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Learning from Martin Gardner

by Daniel Loxton, May 25 2010

Martin Gardner portrait by Konrad Jacobs. Courtesy Oberwolfach Photo Collection

By now you will most likely have heard the sad news of the death of Martin Gardner — the father of modern skepticism — at age 95. He was, as his friend James Randi wrote, “a very bright spot in my firmament.”

Many people feel the same way, and for good reason. Gardner’s impact cannot be overstated. It is fair to argue that Martin Gardner created the modern skeptical literature from whole cloth. His 1952 book In the Name of Science (retitled Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science for the second and subsequent editions; hereafter referred to as Fads & Fallacies) set the standard that later led to the creation of CSICOP — and to all that has followed since. Through his books and his “Notes of a Fringe-Watcher” column in the Skeptical Inquirer, Martin Gardner was a meticulous skeptical scholar for six decades. (Amazingly, his most recent Skeptical Inquirer articles appeared earlier this year.)

I’m writing this essay about this “good old man” in long-hand, sitting at the side of a neighbourhood swimming pool. I’m watching my own young son laughing and splashing, and thinking about life: its brevity, its preciousness, its cycles of wisdom and forgetfulness and rediscovery. How fleeting it can be — not only life, but memory and understanding as well. What will my son remember of the lessons I try to teach him? What will I remember of the things my own father taught me?

I wrote recently about the dawn of the organized skeptical movement with the formation of CSICOP in 1976. Today I’m looking back further — a whopping 24 years before the founding of CSICOP or any other skeptical organization. Gardner stepped onto the stage with Fads & Fallacies the year after Carl Sagan graduated high school. James Randi was, at age 24, making a name for himself as a bright young magician. It was the year that Paul Kurtz, a U.S. Army veteran of the liberation of Dachau, finished his PhD in philosophy. Legendary investigator Joe Nickell, whose historical overview essay style follows the Gardner model, was an eight-year old boy. Many of our most respected science advocates, like Michael Shermer and Steven Novella, had not yet even been born.

For my part, my own father was three years old when Gardner invented the modern skeptical literature — with the book I dug into again this morning.

Fads & Fallacies cover artA True Classic

I never met Martin Gardner, and it’s been years since I last re-read his books. Still, returning to Fads & Fallacies is like speaking to a close old friend I haven’t seen in years. (When we were shepherds, my brother Jason and I used to carry battered copies of skeptical masterpieces in our backpacks. Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, Randi’s Flim-Flam! and Gardner’s Fads & Fallacies were among the most important of them.)

If you haven’t read Fads & Fallacies, you should. (I mean, really, head down to your local library today. What better way to honor Gardner’s life in skepticism?) Fads & Fallacies is a revered classic, of course, and yet completely modern in style as well as substance. Its crisp chapters each review the history and arguments of a specific pseudoscientific topic (such as creationist flood geology, Atlantis, or “orgone” energy), placing the development of that topic in context with its closest pseudoscientific relatives, and contrasting it with the relevant science. Gardner’s model is followed today by Joe Nickell, by Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid podcast, and of course by my own Junior Skeptic articles.

The scholarship of these articles is extremely impressive, and very certainly worth our effort to study. For years I’ve aggressively pursued primary sources for skeptical research, building a very respectable library on these obscure topics; and yet, a few minutes flipping through Fads & Fallacies just now informed me about a half dozen obviously important volumes I didn’t know anything about. And I should know about those books. Skeptics should know as much as we can of what Martin Gardner knew, because we’re the only people who can continue and build on his research.

One of the great lessons of skepticism is that weird ideas never go away. One of the functions of skeptics is the study of the history of claims and hoaxes, so that experts are available when those claims inevitably mutate or resurge. Readers of Fads & Fallacies will learn, for example, not only what is wrong with the concept of dowsing (relevant all over again, and lethal, in the wake of the Iraq bomb-detector scandal); about the key volumes and thinkers to develop the dowsing idea through the early 20th century (and before); and also about the related idea of radiesthesia (pendulum divining, which incidentally gave birth to pyramid power).

Gardner’s Blueprint

Among its many virtues, Fads & Fallacies stands out for its clarity as a blueprint for later skeptical research, organization, and activism. I’m somewhat known for a manifesto-type essay advocating for traditional skepticism. I could have saved myself 5000 words if I’d just written, “What Martin Gardner said.”

