Friday, January 1, 2021

A Pseudo-Scientific Appendix to Postblogging Technology, September 1950: A Watershed Year for Pseudo-Science?


Three of the biggest pseudo-scientific books of the Twentieth Century were published (in English) 1950. For example, Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision was published in April; L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics was published in May; while Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki came out in an English edition late in the year, having been first published in Norwegian in 1948. I'm not an expert on Fortean bullshit, but off hand only  von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods (1971) and Berlitz's Bermuda Triangle (1974) really engaged the public imagination to the same degree as 1950s' trinity of absurdity. 

These three books were not, of course, the only ones. I was finally driven to write this post by a Time reviewer calling our attention to the sales success of Frank Scully's Behind the Flying Saucers and telling me, as the self-appointed voice of posterity, that there was something going on. Behind the Flying Saucers doesn't even come close to being in the same league as the first three titles, but, as the reviewer points out, it was making money hand over fist for Scully and his "conservative" publisher, Henry Holt, and that makes it significant in its own right.

Finally, the University of Washington signed up for a single go in the Ivy League Nude Portraiture Scandal in the fall of 1950. Although definitely pseudo-science, the ILNPS seems like a pretty different kind of phenomena. But was it? The answer is that it might not be. 
1. Nude Preppies

"The lack of agreement about the classification of the human races is notorious . . . ." begins Theodosius Dobzhansky's review of William H. Sheldon's Atlas of Men (1954), a book copiously illustrated with ILNPS photographs, and still available on Amazon.* That's a clue to what is going on here, but I'm mainly adding context to the photograph, because seeing is believing.

So the ILNPS actually begins in the 1880s, when Harvard began taking nude, or possibly semi-nude photographs of its freshman class. Wikipedia explains the rationale, as it was advanced in the Gilded Age: "Ostensibly to gauge the rate and severity of ricketsscoliosis, and lordosis in the population."  It seems beyond outlandish to think that the rate and severity of dietary deficiency diseases in Harvard undergraduates is going to be high, but I don't notice anyone who was involved in running Harvard 140 years ago, stepping forward to clarify the issues at stake. By the 1930s, the practice had spread to Wellesley, among other elite female colleges associated with the still predominantly Ivy League universities. Here the emphasis had shifted to posture, a big issue for upper class women at the time, and the pictures were definitely semi-nude.

It was at this point that "American psychologist and numismatist" William Herbert Sheldon became involved. somehow, this somewhat peripatetic American academic persuaded at least sixteen American universities, extending well beyond the ivy League narrowly defined, to embrace similar programmes, in which front, back and profile nude photographic negatives of incoming students were taken, and distributed to Sheldon's research programme, Ernest Hooten of Harvard, and the respective university's physical education programme. Hooten, one of those entertainingly outspoken public intellectuals of the "evolutionary psychologist" variety (the ones who talk about sex), disappears from the story at this point, mainly because he died of a heart attack at the age of 67, way back in 1954. He probably had a lot more to do with the whole thing than modern retrospectives suggest, but evidently we don't know, or care to investigate. Universities may love the attention their pet evolutionary psychologists attract, but once the men are buried, they're best forgotten. 
Indeed, I wouldn't know anything about it if it hadn't hit the pages of Time in September of 1950, and there's a bit of a story here. My main authority, beyond Time and Wiukipedia, is by Ron Rosenbaum taht ran in  the New York Times Magazine in 1995, inspired by a public tiff between Naomi Wolf and Dick Cavett. Cavett, like the gigantic asshole he apparentlyl was, joked that no-one would buy stolen Vassar nudes, Wolf decided to take offence in the name of all Seven Sisters women through the ages. Not at the photographers, mind you, but by Cavett. Not the photographers. In a fair universe both celebrities would have died in a cage match for our amusement, while in the one we have, Rosenbaum tracked down one of Sheldon's youthful acolytes. 

