Top 10 Martin Gardner Skeptical Contributions

From a very early age, Martin loved science. In his memoirs (see pages 13–14) he reveals that he was familiar with Hugo Gernsback's Science and Innovation magazine in the 1920s, writing, "Covers were devoted to articles debunking pseudosciences such as astrology, spiritualism, and perpetual motion."

Thus, Martin knew the difference between good, bad, and bogus science even before he started science classes in school. There, he was surprised to find that one of his teachers preferred a logical geological explanation of formations in the local caverns over the Biblical ones that were popular at the time.

As the list to follow confirms, debunking was one of Martin's strong suits throughout his life, whether is was mere sloppy thinking he aimed at, or something much more dangerous, such as frauds in the medical world. His first book was on the topic, as was an article he published right before he died. Martin Gardner was, first and last, a debunker extraordinaire.

Several articles and interviews address his activities and legacy in this area, as well as a much bigger picture, including,

1. "The Annotated Gardner" (Michael Shermer, Skeptic magazine, vol 5 no 2, 1997), republished with a new introduction as "Martin Gardner 1914–2010, Founder of the Modern Skeptical Movement" (26 May 2010, eSkeptic).

2. "A Mind at Play: An Interview with Martin Gardner" (Kendrick Frazier, Skeptical Inquirer, Mar/Apr 1998).

3. "The Martin Gardner Interview" (Don Albers, The College Mathematics Journal, May 2005).

4. Martin Gardner's Contributions to the World of Books (Paul Kurtz, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol 34.5, Sep/Oct 2010).

The Top 10 list below is meant to capture some of the most important and influential contributions to rationality and skepticism made by Martin Gardner the skeptic—public enemy number one of pseudoscience. The items are listed in chronological order.

It's offered purely in a spirit of fun and education, and is not intended to be definitive. The logic of the selections is also up for debate, e.g., six essays Martin wrote are given equal weight with three of his books, two of those being very wideranging, despite the fact that the essays also appeared in later collections alongside other worthy treastises.

We gratefully acknowledge input from officers and editorial staff at both CSI and Skeptical Inquirer, and writer Dilip D'Souza of Mint.

Top 10 Martin Gardner Skeptical Contributions

1. Fads and Fallacies (Dover 1957, originally 1952).

This was Martin's first full length book, and like many of his books, it grew out of a well-received essay. Here he takes on numerous pseudoscientific and cult beliefs with passion, logic, and humor. His targets ranged from ESP believers, flat earthers, Forteans, and flying saucers followers, to devotees of homeopathy, L. Ron Hubbard, and medical crackpots.

In "The Hermit Scientist" article Martin wrote for The Antioch Review (Vol 10, 447–457, Dec 1950) which started him down this road, he'd optimistically but mistakenly concluded, "The current flurry of discussion about Velikovsky and Hubbard will soon subside, and their books will begin to gather dust on library shelves."

As Michael Shermer has observed, "Modern skepticism has developed into a science-based movement, beginning with Martin Gardner's 1952 classic."

2. Confessions of a Psychic (Karl Fulves, 1975, 40 pages) was written under the alias Uriah Fuller, and was subtitled "The Secret Notebooks of Uriah Fuller."

It was a guide to "inside secrets of seemingly incredible psychic feats"—inspired by the worldwide popularity of Uri Geller in the 1970s. There was a sequel in 1980. Martin commented in his memoirs,

"If you want to know how Geller bends spoons, don't ask a physicist, even if he won a Nobel Prize. Ask me or Randi."
To put it another way, education is no innoculation against being fooled.

3. Founding member of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in 1976.

In the mid 1970s, Martin joined forces with several like-minded people to set up a formal organization to confront what they saw as the rising tide of irrationality in society and the media, especially the uncritical acceptance of occult and paranormal claims.

In 2006, CSICOP shortened its name to Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). Its flagship publication, for which Martin wrote extensively, is Skeptical Inquirer. He had a regular column there from 1983 to 2002, remembered today as "Notes of a Fringe-Watcher."

4. Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus (Prometheus, 1981, 17 + 412 pages).

