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Comment changed my life... (Score 2, Insightful) 96

This is a long posting, a copy of the one I just put up on It wasn't supposed to be long, but it turned out that way. Just a way to remember how important Martin Gardner was not just to science and math popularization, but to the sceptic movement as well.

I never met Martin Gardner, but he certainly touched my life. In the late 1970s a girlfriend of mine gave me a copy of "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science." She was given a copy but didn't want to read it.

I was not exactly a person who was ready to embrace a message scepticism. The book was mostly written before I was born. I was a hippie, a 20-something working in a natural food store, deeply distrustful of any authority and critical of what I thought of as authority-based science. My life revolved around Macrobiotics, acupuncture, Rolfing, herbalism, est, Primal Scream Therapy, foot reflexology, a syncretic hash of Eastern religions and pretty much every other new age technique that flew in over the transom. I was a pioneering subscriber to "New Age Journal," a publication that introduced the world to Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra.

I was angry when Gardner criticised the things I believed in, but fascinated and amused by the foolishness [b]other [/b] people believed in. I've heard Gardner quoted as saying "..oddly enough, most of [my critics] objected to one chapter only, thinking all the others excellent..." and that pretty much captures my reaction to the book.

I vividly remembered my amazement on reading the chapter on Rhine's ESP studies (a subject that had fascinated in my adolescence). It's been over 30 years since I've seen the book, and I may be conflating it with other books I've since read, but I recall a comparison of ESP results obtained by "sheep" (believers in ESP) and "goats" (nonbelievers), and just how resistant the "sheep/goat" effects were to attempts to blind the studies. This was a revelation,and marked the beginning of a self examination that continues to this day.

I had been drawn to New Age activities because of a deep skepticism of authority figures. Science had been taught to me almost like a religion. I thought it was a set of beliefs, handed down as truth by an older generation that had brought us a war in Vietnam, Racism, sexism, environmental disaster and a host of other evils. Garner set me on the path to discovering what science really is. I began to see that in fact its foundation was the very kind of skepticism that led me to all those New-Age practices, that in fact the scientific method supports a much deeper skepticism that allowed me to question my own cognitive biases. He gave me the courage to follow the evidence even when it conflicted with my firmest beliefs. This has served me well in my life and my careers.

Earlier that decade I had witnessed as a fellow natural-food buff died of cancer while dosing himself with bitter almonds (then though to be a "natural" version of Laetrile, a supposed cancer cure) refusing conventional treatment that might have extended his life. He left behind a wife and child. Watching him get worse and worse as he cheerfully talked of his impending cure was heartbreaking, and I remember thinking about how little his belief in the cure helped him ouut. I know that in the decades that have since passed I've steered one or two of my family and friends away from worthless quack cures, and I'd like to think I've saved a few lives taht way. If so, those people have Martin Gardner to thank.

Well, I've run on far, far longer than I meant,but I wanted to add my thoughts. We'll miss him, but take joy in the fact his work will be there to enlighten people like that 20-something me for a very long time.

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