Debunking the anomalies - and advocates - of the paranormal

The New Age: Notes of a Fringe-Watcher, by Martin Gardner. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. 272 pp. $19.95. WANTED: psi-cop to police paranormal belief systems. Duties include ghost-busting, psychic exposure, and arrest of astral bodies. Acerbic wit a plus. Salary commensurate with experience.

A nasty business, this nabbing of New Age beliefs and believers. But someone has to ride herd on Shirley MacLaine and her reincarnated hordes, and Martin Gardner gleefully rises to the occasion.

Long the mathematics/games columnist for Scientific American, Gardner is one of the founders of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a philosophical watchdog organization that publishes its own quarterly journal, the Skeptical Inquirer, which delights in bashing astrology, UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, psychic spoon-bending, and a host of other so-called New Age fads and fallacies.

The first half of this latest ambuscade, in fact, consists of a collection of Gardner's short Inquirer columns, ``Notes of a Fringe-Watcher,'' supplemented by new forewords and afterwords where necessary. Longer articles drawn from diverse sources make up the second half.

As might be expected from an assembly of pieces, some parts are missing. Gardner, for instance, never offers a comprehensive definition of what the New Age he rails against is. The best one can make out is that it is anything pseudomystical Gardner glimpses on TV or reads in the papers on any given day.

His favorite bugbears seem to be MacLaine's wildly successful soirees into astral autobiography and the Israeli ``psychic'' spoon- and key-bender, Uri Geller, plus any university-sponsored research program that remotely borders on the parapsychological. The problem with the latter, he argues, persuasively if abrasively, is that protocols are usually lax to the point of meaninglessness, and that trained magicians like CSICOP cohort James (the Amazing) Randi are never consulted. The debunking duo repeatedly claim that professional psychologists and physicists may even be easier to fool in the laboratory than the layman on the street. They reduce Geller's reported mental feats, in particular, to mere sleight-of-hand and -mind.

Gardner's condemnations are catholic, if nothing else. In ``Prime-Time Preachers'' he tackles the electronic ministries of fundamentalist evangelists. Even the resident President comes in for a literary lashing, not for recent revelations of Nancy's court astrologer, but for Mr. Reagan's own earlier remarks seemingly in support of the idea of Armageddon and the Second Coming.

To be fair, the author also takes on a few fellow-travelers from the more or less orthodox side of the tracks, including Freud's infatuation with the biorhythm theories of one Wilhelm Fliess (who also thought neuroses and sexual abnormalities could be treated by sniffing cocaine), the controversial petroleum theories of maverick Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold, and the new super-string hypothesis that is regarded almost as a Holy Grail among quantum cosmologists, the one theory that could wrap the whole universe up with a neat bow.

What a marvelous ramble through belief systems and gullibility this is, though Gardner finds little cause for humor. He frequently laments what a waste of time his columns are but clearly enjoys the mental gymnastics such opportunities afford too much to stop. One feels that if psychic boffos, charlatans, and spiritual flakes did not exist, Gardner, a devout secular humanist, would be compelled to invent them.

Gardner's carps against counterfeit metaphysics ultimately ring like materialistic sermons delivered to the converted with a holier-than-thou aura. Colin Wilson, himself the target of several well-tossed barbs here, once said of Gardner, ``I wish I was as certain about anything as he is about everything.'' The reader may well come away with the same feeling.

Dennis Stacy is a San Antonio writer.

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