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Center for Inquiry
: Skeptical Inquirer magazine
: March/April 1998 : Buy this back issue
A Mind at Play
An Interview with Martin GardnerKendrick Frazier
His mind is highly philosophical, at home with the most abstract concepts, yet his thinking and writing crackle with clarity -- lively, crisp, vivid. He achieved worldwide fame and respect for the three decades of his highly popular mathematical games column for Scientific American, yet he is not a mathematician. He is by every standard an eminent intellectual, yet he has no Ph.D. or academic position. He has a deep love of science and has written memorable science books (The Ambidextrous Universe and The Relativity Explosion, for instance), and yet he has devoted probably more time and effort to -- and has been more effective than any thinker of the twentieth century in -- exposing pseudoscience and bogus science.
He is considered a hard-nosed, blunt-speaking scourge of paranormalists and all who would deceive themselves or the public in the name of science, yet in person he is a gentle, soft-spoken, even shy man who likes nothing better than to stay in his home with his beloved wife Charlotte in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and write on his electric typewriter.
His critics see him as serious, yet he has a playful mind, is often more amused than outraged by nonsense, and believes with Mencken that "one horselaugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms." He is deeply knowledgeable about conjuring and delights in learning new magic tricks. He retired from Scientific American more than fifteen years ago, but his output of books, articles, and reviews has, if anything, accelerated since then. (He's now written more than sixty books, and more are in the works.) His knowledge and interests span the sciences, philosophy, mathematics, and religion, yet he professes no special standing as a Renaissance man. He has received major awards from scientific societies and praise from some of the nation's leading scholars ("One of the great intellects produced in this country in this century," says Douglas Hofstadter), some of whom forthrightly consider him an intellectual hero, yet he remains modest about his contributions.
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." After that, in the same genre, came The New Age: Notes of a Fringe-Watcher (1988), On the Wild Side (1992), and Weird Water and Fuzzy Logic: More Notes of a Fringe-Watcher (1996).
The subtitles refer of course to his column "Notes of a Fringe-Watcher" (broadened from its original title, "Notes of a Psi-Watcher"), which has graced the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer every issue since Summer 1983. His first SI column, "Lessons of a Landmark PK Hoax," dealt with James Randi's then-just-revealed Project Alpha experiment, in which Randi planted two young magicians in a parapsychology laboratory to see if the lead investigator could detect their trickery. The three Gardner anthologies each consist of half SI columns and half reviews and writings for other publications.
When the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer, was established in 1976, Martin Gardner was one of its original founding fellows, and he has remained a member of its Executive Council and Editorial Board ever since. When offered the opportunity fifteen years ago to write a regular column for SI, he quickly agreed. He dedicated The New Age anthology to CSICOP's founder and chairman: "To Paul Kurtz, a friend whose vision, courage, and integrity started it all." Although Martin Gardner seldom travels to CSICOP meetings, he remains, through his personal contacts, insights, published writings, and voluminous correspondence, a profound influence on CSICOP, modern skepticism, and intellectual discourse broadly.
He answered questions posed by Skeptical Inquirer Editor Kendrick Frazier.
SI: In your book of essays The Night Is Large: Collected Essays 1938-1995, you organized your lifelong intellectual interests into seven categories: physical science, social science, pseudoscience, mathematics, the arts, philosophy, and religion. Do they have equal importance to you? How do you rank them in importance or interest -- to you? to others? Do you see them as complementary aspects of one coherent worldview, or are some separate?
Gardner: My main interests are philosophy and religion, with special emphasis on the philosophy of science. I majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago (class of 1936), having entered the freshman class as a Protestant fundamentalist from Tulsa. I quickly lost my entire faith in Christianity. It was a painful transition that I tried to cover in my semi-autobiographical novel The Flight of Peter Fromm (now a Prometheus Books paperback). I actually doubted the theory of evolution, having been influenced by George McCready Price, a Seventh-day Adventist creationist. A course in geology convinced me that Price was a crackpot. However, his flood theory of fossils is ingenious enough so that one has to know some elementary geology in order to see where it is wrong. Perhaps this aroused my interest in debunking pseudoscience.SI: How have you managed to retain such a phenomenal breadth of interest and knowledge?
