Good, Bad and Ugly

Science, Good, Bad and Bogus
Martin Gardner
Prometheus Books 1989, 412 pages including index (paperback)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was a film starring Clint Eastwood, and I can’t help but believe somebody had this in mind when naming the book. Gardner died this past May, even while I was reading again his entertaining collection of essays on fraud, pseudo science and various other mental lapses.

Gardner had previously written Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. In Science, Good, Bad and Bogus (GBB) he continues the narrative. He does not set out to explain good, bad and bogus science in story form. Instead, the book comprises a selection of essays, separately written.

The writings derive from a number of popular sources, including Science (the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), Scientific American, Yale Review, Stranger than Fact and Technology Review. The collection also includes an excerpt from Gardner’s own Logic Machines and Diagrams, a copy of which I happily own, having purchased it as a teenager. But largely the essays come from the New York Review of Books (NYR), to which he was a prodigious contributor.

Regarding the latter, it would seem that every time the NYR editors came across a choice piece of mental dead meat they would nod their collective heads. “We need to give this one to Gardner.”

Gardner must have shortly in his life become stunned and appalled at the intellectual vacuum that pervades modern society. In an age of enormous scientific advancements from relativity and quantum mechanics to exploration of the Solar System, there remains an undercurrent of crass stupidity that assails the sensibilities of thinking people. He shows no compassion for writers and speakers who blather nonsense in the face of hard facts. Reactions to his scathing reviews are like the squeals of rodents caught in the beam of a spotlight.

Charles Tart was a “parapsychologist” doing research at the University of California at Davis. He used a machine called a “Ten-Choice Trainer” (TCT) to help people with psychic ability improve their scores on tests for same. The test worked like this:

A sender in one room viewed a panel with ten playing cards, ace through ten. A randomizing mechanism would select one of the ten cards and would activate a light next to the card. The sender would then push a button, causing a signal to be sent to the receiver. This told the receiver that the sender was now looking at the selected card. The receiver would then turn a dial to select the correct card. The dial position was fed back to the sender in real time, allowing the sender to mentally direct the receiver to the correct card. Finally the receiver would select a card by pushing a button next to the card. If the receiver’s choice was correct, a chime would sound. This would provide positive reinforcement and would help the receiver to learn and to sharpen his extrasensory perception (ESP) skills.

Tart wrote a book describing his work, Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception, published by Chicago Press in 1976. In the book he claimed scores considerably better than could be expected by chance. He heralded his results a “breakthrough” in ESP research.

Came time for Gardner to review the book in 1977 for NYR, and he, as was his practice, went beyond checking for spelling and grammar. As Gardner reports, three of Tart’s colleagues at UC Davis wrote a critique of Tart’s experimental method. They had read Tart’s book and asked to see the raw data. Reviewing the data they realized, for one, the randomizer was not exactly random. They likened Tart’s protocol to a chemist using a dirty test tube and obtaining anomalous results, and they suggested that Tart repeat his experiments after fixing the problem of the non-random random number device.

Gardner saw an additional flaw in Tart’s technique. If the sender, subconsciously or deliberately, delayed sending his signal to the receiver, the receiver might pick up on this idiosyncrasy, and this could become a signaling path from the sender to the receiver. The receiver could pick cards depending on the amount of delay and could improve his score above chance.

Gardner also points out a finding by the mathematicians who examined the data. There is an unexplained absence of doublets. Not so many 2, 2 and 7, 7 sequences, for example, as one should expect. The TCT recorded only the receiver’s score, not the entire sequence of random numbers. This led to the possibility that the sender was hitting the send button a second time whenever the new number was the same as the previous number. The receiver could significantly increase his score by never choosing the same card twice in a row.

Wait, there’s more. The sender and receiver were in nearby office cubicles, and one sender, Gaines Thomas, revealed he would sometimes orally coax his own display of the receiver’s actions as he monitored them on his display. He would curse when the sender appeared about to stop on the wrong card. Whether the receiver was ever cued by these sounds coming from the sender’s cube is not known.

In response to the criticism, Tart revised his technique and repeated his experiments. He published his results as “Effects of Immediate Feedback on ESP Performance: A Second Study” in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.1 Gardner tellingly quotes a significant statement in the paper: “There is no evidence that more percipients scored significantly above chance than would be expected if no ESP were operating.”

Rather than admit the initial results were due to his own faulty technique, Tart, as Gardner reports, attempted to explain away this lack of success. Principally, there was a lack of ESP talent for the follow-up experiment. “In the last year or two, students have become more serious, more competitive, more achievement-oriented than they were at the time of the first experiment.” And more.

Tart asserted the results of the first experiment were so significant they could not be ignored. As Gardner comments, Tart could not reconcile that the first experiment demonstrated his failure as a scientist. Rather, his earlier results put the results of the second experiment into doubt. Gardner, and the reader, are dumfounded at the audacity. Not speaking for Gardner, I would add I am not in the least surprised by Tart’s reasoning.

