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Other Tributes to Martin Gardner

Special Tribute

The Editors

Volume 34.5, September/October 2010

More Skeptical Inquirer contributors offer their thoughts on Martin

Exposing Crackpots and Charlatans

ROBERT CARROLL

Martin Gardner’s writings on the paranormal and pseudoscience profoundly influenced a generation of writers, including me, as can be seen by the many references to his works in The Skeptic’s Dictionary. He introduced us to a bizarre world populated by the likes of L. Ron Hubbard, Rudolf Steiner, Edgar Cayce, Bridey Murphy, and a host of other characters on the fringe. He taught us that crackpots and charlatans are dangerous. They should not be ignored but instead thoroughly exposed for what they are by detailed critical analysis.

My introduction to Gardner was through his Scientific American column on brain teasers and logic puzzles. When he gave up writing that brilliant and much-missed column, Douglas Hofstadter picked up the mantle. My obsession with Gardner’s writings on the paranormal and pseudoscience began after reading a Hofstadter column titled “World Views in Collision: The Skeptical Inquirer versus the National Inquirer.” Hofstadter’s panegyric to CSICOP and SI is one of the seminal essays in the history of scientific skepticism. Every skeptic should keep it at the ready for inspiration and revitalization. (The essay, reprinted in Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, includes an account of Gardner’s split with Marcello Truzzi over how best to deal with Immanuel Velikovsky and other pseudoscientists.)

Hofstadter’s essay inspired many teachers to become followers of SI, which inevitably led us to become followers of Martin Gardner’s many inquiries. In fact, many of us became somewhat fanatical about our inquiries into what Gardner called “wild beliefs.” We can’t stop investigating and writing about them. Thanks to Martin Gardner, James Randi, and others of like spirit, we won’t be quiet until the last bit of bogus science is buried with the last charlatan claiming paranormal or supernatural powers.

Robert Carroll is emeritus professor of philosophy at Sacramento City College and creator of The Skeptic’s Dictionary Web site. He is a CSI fellow.

Visits to Martin

BRYAN FARHA

It was serendipitous that Oklahoma City University (where I teach) brought in James Randi to speak several years ago. While here, Randi asked me to take him to visit his beloved friend, Martin, in nearby Norman, Oklahoma. Martin had been in an assisted living center there since 2002. Randi introduced us, and this began my personal connection to Martin.

Since that day, I periodically visited Martin in his room. Two visits stand out. On one occasion the visit was professionally motivated because an author asked me to interview Martin for his book. About midway through, Martin turned the tables and he became the interviewer. I was surprised at his sudden interest in me. What stood out most was his inquiring about my beliefs and view of religion—just before I was going to ask him similar questions on the same subject. He sensed my frustration in not knowing exactly how to “label” my beliefs. After giving him a lengthy explanation, he said, “I know how to label your beliefs.” He continued, “You’re a philosophical theist, like me.” It was great to finally be able to concretize my position. Until that time, I really didn’t know what to call it. When my interview of Martin concluded, I went home and immediately Googled the term. The first thing I found was
a Wikipedia definition. The end of the entry now states, “Martin Gardner (1914–2010) was a contemporary defender of philosophical theism.” It was obvious Martin knew what he was talking about.

The other visit that stood out was personally motivated; I took my nine-year-old nephew, Cole, to meet this extraordinary man. Martin amazed Cole with visual illusions, which were displayed throughout his room. Particularly eye-catching to Cole was the “Paper Dragon” illusion—designed for a special gathering honoring Martin. He had a very effective way of using entertainment as an educational tool. It certainly worked for Cole. Although Cole may not have had a full appreciation for the magnitude of Martin’s brilliance, one day he will.

As close as my proximity to Martin was, I’m sorry I didn’t visit him more often—my loss. I’ve had many favorite issues of the Skeptical Inquirer over the years. I suspect this issue will climb to the top of my list.

Bryan Farha is a professor at Oklahoma City University, where he coordinates the graduate program in applied behavioral studies, and is editor of Paranormal Claims: A Critical Analysis.

The Connoisseur of Paradox

JOHN ALLEN PAULOS

A connoisseur of paradox, Martin Gardner had a fittingly paradoxical career. Although he majored in philosophy and took no mathematics courses after high school, he probably did more to stimulate an appreciation for, curiosity about, and discussion of mathematical ideas than scores of us mathematics professors.

