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In Celebration of Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner

October 15, 2014

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner was born one hundred years ago, on October 21, 1914. To commemorate the centennial of the birth of one of the greatest figures in modern scientific skepticism, we have decided to republish a selection of his “Notes of a Psi-Watcher” and “Notes of a Fringe-Watcher” columns from the Skeptical Inquirer on our website.

The articles selected were chosen to not only highlight the wide range of topics that came under the scrutiny of Martin’s wit and curiosity but also to showcase the varying writing styles Martin used to combat pseudoscience. On one hand, he could cut like a surgeon and be dry and acerbic, while on the other he could be lithe and deft at turning a humorous phrase.

Lessons of a Landmark PK Hoax

“Lessons of a Landmark PK Hoax” was a supportive commentary on James Randi’s elaborate Project Alpha, which Randi reported on in an article in the same issue. Randi had arranged for two young conjurors to visit the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research at Washington University, St. Louis. After two years of experiments with them, the head of the lab, physicist Peter Phillips, became convinced that the two teenage magicians, Steven Shaw and Mark Edwards, could bend metal objects, cause light streaks on film, turn a motor under a glass dome, make fuses blow, and similar wonders, all with the power of their minds. Randi’s intention was to demonstrate that parapsychology-minded scientists would resist accepting expert conjuring assistance in designing proper controls and therefore be easily fooled by magic tricks. When revealed as a hoax, the revelations garnered worldwide media coverage and greatly embarrassed the lab. It closed in 1985. In 1986 Randi was given a MacArthur Foundation award to continue his work in debunking fraudulent claims.

The False Memory Syndrome

In the late 1980s a therapeutic fad began to emerge wherein therapists began putting people under hypnosis or into a relaxed, trancelike state, to coax out repressed childhood memories of sexual traumas. In many instances families were torn apart as patients recalled vivid memories of abuse at the hands of parents, grandparents, and other various loved ones. Other patients recalled abuse by day care staff, satanic cults, or even extraterrestrials.

In this column Martin writes, “That traumas experienced as a child can be totally forgotten for decades is the great mental health myth of our time—a myth that is not only devastating innocent families but doing enormous damage to psychiatry,” and chronicles the beginnings of the “False Memory Syndrome.”

Water With Memory? The Dilution Affair

Can water remember? This question was at the heart of a major scientific debate launched by Nature Magazine when it published a paper by French biochemist Jacques Benveniste titled:

“Human basophil degranulation triggered by very dilute antiserum against IgE.”

As Gardner explains in his article: “What were these claims? In essence the French researchers were convinced that, after all the molecules of a certain antibody were removed from distilled water, the water somehow ‘remembered’ the antibody's chemical properties. Although such a claim violates fundamental laws of physics, it lies at the very heart of homeopathy…”

The results were so unbelievable that Nature itself published an editorial called “When to believe the unbelievable” and cautioned that “An article in this week’s issue describes observations for which there is no present physical basis. There are good and particular reasons why prudent people should, for the time being, suspend judgment.” And as a precondition of publication Benveniste had to allow a team of investigators into his lab to witness a replication of his experiments. The team included the editor of Nature, John Maddox, Walter Stewart, an organic chemist at the National Institutes of Health, and James Randi.

The Great Stone Face and Other Nonmysteries

Oh, who doesn’t love a good case of pareidolia? Whether it is the Virgin Mary spotted on a turtle shell, or the face of Jesus on a tortilla shell, (banana, tree stump, etc.) we love to, indeed we are programmed to, look for patterns and familiar shapes in random stimuli or chaotic data. In this article, “The Great Stone Face and Other Nonmysteries,” Martin takes on tour of various cases of pareidolia with particular emphasis on the alleged “Face on Mars” that has nearly become a popular culture icon. So read this article, and then go outside and take a look up at the clouds. Have yourself a little fun and try and see who might be looking down at you.

Facilitated Communication: A Cruel Farce

Martin says it best: “My topic is a much more pervasive, more cruel myth—the belief that hiding inside the head of every child with autism, no matter how severe, is a normal child whose intelligent thoughts can emerge through a curious technique called facilitated communication (FC).”

An autistic child is seated at a typewriter or computer keyboard, accompanied by a “facilitator.” The child is asked a question and the facilitator holds the child’s hand or arm while the child types. As Martin states, “A wondrous miracle now seems to take place. Although the child has been thought to be mentally retarded, unable to read, write, or speak coherently, he types out lucid, sophisticated messages that could only come from a normal, intelligent child.”

A Mind at Play: An Interview with Martin Gardner
Kendrick Frazier

At eighty-three, Martin Gardner reigns supreme as the leading light of the modern skeptical movement. More than four and a half decades ago, in 1952, he wrote the first classic book on modern pseudoscientists and their views, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, and today it remains in print and widely available as a Dover paperback and is as relevant as ever. It has influenced and inspired generations of scientists, scholars, and nonscientists. He followed that up in 1981 with Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus. In an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled “Quack Detector,” Stephen Jay Gould welcomed the book and said Martin Gardner “has become a priceless national resource,” a writer “who can combine wit, penetrating analysis, sharp prose, and sweet reason into an expansive view that expunges nonsense without stifling innovation, and that presents the excitement and humanity of science in a positive way.”

Skeptical Inquirer editor, Kendrick Frazier interviewed Martin for the 1998 feature.