hermits cranks pseudoscience and martin gardner

MARTIN GARDNER WAS A SKEPTIC. He was one of the first ‘modern skeptics’ and one of the most important. He made his livelihood as a mathematics and science writer. He is perhaps best known for creating and sustaining general interest in recreational mathematics for a large part of the 20th century through his “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American magazine (1956–1981).

He was an uncompromising critic of fringe science and a founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), an organization devoted to debunking pseudoscience.

“Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the U.S. today.”– H.L. Mencken

He also wrote a monthly column titled “Notes of a Fringe Watcher” for Skeptical Inquirer magazine (1983–2002). He wrote a third column titled “Puzzle Tale” for Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine (1977–1986).

Martin Gardner was born in 1914 and died in 2010; in between he published more than 100 books, many collections of his columns. Carl Sagan said that Gardner’s books “provide a taste of the broad, general education the college’s ought to provide and to often do not.”

He should be considered one of the ‘father’s of modern American skepticism and an intellectual hero to anyone who ratiocinates at least once a day! 1

Hermits and cranks and pseudoscience

The following is pulled from the article “Hermits and Cranks” by Michael Shermer for Scientific American (May 23, 2010). I was referred to it by a notice in another article “Are You a Crank?” by Brian Dunning for the Skeptoid website (November 2, 2015).

The original article has more than 1,100 words; the excerpted portions below are comfortably under 400 words, so interested parties should click on over and read the piece in its entirety.

Everything between the images of the books (Fads  & Fallacies marks the beginning and The Annotated Alice the end) has been lifted from the article. Those sentences and paragraphs in quotation marks are Mr Gardner’s; everything else is Mr Shermer’s. (The captions and footnotes are mine!) So here’s a little introduction to Mr Gardner’s take on hermits cranks pseudoscience and other irrationalities . . .

 

Cranks_Gardner_book1

In 1952, Putnam published a hardcover edition of In The Name Of Science with the amusing subtitle “An entertaining survey of the high priests and cultists of science, past and present.” The book sold poorly and was quickly deleted from Putnam’s in-print catalog. 2


Cranks_Gardner_book2

In 1957, Dover republished the book but titled Fads And Fallacies In The Name Of Science (Dover). It had an even more entertaining subtitle: “The Curious Theories of Modern Pseudoscientists and the Strange, Amusing and Alarming Cults that Surround Them – A Study in Human Gullibility.” Fifty years later it is still in print. 3

In 1950, Martin Gardner published an article entitled “The Hermit Scientist” about what we would today call pseudoscientists. The hermit scientist works alone and is ignored by mainstream scientists. “Such neglect, of course, only strengthens the convictions of the self-declared genius.”

In 1952, he expanded it into a book called In the Name of Science [that] sold so poorly that it was quickly remaindered and lay dormant until 1957, when it was republished by Dover. It has come down to us as Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, arguably the skeptic classic of the past half a century.

Thankfully, there has been some progress since Gardner offered his first criticisms of pseudoscience . . . including discussions of homeopathy, naturopathy, osteopathy, iridiagnosis, food faddists, cancer cures and other forms of medical quackery, Edgar Cayce, the Great Pyramid’s alleged mystical powers, handwriting analysis, ESP and PK, reincarnation, dowsing rods, eccentric sexual theories, and theories of group racial differences.

Gardner cautions that when religious superstition should be on the wane, it is easy “to forget that thousands of high school teachers of biology, in many of our southern states, are still afraid to teach the theory of evolution for fear of losing their jobs.” 

How can we tell if someone is a scientific crank? Gardner offers this advice:

(1) “First and most important of these traits is that cranks work in almost total isolation from their colleagues.” 4

(2) “A second characteristic of the pseudo-scientist, which greatly strengthens his isolation, is a tendency toward paranoia,” which manifests itself in several ways:

(a) He considers himself a genius.

(b) He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads.

(c) He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. 

(d) He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories. 

(e) He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.

“If the present trend continues, we can expect a wide variety of these men, with theories yet unimaginable, to put in their appearance in the years immediately ahead. They will write impressive books, give inspiring lectures, organize exciting cults. They may achieve a following of one—or one million. In any case, it will be well for ourselves and for society if we are on our guard against them.” 


Crank_GardnerAlice_book

One of Gardner’s best books is The Annotated Alice (Bramhall House, 1960), in which his notes on the book’s meanings—its jokes, puns, allusions, references, etc.—are explained to the modern reader. A must-read for anyone who enjoyed the book. As a collectable, it is rather easy to find as it sold well since publication and has remained in print since 1960.


