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A World Treasure

Special Tribute

Kendrick Frazier

Volume 34.5, September/October 2010

Perhaps surprising for such a towering intellect, Martin was a modest and unassuming man.

One day back in 1974, when I was editor of Science News in Washington, DC, the mail brought a letter from Martin Gardner. I knew of him, of course, as the “Mathematical Games” columnist in Scientific American and as author of the seminal work about pseudoscience and crackpots, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. I’d had a copy of that fascinating book since a friend gave it to me as a gift in graduate school. I loved it. Martin’s letter gently but firmly criticized us for a series of three articles we had run over a period of months dealing with some fringe science matters: Uri Geller, Kirlian photography, and Transcendental Meditation. Readers had requested the articles. This was the heyday of Geller’s then-rising popularity, and Geller had some (naive) scientists vouching for his powers. The other two subjects were likewise attracting a lot of media and popular interest. We had done our best to treat them carefully and with some skepticism, but except for the one on Geller, Martin didn’t think we’d done a particularly good job and was worried we’d put aside our usual scientific standards by writing about them at all.

I wasn’t at all offended by his criticism; in fact, I welcomed it. I wrote him back. I told him science writers and editors like me had few resources for checking the validity of these kinds of claims. I told him we needed people like him who had the necessary critical perspective and information to help us. Some sort of group of scientific experts was needed to give us that kind of help.

So it was perhaps not surprising that in the spring of 1976 I found myself covering for Science News an unusual conference on “The New Irrationalisms: Pseudoscience and Anti-Science” at the brand new SUNY Buffalo campus, at which philosopher Paul Kurtz announced the creation of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. It was exactly what I had asked for. My subsequent article for Science News—our cover pictured a small knight-like skeptic with only a sword of reason challenging a giant multi-headed dragon of pseudoscience (May 29, 1976)—stimulated more reader response than any other subject we had ever written about, which told me that this was a rich topic meriting much further examination. The nicest and most unexpected letter I received—I just now rediscovered it in my archives of those early events—was from Martin Gardner. He thanked me for the article, praised its accuracy, and called it a “wind of fresh air, long overdue.”

One year later I was an invited guest and speaker at the first meeting of the CSICOP Executive Council, held at the old Biltmore Hotel in New York City with Paul Kurtz, Ray Hyman, Phil Klass, and others including Martin Gardner himself, to my delight. The next day I was asked to join the organization as editor of its new magazine (then called The Zetetic, renamed the Skeptical Inquirer the next year). So Martin Gardner was not only my introduction to any kind of systematic skepticism and one of my early encouragers, but he was also there when I actually joined the effort.

Over the ensuing three-plus decades, it was my—and our readers’—pleasure to have Martin Gardner write regularly for SI. At first he wrote only occasional short articles and reviews. When he retired his Scientific American column after thirty years, I wrote and asked if he’d like to consider writing a regular column for SI on pseudoscience and fringe science. I was delighted when he agreed. Let’s give it a try, he answered, and see how it goes. That column (“Notes of a Psi-Watcher,” which he and I later renamed “Notes of a Fringe Watcher”) appeared in every issue of SI from Summer 1983 to January/February 2002. He recently resumed it on an irregular basis, and his last one, mailed to me May 12, ten days before his death, appears on page 10.

Martin was an editor’s delight. His columns always arrived early, usually weeks ahead of deadline. Sometimes he would check with me in advance about a possible subject; more typically he just mailed in a new column, surprising me with the topic. A new one’s arrival was always the high point of my day. They were clear, concise, involving, revealing, knowledgeable, relevant, and usually witty—the product of a lively, extraordinarily well-informed, unique mind. His columns were substantive but at the same time eminently readable. He typed them double-spaced on an electric typewriter, and the newspaperman in him (which he had once been for awhile after studying philosophy at the University of Chicago) carefully corrected any typos or made short word changes with black ballpoint pen. Also in the newspaper tradition, he revised sections by cutting and pasting, which was always done impeccably. I seldom had to do any real editing.

Over the years his columns covered everyone from Russell Targ, Margaret Mead, Shirley MacLaine, Arthur Koestler, Rupert Sheldrake, Marianne Williamson, Jean Houston, Doug Henning, and Phillip Johnson to maverick Cornell astronomer Tommy Gold (twice); and everything from James Randi’s Project Alpha (his first SI topic) to weird water, fuzzy logic, reflexology, urine therapy, psychic astronomy, the Klingon language, and the humorous yet profound question of whether Adam and Eve had navels. Every few years he would collect the SI columns, together with a few reviews and essays published elsewhere, in a new book. The first were The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher and On the Wild Side. The latest three are Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries? (2003), The Jinn from Hyperspace (2008), and When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish (2009).

On September 11, 2001 (yes, that same terrible day), I opened a letter from Martin that I had dreaded receiving. His beloved wife, Charlotte, had died earlier of a stroke, and he was getting two columns to me quickly because he knew he would soon go into a depression over her loss and be unable to write any more. And, besides, he was eighty-seven. “I’ve had a long run,” he ended, “and doing the column has been a great pleasure.” It was a sad day for all of us. But in 2005 I saw a new book review he had published elsewhere, and I wrote and invited him to once again write for SI if he felt he could. His first was a two-article series on “The Memory Wars.” We published it in our January/February and March/April 2006 issues. The first part appears in our latest SI anthology, Science Under Siege (Prometheus, 2009).

He was prolific to the end. We had two columns from him during the production of our March/April 2010 issue. So we published the shorter one (about fatal sweat lodge guru James Arthur Ray) as his regular column and the longer one (about Oprah Winfrey and her gullibility on pseudo-medical matters) as an article.

Perhaps surprising for such a towering intellect, Martin was a modest and unassuming man. Kindly, I would say. Obviously highly intelligent and a supremely clear thinker, he showed no sign of ego. A somewhat shy person, he never attended conferences or spoke at public gatherings. Although this was a disappointment to his myriad fans, I think he felt his time was better spent doing his own kind of research, reading up on the latest claims of nonsense and crackpottery and buffoonery, and giving his unique critical perspective in clear, concise prose. But he was a wonderful correspondent. Any letter to Martin drew an almost immediate typewritten response. That was true of my experience, and I have heard the same from others. His letters were always friendly, direct, relevant, useful, and concise. He never wasted words. I have quite a collection of such short letters from Martin and will always treasure them.

Martin Gardner was—among many other things—a brilliant and essentially self-taught intellectual who had the respect of the world’s greatest scientists and academics. The grandfather of the modern skeptical movement, he was an extraordinarily knowledgeable skeptic with a uniquely whimsical and easily amused mind who never took himself over-seriously, a great teacher through example of what skepticism and skeptical inquiry are all about, a clear writer and thinker, a peerless critic of nonsense, and a steadfast advocate of science and reason—in short, a national treasure. No; make that a world treasure.

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.