hears" (records impressions) so sensitively and retentively, long before he has developed an auditory nerve or a tympanic membrane or an auditory cortex, he does not also get visual data through similar ethereal channels. This is not good engineering.

In any event, the foetus, in the improbable light of dianetics, hears many things which he is much, much too young to hear. Beside Hubbard, the works of psychoanalysis, standard or avante garde, have a refreshing dignity. The difference in the impression on the reader is due not so much to content as to the attitude and taste of the writer. No reputable analyst of any good school would present his case histories in the manner of L. Ron Hubbard.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion, despite the author's loud protests and louder silence, that dianetics as a working project is as heavily indebted to the earlier work which it disowns or ignores, as to the new contributions of engineering to which it appeals excessively. Commendable as a fresh approach may be, it is nevertheless true that in the history of science, or for that matter in the history of thought, new ideas usually bear some relationship to older ones, even if the relationship be negative. To make use of concepts while repudiating them, or without clarifying the evidence for or against them, is not the way of science. On the whole, it seems that what is good about dianetics is not very new, and what is new about it is not very good and not very scientific either.

Any intelligent reader with scientific orientation will find serious flaws in the Hubbard logic and will be aware of the fundamental shakiness of the substructure. Apart from the highly questionable basic assumptions, there are countless passages in this book which imperil its claim to scientific status. Limitations of space permit only a few expressive examples. In the first place, this is rather a vague and arbitrary way for a scientist to submit evidence: "The test, while not observed personally by the author, seems to have been conducted with proper controls according to report" (p. 105); "Tests had held up [supported, not delayed, we presume] the discovery that all data ... from the moment of conception on was always recorded somewhere in the mind or body" (p. 127); is evidenced now by much research that the cell, not an organ, records the engram" (p. 127). The reader familiar with scientific writing and reasoning will find himself continually asking, What test? What controls? What tests? What research? The casual and misleading dismissal of the "little matter of myelin sheathing" (p. 127), and the fantastic summary of Pavlov's experiments (p. 142) are worthy of special note.

What, to Hubbard (who keeps railing against appeal to Authority, while asserting "It is" or It isn't" in the manner of a child stamping his foot) constitutes evidence, proof, or for that matter research, is a puzzling question. The only possibly valid evidence presented is: it works. But if it does work, no verifiable explanation is offered of how or why it works. (7) Presumably the "scientific" status of the book rests upon five pages (not by the author) dropped in the end of the text and entitled, "The Scientific Method," and upon a series of block diagrams (circuit graphs) constructed by a Western Electric engineer.

In a sense this book does to psychiatry what Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision (8) does for astronomy. In each case a gigantic superstructure rises to dizzy heights from a very insecure foundation, and each production gives one the sense of witnessing a Hindu rope trick. Both books are guilty of an unforgivable degree of oversimplification. Both of these opera, however, could eventually prove to have been to a limited degree worthwhile, not in the sense of being "right," but because each does provide some new data which, untangled from the meticulously fabricated web of detail, and properly interpreted, could contribute to knowledge. In one of the less hysterical reviews of Velikovsky's book, Dr. Otto Struve of the Yerkes Observatory emphasized this aspect. It seems unfair to Velikovsky, however, to pursue the comparison further, because of what seems an obvious difference in motivation.

Since these notes on Dianetics were first written, the folly of attempting to review the book seriously has been demonstrated by a clinical psychologist. In the first two months following publication, about 20,000 copies of Dianetics were sold, without benefit of advertising (in the conventional sense). During this period, book review editors associated with serious publications gave it a wide berth. On July 2, the New York Times broke the spell with a three column review by Dr. Rollo May, complete with woodcut. Unfavorable as the review was (in a gentlemanly manner), it must have been very gratifying to the dianeticians, especially since it was followed a month later by full page of entertaining correspondence. Most of that page, however, can be subsumed under the first sentence of Dr. May's reply to a smokescreen offensive of Hubbard's. "I believe ([May writes] my review is open to one sound criticism, namely, that of trying to deal with Dianetics as a scientific work." It would be interesting to know more about the views of some of Hubbard's "professors of biology, political science, sociology, psychology and physics [who] have given dianetics a fair and impartial survey and have discovered in it some of the answers for which they have long sought." But if "The derogatory letters are in the ratio of 1 to 505 letters of approval," this should serve as a reminder that the quantification of data, by a process of simple addition, is not valid unless the separate items are equivalent or appropriately outweighed.