From the first page, Fads & Fallacies is explicit about the problem it wants to address: the influence and dangers of pseudoscience. Gardner was concerned about

the rise of the promoter of new and strange “scientific” theories. He is riding into prominence, so to speak, on the coat-tails of reputable investigators. The scientists themselves, of course, pay very little attention to him. They are too busy with more important matters. But the less informed general public, hungry for sensational discoveries and quick panaceas, often provides him with a noisy and enthusiastic following.

Gardner saw this volatile combination — poor public science literacy; the existence of cranks and con men; and, the fact that pseudoscientific claims are typically left unexamined by serious scientists — as a call to action. It is a call others took up in the decades that followed. Today we call that project “scientific skepticism.”

But why should anyone care about pseudoscience? Why is pseudoscience worth fighting? In every generation, skeptics ask themselves this question — a question Gardner anticipated.

Perhaps we are making a mountain out of a molehill. It is all very amusing, one might say, to titillate public fancy with books about bee people from Mars. The scientists are not fooled, nor are readers who are scientifically informed. If the public wants to shell out cash for such flummery, what difference does it make?

Gardner offered several answers to this question. To begin with, he noted, there is a human cost “when people are misled by scientific claptrap.” He offered the sad example of mentally ill people “desperately in need of trained psychiatric care” whose treatment is delayed by “dalliance in crank cults.” (Lest you doubt Gardner’s relevance today, he was talking about Dianetics, the basis of Scientology. Fads & Fallacies includes an in-depth chapter about Scientology’s history and claims.)

I think that rock bottom truth — people get hurt — is ample reason for people of conscience to care about pseudoscience (especially medical pseudoscience). Nonetheless, Gardner provided other answers as well. One is that unchallenged pseudoscientific beliefs (even when apparently harmless) can reenforce other (perhaps more dangerous) unfounded beliefs.

What about the long-run effects of non-medical books like Velikovsky’s, and the treatises on flying saucers? It is hard to see how the effects can be anything but harmful. Who can say how many orthodox Christians and Jews read Worlds in Collision and drifted back into a cruder Biblicism because they were told that science had reaffirmed the Old Testament miracles?

(To appreciate the prescience of this comment, consider that Answers In Genesis still finds it necessary to include on its list of “Arguments That Should Never Be Used” the Velikovskian notion that the Earth stopped rotating for a day during the life of the Old Testament figure Joshua. Check out their surprisingly good debunking article on the topic of Joshua’s missing day.)

Worse, Gardner argued, pseudoscience erodes scientific literacy in general — a process as unpredictable as it is dangerous.

An even more regrettable effect produced by the publication of scientific rubbish is the confusion they sow in the minds of gullible readers about what is and what isn’t scientific knowledge. And the more the public is confused, the easier it falls prey to doctrines of pseudo-science which may at some future date receive the backing of politically powerful groups. As we shall see in later chapters, a renaissance of German quasi-science paralleled the rise of Hitler. If the German people had been better trained to distinguish good from bad science, would they have swallowed so easily the insane racial theories of the Nazi anthropologists?

Gardner’s Solution, and Legacy

What was Martin Gardner’s solution to the problem of pseudoscience? The first step is implicit in his decades of painstaking work: scholarship. To tackle pseudoscience knowledgeably, skeptics take on (to greater or lesser extents) the task of becoming scholars of pseudoscience.

This is a colossal project. Skepticism’s traditional subject matter includes hundreds of pseudoscientific and paranormal topics — each with its own literature, history of development, major figures and major works, and collection of critical responses. Sometimes, as with homeopathy or astrology or dowsing, the history of a single topic stretches back centuries. Martin Gardner researched that vast field for decades, acquiring a depth of knowledge and understanding that is unparalleled among living skeptics. It is left to each of us to fill some small, specialized part of the gap he has left.

In 1952, Gardner showed us what skeptical scholarship looks like, setting the standard that skeptical researchers follow today. At the same time, he called for the now-traditional other half of the skeptical coin: working to advance scientific literacy.

We need better science education in our schools. We need more and better popularizers of science. We need better channels of communication between working scientists and the public. And so on.

And so on. The road always continues — and eventually, the travelers do not. Martin Gardner lived to see his personal call to arms grow into a lively research field, an activism movement, and even (through skepticism’s digital renaissance) a flourishing global subculture. It’s a wonderful legacy. For a time, it is ours to preserve. And so, tonight I’ll be raising a glass to the memory of Martin Gardner — and thinking hard about the things he had to teach.

