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Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957)
by Martin Gardner
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Debunking (1957 edition)
This classic, from the godfather of skepticism, was a must for my Year of Nostalgic Re-reads. My original copy was lost to a fire in 2013, which while replaceable, also took all of my margin notes, which sadly were not. This time through I made all new ones. Where to start? I was always amazed at how Gardner was so polite in his skewering. (He was less so when answering responses from the "offended", not in this book, but in others...) But, I am most impressed with the incredible access to sources Gardner had, and that he seemed to have read. I have no idea how he was able to track down, and obtain, pre-Internet and pre-connected world, such obscure texts. But he did.
One anecdote related to one of Gardner's targets: 15 years ago, a friend asked if I had ever heard of Immanuel Velikovsky. I was surprised anyone else had heard of him! Anyway, the friend gave me a copy of Worlds in Collision. Suddenly, I had access to an obscure text!
From flat earthers, to Wilhelm Reich's orgone, to medical cults like chiropractic, Gardner spared none of the cranks he examined. I think my favorite was his cover of L. Ron Hubbard's dianetics, the precursor of Scientology.
I'll highlight here something from the introduction, and then something from the conclusion. Gardner says that a crank's - a "sincere pseudo-scientist's" - paranoid tendencies are likely to be exhibited as:
1. He considers himself a genius.
2. He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads.
3. He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against.
4. He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories.
5. He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.
I leave the original gender as is. Gardner, however intelligent, was still a product of his times. And from the conclusion...
The spectacular recent successes of pseudo-science have a value also in publicizing aspects of our culture that are much in need of improvement. We need better science education in our schools. [emphasis mine] We need more and better popularizer of science.
Remembering this was published in 1952...and in the 63 years since it is only worse, with the Deepak Choprahs of today peddling twaddle, and Senators Inhofes abandoning reason... Nevertheless, we were/are fortunate to have had Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Michio Kaku, and to some extent Brian Greene to help popularize science in that span.
As to why we should continue to endure pseudo-science nonsense, Gardner puts it well:
By all means let the Don Quixotes of science be heard. But let them be heard in a manner befitting their position on the spectrum of unorthodoxy, and let that position be determined by those who,alone are qualified to do so.
Required reading for all skeptics.
Martin Gardner, always delightful, in his seminal work. This book has withstood the passage of time, partly because many of the fallacies he describes have managed to continue in spite of being evidence free. Highly recommend reading this book, especially if you believe that the aura of nonsense surrounding the world is something that's risen very recently.
An interesting and enjoyable read, but like the somewhat similarly themed Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds it suffers from a few noteworthy issues.
The first is the lack of references. Quotes occur often, but the exact location they are drawn from is not always attributed. Now, I will admit that I'm unlikely to track down any of the works mentioned (OK, maybe some of the Hollow Earth ones), but at the same time a reference as to where and when a quote was stated would make the book seem a bit less light and allow a somewhat better chronological structuring of the surveyed cranks' changes in opinions.
The second is that, nearly 60 years after the first edition and more than 50 since the second, the book is quite simply dated. Many cultural references that would have been common knowledge in 1952 whiz by without nary a spark in the memory. The same goes for various fads that are referenced with the expectation that the reader knows what they are, but not covered in more detail.
In summary: interesting, but desperately in need of an editor to go through and add explanatory notes for those of us who weren't alive in the early '50s or commentary for when various facets of the information presented have changed drastically.
Amusing side-note: the number of science fiction authors and editors, often fairly recognizable names, who show up in here as proponents of the various beliefs is certainly something.
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Wikipedia in English (28)
This fair and witty appraisal examines some of the crazes and quackeries that have masqueraded as science. Discussions include hollow earth theories; Charles Fort and the Fortean Society; Wilhelm Reich and orgone sex energy; dianetics; flying saucers; food and medical fads; much more. "A very able and even-tempered presentation." -- The New Yorker.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)508Natural sciences and mathematics General Science Natural history
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