In the heady days, only a decade ago, when psychologists thought they had unlocked the conceptual capacities of apes by teaching them American Sign Language, a leading researcher confessed to me that he would refrain from teaching one key item to his chimpanzee—the fact of her impending personal mortality. No other animal, he explained, understood this most terrible of all facts—and he had nightmarish visions of his enlightened ape spreading the bad news by sign throughout chimpdom.
Ever since we learned this fact as the most unfortunate consequence of evolving a larger brain, we have done our best to mitigate it. I remembered this recently when I sang Bach’s great motet Jesu meine Freude and came to that sublime fugue with the most God-awful tongue-twisting text: “Sie aber seid nicht fleischlich, sondern geistlich“—you are not made of flesh, but of spirit. Much of the greatest work in philosophy, religion, art, and music exists either to bewail our mortality or to argue that a spiritual continuity permits us to accept the physical decline and eventual decay of our bodies.
Since P.T. Barnum drew a correct equation between the birth of suckers and the passage of minutes, this legitimate search for mitigation has had its counterpart in a vast nether world of huckstering and nonsense about occult phenomena. We either seek to communicate directly with souls in the beyond (spiritualism) or merely in the present (telepathy and other forms of ESP), or we invent an independent, higher realm of spiritual forces and hope that we can plug into it by harnessing its powers (psychokinesis) or living according to its laws (astrology). Sometimes, we are merely struck with awe, as authors of such nonsense strike ore (e.g., the objects of UFOlogy as realized projections of our minds).
Moreover—and by what elitist arrogance should we think otherwise—occultism has always been as fashionable in chic intellectual circles as in drugstore paperbacks and The National Enquirer. Several years ago, I wrote to the manager of the Harvard Coop bookstore, complaining that their paper-back science section had been moved to a less visible position on another floor and replaced with a large section on astrology and the occult. He replied that science had not been eliminated, merely moved to reflect a “sales reality.” I replied that I had never doubted the reason, but had written to protest it. We had clearly reached an impasse.
In this climate, beleaguered rationalism needs its skilled debaters—writers 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, not (to quote the immortal words of Mr. Agnew, via Mr. Safire) like a “nattering nabob of negativism.”
For more than thirty years, Martin Gardner has played this largely thankless role with tireless efficiency and rarely strained good humor. He is more than a mere individual fighting a set of personal battles; he has become a priceless national resource. Since resources demand anthologies, I welcome this collection of Gardner’s writings from 1950 to 1980, many reprinted from the yellowing pages of this venerable journal. Most of the thirty-eight articles treat issues in parapsychology on the fringes of rationality, but some consider faddish extensions of legitimate science (catastrophe theory), or recount the troubles that scientists experience when they apply loose controls and thereby let hope dictate “reality” (ape language).
Our will to believe forms the substrate that nurtures literature of the occult. This yearning for easy meaning or immortality cannot be overcome by logical debunking. But occultism also gains support from two more specific sources that can be effectively attacked. Gardner is at his best in these arenas of possible success.
First, human gullibility has cash value, and enormous amounts of money can be made by any skilled manipulator. For every sincere (however naïve) researcher in parapsychology, ten charlatans misuse the legitimate art of stage magic to enhance prestige and pocketbook. Real magicians, from the great Houdini in decades past to the Amazing Randi today, have laboriously exposed the data of ESP as the tricks of their profession. Yet the will to believe is unbounded, and true disciples merely reply that, although their mentor fakes sometimes, his real spiritual powers exist nonetheless. People will believe the damnedest things. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote an entire book on the existence of fairies, holding firm even when his best case had been exposed as photographs of some crude cardboard cutouts. (Gardner, in an amusing essay, suggests that Sherlock Holmes would not have permitted such a man to write his memoirs.) Still, true believers aside, the exposure of massive and persistent fakery is a strong argument, at least for skeptical caution.
Secondly, general gullibility is often greatly enhanced among scientists by an arrogance leading some to proclaim that a person trained in observation and experiment should be able to decide whether any man wields true psychic power or performs clever stage magic. Most ordinary mortals respect the art of magicians and are prepared to be fooled. (I cannot decipher the simplest card trick and place myself firmly in this company.) Some scientists feel that their skills will detect any fakery—and they can really be fooled. Gardner, an accomplished amateur magician himself, shows how the Uri Gellers of this world use stock stage magic (not even with particularly great skill) to make some arrogant scientists a laughing stock of the magicians’ fraternity and, unfortunately, a stalking-horse for irrationality in the guise of simple fakery.
