Fringe Division

By Martin Gardner
Prometheus, 257 pp.

These days, battery-powered underpants are the sort of mail-order merchandise one associates with plain, brown packages postmarked Amsterdam. More than a century ago, when electricity was a technical marvel, it was widely thought to possess a host of therapeutic powers. No less than Sears-Roebuck marketed an “electric belt” designed to deliver a strong current to both male and female genitalia, so as to stimulate potency and cure afflictions.

Voltage to the nether regions is not the goofiest example of weird science covered by Martin Gardner in On the Wild Side, which only goes to show the limitless human capacity for dreaming up nutball fictions for fun and profit – and to believe them. In 32 essays, reviews and columns (the last reprinted from the journal Skeptical Inquirer), the former mathematical puzzlemeister for Scientific American goes debunking in most of the major salons of pseudo-science: spiritualism, parapsychology, homeopathy, creationism, evangelism, astrology.

The result is a roll call of top rank nutcases. There is Wilhelm Reich, who claimed to have invented a machine that not only caused rain, but had the serendipitous side effect of warding off UFOs. There is Aleister Crowley, the British occultist and all-round attitude problem, whose charming delusion was that he was the Great Beast 666, foretold in the biblical apocalypse. There are Wilfred Kellogg and William Sadler, who together “channelled” The Urantia Book from superhuman beings, 2,097 pages of eye-popping prose on the order of: “The triodity of actuality continues to function directly in the post-Havona epochs.”

Given the allure of the paranormal, all of this should be vastly entertaining. (Did you know, for example, that George Sand twice had her head shaved, so that phrenologists could better read the bumps on her noggin?) And indeed, Gardner is a sharp cookie with an eye for the outlandish. But boy, what a crab.

It develops that Gardner is of the sit-up-straight-get-your-mind-right school of hardcore rationalism. Shame on us for telling ghost stories, for wondering whether the sinking of the Titanic might not have been foretold, for glancing at the morning horoscope. In Gardner’s view, anyone with any tolerance for this sort of mumbo jumbo is either a venal charlatan or a hapless rube, and the proper response is not wry amusement but dismissive scorn.

This has the unfortunate effect of draining all the fun out of the pool. There’s also something less than charitable about Gardner’s sourpuss hectoring. No matter that a belief in UFOs (or faith healing or creationism) provides meaning for what might otherwise be lonely or frightened lives, Gardner flays the credulous for nothing more than their credulity. They are guilty of thought crimes, and they will be ridiculed for their sins.

Ironically, Gardner the cranky shares not a little in common with the cranks at whom he scoffs. Many of these eccentrics, driven by their obsessions, are prolific authors, churning out badly written tomes on vanity presses for a clientele of converts. Equally single-minded, On the Wild Side is the third Gardner volume to deride the proponents of pseudo-science. Sloppily proofread and peppered with typos, it carries the imprint of Prometheus Books, publisher of The Skeptical Inquirer and hence a player in the propaganda war against the paranormal.

In the interests of open-mindedness, then, let’s all try an experiment in mass suggestion. I am mentally willing disappointing sales for this book. Concentrate now. This title will not show up on the bestseller lists. It will not grace your bedside table.

And when I snap my fingers you will awake, refreshed, without remembering a word of this

  • Globe and Mail August 1, 1992