The Weekend Australian, 01-02 Mar 1997, Weekend Review, Features p2

Weird Science

Phillip Adams

Recently an open letter to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl appeared in The International Herald Tribune. It was an ad signed by more Hollywood identities than have their appendages preserved in cement outside Mann's Chinese Theatre on Sunset Boulevard. Ranging in heft from Goldie Hawn to Gore Vidal, they accused Kohl's Government of waging war on Scientologists. The movie moralists had the chutzpah to suggest what was happening to the cultists was comparable to what happened to Jews in Hitler's Germany.

When you dig into Scientology, as I've been doing on and off for 40 years, you can see its attraction for the likes of John Travolta and Tom Cruise - the copyrighted scriptures of the Church (sic) of Scientology bear an eerie resemblance to George Lucas's scripts for Star Wars. Which isn't surprising, seeing that the cult's founder was, for many years, a writer of science fiction and movie scripts. Indeed, L. Ron Hubbard launched Dianetics in the pages of that scholarly journal, Astounding Science Fiction.

Here, believe it or not, is what Scientologists are required to believe - and I draw on the researches of Robert Sheaffer, published in the Skeptical Inquirer in 1995.

Seventy-five million years ago there was a crisis in the 26 solar systems constituting our local galactic federation. Populations, averaging 178 billion people per planet, were out of control. So Xenu, the Big Cheese of the Federation, had members of his Galactic Patrol (who looked really nifty in their white uniforms and silver boots) conduct a muster. Surplus people were rounded up and killed by an injection of glycol into the spinal cord. Their frozen corpses were shoved into huge spaceships and sent to Teegeeack. You know it better as planet Earth. Are you with me so far?

The stiffs were dumped all over our mountain ranges. Seventeen immense hydrogen bombs were placed inside the peaks. There were 17 almighty explosions, and the "souls" of the dead (Scientologists prefer the term "thetans") were gathered together and impregnated with all sorts of nasty ideas. Spread across the Earth's surface by glaciers, these legions of disembodied extraterrestrials are now trying desperately to get back into human bodies.

These "body thetans" are constantly looking for nooks and crannies in our psyches. You can blame them for most of our human woes.

That's the bad news. The good news is that you can exorcise the thetans. This involves plugging into the famous E-meter - a slightly tricked-up lie detector - and paying immense amounts of money to high-ranking Scientologists.

(Hubbard's E-meter is basically a galvanometer, a gadget forever being appropriated by pseudo-sciences. Chiropractors use one model as a diagnostic device, while the United States' legal system has modified it into the polygraph or lie detector. The transcendental meditation movement has also employed the galvanometer in some of its "scientific studies". But no one has employed it as successfully as Hubbard.)

It's hard to know where to begin with the preposterous story of Scientology, the cult that has been threatened by legal actions, royal commissions, taxation investigations and the recriminations of escapees. This pseudo-science, this immensely successful business, has metamorphosed into a religion and has attracted the support of vast numbers of people who should know better.

Hubbard spent his final years on a luxurious boat where, according to any number of Fletcher Christians, he behaved as atrociously as Captain Bligh. We know Hubbard was born in 1911 in Nebraska, but details about his early life are elusive. Martin Gardner in his Fads and Fallacies (Dover, 1952) came up with the following: "He seems to have been in the marines ... For a few years attended the George Washington University engineering school, but did not graduate. For the past 20 years he's been a prolific writer of pulp fiction with occasional stints at radio and movie scripting. He's an expert mariner. For a while he sang and played the banjo. During the war he was a naval officer on destroyer escort duty and was severely wounded."

Having floated the idea of Dianetics in May 1950, Hubbard went on to publish a thick, repetitious book outlining his "scientific method" of healing. It was a huge success with SF fans and, almost overnight, Dianetics swept through the movie colony and on to the colleges.

Hubbard stated that all neuroses, psychoses, psychosomatic ailments (including the common cold and possibly diabetes and cancer) are caused by "engrams". These, it turns out, are recorded before one is born. For the poor embryo begins recording engrams immediately after conception.

Hubbard said the embryos had a pretty rough time of it. They could be knocked out by blows, coughs, sneezes, vomiting - and rendered unconscious by the violent pressures of the sex act. And, of course, by attempted abortions. The embryo really suffers if, as Hubbard seems to think is frequently the case, the pregnant mother engages in adultery. But the adult, burdened by all that noise, upheaval and original sinning, can be purged of harmful engrams through a form of hypnosis. Little by little, in return for more and more money, the engrams are totally "erased".

If that sounds like a lot of tosh, just watch your Ps and Qs. "The creation of Dianetics is a milestone for Man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his invention of the wheel and arch," wrote Hubbard in his first Testament. "The hidden source of all ills and human aberration has been discovered and skills have been developed for their invariable cure."

Yes, invariable. "Dianetics is an exact science," says Hubbard, "and its application is on the order of, but simpler, than engineering. Its actions should not be confused with theories, since they demonstrably exist as natural laws hitherto undiscovered."

