The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 35.0°F | Fair

BOOK REVIEW

Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?

A Loaded Question

By Izzat Jarudi

Staff Writer

Written by Martin Gardner

Published by W.W. Norton & Company

$26.95

It is comforting to know that there are at least some journalists today spending time and effort debunking, instead of encouraging, pseudoscience in their articles.

Among those few mavericks is the science journalist Martin Gardner who in his latest book, Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?, attacks everything from reflexology and urine therapy to Creationism and Freud’s flawed theory of dreams. His book is a collection of reprints from his column Notes of a Fringe Watcher, which appears regularly in Skeptical Inquirer, the “official organ” of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). This is Gardner’s fifth anthology on bogus science, all of them books with which he doesn’t “expect ... to alter minds set in concrete, but if occasionally they help an open-minded reader to discard a crazy belief, they may do more than simply provide entertainment and laughter for skeptics.”

Reflecting that purpose outlined in the introduction, the first article in Gardner’s latest collection begins with the question of the title: “If you ever find yourself in the company of a fundamentalist, much pleasant argumentation can result if you ask him or her a simple question: Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?” It seems innocuous enough, but, as Gardner cleverly explains, the implications of such questions are far from trivial: “If Adam and Eve did not have navels, then they were not perfect human beings. On the other hand, if they had navels, then the navels would imply a birth they never experienced.” It’s a fitting opening to the subject of the rest of the essay and the following article: “Evolution vs. Creationism.”

The remaining twenty-six articles are also organized by subject matter into sections on astronomy, physics, medical matters, psychology, social science, UFOs, and religion. Yet not all of the fringe science that Gardner discusses is pseudoscience. Gardner also examines topics like David Bohm’s pilot-wave controversial theory of quantum mechanics, which is identical with standard quantum mechanics in its predictions, but interprets quantum phenomena differently.

In another article, Gardner considers the growing minority of modern anthropologists who argue that cannibalism is a myth, that “there is not now, nor has there ever been, a culture that routinely eats its dead, or that kills and devours its enemies.” The evidence for this latest theory is based on the lack of evidence for the orthodox view: “The curious thing about the vast literature on cannibalism is the absence of firsthand accounts. Anthropologists never actually see a human-fleshing-eating ritual.”

Showing his disapproval is not limited to ufologists, numerologists, and Scientologists, Gardner also writes about the dubious beliefs of some of history’s most famous scientists. He devotes two articles in his book for reporting “Thomas Edison, Paranormalist” and “Isaac Newton, Alchemist and Fundamentalist.” In his article on Newton, Gardner explains how “for a large part of his life Newton’s time and energy were devoted to fruitless alchemy experiments and efforts to interpret Biblical prophecy.” Gardner then continues to lament that “his handwritten manuscripts on those topics far exceed his writings about physics .... It is sad to envision the discoveries in mathematics and physics Newton might have made if his great intellect had not been diverted by such bizarre speculations.”

Considering the regrettable influence bogus science can have even on the greatest minds, it is no wonder that Gardner “makes no apologies for being a debunker” and believes “it is the duty of both scientists and science writers to keep exposing the errors of bad science.” As a result, his writing is instructive as well as entertaining on an impressive array of topics. Although occasionally his essays deteriorate into a detailed list of references, it seems to emphasize his expertise -- Gardner’s commentary is consistently incisive and engaging. Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? offers an important lesson, even to us scientists at MIT, in evaluating fringe science.