Friday, May 21, 2010

Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science
06/02/2010 - See the Comments for further discussion of General Semantics.

Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science was written in 1952 and revised in 1957 by the American mathematics and science writer Martin Gardner. The book’s 26 chapters catalog wacky ideas and the cranks and pseudo-scientists who put them forward. The book reminds us over and over again of how scientific skepticism (or any skepticism for that matter) is a skill that we have to practice daily and diligently.

To be honest, the book was a bit hard to read in two respects. First, you are reading about American fads and fallacies of more than 50 years ago and we have 50+ years of knowledge to know a little bit more about what is correct and what is crap. Reading about people who tried to pass off what we know today as crap as correct can be a little tiring. It seems not worth the effort, but you must keep reminding yourself that we are not safe today as we have our own fads and fallacies and cranks who peddle them. Use the book as a pattern of what to look out for. To that point, Gardner comes up with “five ways in which the sincere pseudo-scientist’s paranoid tendencies are likely to be exhibited.

(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.
(4) He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories.
(5) He often has a tendency to write in complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself coined.”

The second respect in which the book is difficult to read is that you are dealing with crazy, inaccurate, and often clearly wrong ideas and it’s hard to keep straight the ideas, names and places. So, all I can suggest is that you read a chapter here and there as needed. I came across the book because I first encountered the idea of “the map is not the territory” by Alfred Korzybski (1879 – 1950) while reading, of all things, My Life in France by Julia Child. Then I ran across one of Korzybski’s crazy diagrams that looks like a strange art project and thought wow, there must be something here. But by chance I also read that Gardner should be consulted about Korzybski. So consult I did. Chapter 23, General Semantics, Etc. deals with Korzybski and his ideas which I think spared my sanity so as I did not plunge head first into Korzybski’s impressive sounding Science and Sanity.

Upton Sinclair
One character, who pops up many times throughout Fads & Fallacies, is the American activitist author Upton Sinclair (1878 – 1968). Sinclair wrote the 1906 novel The Jungle exposing the corruption of the meatpacking industry in the early 20th century. It seems that Sinclair didn’t meet a fad or crazy idea that he didn’t throw his whole self behind with considerable energy. In Chapter 17, Medical Quacks, we learn that Sinclair was as vocal supporter of the obviously fraudulent American doctor Albert Abrams (1863 – 1924). In a note accompanying the chapter, Gardner notes that H.L. Mencken (1880 – 1956) in Prejudices, Vol. 6 held that “the same rebellious impulses that make a political radical too often find similar outlets in quack medical opinions.” It reminded me a bit of the Salem Hypothesis – that there is a correlation between subscribing to creationism and working in an engineering discipline. (Developing the relationship is left as an exercise to the reader.)

In Defense of Organic Farming
In Chapter 18, Food Faddists, Gardner covers questionable ideas such as Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy and narrowly focused ideas like Fletcherism - “nature will castigate those who don’t masticate”. Lumped in are some ideas that have proven themselves out today. For example, organic farming mentioned in the chapter comes in for some scorn from Gardner. However, today organic farming is accepted as a viable agricultural practice. Even ideas from folks like Gayelord Hauser (1895 – 1984), a self-styled American nutritionist and Hollywood dietician, gets the last laugh in that his ideas of avoiding sugar and gluten have become more mainstream as well as finding support in research.


  1. Your response to Gardner's book, at least in relation to Korzybski, shows the harm that Gardner did.

    Please check out the following article written by me. IN THE NAME OF SKEPTICISM: MARTIN GARDNER’S MISREPRESENTATIONS OF

    I'll write more about Gardner on my blog Korzybski Files ( within the next few days.

    The so-called skeptic community has simply ignored what I have to say.

  2. After reading through the material you referenced and related reading, I continue to agree with Gardner's general assessement on General Semantics. I may not have used the same language as Gardner, but I can't say that I disagree with Gardner. Perhaps, the problem (no pun intended) is one of semantics and the phrasing “scientific approach to understanding human behavior” which is your institute’s mission. The word scientific implies gathering observable, empirical, and measurable evidence. To this point, I don't see that such evidence exists. I won’t deny that there may be people helped in their own personal lives or in their understanding of human behavior through General Semantics, but, not until I see evidence that is independent and consistent would I begin to change my view that General Semantics is not truly a scientific discipline.

    Looking back at Chapter 23 of Fads and Fallacies I was struck by this that Gardner wrote: “…the battle against bad linguistic habits of thought had been waged for centuries by philosophers of many schools.” This stuck in my mind as I read through the Basic Understanding section of the General Semantics web site because while I found interesting ideas there, I couldn’t make the leap past Gardner’s basic characterization. Maybe Gardner was sensitive to the “philosophical” nature of General Semantics and that guided the tone of what he wrote.