Valiant for Truth
Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? Discourses on Reflexology, Numerology, Urine Therapy and Other Dubious
By Martin Gardner
W.W. Norton & Co.; 336 pp. $26.95
I find it difficult to speak temperately about Martin Gardner because I owe him so much. As a child in England, my keenest intellectual pleasure was reading Gardner's monthly "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American. Along with a handful of books like Kasner and Newman's Mathematics and the Imagination and George Gamow's One Two Three Infinity, Gardner's columns opened for me the doors of mathematics, leading me forward to a lifetime of pleasure and instruction from that most elegant and challenging of all disciplines. Later I read Gardner's book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, which, along with its British equivalent, Patrick Moore's Can You Speak Venusian? inoculated me for ever against any temptation to waste my time and money believing in astrology, homeopathy, spoon-bending, mind-reading, UFOs, acupuncture, or any other kind of pseudoscientific flapdoodle.
I am, of course, not alone in my debt to this wonderful man. Nobody alive has done more than Gardner to spread the understanding and appreciation of mathematics, and to dispel superstition. Nobody has worked harder or more steadily to defend and enlarge this little firelit clearing we hold in the dark chittering forest of Unreason. If Gardner were British, he would long since have been the recipient of one of our national honors — a Commander of the British Empire, perhaps, or even, like Patrick Moore, a knight. It is a pity the United States has no parallel system. Egalitarianism can be taken too far. In that spirit of whimsy that Gardner himself has often amused us with, I hereby, in loco Reginae, award him the rank he has earned. For the duration of this review I shall, as a mark of sincere respect, and with — I am sure it is clear — no facetious intent, refer to him as Sir Martin.
Sir Martin was one of the founder members of the group that became CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, in 1976. The volume under review consists of twenty-seven of the columns Sir Martin has written for Skeptical Inquirer, the bimonthly official organ of CSICOP, together with one more piece that he wrote for Free Inquiry. The topics range very widely, from the nearer fringes of respectable science to the furthest, wildest shores of preposterosity.
Since Sir Martin's first venture into this territory in Fads and Fallacies 48 years ago, entire new species of poppycock have come up to offer themselves to his machete: reflexology, Carlos Castaneda, Bible codes, Afrocentrism, alien abduction, and the "channeling" techniques of Jean Houston (used by Hillary Clinton to make contact with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi). Often it is only the prominence of the fad that is new: many depend on the resuscitation of ideas that have been around for decades, that in fact have their origin in the golden age of twaddle, the few decades that ended around 1920. Reflexology — the relief of bodily ills by massaging the feet — seems to be in this category, descended from the "zone therapy" popular in the late nineteenth century.
The most vexing topics of Sir Martin's inquiry are those that touch on religion. I would argue, and I believe Sir Martin would agree, that a practical dedication to reason involves some judgment about its effective scope, and about the limits of our understanding. "Wovon man nicht sprechen Kann, dar ü ber muss man schweigen" is all very well, but our deepest feelings about ourselves, and about this mysterious universe we find ourselves in, cannot remain unshared, and demand some expression. Religion is not quackery. Yet it has its quacks and its fringes, as science has, and these are proper objects for, well, skeptical inquiry. Some of them are easily disposed of. The business of Bible codes, for example — subject of a 1997 best-seller enthusiastically promoted by, amongst others, Oprah Winfrey — rests on a simple failure to understand elementary statistical truths.
Other religious issues Sir Martin comes up against are knottier. They deserve, and here get, more thoughtful and extended discussion. Very respectable conservative intellectuals — Irving Kristol, for example, and Robert Bork — have argued publicly against Darwin. Sir Martin does not agree with them, but he treats their arguments with consideration. He also gives a good account of Darwin's actual religious views, which, when fully matured, were pretty much the same as his own. The author has described himself elsewhere as a fideist, a philosophical theist who believes in the power of prayer, but not in the managerial God of the Old Testament nor the miracles of Christianity. He concludes thus a discussion of the Second Coming:
The book [Anderson's The Legend of the Wandering Jew] may tell you more than you care to know about this sad attempt of Christians to avoid admitting that the Galilean carpenter turned preacher did indeed believe he would soon return to earth in glory, but was mistaken.
Amongst its many other virtues this book reminds us that, outside the demanding intellectual grind of mathematics and the hard sciences, we know very little of anything. Our vanity abhorring a vacuum, we fill up the empty spaces of our understanding with pseudoscience. Most often the bogus nature of these systems is plain at a glance to anyone who can think straight (a dismayingly small percentage of humanity, to be sure), sometimes it takes decades to remove the mask. Freudian psychology, for example, was taken very seriously by some extremely intelligent and level-headed people, like Arthur Koestler. It is now known with fair certainty to be pure bunkum, except where it borrowed ideas from elsewhere. As Sir Martin expresses it very pithily:
Where Freud was sound he was not original, and where original he was mistaken. Compare with Darwin. Where Darwin was sound he was original. Where he was not original, as in his defense of Lamarckism, he was mistaken.
Sir Martin is sufficiently devastating when he takes on the Higher Baloney — Freud, Zero-Point energy, postmodern critiques of science (there is a very good chapter on the Sokal hoax) — but I think it is the downright loopy that really tickles his fancy. Numerology is a special favorite, and he has great sport with the obsession of Muslims like Louis Farrakhan for the number 19. I also enjoyed his proof that President Clinton is the Antichrist. (Add the alphabet position values of Clinton's initials, W.J.C.: 23 + 10 + 3 = 36. Now add all the numbers from 1 through 36: you get 666, the number of the beast in Revelation 13:18. One always knew this, of course, but it is satisfying to see a mathematical proof.)
I am glad to have had the pleasure of reading, and the privilege of reviewing, Sir Martin's 64th book. I look forward to the 65th. I offer him my sympathy and prayers on his recent misfortune. I thank him from the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of many thousands of others, for that early instruction in clear reasoning, plain writing, and honest scientific inquiry. And I salute him as a valiant standard-bearer of Reason in a world for ever under siege by the armies of ignorance, folly and madness.