Pseudoscience and anti-science nonsense

Book Review: Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci

Paperback: 336 pages
US$13.60; NZ$41.99
University Of Chicago Press (May 15, 2010)
SBN-10: 0226667863

The “climategate” fiasco revealed an undercurrent of anti-scientific thinking in our society.  But that is just the latest issue. We have continuing problems with creationism, “alternative” medicines, and so on. Several centuries after the scientific revolution pseudoscience and anti-science attitudes are still common. The struggle for scientific literacy continues.

Massimo Pugliucci stresses this is an important issue for citizens in today’s society:

“Given the power and influence that science increasingly has in our daily lives, it is important that we as citizens of an open and democratic society learn to separate good science from bunk.

This is not a matter of intellectual curiosity, as it affects where large portions of our tax money go, and in some cases even whether people’s lives are lost as a result of nonsense.”

So, here is the motive for Pugliucici’s new book “Nonsense on Stilts.” In this he makes the case for real science, warns against the dangers of pseudoscience and provides readers with help in distinguishing the two.

Science patriotism

He writes clearly. This is not a dry rendition of the subject. While his writing skills contribute to this I think his willingness to take sides also helps. To be an ambassador, even an evangelist, for science. And to call a spade a spade.

I think the clarity of Pugliucci’s writing, and his partisanship on the subject, will provoke some strong reactions – both positive and negative. Although just published one reviewer has already damned it as “smug” and suffering from the “egomania and unearned arrogance of the science patriots.” (See Carlin Romano in The Chronicle of Higher Education – Science Warriors’ Ego Trips. Romano is clearly a supporter of pseudoscience (particularly ID), so his negative review suggests to me that this book is achieving its purpose. As one commentator said Science Patriotism? Enlist Me!

On the other hand it is getting rave reviews from supporters of real science. See for, example, Amanda Gefter’s New Scientist review Tracing the fuzzy boundaries of science.”

The book explains the nature of science and pseudoscience.  In discussing separation of sciences into “hard” and “soft” he debunks the common creationist claim that “historical science” is unscientific. Here he uses philosopher Carol Cleland’s analysis which is always worth communicating. (For example  “Historical science, experimental science, and the scientific method” [download pdf here] and Methodological and Epistemic Differences Between Historical Science and Experimental Science.”) And he describes the advantage “historical science” has with its “asymmetry of overestimation.” The fact there are often many converging lines of evidence.

A later section of the book also discusses the use of Baysian statistical comparisons of the degree of support for different mechanisms provided by new evidence. This is another area creationists have sown some confusion so Pigluicci’s clear description of the correct use of this analysis is valuable.

A chapter on “Almost Science” discusses some of the “fuzzy” areas like “string theory,” search for extraterrestrial intelligence, evolutionary psychology, and so on. Areas which are clearly not pseudoscience but also don’t always fit into a clearly defined science scheme.

Personally I would have liked more of a description of how speculation, even unbounded brainstorming, is important in science. Some of these “fuzzy” areas can play a positive role here, despite their limits. I also felt he was harsh, elsewhere in the book, when discussing mistaken claims made by well-known scientists. We must have room for creative ideas and mistakes (and personalities) in science. I think it counter-productive to assign these, as he sometimes does, to “scientific arrogance.” (maybe there is a little bitof “philosophical arrogance” showing?)

Pseudoscience and the distrust of science

Pigliucci takes pseudoscience to task. As he puts it “superstition kills.” And:

“While not often lethal, faulty thinking about how the world works can hurt plenty. . . Everyone has a right to be irrational, but rampant irrationality in a society can be highly wasteful and destructive, and giving a pass to credibility on the grounds that ‘it doesn’t hurt anyone’ is, well, not a very rational position to take.”

The book details several examples of “faulty thinking.” For example, aids denial, astrology, creationism/intelligent design (ID) theory and global warming denial. While most people consider some of these “way out,” others can, and do, have a wider influence.

Taking global warming as an example he compares Bjørn Lomberg’s “The Skeptical Environmentalist” and Al Gores “An Inconvenient Truth.” He finds the latter (from an “evangelising politician”) to be better science than the former (from a political science professor). This discussion provides an example of how to decide where the scientific evidence points and being aware of ideological and financial interests behind media reporting. He also discusses the role and activity of the modern “think-tanks” in these issues.

