A must read - How Martin Gardner Bamboozled the Skeptics

#1
How Martin Gardner Bamboozled the Skeptics

by Greg Taylor

The modern skeptical ‘movement’ has grown and thrived in recent years to the point where the public generally views self-appointed ‘skeptics’ as arbiters of the truth and defenders of rational thought. But how much of what they say can we really trust as being objective truth? Are self-described skeptics championing critical thinking, or are they simply defending one particular worldview? The late Marcello Truzzi came to think so: despite being the co-founding chairman of the influential skeptical group CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), Truzzi soon became disillusioned with the organization, saying they “tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion… Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them.” Truzzi claimed that by using the title of ‘skeptic’, biased debunkers had claimed an authority that they were not entitled to, opining that “critics who take the negative rather than an agnostic position but still call themselves ‘skeptics’ are actually pseudo-skeptics and have, I believed, gained a false advantage by usurping that label.” Should we be more skeptical of the skeptics?

If there is one skeptic who stands above all others in terms of being regarded as an authoritative voice, it must surely be Martin Gardner. Through the course of his life, Gardner – who passed away aged 95 in May 2010 – published more than seventy books on such diverse topics as mathematics, science, philosophy, literature and skepticism. For a quarter of a century he was also the writer of the ‘Mathematical Games’ column in Scientific American, and as a consequence he has influenced many of the modern day’s top academics in the hard sciences. His opinion therefore commands much respect from intellectuals. Every two years a ‘Gathering for Gardner’ is held to celebrate his lifelong contributions (to maths in particular), and has been attended by the likes of Stephen Wolfram and John Conway. Douglas Hofstadter described Gardner as “one of the great intellects produced in this country in this century,” and Arthur C. Clarke once labeled him a “national treasure.”

Gardner has also long been one of the major voices in the skeptical movement; George Hansen describes him as “the single most powerful critic of the paranormal in the second half of the 20th century”. Gardner was writing ‘skeptical’ books long before the modern movement ‘began’ in earnest with the inception of CSICOP (now known as CSI) in the 1970s – his seminal deconstruction of pseudoscience, In the Name of Science (later renamed Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science), had been published two decades previous in 1952. Gardner’s antipathy towards the supernatural was perhaps a natural outgrowth of his academic interests, skepticism,
proficiency and understanding of conjuring techniques, and – improbably – his religious beliefs. Gardner was not a Christian, but he did believe in God; a primary motivation for his criticisms of parapsychology might be found in an essay he wrote titled “Prayer: Why I Do Not Think It Foolish”, in which he says “I am among those theists who, in the spirit of Jesus’ remark that only the faithless look for signs, consider such tests both futile and blasphemous… Let us not tempt God”. Nevertheless, Gardner’s esteemed standing amongst academics has allowed his skeptical writings to be widely accepted as the final word on controversial topics. In the words of Stephen Jay Gould: “For more than half a century, Martin Gardner has been the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surrounds us.”

As an example of Gardner’s influence on discourse about paranormal topics, consider the reference to one of his essays in the New York Times review of Deborah Blum’s book Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Blum’s book tells the (partial) story of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) – a group of academics, including the likes of William James, Sir William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge, who came together in the late 19th century to try to solve the question of life after death – and its investigation of Mrs. Leonora Piper, one of the most successful mediums of modern times. Anthony Gottlieb’s New York Times review suggests that Blum might have taken a different view of Mrs. Piper’s mediumship if she had read Martin Gardner’s critique of the SPR’s research prior to writing Ghost Hunters:

The book is peppered with narratives reporting ghost stories and seances. Blum writes that these are “derived from” documents, often from the society’s archives, although the telling of them is her own. But these narratives obscure the methods that mediums like Mrs. Piper used – methods that have been explained by debunkers like Martin Gardner, who in 1992 published a long exposé called “How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James.” For example, Blum’s ghost narratives do not show, as Gardner did, how Mrs. Piper fished for information by gauging her sitters’ responses to all her wrong answers, or mined the information available from earlier sittings, from sittings with others and from things said while her sitters believed she was unconscious in a trance.