In his article, Shermer quotes Gardner on flying saucers: “I have heard many readers of the saucer books upbraid the government in no uncertain terms for its stubborn refusal to release the ‘truth’ about the elusive platters. The administration’s ‘hush hush policy’ is angrily cited as proof that our military and political leaders have lost all faith in the wisdom of the American people.”

Shermer notes that “Absence of evidence then was no more a barrier to belief than it is today,” the statement that motivated this article. Except that when I read it what came to my mind was politics, especially the never-ending investigation of Hillary Clinton’s involvement in what can now be called ‘Benghazigate.’

Despite the fact that ten (!) Rep*blican-led (mostly Congressional) committees have done their best to turn up dirt on Clinton, they have found the following:

no evidence of wrong-going
no evidence of blundering
no evidence of a cover-up
no evidence of lying
no evidence of yada yoda blah blah you get the picture . . .

Yet every—and I know of no exceptions, although I assume there is at least two out there—Rep*blican voter I know plus the thousands of “conservatives” on the Internet everyday are convinced that this total lack of evidence can only mean one thing: that Hillary Clinton is the World’s Biggest Liar!

At least since Bill Clinton, another person upon whom Grommett only knows how many man-hours of investigation were spent racking up more than $100,000,000 in expenses, all of which turned up nothing about his purported evil doings: no payoffs, no bribes, no this and no that, and not a single one of the infamous 43 bodies buried in Arkansas.

Unless, of course, we count his sex life.

Which apparently matters to his opponents.

In which I assume their rather prurient interest is based on their lack of same.

And since I have mentioned irrationalities above, I have to confess to one of my own being a motivating factor in this article: bullies.

I hate f*cking bullies.

And if Hillary Clinton was 10-years old on a playground, everyone would recognize her unrelenting “critics”—especially the Breitbart wannabes on the Internet—for what they are: bullies.

And I hate f*cking bullies and so what can a poor boy do, ‘cept to wish he could sing for a rock and roll band, ’cause the sleepy Internet’s no place for a street fighting man!

But what do I know, heyna? 5


Crank_Gardner_BBCphoto2

HEADER IMAGE: Great photo of Martin Gardner that I found on a BBC News page that does not date or locate the photo or credit the photographer. Gardner was a lifelong fan of Lewis Carroll and I searched for an adequate photo of him posing with the Alice in Wonderland statue in New York’ Central Park to no avail. 


Crank_RandiGardner

ALTERNATIVE HEADER IMAGE: I could have used this nice photo of or Mr Gardner with fellow skeptic extraordinaire James Randi as my featured image here but opted for the lovely black one above. This photo was used as the lead mage for a memorial to Mr Gardner in 2010 which consists of an interview with Michael Shermer. It can be found on the Skeptic website as “Martin Gardner 1914–2010: Founder of the Modern Skeptical Movement.” (Thanks to William Bull of Skeptic for bringing this back to my attention!)



FOOTNOTES:

1   Arthur C. Clarke said that Gardner is “urgently needed as an antidote to the tide of irrationalism that is engulfing the world.” Noam Chomsky wrote, “Martin Gardner’s contribution to contemporary intellectual culture is unique—in its range, its insight, and understanding of hard questions that matter.” And one of my intellectual heroes Stephen Jay Gould called Gardner “one of the most brilliant men and gracious writers that I have ever known.”

2   This may not be an easy book to find in fine condition: Amazon has only four listed for sale and the best is described as “VG/G hardcover with jacket, 1st edition 1952 Putnam. No markings, jacket has edgewear including small tears and chips.” The asking price is $14.50, so a clean, undamaged copy should be worth considerably more.

3    This may also be a difficult book to find: there have been many editions since this and Amazon does not discriminate in its ads. So there are dozens of copies for sale but it may take a while to find an actual Dover edition from 1957 in nice shape.

4   “Cranks typically do not understand how the scientific process operates—that they need to try out their ideas on colleagues, attend conferences, and publish their hypotheses in peer-reviewed journals before announcing to the world their startling discovery. Of course, when you explain this to them they say that their ideas are too radical for the conservative scientific establishment to accept.” (Michael Shermer)

5   This reasonably strong, non-wishywashy (no Charlie Browning around here!) opinionated stance has been taken in honor of my friend and proofreader (and closeted librull), Michael Walker.


