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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Martin Gardner: skeptical inquirer

When I discovered him as a teenager, Martin Gardner seemed magical. To this day, the red cover of his Annotated Alice, is a talisman for me. In the dark ages before the world wide web, I never encountered such a network of connections between ideas as his Alice held. In Gardner's world, concepts were like sparks in a roomful of firecrackers--each lit up several others, which in turn, lit up still more.

I found his "Mathematical Games" column a bit too mathematical--not in difficulty but in his tendency to catalogue the attributes of numbers and shapes. But his column was succeeded by Douglas Hofstadter's even more playful "Metamagical Themas" (an anagram homage), and Hofstadter is a hero of mine. Hofstadter's column was followed by A. K. Dewdney's "Computer Recreations" (later renamed "Mathematical Recreations") which was a huge influence on me; a babysitter who taught me how to program gave me a book of Dewdney's columns and I have been a recreational programmer ever since. I worked one of Dewdney's projects--an evolution simulation--into a high school science fair project that was over the head of all the judges. (I was beaten by my friend Leah's "Hot Pants?" in which she set her spandex on fire.)

These writers all treat knowledge as an irresistible fount of joy, and it is their excitement as much as anything that has made me love learning. And I think they had another type of influence on me, one much more unexpected: making me a skeptic.

Gardner's name immediately calls up Isaac Asimov, another absurdly prolific polymath. It makes perfect sense to me that the same mind that hatched the robot stories and was driven to write a guide to Shakespeare (and the overrated Foundation and so much else) would be an atheist humanist. Gardner was one, too, and Dewdney and Gardner both wrote books debunking pseudoscience-like homeopathy. (Dewdney is the only skeptic of the September 11th, 2001 attacks whom I can't dismiss--he couldn't understand how the cell phone calls on United 93 worked, so he chartered several planes and flew around testing dozens of cell phones and networks, with mixed results.)

Beliefs for these people are built carefully, on evidence not whim; they cannot conjure them whole cloth, which is why a belief holds any weight at all. They cannot hear of a theory, of consciousness for example (an obsession of Hofstadter's and of mine) without coming up with questions about it. Not everyone in science applies this questioning so broadly; it seems somehow connected to being a polymath.

To most religious people, it is the most sensible, livable parts of scripture that stand out: the forgiveness by Jesus, the wisdom of Mohammed, the patience of Moses. But to a skeptic it is the most absurd parts that jump out: the commandment to stone to death a disobedient child, the convoluted explanations for why God put fake dinosaur bones in the ground, the ridiculous origin of the book of Mormon. Perhaps this is a reflection a position on the mild end of the autism spectrum; it may be that, in a human world, strict consistency or coherence is a useless preoccupation. A skeptic runs afoul of the greater part of humanity, who do not lose sleep over a contradiction in their priest's sermon.

But this same skepticism can pierce the veil of dogma because logic on its own is a system of meaning independent from dogma. I imagine this is why repressive states so often arrest and suppress scientists; they are natural humanists, since nationalism and other supremacisms are so comparatively arbitrary.

All this is to say, that Gardner, who spent the later part of his life writing for the magazine Skeptical Inquirer is more than another example of a particularly smart man. A polymath is not just a novelty, whose death and decline reflects poorly on age of specialization. He represents a gregariousness of intellect that can transcend borders and boundaries.

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Anonymous Tom on Thu May 27, 08:46:00 AM:
The perception of science and skepticism going hand in hand is a common one.

I was asked yesterday by a group of 6th graders if all scientists didn't believe in god. I had to explain that no, this wasn't the case. But then discussed why they are often seen as skeptics. The truth is, of course, that the nature of science is to question.

Scientists upset people when they don't perceive a boundary between what is and is not acceptable to question.

This isn't new, it is the enlightenment still at work.
Saper Aude! and all that