In this particular instance all of Blum’s narratives, sourced from documents written by the original researchers, are painted over with one broad brush-stroke by invoking Gardner’s name. His essay, it seems, lays bare the techniques of deception used by Mrs. Piper – a mix of fishing (also known as cold reading) and devious information mining – which have over the course of a century fooled researchers and writers lacking the critical thinking skills and magical insights of a Martin Gardner. This is a bold claim – the original SPR reports on the Piper case had contributions from some of the finest minds of the time, and run to thousands of pages in total length. In short, the investigation of the mediumship of Mrs. Piper is one of the most comprehensive and well-documented in the history of psychical research. Is Gardner’s authority in this case being overstated?

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The rest (Skeptiko has a far too low maximum-character setting) -> http://dailygrail.com/Essays/2010/11/Skeptical-Skeptic
 
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#3
Yes, Greg has done some good work in finding errors in Martin Gardner's essay (he got some things wrong about Piper and some dates wrong) but Greg ignored all the other criticisms of Leonora Piper from older researchers (not just from skeptics, but from psychical researchers). If you check Gardner's references he took most of his criticisms of Piper from two early psychologists Amy Tanner and G. Stanley Hall. Hall's book is very long... Greg criticism of this book was very selective.

Also see for example:

Eleanor Sidgwick. (1915). A Contribution to the Study of the Psychology of Mrs. Piper's Trance Phenomena. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 28: 1-657.

This was a 657 page report by an SPR member concluding that Piper's controls were not spirits but subconscious creations. Greg mentions Sidgwick but choose not to mention her report. It is a case of cherry picking evidence and ignoring evidence contrary to your belief. Greg is a proponent of the old-fashioned "spiritualist" hypothesis of mediumship. This hypothesis does not stand up well under close scrutiny.

Frank Podmore, The Newer Spiritualism (pp. 164-183) has valid criticisms etc of the spirit hypothesis. So it was psychical researchers who raised valid objections to Piper's mediumship before the skeptics came in. And Gardner's essay is nothing special. Like I said earlier skeptics had done a better job.

Have a read of this:

https://archive.org/stream/occultismtwolect00cloduoft#page/76/mode/2up

It is an early compiled list of séance sitters who were not impressed by Piper's mediumship. This is not raised by Greg, nor in his book. So both Gardner and Greg have the story incomplete.
 
#4
It is an early compiled list of séance sitters who were not impressed by Piper's mediumship. This is not raised by Greg, nor in his book. So both Gardner and Greg have the story incomplete.
You are bamboozling yourself and/or attempting to bamboozle other readers here. The essay by Taylor is not on the topic of "Piper was genuine" it is on the topic of Gardener's pseudo-skepticism passed of as genuine inquiry.

The point - that is made more than clear - is that Gardener's approach was shoddy, incomplete, inaccurate and at times outright fraudulent. It was an attempt to malign not to assess.

And of course Taylor was selective. In any article the writer is selective. But he also selected and mentioned areas of valid skepticism.

To sum up, I see your response as another example of a well-used shenanigan - attempting to slightly shift the topic in order to bolster preconceived notions. A discussion of Piper would be an interesting thread but that is not the point of Taylor's article or of this thread.
 
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#5
You are bamboozling yourself and/or attempting to bamboozle other readers here. The essay by Taylor is not on the topic of "Piper was genuine" it is on the topic of Gardener's pseudo-skepticism passed of as genuine inquiry.

The point - that is made more than clear - is that Gardener's approach was shoddy, incomplete, inaccurate and at times outright fraudulent. It was an attempt to malign not to assess.

And of course Taylor was selective. In any article the writer is selective. But he also selected and mentioned areas of valid skepticism.

