Tag Archives: book review

Pseudoscience and anti-science nonsense

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

Paperback: 336 pages
Price:
US$13.60; NZ$41.99
Publisher:
University Of Chicago Press (May 15, 2010)
Language:
English
SBN-10: 0226667863
SBN-13:
978-0226667867

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.

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Self-exposure – a journalist out of depth

Book Review: The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry by Suzan Mazur.

Price: US$16.50; NZ$35.oo
Perfect Paperback: 376 pages
Publisher: North Atlantic Books (February 9, 2010); Scoop Media Publishing
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1556439245
ISBN-13: 978-1556439247

Journalist Suzan Mazur created a small flurry several years ago with articles on a planned scientific meeting (The 18th Altenberg Workshop in Theoretical Biology Toward an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, ” July 2008. Organized by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. Müller). She managed to interview some of the participants, but then got offside with the science community because of the way she presented these interviews, and the nature of the meeting, in her articles.

Massimo Pugliucci, a key organiser of the meeting who had provided an early interview, roundly criticised her. He criticised journalists who “make up stuff out of their fertile imaginations, like Suzan Mazur has most outrageously done with her inane “Scoop series.”” Several other evolutionary scientists were also critical (see for example PZ Myers comments in “Journalistic flibbertigibbet” and Pigliucci’s Is there fundamental scientific disagreement about evolutionary theory?). At the same time her articles and this book have been warmly welcomed by creationists as being anti-Darwinian. At the blog Uncommon Descent O’Leary wrote Darwin skeptic Suzan Mazur is one fine journalist and William Dembski promoted the book in The Altenberg 16 — coming to a bookstore near you February 9th.”

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Ideological infections

Book Review: The God Virus: How religion infects our lives and culture by Darrel W. Ray

Price: US$12.91
Perfect Paperback: 241 pages
Publisher: IPC Press; First edition (December 5, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0970950519
ISBN-13: 978-0970950512

The virus metaphor has been extremely useful in computing. The parallel with biological viruses is close so the word provides an accurate but succinct description of the phenomena of, and problems created by, computer viruses. And this particular metaphor offends no one.

The idea of a “god virus”, which treats religious ideas in a similar way, also has some traction. Darrel Ray shows in “The God Virus” that this particular metaphor can be an accurate description of the problem. The metaphor is useful. But in this case some people do get offended.

Maybe they overreact? (Religious people often do). Ray does make clear the metaphor applies to other ideological viewpoints besides the religious ones. That it is more general. For instance, he includes communism and Marxism in some of the discussions. He also points out that, just as with ideologies, biological “viruses can be benign, even beneficial in some cases.” Although “parasite” may be a more suitable description of how ideas sometimes work – he wanted “to avoid the negative connotations” of that word.

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Empathy’s origins

Book Review: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal

Price: US$17.15
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Harmony (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307407764
ISBN-13: 978-0307407764

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This book might ruffle the feathers of the biblical literalists. They will find themselves challenged on two grounds:

  1. We can explain human feelings of empathy, sympathy and the like naturally, without resort to divine causes;
  2. Ideas of a special or divinely ordained character for humans, of human exceptionalism, are not supported by the evidence.

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Why We Are Atheists

Book Review: 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk

Paperback: 360 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (October, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1405190469
ISBN-13: 978-1405190466
Price: US$26.95

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Wow! A book about atheism and it’s not written by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett or Harris! That might be how some people react given the media linking of atheism with these names.

So this book is welcome partly because it helps break that knee-jerk reaction. Atheism is far more widespread than that. But it’s also welcome because many of its contributors advance interesting ideas.

50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists includes contributions mainly from philosophers, but also from scientists, science fiction writers, political activists and public intellectuals. They all responded to the request for “your explanation of why you do not subscribe to the view that there exists an all-powerful, omniscient, good entity running the universe.” Inevitably, they all answer the question differently. Readers will also react differently and will select different essays as their favourites. There’s plenty to choose from. And one advantage of a collection like this is that you can dip into it wherever you want.

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The philosophy wars

Book Review: Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Monthly Review Press (November 1, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1583671730
ISBN-13: 978-1583671733

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Scientific writers usually critique intelligent design (ID) creationism using scientific facts. And why not? After all, as the saying goes, “we have the genes and we have the fossils.” And creationist arguments often do rely on flagrant distortion of the facts.

This doesn’t get to the real emotion and ideas motivating supporters of creationism. So we sometimes need to deal with personal beliefs and feelings. The question of randomness behind evolutionary mutations. The violence and waste implied by “survival of the fittest.” And the unwarranted application of “social Darwinism” to society.

But this book takes the struggle to the most fundamental level. That of the philosophical approaches underlying science, on the one hand, and teleological explanations preferred by religion on the other. This struggle has been going on for millennia, and will no doubt continue for a long time yet.

It’s an important struggle because of the current attacks on science.  But the struggle is wider than that – it is central to the “culture wars” of today. Read the Wedge Strategy and you can see that ID is also attacking society, religion and freedom.

Scientists have usually not bothered to engage with ID philosophically. So it is refreshing to read a book which takes these design arguments head on.

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Book recommendations?

Ever wondered about those short recommendations featured on the covers of books. Sometimes  I am shocked to see a recommendation from someone I respect for a book I know is rubbish.

Well, this exchange of letters (see But will they come when you do call for them?) over a “recommendation” of Murray Gell-Mann for a book by Stuart Pivar provides an insight. It seems that we can’t always believe what is written on book covers – let alone what’s between them.

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From stones to atoms

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Book Review: The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone: How Science Succeeded and Philosophy Failed to Gain Knowledge of Atoms by Alan Chalmers

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Publisher: Springer
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9048123615
ISBN-13: 978-9048123612
US$119.00


It’s reasonable to see philosophy and science as natural partners, complementary in their application and intimately related. However, there is some distrust between the disciplines. Massimo Pigliucci discussed the problems in his paper: The borderlands between science and philosophy: an introduction. The March 2008 special issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology has other papers dealing with these problems.

Scientists often feel that some philosophers can be hostile towards, or misrepresent, science. Some philosophers have an “armchair approach” which inhibits a proper understanding of the scientific process. But there are other philosophers who promote a respectful relationship with science.

Alan Chalmers textbook is an example of the healthy relationship that can, and often does, exist. It is therefore a welcome addition to the philosophy of science and should benefit students of philosophy and science alike.

In particular, it will help put the relationship between science and philosophy into the right perspective. And what better subject to do this than atomism with its clear roots in philosophical thought but is clear proof in experimental science. Chalmer’s epistemological history shows how “the philosophical atomists’ miniature stones were replaced by the scientist’s quantum-mechanical atom.” This serves to provide a comprehensive history of the relationship between philosophy and science.

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