May 2010 Archives

James Randi posted today his first thoughts on the loss of his long-time friend and conspirator in skepticism, Martin Gardner. Gardner is an enormous loss to all of us: there is probably not a mathematician or scientist in the US over 40 - perhaps even over 35 - who wasn't influenced by him.

I first heard of Gardner when I was 13 from my 9th and 10th grade math teacher, Nancy Rosenberg. At the time, Gardner was in the middle of his 30-year stint writing the mathematical games column for Scientific American, and she was a huge fan. She taught us to make hexaflexagons and play Nim (which my father and I played for years on restaurant placemats while waiting for food), among other things.

I first learned about paranormal investigation from watching Randi do a lecture/demonstration at Cornell in January, 1982. But what made CSICOP, now CSI a credible organization to me was learning that Gardner (along with Randi and Carl Sagan) was a co-founder. His book Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus was the first skeptical book I read, and the presence of yet another decades-long column of his in Skeptical Inquirer was a major reason I began reading the magazine regularly. Later, of course, I founded my own.

He was still writing, sharp as ever, until very recently, well into his 90s. A great loss.


In these days of the blogosphere, people often forget how very good journalism can be at its best. Tonight, Brian Deer reminded us with his account of how a chance lunch with his editor turned into six years of investigation that culminated in the exposure of science fraud on the part of Andrew Wakefield. To say that it led to a withdrawal of a paper from The Lancet sounds like a mild thing: but the paper in question was the one that purported to find a link between the MMR vaccine, bowel disease, and autism, and in the years it had been out there poisoning the knowledge supply that paper frightened parents into putting their children at risk for measles, mumps, and rubella, and created a myth that may never die.

Much of the material that Deer uncovered during his investigation is up on his Web site, so better that you should read it there. What was interesting was hearing where he got the first clue that this story - which was an ordinary, routine assignment to fill pages at the Sunday Times, formerly the paper that disgracefully campaigned against HIV as the cause of AIDS. It so happened, he said, that when he began looking at Wakefield's paper he had been reading up on the history of vaccines in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly DTP - diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis - which also went through some controversy in its day. To bring a class action suit against a vaccine, you need to show three things: 1) a time link (take the flu shot today; get feverish in a few days); 2) a fingerprint (take vaccine x, y thing happens); 3) a mechanism by which that vaccine causes that fingerprint. One of the key issues is how long you have for that time link. In the DTP material Deer was reading the time period was established at 14 days (UK) or 15 (US). Wakefield's paper had a time link of 14 days. To Deer, it smelled of lawyer that this paper should fit so conveniently and neatly within this established time frame, so he began looking more closely.

And, as we now know, he was right, although it took years to get his view accepted. Two of those years were spent being sued for libel. To say that Wakefield lost in front of Justice David Eady (the judge who delivered the terrible bogus ruling in the Simon Singh case) says it all.

It was a good talk, received with great enthusiasm by the packed house - as was new Westminster Skeptics president, Evan Harris, who is vowing to fight to regain his Parliamentary seat come the next election, however soon it may be.


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