To sum up, I see your response as another example of another well-used shenanigan - attempting to slightly shift the topic in order to bolster preconceived notions. A discussion of Piper would be an interesting thread but that is not the point of Taylor's article or of this thread.
The word bamboozled means to trick or fool. I am not trying to trick anyone here, just look at the larger picture. I am saying both Greg and Gardner have the picture incomplete. Greg misleads his readers in that essay on Martin Gardner by asserting all psychical researchers were impressed by her mediumship or supporting the spirit hypothesis. He name drops researchers like Frank Podmore, William James and the Sidgwick's but doesn't mention that these psychical researchers were skeptical that she was in communication with spirits (they have all published long SPR reports on Piper) They are not all favourable like Greg likes to pretend. And Greg seems to put a glowing light on Richard Hodgson claiming he was a cautious researcher but Hodgson was caught deliberately lying/fabricating information about George Pellew from the Piper case but this is not mentioned by Greg. There are many other things that we can bring up but maybe you are right and this is not a place to debate the topic. You started this thread just to attack a skeptic Martin Gardner but both skeptics and proponents have made mistakes on the Piper case.

Martin Gardner wrote three essays on Leonora Piper, not two like Greg asserts. Greg only focuses on his shortest one. The one that contained more information was "William James and Mrs. Piper" which runs to thirty pages. The essay Greg bases most of his review on is "How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James" which is only ten pages long including bibliography. Just sayin'

But, I am already in agreement with you that there are some errors and mistakes in Gardner's essay. "Outright fraudulent" is unjustified though. And yes Gardner's essay was incomplete. He was slacking and he has been caught out.
 
#7
And Greg seems to put a glowing light on Richard Hodgson claiming he was a cautious researcher but Hodgson was caught deliberately lying/fabricating information about George Pellew from the Piper case but this is not mentioned by Greg.
Any source on this? ¿why would a leading investigator in the case lie? ¿what does he win from that?
 
#8
Any source on this? ¿why would a leading investigator in the case lie? ¿what does he win from that?
It involved Piper's "George Pellew" sittings with Professor Fiske. The sittings were a complete failure but Hodgson claimed to various people they were successful.

It's on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonora_Piper

"A cousin of Pellew's wrote to Mr. Clodd to tell him that, if he cared to ask the family, he would learn that all the relatives of the dead man regarded Mrs. Piper's impersonation of him as "beneath contempt". Mr Clodd wrote to Professor Pellew, George's brother, and found that this was the case. The family has been pestered for fifteen years with reports of the proceedings and requests to authenticate them and join the S.P.R. They said that they knew George, and they could not believe that, when freed from the burden of the flesh, he would talk such "utter drivel and inanity." As to "intimate friends," one of these was Professor Fiske, who had been described by Dr. Hodgson as "absolutely convinced" of the identity of "G. P." When Professor Pellew told Professor Fiske of this, he replied, roundly, that it was "a lie". Mrs. Piper had, he said, been "silent or entirely wrong" on all his test questions."
The original source online: https://archive.org/stream/isspiritualismba00mccarich#page/102/mode/2up

Hodgson would also be duped by the Dean Bridgman Connor case. This was a case that Piper got completely wrong (she claimed Connor was alive when he had died), but Hodgson would not accept it even when he had been shown conclusive evidence. I am not saying all of Hodgson's research was bad, he exposed Eusapia Palladino as a fraud and wrote several good SPR reports, but in his later career he was very eager to believe in an afterlife and he was easily taken in by Piper and was willing to lie about the case. All this evidence is not discussed by Greg, Michael Prescott etc. All negative evidence of the Piper case is ignored and they only focus on the apparent positive stuff. I am saying that all evidence should be discussed. If there is positive evidence we should cite it, but we should not be scared to cite negative evidence. My complaint about spiritualists is that they only ever cite positive evidence about their mediums, they cover up or suppress cases of fraud. I could easily cite many examples of this, but you can find these easily with some research. I am not willing to discuss it all here as it is off-topic. Best.
 
#9
It involved Piper's "George Pellew" sittings with Professor Fiske. The sittings were a complete failure but Hodgson claimed to various people they were successful.

