About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Massimo's Picks

* Well, someone has to care for all those pets that will be left behind by the Rupture. How about we atheists?
* Friendly Atheist publishes an exclusive excerpt of my book, Nonsense on Stilts. It's rather controversial...
* Bill Maher is a kook when it comes to alternative medicine, but on politics and religion he's absolutely brilliant.
* My review of Lee Smolin's "The Trouble with Physics." A must read if you are curious about string and loop quantum theories.
* Apparently, early Homo sapiens shagged with Neanderthals...
* Scottish schools just like American ones: they are producing a generation of science illiterates.
* The Pope almost endorses the Shroud of Turin. Anything to get people's attention away from his moral responsibilities, eh?


  1. A solid half of the commenters at this FriendlyAtheist site are terrifyingly ignorant. I do not know whether I could muster the fortitude to submit my writing to their "analysis". Kudos.

  2. Massimo, what happened to your carefully considered prose and self restraint?

    Surely if "science" is to be blamed for the Eugenics movement then slavery, racism and all sorts of charges can be brought against "philosophy".

    I hope this was merely a snappy introduction to capture the reader.

  3. Well, I sure wish I had the time to read up on theoretical physics. Seems both interesting and relevant, so thanks for recommending. Unfortunately, in the foreseeable future I won't...

  4. Massimo, in the passage from your book, you dismiss the correspondence theory of truth offhand. Do you discuss your opposition to it at greater length elsewhere? What is your preferred theory of truth?

  5. I think www.postrapturepost.com is a much more useful service. How else are the Raptured going to get the "I told you so!"s to the left behinds.

  6. Re Neanderthals shagging humans.

    Did God make Herm Chosen People as sex toys for horny Neandertal hunters. I know God had little respect for human women but this is ridiculous.

    No Neandertal mitochondrial DNA in Homo sapiens. Ergo no Neanderthal women bred with Homo Sapiens men. 1-4% Neanderthal DNA in Homo sapiens. This must be from male Neanderthals breeding with Homo sapiens females.

    A bit more speculation: on Blue Roads

  7. "Bill Maher is a kook when it comes to alternative medicine, but on politics and religion he's absolutely brilliant."

    I really wasn't too impressed with Maher's rant. Describing Fred Phelps' crew as the worst of Christianity's religious extremists is laughable when there are those who have murdered or tried to murder abortion doctors in the name of Christ.

  8. Bill Maher is a funny guy. But his criticism of extremist Muslims is all too easily taken as an attack against Islam as a whole.

    For example, he says "our culture isn't just different than one that makes death threats to cartoonists -- it's BETTER!" This feeds into bigotry and jingoism.

  9. downquark,

    "bad science" is to be blamed for eugenics, just like bad religion (and to a much lesser extent bad philosophy, given the number and influence of advocates) can be blamed for slavery and racism. My point is that science cannot be unconditionally trusted, it is a human activity, and as such it needs to be monitored by society at large. Didn't think that could possibly be controversial.


    I used to like the correspondence theory, just like pretty much any scientist (assuming they are even aware of it). But following the recent debates on realism and anti-realism I must say that the c-theory has serious problems. You can find more in James Ladyman's book, especially the second half:



    I'm sorry but Western society is in fact *better* for human flourishing than Middle Eastern societies, and kudos to Maher for bypassing entirely the absurd degree of inter-cultural political correctness that affects the brains of so many progressives (and I speak as a progressive). It's not bigotry, and it has nothing to do with jingoism, it's a reality that needs to be acknowledged.

  10. Massimo: ""bad science" is to be blamed for eugenics, just like bad religion (and to a much lesser extent bad philosophy, given the number and influence of advocates) can be blamed for slavery and racism."

    Oh? There's excuses for bad philosophy if the "number and influence of advocates" of some of its bad policies is big enough, but the same isn't true about science? How about the fact that not all the advocates of eugenics worked in the ivory tower of their labs? That this ideology had roots in bad philosophy too? In fact, IIRC Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, eugenics worked hand in hand with racism and sexism. It was at least in part a revamping of old prejudices in the shiny new scienty clothes of the age, and part of what the society at large perceive what science is and should do.

    So, if you want "society" to monitor what scientists do, be prepared for some very, very bad surprises, from both a scientific and a social point of view...

  11. irenedelse,

    my comment was based on the idea that philosophers have rarely justified racism qua philosophers, and even when they did, there was little damage since people don't normally listen to philosophers. Nonetheless, they should be criticized when they do write bad philosophy, no question about it.

    But science has a lot more power and influence (and public funding), which means that our watch as members of an open society has to be much more careful. Again didn't think this was going to be a controversial statement, but so be it.

  12. Massimo I think you missed my point. Although I'm probably committing some fallacy here, I wouldn't limit "philosophy" to something that is done exclusively by people who identify themselves as philosophers. It's also questionable whether science should be blamed for political side affects and misunderstandings of discoveries that are justifiably good science. Your article may well be quote mined by postmodernists and creationists but I would not say you are to be blamed for the support they may gain. If I were I may say your blog should be supervised for the good of science.

    I agree of course that science needs moral supervision to prevent direct immorality.

