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.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Podcast Teaser: Nonsense on Stilts

Okay, okay, this time we are being a bit self-indulgent. Our next podcast will focus on my new book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. You can find an e-version here. (Meanwhile, you can check out our latest episode, on the Anthropic Principle.) Still, the topic is interesting, and it will surely generate stimulating discussions on our blog.
The book, broadly speaking, is about what philosopher Karl Popper famously called the demarcation problem: how do we tell the difference among science, non-science and pseudoscience? Popper’s answer was his criterion of falsification, the idea that a hypothesis, in order to count as scientific, has to be falsifiable in principle.
As I explain at the beginning of the book, however, this didn’t quite work, because there are plenty of examples in the history of science where hypotheses had apparently been falsified by the available data, and yet they were retained for the time being because they were sufficiently promising, elegant, pragmatic, or what not (examples include the Copernican theory, which initially didn’t do much better than Ptolemy’s, and of course Newtonian mechanics, which apparently failed to explain the anomalies in the orbit of Uranus, and then definitely failed at a similar task where Mercury was concerned — in the first case the reason was the existence of the then unknown Neptune, in the second case that Mercury is close enough to the sun that relativistic effects become relevant).
A large part of the book then explores what I consider to be the much more complex relationship among science, non-science and pseudoscience, ranging from solid science like fundamental physics and evolutionary biology to definite pseudosciences of astrology and creationism. In the middle are the more interesting borderline areas that include the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, evolutionary psychology, and even superstring theory, to name but a few.
Nonsense on Stilts also investigates some of the major players that mediate public understanding of science: experts, think tanks, and of course the media broadly construed. Think tanks, for instance, are rather curious organizations, originally conceived as “universities without students,” independent research groups having the goal of advising the government on complex policy issues. But many (though not all) of them are now clearly ideological outlets that don’t do research as much as start out with pre-determined positions that are then backed up by ad hoc sifting through the available evidence.
I also get into the whole issue of expertise, which plays such an important role especially in media presentations of issues such as evolution, climate change, HIV-AIDS, or the alleged connection between vaccines and autism. What makes someone an expert, exactly, and how is the non-technical public supposed to arrive at an informed opinion when two people with PhD’s seem to be seeing the same problem from entirely antithetical and mutually incompatible points of view?
More to the point: why do we care? Because, I argue in Nonsense on Stilts, nonsense hurts and kills. It hurts the environment, if we keep denying climate change, and it kills people who don’t take anti-HIV drugs because they believe conspiracy theories that blame the American government and Big Pharma for the epidemics. Or at the very least, as Stephen Jay Gould once put it: “Skepticism or debunking often receives the bad rap reserved for activities — like garbage disposal — that absolutely must be done for a safe and sane life, but seem either unglamorous or unworthy of overt celebration.” I’d say, let’s celebrate the disposal of pseudo-intellectual garbage!


  1. Sounds interesting. Perhaps I should pick your book up, especially because I disagree with you on the scope of science so often.

    The question what exactly science is is relevant to so many current discussions, not only accommodationism vs. purism. But even from accommodationists I have received extremely divergent circumscriptions of science (in all cases as part of an argument why religion is compatible with it), ranging from extremely narrow ones that would essentially exclude everything but a double-blind study with a control group to extremely wide ones that would include figuring out as a toddler that objects are not gone when you do not see them any more. I tend to the latter, wide definition, as it seems mightily arrogant, e.g., to tell an archeologist that she is not doing science just because there the concept of a control group does not apply or some such nonsense.

    To me, it boils down to: (1) using evidence from the physical world in some way; (2) always asking yourself how you would know if you were wrong instead of succumbing to confirmation bias; (3) accepting only those propositions for which there are good reasons to accept them. If you don't have #1, it is philosophy. If you don't have #2, it is pseudoscience. If you consciously don't have #3, it is faith. Sound reasonable?

  2. Mintman,

    yup, it sounds reasonable, and if you do pick up the book ;-) you will find that we actually agree on more than it may have transpired from our exchanges on this forum.

    Incidentally, I do not consider myself an accommodationist, if by that one means a person who thinks that there is a rational compatibility between science and religion.

  3. Of course, and I did not mean to indicate that I ever mistook you for one! I only mentioned that discussion because the question what science really is is so crucial to it.

  4. So who doesn't in some way use evidence from the physical world, who doesn't think they're right because they've tried not to be wrong, and who accepts propositions if they think there are bad reasons to do so?
    Does this in some defining way separate the religionists from the mechanists? Will pseudoscience know when it's mistaken any sooner? Does that little boil-down of yours really serve some purpose?

  5. Artie,

    you've got to be kidding. The large majority of the world's population is impervious to either facts or reason, and often to both.

    Besides, man, give me a break, this is a 400-word teaser for a podcast. The book is 320 pages, read it and then we'll talk.

