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All The Madmen

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science

By Martin Gardner 

28 Apr, 2024

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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To quote its subtitle, Martin Gardner’s 1957 Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science studies the curious theories of modern pseudoscientists and the strange, amusing, and alarming cults that surround them.” It is, to further quote the cover, a study in human gullibility.”

Fads and Fallacies might be part of the answer to a question I have sometimes pondered. How is it that, having as a teen inhaled a diet of right-wing science fiction with extremely dubious premises, I didn’t end up a Pierre-Poilievre-voting anti-vaxxer screaming vile epithets at women and visible minorities, while firmly insisting that crack-smoking welfare queens kept us from using the Dean Drive to terraform Venus by 1985? It is a reasonable hypothesis that this is evidence of my exceptional intelligence, keen insight, and sincere modesty… but maybe I just got lucky because my teen reading material also included works like this Gardner book1.

Fads and Fallacies is a wide-ranging survey of pseudoscience and its ilk, focusing mostly but not entirely on American theories. When appropriate, Gardner speculates what made particular pseudosciences enticing2. One does not care to think about the effects of the research process. If reading these 373 pages of willful folly leaves one convinced the human race should be dropped into the sun mildly misanthropic, what would have been the effect on the writer who had to read the full expanse of the original crankery?

In any case, Gardner embraces humour rather than cold fury. He chooses to be amused by the eccentrics and charlatans who plague civilization. At the same time, he underlines that there is a real human cost to pseudoscience. Money is squandered and lifespans shortened. While one can argue that the gullible are ripe fruit intended by providence for the plucking, the victims are not always the gullible. The victims might be dupes’ families or if very unlucky, their constituents. Perhaps Gardner calculated that fury makes the crank seem a victim, while laughter makes them appear pitiable3.

SF fans of a certain bent may be put off by Gardner’s comments about science fiction and its fans.

[quote]Judging by the number of Campbell’s readers who are impressed by this nonsense, the average fan may very well be a chap in his teens, with a smattering of scientific knowledge culled mostly from science fiction, enormously gullible, with a strong bent toward occultism, no understanding of scientific method, and a basic insecurity for which he compensates by fantasies of scientific power.” [/quote]

As damning as those comments are, they are clearly critiques based in familiarity, not the sneer of someone who would never read SF. Happily that quote does not describe me. How sad for those other guys.

Science being in a constant state of flux, the question arises how to distinguish theories fated to be disproven or shown as incomplete from pure dingbattery? Gardner offers two extremely useful litmus tests4: cranks tend to be isolated from the scientific community and they tend to be paranoid with delusions of grandeur. With these criteria in hand, we can easily distinguish between legitimate but incorrect scientific models (such as Fred Hoyle’s steady-state model put forth in 1960) and crank science (such as Fred Hoyle’s steady-state model asserted in 2000).

Readers must approach texts from the middle part of the century with some trepidation, values having shifted somewhat since then. However, while Gardner is very much of his time and place, the text could have aged a lot worse than it did, which is to say, for a straight, white, middle-class Eisenhower-era academic, Gardner was much less racist and homophobic than I feared I would find him on this rereading5.

While in some respects dated, Fads and Fallacies is depressingly relevant to today’s world. Some pseudosciences are still with us, while novel pseudosciences follow a pattern that will be familiar to anyone who has read Fads and Fallacies. It’s a pleasant surprise to discover that Fads and Fallacies is still in print. Less pleasant to realize that it needs to be.

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Kobo), and here (Words Worth Books).

I didn’t find Fads & Fallacies at Chapters-Indigo. That may reflect the dire state of the troubled bookseller’s search engine. The search functions cannot distinguish between Martin Gardner” and George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois” (authors of co-edited anthologies which may show up in their database as George RR Martin Gardner Dozois”). No hits on the title I’m reviewing here, so perhaps they refuse to stock this text for some undoubtedly malevolent reason.

No doubt to my editor’s intense relief, I will list the contents while trying to keep comments to no more than a sentence each.

In the Name of Science

An introductory chapter explaining the book’s thesis.

