TCS Daily

The Eclectic Skeptic

By Kenneth Silber - July 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Martin Gardner is a prolific author who has written broadly on science, philosophy, mathematics, religion and literature. For many years, he wrote the popular "Mathematical Games" column at Scientific American. More recently, he wrote a regular column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine called "Notes of a Fringe-Watcher," which examined all manner of outlandish claims. It was originally called "Notes of a Psi-Watcher," but was renamed as Gardner delved into topics having nothing to do with psychic powers.

It is hard to think of anyone who has done more than Gardner to promote scientific and mathematical literacy in America. Now nearing age 90, he is the author of some 70 books. His latest book Are Universes Thicker than Blackberries? (W.W. Norton) is an interesting, and characteristically eclectic, collection of columns and articles. The book carries the subtitle "Discourses on Gödel, Magic Hexagrams, Little Red Riding Hood, and Other Mathematical and Pseudoscience Topics."

An essay "Multiverses and Blackberries" discusses the question of whether ours is the only universe or one of many. Philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce once remarked that universes aren't as plentiful as blackberries. But in recent years, there has been growing credence in the idea of multiple universes (which altogether comprise a "multiverse"). Some physicists propound the "many-worlds interpretation" of quantum mechanics, in which reality constantly branches into multiple versions. Some cosmologists present theories in which the Big Bang is just one of innumerable universe-creating bangs. The late Princeton philosopher David Lewis argued that all logically possible worlds exist, including, say, ones where pigs fly or the Libertarian Party wins presidential elections.

Gardner is having none of it. He dismisses all multiverse theories as unsubstantiated and "frivolous." Whether he is right or wrong about that, he performs a valuable service in clearing up confusion that arises over this arcane topic. He points out, for example, that not all proponents of the many-worlds interpretation think its multiple quantum universes are physically real; some physicists regard them as useful mathematical abstractions.

In articles on the philosophy of science, Gardner takes a critical view of Sir Karl Popper (who is known for arguing that science can only falsify hypotheses, not confirm them), and presents a more favorable picture of Popper's rival Rudolf Carnap (whom Gardner studied under nearly 60 years ago). In a section of the book devoted to mathematics, Gardner expounds on the strange, one-sided object known as a Möbius strip, and presents an absorbing fiction story about a black child math prodigy in the mid-20th century. Turning to literary topics, Gardner excoriates Ernest Hemingway as an insecure bully, and recounts how one of Hemingway's socialite lovers had an exorcism later in life.

The book's final and largest section is titled "Moonshine," a catch-all term for pseudoscience, paranormalism and bad ideas more generally. Gardner is unconvinced by academia's elaborate interpretations of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, many of which have a Freudian tinge. More serious, and objectionable, was the work of Bruno Bettelheim, a Freudian psychologist who developed a theory that children's autism is their mother's fault. As Bettelheim's influence declined in recent decades, other dubious ideas about autism arose. In the technique of "facilitated communication," described by Gardner as a "cruel farce," therapists guided autistic children's hands over keyboards. The resulting typed messages, unfortunately, were from the therapists, not the kids.

Gardner gives a skeptical account of "therapeutic touch," a technique in which some nurses wave their hands over patients' bodies in order to treat various ailments. One problem is that the energy fields supposedly being manipulated are unknown to science. In 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that therapeutic touch failed a test in which practitioners, who claimed to be able to feel a person's energy field, placed their hands through an opaque screen and tried to ascertain whether a person was on the other side. The test was devised by a nine-year-old girl for her science project.

On a far grimmer note, Gardner recounts how a 10-year-old girl was smothered to death in Colorado in April 2000 by practitioners of "rebirthing therapy," a New Age psychological technique that involves pressing blankets and pillows against a patient to simulate the experience of being in a womb. He traces the history of the controversial "primal therapy" (better known as "primal scream therapy") of which the rebirthing technique was a spin-off.

Gardner, who is an amateur magician, peers into the details of "eyeless vision" (whereby people see things even though they're supposedly securely blindfolded). More broadly, he gives an overview of the various stage-magic tricks that have been used by claimants to psychic and paranormal powers. As he points out, magicians, rather than scientists, are typically the observers best equipped to detect such cheating.

And even brilliant thinkers sometimes stumble in assessing bizarre claims. In the late 19th century, as Gardner relates in another essay, no less a figure than the psychologist-philosopher William James reacted with some credulity to a medium named Leonora Piper, who supposedly channeled the voices of the dead. Strangely, one French spirit that spoke through Mrs. Piper had a French accent but could not speak its native language.

TCS Daily Archives