May 24 2010

Martin Gardner 1914-2010

Martin Gardner, a renowned mathematician, author of over 70 books, educator, and skeptic, died on Saturday at the age of 95. Gardner was a skeptic before there was a skeptical movement, and so has always been one of our intellectual giants.

When I think of him I cannot help but think of the phrase most famously used by Isaac Newton,

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

In fact another giant in the skeptical universe, and long time friend of Gardner, James Randi, felt the same way. He wrote in Swift:

That man was one of my giants, a very long-time friend of some 50 years or so.  He was a delight, a very bright spot in my firmament, one to whom I could always turn to with a question or an idea, with any strange notion I could invent, and with any complaint or comment I could come up with.

Gardner was probably most generally famous for his Scientific American column – Mathematical Games – which he wrote from 1956 to 1981. But to skeptics Gardner is best known for his tireless and unapologetic opposition to pseudoscience. His book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, is a classic of skepticism first published in 1952. If you have not read the book before, pick it up. I think you will find that it is just as relevant today (which itself is an interesting commentary). He takes on old favorites like creationism, UFOs, dowsing, Scientology, and even organic farming. But he also takes on some names you may not recognize, like Fletcherism (getting more from food by chewing it beyond thoroughly) and the Bates methods (an alternative eye treatment still around today) – but showing that while the characters and details may change over time, pseudoscience itself is remarkably consistent in its fallacies. He followed up with Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus in 1981 – also worth a read.

No surprisingly Gardner was there at the beginning of the modern skeptical movement, arguably begun with the founding of CSICOP (The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, now renamed CSI – Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). He was a founding fellow and wrote the Notes of a Fringe Watcher column for many years.

While I am sad that another of my intellectual heroes is gone, I am glad that Martin Gardner led a full, long, and by all accounts happy and fulfilling life. He has left behind a tremendous legacy. I haven’t read Fads and Fallacies in years – I think I’ll pick it up again.

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10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Martin Gardner 1914-2010”

  1. jblumenfeldon 24 May 2010 at 8:35 am

    Garnder is certainly one of my skeptical heroes. Fads and Fallacies was my introduction to skepticism, and I reread it every couple of years.

    I still have the two letters I received from Gardner in response to a couple of questions I asked him by mail. He used a typewriter rather than a computer printer, and was very gracious in trying to help me with one skeptical investigation or another.

    Finally, I have an odd though fairly meaningless connection with him – but it has always pleased me. We have the same birthday, October 21st, and I plan to continue my tradition of celebrating Gardner’s day along with my own.

  2. skrileon 24 May 2010 at 8:54 am

    I just quote Martin the other day. As a kid I loved his Aha! Logic Puzzle books. Weird.

  3. ccbowerson 24 May 2010 at 11:53 am

    Fletherism is a good one. Reminds me of the following quote from a very underrated movie:
    “Do you masticate, Mr. Lightbody?”

    This is just a reminder that modern skepticism has been around quite a while. Although I think that skeptical thinking versus nonsense has been around for as long as we have been learning about and exploring our world.

  4. bindleon 24 May 2010 at 1:59 pm

    By the way, wasn’t it Martin Gardner who observed that the unresolvable problem was how to explain sentience and qualia and their interaction with consciousness?

  5. Calli Arcaleon 24 May 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Wow; I had no idea he was that old. I had this idea he was much younger, perhaps because of his immense output of work. I read his column in Skeptical Inquirer for a long time, which is how I got to know the name, and have always felt he was one of the true skeptics. I admired him greatly, and feel the world is a little bit dimmer without him.

    On the other hand . . . .

    There is a school of thought that people do really not die when their bodies cease to function. I’m not talking about the supernatural, here. In the Discworld books, the people of the Ramtops are said to share this belief, and the way Terry Pratchett put it was that the span of a person’s living years is just the tiniest slice of their entire life. They do not completely pass until all memory of them has passed, until every project they started has stopped, until the things they built have crumbled to dust, and until all trace of them is gone. Considering Gardner’s contributions to skepticism, I think he will be with us for a very long time to come.

  6. Eric Thomsonon 24 May 2010 at 5:24 pm

    bindle I’d like to read what he said on the topic, do you have a reference?

  7. bindleon 24 May 2010 at 5:53 pm

    No, which may be why I asked the question.

  8. addisontreeon 24 May 2010 at 10:09 pm

    I fondly remember reading “Mathematical Games” when I was young. Then his recreational mathematics books. I didn’t even know he was considered a “skeptic” until about three(?) years ago when I noticed his articles in Skeptical Inquirer (which I had only just discovered).

    He had a gift for taking complicated mathematics and explaining it so that even a high school student could appreciate its beauty and import. More than that, when you finished reading a Martin Gardner article, you wanted to experiment with the mathematics on your own and learn more about the ideas he presented.

    A common phrase you’ll here people use today is “I’m no good at math” or “I just can’t understand mathematics”. It frustrates me a little when people tell me this. Math is no different than any other human endeavor (like art or music or athleticism) in that (1) almost anyone can do the basics and (2) you won’t really know how good you are at it until you’ve put in at least a few hundred hours of effort. Almost all of the people who tell me they are “hopeless” when it comes to math have reached that conclusion without ever really understanding what mathematics really is (let alone doing some).

    Martin Gardner is one of the reasons why I never became a person who thought that learning math was beyond my capabilities. In fact, I’ve never met anyone familiar with his mathematical writings who ever thought learning math was “hopeless”. I can think of no better legacy.

  9. rokstatueon 24 May 2010 at 11:54 pm

    WHAT! I just started “Fads and Fallacies” a few weeks ago. Next in line was his book on Urantia. So sad to hear he’s gone.

  10. [...] 1952 Martin Gardner, who just passed away this week at the age of 95, wrote about organic farming in his book Fads and [...]

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