Thursday, May 5, 2011

Nonsense on Stilts

As I've posted a couple of times already, Dr. Massimo Pigliucci will be speaking at SUNY Ulster County Community College tonight, Thursday, May 5, at 7 pm in the Vanderlyn Student Lounge. The talk is free and open to the public. Drop on by - I'll be introducing him.

Pigliucci's lecture is titled Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk which is also the title of his book (University of Chicago Press, 2010) which I just finished yesterday. Highly recommended if you're interested in a somewhat dense, but readable explanation of the philosophy of science.  By the way, "nonsense upon stilts" was a phrase coined by English philospher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).

How do we tell science from bunk (the so-called "demarcation problem" in the philosophy of science)? Given that not all science is the same, and many legitimate branches of science like my own field of geology have a strong historical component, it's not a trivial question. Karl Popper's famous "falsifiability" criterion is simply not enough.

After a discussion of the demarcation problem, and the overly simplistic view of hard vs. soft sciences, Pigliucci then jumps into a discussion of topics he refers to as quasi-science. String theory, SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), evolutionary psychology a la E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology, and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel hypothesis for the technological success of Western cultures. Ideas that are embedded, to a certain extent, in scientific fields yet are lacking some important criteria to make them truly scientific (at least at the present time). From there, it's an easy jump into topics fully recognized as pseudoscientific - astrology, UFO cults, and paranormal phenomena among others.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter titlted "Blame the Media" since it's one of my pet peeves. Media reporting on science is abysmal - I believe it's because most journalists were humanities majors who avoided science classes like the plague - and the media has this bizarre idea that every topic needs to be treated like a political debate. Find someone "for" the topic, find someone "against" the topic, and have them debate it - the most clever rhetorician wins the debate. So, even if 99% of all scientists support something based on decades of careful research and reams of published data, the media digs up some loon to parrot an opposing view to make it look like it's a controversy. Don't get me started!

Pigliucci then moves on to the rise of "think tanks" and the decline of public intellectuals. Most think tanks, of course, are organized around political ideologies (although some public intellectuals are/were as well - notably Noam Chomsky and the late Stephen Jay Gould). This is following by a discussion of science and politics comparing and contrasting books by Bjørn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist with Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth. I do have some disagreements with Pigliucci's treatment of these two works (I have a little higher regard for Lomborg's work and a little less for Gore's than he does, but I won't go into it here). The next section extensively discusses the Kitzmiller v. Dover case against Intelligent Design showing that ID is not scientific.

The last section of the book is, I think, the best where Pigliucci discusses a bit of the history of the philosophy of science and some of the nonsense out there in philosophy such as the "rantings" (Pigliucci's term) of Paul Feyerabend whose ideas lead us toward "post-modernist" and "deconstructionist" ideas that there is no such thing as objective reality (or science, ultimately). The conclusion I drew from this book is that the demarcation problem is very difficult to settle. Science is kind of like pornography - there are clear cut examples of things on both ends of the spectrum but lots of fuzzy stuff in between as well - not quite as easy to distinguish, perhaps, as "I know it when I see it" as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously stated in 1964.

Bottom line as far as I'm concerned...


  1. In regards to the media issue, have you ever seen the parody science article template? It's pretty funny: