In this #SkepticalTuesday #ThrowbackThursday crossover post, I write about the sad case of Wilhelm Reich, pseudoscientist.
One of my favourite songs by Kate Bush is Cloudbusting, and my friends will tell you I’m a little obsessed with it (it’s got a video conceived by Terry Gilliam that stars Donald Sutherland for heaven’s sake). But listening to it over and over (there’s a new cover out by Matthew Good and Holly McNarland) made me start wondering what the heck the song was actually about, so I did a little research and the results surprised me.
The song is a fictionalized narrative from the perspective of Peter Reich, the son of Wilhelm Reich, and how his father’s arrest by the FBI changed the he viewed the world. And Wilhelm Reich is just such an interesting person that I felt I had to share.
The thing is, Wilhelm Reich is just the kind of person we skeptics would be trying to stop if he were around today. Because Reich was, after all, an inveterate snake-oil salesman and all-around purveyor of pseudoscientific junk.
He didn’t start out that way. When he came to prominence in Austria in the 1930s, it was as a psychoanalyst. Today, most of us think of psychoanalysis as pseudoscience, belonging only in Literature departments (if even there), and with things like the Oedipus Complex and the Mirror Stage no more based in empirical evidence than astrology or reiki. But at the time it was more like a proto-science, and in the same way that, without any knowledge of anatomy, medieval scholars proposed the theory of the humours, early 20th-century psychoanalysts tried to create theories about their patients and test them — to varying degrees of success.
Wilhelm Reich wrote a number of culturally-important books, including The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), which dubiously explained the rise of dictatorships as an outgrowth of sexual repression, for which he was tossed out of the Communist Party of Germany; and The Sexual Revolution (1936), which argues that the societal imposition of sexual taboos is one of the greater problems of (particularly) Western society, and that the USSR, at least at first, was on its way to curing this ill through sexual revolution (until Stalin came along).
But Reich’s ability to connect dots with ink invisible to everyone else — and his paranoia, which had at first only affected his relationships with women through (somewhat hypocritical) fears of infidelity — only grew stronger as he aged. He started to work on his theory of “vegetotherapy,” an idea he had that the body and mind were more connected, and that by physically manipulating his patients’ bodies — by breaking down their “muscular armour,” often painfully — he could correct their states of mind. This led to experiments in bioelectricity, trying to prove his theory that libido was a physical product of bioelectrical tension (I think). And it was from there that he went on into work on abiogenesis and the origins of life.
In what he later called the “bion” experiments, he mixed up various biological compounds, heated them up, and thought he saw microscopic, glowing blue proto-lifeforms, which he named bions. He said that if you poured bions into a petri dish, life emerged (which is really where you can see the tragedy of confirmation bias forming, since he’d basically just improperly sterilized the dishes). From this point on, everything just kept building on itself. He moved to the US in 1937 and started work on something he termed “orgonomy,” the study of “orgone,” or the energy that he had decided was responsible for creating life. He built “orgone accumulators” (basically just Faraday cages) that would concentrate this supposed power. He claimed sitting inside one had all kinds of positive health effects — could even cure cancer — and he began to sell them.
The FBI (possibly as a case of mistaken identity, actually) started to investigate him after that start of WWII, despite the fact that he was definitely not a supporter of the Nazi party or of fascism. But this happened around the same time as he lost his job at the New School for, well, peddling pseudoscience, and one can’t imagine three weeks imprisoned on Ellis Island with Hitler’s supporters did him much good psychologically.
It wasn’t until 1947 that the FDA started after him, investigating whether or not the theory of “orgone” had any scientific basis whatsoever, and it wasn’t until 1952 that they would pop by his homestead (which he had named Orgonon) for a surprise visit. Reich chased them away.
Had he let them in, what they found would have found was his latest work: “cloudbusters.” These were, supposedly, orgone-based devices that could counter drought-causing “Deadly Orgone Radiation.” In reality they were just long aluminum pipes with cables running into water. Reich had, by this point, seemingly lost most connections with reality. By all reports, he started to imagine that the government was both spying on him and, paradoxically, protecting him. A 1954 injunction that he stop selling orgone accumulators, and that any remaining ones be destroyed, pushed him further into delusion.
He started to drive around with his son Peter, looking at the skies, searching for UFOs — he called them “energy alphas” — that were spreading Deadly Orgone Radiation and causing droughts. He used cloudbusters to fight back against them, apparently “shooting them down” on more than one occasion. In 1956 he was found in contempt of court for continuing to sell his devices, and later that year, hundreds of copies of his books were destroyed as “promotional material,” crossing a line, I think, into McCarthyist censorship.
In 1957, after a year of legal battles, he wound up in prison, and died of a heart attack before his first parole hearing.
As ludicrous as his ideas were, the story is still a tragic one. Reich’s was a unique mind, and while it goes without saying that he should have been prevented from selling his “cancer-curing” Faraday cages and rain-making services in the name of consumer protection, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for the man, who really seemed to genuinely believe he was right. About orgone, life-energy, fighting off an interplanetary invasion. Wilhelm Reich was certainly mad, but with enough earnestness to make me, at least, feel he got worse than he deserved.
His son called him a nineteenth-century scientist in twentieth-century America. To me he seems to have been a most peculiar thing indeed: an honest pseudoscientist.
Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (and historical pseudoscientists) here at This Week In Tomorrow.