Science and Dianetics
The following article was originally published in The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 6, no. 1, July/August 1992, pp. 1-3.
L. Ron Hubbard constantly makes the claim that dianetics is a
"scientific fact." In fact, he makes that claim 35 times in
Dianetics. For example, "All our facts are functional and these
facts are scientific facts, supported wholly and completely by
laboratory evidence" (p. 96). Hubbard shows that he highly
regards correct scientific experimentation by carefully hedging
his approval of another scientific experiment done by someone
else. This test was conducted in a hospital to see whether
unattended children became sick more often than attended children.
"The test... seems to have been conducted with proper controls"
(p. 143), he cautiously states, not having apparently seen the
entire written report.
In The Phoenix Lectures, Hubbard is also critical of the
early psychiatric work of Wundt in the latter 1800s: "Scientific
methodology was actually not, there and then, immediately
classified... what they did was unregulated, uncontrolled, wildcat
experiments, fuddling around collecting enormous quantities of
I am similarly cautious about Hubbard's experiments,
especially since there seems to be no record of how they were
done, what exactly the results were, what kind of control group
was used, whether the experiments were double blind, how many
subjects there were in each experiment, and other pertinent data.
I have asked ranking Scientologists for this data, and have
fervently searched for it myself, and have yet to see it. This
brings up the question of whether Hubbard can call his original
And, in keeping with the need to understand each word we use,
it brings up the question of just what science is. What does it
take for someone to legitimately make the claim that his ideas are
scientifically proven? When can something be called a scientific
As with many subjects in life, the deeper one looks into
science, the murkier it gets. There is not even one single
agreed-upon definition for science in the scientific community.
Those people who seek to establish a unifying definition are
dealing in what is called the philosophy of science. One of the
most respected and most influential of these is Karl Popper.
Popper claims that no theory can be called scientific unless it is
falsifiable, that is, unless it can be demonstrated that
deliberate attempts to prove a theory wrong are unsuccessful.
Thus, a theory must open itself up to criticism from the
scientific community to see whether it can withstand critical
Popper's formulation for scientific validation is:
- It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for
nearly every theory--if we look for confirmations.
- Confirmations should count only if they are the result of
risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the
theory in question, we should have expected an event which was
incompatible with the theory--an event which would have refuted
- Every "good" scientific theory is a prohibition: it
forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the
better it is.
- A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event
is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as
people often think) but a vice.
- Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify
it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability: some
theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than
others; they take, as it were, greater risks.
- Confirming evidence should not count except when it is
the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that
it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to
falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of "corroborating
- Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false,
are still upheld by their admirers--for example by introducing ad
hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by re-interpreting the theory
ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a
procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from
refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering,
its scientific status. (2)
The falsifiability approach is a good one, because no theory
can be proven as a fact unless every case possible is individually
example to see that it applies to every possible case. For
example, a popular example of a "fact" in science classrooms of
the 19th century was that "all swans are white." This was,
however, shown to be untrue when a variety of swan in South
America was discovered to be black. This "fact" was proven wrong
by a previously unknown exception to the rule, and this example
points out that it is never entirely possible to prove a theory in
the positive without examining every possible case of that theory.
(It is, of course, not possible to completely falsify many
theories also, but for the sake of brevity I would refer the
reader to Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery for further
arguments on this subject.) (3)
Let us go now momentarily to one of Hubbard's scientific
Its [the reactive mind's] identity can now be certified by any
technician in any clinic or in any group of men. Two hundred and
seventy-three individuals have been examined and treated,
representing all the various types of inorganic mental illness and
the many varieties of psychosomatic ills. In each one this
reactive mind was found operating, its principles unvaried. (4)
After the brief discussion previously of science, we can
begin to question Hubbard's claim to scientific validity. Exactly
who were these 273 people? Were they believers in Hubbard's
theories or a representative sample of the public at large?
Exactly how was the experiment conducted that proved the existence
of the reactive mind? This needs to be known so others can try it
to test for variables that Hubbard may have overlooked, to see if
his experiment produced a statistical fluke, and to help in
conducting experiments to try to disprove the theory. The more
times an experiment is conducted, the more likely it is shown to
be true, keeping in mind of course that no matter how many times
an expedition went looking for white swans, it would find them, so
long as they didn't go to South America.
Was Hubbard seeking confirmation in his experiments or was he
attempting to refute his theory, as Popper suggests a true man of
science would do? Designing a test that will provide confirmation
of a thesis is not difficult.
A Real Experiment Comes Up Dry
Hubbard does mention an experiment to perform that can prove the
existence of engrams:
If you care to make the experiment, you can take a man,
render him "unconscious," hurt him and give him information. By
Dianetic technique, no matter what information you gave him, it
can be recovered. This experiment should not be carelessly
conducted because you might render him insane. (5) (emphasis in
Three researchers at the University of California, Los
Angeles, decided in 1950 to give this experiment a try. (6)
If an individual should be placed, by some means of [sic]
other, into an unconscious state, then, according to traditional
psychology, no retention of the events occurring about him should
take place and consequently, no reports of such events can be
elicited from the individual, no matter what methods of
elicitation are employed (hypothesis I). According to dianetics,
retention should take place with high fidelity and, therefore an
account of the events can be elicited by means of dianetic
auditing (hypothesis II). (7)
The Dianetic Research Foundation of Los Angeles cooperated
with the experimenters by providing a subject and several
qualified auditors. The subject was a 30-year-old male who worked
for the foundation and was considered a good candidate for the
experiment by the foundation since he had "sonic" recall and had
been audited. The experiment was carefully laid out according to
dianetic theory and was at all times done under the cooperation
and suggestions of the Foundation.
