Dear Martin, Dear Marcello: Gardner and Truzzi on Skepticism. Edited by Dana Richards. World Scientific, Singapore, 2017. ISBNs: 9789813203693 hardcover, 9789813203709 softcover. 458pp. Hardcover, $88; softcover, $48.
Martin Gardner (1914–2010) was a famous writer and philosopher of science, and Marcello Truzzi (1935–2004) was trained in sociology. Both had backgrounds in magic, giving them intimate knowledge of how people can be tricked and believe things unsupported by evidence. Both were founders of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in 1976, but Truzzi soon left and founded his own journal, The Zetetic Scholar (not to be confused with The Zetetic, which became the Skeptical Inquirer). Much of their correspondence, collected and published for the first time in Dear Martin, Dear Marcello, is about Gardner’s disapproval of what Truzzi published, which he thought conferred too much respectability to nonsense, while Truzzi criticized what he saw as CSICOP’s debunking stance, which he considered to be in breach of its declared position of not dismissing anything without full evaluation.
As editor Dana Richards sums up neatly in his introduction, Truzzi contended that Gardner and CSICOP acted like lawyers, more interested in winning a case than abiding by science’s rules of conduct. But, as he also says, CSICOP was never intended to be a scientific organization, performing experiments or carrying out field studies; as Gardner himself says in one of his letters, it had no lab. Gardner also opposed “believers” in the paranormal becoming CSICOP members (as opposed to subscribers). He specifically mentions Harold Puthoff, of whom the introduction nicely says that he and Russell Targ imagined they could do research in parapsychology but instead dealt with “psychics” who were cleverer than they were.
The book has four sections of greatly varying length: “The Road to CSICOP,” “The Demarcation Problem” (by far the longest), “The Dissolution,” and “Return to Cordiality.”
All the early letters are from Gardner, Truzzi’s having apparently not been preserved. There is much about Uri Geller (and professional magicians’ astonishment at the obviousness and crudity of some of his tricks), proposals for the body that became CSICOP, and reputable publishers making a big thing of their integrity when dealing with other subjects but bringing out the most appalling rubbish on the paranormal. Gardner withdrew a book from the now-defunct Crowell-Collier Publishing Company because they published John G. Fuller’s Arigo, about the Brazilian “psychic surgeon,” while Andrija Puharich’s dreadful book Uri, saying Geller was controlled from an alien spacecraft, was actually published by no less prestigious a firm than Doubleday.
One of Gardner’s themes is that proposed explanations for “paranormal” phenomena are often ridiculously complicated when they are in fact very simple—for example, the idea that Geller surreptitiously applied some chemical for his cutlery-bending. Ted Serios (who claimed to project thought images onto film) and Jule Eisenbud (who fell for his tricks and wrote a whole book about him) are also discussed, with Gardner making an interesting comparison with Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley fairies: both intelligent men taken in by rather crude deception, and both absolutely unable to alter their opinion in the face of mountainous evidence.
Gardner is vehement about both neo-astrologer Michel Gauquelin and Immanuel Velikovsky, to whom Truzzi was more sympathetic. Gardner makes the good point that taking Gauquelin seriously meant his work would be trumpeted as evidence for astrology, when in fact Gauquelin was unequivocal that it provided no evidence whatsoever for traditional astrology. Other points Gardner makes that have become familiar in the skeptical field are that scientists are bad at testing paranormal claims (one proudly spoke of “20 years experience of designing electronic instruments”—to which Gardner’s comment was: “as though that qualified [him] for psi testing!”); that the presence of a skeptical mind is conveniently claimed to inhibit paranormal powers; and that even when claimants’ cheating is proved beyond all doubt it doesn’t mean they always cheat: the mystic influence comes and goes in an unpredictable manner, it can’t be turned on and off like a tap, and maybe they don’t want to disappoint people. Gardner gives an example of the appalling dangers of belief in the paranormal: a girl in need of an operation who wanted to fly to the Philippines and have it done by “psychic surgeons” there.
Truzzi, however, is similarly critical (sometimes very strongly so) of philosopher and CSICOP cofounder Paul Kurtz (“a devious scoundrel”) and Philip Klass (both of whom I had the pleasure of meeting and found very pleasant). He does, however, make the apposite comment that “The problem with most psi investigators ([John] Taylor is the best example) is that they are so arrogant that they believe they are too smart to be fooled.” He mentions investigators who are so certain they cannot be deceived that they say people faking psychic powers do in fact have such powers and are lying when they deny it, referring to the famous case of Arthur Conan Doyle insisting that Houdini had such powers. I was reminded of those who similarly said that Mike Edwards and Steve Shaw, the perpetrators of James Randi’s Project Alpha who completely fooled the investigators at the McDonnell Laboratory, were also lying when they denied having paranormal powers!
There is much discussion of the definitions of charlatan and crackpot, and Truzzi mentions the sad case of the indubitably brilliant Linus Pauling’s obsession with vitamin C.
A curious feature of the book is that postal addresses, phone numbers, etc., are replaced by “[[item] withheld].” The intention to protect privacy is no doubt admirable, but somewhat pointless in many cases—publishers whose addresses would be publicly available, for example, or Gardner’s phone number—and it would save space if they were replaced by “…” or, like a great deal of other irrelevant matter, simply omitted.
At one point, Gardner and Truzzi apparently agreed to differ and stop arguing—but then continued! “We are hopelessly of different mindsets—let’s stop trying to convert each other,” said Gardner. And, “How you can admire a man who took Doyle’s fairy photos seriously is beyond me.” Things really did get hostile, Truzzi calling Gardner “intellectually dishonest” and saying he must conclude “the truth matters little” to him. Eventually Gardner bluntly asked Truzzi to stop writing to him; there were a few more contacts, a gap of about a year, then the correspondence resumed quite cordially.
Gardner comes off best. Truzzi was indubitably clever but guilty sometimes of what I call the “cart before the horse” approach: “We have a mystery; how can we solve it?” rather than “Is there really any mystery?” He suggested Gauquelin’s “Mars effect” might have something to do with athletes’ and their parents’ body types and such people’s frequency of sexual intercourse—an example of Gardner’s point about over-complicated explanations! As Gardner says, it is far more likely that his raw data were inaccurate.
The editing of this book is decidedly poor, with many oddities of punctuation, wording, and spelling, and it is not clear whether they are in the originals (in which case this should be indicated) or are transcription errors; the index is almost useless: there are only two references to Gauquelin (one misspelt “Gauguelin”), who is actually mentioned in hundreds of letters, two each to Klass, Carl Sagan, and Targ, and three each to Velikovsky, Geller, Puthoff, and Kurtz, all of whom are also in fact mentioned many times.
The book is a treasure-trove of apposite comments on many well-known people and claimed phenomena, and it is a pity that they will so often be untraceable because of the poor indexing. It is also brave to publish very blunt remarks about people such as Geller and von Däniken (“an outright charlatan”) who are still alive. This is an indubitably valuable book, but its value could have been greatly enhanced by better editing and indexing.