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Martin Gardner

To Celebrate the 100th Birthday of the Late Martin Gardner, Some Skepticism

Today would have been the 100th birthday of the late polymath and influential skeptic Martin Gardner. Gardner – who passed away aged 95 in May 2010 – published more than seventy books on such diverse topics as mathematics, science, philosophy, literature and skepticism. For a quarter of a century he was also the writer of the ‘Mathematical Games’ column in Scientific American, and as a consequence he has influenced many of the modern day’s top academics in the hard sciences. Douglas Hofstadter described Gardner as “one of the great intellects produced in this country in this century,” and Arthur C. Clarke once labeled him a “national treasure.”

Gardner was also one of the major voices in the skeptical movement; George Hansen describes him as “the single most powerful critic of the paranormal in the second half of the 20th century”. Gardner was writing ‘skeptical’ books long before the modern movement ‘began’ in earnest with the inception of CSICOP (now known as CSI) in the 1970s – his seminal deconstruction of pseudoscience, In the Name of Science (later renamed Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science), had been published two decades previous in 1952. Like Randi, he could be a rather nasty skeptic too, sometimes embracing debunking over debate (he once commented that in certain circumstances, “One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms”).

The occasion of Gardner’s 100th birthday has led to a number of tributes on major news sites this week, from the BBC to the New York Times. And rightly so, there is no doubting that he inspired a number of today’s leading academics. But I also thought it worth pointing out his fallibility, by relinking to my article “How Martin Gardner Bamboozled the Skeptics“, which I think (hope!) does a good job in deconstructing the truly awful ‘skeptical’ essay he wrote about the medium Leonora Piper. Rather than denigrating Gardner’s memory, I would hope that a man who esteemed skeptical thinking as much as Gardner would appreciate my critique of this particular work of his. It’s a long piece, so here’s the summary:

Unscientific skepticism of the type exhibited by Gardner and Cattel is a corrosive one which, rather than defending science, instead shields it from possible new discoveries and viewpoints through irrational over-protectiveness. It also brings skepticism as a whole into disrepute when such cheap tactics are employed. In his article “How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James”, Martin Gardner ignores the original scientific work done, misrepresents the competency of the investigators, and misleads the reader both through incorrect statements and loaded language. This is hardly the type of writing we would expect from “one of the great intellects produced in this country in this century.”

Sadly for Martin Gardner, perhaps the most succinct summary of his essay can be found in James Hyslop’s caustic response to Hall and Tanner’s Studies in Spiritism, written nearly 100 years previous: “The calm critic can only say that the book either displays the grossest ignorance of the facts and the subject, or it is a colossal piece of constructive lying. The authors may take either horn of the dilemma they like.”

Link: Skeptical of a Skeptic

Related: Vale Martin Gardner

  1. I remain gobsmacked by the
    I remain gobsmacked by the skeptics who charge off into the subject with very little evidence of the paranormal in their memory banks in the first place – its is a studied avoidance of the subject. I can’t believe they get away with it. Actually, they aren’t getting away with it any more. Just tonight I was watching The Unexplained Files on the telly which featured a skeptic who was obviously made up in mind no matter what evidence was proferred . At one point, while he accompanied a group of ghost hunters who were going through a notoriously haunted old boys school there was played for him a captured EVP of a woman whispering, “Please, help me.” His reply – oh the evidence is “compromised.” What- compromised in what manner?
    I’ll tell you who is “compromised,” sir. A lot of these guys have deeply ingrained presuppositions about this subject and no amount of evidence will ever be enough. This is sort of echoing the other topic today about super intelligent people. Here is a prime example in Gardner of high intelligence being unable to surmount emotional imprints and other blindnesses and biases.

  2. read somewhere (i can’t
    read somewhere (i can’t remember where) that mr. gardner had something to do with the shutting down of wilhelm reich. anyone know anything in this direction ?

    1. I haven’t heard that one.
      I haven’t heard that one. Nobody “shut down” orgone by the way. My business is a an example of orgone theory in practice though one does not have to know anything about Reich to appreciate orgone energy. It is an experience first – not a theory.

      1. of course nobody shut down
        of course nobody shut down orgone. but someone certainly did shut down the reich lab, was wondering if gardner was involved.

        nice looking products on yr site, emlong

        1. Here we
          Here we are. This article gives a pretty good description of the schoolyard tactics of people like Gardner who have that strange emotional boyishness of some people gifted in quantitative high IQ. I think Reich scares hell out of these people which is why he was singularly picked out for special treatment from the sea of people being called quacks at that time. His deep analysis of what was driving people to war and brutality was just too spot on.

          “Brady’s smears were significantly amplified a few years later by the Marxist “humanist” Martin Gardner (later of CSICOP3 fame). His 1950 article in the Antioch Review presented Reich to the academic world as a misguided crackpot. In Gardner’s influential 1952 book Fads and Fallacies In the Name of Science, which contained a chapter on “Orgonomy”, Reich was subjected to what later became a trademark of Gardner and CSICOP — a litany of false and exaggerated cartoon-like caricatures of serious work, with slanderous distortions of public dangerousness, and hyena-like laughing ridicule. Reich was branded as a crackpot and charlatan. Together, Brady and Gardner got the anti-Reich bonfires stoked and roaring hot. The orgone accumulator was by then being publicly called a “sex box” in men’s magazines such as Sir!, and Reich became the object of public scorn and ridicule, with open calls for “government action” to “protect the public” from “medical quackery”. It was, as Reich noted, a communist conspiracy playing upon sexual anxieties, with a subsequent emotional chain reaction.”

          1. The Great Divide in opinion
            The Great Divide in opinion and awareness about these things is centered on the notion that a human being is not a bubble completely cut off from the environment in which it lives – it is instead constantly in transaction with a very, very complex ambient environment, and that transaction can be entirely a question of radiations and vibrations. Those of us who believe this base our opinion on experience – experience with intense nodes of energy reflection such as crystals and orgonite containing crystals. This is just one manner in which we apprehend how much we can be affected by the surrounding environment. These are amplifications of energy that are more obvious to us who have learned to feel this way, but the wider corollary is that we are directly affected by everything around us. and that holds even for people whose awareness is not yet attuned to all of this. That is not to say we are helpless marionettes – it is just an awareness that might help us figure out why things happen in the way they do when there is no apparent surface cause.

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