The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

James Randi (left) and Martin Gardner (photo courtesy of James Randi)

Martin Gardner 1914–2010
Founder of the Modern Skeptical Movement

Michael Shermer interviews Martin Gardner

This past weekend the world darkened with the loss of one of its brightest lights: Martin Gardner, polymath extraordinaire, founding father of the modern skeptical movement, and a friend. R.I.P. Martin. The following is an interview between Martin Gardner and Michael Shermer that appeared in Skeptic magazine Vol. 5, No. 2 (1997).

Short of listing all his books, articles, essays, reviews, and letters published over the last 65 years — which would fill the space for this entire interview — how does one capture in a couple of paragraphs the life of one of the most prolific science writers of our century, especially one who also nearly single-handedly founded the modern skeptical movement with his 1954 book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science?

This October 21 Martin Gardner turns 83, and as he settles into his writing chair that day, he can reflect back on a life well-lived, knowing that there was little of importance he did not reflect upon (and usually write about). In fact, “science writer” is really an unfair description. In other circles Gardner is as well-known for his “annotated” series of books as he is for his 25 years as columnist for Scientific American. He annotated no less than Alice, the Snark, the Ancient Mariner, Casey at the Bat, the Innocence of Father Brown, and even the Night Before Christmas. He wrote an autobiographical novel (The Flight of Peter Fromm), a book of short stories (The No-Sided Professor), and histories of Mary Baker Eddy and Urantia, the “Great Cult Mystery.” His mathematical games column was republished in numerous books, and he dabbled enough in magic to pen several works, including The Encyclopedia of Impromptu Magic. The best single-volume collection of Gardner’s works to date, spanning 1938–1995, is The Night is Large from St. Martin’s Press.

Born in 1914 (he is a firstborn with a younger brother and sister), Gardner served in the Second World War on a destroyer escort in the Atlantic. During those four years, Gardner honed his writing skills editing a weekly newspaper called The Badger Navy News. For his final two years, however, he saw action in the “Killer Group,” who looked for German U-boats to sink.

Gardner attended the University of Chicago “in the Adler-Hutchins heyday.” In high school, he explained, he wanted to be a physicist and go to Caltech, “but they didn’t take students until you had two years of general education. So I went to the University of Chicago because Hutchins had just become president and they had a new program that appealed to me where you had complete freedom to go at your own speed. If you passed a test in a course you didn’t have to take the course. It was noncompulsory class attendance. Nobody checked to see if you attended and I think I audited more courses than I actually signed up for.”

In his third year Gardner decided to major in philosophy. “The philosophy department had been crippled when Hutchins brought in Adler from Columbia University and put him in philosophy without getting the permission of the dean of the department, resulting in a big walkout of philosophers.” Hutchins withdrew Adler from the department and put him in the Law School. “Those were the days when Adler was practically a Roman Catholic. I have a very rare document that is a typed copy of a speech he gave about a year after he came to Chicago in which he defended the Catholic Church as the one true religion, and there is a passage in which, believe it or not, he defends the right of the church to burn heretics. That was a younger Adler. He is very much ashamed of this speech.”

Following his undergraduate training, Gardner took a year of graduate work at Chicago but then decided he didn’t want to teach and instead became a fulltime writer. “Then the war came, but after the war I took another year of graduate work under the G.I. bill and this is when I took this course that Rudolf Carnap gave on the philosophy of science. This is when I really got interested in science.”

Where does Gardner get his drive and intellectual curiosity? He was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Gardner’s father earned a doctorate in geology, specializing in limestone caverns (even publishing several technical papers on the subject). “He ended up in petroleum geology when the oil business was just starting, and that is how we ended up in Tulsa.” One of the last of the wildcatters, the senior Gardner had his own company that consisted only of himself and a secretary. He would do his own geological exploration until he found what looked like a dome with oil in it, then would hire a drilling company to drill it for him. “His company was up and down. Most of the time nothing happened but when he got a big hit it paid for the losses.” Not all of Gardner’s books have been big hits (it is hard to be popular when skewering sacred cows), but the ones he has had have more than paid for the losses, as he explained to Skeptic.

