Martin Gardner fought deception, fads and fallacies in science

 Martin Gardner (1914-2010)

The classic book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner is a masterpiece. Published in 1957, and only his second book, it helped launch the skeptical movement with its understandable debunking of dubious fringe science. It's one of the most important popular books ever written on understanding what is science and what is not science.

Though some of the quack theories he talks about have faded away, much is still with us.

Gardner's insights are relevant today in combating any type of deception.

Read this book along with Carl Sagan's classic The Demon-Haunted World.

In the first chapter of his book, Gardner is optimistic that we can become smarter by educating ourselves:
"...the best means of combating the spread of pseudo-science is an enlightened public, able to distinguish the work of a reputable investigator from the work of the incompetent and self-deluded. This is not as hard to do as one might think. Of course, there always will be borderline cases hard to classify, but the fact that black shades into white through many shades of gray does not mean that the distinction between black and white is difficult."
More on Martin Gardner>>

An excerpt from Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner, 1957
Chapter One - In the Name of Science

SINCE THE BOMB exploded over Hiroshima, the prestige of science in the United States has mushroomed like an atomic cloud. In schools and colleges, more students than ever before are choosing some branch of science for their careers. Military budgets earmarked for scientific research have never been so fantastically huge. Books and magazines devoted to science are coming off the presses in greater numbers than at any previous time in history. Even in the realm of escape literature, science fiction threatens seriously to replace the detective story.

One curious consequence of the current boom in science is the rise of the promoter of new and strange "scientific" theories. He is riding into prominence, so to speak, on the coat-tails of reputable investigators. The scientists themselves, of course, pay very little attention to him. They are too busy with more important matters. But the less informed general public, hungry for sensational discoveries and quick panaceas, often provides him with a noisy and enthusiastic following.
In 1951, tens of thousands of mentally ill people throughout the country entered "dianetic reveries" in which they moved back along their "time track" and tried to recall unpleasant experiences they had when they were embryos. Thousands of more sophisticated neurotics, who regard dianetics as the invention of a mountebank, are now sitting in "orgone boxes" to raise their body's charge of "orgone energy." Untold numbers of middle-aged housewives are preparing to live to the age of 100 by a diet rich in yoghurt, wheat-germ, and blackstrap-molasses.

Not only in the fields of mental and physical health is the spurious scientist flourishing. A primitive interpretation of Old Testament miracle tales, which one thought went out of fashion with the passing of William Jennings Bryan, has just received a powerful shot in the arm. Has not the eminent "astrophysicist," Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky, established the fact that the earth stopped rotating precisely at the moment Joshua commanded the sun and moon to stand still? For fifty years, geologists and physicists have been combining forces to perfect complex, delicate instruments for exploring underground structures. They've been wasting their time according to Kenneth Roberts, the well-known novelist. All you need is a forked twig, and he has written a persuasive and belligerent book to prove it.

Since flying saucers were first reported in 1947, countless individuals have been convinced that the earth is under observation by visitors from another planet. Admirers of Frank Scully's Behind the Flying Saucers suspect that the mysterious disks are piloted by inhabitants of Venus who are exact duplicates of earthlings except they are three feet tall. A more recent study by Gerald Heard makes out an even stronger case for believing the saucers are controlled by intelligent bees from Mars.

In the twenties, newspapers provided a major publicity outlet for the speculations of eccentric scholars. Every Sunday, Hearst's American Weekly disclosed with lurid pictures some outlandish piece of scientific moonshine. The pages of the daily press were spotted with such stories as unconfirmed reports of enormous sea serpents, frogs found alive in the cornerstones of ancient buildings, or men who could hear radio broadcasts through gold inlays in their teeth. But gradually, over the next two decades, an unwritten code of science ethics developed in the profession of news journalism. Wire services hired competent science writers. Leading metropolitan dailies acquired trained science editors. The American Medical Association stepped up its campaign against press publicity for medical quackery, and disciplined members who released accounts of research that had not been adequately checked by colleagues. Today, science reporting in the American press is freer of humbug and misinformation than ever before in history.