As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, and Martin prepared to end his days as a regular Scientific American columnist on recreational mathematics, he published this, which many regard as the sequel to Fads and Fallacies. It came with ringing endoresements from Isaac Asimov and Stephen Jay Gould. He opened it by revisiting the Hermit Scientist issue from three decades earlier, before moving on to 17 chapter on dishonest and diluded science, cranks and crackpots.

Trends in pseudoscience, Targ's ESP teaching machine, magic and paraphysics, notable scams of science, parapsychology, ESP, Geller, quantum/quack theory, and Tart's failed replication, all get star treamment, and are taken down one by one. Numerous book reviews take up the second half of this volume.

This marked the start of a long and fruitful relationship with Prometheus Books, run by his friend and fellow CSICOP founder Paul Kurtz.

5. "The Great Stone Face and Other Nonmysteries" (Skeptical Inquirer, Notes of a Psi-Watcher, Vol 10, Fall 1985)

As Martin demontrated admirably here, "If you search any kind of chaotic data, it is easy to find combinations that seem remarkable." His friend, statistician and magician Persi Diaconis, has been making the very same point for a long time too. Coincidences shouldn't surprise us at all, in fact it's a wonder they don't occur more often.

6. "Water With Memory? The Dilution Affair" (Skeptical Inquirer, Vol 13, Winter 1989)

Martin opens this piece by pointing out that to parapsychologists, the term "Experimenter effect" can refer to "the supposed unconscious influence of an experimenter's PK (psychokinetic) powers on the research. Putting aside the second meaning (if such an effect is real it would throw doubt on all empirical findings since Galileo),..." before discussing two scandals involving controversial science conducted in France. One was from 1903, and the other from 1988, the latter leading to a paper in the generally reputable journal Nature .

Martin reminds readers that, "Homeopaths maintain that, if a drug produces symptoms of a disease in a healthy person, inconceivably small quantities of that same drug will cure the disease. Moreover the smaller the amount of the drug—including its total absence—the more potent its curative power." The French researcher is quoted as claiming that "the potency of his dilutions is comparable to swirling your car key in the Seine, going some hundred miles downstream, taking a few drops of water out of the river, and then using them to start your car."

7. "The False Memory Syndrome" (Skeptical Inquirer, Vol 17, Summer 1993)

"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," railed Martin against one of the rediculous miscarriages of justice of the modern era. "Juries today are increasingly more often judging a parent guilty without any confirming evidence other than the therapy-induced memories of the 'victim.' Patients as well as their families can be scarred for life."

8. "What’s Going On At Temple University?" (Skeptical Inquirer, Notes of a Fringe-Watcher, Vol 22.5, Sep/Oct 1998).

A real, credible research university in a major US city could never be hoodwinked into lending support to a Center for Frontier Science that goes "beyond mainstream paradigms" and publishes its own periodical, could it?

Sure it could. This has happened over and over, and here Martin takes to task one institution in Philadephia that made an ass of itself in this way.

As rationalist John Allen Paulos, himself a mathematician at Temple, remarked in interview around that time, "It’s fine to examine weird claims such as those involving homeopathy and psychokinesis as long as researchers adhere to accepted standards of evidence—double-blind tests, randomized samples and all the rest. With some exceptions, this is not what the Center for Frontier Sciences does."

The Center no longer exists.

9. "Facilitated Communication: A Cruel Farce" (Skeptical Inquirer, Notes of a Fringe-Watcher, Vol 25 No 1, Jan/Feb 2001)

Martin deserves credit both for highlighting the cruelty and sheer stupidity of facilitated communication and for playing a role in its fall from "respectability."

10. "Bobby Fischer: Genius and Idiot" (Skeptical Inquirer, Notes of a Fringe-Watcher, Vol 33.5, Sep/Oct 2009)

Here Martin showed one can be a genius at some things but come "close to being a moron" at others. While the Fischer example is extreme—and no doubt caught Martin's attention due to his lifelong love of chess—it's still a very valid point.

The following spring, just before he died, Martin published a swipe at celebrity endorsements of dubious doctors.

Information about that piece, and other articles on skepticism by Martin, can be found here.

All of Martin's books in this arena are surveyed here.

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