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The Humble Demigod

Special Tribute

Robert Sheaffer

Volume 34.5, September/October 2010

I remember being awestruck to have the opportunity to meet, and get to know, this soft-spoken, extraordinary man.

I was aware of Martin Gardner at least since I was in high school in Illinois during the 1960s. I hung around as much as I could with friends who were interested in science and philosophy, and in such circles Gardner was already considered a demigod, at the very least. I forget exactly when I first read his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, but I was enormously impressed by it. He covered so many subjects in such detail, using such impeccable logic. (From a current standpoint, what’s sobering is how many of these fads and fallacies, thoroughly debunked almost sixty years ago, are still peddled, usually in nearly the same form!)

I first met Gardner at one of the very early CSICOP functions in New York City in 1977 or ’78. He was still living in New York at the time (appropriately on Euclid Avenue in Hastings-on-Hudson). CSICOP held several press conferences to offer itself as a resource for responsible science journalism, as well as to denounce the often-uncritical coverage of “paranormal” subjects in the media. This was long before CSICOP sponsored any public events. I had been working fairly closely with the noted UFO skeptic, the late Philip J. Klass, one of the founding fellows of CSICOP, who helped me get involved with the organization and its activities. Gardner attended all of the CSICOP events in New York City but never spoke to the public or to the press. I remember being awestruck to have the opportunity to meet, and get to know, this soft-spoken, extraordinary man.

I was even more awestruck when he suggested we go down to the hotel restaurant to have lunch together. I realized even at that time that this was an extraordinary privilege. I asked him about his training in mathematics, expecting to hear him rattle off a list of studies and degrees. “I didn’t take much math,” he replied. “I studied philosophy.” I expected to hear that mathematical puzzles flowed effortlessly out of his brain, but that was also not so. He explained that he was not an expert in mathematical puzzles or even a big fan of them; he just kept writing them up because that was what the readers of Scientific American wanted, and typically he was just one puzzle ahead of the magazine’s deadline. We also discussed the famous Cottingley Fairy photos, which had fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and how at that time UFOlogist Jerome Clark, then an editor at Fate magazine, was claiming the photos as proof of some sort of “alternate reality.” Gardner wrote about that in the notes and also in a postscript to his essay “The Irrelevance of Conan Doyle,” published in Science: Good, Bad and Bogus. He also wrote there about my own hoax article suggesting that the Cottingley Fairies were Winged UFO Occupants: “It was printed in Official UFO magazine, October 1977, by editors too stupid to realize that Sheaffer had his tongue in his cheek.”

Later Gardner asked me if I wanted him to mail me his UFO files, saying that I would make better use of them than he could. I gladly accepted his offer. The files were not extensive, consisting mostly of clippings from newspapers and magazines of the 1950s and ’60s, but they contained a number of hard-to-find items. I gratefully merged them with my own files.

After Gardner moved to North Carolina, I never saw him in person again. But we remained in touch on a number of subjects. I remember one time when I contacted him for information about a specific cult. He said that the most knowledgeable critic of that group was a certain individual who I had never heard of. “But be careful in your dealings with him,” Gardner said. “He is obsessed with this cult, and he has a history of unstable behavior.” I cautiously followed up on his lead and discovered that, as usual, Martin had gotten it exactly right.

Looking back on his career, perhaps the most surprising thing is not only the quantity and the quality of his output but the fact that all of it was written without benefit of a computer or word processor! I cannot write anything worth publishing unless I revise it three or four times. He had an amazingly clear writing style: everything Martin Gardner wrote, no matter how technical, is explained so well that the average reader can understand it, and every conclusion he reaches follows directly from the information he just set forth.

Some of the late founding fellows of CSICOP, whose names today are household words, had egos the size of Texas, if not Alaska. This stands in enormous contrast with Martin Gardner, a man for whom they all genuinely proclaimed their admiration yet was nonetheless one of the most sincere and likable human beings I have ever met.

Robert Sheaffer

Robert Sheaffer's "Psychic Vibrations" column has appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer for the past thirty years. He is also author of UFO Sightings: The Evidence (Prometheus 1998). He blogs at www.badUFOs.com.