A mind at play: an interview with Martin Gardner – author of mathematics and science books – Interview

Kendrick Frazier

His mind is highly philosophical, at home with the most abstract concepts, yet his thinking and writing crackle with clarity – lively, crisp, vivid. He achieved worldwide fame and respect for the three decades of his highly popular mathematical games column for Scientific American, yet he is not a mathematician. He is by every standard an eminent intellectual, yet he has no Ph.D. or academic position. He has a deep love of science and has written memorable science books (The Ambidextrous Universe and The Relativity Explosion, for instance), and yet he has devoted probably more time and effort to and has been more effective than any thinker of the twentieth century in exposing pseudoscience and bogus science.

He is considered a hard-nosed, blunt-speaking scourge of paranormalists and all who would deceive themselves or the public in the name of science, yet in person he is a gentle, soft-spoken, even shy man who likes nothing better than to stay in his home with his beloved wife Charlotte in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and write on his electric typewriter.

His critics see him as serious, yet he has a playful mind, is often more amused than outraged by nonsense, and believes with Mencken that “one horselaugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.” He is deeply knowledgeable about conjuring and delights in learning new magic tricks. He retired from Scientific American more than fifteen years ago, but his output of books, articles, and reviews has, if anything, accelerated since then. (He’s now written more than sixty books, and more are in the works.) His knowledge and interests span the sciences, philosophy, mathematics, and religion, yet he professes no special standing as a Renaissance man. He has received major awards from scientific societies and praise from some of the nation’s leading scholars (“One of the great intellects produced in this country in this century,” says Douglas Hofstadter), some of whom forthrightly consider him an intellectual hero, yet he remains modest about his contributions.

At eighty-three, Martin Gardner reigns supreme as the leading light of the modern skeptical movement. More than four and a half decades ago, in 1952, he wrote the first classic book on modern pseudoscientists and their views, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, and today it remains in print and widely available as a Dover paperback and is as relevant as ever. It has influenced and inspired generations of scientists, scholars, and nonscientists. He followed that up in 1981 with Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus. In an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled “Quack Detector,” Stephen Jay Gould welcomed the book and said Martin Gardner “has become a priceless national resource,” a writer “who can combine wit, penetrating analysis, sharp prose, and sweet reason into an expansive view that expunges nonsense without stifling innovation, and that presents the excitement and humanity of science in a positive way.” After that, in the same genre, came The New Age: Notes of a Fringe-Watcher (1988), On the Wild Side (1992), and Weird Water and Fuzzy Logic: More Notes of a Fringe-Watcher (1996).

The subtitles refer of course to his column “Notes of a Fringe-Watcher” (broadened from its original title, “Notes of a Psi-Watcher”), which has graced the pages of the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER every issue since Summer 1983. His first SI column, “Lessons of a Landmark PK Hoax,” dealt with James Randi’s then-just-revealed Project Alpha experiment, in which Randi planted two young magicians in a parapsychology laboratory to see if the lead investigator could detect their trickery. The three Gardner anthologies each consist of half SI columns and half reviews and writings for other publications.

When the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), publisher of the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, was established in 1976, Martin Gardner was one of its original founding fellows, and he has remained a member of its Executive Council and Editorial Board ever since. When offered the opportunity fifteen years ago to write a regular column for SI, he quickly agreed. He dedicated The New Age anthology to CSICOP’s founder and chairman: “To Paul Kurtz, a friend whose vision, courage, and integrity started it all.” Although Martin Gardner seldom travels to CSICOP meetings, he remains, through his personal contacts, insights, published writings, and voluminous correspondence, a profound influence on CSICOP, modern skepticism, and intellectual discourse broadly.

He answered questions posed by SKEPTICAL INQUIRER Editor Kendrick Frazier.

SI: In your book of essays The Night Is Large: Collected Essays 1938-1995, you organized your lifelong intellectual interests into seven categories: physical science, social science, pseudoscience, mathematics, the arts, philosophy, and religion. Do they have equal importance to you? How do you rank them in importance or interest – to you? to others? Do you see them as complementary aspects of one coherent worldview, or are some separate?