Gardner: Philosophy gives one an excuse to dabble in everything. Although my interests are broad, they seldom get beyond elementary levels. I give the impression of knowing far more than I do because I work hard on research, write glibly, and keep extensive files of clippings on everything that interests me.SI: Do you wish you had pursued one field more, to the exclusion of the others?
Gardner: I'm glad I majored in philosophy, though had I known I would be writing some day a column on math, I would have taken some math courses. As it was, I took not a single math course. If you look over my Scientific American columns you will see that they get progressively more sophisticated as I began reading math books and learning more about the subject. There is no better way to learn anything than to write about it!SI: You probably could have been either a philosopher or a mathematician -- which a lot of fans of your Scientific American recreational mathematics columns probably thought you were. Did you ever think about going into academia?
Gardner: Early on in college I decided I wanted to be a writer, not a teacher, and I have never regretted this decision. It is the reason I took only one year of graduate work, and never cared to go for a master's.SI: Given your breadth and variety of interests, how would you describe yourself -- your professional field?
Gardner: I think of myself as a journalist who writes mainly about math and science, and a few other fields of interest.SI: I appreciate the becoming modesty, but I think you may be too self-effacing. Douglas Hofstadter has said, "Martin Gardner is one of the greatest intellects produced in this country in this century." Stephen Jay Gould has said you have been "the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us." Certainly you must be pleased to be so highly regarded.
Gardner: Yes, I am pleased, though Hofstadter, a good friend, surely exaggerates, and ditto for Gould, a marvelous writer I hope to meet some day.SI: What do you consider to be the relationship between your interests in writing about science and in debunking pseudoscience? Which has more appeal to you?
Gardner: In a way, I regret spending so much time debunking bad science. A lot of it is a waste of time. I much more enjoyed writing the book with Carnap, or The Ambidextrous Universe, and other books about math and science.SI: What motivates you? You have been writing on pseudoscience and fringe-science since at least 1950. The Washington Post reviewer of The Night Is Large described you -- correctly, I think -- as "almost certainly the most eminent debunker of pseudoscience since World War II." Do you find pseudoscience and paranormal claims inherently fascinating -- you seem both wryly amused and deeply concerned -- or do you consider critiquing them more a task that has to be done? If the latter, what keeps you going at it?
Gardner: I'm not sure why I enjoy debunking. Part of it surely is amusement over the follies of true believers, and partly because attacking bogus science is a painless way to learn good science. You have to know something about relativity theory, for example, to know where opponents of Einstein go wrong. You have to know something about probability and statistics to recognize Michael Drosnin's The Bible Code as hogwash. You have to know the power of the placebo and faith to see why Mary Baker Eddy is the very model of a quack.SI: You are generally considered one of the harshest critics of the paranormal and its proponents. How would you characterize your position?
Gardner: I like to think I am unduly harsh and dogmatic only when writing about a pseudoscience that is far out on the continuum that runs from good science to bad, and when I am expressing the views of all the experts in the relevant field. Where there are areas on the fringes of orthodoxy, supported by respected scientists, I try to be more agnostic. I am certain, for example, that astrology and homeopathy are totally worthless, but I have no strong opinions about, say, superstring theory. Superstrings are totally lacking in empirical support, yet they offer an elegant theory with great explanatory power. I wish I could be around fifty years from now to know whether superstrings turn out to be a fruitful theory or whether they are just another blind alley in the search for a "theory of everything."SI: What trends have you seen in popular belief in pseudoscience and the paranormal in the past half century? Has it gotten better or worse? What are your greatest concerns?
Gardner: I think popular belief in bogus sciences is steadily increasing. When I was a boy, there were only one or two astrologers who wrote newspaper columns. Now almost every paper except the New York Times, not to mention dozens of magazines, features a horoscope column. Professional astrologers now outnumber astronomers. For Pete's sake, a president of the United States and his first lady were astrology buffs! This would have seemed unthinkable a hundred years ago.SI: What do you see for the future in that regard?