Since we scientists are forever demanding deference to our professional skills, we could at least respect other equally exacting crafts, and not look down upon them because they thrive on the stage instead of in the academy. If every parapsychologist followed the simple rule of always including a professional magician in any test of people claiming extrasensory powers, millions of dollars, thousands of hours, and hundreds of reputations would be saved. Similarly, if the psychologists who tried to teach sign language to chimpanzees had bothered to consult the real professionals in this area—the great animal trainers of our major circuses—they might have avoided some spectacular (and now spectacularly embarrassing) claims for conceptualization and consciousness that now seem to arise from unconscious human cueing and simple coincidence.
Walt Whitman exhorted us to “make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.” It is easy to debunk from the empyrean platform of established science, to be haughtily, exclusively, and uncompromisingly negative. The challenge lies in preserving daylight in the midst of excoriation, for it cannot be said often enough that quacks grade to cranks and cranks to geniuses through the finest intermediary stages. All enlightened debunkers must bear this cross: to be ever open to honest nuttiness while ruthlessly exposing the frauds, yet to be accused by all opponents (however falsely) of being the pawn for an oppressive establishment trying to hide tumultuous truths from a thirsting public. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this volume—and a primary justification for reprinting old material—lies in the epilogues to nearly every chapter. Here Gardner has reprinted all the attempted rebuttals to his original pieces. Most are vitriolic, ad hominem statements based on what must be a willful misreading of Gardner’s points. The fury of a lover scorned cannot match that of the true believer rebutted (I must publish my own file of creationist fan mail some day). Again and again, occasionally with just a whiff of anger and a flash of rhetoric, Gardner simply restates his case in the most devastating way. As Dryden said, “Beware the fury of a patient man.”
The expansive nature of Gardner’s debunking is best demonstrated in the book’s finest essay—a treatise on the Ars magna (Great Art) of the thirteenth-century Catalan mystic Ramon Lull. Lull tried to dissolve the distinction between theological and philosophical truth and to demonstrate that even the deepest mysteries of Christianity could be proved by logical argument. He developed a system and a set of geometric devices for generating all possible combinations among sources of truth. His age, for example, recognized seven virtues, seven vices, and seven planets (sun, moon, and five visible planets of an older cosmology). Lull therefore constructed a wheel of three concentric circles, each divided into seven equal parts and each free to rotate about their common center. All possible combinations of the seven items taken three at a time can be easily generated by rotating the wheels into all positions. As Gardner states, Lull believed that “by exhausting the combinations of such principles one might explore all possible structures of truth and so obtain universal knowledge.”
Lull probably transgressed the boundary between insight and crankiness; his later dogmatic disciples certainly did. It is easy to generate the combinations, but who can read their unambiguous meaning? Still, since tangential thinking by the combination of unexpected items may be a more important component of creativity than logical deduction, Lull’s methods have much to teach us, and his little machines may even have their uses. The importance of Lull, as Gardner emphasizes, lies not in his own excursion around the bend, but in his honest and groping struggle toward unusual forms of legitimate insight.
Gardner’s book is not without its problems. Since effective debunking demands constant and patient repetition, some items cycle through the essays a few too many times. To this criticism I must add the Catch-22 of Gardner’s art: victory renders the specific subject irrelevant. Yesterday’s seer is today’s bore. Who cares about Uri Geller since we all now know (I trust) that he is a skilled con man and a mediocre magician. Geller once is a good reminder; Geller by the dozen begins to wear.
Moreover, although I don’t blame Gardner for obeying the unwritten rules of his magicians’ guild, it is frustrating to be told that somebody fooled a bunch of eminent scientists with a simple trick known to all professionals, and then to be put off by a gentle reminder that magicians never tell. I could understand it if magic were an arcane art, rigidly regulated by its devotees, and never revealed to outsiders on pain of permanent ostracism or death. But “how to” books and pamphlets abound, though few of us have them on our shelves for ready reference while reading this book. Gardner might have relieved our persistent frustration by being a bit more forthcoming.
Finally, on a smaller item in the “oughta be a law” category, may I bemoan the lack of an index. In the bad old days, the index was a list of prohibited books; may we now, in a more enlightened age, ban books without indexes?
