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Science Good, Bad and Bogus

by Martin Gardner

(Prometheus, 412 pages, $23.00, paperback; 1989, this edition n.d.)

Martin Gardner's book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957; an expanded version of his 1952 book Fads and Fallacies) is one of those rare books that I cover scanwould recommend should be in the library of every intelligent human being. Dated much of it might be, but as an example of how pseudoscience withers under the spotlight of rational thought it is almost incomparable: it serves as a source of great entertainment but also as a warning to each and every one of us that we should examine closely our received ideas as well as some of our own dottier notions.

Science Good, Bad and Bogus is, in a way, Gardner's very much later companion volume to that seminal work, and like it is drawn from essays written over the years. It's a much fatter book, and one's tempted to say that this is largely because of the amount of repetition in it; whereas in Fads he went to a certain amount of trouble to ensure the book was indeed an integral book rather than merely a retrospective, here he ... well, basically, he didn't bother.

This actually does the compilation a great disservice. One can forgive anyone for harping on about their bêtes noires -- Gardner's prime ones are Immanuel Velikovsky and Uri Geller -- but constant repetition of that harping-on becomes at first merely tedious and then as maddening as being asked to watch a dead horse being flogged and required to applaud each and every time.

His subject matter is of course a mixture of pseudoscience and the supernatural/psychic; in effect the supernatural/psychic becomes here a subgenre of pseudoscience, in that he approaches psychic claims from the viewpoint of experimental science. Thus, for example, while it is patent that he regards Geller as a charlatan-conjurer, he is more concerned with the deeply flawed investigations of Geller's claims by pseudoscientists and established scientists alike than with the full details of the trickery. This is actually a much more rewarding approach than the obvious one -- attacking Geller's claims directly -- and profoundly more educational. A recurring theme, and one that could well be carried over into our evaluations of more orthodox science, is that expertise and indeed genius in one sphere of human understanding should not be taken as any qualification at all for pronouncements in another. To continue with Geller as our example, we have much here on how a fine mathematician, John Taylor, was hopelessly deluded when he came to examine the supposed phenomenon of spoon-bending -- not just by Geller but by a horde of gleefully cheating kids.

About half the essays in Science Good, Bad and Bogus are extended book reviews, and in many ways these are even more revealing than the others. While a good number of the books he eviscerates have vanished into obscurity, all are, of course, still floating around in libraries and second-hand bookshops, and are thus continuing to delude the unwary. After each review, as per the other essays, Gardner includes a postscript, updating his comments as necessary and often citing the outraged letters received in the wake of the item's original publication. Again, these postscripts are especially rewarding in the case of the book reviews, for many of the authors have chosen to defend their work in extenso ... and sometimes they make a reasonably good fist of it, reminding us that we should be just as sceptical about sceptics like Gardner as about anyone else.

This note leads to another mild criticism of the book. While my knowledge of the field is far less extensive than Gardner's, every now and then I had the feeling that perhaps an occasional baby was being flushed away with the bathwater. This sense was brought into sharp focus when I came across Gardner's assault on a famous joke of John Gribbin's. In Gribbin's clearly labelled exercise in wild speculation, White Holes (1977), he discusses tachyons, hypothetical faster-than-light particles which the mathematics insist would have to "travel backwards in time" (i.e., go the "wrong way" along time's arrow). In a spirit of self-mockery concerning all the quite serious (if, to repeat, wild) speculation that fills the book, Gribbin advanced the deliberately spurious theory that Gellerite spoon-bending might be caused by the audience's astonishment on sight of a spoon being bent releasing a burst of tachyons; said tachyons would then "travel backwards in time" to bend the spoon. It's not one of the world's greatest jokes, but it's pretty obviously a joke.

Gardner obviously didn't spot that, instead taking it as an example of the kind of speculation that he disliked in the rest of Gribbin's book (and in Gribbin's and Stephen Plagemann's earlier, definitely attackable book The Jupiter Effect). In the postscript to the review he cites Gribbin's remarkably friendly follow-up letter pointing out gently that Gardner had, well, missed the joke. Gardner's response to this letter is astonishing, and does not burnish his reputation much; it's very much a huffy "well, he would say that, wouldn't he?" diatribe, saying that it's all very well for Gribbin to claim it was a joke now ... and so on. Gardner then goes on to attack a different Gribbin book, Timewarps (1979), as if its many flaws somehow bolstered Gardner's floundering argument that he hadn't, for once, been hoist by his own hyper-sceptical petard.

I've gone on at length about this single example not because it's desperately important in itself but because it symptomatizes the suspicion that Gardner can become just as obsessively tunnel-visioned in the zeal to prove his case as any pseudoscientist blinded by conviction to any contrary evidence.

Elsewhere among the many outraged letters quoted in these postscripts we see frequent examples of his correspondents' inability to understand the nature of science. For example, in the case of one telepathy experiment Gardner points out that it would have been possible for a confederate to have seen how the Zener cards were turning by standing on a chair in a corridor outside the experimenter's room and watching through a fanlight. Now, Gardner's point was not that this did happen but that it could have -- and the very fact that it could have, or that something like it could have, destroys the validity of the supposedly scientific experiment. That is, it is not proof that there was no telepathy involved; it merely shows that the experiment, likewise, has not proved there was, despite the experimenters' claims. This sort of refinement is clearly over the heads of many of those who wrote to complain about Gardner's various conclusions.

All of this said, Science Good, Bad and Bogus is, overall, an extremely valuable, interesting and entertaining compilation, and can be thoroughly recommended to anyone interested in the stranger workings of the human mind and in the effectiveness of rational, analytic thought as a tool for understanding the grab-bag of marvels that is the universe around us.


Review by John Grant.


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