Dianetics made its debut in Astounding Science Fiction, which is where the reviewer should leave it because that is where astounding science fiction belongs.

It was perhaps inevitable that the productive thinking which generated the cybernetic point of view should beget some incidental monstrosities amidst the voluminous literature accumulating in and about the field. It is to be hoped, however, that such ambitious misapplications as dianetics will be infrequent. Dianetics is the kind of "science" that soils the reputation of science; that gratifies people who write books like Anthony Standen's paranoid little success of last spring (9) and that moves certain elements of the population to recoil a pious reactionary horror from the possibility of understanding mind at all.

The Human Use of Human Beings is something quite different. It is a speculative, mushrooming book, and it over reaches the evidence in many places; but it grows, however unrestrainedly, from a rooted stem of fact. Moreover, the growth is freely acknowledged to be speculative, and in this sense it is an honest book. Observe, for example, this passage from the second half of Chapter 3 (pp. 69-84) -- a particularly interesting section from the standpoint of a theory of human behavior, for here the mechanics of learning are examined. "I am quite aware [Wiener states] that I cannot expect to be right in detail in presenting the actual human mechanism, and that I may even be wrong in principle. Nevertheless, if I give a device which can be verbally formulated in terms of the concepts belonging to the human mind and the human brain, I shall give a point of departure for criticism, and a standard with which to compare the performance to be expected on the basis of other theories." (p. 77).

It is not scientifically immoral to play freely with ideas. Scientific guesses, amenable to test, are in the last analysis what makes science move. Speculation is legitimate, and heuristic, when it presented as speculation. When it is presented as fact, as in dianetics, it is not legitimate, and does much more harm than good.

Cybernetics is no more and no less the study of effective messages of control, a science of self-regulating mechanisms which control themselves through processes of communication, whether the messages travel along the circuits of a giant mechanical calculator or over the physiological paths of the human nervous system. (10) There seems little doubt that this concept is bringing communications engineering and the science of mental events into a potentially constructive mutual relationship. But the relationship must be handled carefully, in the spirit of wholesome doubt that gives to science its peculiar authority. Granted that machines, operating on a "feed-back" principle, can to some extent correct their own mistakes, remember, and learn; granted that when discrimination becomes too difficult they may even develop neuroses, like Pavlov's dogs and the white rats of innumerable psychologists; the fact remains that to recognize the processes common to "control and communication in the animal and the machine" is not to imply that there is no significant difference between the functioning of animals and machines. And to believe that the mind can one day be understood in terms of natural laws is not the same as equating it to a nonliving calculator or however great complexity and versatility; to view the human mind in this light only, with no regard for the variability and plasticity inherent in living tissues, is to subject the data of science to inexcusable abuse.


(1) The Human Use of Human Beings; Cybernetics and Society (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1950); 241 pages; $3.00.

(2) Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1948).

(3) L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (New York, Hermitage House, 1950); xxvii + 452 pages; $4.00.

(4) Cf., e.g., "Dianetics has no relationship with past mental treatment. It is entirely mechanistic and works with engineering precision" (p. 428).

(5) See Kurt Koffka's Principles of Gestalt Psychology (New York, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1935). Memory is interpreted as the functioning of organized dynamic forces according to a continuity of behavior derived from "traces" (i.e., effects) of previous functioning. The continuity of behavior which comes from these traces is explained by isomorphism (- identity of form, physical or psychological). Memory implies some sort of message between a process and a trace, and learning depends upon the leaving of a trace by a process.
Although he asserts that function determines structure, Hubbard makes no reference to this theory. Neither does he mention Herrick's notion of the functional determination of physiological nervous paths. Herrick's theory implies only a change in the permeability of the synapse, while Koffka's postulates a change in the cytoplasm of the neuron.

(6) "Remaining in present time and 'remembering' does no good" (pp. 427-8).

(7) I am not unmindful of the fact that other systems of psychotherapy are likewise incapable of scientific proof and are nevertheless justifiable on pragmatic grounds. But the proponents of dianetics are not interested in being measured against other systems of psychotherapy; they claim an exact science.

(8) See American Scientist, vol. 38, p.474, July 1950

(9) Science Is a Sacred Cow (New York, E. P. Dutton & Co., 1950).

(10) Or through communicating channels of still other kinds. See, for example, M. J. Dunbar's note in this issue, page 599.

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The Psychiatric Times The Penthouse Interview with L Ron Hubbard's son. The Legal Pages on The Art of Deception #1 by Arnaldo Lerma The Art of Deception #2 by Arnaldo Lerma

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