Tart responded to Gardner’s critique in 1981. His approach is telling:2

I see that Martin Gardner is again using this popular literary journal as a vehicle to attack my scientific research that was reported in my Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception (University of Chicago Press, 1976) [NYR, May 15]. As a working scientist, I am committed to reporting and dealing with all of the facts in my studies, whether they agree with my cherished beliefs or not. Data is primary. Gardner, by contrast, apparently knows what’s true and false in some absolute way, so when inconvenient facts run counter to his beliefs he suppresses them or rationalizes them away. He knows that ESP is impossible, so when he is presented with evidence for it, he imagines some way in which the experimenters are fools, frauds, or both. Mr. Gardner doesn’t need actual evidence for this, his suspicions are sufficient. Most people would consider his casual and unsupported accusation of fraud against one of my more successful experimenters, Gaines Thomas (now a professional psychologist), as malicious libel, but I suppose Mr. Gardner believes he’s just protecting us gullible people from ourselves.

Without belaboring the deficiencies of Tart’s response, a small highlight will illustrate. Tart mentions “accusations of fraud” and “malicious libel” with respect to experimenter Gaines Thomas. In his review, Gardner did not accuse Thomas of fraud. He merely pointed out a source of possible failure of the test protocol (swearing audibly when the receiver was straying from the correct choice). Lacking a basis for rebuttal, Tart elevated these comments beyond any reasonable interpretation in an attempted misdirection of the reader.

GBB is replete with such examples. Gardner reviews a lame or outlandish piece of work and provides the reader with an exhaustive background against which to view it. And he is merciless in his lack of praise, especially when dealing with a writer who has little appreciation for the truth. Reading the review is fun enough, but the subsequent exchange between Gardner and the subject is often more telling. It’s a comical aspect of human nature that a groundless proponent will only dig a deeper hole when dealing with exposure.

The book would have been entertaining enough if Gardner had stuck to failed pseudo science such as Tart’s ESP escapades. However, in GBB the reader’s cup does run over. Gardner leads us through the full spectrum of pseudo science, fools and quackery. His topics include “Hermit Scientists,” “The Irrelevance of Conan Doyle,” “Geller, Gulls, and Nitinol,” Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Two books on Talking Apes.” Thirty-eight episodes flesh out this excursion into modern, and not so, silliness.

Gardner’s review of The Preachers by James Morris (1974) gives us an insight into the excesses of religious fervor. Gardner is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, also the home of Oral Roberts’ high octane ministry and also the “one-man denomination” of Billy James Hargis.

Roberts discovered the power of godly healing when a deacon of his Georgia church suffered an accident involving his foot and a heavy motor. More miracles followed. Also more money. Subsequently his Tulsa-based Healing Waters, Inc., employed 287 workers, mostly “to open envelopes and count the cash.” Morris reports an estimated annual take of fifteen million dollars (approximately the year 1973).

There were minor problems. Roberts healed a woman with diabetes. She stopped taking her medication and died. He healed a woman with cancer. She gave testimony about her miraculous cure shortly before she died.

Hargis did not do any healing, but he did fight communism. And no wonder. I am certain the communists would have cast a baleful eye on Hargis’ half million-dollar mansion in Tulsa. That mansion with ninety phone outlets. This was about 1974, a few years before the advent of cell phones.

Billy Graham escapes the scorn heaped on others by holding to the line of the true faith. A minor embarrassment was his close association with Richard Nixon. Graham was particularly shocked by the red-blooded language that emanated from the now-famous tape recordings.

Near the end of GBB is an item titled “Broca’s Brain.” Carl Sagan published this collection of his own essays in 1979, and Gardner’s review is an insight into Sagan’s survey of intellectual foolishness. The reader will be recommended on this title, as well.3

The unfortunate thing about GBB is that many of the subjects of his review are now dated. Where is Uri Geller now? And whatever happened to Oral Roberts? GBB touches on Lyall Watson without reference to Lifetide, which introduced us to the Hundredth Monkey Syndrome. Apparently NYR never picked up on the title.

The good thing about GBB is that you can take many of his subjects, exchange anachronistic names for more pertinent ones, and the story will read about the same. If one thing has changed since the publication of GBB that thing has not been the failure of human sensibility.

By our good fortune, the New York Review of Books has seen fit to publish its archives on line. You should be able to pick up many of Gardner’s fascinating pieces, including humorous exchanges with his review subjects on their Web site.4

Readers of Martin Gardner often assumed he held advanced degrees in mathematics and science. In fact he had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago and a deep understanding of these topics gained through tireless research for his writing. Gardner fans could do well reading only GBB. They can do even better by also looking into any other of his 50 or so works. Our Web site lists links to some of the available titles. When you purchase from Amazon through our link the NTS earns a commission.5

References
1 Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (1979, 73, 151-165)
2 See the full response here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1981/feb/19/claims-for-esp/
3 http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345336895/thenorthtexasske
4 Start here to search or to find archives by date: http://www.nybooks.com/
5 http://www.ntskeptics.org/books/gardner.htm

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2 thoughts on “Good, Bad and Ugly

  1. Pingback: Woo-Woo! | North Texas Skeptics

  2. Pingback: Myopia Writ Large | Skeptical Analysis

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