Martin Gardner: A Polymath to the Nth Power
Martin not only wrote the seminal textbook for the modern skeptical movement, but he was also central to the actual founding of the movement.
Persi Diaconis phoned me on May 17, 2010. He told me he recently spoke with Martin Gardner by phone. Among other things, they had talked about me. He also said that Martin sounded fine and seemed to be as cognitively sharp as always. I had not spoken with Martin for quite a while. I made a note on my calendar to call him on Saturday, May 22. On that Saturday, I was about to call Martin when I got a phone call from Martin’s son, James. James told me that his father had passed away a few moments earlier.
Many persons—too many—would seek mystical meaning in this “coincidence.” Martin, of course, devoted much of his life to teaching us how easily our minds create meaning out of post hoc juxtapositions of random events. Although he thought that most believers were impervious to reason, he persevered in his quest to show that most, if not all, paranormal claims cannot be supported by the evidence. He felt that his background as a magician enabled him to explain how many alleged psychic occurrences were due to trickery or mundane causes.
I first met Martin in 1950 at the home of Bruce Elliot in Greenwich Village in New York. Bruce published a magazine on magic, The Phoenix, and wrote several books about magic. Every Saturday he hosted a gathering for magicians from New York or who happened to be in the vicinity. I was twenty-one years old when I was invited to attend. This was the first time I met many celebrity magicians such as Dai Vernon, Jay Marshall, and Martin Gardner.
Martin and I became good friends. I knew him as a magician, a creator of magic effects, and a writer of excellent books on magic. In addition, we shared an interest in investigating and challenging paranormal claims. Soon after our first meeting, Martin published his classic In the Name of Science (1952). The book was re-issued in 1957, with some updating, under the title Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. It serves as the prototype for modern skeptical criticism.
From 1958 to 1961, while I was doing psychological research for General Electric, I lived in Hartsdale, about twenty-five miles from Martin Gardner’s home on Euclid Avenue in Hastings-on-the- Hudson, New York. During this period my wife and I would get together with Martin and his wife, Charlotte, for dinner. I also was able to visit and talk with him about our mutual interests.
When I moved to Oregon in 1961 to work at the University of Oregon, Martin phoned Jerry Andrus and told him I had moved into his neighborhood. He suggested that Jerry contact me. Jerry did and we became close friends until Jerry’s unfortunate death in August 2007. Martin and Jerry are the two most impressive individuals I have ever known. Both were essentially self-taught in magic, philosophy, science, and other areas.
You can gain some insights into the range and impact of Martin’s productive life by reading the many obituaries that have appeared online. In the remaining few lines at my disposal, I will discuss only a couple of my many personal stories involving this Renaissance man.
I have always been interested in how productive individuals organize their lives and manage their data. Soon after Martin’s operation for cataracts, I asked him how he managed to read and review so many books while continuing his prodigious literary output and maintaining a colossal correspondence. Martin told me that, in most cases, he did not actually read the books he reviewed. Instead, he simply scanned the index, which provided all the information he needed for his review.
I was incredulous at first, but on second thought I realized that this was consistent with my research on information theory and redundancy. I had already discovered that I could scan the indices of textbooks in statistics, perception, and cognitive psychology and know all I needed to know about how the book handled its topic. For example, by noting the topics the author listed and, more importantly, the ones she did not, I could confidently guess her stance on various issues. This was because I already knew these areas quite well. Martin’s ability to exploit redundancy induced me to conduct research on speed reading. I discovered that graduates from speed reading classes who claim to be reading 1,000 or more words per minute are actually skipping over large chunks of text by exploiting redundancy. When they are given text to read from domains with which they are unfamiliar, their reading drops to the same speed as those who have never taken a special course.
Martin not only wrote the seminal textbook for the modern skeptical movement, but he was also central to the actual founding of the movement. In December 1972, I was sent by the Defense Department to observe Uri Geller and the researchers at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). My report, which I shared with Martin, made it clear that nothing that this alleged psychic did had anything to do with the paranormal. Soon after that, Randi observed Geller at the offices of Time magazine in New York. He, too, saw through Geller’s pretensions.
In 1973, Randi phoned me from Portland, Oregon. He was touring with Alice Cooper and asked me to travel from Eugene to Portland to meet him. While I was in Portland, Randi reviewed our experiences with Geller and suggested that we get together with Martin Gardner and form a group to counter false claims of the paranormal. He suggested we call the group SIR (Sanity in Research), which evoked the acronym SRI.
Randi and I soon afterwards spent a day with Martin at his home in Hastings-on-Hudson preparing a detailed document of the goals and hopes for our new group. In 1976, SIR joined forces with Paul Kurtz, who was already publishing skeptical articles in The Humanist, which he edited at that time. The resulting organization became known as CSICOP (now CSI), and the contemporary skeptical movement was born.