4 January 2011

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, by Martin Gardner

Posted by Callan Bentley

Yesterday I mentioned some books that I had sampled on the topic of geologic time over the holiday break.

Another book I read in my hammock in the Gulf of Honduras was Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, by Martin Gardner. As with Demon-Haunted World, I got the recommendation to read Gardner from a podcast that I listen to called The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. When Martin Gardner died earlier this year, the SGU Crew paid tribute to him on the podcast, and mentioned that anyone interested in skepticism and pseudoscience should read his classic 1952 book (reprinted in 1957 with some material added, in the edition that I read).

Gardner skewers flying saucer sightings, ESP, Atlantis, orgone accumulators, a dozen different bizarre forms of medical therapy, dianetics, and past life regression, as well as many others. It really ranges across a diverse smorgasbord of credulous tomfoolery. Maybe even the book could be criticized for taking on so many dumb ideas — it’s noble of Gardner to hold each of them up to scrutiny and pillory, but it does get a bit old by the end of the book. I mean, “X is wrong and stupid” gets a bit stale by the 200th time you read it.

An early chapter is devoted to the asinine notion of Immanuel Velikovsky that a giant comet erupted from Jupiter, interacting with the Earth in catastrophic ways including generating a giant flood (hmm, that sounds familiar...) and makes the Sun stand still (again, there’s a ring of something Biblical about that...) and parts the Red Sea (dang, what could Velikovsky’s motivation possibly be?). These ideas informed groups as wrongheaded as extraterrestrial pyramidologists and Flood “geologists”, and it was useful for me to review a secondary source critiquing Velikovsky’s ideas.

Martin Gardner eviscerates these exotic, tangled notions as if he were hacking through the upper Orinoco basin with a machete. He’s very cheerful and bemused, but doesn’t hesitate to call ridiculous “ridiculous,”‘ or refrain from delineating fraudulent behavior just because it isn’t polite to do so.

What would we call the reverse of an echo? You know, like a noise that came earlier in time than the echo? Arghh — I don’t have a word for it. Well, if Sagan was the echo, then Gardner was the original noise, at least as far as debunking pseudoscience is concerned. Reading Fads and Fallacies so soon after Demon-Haunted World I saw the overlap between the two authors’ fields of interest. While some of the flimflam that Gardner debunked died out between his time and Sagan’s, there are other topics that grew stronger despite both skeptics’ best efforts. From an historical perspective, this makes the two books an interesting exercise in comparison & contrast.