I remember reading his books on recreational math as an undergraduate and being eager to explain the puzzles in them to whoever would listen. In a couple of cases I even used them to win small bets. Over the years we exchanged a couple of book blurbs, a benign log(arithm)-rolling that was a signal honor for me, and we also corresponded a bit about his novel The Art of Peter Fromm and other topics, jokes in particular. Once he sent me a letter with some quite funny, quite non-G-rated examples. Later, in the Scientific American, he published a very elegant illustration of a religious hoax I proposed based on Kruskal’s theorem.

His interests ranged from Lewis Carroll and the philosophy of mathematics to scientific hoaxes and popular culture. Even in his last essay for the Skeptical Inquirer (March/April 2010) published in his lifetime, he took on Oprah Winfrey’s pseudo-cures. A modest man, a clear-eyed skeptic, and an expositor extraordinaire, he was a cogent beacon of sanity to the end.

John Allen Paulos is professor of mathematics at Temple University and author of such books as Innumeracy, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, and Once Upon a Number. He is a CSI fellow.

Characterizing the Hermit Scientist

SCOTT O. LILIENFELD

I had been deeply interested in scientific skepticism for a solid fifteen years before I read Martin Gardner’s classic book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, first published as In the Name of Science in 1952. In fact, for quite some time I had resisted reading it. No book that old, I assumed, could possibly offer much to us today. Moreover, I thought, Gardner’s examples must surely be outdated.

Nothing, I soon discovered, could be further from the truth. Indeed, on finally reading Fads and Fallacies, I was amazed by how fresh and relevant it is to modern skepticism—and to the psychology of pseudoscience. As all dedicated skeptics know, in this book Gardner delineated the core characteristics of the “hermit scientist,” whom we might regard as the prototypical pseudoscientist. For Gardner, the hermit scientist (1) “considers himself as a genius,” (2) “regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads,” (3) “believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against,” (4) “has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best established theories,” and (5) “has a tendency to write in complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.”

These psychological attributes ring as true today as they did nearly sixty years ago. Although some of the lyrics of the song may have changed (Hollow Earthers, orgone theorists, and Lyksenkoists are no longer central foci of skeptical inquiry), the music hasn’t. In contemporary psychological lingo, we might say that Gardner hit upon many of the features of pseudoscientists that predispose them to confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out evidence consistent with one’s hypotheses and to deny, dismiss, or distort evidence that isn’t. When one reads Gardner’s twenty-five remarkable case studies of thinking gone haywire, it is not difficult to discern a common thread running through their enormous surface diversity: the persistent refusal of proponents of pseudoscience to allow contrary evidence to penetrate their web of beliefs. More than anything else, Gardner’s first book is a powerful cautionary tale of the perils of intellectual hubris.

I regard Fads and Fallacies as the most significant work in the history of scientific skepticism, as its message remains every bit as pertinent to the vexing problem of pseudoscience today as it was in the 1950s. Gardner’s passing gives all of us an opportunity not only to mourn the loss of one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement but to revisit the wisdom and insights he imparted so many years ago.

Scott O. Lilienfeld is professor of psychology at Emory University, editor in chief of The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, and lead author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. He is a CSI fellow and SI consulting editor.

The Friend I Never Met

CHRISTOPHER C. FRENCH

I never had the pleasure of meeting Martin Gardner, but I feel as if I have known him as a friend for decades. Over a long and prolific career, he published over seventy books and countless newspaper and magazine articles. These include his regular column for the Skeptical Inquirer, “Notes of a Fringe Watcher,” which ran for almost twenty years and his “Mathematical Games” column, which ran in Scientific American for some twenty-five years.

I cannot claim to have read everything that this great man ever wrote, of course, but I may well have more books on my bookshelves written by him than by any other author. When I try to think back to the first publication of his that I ever read, I simply cannot remember which one it was. Memory is a funny thing, as Martin Gardner well knew, and it feels to me as if his books have been in my life for as long as I can remember, like those really good friends that we all take for granted.