Gardner: I see the immediate future as having a steady increase in superstitions. Fundamentalism, especially the Pentecostal variety, is growing rapidly, not only here but in other nations, notably in South America. And not only among Protestants but also among Catholics and Jews. The Catholic Church is on the brink of its greatest blunder since it condemned Galileo. It is close to declaring that Mary is a "co-redeemer" with Christ! (Mother Teresa was a strong supporter of this.) Of course, if the pope declares infallibly that this doctrine is true, it will kill the ecumenical movement.SI: Apart from popular belief in pseudoscience, how about what we might call experimental parapsychology -- work done by Ph.D.'s in the laboratory that some keep pointing to as evidence of ESP or PK -- going back to J. B. Rhine's experiments in the 1930s and 1940s and most recently the ganzfeld experiments, the persistent claims about remote viewing, and Robert Jahn's random-number-generator work? Where does all that stand in your view?
Gardner: I'm all in favor of parapsychologists continuing to look for evidence of psi, and their experiments certainly are more carefully controlled than in the days of Rhine. It has often been pointed out that as Rhine slowly learned how to tighten his controls, his evidence of psi became weaker and weaker. However, the evidence will not become convincing to other psychologists until an experiment is made that is repeatable by skeptics. So far, no such experiment has been made. Jahn's evidence for psi is statistical, and there are many ways his statistics, which favor psi to a very slight degree, can be unconsciously biased. As far as I know, no one else has been able to duplicate his computer-generated results.SI: Are you discouraged by the rejection of science in certain parts of academia heavily influenced by the postmodernist antipathy toward science and reason? The Sokal hoax, which you wrote about so amusingly, certainly exposed that movement's scientific vacuousness.
Gardner: Yes, I am dismayed by the increasing effort of the postmoderns to view science as a solely cultural phenomenon rather than as a highly successful and ongoing search for objective truths about the universe. No one wants to deny that science is corrigible, but it is a wonderfully successful self-correcting process that gets ever closer to objective truth. Postmodern nonsense has even invaded mathematics, as witnessed by Reuben Hersh's just-published book What Is Mathematics, Really? I have a lengthy critical review of this book in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (October 12, 1997), defending the opinion of almost all mathematicians today or in the past that mathematics has a curious kind of reality independent of human minds. The universe is made of particles and fields about which nothing can be said except to describe their mathematical structures. In a sense, the entire universe is made of mathematics. If the particles and fields are not made of mathematical structure, then please tell me what you think they are made of!SI: When you wrote the book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, did you expect that it would become the classic it has become?
Gardner: No, I never expected Fads and Fallacies would long remain in print. The first edition, titled In the Name of Science, sold so poorly that Putnam quickly remaindered it. Not until Dover picked it up did its sales take off, thanks in large degree to Long John Nebel, then a popular all-night radio talk-show host. For many months, he had guests on almost every night to attack the book. I remember one night, when I had gotten out of bed to change a diaper on our first born, I turned on the radio and heard John Campbell, then editor of Astounding Science Fiction, say "Mr. Gardner is a liar." I had a chapter about his role in introducing L. Ron Hubbard's dianetics. Campbell claimed it had cured his sinusitis. I never dreamed that Scientology would last more than a few years, because its claims were so preposterous. It maintained, for example (and still does), that immediately after conception, long before the embryo develops ears, it makes recordings (called engrams) of all the words spoken by or to the mother! I would never have dreamed that UFOs, to which I also devoted a chapter, would become a mania that would increase steadily over the next half century. I expected Wilhelm Reich's orgone therapy to be short lived, yet it is still going strong. Come to think of it, phrenology is the only major pseudoscience I know about that once flourished around the world and has since faded away.SI: Which of your own books are your favorites? Which have been most popular? Which are most important?
Gardner: Of my books, the one that I am most pleased to have written is my confessional, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, with my novel about Peter Fromm running second.SI: And which of your books have been the most popular, have sold best? Which do you think have been the most influential?
Gardner: The one book of mine that has sold the most copies is far and away my Annotated Alice. It has never been out of print since it was published in 1960, and has now sold over a million copies in hard- and soft-cover editions here and in England. Of my books about pseudoscience, I suppose the first one, now titled Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, has been the most influential on later writing about similar topics.SI: Whatever you write about, you seem always to call on great storehouses of specific information -- journal papers, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, etc., going back decades. I've heard Randi describe with some awe your filing system. Can you tell us about it?
Gardner: Yes, my files are my number one trade secret. It began in college with 3 3 5 file cards that I kept in ladies shoe boxes. I had a habit then (this was before copy machines) of destroying books by slicing out paragraphs and pasting them on cards. A friend once looked through my cards on American literature and was horrified to discover I had destroyed several rare first editions of books by Scott Fitzgerald.SI: How do you manage to keep up with everything?