To a large extent, the magazine and book publishing firms shared in the forging of this voluntary code. Unfortunately, at the turn of the half-century they began to backslide. Astounding Science Fiction, until recently the best of the science fantasy magazines, was the first to inform the public of the great "Dianetic Revolution" in psychiatry. True boosted its circulation by breaking the news that flying saucers came from another planet. Harper's published the first article in praise of Velikovsky's remarkable discoveries, and similar pieces quickly followed in Collier's and Reader's Digest. The Saturday Evening Post and Look gave widespread publicity to Gayelord Hauser's blackstrap-molasses cult during the same month that the Pure Food and Drug Administration seized copies of his best-seller, Look Younger, Live Longer. The government charged that displays of the book next to jars of blackstrap constituted, because of the book's sensational claims, a "mislabeling" of the product.

Many leading book publishers have had no better record. It is true that L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics was too weird a manuscript to interest the larger houses, but Velikovsky's equally preposterous work found two highly reputable publishers. Kenneth Roberts' book on the art of finding water with a dowsing rod, Scully's saucer book, and Heard's even more fantastic study also appeared under the imprints of major houses.

When book editors and publishers are questioned about all this, they have a ready answer. It is a free country, they point out. If the public is willing to buy a certain type of book in great quantities, do they not, as public servants, have every right - perhaps even the obligation - to satisfy such a demand?

No one with any respect for independent thinking would propose that a publishing house or magazine be compelled, by any type of government action, to publish only material sanctioned by a board of competent scientists. That, however, is not the issue. The question is whether the voluntary code of ethics, so painstakingly built up during the past two decades, is worth preserving. Velikovsky's book, for example, was widely advertised as a revolutionary astronomical discovery. The publisher, of course, had every legal right to publish such a book. Likewise, the scientists who threatened to boycott the firm's textbooks unless it dropped Velikovsky from its list, were exercising their democratic privilege of organized protest. The issue is not a legal one, or even a political one. It is a question of individual responsibility.

Perhaps we are making a mountain out of a molehill. It is all very amusing, one might say, to titillate public fancy with books about bee people from Mars. The scientists are not fooled, nor are readers who are scientifically informed. If the public wants to shell out cash for such flummery, what difference does it make? The answer is that it is not at all amusing when people are misled by scientific claptrap. Thousands of neurotics desperately in need of trained psychiatric care are seriously retarding their therapy by dalliance with crank cults. Already a frightening number of cases have come to light of suicides and mental crack-ups among patients undergoing these dubious cures. No reputable publisher would think of releasing a book describing a treatment for cancer if it were written by a doctor universally considered a quack by his peers. Yet the difference between such a book and Dianetics is not very great.

What about the long-run effects of non-medical books like Velikovsky's, and the treatises on flying saucers? It is hard to see how the effects can be anything but harmful. Who can say how many orthodox Christians and Jews read Worlds in Collision and drifted back into a cruder Biblicism because they were told that science had reaffirmed the Old Testament miracles? Mencken once wrote that if you heave an egg out of a Pullman car window anywhere in the United States you are likely to hit a fundamentalist. That was twenty-five years ago, and times have changed, but it is easy to forget how far from won is the battle against religious superstition. 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. There is no question but that informed and enlightened Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, suffered a severe body blow when Velikovsky's book was enthusiastically hailed by the late Fulton Oursler (in Reader's Digest) as scientific confirmation of the most deplorable type of Bible interpretation.

Flying saucers? 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.

An even more regrettable effect produced by the publication of scientific rubbish is the confusion they sow in the minds of gullible readers about what is and what isn't scientific knowledge. And the more the public is confused, the easier it falls prey to doctrines of pseudo­science which may at some future date receive the backing of politically powerful groups. As we shall see in later chapters, a renaissance of German quasi-science paralleled the rise of Hitler. If the German people had been better trained to distinguish good from bad science, would they have swallowed so easily the insane racial theories of the Nazi anthropologists?