The subject was knocked unconscious with .75 grams of sodium
pentathol by Dr. A. Davis, M.D., who is one of the authors of the
experiment. When the subject was found to be unconscious, Mr.
Lebovits was left alone with the subject while two recording
devices recorded the session. Mr. Lebovits read a 35-word section
of a physics book to the subject, administering pain during the
reading of the last 18 words. He then left the room, and the
patient was allowed to rest for another hour, at which time he was
Two days later, the professional auditors from the Dianetic
Research Foundation began to audit the subject, trying to elicit
the engram, or recording of the experiment that according to
dianetic theory resided in the subject's reactive mind.
The auditors did elicit several possible passages from the
subject and supplied these to the experimenters. The results were
that "Comparison with the selected passage shows that none of the
above-quoted phrases, nor any other phrases quoted in the report,
bear any relationship at all to the selected passage. Since the
reception of the first interim report, in November 1950, the
experimenter tried frequently and repeatedly to obtain further
reports, but so far without success." (8)
The experimenters concluded by stating that while their test
case was only one subject, they felt that the experiment was well
done and strongly suggested that the engram hypothesis was not
validated. I know of no other scientifically valid experiment
besides this one by non-dianeticists which attempted to prove
Hubbard's engram theory.
There is one point I consider the most damning to Hubbard's
attempt to cloak dianetics in scientific validity. While he seems
to be inviting others to conduct their own investigations (and
thus seems to be open to attempts to refute his claims), he never
explains his own experimental methods, thus closing the door to
the scientific community's ability to verify his claims. In order
to evaluate Hubbard's claims, the scientific community would seek
to replicate his experiments to see if the same results were
obtained and to check for possible influences on the experiment
Hubbard may have overlooked. They would also, as Popper suggests,
try to shoot holes in the theory, either on a logical basis or by
conducting refutational experiments.
If Hubbard really respected science, he would welcome and
help the scientific community in its attempts to both support and
refute his theories. But he and his successors in Dianetics and
Scientology refuse to join in scientific debate over the merits of
his ideas, maintaining a dogmatic rather than scientific stance.
My attempts to get the experiments from the Church of Scientology
have been in vain. I have never heard of anyone who has seen
them, nor even anyone who claimed to know how they were conducted.
It is mainly for this reason, I believe, that dianetics cannot
claim scientific validity. Until Hubbard's supposed original
experiments are released to the public, dianetics can only be
called science fiction.
As a footnote, the only reference I found to Hubbard's actual
notes on any original experiments was on a taped lecture by
Hubbard in 1950. He stated at that time that "my records are in
little notebooks, scribbles, in pencil most of them. Names and
addresses are lost... there was a chaotic picture..." A certain
Ms. Benton asked Hubbard for his notes to validate his research,
but when she saw them, "she finally threw up her hands in horror
and started in on the project [validation] clean."9 If this is the
type of material Hubbard was basing his "scientific facts" on,
then there is probably no need to even see them to be able to
reject them with good conscience.
- L. Ron Hubbard, The Phoenix Lectures (Los Angeles: Bridge
Publications, 1982), p. 203.
- Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of
Scientific Knowledge (N.Y.: Harper Torch Books, 1963), pp. 36-37.
- Editor's Footnote: There have been many books and articles
relevant to this issue published in the philosophy of science in
the decades since Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery was
first published (1934 in German; 1959 in English), and it is the
opinion of many philosophers (Larry Laudan being one notable
example) that there is no principled way of distinguishing science
from pseudoscience, or even from nonscience. A recent overview of
some different "theories of science" may be found in chapter 2 of
Ronald N. Giere's Explaining Science: A Cognitive Approach
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). Popper's
"falsifiability" criterion probably is the most popular criterion
for distinguishing between science and pseudoscience used by
scientists themselves, the problem is that it appears to rule out
some scientific theories and include some nonscientific ones (see,
e.g., Laudan's articles in Michael Ruse's But Is It Science
(Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1988), reviewed in AS, February/March
1990 and July 1990).
- L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics (Los Angeles: Bridge Publications,
1987), pp. 70-71.
- Ibid, p. 76.
- Jack Fox, Alvin E. Davis, and B. Lebovits, "An Experimental
Investigation of Hubbard's Engram Hypothesis (Dianetics),"
Psychological Newsletter 10(1959):131-134.
- Ibid, p. 132.
- Ibid, p. 133.
- "What Dianetics Can Do," Lecture Series 2, 1950.
Reprinted with permission from The Hubbard is Bare by Jeff
Jacobsen. Copyright © 1992 by Jeff Jacobsen, P.O. Box 3541,
Scottsdale, AZ 85271.