James Randi (left) and Martin Gardner (photo courtesy of James Randi)

Skeptic: You are a prolific writer. How do you do it? Do you have a daily schedule you stick to? Do you try to write six hours a day, or 10 pages a day?

Gardner: No, it is a very flexible schedule. Since I don’t have a job I have a lot of free time. My working time is as much time as I can grab from other things I have to do. If a person doesn’t have a job, and isn’t teaching, it isn’t surprising to be able to write a lot of books. In fact, I marvel at the people who write as much as they do and at the same time hold down a teaching position.

Skeptic: You are one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement. Is it pretentious of us to call ourselves a movement? Is there such a thing? And what are we, humanists, skeptics, free thinkers?

Gardner: Obviously there is a movement although I don’t know how much good it is doing. I think the word skeptic is best, although there is a wide variety of beliefs among skeptics. William Jarvis [Director of the National Council Against Health Fraud], for example, is a Seventh-day Adventist.

Skeptic: In the skeptical movement we worry about how “bad” things are with regard to weird beliefs. If you compare things to 500 years ago with regard to superstitions and irrationalities, it is much better. But within our time, how bad do you think it is? Are things better now than they were in, say, the 1980s?

Gardner: I really don’t know how to answer that. In some ways we have made tremendous progress and in other ways we have gone the opposite direction. There are more people who believe in astrology now than in the 19th century. If you go back 100 years it would be hard to find a newspaper with an astrology column, and now it is hard to find one without one!

Skeptic: What can we do? Or, perhaps I should say, what more can we do?

Gardner: I don’t know that we can do more than what we are already doing in the skeptical magazines like Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, and books like Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. We just need to do more of that.

Skeptic: Inevitably skepticism leads to asking the God question. You call yourself a fideist.

Gardner: I call myself a philosophical theist, or sometimes a fideist, who believes something on the basis of emotional reasons rather than intellectual reasons.

Skeptic: This will surely strike readers as something of a paradox for a man who is so skeptical about so many things.

Gardner: People think that if you don’t believe Uri Geller can bend spoons then you must be an atheist. But I think these are two different things. I call myself a philosophical theist in the tradition of Kant, Charles Peirce, William James, and especially Miguel Unamuno, one of my favorite philosophers. As a fideist I don’t think there are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Even more than that, I agree with Unamuno that the atheists have the better arguments. So it is a case of quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds. The classic essay in defense of fideism is William James’ The Will to Believe. James’ argument, in essence, is that if you have strong emotional reasons for a metaphysical belief, and it is not strongly contradicted by science or logical reasons, then you have a right to make a leap of faith if it provides sufficient satisfaction.

It makes the atheists furious when you take this position because they can no more argue with you than they can argue over whether you like the taste of beer or not. To me it is entirely an emotional thing.

Skeptic: Couldn’t someone make this same argument for belief in New Age hokum? Couldn’t they quote you in support of their beliefs?

Gardner: They could use that argument, except New Agers also have a whole series of beliefs that can be empirically refuted. Like reincarnation — the evidence against that is overwhelming. Most New Agers also accept most of the beliefs of the parapsychologists. They believe in ESP and PK and channeling. We have very strong empirical evidence against these beliefs. So I think there is a big difference between belief in God and belief in the paranormal.

William James made this clear in The Will to Believe. In the first place, it has to be a leap of faith about something that has overwhelming importance to an individual. Second, it has to be something for which there isn’t any strong empirical evidence or logical argument against it. So there is something radically different about belief in a mind behind the universe and the whole cluster of beliefs that the New Age movement presents.

Skeptic: So in your earlier statement that the atheists’ arguments are better than the theists’ arguments, you must mean only slightly better.

Gardner: Well, they are better in the sense that the theist has a tremendous problem of explaining the existence of evil, and to me that is the strongest argument against God. If there is a God and he is all powerful and all good, why does he allow evil into the world? Evil exists, so is God all good but not all powerful? Or is he all powerful but not all good? That is a very powerful argument and I don’t know of any good way to answer it.