    I also do no agree that supernatural hypothesis are entirely outside of science, it depends entirely on the nature of the claim. Obviously science cannot disprove the virgin birth without something extraordinary like the preserved hymen. However a naive claim like "god ensures every child receives sweets every Friday" is rather trivial to falsify (provided you add that god is also not deceptive).

    Even a hypothesis of deist god is open to falsification if he/she "would never have created something that clearly exists".

    One rarely get such ideas from religions and if they had them they have long since changed/vanished.

  13. "I'm sorry but Western society is in fact *better* for human flourishing than Middle Eastern societies"

    Can't disagree....but from what I can tell, if the "humility" that is missing from the "better" returns in association with it...the "better" will become infectious to pandemic proportions...without active and forceful transformation of any towards it.

    For Light is distinct from darkness, and one who has it must exercise compassion, generosity and humility for it to be of any meaningful use towards human flourishing. Vitriol and arrogance prevent its natural transmission, and, therefore, risk extinction of what should actually flourish that helps flourish. I am saddened to see that humility is written off as political correctness.

    I can't imagine a guy jumping out of his Bugatti and saying to a panhandler that I am richer and better off. Especially if he truly knows he is driving a Bugatti :)

    All the best and respects...

    Mohammed-TA of both the West and East.

  14. Re Nonsense on Stilts excerpt:
    The nature of science and how it is (or ought to be) taught in the public school system was a central theme of my training to be a teacher, so I whole heatedly support the use of Piltdown man as a case study, I do question how much of a problem "scienceism" is in the general population.
    Dr. Bell and other educators who research this kind of thing find that absolutist views about science are common among students (and are the source of many misconceptions about evolution, for example) but I see just as much 'post-modern' thinking among students. (Aren't all ideas equal? How do we know what's even real? Everything else scientists though turned out wrong, so this probably will too, therefore I can think whatever I want.) I think these attitudes are as much about being a teenager whose job it is to question authority while exploring the realization that perception and social constructs play a larger roll in their life than they though. But the result is that they give scientific evidence the same standing as they would to circumstantial evidence, they find "folk science" as convincing as a double blind study.
    I do see plenty of "technologyism," (all problems will be solved by future advances in technology), some "scienceism," and a disturbing amount of post-modern attitudes. In terms of the harmful effects of such widespread beliefs on society, the problems of scienceism are the ones I am least concerned about.

  15. Some remarks regarding the excerpt of Nonsense On Stilts published at Friendly Atheist.

    Yes, indeed, science in its present form can never claim to have reached absolute truth. Nor does it claim so. There is no statement in any scholarly formulation of the scientific method that prescribes absolute truth to be found. Moreover, should science stumble by accident (or intentionally for that matter) on absolute truth, it has no way to unambiguously identify the found “truth” as absolute truth as long as (some form of) corresponce between truth and reality has not been established rigorously. This raises the question whether it is even possible to adhere any meaning to the term “absolute truth” (or simply "truth" implicitly used with that connotation) since the term itself cannot be rooted on absolute meaning itself. And this is the kind of truth Massimo refers to when he speaks about the truth scoience cannot offer. The other side of the coin is that the sort of truths we use most widely in our benefit do not require the absoluteness certificate. These truths are considered truths because they work accurately enough. The kind of truths that make it possible to heat food in a microwave oven, to improve crop, to communicate over long distances, to find cures for illness, to save lives and understand the risks of the world we live in, to launch rockets, and so on. The kind of truths IOW that make it possible to predict or explain phenomena with some accuracy from these tentative truths assuming as little as possible.

    Therefore to assert that Newtonian physics is a blunder, is a gross misrepresentation of the value it has even nowadays to explain and predict with great accuracy the phenomena that we deal with in our reality. Up to this very day Newtonian physics still is used for sending spacecrafts of into space. Yes, there are more accurate and elaborate theories nowadays, but to assert that truth can only be absolute truth or else is blunder is an oversimplification. Laughable even since the term “absolute truth” itself cannot be defined in terms of human understanding. That assertion (about a strict dichotomy between absoluteness and blunder) itself can be no more than a tentative truth at best. Science can give (and improve on) reproducible truths, allbeit tentative truths, in the most accurate way currently possible, and without (implicitly or explicitly) resorting to non-meaningful terms such as absoluteness. Of course when the dichotomy should exist and the physics we discover today is the blunder of tomorrow, I'm sure Massimo would be happy to concede that all of physics can be taught in the same classroom with religion.

    To quote Einstein about his view on the implications of his findings only shows that humans, even fairly bright ones, are not capable of accurately estimating to what extent we can benefit from the scientific method. Well, duh, a physicist never was someone with direct access to undiluted absolute truth, was it? There is no legendary crystal ball involved in physics and we certainly should not make the mistake to take personal opinion of physicists as part of the body of scientific knowledge whatever, aspirations for the absolute truth we might hold.

  16. Oops, I forgot to say I thank anyone who can help!

  17. I know this is off-topic (but I think that may be okay in a Picks post):

    I'm an undergrad biology major and I have taken an interest in the philosophy of science. Unfortunately my school offers no course on the subject. Can anyone suggest an introductory text? I'm looking for something that is thought-provoking and can serve as an introduction, but not something that is so technical that I won't want to read it.

    I know Massimo and Julia are fond of What Is This Thing Called Science? (as mentioned in one of the podcasts) - would this be a good choice?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.