In the last analysis, the best means of combating the spread of pseudo-science is an enlightened public, able to distinguish the work of a reputable investigator from the work of the incompetent and self-deluded. This is not as hard to do as one might think. Of course, there always will be borderline cases hard to classify, but the fact that black shades into white through many shades of gray does not mean that the distinction between black and white is difficult.

Actually, two different "continuums" are involved. One is a scale of the degree to which a scientific theory is confirmed by evidence. At one end of this scale are theories almost certainly false, such as the dianetic view that a one-day-old embryo can make sound recordings of its mother's conversation. Toward the middle of the scale are theories advanced as working hypotheses, but highly debatable because of the lack of sufficient data - for example, the theory that the universe is expanding. Finally, at the other extreme of the scale, are theories almost certainly true, such as the belief that the earth is round or that men and beasts are distant cousins. The problem of determining the degree to which a theory is confirmed is extremely difficult and technical, and, as a matter of fact, there are no known methods for giving precise "probability values" to hypotheses. This problem, however, need not trouble us. We shall be concerned, except for a few cases, only with theories so close to "almost certainly false" that there is no reasonable doubt about their worthlessness.

The second continuum is the scale of scientific competence. It also has its extremes - ranging from obviously admirable scientists, to men of equally obvious incompetence. That there are individuals of debatable status - men whose theories are on the borderline of sanity, men competent in one field and not in others, men competent at one period of life and not at others, and so on - all this ought not to blind us to the obvious fact that there is a type of self-styled scientist who can legitimately be called a crank. It is not the novelty of his views or the neurotic motivations behind his work that provide the grounds for calling him this. The grounds are the technical criteria by which theories are evaluated. If a man persists in advancing views that are contradicted by all available evidence, and which offer no reasonable grounds for serious consideration, he will rightfully be dubbed a crank by his colleagues.

Cranks vary widely in both knowledge and intelligence. Some are stupid, ignorant, almost illiterate men who confine their activities to sending "crank letters" to prominent scientists. Some produce crudely written pamphlets, usually published by the author himself, with long titles, and pictures of the author on the cover. Still others are brilliant and well-educated, often with an excellent understanding of the branch of science in which they are speculating. Their books can be highly deceptive imitations of the genuine article - well-written and impressively learned. In spite of these wide variations, however, most pseudo-scientists have a number of characteristics in common.

First and most important of these traits is that cranks work in almost total isolation from their colleagues. Not isolation in the geographical sense, but in the sense of having no fruitful contacts with fellow researchers. In the Renaissance, this isolation was not necessarily a sign of the crank. Science was poorly organized. There were no journals or societies. Communication among workers in a field was often very difficult. Moreover, there frequently were enormous social pressures operating against such communication. In the classic case of Galileo, the Inquisition forced him into isolation because the Church felt his views were undermining religious faith. Even as late as Darwin's time, the pressure of religious conservatism was so great that Darwin and a handful of admirers stood almost alone against the opinions of more respectable biologists.

Today, these social conditions no longer obtain. The battle of science to free itself from religious control has been almost completely won. Church groups still oppose certain doctrines in biology and psychology, but even this opposition no longer dominates scientific bodies or journals. Efficient networks of communication within each science have been established. A vast cooperative process of testing new theories is constantly going on - a process amazingly free (except, of course, in totalitarian nations) from control by a higher "orthodoxy." In this modern framework, in which scientific progress has become dependent on the constant give and take of data, it is impossible for a working scientist to be isolated.

The modern crank insists that his isolation is not desired on his part. It is due, he claims, to the prejudice of established scientific groups against new ideas. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scientific journals today are filled with bizarre theories. Often the quickest road to fame is to overturn a firmly-held belief. Einstein's work on relativity is the outstanding example. Although it met with considerable opposition at first, it was on the whole an intelligent opposition. With few exceptions, none of Einstein's reputable opponents dismissed him as a crackpot. They could not so dismiss him because for years he contributed brilliant articles to the journals and had won wide recognition as a theoretical physicist. In a surprisingly short time, his relativity theories won almost universal acceptance, and one of the greatest revolutions in the history of science quietly took place.