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20 Responses to “Learning from Martin Gardner”

  1. Hear hear.

    I’ll be looking for that book this week. :)

  2. billgeorge says:

    I find it ironic that some books/literature on real science can become passe – through more refined data – after a brief stint, whereas a book on fake science, “Fads & Fallacies” still has relevance after 50 years! No doubt, M.Gardner has made the planet less dangerous and less fallible.

    • tmac57 says:

      Yes. And another irony is that one of the biggest criticisms of science is that “they are changing their minds all of the time” (especially about health issues).People that are exasperated by that tendency, fail to realize that that is science’s great strength.That is,that science is self correcting,instead of foolishly consistent, as things like homeopathy are.

      • billgeorge says:

        Well stated – the largest pool of criticisms belong to those who read/research no (real) science, instead roam the aisles and web sites of new age – and old age “flummery”.

      • tmac57 says:

        ‘Old age flummery’-Now that is a term that needs to be used more often. Thanks,billgeorge :)

  3. Cambias says:

    My copy of Fads & Fallacies is, fortunately, one of the indestructible Dover paperbacks, because otherwise it would have been loved to bits long ago.

    I think Mr. Gardner’s great gift was that he approached quackery and nonsense with the air of a connoisseur — there’s none of the anger which sometimes makes skeptics sound as crankish as the cranks they’re debunking.

    Martin Gardner will be missed, but fortunately he’s still around. His writing is as fresh and relevant today as ever.

  4. Somite says:

    Very well written. I have to disagree on the point that “To tackle pseudoscience knowledgeably, skeptics take on (to greater or lesser extents) the task of becoming scholars of pseudoscience.”

    This is a common complaint of theologists about atheists. “How can you criticize us without our understanding our complexity”. This is obviously false as the point of atheism is to point out there is no complexity in theology after all. There is no evidence or plausible mechanism for the claims of theology.

    Same for pseudoscience. No reason to become an astrologer if you understand that there is no plausible mechanism by which celestial objects could impact terrestrial objects or events; or that horoscopes are not predictive at all.

    • The key word is “knowledgeably.” I can’t think of any field where less knowledge is as good as more. As well, many skeptics wish to communicate consumer protection information about false beliefs, which entails being able to speak to and address the arguments made by proponents. Personally, I feel an ethical obligation to learn as much as possible before speaking on any topic. (How could I justify speaking to loved ones and the public if my message amounted to “I hardly know anything about your most cherished beliefs, but they’re wrong”?)

      Expert knowledge of pseudoscience is also a matter of practical utility. Without it, skeptics tend to get schooled, or at least prove ineffective as communicators. An example I’ve used is the long history of creationist debaters mopping the floor with unprepared expert biologists: “This was not because scientists lacked knowledge of science, but because scientists lacked specialized knowledge of nonsense.”

      Still, none of us is Martin Gardner — nor was even he an expert on everything. We necessarily speak with imperfect knowledge. But I try to remain aware of the limits of my knowledge (and, as the cliche has it, the more I learn the less I know). All we can do is learn as much as we can, do our due diligence, and calibrate our confidence against our expertise.

      • tmac57 says:

        “I can’t think of any field where less knowledge is as good as more.” Homeopathy maybe?

      • Somite says:

        Theology, for sure. :) On a more serious note thanks for the response.

  5. Venom says:

    Hello,

    The belgian organisation (in French:) “Le Comité Belge pour l’investigation scientifique des phénomènes réputés paranormaux” (the name would be translated as “The Belgian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal” – name that clearly inspired Paul Kurtz when he created CSI in the aftermath of the Gauquelin affair) was fonded in 1948, just after the Second World War, in order to respond to psychics and astrologers who claimed to be able to find missing soldiers. This predate even the first edition of “Fads & Fallacies”.

    I understand that for americans Marting Gardner would be the “father of modern skepticism”, but historically that organisation is really – to my current knowledge – the first skeptical organisation.

    Of course I admire Martin Gardner a lot. But I’m just a little bit annoyed by what I perceived to be americano-centrism. Paul Kurtz & the other people who created CSI knew full well the existence of the “Comité Belge pour l’investigation scientifique des phénomènes réputés paranormaux” (the CSICOP name is proof enough of that), but being from a small country that fact seems to have been lost in the current history books…

    Hum…

    With skepticality,

    • Fascinating! As I said above, the more I learn, the less I know. Although Europe boasts many venerable skeptical groups, I was not aware of the depth of the roots of Le Comité Belge pour l’investigation scientifique des phénomènes réputés paranormaux.

