The noble and ancient tradition of moron-baiting

May 28th, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, heroes, heroes of bad science | 23 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 29 May 2010

This week a man called Martin Gardner died, aged 95. His popular maths column in Scientific American (and 50 books on the subject) spanned the decades, but in 1952 he published a book about pseudoscience, quacks, and credulous journalists. How much do you think has changed over 60 years?

Immanuel Velikowsky had just published his best selling book explaining about a comet which flew out of Jupiter, zipped past the earth twice, and then caused the earth to stop spinning so that the Red Sea parted at precisely the moment when Moses held out his hand. Cars and planes, it explained, are propelled by fuel refined from “remnants of the intruding star that poured fire and sticky vapour” on the earth. Several years later the comet returned: a precipitate of of carbohydrates which had formed in its tail fell to earth in the form of Manna which kept the Israelites fed for 40 years.

The science editor of the New York Herald Tribune called this book “a magnificent piece of scholarly research”. But while the correspondents of Readers Digest and Harpers magazine heaped praise upon Velikowsky, the publishers received a flood of letters from scientists. A boycott was organised of all their academic textbooks, the editor who commissioned the book was sacked, and Velikowsky moved to Doubleday, who had no textbook imprint to worry about (and were delighted to have a best-seller).

imageThis was an era when serious people took bullshit more seriously than they do today. While today homeopathy is taught in universities eager to serve popular demand, the most notable predecessor to Gardner’s Fads And Fallacies was Higher Foolishness, written in 1927 by the first president of Stanford University. The American Medical Association campaigned hard against press publicity for quacks, and bullshit seemed more pressing. There were signs of a relapse into religious fundamentalism, driven in part by bizarre beliefs such as Velikowsky’s, and the indulgence of pseudoscience was playing its part, live and in colour, in some very bad situations.

The bizarre racial theories of the Nazi anthropologists were fresh in the memory, and in Russia things were little better. During the 1930s, communism had turned its back on evolution and mendelian inheritance, preferring the theories of Trofim Lysenko on the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which sat better with their notions of heritable self-improvement. Sadly Lysenkoism ran contrary to the experimental evidence, and could only be maintained by sending Russia’s geneticists to die in Siberian labour camps, so that by 1949 Russian children were being taught that revolution had shattered the hereditary structure of the Soviet people, with each generation growing up finer than the last as a result.

But alongside concrete outcomes like the death camp, Gardner never loses sight of the parallel tragedy. Harpers – notable for its recent promotion of Aids denialism – was then pushing Gerald Heard’s book “Is Another World Watching?”, explaining that tiny flying saucers have visited earth, piloted by two-inch super-intelligent bee people from the planet Mars. At a time when the shelves were filled with magazines called things like “Life”, “True” and “Doubt”, a widespread passion for knowledge was being regularly derailed into nonsense.

So he has the same fun we have with the homeopaths (bemoaning that Marlene Dietrich is a fan), the vitamin pill peddlers, the antivaccination campaigners and the chiropractors, and above all captures their character, which endures: the self-imposed isolation from the corrective of academic criticism, the persecution complex, the grandiosity, the denouncement of critics as being in the pay of darker forces, and their enjoyment of jargon, like “electroencephaloneuromentimpograph”, a machine devised by the son of the founder of chiropractic.

I have the first edition (they’re cheap), but subsequent copies are much more desirable, because they have a supplementary introduction where Gardner takes delight in his hate mail, and especially the mutual indignation that each target expressed at being unfairly associated with the others, who they regarded as the true charlatans. In 60 years nothing has changed. The best we can hope for is the simple, enduring pleasure of baiting morons.

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23 Responses

  1. WilliamSatire said,

    May 28, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    Behold the curative power of my flexa-hexagons!

  2. WilliamSatire said,

    May 28, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    Behold the curative power of my flexa hexagons!!

  3. Sili said,

    May 29, 2010 at 12:04 am

    Marlene Dietrich is a fan


  4. graham.ramsay said,

    May 29, 2010 at 12:33 am

    “Marlene Dietrich is a fan”

    What am I to do?

  5. Daniel Rutter said,

    May 29, 2010 at 1:13 am

    Yeah – I don’t think there’s a single scam in “Fads and Fallacies”, or in James Randi’s 1982 “Flim-Flam!” for that matter, that isn’t still popular, often wildly so. Many of the actual scam ARTISTS from “Flim-Flam!” are still in business.

    See also the rather older “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, which also remains depressingly relevant, and which is also long out of copyright and can thus be downloaded for free:

  6. fontwell said,

    May 29, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Having studied and worked as an engineer for most of my life, where everything I do gets checked, the thing I still find unfathomable about the few acquaintances I have who follow woo/read the Daily Mail is that they really aren’t particularly bothered if things are true or not.

    Several times I have tried to explain a few facts or test results to them and they just say “Oh, I don’t like the idea of that, I far prefer my version.” As if preferring was all that mattered! It’s a strange mind set indeed.