It's on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonora_Piper



The original source online: https://archive.org/stream/isspiritualismba00mccarich#page/102/mode/2up

Hodgson would also be duped by the Dean Bridgman Connor case. This was a case that Piper got completely wrong (she claimed Connor was alive when he had died), but Hodgson would not accept it even when he had been shown conclusive evidence. I am not saying all of Hodgson's research was bad, he exposed Eusapia Palladino as a fraud and wrote several good SPR reports, but in his later career he was very eager to believe in an afterlife and he was easily taken in by Piper and was willing to lie about the case. All this evidence is not discussed by Greg, Michael Prescott etc. All negative evidence of the Piper case is ignored and they only focus on the apparent positive stuff. I am saying that all evidence should be discussed. If there is positive evidence we should cite it, but we should not be scared to cite negative evidence. My complaint about spiritualists is that they only ever cite positive evidence about their mediums, they cover up or suppress cases of fraud. I could easily cite many examples of this, but you can find these easily with some research. I am not willing to discuss it all here as it is off-topic. Best.
Do you mean Hodgson became aware of fraud, or of an error in the Dean Bridgeman Connor case?

I don't think its true to say 'spiritualists' only ever (I assume you mean anyone who supports the survival proposition, as opposed to Spiritualists with a capital S- ie followers of the religion) quote examples that are positive. I am sure that some do, however there are plenty of discussions on the forums you mention eg Paranormalia, spiritualist chat room and Michael Prescott's site where these topics are discussed including fraud and error by mediums.
 
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#10
Any source on this? ¿why would a leading investigator in the case lie? ¿what does he win from that?
I'd say it's possible for anyone to lie to cover up an error or hide evidence that doesn't support their argument. In life it happens all the time. It's human nature. If there really was such a misrepresentation, it could also have been an error on Hodgson's part or even a lie by Fiske to cover up something he was embarrassed to admit he'd said. Certainly Sir William Crookes came under intense peer pressure when he reported instances of mediumship which he believed to be true. Who knows for sure?
 
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#11
It involved Piper's "George Pellew" sittings with Professor Fiske. The sittings were a complete failure but Hodgson claimed to various people they were successful.

It's on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonora_Piper



The original source online: https://archive.org/stream/isspiritualismba00mccarich#page/102/mode/2up

Hodgson would also be duped by the Dean Bridgman Connor case. This was a case that Piper got completely wrong (she claimed Connor was alive when he had died), but Hodgson would not accept it even when he had been shown conclusive evidence. I am not saying all of Hodgson's research was bad, he exposed Eusapia Palladino as a fraud and wrote several good SPR reports, but in his later career he was very eager to believe in an afterlife and he was easily taken in by Piper and was willing to lie about the case. All this evidence is not discussed by Greg, Michael Prescott etc. All negative evidence of the Piper case is ignored and they only focus on the apparent positive stuff. I am saying that all evidence should be discussed. If there is positive evidence we should cite it, but we should not be scared to cite negative evidence. My complaint about spiritualists is that they only ever cite positive evidence about their mediums, they cover up or suppress cases of fraud. I could easily cite many examples of this, but you can find these easily with some research. I am not willing to discuss it all here as it is off-topic. Best.
I don't know the author of the "original source," but even a quick glance at that source gives one the impression of the typical skeptical assessment, which itself should be scrutinized. Maybe he was so screwed up by his experience as a roman catholic priest that he rebounded too far in the other direction? In one example, he says:

Of real clairvoyance--of a power to read a closed book or a folded paper or see a distant spot---no instnace ever yet has been recorded that will pass scrutiny.
Apparently, he didn't account for cases such as that of Stefan Ossowiecki:

http://www.amazon.com/World-Grain-Sand-Clairvoyance-Ossowiecki/dp/0786421126

Ian Stevenson, who even skeptics agree displayed caution and objectivity, had a bit more to say on what was recorded in this specific case.

Cheers,
Bill
 
#12
With respect, Wikipedia doesn't even allow sources claiming positive evidence for spiritualist or para-psychological topics.

Spiritualists don't need to cover the negative cases, that's what we have skeptic groups for.