After enjoying its vogue, Dianetics took a nosedive. Hubbard's third wife, Sarah Northrup Hubbard, sued Ron for divorce, calling him a "paranoid schizophrenic" and accusing him of torturing her while she was pregnant. (One hopes that the Hubbard embryo didn't develop too many engrams.) She told the court that medical advisers described Hubbard as "hopelessly insane".

About this time, the Dianetics Foundation in Wichita went bankrupt. Hubbard moved to Phoenix, where he launched Scientology, "the science of knowledge". It was like Christian science on steroids and, for $US98.50, you could buy an electropsychometer. Yep, the E-meter was born.

Riding on the back of this device, Scientology has become a vast and perturbing organisation that claims more than a million members, pursuing critics through litigation or threats, or both. Most energetically targeted are those who escape its clutches.

Take the case of Paulette Cooper, a US freelance writer. Back in 1971 she wrote The Scandal of Scientology, her attempt to expose its growing influence and misdemeanours. The Scientologists sued Cooper for $15 million in damages and the book was promptly withdrawn. Simultaneously the Scientologists launched a project, code-named Operation PC Freak-out, to discredit Cooper. In his book Flim Flam (Prometheus), James Randi tells of Cooper being robbed, threatened with a gun, vilified in letters sent to her neighbours saying that she was a sexual deviant with venereal disease. As a capper, she was framed on the charge of making bomb threats against the church and came close to being locked up.

Then the tide turned. Federal warrants fell on the Scientologists like rain when they were discovered rifling the files of government officials looking into their affairs. "As a result," writes Randi, "in October 1979 eight Scientologists were convicted of conspiracy in federal court. The defendants, including the new head of the church, were sentenced to prison ... Hubbard, anxious to protect the flimsy foundation upon which he'd constructed his cult, was quite direct about what means might be used to wage war. He issued a 'policy letter' (copies of which leaked out) specifying that lawsuits should be used as a weapon against enemies - known to the Scientologists as SPs (suppressive persons). Not with any hope of winning the lawsuits, but for the purpose of breaking the SPs financially. Scientology, with its claimed 4 million membership (the actual number is probably about 50,000) has wealth amounting to untold millions in cash and property and is far better able to withstand a lengthy legal battle than its opponents."

As Randi tells it, the Scientologists announced a policy of "fair game". Under this operating principle, any person who drops out of the church may be "sued, tricked, lied to or destroyed" by any means.

For example, there was a plan to "terminate" the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal or CSICOP, with which I've had a long association. My distinguished colleagues include Francis Crick, Murray Gell-Mann and other Nobel laureates. Also involved in the Committee are Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.

The Scientologists' plot was to suggest that CSICOP was supported by the US's Central Intelligence Agency - and convince leaders of major religions we were out to get them. This was to be done by sending bogus letters on CIA letterheads.

Not only did CSICOP survive and flourish, but many critics of Scientology dared to stare the organisation down. There were investigations into its operations all over the world, including a royal commission in Victoria in the 1960s. Michael Meisner, at one time the fifth highest ranked official among US Scientologists, became an SP, telling the world that the church had put him under house arrest, gagging and handcuffing him.

Look, I'm a pluralist. Let a hundred schools of thought contend, let a thousand flowers boom. Most religious beliefs are nonsensical so why not have another? Or another thousand? And if Hollywood actors and Australian singers and other naives want to give Hubbard's heirs all their money in return for dubious physical and psychological benefits, why stop them?

Scientology's problem - with, among others, the French and German governments - lies in the fact that while it claims all the tax deductions that come with religion, it charges a motser for its teachings. Where other religions make their sacred texts freely available for anyone who wishes to study them, Scientology's are both copyright and expensive. So an increasing number of governments say: "Sorry, you can't have it both ways". Governments are also concerned with the cult's infiltration of their bureaucracies. What might Scientologists do with the confidential information they can access?

While I find it hard to feel much affection for Helmut Kohl, he has, nonetheless, my sympathies in his struggle with this perturbing group.

I mentioned that Scientology's belief system closely resembles the writings of George Lucas. Not to mention those of Isaac Asimov. Far from being flattered, Asimov is alarmed by Scientology and similar systems of pseudo-science. "Never in history has humanity faced a crisis so deep, so intense, so pervasive, and so multi-faceted," he wrote. "There have never till now been so many people on earth so dependent on a complex technology, so burdened by its flaws, and so likely to witness a complete breakdown of that technology in a matter of decades. If we are to pull through we must thread our way carefully through the rapids that lie ahead. At every step we'll be depending on our knowledge, grasp and understanding of science, of its potentialities and its limitations ... Under these circumstances, what crime is greater than that of misteaching the public about science? ... Humanity has the stars in its future, and that future is too important to be lost under the burden of juvenile folly and ignorant superstition."

I'll second that.