Sunday, May 30, 2010

Martin Gardner, 1914-2010

Founder of the modern skeptics movement

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 VallĂ©e 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.

In addition to his millions of written words, Gardner was recorded in a number of interviews over his long life. The 1979 interview was just unearthed in unexpurgated form in the wake of his death and in that sense is new. The others represent Gardner in the later stages of his career and demonstrate his undiminished sense of curiosity and enthusiasm for recreational math and science.


Miki Z. said...

I'll miss his contributions. I have a few of his books, and appreciate in particular his "refutation" of the 4-color theorem on April Fool's Day.

Billy C said...

I worked circulation in a public library back in the mid-90's when Gardner's book on Urantia was published. One of our regular patrons was both a Gardner fan and a Urantian, so I was curious about the result.

You can probably guess: our patron was astounded that Gardner could be so clear-eyed in debunking non-Urantian superstitions and yet blind to the obvious truth of Urantia.

And thus rationalism spreads by small steps. Gardner will be missed.

Eamon Knight said...

Like so many others, I loved his SciAm column (I found Hofstadter a poor substitute), and I credit my introduction to skepticism to reading F&F. It's fascinating to see which of those mid-50s fads have faded unlamented into obscurity, and which have gone on to new heights of bamboozling.