Gardner: My main interests are philosophy and religion, with special emphasis on the philosophy of science. I majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago (class of 1936), having entered the freshman class as a Protestant fundamentalist from Tulsa. I quickly lost my entire faith in Christianity. It was a painful transition that I tried to cover in my semi-autobiographical novel The Flight of Peter Fromm (now a Prometheus Books paperback). I actually doubted the theory of evolution, having been influenced by George McCready Price, a Seventh-day Adventist creationist. A course in geology convinced me that Price was a crackpot. However, his flood theory of fossils is ingenious enough so that one has to know some elementary geology in order to see where it is wrong. Perhaps this aroused my interest in debunking pseudoscience.

After I returned from four years in the Navy as a yeoman, I returned to Chicago and would have gone back to my former job in the university’s press relations office had I not sold a humorous short story to Esquire. This was my first payment for anything I’d written. It persuaded me to see if I could survive as a freelancer, and for the next year or two I lived on income from sales of fiction to Esquire. My second sale was a story based on topology tided “The No-Sided Professor.” It was my first effort at science fiction.

While freelancing, I took a seminar (using GI bill funds) from the famous Viennese philosopher of science Rudolf Carnap. It was the most exciting course I ever took. Years later I persuaded Carnap to have the course tape-recorded by his wife and to let me shape the recording into a book. Basic Books issued it under the title Philosophical Foundations of Physics. The tide was later changed to Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. All the ideas in the book are Carnap’s, all the wording mine. Dover recently reprinted it in paperback with an afterword about how the book came about and my memories of Carnap. During the writing of this book, I exchanged many pleasant letters with Mrs. Carnap, but before the book was published, for reasons unknown to me, she killed herself by hanging.

Carnap had a major influence on me. He persuaded me that all metaphysical questions are “meaningless” in the sense that they cannot be answered empirically or by reason. They can be defended only on emotive grounds. Carnap was an atheist, but I managed to retain my youthful theism in the form of what is called “fideism.” I like to call it “theological positivism,” a play on Carnap’s “logical positivism.”

Shortly before he died, Carl Sagan wrote to say he had reread my Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener and was it fair to say that I believed in God solely because it made me “feel good.” I replied that this was exactly right, though the emotion was deeper than the way one feels good after three drinks. It is a way of escaping from a deep-seated despair. William James’s essay “The Will to Believe” is the classic defense of the right to make such an emotional “leap of faith.” My theism is independent of any religious movement, and in the tradition that starts with Plato and includes Kant, and a raft of later philosophers, down to Charles Peirce, William James, and Miguel de Unamuno. I defend it ad nauseam in my Whys.

SI: How have you managed to retain such a phenomenal breadth of interest and knowledge?

Gardner: Philosophy gives one an excuse to dabble in everything. Although my interests are broad, they seldom get beyond elementary levels. I give the impression of knowing far more than I do because I work hard on research, write glibly, and keep extensive files of dippings on everything that interests me.

There are big gaps in my knowledge, one of the largest of which is classical music. I have a poor ear. My tastes run to Dixieland jazz and melodies I am able to hum and play on a musical saw (one of my minor self-amusements). I know nothing about sports other than baseball. I have never played a game of golf or seen a horse race. I never watch football or basketball. I think boxing should be outlawed as too primitive and cruel. Ditto for Spanish bullfighting.

In high school I was on the gymnastic team (specializing in the horizontal bar), and I played lots of tennis. I would enjoy tennis today except that I had cataract surgery early in life. Without eye lenses, one cannot continually alter one’s focus, so there is no way to anticipate exactly where the ball is as it comes toward you.

SI: Do you wish you had pursued one field more, to the exclusion of the others?

Gardner: I’m glad I majored in philosophy, though had I known I would be writing some day a column on math, I would have taken some math courses. As it was, I took not a single math course. If you look over my Scientific American columns you will see that they get progressively more sophisticated as I began reading math books and learning more about the subject. There is no better way to learn anything than to write about it!