By a process of deduction, I can work out that I must have read his collections of recreational mathematics columns from Scientific American, published under such titles as Mathematical Circus, many years before I read his skeptical classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. The former books entertained and educated me. They made math fun—at least for a self-professed nerd like me!

But Fads and Fallacies had a much more profound impact on me than those stimulating collections of brainteasers. It was one of the first books on skepticism that I read, along with James Randi’s Flim-Flam! and The Truth About Uri Geller and David Marks and Richard Kammann’s The Psychology of the Psychic. The truth is, dear reader, that until well into early adulthood I was . . . well, I guess I have to come clean . . . a believer in the paranormal! The book that actually opened my eyes to the wonderful world of skepticism was James Alcock’s Parapsychology: Science or Magic?, but I quickly followed that excellent volume with the skeptical works of Gardner, Randi, Marks, and Kammann.

One thing is notable about all five of these books: they have all withstood the test of time wonderfully. Indeed, all five are still on reading lists for the course on anomalistic psychology that I teach as part of the BSc Psychology program at Goldsmiths College, University of London (along with lots of more recent texts, of course!). But it should be borne in mind that all of those classics but one were written in the early 1980s. Fads and Fallacies is now well over half a century old and is still well worth reading. It is, of course, somewhat depressing that most of the fads so devastatingly critiqued in this wonderful volume are still going strong today.

Through these works and others (notably, Science: Good, Bad and Bogus and the delightful Annotated Alice books), I felt that I did know Martin Gardner even though I never actually met him. I would like to have met him. I am sure I would have liked him. Like thousands of other fans around the globe, I will miss him.

>Christopher C. French is head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and editor in chief of The Skeptic (U.K.). He is co-editor of the new book Why Statues Weep: The Best of The Skeptic.

Last of the Polymaths

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON

With a career spanning most of a century, Martin Gardner was the last of the polymaths. Nearly everyone in the skeptic community, across multiple generations, was directly influenced by his writings. As a kid, reading his monthly columns for Scientific American, I naively believed that the simultaneous breadth and depth of Gardner’s interests was common. Now I am certain it was unique.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and a CSI fellow. His most recent book is The Pluto Files.

The Roots
of Skepticism

JAY M. PASACHOFF

I have often cited two books as formative of my career: Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (I can picture the cover of the Dover edition, which came out in 1957 while I was at the Bronx High School of Science) and C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (which I bought when it first came out in 1959, at a bookstore in San Francisco while attending a summer math research program at Berkeley—just prior to my starting Harvard as a freshman). In the fifty-plus years since, I have tried to conduct my science, my life, and my career with the ideals of both of those authors in mind: eschewing fads, fallacies, and pseudoscience of all kinds and trying to be educated in both science and the humanities.

A few years ago, I started teaching a seminar at Williams College on “Science and Pseudoscience” to about a dozen juniors and seniors. I started out with C.P. Snow’s book and ideas as a frame to the seminar and then had one of the twelve weekly sessions devoted to Martin Gardner’s work, with a reading list (and library reserve) that included all of his relevant books. The course has been quite popular, straining the limit of twenty that I subsequently adopted, with students begging to be admitted. The discussions have been lively and interesting. I look forward to next spring’s version.

So I am back to my roots in Martin Gardner’s important plea for rationality, and I am very grateful to him for his ideas.

Jay M. Pasachoff is the Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and a CSI fellow.

A Blowtorch Turned on Jell-O

MARTIN BRIDGSTOCK

Martin Gardner burst into my awareness in the 1960s. I remember myself as a troubled boy in my early teens, mooching through the weekly market in Grimsby, a U.K. fishing port. I picked up a copy of Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science for five British shillings—about 40 U.S. cents in today’s money—and read it. Then I read it again, and again. Here was a grown-up with massive intellectual powers focusing critically upon paranormal claims. It was a bit like watching a blowtorch being turned on Jell-O. I was shocked, amused, and delighted. Why wasn’t anyone else doing this?

Gardner taught me a lot. First, that all humans, without exception, can be wrong. And since all books, papers, and paranormal theories are produced by humans, they can be wrong too. There is no way out, except to check the evidence and think for yourself. Second, he taught me the importance of clarity in writing through his ability to skewer pseudoscientists with a few words of description or criticism. I am no Gardner, but these messages sank into my bones.