Skeptic: What about life after death?

Gardner: If you believe in God at all, I think you have to believe in a personal God, in a sense. That is, you have to assign to God something analogous to human mind because that is the highest type mind we are acquainted with. If God is just another name for nature then I think it is more honest just to say we are humanists.

Skeptic: So your God is not Spinoza’s God.

Gardner: That’s right. I regard Spinoza as essentially an atheist, because to him God and Nature were synonymous. In his writings you could replace the term “God” with the term “Nature” and it doesn’t change anything.

Skeptic: That’s not what most people mean by “God.”

Gardner: No, and of course if you do believe in a personal God it is in an analogical sense, so I sometimes like to call myself a theological positivist because I agree completely with Carnap that metaphysical questions are meaningless — if you can’t get at it by logic or by science you really can’t say anything at all about the question.

If you ask me for details about the nature of God I would have to answer “I don’t know.” The kind of God I believe in is so completely transcendent and so wholly Other that you really can’t say anything about God’s nature. To ask, for example, whether God is inside or outside of time, I have no idea what this means or how to reply to it. I can understand arguments saying he is in time, coming from the process theologians; on the other hand I can understand the arguments that place God completely outside of time, in some sort of realm in which time has no meaning. But these are metaphysical arguments and Carnap would say they are meaningless questions, and I would agree to that.

Skeptic: You don’t pray, do you?

Gardner: I do.

Skeptic: You do? Every day?

Gardner: No, not every day. But I think if you believe there is a creator with a mind somewhat analogous to the human mind, the impulse to pray is pretty overwhelming. Obviously you don’t ask to change the weather or help the football team to win. But I think if you believe in God at all you have an impulse to worship in the sense of offering thanks and asking for forgiveness.

Skeptic: Your wife?

Gardner: My wife is Jewish. We are a mixed marriage. She has a Jewish background and I have a Methodist background, but we both ended up outside of any particular church tradition. I don’t go to church, and neither does she.

Skeptic: What about the Unitarians?

Gardner: I could be a Unitarian except the Unitarian church has turned out to be essentially a secular humanist church. Most Unitarian ministers are atheists. I have no desire to get up on Sunday to go hear a lecture on ethics, especially if the minister is not particularly bright.

Skeptic: So you would not call yourself a humanist or secular humanist.

Gardner: No, I would not. Paul Kurtz wanted to give me a secular humanist award once and I turned it down on the grounds that I don’t consider myself a secular humanist.

Skeptic: What about immortality?

Gardner: I think if you believe in a personal God you have a right to hope for it. But it is more a hope than anything else. There is certainly no empirical evidence for life after death, and no rational argument for it. Again, the atheists have all the best arguments because obviously our mind is dependent on a physical brain, and if the brain is destroyed then how could we live again?

Skeptic: Couldn’t you take your emotional leap here?

Gardner: I don’t think you can believe in a personal God without believing in the possibility of immortality.

Skeptic: In other words, if you are going to make one leap you can make both leaps.

Gardner: Yes, because God would be a very peculiar God if he did not allow for some kind of justice in the universe. If there is no life after death there isn’t any justice. The hoped-for life after death is very much tied into a personal God. Kant believed in immortality and defended it on what I would call pragmatic grounds. He denied that there are any rational arguments for believing in either God or immortality, but he defended them on the grounds that it is the only way to turn the universe into a moral universe. It was essentially a fideist argument. William James wrote a whole book about this, and Peirce, Unamuno, and plenty of philosophers in the distant past going all the way back to Plato believed in immortality.

Skeptic: Are your ethics and morals driven by fideism? With fideism, you don’t need natural ethics or evolutionary ethics, right?

Gardner: Actually I do think that ethics can rest on a naturalistic basis. And I defend that in my book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. My views on ethics are the same as John Dewey’s. If you grant that there is a human nature that is common to all individuals — and I believe there is a common human nature, I don’t believe in cultural or moral relativism — then individuals have certain basic needs and you can judge a society and a moral system by the degree to which it maximizes or satisfies those needs. So I don’t think you need to inject God into that process at all.