We all applaud the unmasking of scoundrels and take a voyeuristic delight in the exposed foolishness of our fellows. Still, many people probably regard the debunking of occult and paranormal claims as a marginal exercise—even while they must admit that most people encounter planets more often in horoscopes than in planetariums or (wonder of wonders) in the sky itself. I would cite two reasons for regarding the failure of critical faculties and the decision to accept improbable hope as rather more tragic than merely amusing.
First, lives are short and resources generally slim. It may be their own fault, but what do people say when they wake up twenty years and half a career later to acknowledge that they have wasted their time on a chimera nurtured by fraud? And what of people who invest their deepest hopes (and much of their hard cash) on harebrained schemes for spiritual enlightenment or continuity (the wisdom of psychic forces or little green folks in UFOs, or direct information from Uncle George in the beyond)?
Moreover, the density of fraud and nonsense in parapsychology drives critical and discerning scientists away from a subject that may display chinks of enormous promise. So-called ESP, after all, is not impossible a priori (as Gardner continually acknowledges), but who wants to invest precious years of a career in an area so rife with fakery not easily detected by the ordinary methods of science? (My snails hide their secrets, but they don’t lie—and I wouldn’t know how to unmask them if they did.) Thus, ironically, the fools and frauds are keeping their own ship from a potential port. As one colleague put it to me: suppose a man with eyes were born to a race of blind men. He comes to a new village and asks its inhabitants, “Is the water in that pond half a mile yonder fit to drink?” “How do you know the pond is there?” they inquire in disbelief. “I see it,” the man replies. There may be a physics of rare skills, but how can we discern it amid the quackery?
Second, as we discern a fine line between crank and genius, so also (and unfortunately) must we acknowledge an equally graded trajectory from crank to demagogue. When people learn no tools of judgment and merely follow their hopes, the seeds of political manipulation are sown. Consider the current bugbear of my own profession (and another of Gardner’s targets): resurgent creationism. Some creationist beliefs are so downright ridiculous that we might be tempted, at our great peril, to dismiss them with laughter. Just consider, for example, the so-called “flood geology” espoused by nearly all professional creationists in American today—the claim that all geological strata, with their exceptionless, worldwide sequence of fossils, are products of a single event: Noah’s universal flood and its resultant fallout. Why, then—no place anywhere on this vast earth—do we find dinosaurs and large mammals in the same strata; why are trilobites never with mammals, but always in strata below them? One might argue that dumb dinosaurs were less skilled at avoiding flood waters than bright mammals, and got buried earlier. One might claim that trilobites, as denizens of the ocean, were entombed before terrestrial mammals. But why are they never found with the advanced, or teleost, fishes? Surely some retarded elephant would be keeping company with dinosaurs, some valiant trilobite swimming hard for thirty-nine days and winning an exalted upper berth with mammals.
But don’t laugh. Creationism may have its roots in indigenous American populism, but its exploiters and fundraisers are right-wing evangelicals who advance it as just one item in a comprehensive political program that would also ban abortion and return old-fashioned patriarchy under the guise of saving American families. Political programs demand political responses, but can we prevail without critical reason?
A response from Uri Geller, from the October 14, 2010 issue
To the Editors:
On February 4, 1982, Stephen Jay Gould reviewed Martin Gardner’s book entitled Science: Good, Bad and Bogus in The New York Review of Books. Mr. Gould’s review was recently featured on your website, perhaps as a tribute to the late Martin Gardner.
For many years Martin Gardner published articles and books that were critical of me and of what I do. To the best of my recollection although I may on occasion have picked up the phone to my lawyers, I never responded to his attacks, having always believed in free speech and that a good debate is better than no debate and it is not with the intention of criticizing Mr. Gardner that I am making this communication.
In Mr. Gould’s review, a series of allegations were leveled against me. I am guessing that even Mr. Gould would have been aware of that which he inferred when he used such language. I am making this communication to confirm the fact that I am not in any way culpable as alleged by Mr. Gould. In future perhaps you could urge your reviewers to choose their words more carefully. Perhaps you could also ensure that contributions to your website are edited to a higher standard. I would lastly suggest that a better tribute could have been made to Mr. Gardner, who was a great mathematician and whose passing was noted by me with sadness. As for Stephen Jay Gould my limited knowledge of him would suggest that he was an inventive and productive scholar in the fields of biological and geological sciences and I hope that he will be remembered as such.
February 4, 1982