Hermits and Cranks
Fifty years ago Martin Gardner launched the modern skeptical movement.
Unfortunately, much of what he wrote about is still current today
By MICHAEL SHERMER
PHOTO BY BRAD HINES
Martin Gardner's book In the Name of Science is the bible of the modern
In 1950 Martin Gardner published an article in the Antioch Review entitled
"The Hermit Scientist," about what we would today call pseudoscientists.It
was Gardner's first publication of a skeptical nature (he was the math
games columnist for Scientific American for more than a quarter of a
century). In 1952 he expanded it into a book called In the Name of Science,
with the descriptive subtitle "An entertaining survey of the high priests
and cultists of science, past and present." Published by Putnam, thebook
sold so poorly that it was quickly remaindered and lay dormant until1957,
when it was republished by Dover. It has come down to us as Fads and
Fallacies in the Name of Science, which is still in print and is arguably
the skeptic classic of the past half a century.
Thankfully, there has been some progress since Gardner offered his first
criticisms of pseudoscience. Now largely antiquated are his chapterson
believers in a flat earth, a hollow earth, Atlantis and Lemuria, Alfred
William Lawson, Roger Babson, Trofim Lysenko, Wilhelm Reich and Alfred
Korzybski. But disturbingly, a good two thirds of the book's contentsare
relevant today, including Gardner's discussions of homeopathy, naturopathy,
osteopathy, iridiagnosis (reading the iris of the eye to determine bodily
malfunctions), food faddists, cancer cures and other forms of medical
quackery, Edgar Cayce, the Great Pyramid's alleged mystical powers,
handwriting analysis, ESP and PK (psychokinesis), reincarnation, dowsing
rods, eccentric sexual theories, and theories of group racial differences.
The "hermit scientist," a youthful Gardner wrote, works alone and is
ignored by mainstream scientists. "Such neglect, of course, only
strengthens the convictions of the self-declared genius." But Gardnerwas
wrong by half in his prognostications: "The current flurry of discussion
about Velikovsky and Hubbard will soon subside, and their books willbegin
to gather dust on library shelves." Adherents to Immanuel Velikovsky's
views on how celestially caused global catastrophes shaped the beliefsof
ancient humans are a quaint few surviving in the interstices of fringe
culture. L. Ron Hubbard, however, has been canonized by the Church of
Scientology as the founding saint of a world religion.
In 1952 Gardner could not have known that the nascent flying saucer craze
would turn into an alien industry: "Since flying saucers were first
reported in 1947, countless individuals have been convinced that theearth
is under observation by visitors from another planet." Absence of evidence
then was no more a barrier to belief than it is today, and ufologists
proffered the same conspiratorial explanations for the dearth of proof:"I
have heard many readers of the saucer books upbraid the government inno
uncertain terms for its stubborn refusal to release the 'truth' aboutthe
elusive platters. The administration's 'hush hush policy' is angrilycited
as proof that our military and political leaders have lost all faithin the
wisdom of the American people."
Even then Gardner was bemoaning that some beliefs never seem to go outof
vogue, as he recalled an H. L. Mencken quip from the 1920s: "Heave anegg
out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere
in the U.S. today." Gardner cautions that when religious superstition
should be on the wane, it is easy "to forget that thousands of high school
teachers of biology, in many of our southern states, are still afraidto
teach the theory of evolution for fear of losing their jobs." Today
creationism has spread northward and mutated into the oxymoronic formof
And the motives of the hermit scientists have not changed either. Gardner
recounts the day that Groucho Marx interviewed Louisiana state senator
Dudley J. LeBlanc about a "miracle" cure-all vitamin-and-mineral tonic
called Hadacol that the senator had invented. When Groucho asked the
senator what it was good for, LeBlanc answered with surprising honesty:"It
was good for five and a half million for me last year."
What I find especially valuable about Gardner's views are his insightsinto
the differences between science and pseudoscience. On the one extremewe
have ideas that are most certainly false, "such as the dianetic viewthat a
one-day-old embryo can make sound recordings of its mother's conversation."
In the borderlands between the two "are theories advanced as working
hypotheses, but highly debatable because of the lack of sufficient data."
Of these Gardner selects a most propitious example: "the theory thatthe
universe is expanding." That theory would now fall at the other extremeend
of the spectrum, where lie "theories almost certainly true, such as the
belief that the earth is round or that men and beasts are distant cousins."
How can we tell if someone is a scientific crank? Gardner offers this
advice: (1) "First and most important of these traits is that crankswork
in almost total isolation from their colleagues." Cranks typically donot
understand how the scientific process operatesthat they need to try out
their ideas on colleagues, attend conferences and publish their hypotheses
in peer-reviewed journals before announcing to the world their startling
discovery. Of course, when you explain this to them they say that their
ideas are too radical for the conservative scientific establishment to
accept. (2) "A second characteristic of the pseudo-scientist, which greatly
strengthens his isolation, is a tendency toward paranoia," which manifests
itself in several ways:
(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. The recognized societies refuseto
let him lecture. The journals reject his papers and either ignore hisbooks
or assign them to "enemies" for review. It is all part of a dastardlyplot.
It never occurs to the crank that this opposition may be due to errorin
his work.... (4) He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the
greatest scientists and the best-established theories. When Newton wasthe
outstanding name in physics, eccentric works in that science were violently
anti-Newton. Today, with Einstein the father-symbol of authority, a crank
theory of physics is likely to attack Einstein.... (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.
We should keep these criteria in mind when we explore controversial ideas
on the borderlands of science. "If the present trend continues," Gardner
concludes, "we can expect a wide variety of these men, with theoriesyet
unimaginable, to put in their appearance in the years immediately ahead.
They will write impressive books, give inspiring lectures, organize
exciting cults. They may achieve a following of oneor one million. Inany
case, it will be well for ourselves and for society if we are on ourguard
against them." So we still are, Martin. That is what skeptics do, andin
tribute for all you have done, we shall continue to honor your founding
Michael Shermer is founding publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com)
and author of How We Believe and The Borderlands of Science.