It would be foolish, of course, to deny that history contains many sad examples of novel scientific views which did not receive an unbiased hearing, and which later proved to be true. The pseudo-scientist never tires reminding his readers of these cases. The opposition of traditional psychology to the study of hypnotic phenomena (accentuated by the fact that Mesmer was both a crank and a charlatan) is an outstanding instance. In the field of medicine, the germ theory of Pasteur, the use of anesthetics, and Dr. Semmelweiss' insistence that doctors sterilize their hands before attending childbirth are other well known examples of theories which met with strong professional prejudice.

Probably the most notorious instance of scientific stubbornness was the refusal of eighteenth century astronomers to believe that stones actually fell from the sky. Reaction against medieval superstitions and old wives' tales was still so strong that whenever a meteor fell, astronomers insisted it had either been picked up somewhere and carried by the wind, or that the persons who claimed to see it fall were lying. Even the great French Academie des Sciences ridiculed this folk belief, in spite of a number of early studies of meteoric phenomena. Not until April 26, 1803, when several thousand small meteors fell on the town of L'Aigle, France, did the astronomers decide to take falling rocks seriously.

Many other examples of scientific traditionalism might be cited, as well as cases of important contributions made by persons of a crank variety. The discovery of the law of conservation of energy by Robert Mayer, a psychotic German physician, is a classic instance. Occasionally a layman, completely outside of science, will make an astonishingly prophetic guess - like Swift's prediction about the moons of Mars (to be discussed later), or Samuel Johnson's belief (expressed in a letter, in 1781, more than eighty years before the discovery of germs) that microbes were the cause of dysentery.

One must be extremely cautious, however, before comparing the work of some contemporary eccentric with any of these earlier examples, so frequently cited in crank writings. In medicine, we must remember, it is only in the last fifty years or so that the art of healing has become anything resembling a rigorous scientific discipline. One can go back to periods in which medicine was in its infancy, hopelessly mixed with superstition, and find endless cases of scientists with unpopular views that later proved correct. The same holds true of other sciences. But the picture today is vastly different. The prevailing spirit among scientists, outside of totalitarian countries, is one of eagerness for fresh ideas. In the great search for a cancer cure now going on, not the slightest stone, however curious its shape, is being left unturned. If anything, scientific journals err on the side of permitting questionable theses to be published, so they may be discussed and checked in the hope of finding something of value. A few years ago a student at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton was asked how his seminar had been that day. He was quoted in a news magazine as exclaiming, "Wonderful! Everything we knew about physics last week isn't true!"

Here and there, of course - especially among older scientists who, like everyone else, have a natural tendency to become set in their opinions - one may occasionally meet with irrational prejudice against a new point of view. You cannot blame a scientist for unconsciously resisting a theory which may, in-some cases, render his entire life's work obsolete. Even the great Galileo refused to accept Kepler's theory, long after the evidence was quite strong, that planets move in ellipses. Fortunately there are always, in the words of Alfred Noyes, "The young, swift-footed, waiting for the fire," who can form the vanguard of scientific revolutions. It must also be admitted that in certain areas of science, where empirical data are still hazy, a point of view may acquire a kind of cult following and harden into rigid dogma. Modifications of Einstein's theory, for example, sometimes meet a resistance similar to that which met the original theory. And no doubt the reader will have at least one acquaintance for whom a particular brand of psychoanalysis has become virtually a religion, and who waxes highly indignant if its postulates are questioned by adherents of a rival brand.

Actually, a certain degree of dogma - of pig-headed orthodoxy - is both necessary and desirable for the health of science. It forces the scientist with a novel view to mass considerable evidence before his theory can be seriously entertained. If this situation did not exist, science would be reduced to shambles by having to examine every new-fangled notion that came along. Clearly, working scientists have more important tasks. If someone announces that the moon is made of green cheese, the professional astronomer cannot be expected to climb down from his telescope and write a detailed refutation. "A fairly complete textbook of physics would be only part of the answer to Velikovsky," writes Prof. Laurence J. Lafleur, in his excellent article on "Cranks and Scientists" {Scientific Monthly, Nov., 1951), "and it is therefore not surprising that the scientist does not find the undertaking worth while."