Skeptic: Some of these ethical issues seem irresolvable on a natural basis. Like abortion. How do you come down one side or the other using science or reason, without calling on something higher, like “rights,” which is itself a metaphysical concept?

Gardner: There are questions in ethics for which it is very, very difficult to decide what the answer should be. I believe in what is called emotive ethics. If you build up a naturalistic ethics you have to base it on a set of axioms, but you can’t defend the axioms except on an emotional basis. For example, one of the axioms that lie at the heart of naturalistic ethics is the notion that it is better to be alive than dead. There is no logical basis for it and you can’t defend it empirically. If a person says “I think it is better to be dead than alive,” it is very difficult to talk him out of it.

Skeptic: Couldn’t you make an evolutionary argument here — that it is in our genes to make us want to be alive instead of dead, in order to propagate the genes.

Gardner: Yes, or to take another axiom, it is better to be healthy than sick. You have to have these axioms in order to derive a naturalistic ethics.

Skeptic: Could you use this same line of reasoning for political systems? Could you argue, for example, that all people seek greater happiness and then prove scientifically that this political system is better than that political system, but if you ask people they will say this or that, and that is what democracy is all about, right? You are essentially asking people, in an emotive way, which system they like best.

Gardner: The empirical system comes in, in a sense, because you can ask whether this society meets human needs better or worse than that society. So you can make value judgments across lines. But the value judgments have to rest finally on a set of emotional posits. I do think you can compare cultures and say that Culture A is superior to Culture B in meeting the needs of its people. And you can also say that certain culture practices are bad or good. For example, there are tens of thousands of African women whose genitals are mutilated. I think you are justified in saying that it is a bad practice and should be abolished.

Skeptic: In Skeptic Vol. 4, No. 2 I used that same example in my essay on evolutionary ethics. But in a conversation with Carol Tavris, when I suggested that by asking these women how they feel about it we could derive an ethical principle that it is wrong, she pointed out that many of them would probably approve of the mutilation because that is what their culture dictates. So aren’t we just imposing our values on someone else? How do we derive an ethical principle that genital mutilation is an immoral act without resorting to some metaphysical argument?

Gardner: I guess ultimately you have to justify it by whether a culture has good survival ability or not. This is a problem since some of the women actually want to go through the mutilation process. A cultural anthropologist would probably defend the practice on the grounds that within those cultures it serves its purpose. On that grounds, however, you could make the same argument about the Holocaust — the Nazis believed it was a good thing to exterminate the Jews.

Skeptic: Couldn’t a pro-life/anti-abortionist make the argument that it is better for a fetus to be alive than dead, since it is at least a potential human? How would you respond to that argument?

Gardner: I don’t know how to respond to it because we are getting into ethical questions for which there really are no solid rules. I don’t think there is an identity independent of the brain. I don’t think the brain of an embryo is developed well enough to call it a human person. But it is a tough argument because it is on a continuum and there is no right place to draw the line.

Skeptic: Frank Tipler makes a similar argument for immortality: that personal identity is linked to the brain, and the brain is nothing more than information processing. Tipler foresees a day in the far future of the universe when brains could be duplicated in computers.

Gardner: He is assuming that computers could replicate a perfect human being. I grant that this is possible, maybe in the far future. But I agree with Penrose that it would have to be a type of computer we don’t know how to build yet. Since that is in the far future, I don’t have an opinion on it.

But you can defend immortality on the grounds that everything that constitutes our selves or our identity is a mathematical pattern. If superstring theory turns out to be true then you can ask what are superstrings made up of, and they aren’t made of anything! If all matter is pure mathematics, then you can imagine that an all powerful deity who knew the pattern could reconstruct you. So that is similar to what Tipler is saying, in a sense.

Skeptic: I wonder, then, if this shouldn’t be called protoscience, rather than pseudoscience? Like cryonics. It is not impossible. There are no laws of nature that we know of that prevent it from happening. It is just not verifiable at this point. It is fairly unlikely, but not completely unlikely.

