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

I completed reading this book about two weeks ago, but have been grappling with how to review it. For starters, the title threw me off somewhat, as the contents eventually revealed what I was not expecting.The book is not composed of the typical science versus pseudoscience and non-science debate, that is characteristic of books of this type.

Instead, Massimo Pigliucci focuses on uncovering in some detail what the true nature of science is and indeed what it is not. To this end his discussions involve looking at the history of science from pre-Socratic to modern times, attempting to distinguish between hard and soft sciences, and also what he terms “almost-science.” Further, he looks at the philosophy of science and its proponents such as Popper, and delves into what constitutes an expert in a field of science, and ends with a critique of Postmodernism.

Massimo uses many real-life examples to further his discussions, sometimes going unnecessarily too deep into them as in the case of his criticism of Bjorn Lambourg’s views on climate change. However, overall one sees the necessity of using these examples as in the case of the tiresome Creationist, and patently dishonest Intelligent Design belief systems, to make clear the distinctions between science, pseudoscience and plain bunk.

An eye-opener for me was the revelation that being a skeptic is not necessarily the intellectually superior position it is made out to be by some proponents as Shermer and Randi. Indeed, there are many skeptics out there who have taken positions that are contrary to widely accepted scientific findings, and peddle either pseudoscience or plain nonsense.

Ultimately though, even though scientists are fallible, one comes away convinced that science works because it is self-regulating, being subject to peer review, while pseudoscience and non-science are not.

I think the best way to get an insight into what the book offers is through some quotes which I have selected:

1. Clearly, human senses can be misleading, which is plainly shown by the kind of dream that feels real while it is happening or by phenomena like mirages. Even human reasoning is faulty, again as shown by the fact that we can be absolutely convinced of the soundness of an argument only to be ruthlessly shown wrong by someone who has looked at it more carefully or from a different angle.

2. What interests us here, however, is the potential for fruitful interactions between science and philosophy when it comes to a joint defense against the assault from pseudoscientific quarters.

3. Moreover, it is important to note that it was scientists who uncovered the hoax, not creationists, which is both an immense credit to the self-correcting nature of science and yet another indication that creationism is only a religious doctrine with no power of discovery.

4. We shall see later on how science itself can still claim a high degree of quasi-objectivity, despite the fact that its practitioners are not objective machines, but instead are emotionally and subjectively after the same three universal rewards sought by humankind: fame, money (or material resources), and sex (not necessarily in that order).

5. Objecting to such procedure on moral grounds would be similar to objecting to vaccination on the ground that God wants us to suffer from the diseases He invented (the absurdity of which has not stopped people from actually defending such “reasoning”).

6. To expect a scientist to be more objective than average is the same as to expect a moral philosopher to be a saint: it may happen, but don’t count on it.

7. Everyone has a right to be irrational, but rampant irrationality in a society on the grounds that ‘it doesn’t hurt anyone’ is, well, not a very rational position to take.

8. But the beauty of science is that it so often shows our intuitions to be wrong.

9. Then again, arguably this peculiar relationship between science and philosophy is nothing new. Philosophy has often been the placeholder for areas of intellectual inquiry that have subsequently moved to the domain of science.

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