MARTIN GARDNER: GENIUS DEBUNKER (2004)
gardner

It’s not in my nature to automatically buy into the official line on anything — at least not without some considered thought. By this standard, I consider myself something of a skeptic.

I can’t claim one hundred percent certainty for any one system of thought, and I can’t clam to “believe” or “disbelieve” in anything with absolute finality, from the immaculate conception to the Uncertainty Principle.

But in the inventory of things I things I think quite unlikely, I’d include levitation, astrology, numerology, palmistry, psychic surgery, ancient astronaut landing sites in Peru, an international Jewish banking conspiracy, and Hell for unbaptized babies.

In the inventory of things I think quite likely, there are the usual suspects: the big bang model in cosmology, plate tectonics, etc. But there also a number of things that some might consider fringe. This list includes psychic phenomenon, ghosts, and UFOs — primarily because after examining the reports of such things, I can’t put every last observation into a box labelled ”assorted hoaxes and misperceptions.”

As far as more personal beliefs I go, I favour the idea of some transcendent creative principle at work in the universe, or what I like to call “the Indefinable Whatever.“ But that’s a personal belief, and admittedly so fuzzy I could hardly imagine trying to convince someone of its reality — especially when I’m not even sure what the heck it is that I’m referring to.

As the auto ads say, “your results may vary.” The reader’s inventory of likely/unlikely stuff will be different from mine. Since none of us can claim omniscience (God’s gig, if He/She/It happens to be around), the best we can do is to respect the opinions of others, as much as we can.

My opinion on any controversial topic is subject to change without notice, and I have no ego investment in believing or disbelieving in any of the above. I’m sharing this with the reader to preface an examination of true skepticism, which regards all knowledge as provisional, rather than absolute.

But just as Christ might be appalled at what’s been done in his name over the last few millennia, the true skeptic might be a bit alarmed by what’s been done in the past fifty years in the name of skepticism.

I’m thinking principally of those who consider themselves skeptics, but are really just debunkers. Debunking is defined more by a knee-jerk reaction to anything that lies outside of establishment consensus, rather than on rational assessments of evidence for and against such things.

This brings me to the topic of Martin Gardner, the premier skeptical writer of our time. As far as skepticism goes, he’s an interesting case study.

Gardner bangs away at a typewriter from his home in North Carolina, a one man band fulminating against all the things he regards as fringe and freaky, from spoon-bending to healing by crystals. Science freaks love the man, while New Agers can’t stand him and all he stands for.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke has said that Gardner’s work is “urgently needed as an antidote to the tide of irrationalism that is engulfing the world.”

MIT professor and media critic Noam Chomsky wrote that “Martin Gardner’s contribution to contemporary intellectual culture is unique — in its range, its insight, and understanding of hard questions that matter.”

The late Carl Sagan said that his books “provide a taste of the broad, general education the college's ought to provide and to often do not,” while the late Stephen Jay Gould assessed him as “one of the most brilliant men and gracious writers that I have ever known.”

The 89-year old Gardner was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1936 with a major in philosophy. Before World War II he was a reporter on the Tulsa Tribune, and after the war he was writer in the University of Chicago's press relations office.

After four years in the Navy, Martin returned to Chicago where he began his free-lance career by selling short stories to Esquire. This was followed by a 25-year stint as the writer of the "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American.

Gardner is good; he’s not only a fine mind with an astounding range, but a first-rate writer to boot. In addition to
The Annotated Alice — a highly-regarded study of the mathematical and logical paradoxes in Lewis Carroll’s work, Gardner’s forty-some books include collections of his mathematics columns from Scientific American, and anthologies of his articles from Skeptical Enquirer, The New York Times, and other publications.

This uber-skeptic is not only a smart cookie; he’s a whiz at lucidly summing up complex ideas with a clever turn of phrase. Whether its Reagan-era trickle down theory, urine therapy, recovered memory therapy, photographs of fairies endorsed by Arthur Conan Doyle, or the wit and wisdom of Shirley Maclaine, the octogenarian author often has a explosive argument at the ready to blow away his opponents. Call him The Unadoubter.

What’s unfortunate is that a man of such considerable gifts often defaults to name-calling, character assassination, and guilt by association in his arguments — what they call “ad hominem“ attacks in debating circles, and what the rest of us define as debunking. This tactic diminishes his considerable intellectual gifts.

There are plenty of silly ideas out there to attack. But the trouble is that debunkers are eager to extend their critiques into alpha-male one-upmanship, taking the personal route — “I’m a smarter monkey than you” — and Gardner is no exception.

When he’s in high dudgeon, adjectives like “tawdry,” “shabby,” and “garbage” are sprinkled through his prose — giving the impression that the targets he’s slicing and dicing are hardly worth his Olympian inspection.

Normally the author is found thrashing about in the murky swamps of “pseudoscience,” but Gardner makes the occasional foray into pop culture as well. when Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in 1977, The Unadoubter could not contain his contempt for what most of us would regard as merely an entertaining, if overly sentimental, cinematic diversion.

“The mother ship, a monstrous wheel of light, slowly settles over the clearing and hangs there like a mammoth Victorian chandelier. Swing low sweet chariot. In the novel it generates a negative gravity field that makes everybody feel 40 percent lighter. The mother ship is Spielberg’s beatific vision, his poor replica of Dante's vision of the Godhead in the last canto of The Divine Comedy.”

That’s a clever assessment; whether you liked the film or not; but in the next few paragraphs Gardner’s contempt seems to cast more light on him than on Spielberg’s space-opera.

“It is this pretentious, quasireligious, Nirvanalike finale that may well keep Spielberg's ridiculous script from sending Columbia Pictures stock into a tailspin. Or maybe not. Maybe enough ordinary souls out there, even in Muncie, are capable of smelling the spiritual fakery of it all. For it is not God who comes to rescue humanity. It is just another race of humanoids.”


Okay, so he didn’t like the flick. But there’s something more than just a movie review at work here. Gardner’s rejection of any remotely transcendental in nature — whether it’s the visions of mystics or of Hollywood film producers — twists and churns through his prose.

It’s no accident that the bulk of Gardner’s work has appeared in the Skeptical Enquirer, the house organ of CSICOP (pronounced sigh-cop), the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. A large, influential skeptic's group, CSICOP takes as its mandate the weeding out of pseudoscience from the field of science — and Gardner is their chief gardener.

Still, I figure you take the good with the bad. Just as even our best friends can annoy at times, we can’t expect our favorite authors to always come through. From my own limited personal perspective, there’s more pluses than minuses in Gardner’s literary explorations. He sometimes challenges my opinions in an intellectually rigourous way — and I eagerly await his next book.

Two of his best works are Did Adam and Eve have Navels?, and his 1995 magnum opus,
The Night is Large: Collected Essays 1938-1995. Read the man for his wit and immense range of learning — but handle his opinions with tongs.

Geoff Olson