Gardner: I would go along with that.

Skeptic: What the cryonicists are saying is that once you are cremated your pattern is gone, but if you are frozen there is at least some hope of revising or reconstructing the pattern. They are actually quite pro-science. They argue that you can look at how far science and technology have come in the last century and imagine what it will be able to accomplish in the next 10 or 100 centuries.

Gardner: That seems reasonable although I think we are a long way from understanding enough science to accomplish this. And when it comes to human behavior, while there are some uses of science in fields like economics and psychology, there is the problem of human free will that makes prediction extremely difficult. On this question of free will, as a member of a group called the mysterians I believe that we have no idea whether free will exists or how it works.

Skeptic: You don’t believe free will is at the quantum level, like some physicists do?

Gardner: It doesn’t help you if it is at the quantum level. That just makes it a random event, as if there is some kind of a roulette wheel in the brain. That doesn’t give you a choice. There are certain things I regard as ultimate mysteries. Free will is one of those. Another is time. I don’t think we have the slightest idea of what time is. You can’t define time without introducing time into the definition, so you just have to accept it as given. The same thing is true with space. Time and space are ultimate mysteries. Free will is bound up in the mysteries of time about which we can never understand, at least at this stage of our evolutionary history. I think it is quite possible that a million years from now there will be creatures on the earth that will be as far beyond us in understanding some of these mysteries as we are beyond the mind of a chimpanzee.

Skeptic: Here you are being rather un-Gouldian. Gould sees contingency entering rather strongly into the system so that there is no real progress toward this far future humanoid creature you envision.

Gardner: I don’t agree with Gould that there is no progress in evolution. I can’t understand how he can say that. It is so obvious that the human mind is far more advanced and complicated than anything else. If you look at the history of evolution there is a steady progression of complexity in the nervous system and there is no reason to think that this will not continue since it has been increasing for millions of years. To suppose that this is just sort of an accident, and that evolution could just as easily take a turn the other way toward less complexity, just doesn’t seem right to me.

Skeptic: Tell me about this mysterian group.

Gardner: The mysterians are not an organized group or anything. We don’t hold meetings. Mysterians believe that at this point in our evolutionary history there are mysteries that cannot be resolved, like free will. Noam Chomsky, for example, is a mysterian. He is on record saying that we don’t have the mental capacity to understand the nature of free will. John Searle is a mysterian. But the leading figure is a philosopher named Colin McGinn. He’s written a whole book about this.

Skeptic: Why not just leave the whole question of God and immortality as one of these mysterian mysteries?

Gardner: Well, sure, if a person wants to be an agnostic and leave it at that I have no objections. It is just that some people are so constituted that a desire to believe in an ultimate meaning in the universe which you can supply only by a leap of faith is so overwhelming that they cannot not make the leap. I’m one of those individuals.

Skeptic: What are your politics?

Gardner: I call myself a democratic socialist because I believe that government controls are necessary. You have to have a government that is making certain plans to prevent chaos and to maximize the happiness of the citizens. It seems to me that if you want genuine competition you have to prevent monopolies from taking over, and you can’t do that without a government. So when I call myself a democratic socialist I’m assuming America is already a democratic socialist society. Actually, a lot of conservative economists say that. Milton Friedman, in his book Free to Choose, calls America democratic socialist. He wants to reverse that and go back to the days of Herbert Hoover and to the days of less government controls.

But as I argue in The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, there may not even be a best government system. There may be different systems that are equally good at satisfying the needs of the people.

Skeptic: You are not a cultural relativist so you are not saying that all political systems are equal, are you?

Gardner: No, they are not all equal. But it is quite possible that there are equal alternatives in ways of governing a society that are equally good. Democracy has the problem of what type of voting system best reflects the will of the people. There are all kinds of competing systems and it is very hard to decide whether one is better than another. And they all have imperfections.

Skeptic: Give us your thoughts on some specific claims: JFK conspiracy.

