Sometimes little fragments of memory get stuck in your mind with preternatural clarity. I recall one such episode from 1970. It was a late spring afternoon and I had some time to kill before a scheduled meeting with a college friend to wrap up some class project. I was sprawled on my bed (the bedspread had a multicolor rectangular grid pattern on a black background) and I was paging through a book. This was not in itself particularly unusual or remarkable. I read books everywhere and at all times.
On this occasion, however, I was propped up on my elbows reading a Dover edition of Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies. I was utterly fascinated. I already knew Gardner's work from Scientific American, eagerly reading his “Mathematics Games” column every month. His book, however, was figuratively shaking me by the shoulders and waking me up. I had read J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallée on their UFO theories, which had seemed quite intriguing on first glance. Now I saw that Gardner had preemptively refuted them years before they began their careers as pop icons of the UFO cults.
And I was being deprogrammed. So much for little green men (and their twisted ass-freak leaders).
Gardner overcame a fundamentalist upbringing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to become the founder of the modern skeptical movement. Although he never abandoned theism itself (he styled himself a “mysterian”), Gardner tirelessly promoted a questioning attitude toward religious claims and irrational beliefs. It is sad to note that some of Gardner's targets, like Scientology and homeopathy, continue to ensnare millions of people decades after he punctured their pretensions. Nonsense can be robust.
Fortunately, Gardner has inspired a legion of successors and the skeptical movement continues to defend rational thought against the inane nostrums and delusions of the day. Let us continue to defend his legacy of sanity and reason.
- College Math Journal interview, 1979, by a panel of interviewers (including Stan Ulam and Ron Graham in supporting roles!).
- Skeptical Inquirer interview, 1998, by Kendrick Frazier.
- Cambridge University Press blog interview, 2005, by Don Albers. The interview is in five parts (click on the “Read on” prompt at the end of each part).
- Mathematical Association of America interview, 2006, by Colm Mulcahy.