SI: You probably could have been either a philosopher or a mathematician – which a lot of fans of your Scientific American recreational mathematics columns probably thought you were. Did you ever think about going into academia?

Gardner: Early on in college I decided I wanted to be a writer, not a teacher, and I have never regretted this decision. It is the reason I took only one year of graduate work, and never cared to go for a master’s.

SI: Given your breadth and variety of interests, how would you describe yourself – your professional field?

Gardner: I think of myself as a journalist who writes mainly about math and science, and a few other fields of interest.

SI: I appreciate the becoming modesty, but I think you may be too self-effacing. Douglas Hofstadter has said, “Martin Gardner is one of the greatest intellects produced in this country in this century.” Stephen Jay Gould has said you have been “the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us.” Certainly you must be pleased to be so highly regarded.

Gardner: Yes, I am pleased, though Hofstadter, a good friend, surely exaggerates, and ditto for Gould, a marvelous writer I hope to meet some day.

SI: What do you consider to be the relationship between your interests in writing about science and in debunking pseudoscience? Which has more appeal to you?

Gardner: In a way, I regret spending so much time debunking bad science. A lot of it is a waste of time. I much more enjoyed writing the book with Carnap, or The Ambidextrous Universe, and other books about math and science.

SI: What motivates you? You have been writing on pseudoscience and fringe-science since at least 1950. The Washington Post reviewer of The Night Is Large described you – correctly, I think – as “almost certainly the most eminent debunker of pseudoscience since World War II. “Do you find pseudoscience and paranormal claims inherently fascinating – you seem both wryly amused and deeply concerned – or do you consider critiquing them more a task that has to be done? If the latter, what keeps you going at it?

Gardner: I’m not sure why I enjoy debunking. Part of it surely is amusement over the follies of true believers, and partly because attacking bogus science is a painless way to learn good science. You have to know something about relativity theory, for example, to know where opponents of Einstein go wrong. You have to know something about probability and statistics to recognize Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code as hogwash. You have to know the power of the placebo and faith to see why Mary Baker Eddy is the very modal of a quack.

Another reason for debunking is that bad science contributes to the steady dumbing down of our nation. Crude beliefs get transmitted to political leaders and the result is considerable damage to society. We see this happening now in the rapid rise of the religious right and how it has taken over large segments of the Republican Party. I think fundamentalist and Pentecostalist Pat Robertson is a far greater menace to America than, say, Jesse Helms who will soon be gone and forgotten.

I am happy to see the job of debunking bad science being taken over by others, especially by scientists like the late Carl Sagan who came to realize the importance of speaking up. I am delighted that Philip Klass is doing such a good job on UFO nonsense because it allows me to avoid this dismal topic. I was tempted to wade into The Bible Code. Now I don’t need to after reading Dave Thomas’s definitive blast in the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER [November/December 1997].

SI: You are generally considered one of the harshest critics of the paranormal and its proponents. How would you characterize your position?

Gardner: I like to think I am unduly harsh and dogmatic only when writing about a pseudoscience that is far out on the continuum that runs from good science to bad, and when I am expressing the views of all the experts in the relevant field. Where there are areas on the fringes of orthodoxy, supported by respected scientists, I try to be more agnostic. I am certain, for example, that astrology and homeopathy are totally worthless, but I have no strong opinions about, say, superstring theory. Superstrings are totally lacking in empirical support, yet they offer an elegant theory with great explanatory power. I wish I could be around fifty years from now to know whether superstrings turn out to be a fruitful theory or whether they are just another blind alley in the search for a “theory of everything.”

There are dozens of monumental questions about which I have to say “I don’t know.” I don’t know whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, or whether life is so improbable that we are truly alone in the cosmos. I don’t know whether there is just one universe, or a multiverse in which an infinite number of universes explode into existence, live and die, each with its own set of laws and physical constants. I don’t know if quantum mechanics will someday give way to a deeper theory. I don’t know whether there is a finite set of basic laws of physics or whether there are infinite depths of structure like an infinite set of Chinese boxes. Will the electron turn out to have an interior structure? I wish I knew!

