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Martin Gardner’s Contributions to the World of Books

Special Tribute

Paul Kurtz

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 34.5, September/October 2010

Martin shared with us a devotion to books—the idea that books should be cherished as virtually “sacred” because of their enduring contributions to culture.

Martin Gardner was a unique man of letters, a science writer who not only wrote columns for Scientific American and the Skeptical Inquirer but who was a prolific author of over seventy books! Perhaps his reputation in the long run will depend on the provocative books that he authored over the years. Although we may be at “the beginning of the end of the Age of Books” (alas!), Gardner stands out as a heroic author whose books on pseudoscience we hope will be read in the future with relish and delight—as reminders of how easy it is to be deceived.

I know Martin Gardner best as a book author; Prometheus Books published at least twenty-five of his books. Several of these were new editions of books previously published. I founded Prometheus in 1969, and it has devoted more attention than any other press to publishing books on scientific skepticism and the paranormal. Martin was tickled pink that Prometheus Books was willing to take on the paranormalists.

I first got to know Martin when I founded the modern skeptics movement (in the guise of CSICOP, later CSI), so to speak, and invited him to the inaugural meeting at the State University of New York at Buffalo on April 30, 1976. I was delighted when he accepted and even more so when he appeared. His publishing romance with Prometheus began a few years later. He shared with us a devotion to books—the idea that books should be cherished as virtually “sacred” because of their enduring contributions to culture.

Martin’s first book with Prometheus was Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (1981). The New York Times described it as “a valuable book . . . an ally of common sense.” It was a nominee for a national book award. So his career with Prometheus got off to a rousing start. We would hear from him almost biweekly thereafter, as he kept proposing books and then saw them through the editorial process until publication. Martin had a keen intelligence and a sharp wit, which he used with consummate skill.

We were intrigued with the titles that he came up with, such as On the Wild Side (hardcover 1992, paperback 2004), which dealt with the big bang, ESP, the Beast 666, levitation, rainmaking, trance-channeling, séances, ghosts, and more. Another one was How Not to Test a Psychic (1989). (Incidentally, the complete list of Martin Gardner’s books still available from Prometheus Books may be read online.)

It was amazing to me how Martin was able to delve into what many considered nutty claims. He took them seriously and made them seem even nuttier, such as in his book Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery (1995, revised 2008). Martin told me that he maintained extensive clippings on a wide range of topics and so could bring empirical facts to bear to expose the beliefs held.

An important book by Martin was Great Essays in Science (1994), which included thirty-one of some of the best writings in science over the past 100 years. These included thought-provoking contributions that represented the peak of accomplishments in science.

Prometheus also published a novel by Martin called The Flight of Peter Fromm (1994), which seemed to echo his own religious beliefs. I was curious that Martin himself clung to his religious faith in God, somewhat apologetically. “I can’t prove it,” he seemed to say, “but I am attached to it.” I found this statement rather charming, if only because it contradicts doctrinaire atheists who insist that any true skeptic must be an atheist.

Gardner’s last new book with Prometheus was The Jinn from Hyperspace and Other Scribblings—Both Serious and Whimsical (2007). New Scientist reviewed the book by stating that it was “clear, closely argued, and entertaining . . . a fascinating insight into the breadth of interest and fecundity of the man now in his nineties.”

To which I say amen about all of Gardner’s books, an inexhaustible treasury of insight and wisdom. Martin Gardner played a key role in his time as a keen advocate of science, a luminary in the constellation of skeptics. He will be sorely missed.

Paul Kurtz

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Professor Paul Kurtz is the founder of the Center for Inquiry, CFI's former chairman, the former Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry magazine, and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Kurtz has spent much of his life on the critical examination of religion, but believes that naturalists need to emphasize and build positive alternatives to religion. For Kurtz, it is not enough to reject God, but to affirm the positive implications of the secular humanist perspective.