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.
© 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, read “Martin 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)