Gardner: Lone assassin — Oswald acted alone. Most of the conspiracy theories are very unrealistic in terms of the opportunity and motives of the so-called conspirators. Castro, maybe, had a motive with the Bay of Pigs incident and all that, but there is no evidence that he was involved.

Skeptic: Hypnosis — altered state or just fantasy role playing?

Gardner: I’m really open-minded about that. For years I assumed that it was an altered state. The problem is that there isn’t any test you can make that will show a person is in a trance state. I’m open to the theory that there are individuals who are strongly suggestible and just want to do whatever the hypnotist wants them to do, and thus it is really not an altered state of consciousness at all. I know that the stage hypnotists have a tricky way of filtering out the people who are uncooperative, such as seeing if they can pull their hands apart. So they end up not so much with individuals who are capable of going into an altered state, but with with individuals who want to do whatever the hypnotist tells them.

Skeptic: So, hypnosis can’t pass the Popperian test of falsifiability? Is it doomed to one of your mysterian mysteries?

Gardner: No, I think it might be eventually decided one way or the other. Those who claim it is a trance point to such things as sticking a needle through a person’s arm, but that’s not very definitive because there is not that much pain in sticking a needle through your arm. I can imagine someone just not wincing. Same thing with post-hypnotic suggestions. Perhaps they so want to please the hypnotist that when he gives the cue they just do what they are suppose to do.

Skeptic: Can something be a science if it is not falsifiable? Do you go with the strict Popperian falsifiable criteria?

Gardner: No, I think there are two sides to confirmation. One side is finding positive evidence and the other is finding negative evidence. I think Popper made the mistake of emphasizing one over the other. For every scientific conjecture you can make there is the opposite conjecture. So if you falsify one conjecture you are really confirming the opposite. Suppose someone conjectures that there is life on Mars. Most scientists would agree that if we go to Mars and find life, we have confirmed the statement “there is life on Mars.” Popper would want to say “no, you have simply falsified the statement ‘there is no life on Mars’.” I don’t see any difference. Every scientific conjecture can be either confirmed or falsified. I’m on Carnap’s side here. He debated Popper on this issue of the role of induction. I think Popper was extremely jealous of Carnap’s higher reputation at the time and wanted to find something on which to differ strongly from Carnap. I don’t think falsification is as important as he made it.

Skeptic: Are first-principle statements like “it is better to be alive than dead” verifiable or falsifiable? Are these philosophical or scientific statements?

Gardner: I don’t think these are scientific statements. To say it is better to be alive than dead is what Kant called an “ought statement.” And I don’t think science can make statements about the way things ought to be.

Skeptic: Is all economic theory philosophy then?

Gardner: The underlying assumptions are not scientific. But once you’ve made those assumptions, you can go in and use empirical methods to find out to what extent the assumptions are true. Take the statement “it is better not to die of starvation.” It is a scientific process to investigate a culture to see whether it is allowing people to starve or not.

Skeptic: Race and IQ. What do you think intelligence is?

Gardner: Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I agree with Minsky and those who say it is not one single thing but many components. Whether there is something called intelligence that overrides all these different aspects, I really don’t know.

Skeptic: What about genius?

Gardner: I think the kind of creativity that someone like Einstein had is not very well understood, but I wouldn’t say it cannot be understood. Every time someone writes a book on creativity I read it and I’m always impressed by how little they have to say about what happens in a person’s mind. I think it will be a long, long time before a computer can be genuinely creative in a way that Einstein was in his relativity theory. The current checkers champion is a computer. And now the best chess player seems to be a computer. But these games are little more than sophisticated tic-tac-toe games. These computers no more “know” they are playing checkers or chess than your lawn mower “knows” it is mowing your lawn. The creative process is something entirely different.

Skeptic: What goes on in your creative mind when you are doing these clever mathematical games?

Gardner: I’m not a creative mathematician in any sense. Oh, I’ve invented a few puzzles but they are very low level math. I get the journals and read what the real mathematicians write about. Of course, this is the secret to the success of my column. By not knowing much mathematics it was hard for me to understand what I was writing about so I had to learn how to explain it so the general reader could understand it.

