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Scientific American

Hermits & Cranks

published March 2002 | comments (3)
Fifty years ago Martin Gardner launched the modern skeptical movement. Unfortunately, much of what he wrote about is still current today
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In 1950 Martin Gardner published an article in the Antioch Review entitled “The Hermit Scientist,” about what we would today call pseudoscientists. It was Gardner’s first publication of a skeptical nature (he was the math games columnist for Scientific American for more than a quarter of a century). In 1952 he expanded it into a book called In the Name of Science, with the descriptive subtitle “An entertaining survey of the high priests and cultists of science, past and present.” Published by Putnam, the book sold so poorly that it was quickly remaindered and lay dormant until 1957, when it was republished by Dover. It has come down to us as Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, which is still in print and is arguably the skeptic classic of the past half a century.

Thankfully, there has been some progress since Gardner offered his first criticisms of pseudoscience. Now largely antiquated are his chapters on believers in a flat earth, a hollow earth, Atlantis and Lemuria, Alfred William Lawson, Roger Babson, Trofim Lysenko, Wilhelm Reich and Alfred Korzybski. But disturbingly, a good two thirds of the book’s contents are relevant today, including Gardner’s discussions of homeopathy, naturopathy, osteopathy, iridiagnosis (reading the iris of the eye to determine bodily malfunctions), food faddists, cancer cures and other forms of medical quackery, Edgar Cayce, the Great Pyramid’s alleged mystical powers, handwriting analysis, ESP and PK (psychokinesis), reincarnation, dowsing rods, eccentric sexual theories, and theories of group racial differences.

The “hermit scientist,” a youthful Gardner wrote, works alone and is ignored by mainstream scientists. “Such neglect, of course, only strengthens the convictions of the self-declared genius.” But Gardner was wrong by half in his prognostications: “The current flurry of discussion about Velikovsky and Hubbard will soon subside, and their books will begin to gather dust on library shelves.” Adherents to Immanuel Velikovsky’s views on how celestially caused global catastrophes shaped the beliefs of ancient humans are a quaint few surviving in the interstices of fringe culture. L. Ron Hubbard, however, has been canonized by the Church of Scientology as the founding saint of a world religion.

In 1952 Gardner could not have known that the nascent flying saucer craze would turn into an alien industry: “Since flying saucers were first reported in 1947, countless individuals have been convinced that the earth is under observation by visitors from another planet.” Absence of evidence then was no more a barrier to belief than it is today, and ufologists proffered the same conspiratorial explanations for the dearth of proof: “I have heard many readers of the saucer books upbraid the government in no uncertain terms for its stubborn refusal to release the ‘truth’ about the elusive platters. The administration’s ‘hush hush policy’ is angrily cited as proof that our military and political leaders have lost all faith in the wisdom of the American people.”

Even then Gardner was bemoaning that some beliefs never seem to go out of vogue, as he recalled an H. L. Mencken quip from the 1920s: “Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the U.S. today.” Gardner cautions that when religious superstition should be on the wane, it is easy “to forget that thousands of high school teachers of biology, in many of our southern states, are still afraid to teach the theory of evolution for fear of losing their jobs.” Today creationism has spread northward and mutated into the oxymoronic form of “creation science.”

And the motives of the hermit scientists have not changed either. Gardner recounts the day that Groucho Marx interviewed Louisiana state senator Dudley J. LeBlanc about a “miracle” cure-all vitamin-and-mineral tonic called Hadacol that the senator had invented. When Groucho asked the senator what it was good for, LeBlanc answered with surprising honesty: “It was good for five and a half million for me last year.”

What I find especially valuable about Gardner’s views are his insights into the differences between science and pseudoscience. On the one extreme we have ideas that are most certainly false, “such as the dianetic view that a one-day-old embryo can make sound recordings of its mother’s conversation.” In the borderlands between the two “are theories advanced as working hypotheses, but highly debatable because of the lack of sufficient data.” Of these Gardner selects a most propitious example: “the theory that the universe is expanding.” That theory would now fall at the other extreme end of the spectrum, where lie “theories almost certainly true, such as the belief that the earth is round or that men and beasts are distant cousins.”

How can we tell if someone is a scientific crank? Gardner offers this advice: (1) “First and most important of these traits is that cranks work in almost total isolation from their colleagues.” Cranks typically do not understand how the scientific process operates — that they need to try out their ideas on colleagues, attend conferences and publish their hypotheses in peer-reviewed journals before announcing to the world their startling discovery. Of course, when you explain this to them they say that their ideas are too radical for the conservative scientific establishment to accept. (2) “A second characteristic of the pseudo-scientist, which greatly strengthens his isolation,is a tendency toward paranoia,” which manifests
itself in several ways:

  1. He considers himself a genius.
  2. He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads …
  3. He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. The recognized societies refuse to let him lecture. The journals reject his papers and either ignore his books or assign them to “enemies” for review. It is all part of a dastardly plot. It never occurs to the crank that this opposition may be due to error in his work …
  4. He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories. When Newton was the outstanding name in physics, eccentric works in that science were violently anti-Newton. Today, with Einstein the father symbol
    of authority, a crank theory of physics is likely to attack Einstein …
  5. He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many
    cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.

We should keep these criteria in mind when we explore controversial ideas on the borderlands of science. “If the present trend continues,” Gardner concludes, “we can expect a wide variety of these men, with theories yet unimaginable, to put in their appearance in the years immediately ahead. They will write impressive books, give inspiring lectures, organize exciting cults. They may achieve a following of one — or one million. In any case, it will be well for ourselves and for society if we are on our guard against them.” So we still are, Martin. That is what skeptics do, and in tribute for all you have done, we shall continue to honor your founding command.

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3 Comments to “Hermits & Cranks”

  1. William Satire Says:

    This is a fitting tribute to Martin. I’ve fond childhood memories of hexa-flexagons and puzzles that were completely beyond me. He will be sadly missed.

  2. Tony Q. King Says:

    I wished I had read this “obit” before emailing the NY Times obit, The SciAm one and yes, even Randi’s to a bunch of folks I know.
    This short article pretty well sums up Gardner for the great majority of people who, scratching their collective heads, mutter “who the hell was THIS dude?”.
    Need I say Hoi-Polloi?
    I’m sure many of the folks I emailed to, had never even heard of him. No doubt they are consulting their I-Ching or Homeopathic remedies instead.
    I came across Gardner more than half-a-century ago, when my father bought me- a 15 year-old nerd, a copy of Sci-Am. After puzzling over the too-detailed articles (were they PhD theses?) about Rabbit embryos and why Tau-Mesons turn left in the cyclotron, I finally found an article that I could understand!
    And I continued to read him until his column sadly ended in that once-great magazine.
    Where is science in North America going today?
    Sorry if I sound bitter.

  3. Neal Koss Says:

    This was a fine tribute to great man, truly 1 in many millions. His SciAm column was like no other. He never ran out of interesting stories to attach to his wonderful mathematical “stuff”. Who can forget Dr Matrix? And his books go on and on. I have a wonderful collection that I cherish.