I can say this. I believe that the human mind, or even the mind of a cat, is more interesting in its complexity than an entire galaxy if it is devoid of life. I belong to a group of thinkers known as the “mysterians.” It includes Roger Penrose, Thomas Nagel, John Searle, Noam Chomsky, Colin McGinn, and many others who believe that no computer, of the kind we know how to build, will ever become self-aware and acquire the creative powers of the human mind. I believe there is a deep mystery about how consciousness emerged as brains became more complex, and that neuroscientists are a long long way from understanding how they work.

SI: What trends have you seen in popular belief in pseudoscience and the paranormal in the past half century? Has it gotten better or worse? What are your greatest concerns?

Gardner: I think popular belief in bogus sciences is steadily increasing. When I was a boy, there were only one or two astrologers who wrote newspaper columns. Now almost every paper except the New York Times, not to mention dozens of magazines, features a horoscope column. Professional astrologers now outnumber astronomers. For Pete’s sake, a president of the United States and his first lady were astrology buffs! This would have seemed unthinkable a hundred years ago.

Alternative medical views are growing rapidly, especially on college campuses where more students are relying on homeopathic remedies than ever in history. Real tragedies occur when persons avoid sound medical help and rely on worthless claims.

SI: What do you see for the future in that regard?

Gardner: I see the immediate future as having a steady increase in superstitions. Fundamentalism, especially the Pentecostal variety, is growing rapidly, not only here but in other nations, notably in South America. And not only among Protestants but also among Catholics and Jews. The Catholic Church is on the brink of its greatest blunder since it condemned Galileo. It is close to declaring that Mary is a “co-redeemer” with Christ! (Mother Teresa was a strong supporter of this.) Of course, if the pope declares infallibly that this doctrine is true, it will kill the ecumenical movement.

Did you know that Dr. Raymond Damadian, the distinguished inventor of magnetic resonance imaging (the MRI test), has declared himself a creationist and a young-Earther?

SI: Apart from popular belief in pseudoscience, how about what we might call experimental parapsychology – work done by Ph.D.’s in the laboratory that some keep pointing to as evidence of ESP or PK – going back to J. B. Rhine’s experiments in the 1930s and 1940s and most recently the ganzfeld experiments, the persistent claims about remote viewing, and Robert Jahn’s random-number-generator work? Where does all that stand in your view?

Gardner: I’m all in favor of parapsychologists continuing to look for evidence of psi, and their experiments certainly are more carefully controlled than in the days of Rhine. It has often been pointed out that as Rhine slowly learned how to tighten his controls, his evidence of psi became weaker and weaker. However, the evidence will not become convincing to other psychologists until an experiment is made that is repeatable by skeptics. So far, no such experiment has been made. Jahn’s evidence for psi is statistical, and there are many ways his statistics, which favor psi to a very slight degree, can be unconsciously biased. As far as I know, no one else has been able to duplicate his computer-generated results.

SI: Are you discouraged by the rejection of science in certain parts of academia heavily influenced by the postmodernist antipathy toward science and reason? The Sokal hoax, which you wrote about so amusingly, certainly exposed that movement’s scientific vacuousness.

Gardner: Yes, I am dismayed by the increasing effort of the postmoderns to view science as a solely cultural phenomenon rather than as a highly successful and ongoing search for objective truths about the universe. No one wants to deny that science is corrigible, but it is a wonderfully successful self-correcting process that gets ever closer to objective truth. Postmodern nonsense has even invaded mathematics, as witnessed by Reuben Hershs just-published book What Is Mathematics, Really? I have a lengthy critical review of this book in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (October 12, 1997), defending the opinion of almost all mathematicians today or in the past that mathematics has a curious kind of reality independent of human minds. The universe is made of particles and fields about which nothing can be said except to describe their mathematical structures. In a sense, the entire universe is made of mathematics. If the particles and fields are not made of mathematical structure, then please tell me what you think they are made of!.

SI: When you wrote the book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, did you expect that it would become the classic it has become?

