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 frightening percentage of the American population cannot tell the difference between sense and nonsense – astrology, creationism, and antivaccination propaganda are rampant despite overwhelming evidence against them. If only we could get everyone to sit down and read Nonsense on Stilts, this country would be in far better shape! Pigliucci carefully lays out the case for why science leads us to the truth, but will always be battling superstition and antireality along the way. His book should be required reading in every science class."
– Dr. Philip Plait, creator of the Bad Astronomy blog
"Nonsense on Stilts provides a masterful analysis of the demarcation problem. There is no easy litmus test to distinguish genuine from junk science. Even Karl Popper's criterion of non-falsifiability is too simplistic. For Pigilucci, hard science is based on empirically verifiable hypotheses and theories. A richly insightful provocative book in defense of naturalism."
– Paul Kurtz, State University of New York at Buffalo and founder of the modern skeptics movement
"A research scientist who then became a philosopher helps you tell the difference between what is science, almost science, and pseudoscience. An eminently readable, insightful, and sensible book. I enjoyed it very much."
– Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education
"This is such an important book, and a great read. It is not an overstatement to say that our future survival may depend on the public's ability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. With patience, precision, and humor, Massimo Pigliucci charts a careful course for all scientists and communicators to follow."
– David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us and The Forgetting
"How can we decide what counts as science? That is the central question of this brilliant book, which ought to be required reading for, well, everyone."
– Amanda Gefter, New Scientist
"How is an intelligent layperson with general interests, or for that matter a narrow but deeply focused specialist, supposed to make sense of the torrents of nonsense that spew from all directions? How can we distinguish fact from fancy, medicine from snake-oil, science from bunk? What hangs in the balance? And who dares plumb the fathomless depths of data, teeming with creatures contradictory and controversial alike? Enter Massimo Pigliucci, a brave volunteer for this mission [...] His book serves a seriously worthwhile purpose: that of giving you, the reader, tools and instructions for assembling your very own 'baloney-detector.' Armed with this, you stand a vastly improved chance of separating the wheat of reliable knowledge from the chaff of fashionable nonsense in your daily harvest of data."
– Lou Marinoff, Times Higher Education
"Nonsense on Stilts is a very interesting, useful compendium of thinking about and within science [...] Valuable as a reference for courses in science, philosophy, political science, and journalism, as well as a handbook for the public [...] Highly recommended."
– R. E. Buntrock, Choice
"An informative, well-written, how-to guide for distinguishing science from nonscience and pseudoscience [...] There is much to recommend in this book, beginning with Pigliucci's analysis of the heterogeneity of the sciences, his discussion of the merely "quasi" sciences such as evolutionary psychology, history and interpretations of quantum theory, and his critiques of the pseudosciences."
– Richard A. Richards, Quarterly Review of Biology
Introduction Science versus Pseudoscience and the “Demarcation Problem”
Chapter 1 Hard Science, Soft Science
Chapter 2 Almost Science
Chapter 3 Pseudoscience
Chapter 4 Blame the Media?
Chapter 5 Debates on Science: The Rise of Think Tanks and the Decline of Public Intellectuals
Chapter 6 Science and Politics: The Case of Global Warming
Chapter 7 Science in the Courtroom: The Case against Intelligent Design
Chapter 8 From Superstition to Natural Philosophy
Chapter 9 From Natural Philosophy to Modern Science
Chapter 10 The Science Wars I: Do We Trust Science Too Much?
Chapter 11 The Science Wars II: Do We Trust Science Too Little?
Chapter 12 Who’s Your Expert?
Conclusion So, What Is Science after All?
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Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. He has written many books, including, most recently, with Jonathan Kaplan, Making Sense of Evolution, also published by the University of Chicago Press.