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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Popular Science

Nonsense on Stilts How to Tell Science from Bunk

Popular Science
By: Massimo Pigliucci(Author)
317 pages, no illustrations
Nonsense on Stilts covers a wide range of bunk and gives readers a solid philosophical backing to recognise and constructively engage it.
Nonsense on Stilts
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  • Nonsense on Stilts ISBN: 9780226495996 Edition: 2 Paperback Oct 2018 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £16.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

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. Parents still refuse to vaccinate their children for fear it causes autism, though this link has been consistently disproved. And about 40 percent of Americans believe that the threat of global warming is exaggerated, including many political leaders.

In this era of fake news and alternative facts, there is more bunk than ever. But why do people believe in it? And what causes them to embrace such pseudoscientific beliefs and practices? In this fully revised second edition, noted skeptic Massimo Pigliucci sets out to separate the fact from the fantasy in an 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 – neither 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 this timely reminder of the need to maintain a line between expertise and assumption. Broad in scope and implication, Nonsense on Stilts is a captivating guide for the intelligent citizen who wishes to make up her own mind while navigating the perilous debates that will shape the future of our planet.


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?


Customer Reviews (1)

  • Gives readers a solid philosophical background
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 15 Jul 2019 Written for Paperback

    In a time of fake news and alternative facts, being able to separate the proverbial scientific wheat from the pseudoscientific chaff is vitally important. But seeing the wide acceptance of a lot of dubious ideas, critical thinking does not come easily. So, how, then, do you tell science from bunk? Updating his 2010 book Nonsense on Stilts, evolutionary biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci once again attacks this problem from many sides. Going far beyond cheap potshots at pseudoscience, I found a book that takes an equally serious look at the more insidious phenomena of think tanks and postmodernism, with a healthy side-serving of history of science. The result is a readable introspection on what science is and how it is done.

    Pigliucci starts off with some recognizable and amusing examples of “frustrating conversations” he has had with people. These serve as cautionary tales that it is harder than we would think to quickly and mercilessly dispatch nonsense. For one, when does something stop being science and become pseudoscience? Philosopher Karl Popper called it the demarcation problem (though it has been considered before him) and people are still discussing it (see also his book Philosophy of Pseudoscience). To help explain the subtleties, Pigliucci takes the reader through a sliding scale; considering hard vs. soft sciences; quasi-sciences such as string theory (empirically unverifiable for the moment), the SETI programme (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which has yielded zero results so far), and evolutionary psychology; and, finally, pseudosciences. For the last one he takes examples such as voodoo, astrology, UFOs, and paranormal phenomena.

    Interesting as these chapters are, they are but an opening salvo for a much wider and philosophically-inclined examination. Pigliucci probes the tensions between modern media and science, and how scientists struggle to get their message across when talking to reporters. He ponders the decline of public intellectuals and the rise of think tanks, providing illuminating examples of both. And he has a particular bone to pick with postmodernism; the school of thought that denies science much of its power and agency by arguing that all knowledge is socially constructed and relative (see also Beyond the Hoax for a particularly famous incident). In the Trump-era this kind of thinking has gone mainstream with the whole “my-facts-are-just-as-good-as-your-facts”–spiel. But Pigliucci is equally critical of scientism: i.e. science overreaching, see also my review of his book Science Unlimited?. And somewhere along the line he manages to squeeze in a short history of science from the ancient Greeks to modern science.

    If this sounds like a disparate collection of topics, I found that Pigliucci smoothly connected the dots between them. And not having a formal background in philosophy, I also very much appreciated how accessible he kept his writing, regularly stopping to take stock, to explain jargon, or to ask his reader to bear with him while he goes into a few finer points. For example, I found his introduction to Bayes’s rule and its accompanying equation very clear. Although he is fiercely critical, he is also fair to his opponents, e.g. admitting that science critics such as postmodernists have a role to play and do make some valid points. And where he scolds fellow scientists, he is equally clear in outlining why he disagrees with them, for example when reflecting on Stephen Jay Gould’s work, or critiquing anti-intellectual attitudes towards philosophy by scientists such as Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    But the real strength of this book, I found, lies in providing a very realistic picture of how science works, offering many notable observations. That science is a heterogeneous collection of disciplines, not a monolith, allowing soft and hard sciences to coexist. That we do not have all the answers and in some cases likely never will (resulting in such quotable phrases as “sometimes the wise thing to do is to accept human epistemic limitations and move on”, or “there is no assurance that nature behaves in a way that will allow us to get answers to every mystery that happens to intrigue us”). Or that science is a human endeavour with its share of blunders and oversized egos, but that postmodernist thinkers have yet to contribute to setting the record straight when mistakes have been made (see also The Fate of Knowledge).

    He offers readers guidance on how to be better, more virtuous skeptics, rather than intellectually lazy skeptics that are not seriously willing to engage those who espouse bunk. And he offers advice on how to determine which experts to trust. As creationists and climate change deniers know, you can always find some rogue scientists willing to back your cause, further muddling the waters. So how can you, the reader, with no background in fields such as evolution or climatology, decide who to trust?

    How is this second edition improved? Not having read the first edition, that is hard to know; the blurb claims it is fully revised but Pigliucci does not provide details on what he has updated. A closer look at the notes and references shows a wealth of new material seamlessly woven into the text though, suggesting a thorough rewrite. There was only one segment that stood out to me as outdated, when Pigliucci, regarding genetic engineering, writes that “we are a long way from being able to [...] fix human genetic diseases by repairing mutant genes or replacing them with functional parts” (p. 215-216). Though it has its limitations, the recent discovery of CRISPR has allowed us to do just that (see also my reviews of Hacking the Code of Life and A Crack in Creation). Given what Pigliucci writes here about the specialised nature of scientists and the limits to one’s own expertise, it seems like the kind of minor oversight you cannot judge him harshly for.

    Bunk comes in many guises, and Nonsense on Stilts is an intellectually stimulating journey that ranged far wider than I initially expected. Despite its coverage of philosophical topics, Pigliucci excels in demystifying whatever jargon comes his way, takes a balanced approach, and writes in a friendly, amusing, sometimes irreverent way. While a book like The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a great first plunge into this topic, Nonsense on Stilts is a perfect follow-up to give readers a philosophically more solid base from which to work.
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Massimo Pigliucci is the K. D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He is the author, editor, or coeditor of many books, including How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life and, most recently, Science Unlimited?: The Challenges of Scientism, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Popular Science
By: Massimo Pigliucci(Author)
317 pages, no illustrations
Nonsense on Stilts covers a wide range of bunk and gives readers a solid philosophical backing to recognise and constructively engage it.
Media reviews

Reviews of the first edition:

"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

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