I found useful his discussion of the reasons for the distrust of science, even antagonism toward science, and ready acceptance of pseudoscience by some. There is a mistrust of science within academia – bolstered by fashionable postmodernist ideologies. As he says: “fighting pseudoscience entails more than just science education or critical thinking.”

He identifies several causes of the attraction of pseudoscience. Issues such as emotional protest movements against science and ego trips – knowing better than the experts. Even the arrogance of “putting down” the experts. In the end he argues the major cause within US society at large is anti-intellectualism. Attitudes encouraged by anti-elitism and the history of a frontier society. We see this coming together in the current “tea party” mobilisation against president Obama.

There is the ongoing problem of “balance” in the media – giving equal time to contrarian and minority opinions.

Also some see science as the foe and a “legitimising force” for greed and naive reductionism. Puigliucci suggests that scientists often underestimate the complexity of pseudoscience culture. And this doesn’t adequately prepare them for debates with creationists for climate change deniers. Presentation of academic information rarely wins such debates.

History of science

There is a section on the history of science – the chapters “From Superstition to Natural Philosophy” and “From Natural Philosophy to Modern Science.” I think this section is valuable but inevitably far too brief. These subjects need a book for themselves – and we need more books on this subject. Especially as there is a renewed interest in the history of science and Christian chauvinists misrepresent this history. (They tend to grab everything that isn’t firmly nailed down, and have a good go at things that are – don’t they. Morals, art and now science!)

Far from their claim that Christians invented science Pugliucci shows that a condition of the modern scientific revolution is the divergence of science from the grip of religion and philosophy. Interestingly, this conclusion also comes out of Michael Ruse’s recent survey of the history of science – Science and spirituality.”

Natural, supernatural and science

Ironically my commendation for clarity also relates to my main criticism of this book. Good teachers must simplify and simplification can obscure complexity. And I think there can be a fine line between a clear presentation and a dogmatic one.

My issue is Pigluicci’s demarcation between “natural” and “supernatural”, and exclusion of the “supernatural” from scientific investigation. Alongside this goes the claim that some issues – such as the question of existence of gods – are outside scientific investigation and must be left to theology.

These claims are made by some, but not all, other philosophers of science. For example, at the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover ID case such arguments were accepted as part of the definition of the scientific method. (See Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge? and Kitzmiller_decision). The US National Academy of Sciences also use similar arguments in their statements on ID.

Personally, I find these arguments opportunist. They try to deal politically with common theological attacks on science by conceding a domain to theology. I have a picture of wise scientists patting the theological children on the head, telling them to go away and play with their “supernatural” magic toys. Just leave us alone to get on with the real stuff. But the moment any evidence about these “supernatural” playthings surfaces scientists would be in like a shot, repossessing the “magical” toys and researching them.

A concession to theology?

On the other hand these concessions don’t mute the theological criticism. If anything they provide fuel. Doesn’t it reinforce their claims of a “supernatural” realm and their complaints that science purposely ignores it?

Also – real science just doesn’t work that way. Scientists never make judgements of “natural” or ”supernatural” before investigations and therefore ruling things in or out of the allowable realm of investigation. In fact “supernatural” claims can be, and often are, investigated scientifically.

Such “politically correct,” algorithmic rules of scientific endeavour are sterile and false.  They are a philosophical dogma for some. There is no “rule book” for science. In practice the scientific method is more adequately described by this from Neil deGrasse Tyson: “Do whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.”

And after all – what do we really mean by the terms “natural” and “supernatural?” What the critics of science are really arguing for is an evidence free “science” with no duty of verification by mapping against reality. That has been the way that proponents of ID in the US have tried to redefine “science.”

And the scientific endeavour is not constrained in its imagination and creativity by this. After all, many people think of “supernatural” when they hear about quantum mechanics, “spooky action at a distance,” modern relativity theory, the “big bang” theory, and so on. Scientific theories can be far more inspiring and imaginative than any religious myth.