      However, I am not surprised to be surprised: I often think of the global wealth of essential skeptical scholarship that is segregated and unknown from country to country by language barriers. Examples I’ve come across in my own research include the literature on pyramid power and “ancient astronauts.” Important critiques of Erich von Däniken are available only in German. Similarly, when I began my pyramid power research, the best source I could find was Jens Laigaard’s Danish-language Pyramideenergien – Kritisk Undersøgelse. Luckily, Laigaard speaks terrific English, and was able to correct the section I translated (with automatic tools, a good dictionary, and painstaking guesswork).

      Machine translation and the trend to digitize new research is helping, and some hand-crafted translations are undertaken as well. (For example, Skeptic magazine’s recent “2012″ cover story is available online in both original English and Spanish translation.)

      Still, decades of skeptical literature — and history — remain segregated by language.

      • tmac57 says:

        Daniel- Are you familiar with the Nova on PBS in 1978 that took on Erich von Däniken? I bought the transcript of it and used that as one of my earliest forays into skepticism,trying to encourage my fellow coworkers into thinking more critically about the ‘ancient astronauts’ story.At the time, they were really taken with the notion.
        Here is a discription of the show:
        Case Of The Ancient Astronauts (The)
        NOVA investigates the theories of von Daniken and others that the Earth has been visited by intelligent beings from outer space. Among claims examined are: that the building techniques used in the Great Pyramid of Cheops are so advanced that only an extraterrestrial intelligence could have built it; and that the engraved stones of Palenque in Mexico depict an ancient astronaut at the controls of a space rocket.
        Original broadcast date: 03/08/78
        Topic: unexplained phenomena
        Nova did several shows back then that were of the “skeptical’ bent.

  6. Colm says:

    I read Fads and Fallacies in my teens. At the time, a magazine called “Mysteries of the Unexplained” was making the rounds in Ireland and the UK, and I was swallowing it all, hook, line and sinker: pyramid power, cosmic jokes, UFO’s, biorhythms, the lot. I’m not sure why I bought this book, but it quickly innoculated me with a world view that I retain to the present day.

    So, though I am a skeptic, I can say with hand on heart that Fads and Fallacies changed my life. The world is a lot poorer that Martin Gardner is no longer with us.

  7. jim willmot says:

    Dear Dan,

    I bought Gardner’s book several years ago and like you, was amazed at how current it read. And as if to prove one of the points of the book, I experienced an incredible coincidence (oxymoron) while reading it. To the mystically-minded, the coincidence was probably the outcome of our collective cosmic-connectedness (or some other such nonsense). To me, it was another of life’s little treats that rise up occasionally from the “blind indifference,” to use a Dawkins term.

    One day, I was at the grocery store near my home in Louisville, Kentucky. While checking out, I had a quick conversation with Don the Clerk about what books we were each reading. He was in the middle of a biography about Edgar Cayce (Kentucky’s most famous psychic). The day before, I had read Gardner’s chapter on Cayce. I respectfully debunked Don’s glorious recounting of Cayce’s achievements while he scanned my groceries. Isn’t life grand?

  8. Boldizar says:

    I’m with you, but I can’t help feeling that the quacks are usually better writers than the skeptics. The skeptics forget the power of form and focus on substance. The quacks know that form is everything.

    I recently wrote a full article on Magic for C-Arts Magazine, reproduced here: http://www.boldizar.com/blog/nonfiction/magic/

  9. jim willmot says:

    Joshua,

    Don’s response was almost one of bewilderment. I have a feeling I was one of the few people he had ever met in his life that ever questioned the existence of the supernatural. MPBTS…most people believe this shit…as is readily apparent when browsing the science vs the faith/spirituality sections of most bookstores. Don is a good guy and I knew beforehand that he would be cool if I didn’t agree with him. If a stranger starts telling me all about some mumbo-jumbo, I usually offer a gentle one-line rebuttal and then change the subject. Debunking is hard work.

  10. Martin Gardner was one of the most wonderful influences in my life. Now my dream of ever meeting him is dashed, but there are so many of his books still to read!

    Rest in peace, great magician, great teacher, great man.