Skeptic: What are your thoughts on a potential unified theory of everything?

Gardner: Superstrings may turn out to unify basic laws of nature, such as gravity and electromagnetism. But it will leave open all kinds of questions that will lead to new conjectures. We do not have the foggiest notion of what they will be like. Penrose is now working on twister theory, which is sort of a rival to superstring theory. If that turns out to be right there will be a real paradigm shift. It is a theory of geometry that underlies the particle theory and quantum mechanics.

Skeptic: What about chaos theory?

Gardner: It is fashionable and interesting, but I think it is mostly fractal geometry. I think it is more of a temporary fad like catastrophe theory.

Skeptic: But Gell-Mann and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute are doing a lot more than fractal geometry. They are using computers to model economic and historical systems.

Gardner: I’ve not followed what they are doing all that closely, but Gell-Mann is someone who puzzles me. He believes in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which I think is completely insane. And most physicists think it is insane as well. I can’t think of any theory that violates Occum’s razor more than the many-worlds interpretation. I know it eliminates many of the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, but it does so by bringing in billions and billions of worlds that are branching off from each other and I don’t know how anyone can take that seriously.

Skeptic: You’ve had a few things to say about Hillary Clinton and her foray into the New Age.

Gardner: I have a big file on Jean Huston and her husband Robert Masters, who is a psychologist. They have been doing experiments for decades on people, where they put them into trances, hypnotic states, etc., then test them for their psychic abilities. Allegedly they are more psychic in these states. I suspect Hillary didn’t know about this. Huston and her husband collaborated on a book called Mind Games. These are games for raising your potential, and one of the games is talking to someone you admire. As far as I know this is all she did with Hillary.

Skeptic: The Sokal hoax (“Deconstructing Gravity”).

Gardner: Beautiful.

Skeptic: Did he go too far? Isn’t there some room for the study of the social construction of science? Science is, after all, conducted by humans firmly embedded in a culture.

Gardner: Yes, but I think everyone knows that science is influenced by culture and that society often dictates the sorts of questions scientists try to answer. Every working scientist knows this. It is so obvious as to be trivial. An editorial in the New York Times likened science to the rules in baseball. Well, of course the rules of baseball are socially constructed, but to liken this to science is utterly preposterous. Science is a process of discovering rules that are part of an external world and that can be verified.

Skeptic: That is a powerful statement with which to close this interview. Thank you very much for your insights.

OUR NEXT LECTURER: paleontologist John Long

Dr. John Long

Death, Sex & Evolution

Sunday, June 13, 2010 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

IN THIS RIVETING STORY about his remarkable discoveries from the Gogo fossil site in the Kimberly district of Western Australia, the Australian paleontologist John Long, now Vice President of Research and Collections at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County, takes us beyond just reconstructing animal morphology and into the realm of restoring ancient behavior. Long drills down deep on how we know what we know about the past, what the boundaries of knowledge are with respect to studying fossils, and how exceptional fossils contribute to reshaping our perspectives on evolution.
READ more about this lecture…

In response to last week’s feature article in eSkeptic, author Frank S. Robinson responds to Victoria Bekiempis’ review of his book The Case for Rational Optimism.

Frank Robinson responds
to Victoria Bekiempis

IT IS CUSTOMARY FOR REVIEWERS to review an entire book. Ms. Bekiempis has reviewed perhaps a fifth of The Case for Rational Optimism and seems not to have even read most of it. She dwells almost exclusively upon a few observations concerning the human condition (and her repeated, distortive accusations of sexism); there’s no clue that the book even covers such subjects as the role of science and technology; why we often fear the wrong things; the whole problem of government and politics; individualism and society; America’s economic condition; its global role; race relations; capitalism and corporations; globalization, trade, growth and world poverty; worldwide prospects for democracy; war and peace; the clash with radical Islam; the environment, sustainability, and global warming; modernity and social change; and the nature and meaning of progress. That’s the bulk of the book.

