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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