Trusting experts

The books last chapter “Who’s Your Expert” discusses the problem of whom one should trust. It takes a practical example in the evolution – ID debates by considering Ken Miller, a proponent of evolution, and Michael Behe, a proponent of ID. He effectively uses criteria suggested by Alvin Goldman to score them both. These include the track record of the experts, likely biases, independent evidence of expertise, agreement of other experts and the actual arguments used.

Miller wins 5 to 2.

The process described in this chapter will be useful for the truly non-committed. People who are genuinely open-minded and wish to determine seriously who the expert authorities are. However, I wonder how many people are that open-minded? How many will spend time objectively evaluating potential experts? Most people approach these sorts of controversies with preconceived ideas. Any “judging” inevitably involves confirmation bias. Searching for “evidence’ and “authorities” to support one’s own bias.

This is an area Pigluicci doesn’t touch on. He provides a thorough coverage of the nature of science and pseudoscience. And he does discuss underlying reasons for the popularity of anti-science prejudices. But there is another book waiting to deal with the question of how people can overcome their subjective prejudices and instinctive response in a way necessary for objectively evaluating different sources of expertise.

In conclusion

So, I will disagree with some of Pigliucci’s positions – particularly on the use of terms like “naturalism,” “supernaturalism” and the possibility of scientific investigation of the “supernatural.” However, his perspective is common and I suspect a clearer definition of terminology would remove the difference.

But I have no hesitation in recommending this book. It has come at the right time. There is much public confusion about the nature of science and scientific authority. Scientists, particularly climate scientists, are being attacked unjustly. To some extent these attacks are aimed at science itself.

“Nonsense on Stilts” is an ideal book for countering this confusion. The clarity of the writing makes it accessible to most. And the partisanship of the message adds to that accessibility.

See also:
Massimo discusses his book on the Rationally Speaking podcast –  RS10: Nonsense on Stilts
Pigliucci’s blog: Rationally


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8 responses to “Pseudoscience and anti-science nonsense

  1. Watching the Deniers

    Thanks Ken for the review, I’ve been looking forward to tracking down this book. I’ve been a reader of Massimo’s blog for some time and heard him speak (via pod-casts) on the evolution/creation controversy for some time.

    I’m keen to see his framework for evaluating the creditionals and arguments of experts.


  2. Ken,

    Very nice, and thorough, review. Almost sounds like the background material that would have filled in some of the details for Michael Specter’s book – Denialism.

    I did wanted to direct your attention to a very brief philisophical treatice that I just posted – designed to get christian believers to leggo my eggo:

    It’s a sympathetic treatment in response to Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of god. But it skis the fall-line and gets right to the point.

    I think you would get a kick out of it. And I just wish I could get a copy of it into the hands of any and all of the wavering, or closet deists out there.

    Sincerely, D R Hosie – Modern


  3. levelsofillusion

    Greetings: I am a cross cultural anthropologist living on the outskirts of Lynchburg Virginia, USA. It is the home of the largest evangelical “university” on planet earth. The earth itself is unarguably between 6 & 10,000 years old here. Below you will find a report of the kind of “education” provided at Liberty University. The blog it is from deals mostly with the effects of fundamentalist christianity on unsuspecting humans.


  4. Greetings: I am a cross cultural anthropologist living on the outskirts of Lynchburg Virginia, USA. It is the home of the largest evangelical “university” on planet earth…

    Holy crap.
    Liberty University?
    You have my sympathy.
    How do you stop from going insane amongst the nutjobs?


  5. levelsofillusion

    Come on Cedric… it’s practically the only place in the world where you can study a truly foreign culture, up close, without expensive travel, nasty shots and uncomfortable living conditions. I will have you know that, locally, Liberty is known as “The Harvard on the James River”. Lynchburg is an experiment. Anyone who is interested in knowing what America would be like run by fundamentalists can experience it here. There is much to be learned, the least of which is what life is like without gay people. Charlottesville is only an hour away. You CAN come up for air when needed. Or, if you forget what dancing, drinking and having intelligent conversation is.


  6. …it’s practically the only place in the world where you can study a truly foreign culture, up close, without expensive travel, nasty shots and uncomfortable living conditions.



  7. Pingback: ODM Science Lesson # 1 « The Online Discernmentalist Mafia

  8. Pingback: “God of the surprises” | Open Parachute

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