Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Massimo Pigliucci's "Nonsense on Stilts"

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. He has written many books, including Making Sense of Evolution with Jonathan Kaplan.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, and reported the following:
If you open my latest book, Nonsense on Stilts at p. 99 you will find yourself in the midst of a delicate discussion of the role of the media in science dis-education. In particular, that page constitutes the coda of a critique of an infamous “documentary” entitled What the Bleep Do We Know?, a bizarre production that mixes confused bits of science from neurobiology and — of course — quantum mechanics, with quite a bit of new age fluff about the power of the mind to overcome matter and shape reality.

What the Bleep is, unfortunately, just one of many examples of how we are constantly exposed to what the book labels as, after a famous phrase by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, “nonsense on stilts,” that is a really tall order of nonsense. It is easy, of course, to blame “the media” for the sorry state of public understanding of science in this country, but in fact I argue in the book that the number of culprits is much, much larger. Just like in Agatha Christie’s mystery novel, Murder on the Orient Express, pretty much everyone involved turned out to have contributed to the crime.

The culprits in our case include a large part of the media, especially those that keep blurring the distinction between news and entertainment, or between reporting and ideological editorializing. But it also includes scientists themselves, who typically have little or no incentive in getting involved in public education — it doesn’t get them the scholarly publications and grants that will allow them to get the much coveted tenure. It includes celebrities like Oprah Winfrey or Jenny McCarthy, who just “know” that vaccines cause autism, despite the overwhelming consensus to the contrary within the scientific medical community. It also includes some less talked about characters, such as the increasingly influential “think tanks” (be they liberal, conservative or libertarian) which, far from doing research on important policy issues, single-mindedly pursue a predetermined ideological agenda, retrofitting the facts to a set of largely a priori conclusions.

Back to the chapter that comprises page 99 for a moment. There I also take on some big names of the skeptical movement, people who have dedicated their time and effort to debunk pseudoscientific claims. Well, it turns out that even skeptics are not immune to ideological blunders, perhaps not entirely surprisingly, considering that skeptics are not endowed with special powers of super-human objectivity. My favorite example is a damning episode of the otherwise excellent television series Bullshit!, hosted on ShowTime by magicians and semi-professional debunkers Penn & Teller.

The show is normally so good that I often use clips from it in the critical thinking course that I regularly teach at the City University of New York. But when P&T tackled climate change they got it horribly, horribly wrong. They start out with a rather amusing piece showing the gullibility of some committed environmentalists: they sent an associate to gather signatures for a petition to ban a chemical that is dangerously common in our food and environment, it’s called di-hydrogen monoxide — otherwise known as water. It is disheartening to see how many well intentioned young people jumped at the opportunity of “doing something” about a “chemical” that is in fact vital to our very own existence.

Still, the gist of the episode is that climate change is a myth made up by people bent on blaming the private sector for all our problems, with no scientific basis to the notion whatsoever. How do we know this? Well, Penn & Teller pit a number of clueless enviro-hippies against “experts” Bjorn Lomborg and Jerry Taylor. Neither of these latter two are climate scientists, however, or in fact scientists of any kind at all. Lomborg is an economist who wrote a book entitled The Skeptical Environmentalist, to the debunking of which Scientific American devoted a special issue (and which I examine in some detail in chapter 6 of Nonsense on Stilts, a few pages past 99). Taylor is a representative of the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank that has been waging an ideologically motivated war against the very notion of climate change in order to protect the oil industry that funds the Institute, such as the Exxon Mobil corporation. Oh, and did I mention that Penn Gillette (the Penn of Penn & Teller) is a fellow of the CATO Institute? Not that you would know from the show, of course.

That is the challenge laid out by Nonsense on Stilts: it is not at all always easy to draw the line between science and bunk, and not even to tell apart reliable sources from less reliable ones. Sure, every intelligent person agrees that astronomy is a solid science while astrology is bunk, but what about evolutionary psychology, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or even string theory in physics? The first one is based on the sound principles of evolutionary biology, but it turns out that its specific claims about the adaptiveness of certain human behaviors (like rape) are next to impossible to test. The second one gets off the ground on the sensible assumption that if there is one technological civilization interested in interstellar communication in the galaxy (ours), there may be more. But is that enough theoretical foundation to consider SETI a science? As for string theory, it is thought by some to be the best route to the holy grail of physics, a unified theory of all natural forces; but other physicists consider it the most colossal and embarrassing waste of time for the theoretical physics community since before Newton.

Science is a marvelous human activity, and it behooves us as citizens of a democratic society to understand both its power and its limits. This understanding will be possible only if all the “culprits” mentioned in Nonsense on Stilts will fulfill their responsibilities properly: not just experts, media, celebrities, and think tanks, but also the rest of us. It is dangerous for the public to relinquish decisions about science and science education to ideologues and pundits. It is our money that funds scientific research, and it is our lives that are affected — sometimes dramatically — by the doings of science. You’d think it a matter of common sense for us to make the effort to educate ourselves and partake in the greatest intellectual adventures that humanity engages in. Could it be that so many of us lack common sense?
Learn more about Nonsense on Stilts at the publisher's website, and visit Massimo Pigliucci's Rationally Speaking blog.

--Marshal Zeringue