The acolyte, Ellery Lanier, took Rosenbaum back to the moment when it all fell apart for Sheldon, the moment when word of The Atlas of Men's sequel, Atlas of Women, came to light. He described how Sheldon and his team "descended on Seattle," home of the University of Washington, and "began taking nude pictures of female freshmen." One of them, you see (One of them) told her parents, and the next day a "battalion of lawyers and university officials stormed Sheldon's lab, seized every photograph of a nude women, convicted the images of shamefulness, and sentenced them to burning. The angry crew then shoveled the incendiary film into an incinerator," leading to a short-lived controversy over book-burnings and witch hunts. 

This is not, needless to say, Time's version of events, which credits University President Raymond Allen with taking action, and the physical education department with taking the pictures. Time doesn't say anything about Sheldon being in Seattle, and the idea of a male professor taking nude photographs of co-eds in 1950 seems pretty outlandish. However, as credulous as Rosenbaum is here, he did take the trouble of going through Sheldon's papers at the Smithsonian and establishing that, yes, Sheldon was totally a racist who thought the coloured folk were childish and stupid. So thanks for that, Ron! Also, he took  money from the tobacco industry once, but not Hitler, so there's that. 

Deep in the Rosenbaum article, there's a telling quote from a Yale spokesman: "We searched, but there's nobody around now who was involved with the decision." I already made that joke! The men were okay with it, because, Rosenbaum supposes, they were used to that kind of intrusiveness from "draft physicals and athletic squad weigh-ins," but the girls really didn't like it. Rosenbaum ends his investigation with some rumination about Sheldon's physiognomy studies and kindred pseudo sciences like "Marxist history, Freudian psychology and Keynesian economics." The photographs just happened. No-one was really responsible. Let's move on. 

2. Beyond the UFOs

No-one is going to mistake Frank Scully's Beyond the Flying Saucers for some kind of profound social phenomena. For one thing, no Ivy League undergraduates were hurt in the publication of this book. An investigation by True Magazine pretty firmly established that Scully was just recycling tall tales told him by a pair of oil industry scammers of the "doodlebug" variety. The book gave Silas Newton and Leo A. GeBauer some transient publicity, which they used to scam a few more ignorant investors out of money for worthless oil licenses on the strength of readings from scientific instruments that turned out to be surplus Signals Corps tuners. True teamed up with some victims to win a fraud settlement against the two that left them on the hook for a quarter of a million in damages, and that was the end of that. Scully, by way of contrast, kept his column in Variety until he retired, and died in Palm Springs at 72 after some comfortable years in enjoyment of his royalties. 

Except for the part where generations of people have gone on believing that the Air Force has a bunch of crashed flying saucers and alien bodies in cold storage, that is.  If there's a deep, cultural take away, it is the fact that the publisher felt the need to append an introduction to the book explaining that it found Scully's account profoundly convincing. As Time points out, nothing could be further from the case. A backpage book reviewer of 1950 was well aware that magnetrons do not measure things and that magnetic waves do not exist, but evidently this very basic scientific information eluded Henry Holt's fact checking department. 

According to the author of this website, Scully's appeal is pretty obvious. Almost every page of Beyond the Flying Saucers drips with contempt for the "the military," the Air Force, the oil business,and other authorities too numerous to mention. Given the approach, it is oddly critical of other hoaxes and lunatics, and even has an entire chapter devoted to Velikovsky and his precursors in "cosmic collision" theory, perhaps getting a copyright on "Theories in Collision," which I am sure every debunker has used since.  Taken together it is just about perfect for recruiting new marks for a doodlebugging scam, although at this late date we have to assume that Scully was an innocent patsy. Whatever. I also assume that Southern Methodist University, which is behind the website, is a real school. Even if its football team is more prominent on the web than the school. 