Flat and Hollow

Flat and hollow earth pseudosciences.

Monsters of Doom

Dubious astronomical and cosmological models; my introduction to Velikovsky.

The Forteans

Charles Fort and his ilk.

Flying Saucers

The flying saucer fad of the 1940s and 1950s.


Alfred Lawsons Lawsonomy”, which I would have put in Monsters of Doom.

Down with Einstein!

Various attempts to replace Einstein. Oddly, I’d have expected antisemitism to play more of a role in this chapter.

Sir Isaac Babson

The efforts of Roger Babson and the Gravity Research Foundation to find gravity shields.

Dowsing Rods and Doodlebugs

Various nonsense methods of finding oil and water, since adapted to finding landmines.

Under the Microscope

Various advocates of the spontaneous generation of living forms.

Geology versus Genesis

Various efforts to arrive at geology consistent with biblical literalism.


How Soviet genetics were derailed for generations by a well-connected crank. To the extend that this crippled America’s cold war rival, Gardner seems to approve.

Apologists for Hate

The ever-flourishing field of scientific racism. This chapter should have aged a lot worse than it did. Alas.

Atlantis and Lemuria

The quest to prove that an imaginary kingdom created for rhetorical purposes was real.

The Great Pyramid

Various pundits apply the blind men and the elephant method to the Great Pyramid.

Medical Cults

What it says on the tin.

Medical Quacks

Also, what it says on the tin. This and the previous chapter could have been merged.

Food Faddists

The exciting world of extraordinary diets.

Throw Away Your Glasses!

William Horatio Bates’ method for correcting eyesight.

Eccentric Sexual Theories

Also, exactly what it says. This is another chapter that could have aged so much more badly than it did.


Wilhelm Reichs orgone” (a sort of sex energy). I don’t know why Reich got his own chapter.


L. Ron Hubbard’s foray into mental health science, in the process of being rebranded as Scientology at the time of print. Gardner could include this without worrying about Scientologist rat-fuckery.

General Semantics, Etc.

Alfred Korzybski and Samuel I. Hayakawas general semantics, and related subjects.

Regular James Nicoll Reviews readers may remember that long-time SF editor and writer Reginald Bretnor segued from denouncing irrational ivory-tower pseudoscience to endorsing general semantics in his 1974 Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow: A Discursive Symposium.

From Bumps to Handwriting

Cranial bumps and handwriting as doorways to the human soul.

ESP and PK

The exciting world of extrasensory perception, with particular focus on Joseph Banks Rhine.

This is an odd chapter. On the one hand Gardner is circumspect, almost respectful of Rhine. On the other, Gardner is very clear how flawed Rhine’s methods and results were.

Bridey Murphy and Other Matters

Reincarnation: real? Or should one pay attention to the Everest-sized mountain of evidence suggesting that it was all one womans fantasizing?

1: I’d also credit having encountered various works by Stephen Jay Gould and George Orwell at critical moments in my development. Not that either was flawless, but they provide useful alternative perspectives to those put forth by Jerry Pournelle and James P. Hogan.

2: Gardner does point out that 19th medicine was itself often ill-informed bunkum and that crank nostrums might have saved people, by sparing them from bleeding with leeches or from poisonous medicines.

3: Gardner notes that when he received letters of response from the cranks featured in his work, the cranks tended to protest that he had treated them unfairly — while praising his insight into rival cults.

4: Something to which Gardner frequently alludes but never discusses in its own right is what talk.origins called crank magnetism,” the tendency of people who embrace one dubious model to embrace a host of them. For example, A. E. van Vogt, who has been on my mind of late, appears in several chapters. It’s almost as though, having distanced himself from his childhood religion, van Vogt spent the rest of his life looking for something to fill the void.

5: I had remembered that Gardner disparaged both the Big Bang model and continental drift. In 1957, of course, the available evidence for these theories was inconclusive and unpersuasive. I did not find any such disparagement upon rereading this book. Perhaps I was thinking of another Gardner book or article? Another 1950s skeptic?