  6. Massimo, the comment was only meant for you to the extent that you agree with Mintman's simplistic formula. I agree with you about the large majority and their relative ignorance. I just wanted to get a crack in about purpose as an analytical factor - a dimension of the bigger picture that scientists hope to paint.

  7. Artie,

    I never know who's responding to whom. That's why I try to remember to put the name of the person I'm addressing at the beginning of a comment.

  8. Artie, of course this is simplistic; this is a response to a blog post, not a book.

  9. Mintman, simplistic was putting it kindly.

  10. lawks-a-mercy-me, I'm going back to bed

  11. Roger Ebert tweeted about your book! Or rather a review of your book.


  12. Massimo, I just heard the latest podcast and I will like to make a comment on something:
    Seems since then, Penn has been more open to the possibility of man made global warming being more of s "fact" than a "theory", at least according to his own video blog. Seem its was mostly due to contact with "real" climatologists in the skeptic's meetings.

    Also, I like your theory of "sticking it to the man syndrome" being the main cause behind this little irrationalities from the "science warriors", because it also explain partly the reasons behind their crusade against philosophy ( mostly from Dawkins and more recently Harris, but it is well spread even among the "low ranked"), and why is it so much harder to pull them out of it than it is to, for example, make Penn or Randi change their mind.

    It goes like this: since every one in the "reason side" respect scientists, it inst so hard for the latter to renounce on their dearest beliefs and pat themselves on their backs for doing so ,but since no one cares about philosophers, they don't have anything in their hierarchy of values that would let them even consider the possibility that they don't have any idea of what they are talking about. This is the main reason,I believe, why it seems some philosophers of science gave up on the movement, they feel just as scientist feel to the general public: ignored by people who barely understand what they do.

    I 'm still waiting for an apology from Dawkins for saying in "the Genius of Charles Darwin" that: "but some things are simply true" to refute relativism.
    Those kind of comments make Popper roll in his grave.

  13. Well, I would have to see Dawkins' comment in context to understand why you feel an apology would be in order. Some thing are just true. If I let go of a cup in mid-air, it falls down; if you choke me for ca. 5 min, I die; I don't own a car at the moment. All these things are just true, and the only way to doubt it would be to obfuscate, to play with word definitions, or to pull out the old "what if we are all brains in a tank" canard.

  14. Massimo,

    "…as Stephen Jay Gould once put it: 'Skepticism or debunking often receives the bad rap reserved for activities — like garbage disposal — that absolutely must be done for a safe and sane life,' "

    I absolutely agree, let's get rid of pseudo-intellectual garbage. Although, as you suggest, in some cases it's not so easy to tell the garbage from the good stuff. Your quote from Gould is especially interesting, because he went to great lengths to try to show that biological evolution is non-directional. His arguments are pretty effectively countered in scholarly fashion by Robert Wright. It seems to me that one the most important facts to emerge from the overall picture of evolution is that it is indeed directional -- starting with relatively simple life, gradually increasing greatly in complexity (accompanied by increasing capabilities) over billions of years. After examining the arguments presented by both Gould and Wright, it appears to me that Gould is the one who is being ideological and pseudo-scientific on this issue. Quite ironic!!

  15. Fred,

    actually, I think Gould got the apparent directionality of evolution exactly right in his book, Full House. You might want to check that out.

  16. Fred, I liked that reference to Robert Wright, especially as he has said something of what I've tried to say, except he's said his version of it better:
    "- even if evolution does have a “purpose,” imparted by some higher-order creative process, that doesn’t mean there’s anything mystical or immaterial going on. And it doesn’t mean there’s a god. For all we know, there’s some “meta-natural-selection” process — playing out over eons and perhaps over multiple universes — that spawned the algorithm of natural selection, somewhat as natural selection spawned the algorithm contained in genomes."

  17. Massimo,

    Well, Gould did admit that at the outer edge of the envelope some species including our lineage has increased in complexity over time, but he juxtaposes this to the fact that the vast majority and bulk of creatures are currently no more complex than bacteria -- as was the case billions of years ago. He also states that the development of creatures of our intelligence was purely accidental; and if the evolution of life began all over again, that there would be almost zero chance of creatures of our level of intelligence ever emerging again.

    On that point Carl Sagan apparently disagreed. In one of his books (The Pale Blue Dot, if I remember correctly) Carl stated that if life arose on another planet, it would be just a matter of time before intelligent life appeared. Clearly Carl regarded the process of the evolution of life to include increasing complexity and capabilities.

    Look at the big picture of evolution here on earth, and consider how the process of natural selection works. There is clearly a natural tendency toward greater complexity -- and that tendency started right from the Big Bang, at which moment even the simplest atoms did not exist!

