Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (co-edited with Maarten Boudry, University of Chicago Press, 2013)
What sets the practice of rigorously tested, sound science apart from pseudoscience? In this volume, the contributors seek to answer this question, known to philosophers of science as “the demarcation problem.” This issue has a long history in philosophy, stretching as far back as the early twentieth century and the work of Karl Popper. But by the late 1980s, scholars in the field began to treat the demarcation problem as impossible to solve and futile to ponder. However, the essays that Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry have assembled in this volume make a rousing case for the unequivocal importance of reflecting on the separation between pseudoscience and sound science. Moreover, the demarcation problem is not a purely theoretical dilemma of mere academic interest: it affects parents’ decisions to vaccinate children and governments’ willingness to adopt policies that prevent climate change. Pseudoscience often mimics science, using the superficial language and trappings of actual scientific research to seem more respectable. Even a well-informed public can be taken in by such questionable theories dressed up as science. Pseudoscientific beliefs compete with sound science on the health pages of newspapers for media coverage and in laboratories for research funding. Now more than ever the ability to separate genuine scientific findings from spurious ones is vital, and The Philosophy of Pseudoscience provides ground for philosophers, sociologists, historians, and laypeople to make decisions about what science is or isn’t.
The Relevance of Philosophy: A Systematic Answer to the Ultimate Annoying Question (RationallySpeaking.org, 2013)
This booklet is meant as an extended response to the most common questions I get about philosophy: what is philosophy? What has philosophy ever done for humanity? What is philosophy good for, in practice? Who did I ever hear of that actually studied philosophy? What have philosophers ever written that is worth reading? How come I never hear about philosophy in the press? That way from now on I (and perhaps some of my colleagues and students) can simply respond with a link to the page were people can download the booklet and then devote our time to more interesting pursuits.
A Skeptics' Skeptic: Selected Essays from Rationally Speaking (RationallySpeaking.org, 2013)
I’ve been writing about “skepticism” (meaning, taking a skeptical stance on pseudo-science, pseudo-philosophy, pseudo-politics, and a few other “pseudos”) since as far back as 1997, when I began organizing Darwin Day events at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. From time to time, over the intervening 16 or so years, I found myself turning my gadfly-sh keyboard toward other skeptics, usually famous ones. The reason is that it seems to me that a community — such as the skeptic / atheist / humanist (S/A/H, for short) one — that prides itself in its intellectualism and openness to reason and evidence, ought to critically examine its own tenets and positions, especially when espoused by prominent members of said community. Indeed, one of the gratifying things about being a skeptic is precisely that, by and large, we don’t act like a church. We recoil from dogmas, and we don’t ostracize dissenting members of our community, immediately rushing to build a new church down the street. Or do we? Well, okay, the recent history of the S/A/H community actually does sometimes eerily recall religious schisms and doctrinal disputes. Still, at least we don’t burn people at the stakes, or launch fatwas against them! The gentle reader will notice that several of the essays included in the Skeptics’ Skeptic collection are, ahem, quite ironic, even sarcastic at times, certainly more so than the typical Rationally Speaking post. There are reasons for that. To begin with, the people targeted here are Big Boys who can definitely take the heat (many are academics, and academics are selected for having a thick skin). Moreover, rest assured that they can (and have, in several cases!) fight back with equal or larger force. But the most important explanation for my above-average forcefulness here is that I take public intellectualism seriously, and these people are somewhat major public intellectuals. They influence countless others, and they therefore bear the responsibility of writing rigorously as well as clearly. When they don’t (in my opinion, of course) I call them out. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it any way: contra persistent insinuations to the contrary (by, say, The Discovery Institute, the inane “think tank” that promotes Intelligent Design creationism), these and other writings by yours truly do not signal the beginning of a move away from my philosophical naturalism, support for science, or defense of reason. They are simply cases in which I deploy precisely those tools to engage the best minds of the S/A/H, so that we as a broader movement can keep Carl Sagan’s famous “candle in the dark” alit against the always numerous and always powerful forces of obscurantism and repression.
Science and Metaphysics: Selected Essays from Rationally Speaking (RationallySpeaking.org, 2013)
These days science and metaphysics are undergoing a somewhat more difficult relationship than in the time of Aristotle. On the one hand we have scientists like Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson (to name a few) who flat out reject all metaphysics as useless speculation. On the other hand there are metaphysicians within the so-called “analytic” tradition in philosophy who seem convinced that one can arrive at a rational view of the fundamentals of the world while gingerly ignoring science. I fall in neither camp, and am much more sympathetic to what is sometimes referred to as “naturalized metaphysics” (or, more controversially, “scientific metaphysics”). The idea is that one simply cannot do metaphysics without science, but that science itself is insufficient to arrive at a project of unification of our knowledge of the world — conceptual (i.e., philosophical) analysis is also warranted. The essays collected here, broadly speaking, are rooted in this sensible, middle ground approach to metaphysics. We begin with “pure metaphysics” (a discussion of modal realism and of the doctrine of materialism), move to the metaphysics of logic and mathematics (mathematical Platonism, anyone?), then to the perennial battle between naturalistic and supernaturalistic views of the world, and finally to sections on metaphysics and biology and metaphysics and (fundamental) physics.
Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (BasicBooks, 2012)
Blogging as a Path to Self Knowledge (RationallySpeaking.org, 2012)
Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press, 2010)
Why do people believe bunk? And what causes them to embrace such pseudoscientific beliefs and practices? Noted skeptic Massimo Pigliucci sets out to separate the fact from the fantasy in this entertaining exploration of the nature of science, the borderlands of fringe science, and—borrowing a famous phrase from philosopher Jeremy Bentham—the nonsense on stilts. Presenting case studies on a number of controversial topics, Pigliucci cuts through the ambiguity surrounding science to look more closely at how science is conducted, how it is disseminated, how it is interpreted, and what it means to our society. The result is in many ways a “taxonomy of bunk” that explores the intersection of science and culture at large.
No one—not the public intellectuals in the culture wars between defenders and detractors of science nor the believers of pseudoscience themselves—is spared Pigliucci’s incisive analysis. In the end, Nonsense on Stilts is a timely reminder of the need to maintain a line between expertise and assumption. Broad in scope and implication, it is also ultimately a captivating guide for the intelligent citizen who wishes to make up her own mind while navigating the perilous debates that will affect the future of our planet.
"A refreshingly original excursion over the unmarked territory separating science from pseudoscience and nonscience, Nonsense on Stilts is a thoughtful examination of the tumultuous terrain between the two and a primer on how one tells the difference." (Kendrick Frazier, editor of Skeptical Inquirer)
Evolution—the Extended Synthesis (with Gerd Muller, MIT Press, 2010)
Most of the contributors to Evolution—The Extended Synthesis accept many of the tenets of the classical framework but want to relax some of its assumptions and introduce significant conceptual augmentations of the basic Modern Synthesis structure—just as the architects of the Modern Synthesis themselves expanded and modulated previous versions of Darwinism. This continuing revision of a theoretical edifice the foundations of which were laid in the middle of the nineteenth century—the reexamination of old ideas, proposals of new ones, and the synthesis of the most suitable—shows us how science works, and how scientists have painstakingly built a solid set of explanations for what Darwin called the "grandeur" of life.
"The essays in this volume provide ample food for thought, and from all the major food groups! The Modern Synthesis in evolutionary theory, and what lies beyond, are assessed here from multiple angles. This book will greatly interest evolutionary biologists and philosophers of evolutionary biology alike."
(Elliott Sober, Hans Reichenbach Professor and William F. Vilas Research Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Thinking About Science: Essays on the Nature of Science (RationallySpeaking.org, 2009)
Science is a human activity, and as such it is hampered by all the typical human frailties. Scientists are no less interested than anyone else in glory, money, and sex, not necessarily in that order. Yet, as philosophers of science have argued for some time now, science as a social activity manages to be remarkably objective and truth-augmenting. Scientists may blunder, as in the infamous case of “Piltdown Man” recalled in one of these essays, but in the long run they seem to get it mostly right (after all, it was scientists, not, say, creationists, who uncovered the Piltdown forgery). This is very different from the situation with pseudoscience, where astrologers and paranormalists seem to be perennially stuck in the same place, always making the same arguments, and chronically short of empirical evidence to back them up.
These essays look at science from both the point of view of a scientist and that of a philosopher. This reflects Pigliucci's own dual background, with original training in evolutionary biology and the later addition of philosophy of science. The two disciplines have always had a difficult relationship, ever since science originated as natural philosophy and became independent in the 17th and 18th centuries. Scientists of the time, like Galileo and Newton, thought of themselves at least in part as philosophers, and figures that we count today as philosophers, like Descartes and Bacon, thought of themselves as scientists. But today's academy all too often relishes the division, with scientists like physicist Steven Weinberg brazenly writing essays entitled “Against Philosophy,” and philosophers like Paul Feyerabend calling for “a formal separation between science and state” to guard society from the evils of science. These essays are written instead in the spirit that science and philosophy have much to gain from each other, with philosophy providing a broad view of how science works, and even criticism of specific scientific enterprises, and science returning the favor by informing philosophical debates with the best understanding of the facts of the universe that we can achieve at any particular moment.
The author hopes the reader will enjoy the quest as much as he does, and that readers will come to value honest human intellectual endeavor both for its own sake and for the good it can do to the human condition. As David Hume aptly put it, “What a peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call 'thought.'”
Rationally Speaking: Skeptical Essays on Reality as We Think We Know It (RationallySpeaking.org, 2009)
Why would a professional scientist who spends most of his time working on fairly speciﬁc scientiﬁc puzzles concerning gene-environment interactions (what is often referred to as “nature-nurture” questions) spend a considerable amount of time and emotional energy writing electronic “messages in a bottle” to be entrusted to the capricious currents of the Internet?