7 thoughts on “hermits cranks pseudoscience and martin gardner

  1. I greatly admired Martin Gardener when I was young and he was writing for Sc. Am.​ And the skeptic looked oh! so intelligent and reasonable until I grew up and watched the skeptics in practice. We should not forget that tobacco smoking was endorsed by all the professional scientists and medical experts until the 1950s. Grandma told us smoking would stunt the growth and Grandpa warned us of “coffin nails,” but no reputable scientist challenged the thickly gold-plated tobacco industry. Grandma was just an old woman who listened to old wives tales, and Grandpa had nothing but anecdotal evidence. Money from Rothmans International PLC was everywhere, even sponsoring sports events. Big tobacco could tell any lie it pleased with never a whisper of protest from the “skeptics.”

    Other examples of scientific fraud are legion, from the Piltdown Man to promiscuous X-ray machines, tranquilizers, and the “Food Pyramid.” What were the “skeptics” doing?

    “Science” is, practically and economically speaking (even under the “skeptic” label), little more than the voice of Big Money — just another group-think orthodoxy. A cult. A religion. The skeptics never attack Big Pharmacy, regardless of the scientific fraud. The skeptics will never take on the travesty of public school education, even as it turns our children into a nation of drooling illiterates, dumber by half in every generation. The skeptics have never assailed the barbarity of our prison culture, psychiatric brain butchery, the mills clear-cutting the Amazon jungle, or the billionaire industries that pollute of the environment. Skeptics have no problem with “science” driven primarily by weapons research and the war budget. You will never hear a “skeptic” criticize the militarization of public schools. Instead of forwarding the march of civilization, skeptics use their authority to prop up racism and sexism — never the first in any great change, but always among the last. Even now, what is the racial and sexual makeup among the professional classes where the skeptics hang out? Statistically, they are behind the teamsters and the stevedores.

    In practice, the skeptics are just sheep dogs, shameless servants of Big Money and Orthodoxy. They attack minority religious nuts and they boast of defeating astrologists and people who channel Edgar Casey, but where are the skeptics when the real threats to humanity come to call? They are sleeping happily under the porch, uttering not even a growl.

    1. “Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse ‘skeptic’ with ‘cynic’ and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo.

      This is wrong.

      Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas—no sacred cows allowed.

      In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position.

      Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are ‘skeptical,’ we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

      Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece, when Socrates observed, ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ But this pure position is sterile and unproductive and held by virtually no one.

      If you were skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying subatomic particle, pure skepticism uncoils and spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber.

      Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena.

      A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions.

      Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid.

      Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion.

      The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between ‘know nothing’ skepticism and ‘anything goes’ credulity.

      Over three centuries ago the French philosopher and skeptic René Descartes—after one of the most thorough skeptical purges in intellectual history—concluded that he knew one thing for certain: Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

      But evolution may have designed us in the other direction. Humans evolved to be pattern-seeking, cause-inferring animals, shaped by nature to find meaningful relationships in the world. Those who were best at doing this left behind the most offspring.

      We are their descendants. In other words, to be human is to think: Sum Ergo Cogito (I am, therefore I think).” (http://www.skeptic.com/about_us/)

      As for the Piltdown Man, there as not one but several and they were somewhat talented: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utaXjl6nt7s

      As for promiscuity, it is easier to argue that Man is by nature promiscuous than it is to argue he is naturally monogamous. I myself favor polyamory, but I’ll be damned if I can get my wife to concur.

      I confess to having been at times in my life both promiscuous and a serial monogamist, but I’ll be damned (again I guess) if I will apologize for it.

      Nay, I say!

      Would rather I apologize for once thinking ill of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, tattooed women, and spinach . . .

  2. 1) Did you know my remark about “promiscuity” had nothing to do with sex? X-rays were known by researchers to cause cancer from about 1920.

    2) But the medical establishment continued to use X-rays into the 1960s with not the slightest precaution for patient or therapist.

    3) I recall in 1959 my sister fell and broke her arm. The doctor set it using a “fluoroscope,” a live X-ray machine that showed the doctor’s bone manipulations in real time. I was 11, and I was present in the room watching him work. He held his hands in the X-ray beam along with my sister’s arm, none of us with lead shields. The beam was string enough to light a fluorescent screen with a continuous glow. I wonder what the millirem count was for each of us that day.

    4) And a few years earlier, maybe 1957, the shoe stores had coin operated X-ray machines. A parent could insert the child’s foot in the bottom and view the bones of the foot relative to the shoe.

    5) That is what I meant by promiscuous. They didn’t care. They were indiscriminate. Those who knew made no effort to tell those who did not know.

    6) If a scientist were truly benevolent, would he work to correct the people’s understanding of the Lord Bugbug Creation Myth, or teach people to stop X-raying their children and killing themselves with tobacco?