Ian Stevenson, who even skeptics agree displayed caution and objectivity, had a bit more to say on what was recorded in this specific case.
Amusingly, I've seen people try to down play Stevenson's "here is some data I found, the controls I used, and I don't know what it means" attitude which gave him a good reputation as "that's what I would do if I was trying to defraud someone in to creationism" nonsense. All though you're not going to find Ian Stevenson or Stanley Krippner in a cursory Google search, since they don't really do the whole PR thing, so nobody really pays attention to any of their work :(
 
#13
Do you mean Hodgson became aware of fraud, or of an error in the Dean Bridgeman Connor case?
Professor Fiske had a series of séances with Leonora Piper. The séances were a disaster for her mediumship. However, Hodgson decided to lie to others and claim the séances with Fiske were a success and that Fiske was "convinced" that Piper's control was the real Pellew. George Pellew's cousin would later contact Fiske about it, and it was indeed a lie from Hodgson as Fiske had admitted the séances were not a success as Piper had been "silent or entirely wrong" on all his test questions." Pellew's family members were even shown the alleged Pellew control SPR written recordings from the séance and they were not impressed, they denied it was the real Pellew communicating through Piper. So the lie was entirely from Hodgson.

As for the Dean Connor case, no, Hodgson didn't make a deliberate lie here, he just kept on believing Piper even when the evidence went the other way. Dean Connor had died.
 
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#14
Apparently, he didn't account for cases such as that of Stefan Ossowiecki:

http://www.amazon.com/World-Grain-Sand-Clairvoyance-Ossowiecki/dp/0786421126

Ian Stevenson, who even skeptics agree displayed caution and objectivity, had a bit more to say on what was recorded in this specific case.
Firstly Ossowiecki's alleged clairvoyant abilities had problems:


The ethnologist Stanislaw Poniatowski tested Ossowiecki's psychic abilities between 1937 and 1941, giving him Paleolithic stone artefacts. When Ossowiecki tried to describe the stone tools' makers, his descriptions resembled descriptions of Neanderthals, though the tools had been made by anatomically modern humans.

In May 1939 he predicted that there would be no war that year and that Poland would retain good relations with Italy predictions that did not pan out: on September 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland, and World War II began.

The parapsychologist Rosalind Heywood described an experiment in which Ossowiecki had guessed the contents of a sealed envelope in 1933. However, C. E. M. Hansel claimed the conditions of the experiment were reminiscent of a simple conjuring trick. E.F. O'Doherty wrote that the clairvoyance experiments with Ossowiecki were not scientific.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stefan_Ossowiecki

And regarding Ian Stevenson, what is your evidence skeptics admitted he displayed caution or objectivity? Robert Todd Carroll does not admit that here:

http://www.skepdic.com/stevenson.html
 
#16
Professor Fiske had a series of séances with Leonora Piper. The séances were a disaster for her mediumship. However, Hodgson decided to lie to others and claim the séances with Fiske were a success and that Fiske was "convinced" that Piper's control was the real Pellew. George Pellew's cousin would later contact Fiske about it, and it was indeed a lie from Hodgson as Fiske had admitted the séances were not a success as Piper had been "silent or entirely wrong" on all his test questions." Pellew's family members were even shown the alleged Pellew control SPR written recordings from the séance and they were not impressed, they denied it was the real Pellew communicating through Piper. So the lie was entirely from Hodgson.

As for the Dean Connor case, no, Hodgson didn't make a deliberate lie here, he just kept on believing Piper even when the evidence went the other way. Dean Connor had died.
Maybe it was simply a difference of opinion. Also, I have certainly seen reports of people who have accepted what a medium said or did at the time and then later, on reflection, retracted it. I recall reading one researcher commenting that he had witnessed the most amazing phenomena and then a short while later reporting that he found himself reverting to disbelief even though he knew what he'd seen. I don't think it's as black and white as you make out.

Do we know what Fiske really said at the time he was sitting? I'd retain an open mind about it it tbh.

