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Taytoman Agonistes
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
I'm going to use this site to publish articles I've written that aren't linked to anywhere on the net (as far as I know) and partly because of my fear that my hard drive will melt down someday taking my wonderful prose with it, and partly out of rampant egotism.

Here's a review for Fortean Times of ...

.... Martin Gardner. Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries? Discourses on Gödel, Magic Hexagrams, Little Red Riding Hood and Other Mathematical and Pseudoscience Topics (Chichester, John Wiley and Sons, 2003, 290 pp)

Martin Gardner, perhaps best known as author of Scientific American’s "Mathematical Games" section for over a quarter of a century and writer of over seventy books is approaching 90, and the old warhorse is still going. Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries? includes essays on all Gardner’s major preoccupations; science, mathematics, religion, literature and the debunking of pseudoscience in all its forms.

The opening two sections deal with Science and Mathematics. Gardner is a wonderfully lucid explainer of mathematical ideas, and the chapters on Gödel’s Undecidability Theorem, Game Theory and Mobius Bands are models of clarity and style. He has a keen interest in the philosophy of science, and his articles on Rudolf Carnap and Karl Popper reflect this.

Gardner’s section on "Religion" is a distinctly mixed bag. The first essay discusses the avowedly Catholic scholar and author Gary Wills who has been increasingly critical of the Church in recent times, to such an extent that Gardner wonders if he in any meaningful sense a Catholic, challenging Wills to state his belief or disbelief in a series of Catholic tenets. Gardner also discusses the occasional emergence of Messiah figures in Judaism, and the hilariously vague mystical pronouncements of Krishnamurti.

The section "Moonshine" deals with the various forms of pseudoscience which Gardner attacks. The fraudulent Freudian approach to autism of Dr. Bruno Bettelheim is particularly disturbing. Bettelheim belonged to the Freudian school of thought that saw autism as, put bluntly, the mother’s fault. There is no trace of evidence for this contention, which obviously caused much distress to the mothers in question. There would be an enforced period of separation of mother and child on admission to Bettelheim’s clinic. Gardner is rightly scathing of this cruelty, and is equally scathing of "facilitated communication" a technique involving an autistic child hold the hand of a trained care worker who holds a pen, and is purported to allow the autistic child to communicate their deepest thoughts. Gardner documents the FC community’s resistance to any systematic testing to disprove the obvious suspicion that the hand holding the pen – i.e. the care worker’s – is doing the communicating.

The last four essays are articles Gardner wrote for Gordon Stein’s Encyclopaedia of the Paranormal. The first two deal with Eyeless Vision and Magic and "Psi". In recent years, Gardner has spent more and more time on magic. He writes that psychic research without a magician’s involvement is useless; "As any magician will tell you, scientists are the easiest of all people to fool." Finally he rounds up with a couple of essays debunking "classic" spiritualists; the Americans Mrs Piper and "Dr" Henry Slade. I hope that this is not Gardner’s last book, nevertheless given his age it is a possibility and one has the suspicion that perhaps he wanted to end with his dissections of these old frauds.

The section on literature sums up Gardner’s catholic (definitely with a small c) interests – an enthusiasts writings on GK Chesterton and Edgar Wallace’s "The Green Archer" sits with an article on Hemmingway ostensibly about his relationship with Jane Kellman, who would later become a spiritualist, but is really – as Gardner enthusiastically admits in the Introduction – a demolition job on Hemingway. The essay on Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday displays one of Gardner’s most endearing traits – describing himself as a "philosophical theist", he can discuss Chesterton’s vision of evil as "the back of Nature" with its Christian overtones without condescension or scorn. Unlike some "sceptical" authors, he is not contemptuous of religion or mysticism per se ; more the deliberately fraudulent claims of spiritualists, or the brutal Freudianism of the likes of Bettelheim.

Gardner has a deceptively bare, laconic style reminiscent of Borges on occasion. Occasionally the subediting lets him down, particularly when it comes to years. Many of the pieces are derived from pieces in Skeptical Inquirer and occasionally one wishes Gardner had extended the pieces more, particularly his dismissal of David Deutsch and Bryce de Witt’s "realist" view of the Many Worlds Hypothesis – put simply, the belief that there the infinite number of universes posited in the Hypothesis are not theoretical entities but actual realities.

Much lipservice is paid to C.P. Snow’s dictum that the Twentieth Century chasm between the "two cultures" of science and the humanities needs to be bridged. Often rather shoddy work with a superficial coating of science or literature is produced in its name. Martin Gardner is the rare writer equally at home in both worlds.

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