Because Pigliucci firmly believes that academics have a duty to society to be public intellectuals. Of course, the word “intellectual” has, at best, a dubious reputation in the United States (as opposed to Europe, where it is not uncommon to see philosophers, sociologists and scientists appearing on tv talk shows). Indeed, anti-intellectualism as a phenomenon characteristic of American society almost from its inception, has been the object of much study by sociologists who have identiﬁed its various components (from disdain for “theoretical” pursuits because they are not in line with the capitalist ethos to religious fundamentalist attacks on evolution). Nonetheless, and indeed precisely because of the widespread anti-intellectualism, the U.S. desperately needs intellectuals, from the academic world as much from outside of it (artists, journalists, authors, etc.).
Democracy, Winston Churchill once said, is the worst form of government except for every other one. Plato wasn’t a friend of democratic government, especially after he saw the Athenian democracy kill his mentor, Socrates. If we want to have a truly liberal democracy, and not the kind of mob rule that Plato disdained, we need educated people. Education, in turn, is not just an accumulation of factual knowledge, nor is it the acquisition of skills useful to the large corporations who now run the world. It is, at its essence, the ability to think critically about anything that is relevant to our lives. We hope, therefore, that you will enjoy these essays in the spirit they were written, to provide good food for thinking and further discussion.
Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology (with Jonathan Kaplan, University of Chicago Press, 2006)
Spotlighting these conceptual difficulties and presenting alternate theoretical interpretations that alleviate this incompatibility, Massimo Pigliucci and Jonathan Kaplan intertwine scientific and philosophical analysis to produce a coherent picture of evolutionary biology. Innovative and controversial, Making Sense of Evolution encourages further development of the Modern Synthesis and outlines what might be necessary for the continued refinement of this evolving field.
"The philosophical analysis in this book offers a clear conceptual perspective for evolutionary geneticists trying to get their mathematical apparatus clear and make an estimation of its relevance to explaining biological phenomena. But it also should encourage philosophers that evolutionary quantititative genetics is a fertile domain for analysing the meaning and use of concepts." (Alan C. Love, Mind)
Phenotypic Integration: Studying the Ecology and Evolution of Complex Phenotypes (Oxford University Press, 2004)
"I think this volume will provide stimulating reading for most students, teachers and researchers in a variety of biological disciplines." (Derek Roff, Heredity)
"There is much drive, ambition and hope in the editors of, and contributors to, this intellectually overwhelmingly rich volume." (Theunis Piersma, Trends in Ecology & Evolution)
Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science (Sinauer, 2002)
"The book is written for an audience who needs no background in the subject to begin enjoying it; once finished, however, readers will have extensive knowledge. It is multifaceted, fascinating, and essential. Everyone involved in science research, science education, and education policy (including politicians) should not only read the work, but encourage others to do likewise." (Brian Alters, The Quarterly Review of Biology)
Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)
Phenotypic plasticity integrates the insights of ecological genetics, developmental biology, and evolutionary theory. Plasticity research asks foundational questions about how living organisms are capable of variation in their genetic makeup and in their responses to environmental factors. For instance, how do novel adaptive phenotypes originate? How do organisms detect and respond to stressful environments? What is the balance between genetic or natural constraints (such as gravity) and natural selection? The author begins by defining phenotypic plasticity and detailing its history, including important experiments and methods of statistical and graphical analysis. He then provides extended examples of the molecular basis of plasticity, the plasticity of development, the ecology of plastic responses, and the role of costs and constraints in the evolution of plasticity. A brief epilogue looks at how plasticity studies shed light on the nature/nurture debate in the popular media.
Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture thoroughly reviews more than two decades of research, and thus will be of interest to both students and professionals in evolutionary biology, ecology, and genetics.
Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science (Freethought Press, 2000)
"If evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him. His Tales of the Rational defines an intellectual space as far removed as hardcore religious fundamentalism from mainstream thinking--but it may be coming closer as scientists and skeptics launch more aggressive attacks on pseudoscience and fuzzy thinking. Pigliucci, a rising star on the evolution-creationism debate circuit, pulls out all the stops in his work, not content merely to defend science against its detractors, but eagerly undermining belief in religion and the existence of any gods at all." (Amazon editorial review)
Phenotypic Evolution: A Reaction Norm Perspective (with Carl Schlichting, Sinauer, 1998)
Phenotypic Evolution explicitly recognizes organisms as complex genetic-epigenetic systems developing in response to changing internal and external environments. As a key to a better understanding of how phenotypes evolve, the authors have developed a framework that centers on the concept of the Developmental Reaction Norm. This encompasses their views: (1) that organisms are better considered as integrated units than as disconnected parts (allometry and phenotypic integration); (2) that an understanding of ontogeny is vital for evaluating evolution of adult forms (ontogenetic trajectories, epigenetics, and constraints); and (3) that environmental heterogeneity is ubiquitous and must be acknowledged for its pervasive role in phenotypic expression.
Phenotypic Evolution: A Reaction Norm Perspective can serve as a text for graduate-level courses and seminars on phenotypic evolution or evolutionary developmental biology, and as a supplemental text for evolutionary biology. The extensive references provide links to a wide variety of studies examining the diversity of phenotypes. The book will also be of interest to organismal biologists in general, including ecologists, developmental biologists, and systematists.