What Martin Gardner Taught Me

June 2, 2010

Martin Gardner died recently, and with so much going on I hadn't had time to really process his death. Though I only met Martin in person once, I worked with him as his editor for his Skeptical Inquirer columns for about eight years. When I first started with the magazine I of course knew who he was by reputation, but I don't think it was until later, as I was re-introduced to his columns and earlier work, that I really gained an appreciation for his genius.

I remember getting my first piece from Martin. To be honest, I don't remember what the topic was, but I do remember being slightly annoyed. You see, it was typewritten and photocopied (with a few handwritten editorial corrections). I was used to e-mailed attachments and columns submitted on CDs and discs--- what was this typewritten stuff? As the years went on I came to treasure and look forward to seeing his three-page, double-spaced columns in the dark black, old-school typewriter's font; it reminded me of good, old-fashioned skepticism. It reminded me of notes and letters my grandfather-- a veteran journalist and skeptic himself-- would write to me as a teenager.

I think one thing I learned from Martin, albeit indirectly, was how skeptical research and investigation could make a real difference in people's lives. It's all well and good to write skeptically about UFOs or ghosts in the abstract, but it's a different matter when you're dealing with real people and real problems. This was no philosophical, ivory-tower debating, this was skepticism applied to everyday life. One day in 2000 I got a call at the office from a man at a payphone somewhere in Arizona. The man had a soft voice, sounded like he was in his early fifties, and wanted some information on an article he had read a long time ago in Skeptical Inquirer .

He didn’t have an issue date or year: “It’s an article by Martin Gardner,” he said. “It’s on a cult.” I told him that I’d try to locate the article and issue, and forward his call to the front desk where he could purchase the issue if he wished. “No, no,” he said. “I need it now. Can you fax it to me?”

While I was willing and able to help, it seemed like a bit of a steep request, to stop what I was doing, look through two dozen back issues, find the article, take it downstairs and fax it to the man, long-distance, at our expense! Besides, I was skeptical that the payphone would be able to receive the fax. And what was the urgency anyway?

The man put another quarter in the phone and explained that he feared that his younger brother was becoming involved in a cult. He was driving out to see his brother, and was desperately trying to think of ways to reason with him. He remembered that Martin had written a column on the cult years before, and hoped the information would provide skeptical facts and criticisms. He was calling from outside a copy shop, and had the shop’s fax number handy so he could receive the fax there and go see his brother armed with more than just concerns. I hung up the phone, sifted through the back issues on my shelf, copied the relevant pages, and faxed them off. I never heard back from the man; I hope he was able to reason with his brother using Martin's work.

I shared this story with Martin last year as I was preparing my latest book, to which Martin kindly contributed. He was very pleased indeed.