3. Worlds in Collision

Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision was, it turns out (I learned this from Frank Scully!) just the latest of a long series of crank books about planets and moons caroming around the Bible-era Solar System colliding with each other and causing various worldly and astronomical events. None of it sounds even remotely plausible, and I believe it has its roots in Nineteenth Century esotericism. And yet Macmillan agreed to publish it, based on what it thought was a firmly positive welcome from the astronomical community. The astronomical community was a bit loosier and goosier than modern perspectives might credit, but the whole thing was so obviously absurd that --well, that in the early 1970s the Association for the Advancement of Science had to hold a special session to .. . make fun of Velikovsky. It's a little hard to understand how anyone took the man seriously. His biggest source of appeal is probably that he says that various crazy Bible shenanigans actually happened, but that hardly gets much attention from the great and good, who focus on things like misquoting other scholars. (Shock! This is my shocked face!) 

Again, considering that Hans Schindler, aka Hans Bellamy had been promoting this nonsense in various books since 1936, taking over the beat from Hans Hoerbiger, it is a little hard to understand how Velikovsky got so much traction, but there it is. 

4. Dianetics

What's to say about "Dianetics: a new science of the mind" at this late date? While the link between Dianetics and the Church of Scientology is as obscure as the late L. Ron Hubbard could make it, those of us who are protected from defamation suits by our obscurity are pretty firm in the opinion that Scientology was a successful attempt to gain Second Amendment protections and privileges when the Dianetics movement came under pressure due to Hubbard's creative financial practices. The credulity with which dianetics was initially received is more credible than that for Velikovsky and Scully's magnetic UFOs, but I can't help point out Frederic Schuman's defence of Dianetics. Schuman was a fairly prominent figure at the time, being engaged in a running battle with HUAC and a founder of what some in the once-thriving field of Soviet Studies called "neo-Stalinism." 

That's basically being nice to Stalin without being pro-Communist. I'm not at all sure just how much it was actually a thing, my acquaintance with it being limited to gossip coming out of the University of Toronto's Centre for Russian and East European Studies back in the day, but it seems to describe Schuman reasonably well. If I'm allowed a pop psychological diagnosis, and this is the Dianetics section after all, Schuman was a bit of a contrarian. 

5. Kon-Tiki

One of the interesting things to come up in my superficial dive into the pseudo-past for this post is that Bellamy wasn't just interested in proto-Moons ricocheting around the truth of outlandish Bible stories. Just as Scully has a long digression about Bellamy, Bellamy's career features a long digression into the ruins at Tiwanaku, a complex pre-Columbian archaeological site on the southern shore of the  endorrheic basin of Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Amateur archaeologist and all-around rich person, Arthur Posnansky, had been making a fuss about Tiwanaku for years by the time Bellamy became interested in it, and the place continues to feature prominently in the pseudo-historian's history of the world. According to Posnansky, Tiwanaku was fifteen thousand years old, the cradle of civilisation in the Americas, and not inhabited by modern Andean Indians, although he did not go so far as to advocate a lost White race as founders. I'm not going to lay this particular craziness at any specific person's feet, bu before I move on to Heyerdahl's epic voyage, there is a connection that goes beyond both being in South America. Esotericists have been known to "argue" that before assorted cosmic catastrophes, Tiwanaku was at sea level and that its early civilisation influenced foreign developments over the seas.

It's not really necessary to link Heyerdahl to this sort of thing. It's enough to say that South America was in the Zeitgeist when Thor Heyerdahl and five fellow adventurers arrived to sail a balsa log raft from Peru to Polynesia, and thereby prove that Polynesia had been settled from west to east, and not from east to west, as all previous conventional anthropology said.  Unlike Posnansky, Heyerdahl was unafraid to invoke lost white races, proposing that the original Polynesians were "white, bearded men" from Peru, who originated in the Middle East, crossed the Atlantic to found the great Mesoamerican civilisations, were forced out of Tihuanaco, and then sailed off into the Pacific to found Polynesia. A second but unintentional west-to-east migration from South America then brought the "Maori-Polynesian" people (related to the Haida and Tlingit of the Northwest coast) to the islands. 