  7. ffutures said,

    May 29, 2010 at 10:36 am

    See also John Sladek’s “The New Apocrypha,” another wonderful jaunt through fruitcake country.

  8. mariawolters said,

    May 29, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Don’t forget that Martin Gardner’s popular science and astronomy books probably did as much to raise a new generation of skeptics as his explicit anti-woo work. His book on astronomy gave a primary school girl a lifelong love of the planets and introduced her to the high art of debunking almost in passing.

    Part of the reason I buy Phil Plait’s books is that I want Phil to play a similar role for my kids a couple of years down the line. Astronomy is a magnificent entry drug for little skeptics.

  9. danielearwicker said,

    May 29, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Sad to hear he’s died, though 95 is very good going. One of the pleasures of my childhood was going through my dad’s back issues of Scientific American dating back to the 60s, and I would always start at the back for Gardner’s column, always fascinating and full of things to try out on a ZX Spectrum (especially fractals and Conway’s Life) and Escher drawings to try to copy. He filled my head with stuff I couldn’t stop thinking about, and still haven’t. It’s the same for millions of people the world over; he reinvented the idea, previously promoted by Lewis Carroll, that maths and philosophy is something entertaining for a kid to fill a rainy afternoon with.

    He once said, “If you’re a professional philosopher, there’s no way to make any money except to teach. It has no use anywhere,” but I suspect a lot of the amateur philosophers he helped to create are finding their hobby pretty handy in all kinds of ways.

    Hofstadter, his successor columnist at SciAm, also brilliant, talks about him in this podcast: – and describes the childhood discovery experience perfectly. Even a guy inspired by Gardner is inspiring! The waves keep expanding.

  10. anon3455 said,

    May 29, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    This is the shit and Marlene Dietrich is the fan..

  11. JQH said,

    May 29, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    One thing which has changed is that the woos do seem to band together now. Even when their views are contradictory. For example Sue Young crowing when some herb peddlars tried to make legal problems for David Colquhoun. If Young was consisten, she would oppose herbalism as it is clearly allopathic in nature.

    I agree with ffutures re “The New Apocrypha”. Excellent book. Sladek also wrote a novel called “Black Aura” in which someone was bumping off woos.

  12. Goblok said,

    May 29, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Plus ca change,plus c’est la meme chose …

    A few days ago,I was absolutely gobsmacked to hear (on BBC News Channel I think) an interview with a psychologist (not Ben) and an authoress who had an interest in the subject. Sorry but names not supplied to protect my memory). The following gem was priceless:

    Psychologist: Well,if we look at the evidence, we find …
    Authoress: Oh, that’s a very male thing. Women prefer their intuition in these things.

    Yes, ladies: be afraid … be very afraid! That was from a woman!!!

  13. Andyo said,

    May 29, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    I was gonna same the exact same thing JQH at 11 said. Quacks know now that they shouldn’t criticize each other.

  14. latinforant said,

    May 29, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Also Martin Gardner wrote math puzzles and an occasional article for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

  15. wednesdaykat said,

    May 30, 2010 at 5:27 am

    Martin Gardner was also responsible for “The Annotated Alice” and “The Annotated Snark”, revealing the logic and philosophy behind the nonsense. My kids loved them – both of them good sceptics now!

  16. Dr Spouse said,

    May 30, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    @Goblok – shame I didn’t hear that – though perhaps I’m not a real psychologist (being a woman) or maybe not a real woman (being a psychologist).

  17. LizardKing said,

    May 30, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    I hadn’t heard of Gardner until his obituary appeared on techie message board Slashdot ( Intrigued by peoples enthusiasm for his books, I ordered “Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions”, of which there are plenty of cheap copies on Amazon. I’m already about a third way through, and can highly recommend it as a fun read.

  18. Szwagier said,

    May 31, 2010 at 8:14 am

    Third vote for Sladek’s “New Apocrypha”. As a kid growing up in the 70s it was a wonderful piece of debunkery.

  19. graemehunter said,

    May 31, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    I loved Gardner’s books on maths, was introduced to them by a marvellous teacher at school. Still have my grubby Pelican print copies on the bookshelf. Will have to explore his sceptic work too now.

  20. Bishop Gillian Wakefield said,

    June 1, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Dis someone post this link already?

    Anyway, there’s a small tribute in here somewhere…

  21. ggkate said,

    June 4, 2010 at 3:18 am

    aturday: I’ve just read the Guardian version and it’s been cut a bit, whole chunks missing, and bits r

  22. ggkate said,

    June 4, 2010 at 3:19 am

  23. Nodrog said,

    June 22, 2010 at 3:30 am

    Here’s another book that does a good job of examining some of the more modern hokum. The author’s discussion of global warming is a bit dated now, however.

    Title: Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud
    Author: Robert Park
    Pub: 2000 by Oxford University Press