Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Polymath envy

Martin Gardner, so often, was way too smart for me. I first encountered him in the 1970s in the magazine "Scientific American," where he wrote a column on scientific puzzles and games. He often left me in the dust. But Gardner, a polymath writer, critic, and debunker of cranks and charlatans, never failed to entertain.

Gardner, who died in May at 95, has been celebrated for something like 70 years, and after his death several compilations of quotes from his work have been published. Many come from his skeptical writings, such as this definition of a crank: "If a man persists in advancing views that are contradicted by all available evidence, and which offer no reasonable grounds for serious consideration, he will rightfully be dubbed a crank by colleagues." He said, however, that "Even when a pseudoscientific theory is completely worthless there is a certain educational value in refuting it."

In this age of 9-11 "truthers," Obama citizenship-doubting "birthers," evolution deniers, cell-phone-caused brain-cancer fans, vaccine-caused autism worriers - the list does not end - it was great to have the clear thinking of a Martin Gardner. But my favorite quote comes from his introduction - in 1960 - to an edition of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum: "We are all little children walking down a road of yellow brick in a crazy, outlandish, Ozzy sort of world. We know that wisdom, love and courage are essential virtues, but like Dorothy we cannot decide whether it is best to seek for better brains (our electronic computers grow more powerful every year!) or for kinder, more loving hearts."

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