Gardner: I keep up my interests by taking scores of periodicals that deal with topics I may write about, especially science and math journals. I have been a lifelong subscriber to Science News, which you once edited. I could never have written my Scientific American columns without access to math magazines that ran articles and problems that could be considered recreational in nature.SI: For as world-famous and respected as you are -- your writings have been inspirational to two generations of prominent scientists and scholars -- you usually have worked alone. You seldom, if ever, go to conferences or meetings. Only a few of your many fans and readers have ever seen or heard you in person. Why? Has this been an advantage to you -- no distractions, for instance -- more time for writing? Have there been drawbacks to this solitary work style?
Gardner: I have often been called shy, and with justification. I prefer one-to-one relationships to crowds. I hate going to parties or giving speeches. I love monotony. Nothing pleases me more than to be alone in a room, reading a book or hitting typewriter keys. I consider myself lucky in being able to earn a living by doing what I like best. As my wife long ago realized, I really don't do any work. I just play all the time, and am fortunate enough to get paid for it.SI: You seem to be curious about everything. What most delights you? Scientifically? Professionally? Personally?
Gardner: I am most delighted by learning something new and significant. (I leave aside the delights of relationships with my wife, with relatives, and with friends). This year I had the pleasure of updating and expanding a 1910 book by Sylvanus Thompson called Calculus Made Easy. It was a great pleasure to learn, for the first time, some basic calculus, and to appreciate fully its enormous elegance and power.SI: Many prominent skeptics are likewise knowledgeable about magic. How important is such an understanding in evaluating paranormal claims?
Gardner: I don't think a knowledge of magic is important in countering paranormal claims, except in connection with self-styled psychics who claim extraordinary paranormal powers. Such psychics use methods which have in common the methods of magicians. A man can be a great scientist, or a greater writer, and be so easily fooled by simple methods of deception that his opinions about extraordinary claims of psi powers are utterly worthless. Conan Doyle, for example, would never have believed in the genuineness of spirit mediums who levitate tables and themselves, float trumpets, produce visible spirits of the dead, exude ectoplasm through their noses, and so on, if he had had even the most superficial training in the methods of conjuring. The parapsychologists who once took Ted Serios and others like him seriously would have been spared their embarrassments had they known anything about magic. A knowledgeable magician, watching these "psychics" perform on stage, knows at once how they obtain their wonders. It is a scandal that even today so few parapsychologists think it worthwhile to study the methods of magicians before they test a psychic who performs incredible feats, then publish papers testifying to the genuineness of the psychic's powers.SI: You were a founding fellow of CSICOP and have been a member of the Executive Council since the beginning. How have you seen our role? What advice do you have for us for the future?
Gardner: CSICOP is obviously doing a much-needed job in combating America's dumbing down, especially in providing a source to which editors of magazines and newspapers, and the makers of TV shows can turn to get information about bogus claims. It is a role that will be increasingly important in the years ahead.SI: It's hard to believe you have been writing your "Notes of a Fringe-Watcher" column in SI for almost fifteen years -- especially since you didn't start it until retiring from your long-running Scientific American column. Do you miss doing the latter?
Gardner: I do indeed miss writing the Scientific American column. I had reached a point where I could no longer keep up the column and write the books I hoped to write as long as I had my wits about me. Also, I felt it was time for younger writers to take over the column.SI: Well, we all hope you will continue writing your "Notes of a Fringe-Watcher" column in SI for a long time to come. It clearly continues to be provocative.
Gardner: Thanks!SI: Your readers worldwide have been blessed by your thinking and writing over your long and prolific career, well into a time most people have retired. We all hope you can continue for a long time to come. How is your health?
Gardner: At eighty-three, I tell people I don't feel a day over seventy-five. Seriously, I have few complaints except an enlarging prostate that occasionally bothers me at night, and mild high blood pressure, which I control with Hytrin. Short-term memory is not what it used to be. My wife and I frequently spend twenty minutes at the dinner table trying to recall the name of someone we both know well until suddenly one of us shouts it out. I am fortunate in having parents who each lived into their nineties. I hope my dear wife Charlotte outlives me, although we both look forward to celebrating the arrival of the year 2000, and seeing our grandchildren become adults.
Books by Martin Gardner
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