Gardner: No, I never expected Fads and Fallacies would long remain in print. The first edition, titled In the Name of Science, sold so poorly that Putnam quickly remaindered it. Not until Dover picked it up did its sales take off, thanks in large degree to Long John Nebel, then a popular all-night radio talk-show host. For many months, he had guests on almost every night to attack the book. I remember one night, when I had gotten out of bed to change a diaper on our first born, I turned on the radio and heard John Campbell, then editor of Astounding Science Fiction, say “Mr. Gardner is a liar.” I had a chapter about his role in introducing L. Ron Hubbard’s dianetics. Campbell claimed it had cured his sinusitis. I never dreamed that Scientology would last more than a few years, because its claims were so preposterous. It maintained, for example (and still does), that immediately after conception, long before the embryo develops ears, it makes recordings (called engrams) of all the words spoken by or to the mother! I would never have dreamed that UFOs, to which I also devoted a chapter, would become a mania that would increase steadily over the next half century. I expected Wilhelm Reichs orgone therapy to be short lived, yet it is still going strong. Come to think of it, phrenology is the only major pseudoscience I know about that once flourished around the world and has since faded away.

SI: Which of your own books are your favorites? Which have been most popular? Which are most important?

Gardner: Of my books, the one that I am most pleased to have written is my confessional, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, with my novel about Peter Fromm running second.

SI: And which of your books have been the most popular, have sold best? Which do you think have been the most influential?

Gardner: The one book of mine that has sold the most copies is far and away my Annotated Alice. It has never been out of print since it was published in 1960, and has now sold over a million copies in hard- and soft-cover editions here and in England. Of my books about pseudoscience, I suppose the first one, now titled Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, has been the most influential on later writing about similar topics.

SI: Whatever you write about, you seem always to call on great storehouses of specific information – journal papers, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, etc., going back decades. I’ve heard Randi describe with some awe your filing system. Can you tell us about it?

Gardner: Yes, my files are my number one trade secret. It began in college with 3 x 5 file cards that I kept in ladies shoe boxes. I had a habit then (this was before copy machines) of destroying books by slicing out paragraphs and pasting them on cards. A friend once looked through my cards on American literature and was horrified to discover I had destroyed several rare first editions of books by Scott Fitzgerald.

When I began to earn some money I moved the cards into metal file cabinets, and started to preserve complete articles and large dippings and correspondence in manila folders. These folders are now in some twenty cabinets of four or five drawers each. And I have a large library of reference books that save me trips to the library. I have not yet worked up enough courage to go on line for fear I would waste too much time surfing the Internet.

SI: How do you manage to keep up with everything?

Gardner: I keep up my interests by taking scores of periodicals that deal with topics I may write about, especially science and math journals. I have been a lifelong subscriber to Science News, which you once edited. I could never have written my Scientific American columns without access to math magazines that ran articles and problems that could be considered recreational in nature.

SI: For as world-famous and respected as you are – your writings have been inspirational to two generations of prominent scientists and scholars – you usually have worked alone. You seldom, if ever, go to conferences or meetings. Only a few of your many fans and readers have ever seen or heard you in person. Why? Has this been an advantage to you – no distractions, for instance – more time for writing? Have there been drawbacks to this solitary work style?

Gardner: I have often been called shy, and with justification. I prefer one-to-one relationships to crowds. I hate going to parties or giving speeches. I love monotony. Nothing pleases me more than to be alone in a room, reading a book or hitting typewriter keys. I consider myself lucky in being able to earn a living by doing what I like best. As my wife long ago realized, I really don’t do any work. I just play all the time, and am fortunate enough to get paid for it.

SI: You seem to be curious about everything. What most delights you? Scientifically? Professionally? Personally?

Gardner: I am most delighted by learning something new and significant. (I leave aside the delights of relationships with my wife, with relatives, and with friends). This year I had the pleasure of updating and expanding a 1910 book by Sylvanus Thompson called Calculus Made Easy. It was a great pleasure to learn, for the first time, some basic calculus, and to appreciate fully its enormous elegance and power.