As for Dean Connor - just because the medium was wrong in one instance (or even many) this wouldn't invalidate positive results Hodgson had obtained. I don't see why Hodgson would reject the medium simply because she had been correct in other instances, but wrong in this one. Especially if he had witnessed the positive demonstrations himself. I think perhaps one needs to think of the wider picture.
 
#17
Too funny. The call of duty to regurgitate crap from Wikipedia (written by a CSICOP fellow) and quote skeptics rather than read or discuss the specific case.

Cheers,
Bill
What evidence do you have Bill that the Wikipedia entry was written by a CSICOP fellow? Absolutely none at all, so don't talk nonsenses. Anyone can edit Wikipedia if they cite sources, doesn't matter if you are a believer or skeptic. But you are missing the point.

The ethnologist Stanislaw Poniatowski tested Ossowiecki's psychic abilities between 1937 and 1941, giving him Paleolithic stone artefacts. When Ossowiecki tried to describe the stone tools' makers, his descriptions resembled descriptions of Neanderthals, though the tools had been made by anatomically modern humans.
Stanislaw Pontiatowsi tested Ossowiecki and the results were completely negative. How do you explain that one then Bill? Just ignore it and call it 'crap'? Is that open-minded? He was tested between 1937 and 1941, that is years of tests. He failed every time. If he really was a clairvoyant then his descriptions would have been accurate but they were not.
 
#18
Do we know what Fiske really said at the time he was sitting? I'd retain an open mind about it it tbh.
Yes this information is out there, it is in a series of letters between Fiske and Pellew's brother which in turn was sent to Edward Clodd, and there is also a letter from Hodgson. The letters are not online but they are out there. I believe they were re-published somewhere in the SPR journal. You are talking here about something extremely rare that not many people know about. As I understand it, one skeptic book has re-printed a letter from Hodgson but it is from an old book. I don't have it unfortunately, it is around $200 to obtain and limited in print.
 
#19
Yes this information is out there, it is in a series of letters between Fiske and Pellew's brother which in turn was sent to Edward Clodd, and there is also a letter from Hodgson. The letters are not online but they are out there. I believe they were re-published somewhere in the SPR journal. You are talking here about something extremely rare that not many people know about. As I understand it, one skeptic book has re-printed a letter from Hodgson but it is from an old book. I don't have it unfortunately, it is around $200 to obtain and limited in print.
But this wouldn't be a record of Fiske's conversation with Hodgson at the time of the sittings - even a letter from Hodgson might not contain this, which was one of the points I mentioned.

What did Fiske actually say to Hodgson which might have given Hodgson the impression he reported - as opposed to simply branding Hodgson a liar?

The answer is probably that we simply don't know and perhaps shouldn't jump to conclusions about Hodgson's honesty or Fiske's for that matter.

Given what you've said so far, your conclusion that Hodgson was in fact a liar doesn't seem sufficiently made out to me.
 
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#20
What evidence do you have Bill that the Wikipedia entry was written by a CSICOP fellow? Absolutely none at all, so don't talk nonsenses.
Sorry, I was not referring to the person who wrote the Wikipedia entry (which doesn't matter), I was referring to the author of the quoted source.


Stanislaw Pontiatowsi tested Ossowiecki and the results were completely negative. How do you explain that one then Bill? Just ignore it and call it 'crap'? Is that open-minded?
How do I "explain that one?" First of all, there is no evidence that they were "completely negative." The actual source states that in many cases the accuracy cannot be assessed. However, even if a given selection of statements are wrong, that doesn't dismiss the possibility that clairvoyance is occurring--you have to look at all his statements and determine if he was correct at a higher rate than expected by chance. Using normal commmunication facilities, people get shit wrong all the time, but that doesn't negate the fact that valid communication occurs.

He was tested between 1937 and 1941, that is years of tests. He failed every time. If he really was a clairvoyant then his descriptions would have been accurate but they were not.
As noted above, there is no evidence that he "failed every time", and besides, you're cherry picking from the small and single set of "tests" discussed in the source selected by the CSICOP fellow, and completely failing to explain all of the documented successful experiments carried out with Ossowiecki, which you've likely not even read.

Cheers,
Bill
 
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