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The Straight Dope 

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I've always cast a jaundiced eye on the shenanigans of scientific fringe groups. But my eye is a little less yellow when I look at Wilhelm Reich. Reich claimed to have discovered a life energy he called "orgone" back in the 1930s. He made a device that supposedly accumulated the energy, the "orgone accumulator" (ORAC), and another that allegedly could manipulate it in the atmosphere called a "cloudbuster." Some MDs who still subscribe to Reich's theories publish the Journal of Orgonomy. I remember one article claiming tomato plants grown inside an ORAC produce more and larger tomatoes. There's a meteorologist named James DeMeo who does research on the cloudbuster. Plus (and this is the ultimate evidence) Kate Bush sang a song about the cloudbuster on her Hounds of Love album. Seeing as you're the last word on subjects like this, what's the last word on orgone? Yes, no, or maybe? --Steven Stocker, Baltimore

How about "sheesh"? I fail to see what a self-described skeptic could find appealing about the work of Wilhelm Reich, one of the classic scientific screwballs. Reich claimed that (1) he had done battle with alien spaceships, (2) he could produce clouds and create rain with his cloudbuster, and (3) his orgone boxes could cure (or at least ameliorate) everything from cancer to the common cold. He believed living cells arose spontaneously from inorganic matter; that cancer cells are actually protozoalike critters that have tails and can swim like fish; and that orgone energy is what makes the sky blue and causes heat shimmer. Even his terminology was nutsy. UFOs he called EAs, for Energy Alpha. The alien spaceships gave off DOR, for Deadly Orgone. The aliens themselves he called CORE men, for Cosmic Orgone Engineering.

Reich was an intelligent, charismatic man who seems to have had only the most tenuous grasp of reality. He was a cherished associate of Freud in his early years and made some useful contributions to psychoanalytic theory. But his ideas became more and more eccentric over time and he was eventually expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association. He wound up in the U.S. and from then on it was orgone morning, noon, and night.

Reich convinced a great many people, including a few scientists like the aforementioned DeMeo, who claims he ended a drought with a cloudbuster. To this day there are several orgonomic societies. But the mainstream view has always been that Reich is a quack and that his ideas have no scientific basis. One of his orgone boxes, in fact, is on display in Saint Louis's National Museum of Quackery.

In 1956 Reich was convicted of shipping orgone boxes across state lines in defiance of a court order obtained by the Food and Drug Administration. He was sent to prison, where he died of a heart attack in 1957. But his ideas, such as they are, live on. A summary of Reich's career by science writer Martin Gardner may be found in the fall 1988 Skeptical Inquirer; for a full-length treatment check out Fury on Earth by Martin Sharaf.

A CLARIFICATION

Your smart-ass comments reside on safer ground when you do your traditional serious research first than when you infer among several meanings of words [November 2]. I made a transcribing error in the following sense: I received the Surgery article reprint along with a cover letter describing the rectal inventory in the article but also mentioning the gerbil story. In the course of committing the information to the paragraphs that I use to construct my columns and book, I misattributed the gerbil story as appearing in the article when in fact it only appeared in the cover letter. I was careless, and I freely and unconditionally acknowledged my error. I was disappointed to find out that a man whose work I so admire would so casually and gratuitously imply either insincerity or comical incompetence to me when I was so obviously attempting to be humble to you in my note. --Chuck Shepherd, News of the Weird, Washington, D.C.

Oh, Chuck, cool out. If you hadn't been so cryptic in your first letter, you wouldn't have given me the chance for such an obvious (and shameless) cheap shot.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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