Not only does Bekiempis disregard all this, she actually implies that I do too – in her mouthing the tired pessimist trope – “there are many more reasons for such pessimism: cancer, rape, genocide, famine, etc.” To falsely suggest that my book fails to grapple with such things is simply outrageous.

The Case for Optimism (book cover)

As for the small part of it she did review, Bekiempis tries to make me sound like a purveyor of sappy banalities. Easy to do if you just take a few quotes out of context and forget the substance of the extended arguments in which they are embedded. Or, rather, make up the quotes. Bekiempis’s “It is what it is, cool!” and “Let’s make the best of this!” (notwithstanding her quote marks) are not quotes from the book, and caricature what it actually argues. Flinging the epithet “existentialism light,” she says, “emotional unrest is not easily quelled.” In fact, I said (page 43), “There can be no completely satisfying answer” to the main problem of death. Yet there are ways we can live rewarding lives and escape the trap of nihilistic existential despair. Bekiempis seems comfortable residing there, hence unwilling to deal seriously with any contrary arguments.

(Curiously enough, two of the comments posted about the review point to the work of Viktor Frankl and Daniel Gilbert as bearing on the these issues. In fact, my book discusses both.)

Bekiempis quotes my observation that our discomfort over “wickedness prosper[ing] while the good suffer” is indicative that we’re fundamentally moral beings. This, she says, “is not a proper rejoinder to evil.” It was, manifestly, not intended to be. Then she goes on to attack my actual point, saying that, “To claim that our dismay about evil is proof of inherent good requires more work, which Robinson does not do.” No? In fact, the “wickedness” point is merely one small observation within two full chapters examining in depth the evolutionary, sociological, psychological, and rational bases for human morality, with plenty of factual evidence from biology, anthropology and neuroscience discussed, as well as the work of major philosophers on the subject. Bekiempis may disagree with that analysis, but to say I didn’t even perform it is impermissible.

Perhaps her animus against the book comes from a gigantic feminist chip on her shoulder. Any fair reading of the entire book would see its repeated emphasis on the importance and value of women’s empowerment. For example, on page 298: “the liberation of women has improved society, not just for women, but for everyone.” Yet Bekiempis accuses me of “sexism” by putting a tortured spin on a few quotes. Like the Onassis quote — Biekempis casts me as saying “we’d be happier if we understood our drive for bling and power.” No. I said we should understand that aspect of human nature, but argued — at some length — that we’d be happier if we behaved differently!

Her point invoking domestic violence is incomprehensible — surely the quoted one-liner in my book says it’s a very bad thing that women shouldn’t accept. Then there’s my observation (re inequality) that “many single moms will marry.” Bekiempis says, “Call me crazy, but it seems like Robinson is suggesting that a single mom’s route out of poverty is marriage.” Well, it’s one route, surely; on average married mothers are in better economic shape than single ones. Is marriage something bad for women, that Bekiempis opposes?

I’ll let readers judge whether to call her crazy.


Levitation: Physics and Psychology in the Service of Deception (book cover detail)
Graphic Novel Science

Skeptic readers may suspect that there’s little to interest them in the pages of most graphic novels, dominated as they are by superheroes and the supernatural. However, a new generation of authors and artists are hard at work creating comics rooted in science fact — and even critical thinking.

This week Skepticality welcomes back Jim Ottaviani: nuclear engineer, librarian, lead author for GT Labs (which produces graphic novels about the history of science and prominent scientists). Swoopy talks with Jim about his most recent published works, T-Minus: The Race to the Moon; Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love; and, of special interest to skeptics: Levitation: Physics and Psychology in the Service of Deception.


barred owl
Bringing Light to a Moth

In this episode, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP) investigator Joe Nickell joins the MonsterTalk crew for a look into the West Virginian legend of Mothman — allegedly a human-sized creature with wings and glowing red eyes. Nickell discusses the ways monsters evolve following a community’s initial reports, and the cyclical nature of spates of sightings.

Learning from Martin Gardner

In this week’s Skepticblog post, Daniel Loxton remembers Martin Gardner (1914–2010) for his tremendous contribution to the modern skeptical movement.

READ the post


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