The modern pseudo-scientist - to return to the point from which we have digressed - stands entirely outside the closely integrated channels through which new ideas are introduced and evaluated. He works in isolation. He does not send his findings to the recognized journals, or if he does, they are rejected for reasons which in the vast majority of cases are excellent. In most cases the crank is not well enough informed to write a paper with even a surface resemblance to a significant study. As a consequence, he finds himself excluded from the journals and societies, and almost universally ignored by the competent workers in his field. In fact, the reputable scientist does not even know of the crank's existence unless his work is given widespread publicity through non-academic channels, or unless the scientist makes a hobby of collecting crank literature. The eccentric is forced, therefore, to tread a lonely way. He speaks before organizations he himself has founded, contributes to journals he himself may edit, and - until recently - publishes books only when he or his followers can raise sufficient funds to have them printed privately.

A second characteristic of the pseudo-scientist, which greatly strengthens his isolation, is a tendency toward paranoia. This is a mental condition (to quote a recent textbook) "marked by chronic, systematized, gradually developing delusions, without hallucinations, and with little tendency toward deterioration, remission, or recovery." There is wide disagreement among psychiatrists about the causes of paranoia. Even if this were not so, it obviously is not within the scope of this book to discuss the possible origins of paranoid traits in individual cases. It is easy to understand, however, that a strong sense of personal greatness must be involved whenever a crank stands in solitary, bitter opposition to every recognized authority in his field.

If the self-styled scientist is rationalizing strong religious convictions, as often is the case, his paranoid drives may be reduced to a minimum. The desire to bolster religious beliefs with science can be a powerful motive. For example, in our examination of George McCready Price, the greatest of modern opponents of evolution, we shall see that his devout faith in Seventh Day Adventism is a sufficient explanation for his curious geological views. But even in such cases, an element of paranoia is nearly always present. Otherwise the pseudo-scientist would lack the stamina to fight a vigorous, single-handed battle against such overwhelming odds. If the crank is insincere - interested only in making money, playing a hoax, or both -then obviously paranoia need not enter his make-up. However, very few cases of this sort will be considered.

There are five ways in which the sincere pseudo-scientist's paranoid tendencies are likely to be exhibited.

(1)   He considers himself a genius.

(2)   He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads. Everyone is out of step except himself. Frequently he insults his opponents by accusing them of stupidity, dishonesty, or other base motives. If they ignore him, he takes this to mean his arguments are unanswerable. If they retaliate in kind, this strengthens his delusion that he is battling scoundrels.

Consider the following quotation: "To me truth is precious.... I should rather be right and stand alone than to run with the multitude and be wrong... . The holding of the views herein set forth has already won for me the scorn and contempt and ridicule of some of my fellowmen. I am looked upon as being odd, strange, peculiar. ... But truth is truth and though all the world reject it and turn against me, I will cling to truth still."

These sentences are from the preface of a booklet, published in 1931, by Charles Silvester de Ford, of Fairfield, Washington, in which he proves the earth is flat. Sooner or later, almost every pseudo-scientist expresses similar sentiments.

(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. It springs solely, he is convinced, from blind prejudice on the part of the established hierarchy - the high priests of science who fear to have their orthodoxy overthrown.

Vicious slanders and unprovoked attacks, he usually insists, are constantly being made against him. He likens himself to Bruno, Galileo, Copernicus, Pasteur, and other great men who were unjustly persecuted for their heresies. If he has had no formal training in the field in which he works, he will attribute this persecution to a scientific masonry, unwilling to admit into its inner sanctums anyone who has not gone through the proper initiation rituals. He repeatedly calls your attention to important scientific discoveries made by laymen.

