Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner (2013)

It is surprising how many of the great pseudosciences rest on absurd correlations totally unknown to science. Take phrenology, for instance. It correlates character with the size of head bumps. It was once so widely believed that it generated a vast literature of scholarly books and journals around the world. Walt Whitman published his head chart at the front of Leaves of Grass. In England George Eliot had her head shaved so she could get better readings. It was said by skeptics that anyone who believed in phrenology should go have his head examined.

Martin Gardner, Undiluted Hocus-Pocus

The immensely valuable Martin Gardner, mathematician, magician, author, literary critic, player of jokes, puzzler, lethal skeptic, Samurai doing in fraudsters and hoaxers (among other pursuits) passed in 2010, but not before he finished his autobiography, his last book, one he managed to gift to us in the final hour. It’s a fine, quick, entertaining read.

As he admits, his great break after many more or less impoverished years trying to find his genre, style and voice as a writer of books, came with his unlikely stint as Mathematical Games columnist in Scientific American, a body of popular science writing which delighted many over the years. Certainly he is best known for those wonders of “recreational math” which brought him into a most sublime company of great mathematicians and other very quick devotees of puzzles.

But for me it is his cheerful and relentless sallying forth over many seasons against pseudoscience–against fraud and hoax–in “a nation where polls  show that about half its citizens believe in astrology, angels, and Satan, and that the entire universe was created by God in six literal days, just as it says in Genesis”–for which he should be most appreciated. As he reminds: “A democracy works best when citizens are enlightened voters.” Yet as his friends say, Gardner would never gainsay the inevitable waves of superstition always rolling in.

He entered the lists against a premiere list of cranks, con artists, windbags, et al. A sample: Mortimer Adler, Colin Wilson, Uri Geller, L. Ron Hubbard, Wilheim Reich, and Immanuel Velikovsky. (Elsewhere in this blog, in a review of the movie, The Men Who Stare at Goats, I write about Gardner’s skewering of Uri Geller and others in the wacky national security research program, Project Stargate.)

Perhaps Gardner’s finest hour as a foe of the foolish and the feckless is his critique of The Great Books project dreamed up at the University of Chicago during his student days there in the 1950s, a project that was the brainstorm of the educator and president of Chicago University, Robert Hutchins, and the philosopher Mortimer Adler. The two devised a plan to impose their selection of the sixty most important books in largely the Western tradition as the core of undergraduate programs at Chicago. It failed, but not before Hutchins and Adler had managed to engender a nationwide sales program from Encyclopaedia Britannica offering a handsomely bound set of The Great Books, the result of which, as Gardner writes, is that “Few living rooms today have a Great Books set there to provide what Hutchins once called ‘colorful furniture.’” The problem?

…Adler’s biggest mistake was including a raft of science classics that were indeed enormous breakthroughs at the time, but are now hopelessly dated and much too technical for today’s average reader. To be educated you surely don’t need to wade through Aristotle’s scientific treatises, or books by Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Bohr, Einstein, Eddington, Heisenberg and other giants of science. You can’t learn anything about modern math by plowing through Euclid’s Elements…. To understand something about science the best plan is to read a short history of science, and popular works on relativity and quantum mechanics.

Two final thoughts about Gardner.

He wasn’t a born skeptic, at least not in the sense that as a mere lad he was already sounding like H.L. Mencken. He early hung around with prominent magicians and he learned gradually but prodigiously from them about deception and illusion to include the development of an invincible sense that magic is “magic.” He branched out from there to apply those lessons to all manner of con games over a long life. Most of us can learn from Gardner’s pilgrim’s progress. I certainly have. Just before entering college, I applied for a job selling The Great Books door-to-door, meeting a clean-cut young Mr. Brown in a checkered jacket for a make-or-break interview to judge my suitability for such a cultural mission, Mr. Brown none other than the “District Manager” of Great Books, for lunch in a chromed diner in a new bowling alley, after first a close inspection in the parking lot of his brand new Cadillac, and me confessing to Mr. Brown that I wanted the job not for money but to see that Chaucer became better known in the middle class, based on my certainty that thereby the Republic might finally become fully enlightened. I got the job. But only after Brown told me that when a door opened, I should immediately hold up a large poster showing a beautiful illustration of The Great Books and ask, “Don’t you want your kids to have this for college?” I lasted a couple of days. A “learning experience.”

Chicagoan Saul Bellow’s wonderful novel, Herzog, is an ironic story about a scholar of great ideas and among many things dramatizes the atmosphere of The Great Books moment in our cultural history. To Gardner’s objection about the infeasibility of reading some of the basic texts, Bellow adds the Quixotic drama of trying to live day-to-day solely in the mindset of The Great Books.

Gardner seems finally a good friend. His autobiography is highly recommended.