I seem to recall the breathtaking racism of it all being downplayed in my youth, when Kon-Tiki was often linked to historic incidents of Japanese castaways drifting down the coast of North America in the Japan Current, invoked along with purported links between ancient Japanese and Chilean pottery as evidence of primordial over-ocean contacts. And this whole thing as Easter Island in it, and that's nice. Easter Island always improves your pseudo-stuff. 

(Case in point.)


So that's all stuff that happened. Why in 1950? From a personal perspective, I have two aunts who enrolled in nursing at the University of British Columbia in the early 1950s, a long-ago age when undergraduate nurses and physical education students clashed in the annual "Tea Bowl" contact football game. I think that that was a bit of artificially fostered collegiate rivalry, but it was still real, and I cannot quite wrap my head around the idea of a bunch of phys ed instructors photographing Aunts Judith and Linda nude, and getting away with it. BC and Washington are only neighbouring jurisdictions, not cultural twins, but my sense is that they're close enough that the reaction at the old U-Dub would have been similar. As, indeed, it was! The amazing thing, then, is that the whole nude portraiture thing continued on into the Sixties at, well, those schools that continued it. I'm being a bit vague there because UW's reaction was far from the only one. In the end, this practice was the preserve of the Ivy Leagues. 

So what the fuck is going on? Race. I'm pretty sure that it's race. Hooten and Sheldon probably only had vague ideas about tying their private pornographic stashes to eugenical projects, but for the phys ed departments who seized on the idea and seem to have used the eminent names of anthropology as cover, surveillance and power relations seem to have been at the heart of it. Specifically, while I call bullshit on the idea that it was about detecting scoliosis, it was clearly just the ticket for detecting racial passing. Even the official science-talk around the project keeps coming back to that! It is, perhaps, no wonder that the project was summarily chased off campuses that could not aspire to Ivy League levels of racial hygiene. 

Frank Scully, a man with a congenital handicap that kept him mostly bedridden (I don't know the details), and a self-consciously Catholic persona,  clearly also felt himself to be a bit marginalised. Since I don't have to cut him any slack with regards to his relationship with Newton and GeBauer, I can call him what he clearly, like L. Ron Hubbard, was: A scammer. The great thing about the American con-man tradition is that it is usually con men conning con men in a great social jerk of contrarianism, Dunning-Kruger illusions, and, above all, social anxiety. I'm not saying that it has anything to do with race, but it is interesting to find a current pushing back against the authority claims of the American military in this year of selective service and draft board physical examinations. 

As for Velikovsky, a crank, and L. Ron Hubbard, a loser and failure on a world-historical scale before he fell into the religion scam, we can at least suggest that they attracted the fringes of the American Evangelical world and a motley collection of other magical thinkers. Again, there's some kind of suggestion of social anxiety. Heyerdahl, on the other hand, has hooked into the oldest North American con on the books: Coloured American folk, obviously far more likely to be part-Black than part-Indian, but all too ready to fabricate "Cherokee princesses" in their past, are actually White. And Vikings, more or less. 

So having set this up as a story about racial passing and other sources of social status anxiety, I'm ready to come to some kind of tentative conclusion about why it peaked in 1950. It's all those loyalty investigations into people's past. It's a violation of the American compact of historical amnesia, and while people are anything but ready to turn against "McCarthyism," their anxieties are starting to peak through. It's a theory, anyway. 

* As I'm quoting from a Wiley Online Library thumbnail, I can't tell you how the review ends, but things are not looking good for Dr. Sheldon as of the end of my preview. 


  1. Paper on US wartime aircraft industry productivity, capacity utilization, and demand:

  2. Re Hubbard and Dianetics/Scientology, I think you mean the 1st Amendment, not the 2nd.