(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 in the name of Newton. This same defiance can be seen in a tendency to assert the diametrical opposite of well-established beliefs. Mathematicians prove the angle cannot be trisected. So the crank trisects it. A perpetual motion machine cannot be built. He builds one. There are many eccentric theories in which the "pull" of gravity is replaced by a "push." Germs do not cause disease, some modern cranks insist. Disease produces the germs. Glasses do not help the eyes, said Dr. Bates. They make them worse. In our next chapter we shall learn how Cyrus Teed literally turned the entire cosmos inside-out, compressing it within the confines of a hollow earth, inhabited only on the inside.

(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. Schizophrenics sometimes talk in what psychiatrists call "neologisms"  - words which have meaning to the patient, but sound like Jabberwocky to everyone else. Many of the classics of crackpot science exhibit a neologistic tendency.

When the crank's I.Q. is low, as in the case of the late Wilbur Glenn Voliva who thought the earth shaped like a pancake, he rarely achieves much of a following. But if he is a brilliant thinker, he is capable of developing incredibly complex theories. He will be able to defend them in books of vast erudition, with profound observations, and often liberal portions of sound science. His rhetoric may be enormously persuasive. All the parts of his world usually fit together beautifully, like a jig-saw puzzle. It is impossible to get the best of him in any type of argument. He has anticipated all your objections. He counters them with unexpected answers of great ingenuity. Even on the subject of the shape of the earth, a layman may find himself powerless in a debate with a flat-earther. George Bernard Shaw, in Everybody's Political What's What?, gives an hilarious description of a meeting at which a flat-earth speaker completely silenced all opponents who raised objections from the floor. "Opposition such as no atheist could have provoked assailed him"; writes Shaw, "and he, having heard their arguments hundreds of times, played skittles with them, lashing the meeting into a spluttering fury as he answered easily what it considered unanswerable."

In the chapters to follow, we shall take a close look at the leading pseudo-scientists of recent years, with special attention to native specimens. Some British books will be discussed, and a few Continental eccentric theories, but the bulk of crank literature in foreign tongues will not be touched upon. Very little of it has been translated into English, and it is extremely difficult to get access to the original works. In addition, it is usually so unrelated to the American scene that it loses interest in comparison with the work of cranks closer home.

With few exceptions, little time will' be spent on theories which come under the broad heading of "occult." Astrology, for example, still has millions of contemporary followers, but is so far removed from anything resembling science that it does not seem worth while to discuss it. The theory that sunspots cause depressions (popular among conservative businessmen who like to think of booms and busts as natural phenomena to be blamed on something remote) is the last respectable survival of the ancient view that human affairs are linked with  astronomical phenomena.  This  literature,  however,  belongs more properly to economics than to astronomy. The social sciences have, of course, their share of eccentric works, but for many reasons they form a separate subject for study.

Our survey will begin with curious theories of astronomy, the science most removed from the human landscape. It will proceed through physics and geology to the biological sciences, then into human affairs by way of anthropology and archeology. Four chapters will be devoted to medical quasi-science, followed by discussions of sexual theories, psychiatric cults, and methods of reading character. Finally, we shall make a serious appraisal of the reputable work of Dr. Rhine, with quick and not so serious glances at a few other venturers into the psychic fields.

The amount of intellectual energy that has been wasted on these lost causes is almost unbelievable. It will be amusing - at times frightening - to witness the grotesque extremes to which deluded scientists can be misled, and the extremes to which they in turn can mislead others. As we shall see, their disciples are often intelligent and sometimes eminent men - men not well enough informed on the subject in question to penetrate the Master's counterfeit trappings, and who frequently find in their devotion an outlet for their own neurotic rebellions. More important, we shall have impressed upon us the traits which these "scientists" hold in common. The atmosphere in which they move will become familiar to us as we begin to breathe the air of their fantastic worlds.

Just as an experienced doctor is able to diagnose certain ailments the instant a new patient walks into his office, or a police officer learns to recognize criminal types from subtle behavior clues which escape the untrained eye, so we, perhaps, may learn to recognize the future scientific crank when we first encounter him.

And encounter him we shall. If the present trend continues, 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.

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