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Book Review

Silly New-Age Pseudo Science Gets a Sound Thrashing

DID ADAM AND EVE HAVE NAVELS? Discourses on Reflexology, Numerology, Urine Therapy and Other Dubious Subjects by Martin Gardner W. W. Norton $26.95, 320 pages


Most of the essays in "Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?," writes veteran science writer and playful gadfly Martin Gardner, are "attacks on far-out cases of pseudoscience." Gardner's targets are generally not the religious notions or superstitions of people swept along by their ancient cultures but phony science promulgated by, and believed in, by people who should know better. Thus he does not attack the pious millions who, in Brazil, are devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary that they celebrate in Belen on the Amazon every October. Rather, he skewers such "preposterous" claims that "positions of stars correlate with character and future events."

All of Gardner's essays in this book, as in four previous collections, are columns, updated, from the magazine Skeptical Inquirer. They are therefore short, sometimes too short, and some of his subjects are too easy. It is not hard to debunk the Star of Bethlehem as a historical fact, or to decry the crazy notions that led the poor loonies of Heaven's Gate to mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe in 1997.

Yet, as readers of his "Annotated Alice" will know, Gardner has a fine and wide-ranging intelligence, and in the course of his investigations, he turns up much quaint and curious lore. Did you know that Thomas A. Edison worked on a device to communicate with the dead? Or that, in Gardner's words, "he became intrigued by the writings of that amusing mountebank Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the great guru of theosophy"? As for Blavatsky, who in the early 20th century wasn't under her spell? She captivated people as diverse as Jawaharlal Nehru and William Butler Yeats.

Gardner easily dispatches such frauds as reflexology--"To stop a toothache, squeeze a toe!" he says--urine therapy, the "New Age anthropology" of Carlos Castaneda and his many academic followers, and all sorts of people who believe in flying saucers and the like. He wastes no sympathy on the far-outs.

Numerologists like Louis Farrakhan (who used numbers extensively in his speeches during the 1995 Million Man March) and those who read prophecies by applying numbers to letters and words in the Bible draw Gardner's particular scorn. He is too hard, however, on the gentle Baha'i, a 19th century Iranian religious movement, to whom numerology is admittedly important. Gardner expresses surprise that there are more adherents to Baha'i in South Carolina than in any other state. The reason is that Baha'i has taken root among the poor black people of low-country South Carolina, who find in its pantheon of serene prophets a particular consolation.

Gardner writes, however, with great sympathy about true men of science who, despite their profession, feel a pull toward religion, or who at least feel a strong sense of awe and wonder at the universe; indeed, at the simple but dazzling fact of existence. He has only rueful affection for Sir Isaac Newton, as the great scientist plunged into alchemy and the most literal sort of Christian fundamentalism. Gardner quotes approvingly from John Maynard Keynes, who said that Newton was not, as is often supposed, the first modern rationalist, but "the last of the magicians--the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance less than 10,000 years ago."

In the course of commenting on Stephen Jay Gould's book "Rocks of Ages," which discusses the relation of science to religion, Gardner deals admiringly with Charles Darwin's long, sure voyage from the orthodox Anglicanism of his youth to the peaceful agnosticism of his old age, a journey illuminated by his discovery of the principles of evolution. Darwin never, Gardner quotes Gould as writing, used evolution to deny the existence of God.

"Rather," Gardner quotes Gould, "he argued that nature's factuality, as read within the magisterium of science, could not resolve, or even specify, the existence or character of God, the ultimate meaning of life, the proper foundations of morality or any other question within the different magisterium of religion."

Toward the end of the book Gardner quotes the physicist John Archibald Wheeler as exclaiming, "Existence, the preposterous miracle of existence! To whom has the world of opening day never come as an unbelievable sight? And to whom have the stars overhead and the hand and voice nearby never appeared as unutterably wonderful, totally beyond understanding? I know of no great thinker of any land or era who does not regard existence as the mystery of all mysteries." Even as Gardner exposes the foolishness and cruelties of phony science, he praises with awe and wonder the work of true science in revealing, bit by bit, the natural world.

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