hermits cranks pseudoscience and martin gardner

Es­ti­mated reading time is 7 min­utes.

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.

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



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

Hermits, 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 Gard­ner’s; every­thing else is Sher­mer’s. (The cap­tions and foot­notes are mine!) So here’s a little in­tro­duc­tion to Gard­ner’s take on her­mits cranks pseu­do­science and other irrationalities.



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

The scientist as hermit

n 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.” 



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.

About those elusive platters

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—because I hate fucking bullies . . .



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. For more, readMartin Gardner 1914–2010: Founder of the Modern Skep­tical Move­ment.” (Thanks to William Bull of Skeptic for bringing this back to my attention!)



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)

Leave a comment

Notify of
Rate this article:
Please rate this article with your comment.
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

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?

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.

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.