  18. Mintman, if, as you said, "I let go of a cup in mid-air, it falls down," it might also fall up if the air is in the space station. Similar exceptions abound to those other simplistic bromides. And you could be lying about the car.

  19. Define complexity and then we can tell if you have a leg to stand on.

  20. Sigh. Much of this depends on perspective, and on screaming "hey, isn't that profound and important" over trivialities.

    Obviously there is a tendency for greater complexity (e.g., defined as number of different cell types expressed in one organism) to arise in the course of evolution - from the perspective of the entire biosphere. But from the perspective of an individual lineage, there is, generally speaking, no such thing. There are tons and tons of bacteria that never got any more complex since the optimized for their niche a few billion years ago, and there are loads of species that are now less complex than their ancestors, like annual weeds that evolved out of trees. In fact, it could be argued that the entire thing is a random walk which is just bounded on one side because the first organism was already at minimum complexity; thus, looking at the result from a distance, it seems as if movement was only in one direction, although the individual lineages move into both.

    And again, even if there were a trend to greater complexity, what is the purpose? The way I understand the term, there is none, simply because the word only makes sense if there is a guiding intelligence behind a process to start with. A tree falling down on its own fulfills no purpose with falling down, it just happens; a tree cut down by a beaver does. So where is the beaver that started the process of evolution >3 billion years ago and watches it since then being happy at seeing how the purpose is fulfilled? Seriously, evolution also just happens for all we know, and it is silly trying to see purposive patterns behind everything. That's what our stone age ancestors did when they invented fertility gods because the would not accept that plant growth just happens, without any benevolent intelligence being involved.

    Artie, don't be disingenuous. Of course you can add all manner of silly exceptions, but it is still the case that one or the other is simply true about my ownership of car and the other is simply false, and in the gravitational pull of a planet unsupported things simply fall down.

  21. Sorry Mintman, it is not word games or obfuscation to say the absence of context renders statements about existence or truth meaningless.

    We live in a world of many assumptions. Given those assumptions and given a frame of reference, stuff may be true or false. Not any other way.

  22. DaveS: Gee, who would have guessed? Thanks for explaining. Too kind. So is that why Dawkins has to, and I cite Angel, "apologize" for a statement that does not insult anybody, because he did not add a disclaimer about how context matters? Do tell.

    Full disclosure: I sometimes say things like 8+6=14 without launching into a long disclaimer about this being only true in the decimal system, so I may be biased here...

  23. Mintman, to say, I own a car, requires a definition of own, and once you define that to suit your purpose you have a tautology.

    And again, if you have to qualify your "truth" to say "unsupported" things fall down, you have another tautology. Especially as there are many things that one way or another seem to keep themselves from falling.

    And a tree falling down serves the purpose of whatever combination of factors caused it to.
    Maybe even the acquired purpose of fungi.

  24. I'm not entirely sure you use the word tautology in the same sense as the rest of the English-speaking world; but that you use the word purpose in a different sense than the aforementioned language community is evident.

    Look, I'll just call those pointy, soft green thingies on the ground "gold", and maybe somebody will think I'm rich because I discovered gold in front of my house.

  25. Massimo,
    I am currently reading your book, "Nonsense on Stilts". You have talk about String theory being philosophy until a test can be devised for it. But, to my knowledge, the physicists have devised a test for string theory using the Large Hadrom collider. See this aritcle from 2006 http://www.physorg.com/news10682.html
    Also, I believe that Einstein's theory of relativity was not initially testable. Later, some astronomers devised a test during a solar eclipse. (I might be off a bit on this, as I am working from memory.) I think that this might have been mentioned in your book, or maybe it has but I haven't seen it yet. Enjoying the book so far.

  26. No, Mintman, I suspect you'll just be told that everyone else calls it grass.

    But if you say, it's gold because that's what I call it, that would be a tautology.

    Next thing you'll be telling me is that tautologies are required to be true, because one and one make two.

  27. Chuck,

    actually the current consensus seems to be that the Hadron collider will *not* be able to test string theory, because even if it does discover certain new particles, they are predicted by rivals of string theory too, like loop quantum theory.

    As for Einstein, you are correct, but that only took a few years. String theory has been around for more than three decades...

  28. I see no directionality in evolution.

    The apparent tendency toward increasing complexity is more a matter of randomly filling the available 'space' of viable forms and ecological niches. Once evolution stumbles across a new possibility, whether it be just life itself, back at the start, or photosynthesis, or the ability to live entirely on land, the initial form will be close to the simplest possible, by statistical probability alone.

    From the ground, the only way is up.

    We see the reverse happening whenever a complex form adapted to one environment occupies a very different one, which may have far less competition, in which case it loses much complexity as unnecessary in the new niche. Like cave dwelling forms, which lose eyes.

  29. There is no "ought from is" in a strictly deterministic world.

  30. Massimo,

    Here we go again http://www.physorg.com/news202553083.html


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