- Paperback: 274 pages
- Publisher: Prometheus Books; Reprint edition (19 April 1991)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0879756446
- ISBN-13: 978-0879756444
- Product Dimensions: 13.8 x 1.4 x 21 cm
- Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,920,356 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher Paperback – 19 Apr 1991
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Top Customer Reviews
What I most appreciate about Gardner is the balanced perspective he brings to his subjects. Unlike many sceptics, Gardner does not succumb to universal and indiscriminate debunking. There are those who are not able to comprehend the difference between being a religous believer, for instance, and espousing Creationism and fundamentalism. Gardner understands the distinction perfectly, however, and never engages in ad hoc attacks on religion when his real target is an irrational right-wing religion. In this I find his work to be much more convincing than such sceptics as Michael Shermer and a bulk of the writers publishing on Prometheus Books. One of the best examples of Gardner's balance is his obvious liking for Shirley MacLaine despite his abhorence of many of her inane preoccupations. So, although there is an inevitable unevenness to the quality of the essays in the book, they overall stand at a very high level.
Gardner reprints many letters written to him in response to the original printing of many of the articles, and I would like to take an opportunity to quibble on one small point, though on something that he mentions several times. In writing of pentecostals, he mentions that they believe that when one is baptised in the Holy Spirit, one gift of the spirit is the ability to speak in "The Unknown Tongue.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Mr. Gardner, I now designate you as my second favorite author, next only to Arthur C. Clarke.
Like, say, James Randi, Gardner pokes fun at various fads, most of them known as "New Age." I must say I was a little confused that the text was broken into two sections both of them entitled "The New Age." That must have been a minor editor's error and, at worst, wastes a couple of pages of paper.
The most amusing character covered at some length in the text is Shirley MacLaine. A friend of mine passes from one New Age fad to the next but he doesn't hold a candle to Shirl who communicates with the dead, the gurus from millenia ago and God knows who else. In the text to which I referred above, Gardner covers L. Ron Hubbard when he was still limited to "dianetics," before that "movement" became a religion. In this volume, he confesses that long ago he just felt Hubbard to be a b-grade sci-fi writer with delusions of literary and spiritual authority. Now he finds L. Ron a pathological liar without any moral merit to speak of; that's what happened when Gardner learned more from two biographies of that founder of Scientology.
Oh, then there's J. Z. Knight who has been responsible for a real estate boom in the Pacific northwest where her disciples are flocking to get wisdom from 35,000 years ago. And the relatively short chapter on "Prime Time Preachers" was a real education to me who remembers Oral Roberts from the early 1950s!
Anyway, many other personalties and fads are reviewed here and it would take pages to mention them all. Like Randi's "Flim Flam," I recommend this as a general overview of silly fads most of them categorized as "New Age."
In the world of skeptics, Gardner was best known for bringing magic into the realm of rationalism. He was a science writer who did the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American for many years, a philosopher and an amateur magician.
For years he preached that any experiment that claimed to test for psychic powers should be observed by a magician, because only a professional trickster can catch another trickster. This was not an original idea with Gardner -- Houdini had a standing challenge against "real" mediums, which no one ever beat -- but a generation passed between Houdini's death and Gardner's revival of this crucial rule.
During that generation, many claims that "scientific experiments" had proved the existence of "psi" powers passed almost unchallenged into the public consciousness.
The great vindication of Gardner's skepticism came in the fiasco of the James McDonnell bequest.
The aviation millionaire left $500,000 for research to demonstrate psi activity. Skeptics from the Gardner circle recruited an Iowa teenager, gave him a few lessons in magic and turned him loose on the "researchers."
After a long search, the psi team announced it had discovered one, and only one, person that stood up to their most rigorous tests.
You guessed. The Iowa boy.
The counterattack of the organized skeptics has been so successful that even psi believers now limit their "proofs" to awkward statistical samplings that show psi "adepts" merely scoring "better than chance would predict."
In many cases, "better than chance would predict" is still less than 50 percent correct, so that even if psi could be proven to exist that way, so what?
The skeptics have branched out from criticizing psi to all sorts of "fringe" beliefs, like UFOs, cryptobiology (Bigfoot, yetis, Nessie), quackery, dowsing, astrology, reincarnation, perpetual motion, creationism, Freudianism, spoon bending, channeling. lost continents -- the list is almost endless. Gardner assessed them all, many in columns collected in this book.
Living on the fringe is harmless for most people. They often act foolishly in public and they pay money for worthless junk and advice, but so do skeptics sometimes. Unfortunately, a few give their lives for their beliefs.
Gullible diabetics are told to give up their insulin in favor of Chinese herbs, and they die. Psychic surgeons in the Philippines and Brazil and chiropractors in the United States steer people away from rational treatment that could help them, sometimes with fatal results.
It is unlikely that the rationalists will ever outnumber the irrationalists. Gardner put up a good fight, but he was outnumbered.
Some of the articles in "The New Age" provide convincing refutations of the topic under discussion, while other essays preach to the converted. Occasionally, he hits a bull's-eye: his essay on certain televangelists, written after the revelations about the Bakkers and before Swaggart's fall from grace, provides much information that is incriminating enough to push fence-sitting readers onto the greener side of skepticism. Other articles are valuable purely for historical reasons, such as his survey of perpetual motion machines. All too often, though, it feels like Gardner is shooting ducks in a very small barrel: easy targets, but bordering on the pathetic. One might argue that these articles are necessary because so many people believe in such garbage, but I can't imagine, for example, that his mocking summaries on the preposterous metaphysics expounded by Shirley MacLaine would convince anyone gullible enough to believe her in the first place. His chapters on the actress rarely offer direct refutation of her outlandish claims or point out their many contradictions.
The second deficiency is far more serious. Like many writers who collect their essays, Gardner has opted for reprinting the essays as they were written rather than rewriting them into a coherent and fluid whole. (His concession to the reader is to publish an afterword to each essay that reprints responses and updates information.) The problem with this unenterprising approach is twofold: since many of the essays were written on related or similar topics for disparate audiences, there is a lot of repetition, and the book bounces back and forth among subjects with no sense of direction. As a result, we read no less than four times, in nearly the same prose, about physicist John Taylor's testing of Uri Geller's "spoon-bending" trick, twice about Robert Browning's skepticism towards D. D. Home's seances, and so on. Likewise, instead of one chapter on Shirley MacLaine, we get two (three if you count the chapter on channeling), repeating much of the same information and placed in different parts of the book.
The final problem with the book is no fault of Gardner's: many of the essays are simply outdated--particularly those on borderline physics (such as superstring theory and the unsupported claims of Thomas Gold and Halton C. Arp, whose fifteen minutes are pretty much up). In fact, in 1996 Gardner published a sequel, "Weird Water and Fuzzy Logic," which I'm now eager to read.
Even though I've highlighted the negative aspects of this work, Gardner's analysis is trenchant and authoritative. Reading these essays made me realize that we need a "debunker's almanac"--an annual collection keeping up with the latest scams. In the meantime, I've ordered a subscription to "The Skeptical Inquirer."
In spite of my criticisms, I find much of Gardner's book interesting -- the most useful parts for me were his devastating exzmination of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and the book reviews, as a guide to further reading.