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.


Go to Massimo's Amazon page.

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.

Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (BasicBooks, 2012)

A biologist - turned - philosopher shows how scientific discoveries can help resolve some of philosophy's longest - debated issues. Consider the following scenario: you're walking on a bridge and notice a trolley on the tracks below. To your horror, the trolley is hurtling directly toward five innocent bystanders. You also see a lever nearby: if you pull it, you can divert the trolley to a different track. The catch is that diverting it will guarantee the death of a sixth person nearby. Would you pull the lever? Most people unhesitatingly answer yes-happy to sacrifice one life to save five-but balk if, instead of simply pulling a lever they were required to push a person off the bridge to stop the trolley-even if the result stays the same. A philosopher would claim that the two problems are identical from a moral perspective, but a neuroscientist would argue otherwise: in the first instance, the major decision-making role is played by a brain area usually involved in rational cognition, while in the second, an area related to the experience of emotions takes over. Science reveals that the two problems, apparently similar in form and content, are processed very differently by the brain - we are human beings, after all, not robotic moral calculators. The trolley dilemma provides a good example of how we can combine science and philosophy to fruitfully inform our decision making - the ambitious goal of philosopher and biologist Massimo Pigliucci's "Answers for Aristotle". He shows how we can combine these modes of thinking to begin to understand how we make certain decisions (science), but also why those decisions may not be for the best (philosophy). Pigliucci argues that we need to reclaim both science and philosophy as guides to understand and navigate the world, to help us construct our own individual pursuits of happiness.

Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Recent polls suggest that fewer than 40 percent of Americans believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, despite it being one of science’s best-established findings. More and more parents are refusing to vaccinate their children for fear it causes autism, though this link can been consistently disproved. And about 40 percent of Americans believe that the threat of global warming is exaggerated, despite near consensus in the scientific community that manmade climate change is real.

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)

In the six decades since the publication of Julian Huxley's Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, spectacular empirical advances in the biological sciences have been accompanied by equally significant developments within the core theoretical framework of the discipline. As a result, evolutionary theory today includes concepts and even entire new fields that were not part of the foundational structure of the Modern Synthesis. In this volume, sixteen leading evolutionary biologists and philosophers of science survey the conceptual changes that have emerged since Huxley's landmark publication, not only in such traditional domains of evolutionary biology as quantitative genetics and paleontology but also in such new fields of research as genomics and EvoDevo.

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)

Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology (with Jonathan Kaplan, University of Chicago Press, 2006)

Making Sense of Evolution explores contemporary evolutionary biology, focusing on the elements of theories—selection, adaptation, and species—that are complex and open to multiple possible interpretations, many of which are incompatible with one another and with other accepted practices in the discipline. Particular experimental methods, for example, may demand one understanding of “selection,” while the application of the same concept to another area of evolutionary biology could necessitate a very different definition.

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)

A new voice in the nature-nurture debate can be heard at the interface between evolution and development. Phenotypic integration-or, how large numbers of characteristics are related to make up the whole organism, and how these relationships evolve and change their function-is a major growth area in research, attracting the attention of evolutionary biologists, developmental biologists, and geneticists, as well as, more broadly, ecologists, physiologists, and paleontologists. This edited collection presents much of the best and most recent work the topic.

"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)

Denying Evolution aims at taking a fresh look at the evolution–creation controversy. It presents a truly "balanced" treatment, not in the sense of treating creationism as a legitimate scientific theory (it demonstrably is not), but in the sense of dividing the blame for the controversy equally between creationists and scientists—the former for subscribing to various forms of anti-intellectualism, the latter for discounting science education and presenting science as scientism to the public and the media. The central part of the book focuses on a series of creationist fallacies (aimed at showing errors of thought, not at deriding) and of mistakes by scientists and science educators. The last part of the book discusses long-term solutions to the problem, from better science teaching at all levels to the necessity of widespread understanding of how the brain works and why people have difficulties with critical thinking.

"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)

For more than two decades the concept of phenotypic plasticity has allowed researchers to go beyond the nature-nurture dichotomy to gain deeper insights into how organisms are shaped by the interaction of genetic and ecological factors. Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture is the first work to synthesize the burgeoning area of plasticity studies, providing a conceptual overview as well as a technical treatment of its major components.

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)

Engaging, compelling, witty essays that put in perspective some of the most fascinating scientific and pseudo-scientific claims of the 20th century. Includes discussions of: atheism, straw-man arguments, creationism, debating creationists and theists, evolutionary biology, Christian apologetics, critiques of modern science, the search for extraterrestial life, the search for the origins of life, chaos theory, and much more.

"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)

Understanding the process of adaptive evolution of phenotypes is a fundamental problem in evolutionary biology. It has been approached from the point of view of population and quantitative genetics, optimality theory, or developmental biology. In the last decade, there has been an explosion of research on phenotypic plasticity (the environmentally induced production of different phenotypes by a single genotype) as well as on the molecular details of development, reflecting the increased recognition of their importance in shaping phenotypic evolution. However, the "hardening" of the neodarwinian synthesis in the '40s led to the largely independent investigation of genetic, developmental and environmental bases of phenotypic expression. As a result, these different perspectives have not been integrated into a satisfying cohesive view of phenotypic evolution.

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.