Years later, I discovered Gardner’s mathematical column in Scientific American. My math was barely good enough to follow the arguments, but Gardner’s delight in human inventiveness shone clearly through every paragraph. He loved producing dizzying paradoxes from simple assumptions and throwing light on whole new fields of mathematical thought. It was the other side of his criticisms of pseudoscience: use your mind, and wonders will follow. Obfuscate, and there is disaster ahead.

In a very real sense, Martin Gardner cannot die. Like David Hume, he is a living thinker whose ideas will remain relevant as long as human foolishness persists. Among much else, he was one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement, and his truth really will go marching on!

Martin Bridgstock is a senior lecturer at the School of Biomolecular and Physical Sciences at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia, and author of the new book Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal. He is a CSI scientific consultant.

Goodbye, Master of Journalists

LUIS ALFONSO GÁMEZ

Martin Gardner was the master for those of us who believe that teaching science should include denouncing bunk. “I have found that one of the best ways to learn something about any branch of science is to find out where its crackpots go wrong,” he wrote in On the Wild Side (1992). Exactly so. In a world in which so many feel attracted to the paranormal, this maxim should guide the work of journalists who inform the public about science. Too often we have irresponsibly avoided criticizing pseudoscience, considering it undignified.

We should take advantage of flying saucers, Atlantis, extrasensory perception, and creationism to hook the public and teach them to appreciate biology, psychology, geology, history—science and knowledge in general. We should use pseudoscience as the hook to teach science and critical thought. Martin Gardner did it for decades with the clarity of someone who considered himself “basically a journalist.” His books are always at hand to consult to remember what he said about so many of the absurdities that surround us.

Today the world is a little darker; reason’s flame dims in the darkness because we are without Martin Gardner. We will miss him. I will continue to have him with me daily, as I have since I read him for the first time, as an example of what a scientific journalist must be. Luckily, we have his books to guide us.

Luis Alfonso Gámez is a journalist, scientific consultant for CSI, and author of Magonia (http://magonia.es), the most important Spanish-language skeptical blog. He is a CSI fellow.

What Martin Taught Me

BENJAMIN RADFORD

Although I met Martin only once in person, I worked with him as his editor for his Skeptical Inquirer column for about eight years. When I first started with the magazine, I knew who he was by reputation, but I don’t think it was until later, as I was reintroduced to his columns and earlier work, that I really gained a true appreciation for his genius.

I remember getting a column from Martin for the first time. To be honest, I don’t remember what the topic was, but I do remember being slightly annoyed. You see, it was typewritten and photocopied (with a few handwritten editorial corrections). I was used to e-mailed attachments and columns submitted on CDs and floppy discs—what was this typewritten stuff? As the years went on I came to treasure and look forward to seeing his three-page, double-spaced columns in the dark black, old-school typewriter font. It reminded me of good, old-fashioned skepticism. It reminded me of notes and letters my grandfather—a veteran journalist and skeptic himself—would write to me when I was a teenager.

One thing I learned from Martin, albeit indirectly, was how skeptical research and investigation can make a real difference in people’s lives. It’s all well and good to write skeptically about UFOs or ghosts in the abstract, but it’s a different matter when you’re dealing with real people and real problems.

One day in 2000 I got a call at the office from a man at a payphone somewhere in Arizona. The man had a soft voice—he sounded like he was in his early fifties—and wanted some information on an article he had read a long time ago in the Skeptical Inquirer but didn’t have an issue date or year. “It’s an article by Martin Gardner,” he said. “It’s on a cult.” I told him that I’d try to locate the article and issue and forward his call to the front desk where he could purchase the issue, if he wished.

“No, no,” he said. “I need it now. Can you fax it to me?”

While I was willing and able to help, it seemed like a bit of a steep request to stop what I was doing, look through two dozen back issues, find the article, and fax it to the man, long distance, at our expense! Besides, I was skeptical that the pay-phone would be able to receive the fax. And what was the urgency anyway?

The man put another quarter in the phone and explained that he feared that his younger brother was becoming involved in a cult. He was driving out to see his brother and was desperately trying to think of ways to reason with him. He remembered that Martin had written a column on the cult years before and hoped the information would provide skeptical facts and criticisms. He was calling from outside a copy shop with the shop’s fax number handy so he could receive the fax there and go see his brother armed with more than just concerns. I hung up the phone, sifted through the back issues on my shelf, copied the relevant pages, and faxed them off. I never heard back from the man; I hope he was able to reason with his brother using Martin’s work, and I liked the idea that Martin’s keen mind and research might help save a man’s life.

