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Martin Gardner 1914-2010

by Steven Novella, May 24 2010

Martin Gardner, a renowned mathematician, author of over 70 books, educator, and skeptic, died on Saturday at the age of 95. Gardner was a skeptic before there was a skeptical movement, and so has always been one of our intellectual giants.

When I think of him I cannot help but think of the phrase most famously used by Isaac Newton,

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

In fact another giant in the skeptical universe, and long time friend of Gardner, James Randi, felt the same way. He wrote in Swift:

That man was one of my giants, a very long-time friend of some 50 years or so.  He was a delight, a very bright spot in my firmament, one to whom I could always turn to with a question or an idea, with any strange notion I could invent, and with any complaint or comment I could come up with.

Gardner was probably most generally famous for his Scientific American column – Mathematical Games – which he wrote from 1956 to 1981. But to skeptics Gardner is best known for his tireless and unapologetic opposition to pseudoscience. His book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, is a classic of skepticism first published in 1952. If you have not read the book before, pick it up. I think you will find that it is just as relevant today (which itself is an interesting commentary). He takes on old favorites like creationism, UFOs, dowsing, Scientology, and even organic farming. But he also takes on some names you may not recognize, like Fletcherism (getting more from food by chewing it beyond thoroughly) and the Bates methods (an alternative eye treatment still around today) – but showing that while the characters and details may change over time, pseudoscience itself is remarkably consistent in its fallacies. He followed up with Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus in 1981 – also worth a read.

No surprisingly Gardner was there at the beginning of the modern skeptical movement, arguably begun with the founding of CSICOP (The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of  Claims of the Paranormal, now renamed CSI – Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). He was a founding fellow and wrote the Notes of a Fringe Watcher column for many years.

While I am sad that another of my intellectual heroes is gone, I am glad that Martin Gardner led a full, long, and by all accounts happy and fulfilling life. He has left behind a tremendous legacy. I haven’t read Fads and Fallacies in years – I think I’ll pick it up again.

13 Responses to “Martin Gardner 1914-2010”

  1. LovleAnjel says:

    It’s sad to hear of Martin Gardner’s passing. Fads & Fallacies, along with Flim-Flam!, was my introduction to the skeptical movement & a real turning point in my intellectual development as a child. I still recommend it as astrating point for people interested in skepticism. He will be greatly missed.

  2. LVR says:

    I am a house wife 72 years of age , have come to certain conclusions on my own about ” Paranormal “.. … relying on commonsense basically . it stared when as a small child i had a dream; which had disturbed me [ i was two years of age then ] the irony is that despite this passion to expose frauds . i am stuck with ” Coincidences ; most trvial to very scary… weeded out chance factor…..

    It is only now that i came across people like you what a pity i have wasted my time ; researching and thinking about these matters …

    Later on i would like to get some opinions about a few mathematical puzzles. posed to me by my students from middle east… i have forgotten them just now …

    I will try to get books written by Martin Gardner..

    I am writing this from Bangalore India


  3. hardindr says:

    As much as I loved Martin Gardner, I think it is a mischaracterization to call him a “mathematician,” since he had no formal training and never published any papers on the subject. I believe Gardner always described himself as a journalist/writer.

    However, he will be greatly missed. RIP, Martin.

    • tmac57 says:

      I would be willing to wager that Martin Gardner inspired many a current mathematician to take up that profession, by his popularization of math.

    • MadScientist says:

      Euclid never received any formal training. Poor Euclid – definitely not a mathematician. Same with Rene Descartes – not a mathematician. Al-kwarizmi: not a mathematician. Ada Lovelace: not a mathematician. Leonhard Euler: not a mathematician. Johann Bernoulli: not a mathematician. Gee, there’s a pretty long list of non-mathematicians by your standard; I dare not waste my time attempting a comprehensive list. I’m pretty sure Gardner published as well, although a quick search turned up too much rubbish and I don’t have the time to wade through and find his papers.

      • hardindr says:

        I don’t really want to get into an argument here. Gardner was a great man, and the godfather of the modern skeptics movement. He just wasn’t a mathematician, something he readily acknowledged. For Gardner’s self-description of himself, read here.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray says:

        But there is zero doubt that he stimulated and provoked more than a handful of existing mathematicians to great things, and more importantly guided, goaded and governed others into a career as mathematicians. (I am a case in point).

      • hardindr says:

        Again, what you say is true, but that doesn’t make him a mathematician.

  4. Joshua Hunt says:

    It’s sad that Gardner is gone, but he lives on with his countless books and writings. I own Fads & Fallacies and Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus. I will definitely be reading those very soon.

  5. Richard says:

    I read Martin Gardner’s column, “Notes of a Fringe Watcher,” in Skeptical Inquirer back in the ’90s. He led a long, full, heroic life. What more can anyone ask?

  6. Lance M. says:

    A sad farewell to Martin Gardner, perhaps the most important author in my life. I remember buying his famous puzzle book in 5th grade. When I took on magic as one of my many hobbies, Gardner was there as a prolific inventor. When I became a skeptic, his books were the very best. I still reread his monumentally important, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science every year or two. He will be missed.

  7. billgeorge says:

    It was with great fortune meet M.Gardner – kind, soft spoken, humorous, humble, yet confident and an intellectual heavyweight that I found difficulty in finding a disagreement with.

    If all the worlds a stage, the scenes with great performers and portrayers just became less crowded.
    An “intellectual hero” – no doubt.