by Martin Gardner

For many years, I was a subscriber to the Skeptical Inquirer, the quite marvelous journal dedicated to a basic principle: treat any claim involving the paranormal with scientific rigor and report about it. Admittedly that wasn’t the whole story with SI, which is as much a chance for there to be reports on recent news involving such claims, studies of past incidents in history and in recent years wider debates over questions of science, religion and society in general. I like it very much still but I let it lapse without much in the way of concern from me, not because I’ve suddenly turned New Age or Fox Mulder — frankly I’d just as soon say I’ve accepted George W. Bush as my personal saviour — but because, in some respects, it had served its purpose for me. Back in the mid-eighties, when I first read about those who deceive themselves or others about their many abilities, and eagerly devoured books by authors like James Randi regarding exposures of charlatans — not to mention learning that two of my early writing heroes Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov were deeply involved with the group behind SI, CSICOP — subscribing to SI after a time was a no-brainer. Now, though, I think that dipping into the occasional story here and there would suffice for me — needing further reinforcement that the amount of BS out there piles higher than can be imagined is not needed for me now.

These thoughts came to mind while reading the UCI library copy of Urantia, written by longtime SI and Scientific American stalwart Martin Gardner, whose many essays were informative and often very enjoyable reflections on shenanigans and charlatans and oddities in many spheres. But I think, frankly, that a full-length book was a step too far. Mind you, studying the extremely odd Seventh-Day Adventist spinoff the Urantia Foundation is well worthy — the story of how a disillusioned follower of that earlier movement oversaw — if not created — an at-times surreal blend of conventional Christianity, scientific supposition and science fiction is as classic an ‘American’ story as that of Joseph Smith, say, though thankfully with much less bloodshed. But Gardner shouldn’t have been the one to write such a story, though his research is incredibly thorough, detailing as much as can be known about the creation of ‘the Urantia Papers,’ the biases, willful idiocies and plagiarisms that went into its creation, the rebellions and infighting that recurred since the movement coalesced in the 1930s.

But the book is poorly organized, leaping backwards and forwards in time with little rhyme or reason, spending moments to deliver snarky digression and insult on top of snarky digression and insult, changing tone sometimes in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence. I don’t blame him for his sheer annoyance and laughing attitude to much of what he encounters, I’d feel the same way even if I didn’t always express it as such — ultimately the wonders of the scientific world appeal to me more as they are than having to be interpreted through a ‘revealed’ text. But I slogged through the text rather than skipped through it, wished there had been an editor or a cowriter, found myself simultaneously informed about a curious belief I had wondered about and wondering at the rationale for such an often stultifying text on Gardner’s part.

Had I just been starting to investigate this line of approach, I would have probably liked it more or reacted more positively — but as it stands it was the effort of a cranky old man, better and more briefly summarized at this much shorter webpage. So read that instead.

(This post continues over in Proven by Science.)