Friday, July 23, 2010

Martin Gardner vs. Wilhelm Reich & Orgonomy

"Response to Martin Gardner's Attack on Reich and Orgone Research in the Skeptical Inquirer" (1989)
by James DeMeo, Ph.D.; Director, Orgone Biophysical Research Lab; Ashland, Oregon, USA.

Wilhelm Reich's orgonomy was an object of attack in Gardner's (Fads and Fallacies) in the Name of Science. This is one illustration of the demarcation problem, i.e. distinguishing criteria between science and pseudoscience, a problem about which Gardner attempted to generalize, though I don't think that this can be adequately accomplished as a formal matter. As I recall, Gardner speculated whether the early Reich--the Marxist psychoanalyst and author of such notable works as The Mass Psychology of Fascism--was as discreditable as the later Reich who initiated orgonomy as a research programme. This particular twist is symptomatic of the inadequate treatment of the demarcation problem, as the field of psychoanalysis was doubly politicized as a putative science--in its orthodox Freudian and various heterodox incarnations. The earlier Reich was emphatically not a crackpot, but the criteria for judging the validity of his theories at that time may not be so straightforward as what is taken to be scientific method in the physical sciences. What constitutes deviant professional behavior in the cases of psychoanalysis and orgonomy may not be the same sort of thing. There are two dimensions to such evaluation: (1) how seriously the theory in question can be taken, given our background of scientific knowledge at some historical moment; (2) whether the pursuit of research outside accepted channels is an indicator of a pseudoscientific enterprise. We can attempt to formulate some general criteria as to what constitutes crank science, but actually, we have to approach specific cases from the standpoint not of formal criteria but of specific real-world knowledge.

For my own take on Reich, see my essay:
The Late Vitalism of Wilhelm Reich: Commentary
We may also ask now whether James DeMeo has a valid complaint or whether he is a crackpot. The author claims he rigorously follows the scientific method, and that the body of research he cites has been marginalized by the scientific community in a politicized context. DeMeo writes more or less in the style of a rational person, but whether he exhibits paranoia or a persecution complex (another reasonable interpretation) demands that we have a prior sense of both legitimate science and the scientific community.

DeMeo has a bone to pick with both the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, later absorbed into the Center for Free Inquiry) and Martin Gardner. DeMeo complains about smear tactics and censorship for being denied a forum. He complains that CSICOP violates its own stated principles. He establishes that he has scientific credentials but emphasizes that Gardner has none. The immediate occasion for irritation with Gardner is Gardner's article:
"Reich the Rainmaker: the Orgone Obsession", Skeptical Inquirer, 13 (1): 26-30, Fall 1988.
There is a history that begins with Gardner's article:
"The Hermit Scientist", Antioch Review, Winter 1950-1951, pp. 447-457.
There is one charge that is more serious:
Gardner's first attack against Reich appeared in the Antioch Review of 1950, though he was then more restrained in his linguistic distortions and vituperation. In 1952 he attacked Reich, with similar clever wit and fervor, in a chapter in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. His articles helped fuel the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) pseudo-investigation, which has since been demonstrated, through at least three different Freedom-Of-Information-Act searches of FDA files, to have been conducted in a most shabby, antiscientific "get Reich" manner.
One would have to look over the FDA files to ascertain whether in fact Gardner effectively contributed to the persecution of Reich, which led not only to his imprisonment but to an unprecedent government-instigated book-burning.

Whether or not Gardner in any way distorted Reich's claims, there are additional issues raised here. In addition to the nutty alternative science, there are philosophical arguments. DeMeo denies that orgonomy is a religion and reiterates Reich's war on all "mysticism," in which natural science as we know it is also implicated. DeMeo purports to find the root of Gardner's hostility in his own dualistic world view, in which Gardner affirms, sans attempt to justify himself rationally, his own theism. Now while this is indeed a noteworthy point upon which to dwell, DeMeo, following Reich, claims to have surmounted the dualism that plagues the modern world.

Here's a fragment of the metaphysical justification for Reichian science:
[. . .] Reich's functional, bioenergetic works stand in clear opposition to both a dead, machine-like universe, and a dualistic, "spirit-versus-flesh" anthropomorphic deity. Indeed, Reich argued persuasively that the mechanistic-mystical world view was the result of a perceptive splitting-off of organic sense functions, caused by the chronic damming-up of emotional-sexual energy within the body of the observer. For these reasons, he argued, animistic peoples, who lived a more vibrant and uninhibited emotional and sexual life, and who consequently remained relatively free of neuroses, could feel, with their sense organs, the tangible energetic forces which shaped and created the universe.
It gets worse. See for yourself.

Now before I add my own generalizations, I must point out that others have accused the orgonomy advocates themselves of falsifying Reich's legacy by altering his earlier Marxist psychoanalytical writings in accord with his later orgonomy.

A few conclusions of my own, some of which are explicated in my essay noted above:

(1) Taken all together, this is a nutcase alternate "scientific" world-picture, false not only in theoretical or empirical particulars but false as a total package in light of accumulated scientific knowledge, not to mention the tacit background assumptions of methodological naturalism and experimental replicability.

(2) Part of DeMeo's essay reads like scientific experimental empiricism, but if you read some of Reich's own reflections on experimental research, there is indeed a regression to animism in violation of the canons of experimental procedure. (I.e. a certain kind of personal vibe skews results.)

(3) Furthermore, in spite of the eschewing of "mysticism" and affirmation of naturalism, all of Reich's late writings are imbued with a metaphysics which indeed reads like mysticism. Reich's quest to overcome the alienated, fragmented experience of life in the modern world is derailed by a pseudoscientific, illegitimate holism.

(4) While accusing Gardner of harboring an implicit dualism, DeMeo himself vacillates between empiricism and metaphysics in his characterization of his own scientific claims and of the scientific community allegedly engaged in a conspiracy of silence against him.

Gardner, whether wearing the hat of methodological naturalist or theist-in-hiding, was simply not up to the philosophical task of analyzing the tragic turn in Reich's intellectual preoccupations. He was as incapable of profound analysis of ideology as the rest of the secular humanist/skeptical movement, which of course never sees itself as ideological. These folks can spot what's obviously pseudoscientific (unless it concerns memes, evolutionary economics, human sociobiology or some other pet non-paranormal pseudoscience of their own) in fringe science, but to delve beneath the surface, that's not their forte.

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