A Cudgel for Cads and Quacks


Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, by Martin Gardner, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1981, 450 pp., $18.95.

Our forerunners on the American frontier knew from hard experience that the best thing to do with snake-oil salesmen, short of tar and feathers, was to unceremoniously run them out of town. The sensibility then prevailing was such that for a time there was hope of two-bit quackery's entering a richly deserved oblivion. Of course, nothing of the sort ever happened. And rather than reverting to commonsense form, the public has shelved the horsewhip and has been buying up modern snake-oil by the drum.

Martin Gardner, long the games columnist for Scientific American, an amateur magician, and an accomplished fraud-spotter, is vexed by this sorry state of affairs. Each of the 38 articles, essays, and book reviews collected in Science: Good, Bad and Bogus is a felicitous record of this vexation. While Gardner defines and identifies good science, that enquiry adhering to the rigorous standards of conceptual and methodological honesty, he vigorously savages rampant pseudoscience and its unctuous practitioners.

Gardner lights into the better known of them: Immanuel Velikovsky, who tried to verify the Old Testament account of the Great Flood and of Joshua's stopping the sun and moon with a bizarre theory that has a comet issuing from Jupiter and subsequently going on to reverse the earth's rotational spin; Wilhelm Reich, who claimed to have found the primum mobile in "orgone"; L. Ron Hubbard, the fugitive founder of "dianetics," a pop-psychology cult that raises wishful thinking to an art form; J.B. Rhine, a formerly respectable psychologist who became lost in a fog of parapsychology, spooks, and goblins; Uri Geller, the Israeli illusionist whose claim to being able to bend spoons by sheer will was more than aided by manual softening of the metal beforehand; Ruth Carter Stapleton, spiritual advisor to an administration best forgotten and miracle-worker of the snakepit-cum-laboratory set; and many another panderer of the irrational.

These are Gardner's bogus scientists. He also comments on the bad, those who start off well enough but then, in desperation to prove a pet theory, project or even falsify data. He gives as examples animal-language researchers who unconsciously signal responses to mimetic apes in tests and such scientists as the Viennese biologist Paul Kammerer, who so believed in the truth of his neo-Lamarckian theories on inherited traits that he surgically altered his subjects, midwife toads.

Gardner also gives us the good scientists—the Einsteins, Bohrs, Salks, and Curies; but in this collection, they merely serve as a tuning-fork against which to test the bad and false, who, he writes, are daily gaining ground through the twin forces of occultism and religious fundamentalism. Both feed on the irrationalism that is evident everywhere, from the relatively innocuous daily horoscope to the delphic mumblings of TV gurus and Bible thumpers. The nation, Gardner writes, even "elected a man who holds Protestant fundamentalist opinions and believes in astrology and ESP," a president who embraced creationist doctrine while scorning legitimate science.

Lest we feel a lack of parity in the irrationality race, Gardner consoles us with the spectacle of Soviet psychic research, which seems more than anything else to be centered on Georgian ex-cons who are having a bit of fun at the motherland's expense, and that fair society's incredible dictum that Einstein's theory of relativity is a "reactionary, antiscientific distortion of the truth." These inanities on both sides of the Iron Curtain may be good for a laugh, but they are firm indicators of a climate of voodoo that bodes ill for genuine scientific and technological ventures.

Throughout Science, Gardner points out that while not one claim of pseudoscience has ever been independently confirmed by empirically verifiable data received under controlled conditions, the genuine scientific community has been strangely hesitant to contest the irrationality-mongers and indeed seems almost to have given in to them. The American Association for the Advancement of Science now has a parapsychology section with full voting powers, and several major universities award doctorates in psychic research—one assumes that a successful seance takes the place of the dissertation. Organized science has always been dependent on revolutionary crackpots for its growth and vitality, but these have held in common a respect for ethical enquiry and scientific method. In this regard the inexplicable silence on the part of the scientific community is truly deafening.

In attacking sham science and its practitioners, Gardner is careful to avoid petty ad hominem tactics, settling on the disease itself rather than its carriers. He appends to many of the pieces in Science letters of response from his objects of negative scrutiny—a tribute to balance and fairness. Gardner's vigorous, gentlemanly, and well-written declaration of war on quacks, charlatans, and latter-day snake-oil salesmen makes for provocative reading.

Gregory McNamee is an editor at the University of Arizona Press.