I shared this story with Martin last year as I was preparing my latest book, to which Martin kindly contributed, and he was very pleased indeed. Martin kept working and writing and corresponding to the very end of his life. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but Martin may have; if he’s there, he’s certainly earned his rest.

Benjamin Radford is a research fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author of the new book Scientific Paranormal Investigation.

My Reminiscence of Martin Gardner:
A Lesson

TIMOTHY BINGA

Back in 2002, I was asked by Barry Karr, the executive director of CSICOP, if I would be able to leave right away on a trip to acquire some materials for the Center for Inquiry Libraries. It was during our annual Summer Institute, and I was supposed to be teaching our students how libraries organize materials that are associated with our various organizations. I didn’t think I should go; couldn’t we just have the items shipped? Barry told me I would need to go in order to help select the materials and then help box them up, something not uncommon for some of our acquisitions. I again tried to defer; I had things that needed to get done, and couldn’t this wait until the fall? Barry told me that Martin Gardner had decided to give us some of his papers and a collection of books, all related to our mission at the Center. I asked him when I could hit the road.

Martin Gardner, “father of the modern skeptical movement,” had asked us to select materials from his collection, box them up, bring them back to our Amherst offices, and maintain his collection on all matters of the paranormal, fringe claims, pseudoscience, etc. His book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science kicked off this movement. He was a founding fellow of CSICOP, a writer for Prometheus Books, and a fellow Titanic aficionado (Wreck of the Titanic Foretold?, edited and with an introduction by Gardner, and several short stories and other hard-to-find Titanic- and ESP-related materials were included in the collection). I was ready to go right there and then.

We made plans, and I picked up boxes and headed out to Hendersonville, North Carolina, in my wife’s van the next morning. I drove all day, staying in a hotel close to his home. I called him early the next day and headed over to his house.

He greeted me at the door, took me into his library, and pointed out what items he wanted me to take. We then began to select the various items from his collection.

I was a little put off at first; I had met him once before in Amherst, but he seemed distracted to me, distant, not wholly there while we went through the books. We continued going through the shelves, placing the materials to one side so I could box them up later. He pointed to a couple of filing cabinets, telling me I should take those too.

I finally got up the courage to ask him about the Titanic, letting him know I also had an interest. He told me the same things I had gleaned from his book: the coincidences were not evidence of ESP or precognition but a product of the times. Statistically, he stated, the fact that this was all coincidental fell within the realm of possibility. He went on to tell me that there is “something” that makes us all want to believe in something greater than ourselves and that those who believe in ESP and related phenomena use Futility and the other works mentioned in his book as examples of these phenomena. He then pointed out the idea of selective memory, where one remembers only the hits, not the thousands of misses, which is why some people believe in psychics; they forget all the misses and remember only the things guessed correctly. In the case of the Titanic, there were thousands of stories at the time about ships traveling the Atlantic that did not hit an iceberg (but might have had a Captain Smith).

I asked him why the Titanic was so popular for those trying to prove the existence of psychic phenomena. He countered by asking me why I thought the Titanic struck such a chord with our culture. Because I had studied this myself, I told him that it was because it marked the end of an age: the disaster hit all the various levels of society at one time (the microcosm of society on the boat), and so many half-truths and myths surrounded the Titanic. Everyone could find something they could relate to and would find of interest. He looked at me and said that I had answered my own question.

When I finished packing up the books and loading the van with the cabinets and boxes, I went back in to say goodbye. It was with more than a hint of sadness that he thanked me for taking his materials. It was then that I realized that this was a small part of himself being packed up; he was “downsizing” in preparation for a move (to be near his son in Oklahoma, I found out later). I then thanked him for his donation, telling him that I would take very good care of his books and files. He said, “I know you will.” I headed back to Buffalo feeling very fortunate to be able to have shared a little time with him.

(See sidebar, “The Martin Gardner Collection.”)

Timothy Binga is director of the Center for Inquiry Libraries in Amherst, New York.