    7) Would he use his television time to teach people about the stars and black holes?

    8) Or would he educate people about the harm to human health from white sugar, and the trillion dollar Big-Sugar industry that pushes sugar addiction?

    1. A SCENE FROM THE RECENT BENGHAZI HEARINGS, I mean from a movie I once saw . . .

      CROWD: “We found a witch! May we burn her?”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “How do you know she is a witch?”

      CROWD: “She looks like one.”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “Bring her forward.”

      WITCH: “I’m not a witch! I’m not a witch!”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “But you are dressed as one.”

      WITCH: “They dressed me up like this!”

      CROWD: “No, we didn’t.”

      WITCH: “And this isn’t my nose! It’s a false one!”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “Well?”

      CROWD: “Well, we did do the nose. And the hat. But she is a witch!”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “Did you dress her up like this?”

      CROWD: “No, no! Yes. A bit. She has got a wart.”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “What makes you think she is a witch?”

      CROWD: “She turned me into a newt!”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “A newt?”

      CROWD: “I got better. Burn her anyway!”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “There are ways of telling whether she is a witch.”

      CROWD: “Are there? What are they? Tell us. Do they hurt?”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “Tell me: what do you do with witches?”

      CROWD: “Burn them!”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “And what do you burn, apart from witches?”

      CROWD: “More witches! Wood!”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “So, why do witches burn?”

      CROWD: “Because they’re made of wood?”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “So, how do we tell if she is made of wood?”

      CROWD: “Build a bridge out of her.”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “But can you not also make bridges out of stone?”

      CROWD: “Oh, yeah.”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “Does wood sink in water?”

      CROWD: “No, it floats. Throw her into the pond!”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “What also floats in water?”

      CROWD: “Bread. Apples. Very small rocks. A duck?!!?”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “Exactly. So, logically . . .”

      CROWD: “If she weighs the same as a duck—she’s made of wood.”

      SIR BEDEVERE: “And therefore . . .”

      CROWD: “A witch!”

      Aside from the scientifically verifiable fact that witches are made of wood, they are also known to be quite promiscuous. And not in the polyamory sense or the subtler serial monogamy sense, but just outright promiscuous!

      The non-academic exploits of Charles Manson has poisoned the well, so to speak, but his groundbreaking work in extrapolating the hidden meanings out of Beatles lyrics is under-appreciated. He quite capably tied “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” to Paul’s having been seduced by one of London’s many (highly promiscuous) witches at a private screening of an avant garde documentary on the X-Ray Specs phenomenon of the ’50s.

      “No one will be watching us, why don’t we do it in the road . . .”

      Not your normal Macca sentiments, you must admit. But he was under a spell when he wrote it, so what can you expect?

      I tried to make it with a witch once.

      It was 1973, it was.

      But I couldn’t get it up!

      She was convinced we had been lovers torn terribly apart in a previous life.

      And that she taken part in a long-distance murder with her coven.

      This did not help matters.

      When she realized that I was not going to “perform,” she got ticked off and turned my member into a newt!

      See how these things work?

      PS: Darling Witch (who shall go nameless) (needless to say), if you are reading this, I thought you incredibly beautiful and I was VERY attracted to you (just like in the life before) and I am sorry for my lack of oompah-oompah that day (I don’t remember if that was a problem in the previous life) (hope not) and we would have made a very interesting and lovely couple as basic black enhanced your Lisa Edelstein-like looks (of course you came first, Lisa later) and set off my blue eyes.

      Oh, yeah—the newt thing?

      It got better . . .

      1. First, consider the audience for the sermons of the skeptics. Do the people in Benghazi listen to the skeptics? No? Do the people who listen to the skeptics burn witches? No? Hm. Why then would the skeptics preach to white liberal Americans about witch burnings?

        But let us ask what the skeptics could be doing with all that education and mass media bandwidth? What should they be saying? They could start by pointing out the most prolific killer of Americans today is morbid obesity caused by soft drinks, candy, pastry, and white sugar addiction. The skeptics could point out the mechanisms of sugar addiction and throw shame on the trillion dollar industries that thrive on the death of Americans.

        Obesity is common, serious and costly (http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html):

        * More than one-third (34.9% or 78.6 million) of U.S. adults are obese. [Journal of American Medicine]
        * Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death.
        * The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

        But sadly, the skeptics do not address the actual mythologies and false science among those who listen to the skeptics. Skeptics do not offend Big Money, and they do not offend their audiences with unpleasant truth. The sad truth is, white liberals feel better about themselves when they are told that they are better than people who burn witches, and they would not feel good about themselves if they were told how horribly they are poisoning their own children.