Next to learning something about science or math that I didn’t know before, my next greatest pleasure is learning a newly invented magic trick. Conjuring has been a hobby since I was a boy. Some of the best magic tricks operate on scientific or mathematical principles. One of my earliest books, Mathematics, Magic and Mystery (still in print as a Dover paperback) deals with this overlap of magic and math.

Let me give one example. Arrange the cards in a deck so they alternate blacks and reds. Cut the deck in half, making sure the bottom cards of each half are of opposite color. Riffle shuffle the halves together once, making the shuffle as careless or thorough as you please. Now remove cards from the top of the deck in pairs. Each pair will contain a red and a black card! Dozens of clever card tricks have been based on this curious principle. To prove that it must work leads straight into non-trivial combinatorial theory.

SI: Many prominent skeptics are likewise knowledgeable about magic. How important is such an understanding in evaluating paranormal claims?

Gardner: I don’t think a knowledge of magic is important in countering paranormal claims, except in connection with self-styled psychics who claim extraordinary paranormal powers. Such psychics use methods which have in common the methods of magicians. A man can be a great scientist, or a greater writer, and be so easily fooled by simple methods of deception that his opinions about extraordinary claims of psi powers are utterly worthless. Conan Doyle, for example, would never have believed in the genuineness of spirit mediums who levitate tables and themselves, float trumpets, produce visible spirits of the dead, exude ectoplasm through their noses, and so on, if he had had even the most superficial training in the methods of conjuring. The parapsychologists who once took Ted Serios and others like him seriously would have been spared their embarrassments had they known anything about magic. A knowledgeable magician, watching these “psychics” perform on stage, knows at once how they obtain their wonders. It is a scandal that even today so few parapsychologists think it worthwhile to study the methods of magicians before they test a psychic who performs incredible feats, then publish papers testifying to the genuineness of the psychic’s powers.

An outstanding instance of this failure is John Beloff’s unwillingness to learn anything about magic. Not many years ago, he wrote that the card tricks of a certain magician represented one of the strongest recent proofs of paranormal powers! When Persi Diaconis watched this magician do his simple card magic, it was perfectly obvious how he was obtaining his effects by methods well known to card magicians.

SI: You were a founding fellow of CSICOP and have been a member of the Executive Council since the beginning. How have you seen our role? What advice do you have for us for the future?

Gardner: CSICOP is obviously doing a much-needed job in combating America’s dumbing down, especially in providing a source to which editors of magazines and newspapers, and the makers of TV shows can turn to get information about bogus claims. It is a role that will be increasingly important in the years ahead.

SI: It’s hard to believe you have been writing your “Notes of a Fringe-Watcher” column in SI for almost fifteen years – especially since you didn’t start it until retiring from your long-running Scientific American column. Do you miss doing the latter?

Gardner: I do indeed miss writing the Scientific American column. I had reached a point where I could no longer keep up the column and write the books I hoped to write as long as I had my wits about me. Also, I felt it was time for younger writers to take over the column.

One of the lasting benefits of having done the column was getting to know, as personal friends, so many mathematicians, real mathematicians, far more knowledgeable than I, and whose work I could only dimly appreciate. It would take a page just to list their names. Another continuing pleasure is getting letters from mathematicians telling me it was my column that aroused their interest in math when they were in high school and led them to decide on math as a career.

SI: Well, we all hope you will continue writing your “Notes of a Fringe-Watcher” column in SI for a long time to come. It clearly continues to be provocative.

Gardner: Thanks!

SI: Your readers worldwide have been blessed by your thinking and writing over your long and prolific career, well into a time most people have retired. We all hope you can continue for a long time to come. How is your health?

Gardner: At eighty-three, I tell people I don’t feel a day over seventy-five. Seriously, I have few complaints except an enlarging prostate that occasionally bothers me at night, and mild high blood pressure, which I control with Hytrin. Short-term memory is not what it used to be. My wife and I frequently spend twenty minutes at the dinner table trying to recall the name of someone we both know well until suddenly one of us shouts it out. I am fortunate in having parents who each lived into their nineties. I hope my dear wife Charlotte outlives me, although we both look forward to celebrating the arrival of the year 2000, and seeing our grandchildren become adults.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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