        1. MARK

          No no no. Skeptics’ sermons are intended for shoe fetishists, topless dancers, those who prefer strawberry to both chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and ex-Dylanologists.

          Mass media bandwidth is being used to batten the hatches, as usual. I’m surprised you’d ask.

          Sugar addiction is a choice: it is caused by the consumption of sugar; there is no other way to get it. It is a “lifestyle choice”—like shoe fetishism.

          I keep wondering when some enterprising company doesn’t just market a one-step addiction package. Save people years of gluttonous stupid but nonetheless voluntary self-poisoning.

          As for Big Money—I say HAH!

          And then I say HAH! again.

          We keep waiting for the Big Money and it no come. That’s why there are so many ex-Dylanologists . . .

          Ad you KNOW that I am a vanilla bean ice cream man all the way.

          Do the clam, baby!

          NEAL

          PS: I called both of the other skeptics that I know and we confess: white liberals feel better about themselves when they are told that they are better than people who burn witches. So tell me! Tell me!

  3. DEAR READERS

    This is a reply to Mark’s comment above dated November 11, 2015. It was sent to me via email by someone who does not want his name, email address, URL, whatever, on the Internet. We will call him The Dood.

    So The Dood asked me to post this for him, and being the paragon of cooperation that I am, I am!

    To make this easier to follow, The Dood’s remarks enclosed in quotation marks. To allow the reader to verify that the words here are the same as those in Mark’s original comment above, I have numbered the paragraphs.

    ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

    SO, THE DOOD BEGINS HERE:

    “This is so full of misstatements that I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s a mishmash of half-truths, inaccuracies, and outright lies whose only legitimacy lies in that it takes potshots at nearly everyone with equal abandon.”

    1) Did you know my remark about promiscuity had nothing to do with sex? X-rays were known by researchers to cause cancer from about 1920.

    “Um, no. The suspicions were there of various effects, but X-ray use was so uncommon, and studies on the subject so few, that no real conclusions could be made until after WWII.”

    2) But the medical establishment continued to use X-rays into the 1960s with not the slightest precaution for patient or therapist.

    “Absolutely false. I recall going to the doctor in that time period, and they used lead blankets and controlled exposures, as they do now.”

    3) I recall in 1959 my sister fell and broke her arm. The doctor set it using a “fluoroscope,” a live X-ray machine that showed the doctor’s bone manipulations in real time. I was 11, and I was present in the room watching him work. He held his hands in the X-ray beam along with my sister’s arm, none of us with lead shields. The beam was string enough to light a fluorescent screen with a continuous glow. I wonder what the millirem count was for each of us that day.

    “Yes, fluoroscopes ARE used (still), but this is an exception, not a rule. And the radiation is kept at the lowest possible setting. This statement proves nothing.”

    4) And a few years earlier, maybe 1957, the shoe stores had coin operated X-ray machines. A parent could insert the child’s foot in the bottom and view the bones of the foot relative to the shoe.

    “False. Such shoe machines date from the early 1900s, and were not endorsed even by the medical establishment of the time, or by any other scientists. Another phony statement that proves nothing.”

    5) That is what I meant by promiscuous. They didn’t care. They were indiscriminate. Those who knew made no effort to tell those who did not know.

    “Such things were not made by scientists, but by private manufacturers. Casually grouping everyone together as ‘they’ is dishonest.”

    6) If a scientist were truly benevolent, would he work to correct the people’s understanding of the Lord Bugbug Creation Myth, or teach people to stop X-raying their children and killing themselves with tobacco?

    “A lot of scientists did suspect both tobacco and x-rays of being dangerous, but proving that connection is difficult, time-consuming, and not their job unless they were specifically in medical research (which was largely unfunded until the 1960s).

    Science isn’t about spreading stories, it’s about gathering data and making provable conclusions. And lumping all scientists together, whether they are geologists, astronomers, or marine biologists along with medical practitioners is again dishonest.”

    7) Would he use his television time to teach people about the stars and black holes,

    “Most scientists are not television educators, and even the few exceptions are not obliged to parrot any particular person’s ideology.”

    8) Or would he educate people about the harm to human health from white sugar, and the trillion dollar Big-Sugar industry that pushes sugar addiction?

    “This is just ranting. Sugar is sugar is sugar, white or any other color, and the only harm done is by the quantity consumed!

    Neal, this is crazier that than even your wildest rants!”

    THE DOOD

    ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

    The end?

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