Nonsense On Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk

By Massimo Pigliucci, Univ. Of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2010, 332 pp., ISBN-13: 978-0-226-66785-0 (cloth), 978-0-226-66786-7 (paperback)

Reviewed by Lawrence S. Lerner

There are many reasons for writing for the public about pseudoscience and its relation to science. The first and most obvious is the writer’s desire to alert readers to the hazards of confusing the two. A second is that pseudoscience, skillfully unveiled, can be entertaining indeed. And a third, to which I will return, is to clearly distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

For these reasons and others, a considerable literature has accumulated on the subject, each work reflecting its author’s perspective. The classic Fads and Fallacies In the Name of Science by Martin Gardner is over a half-century old. Among recent offerings, Robert Park’s Voodoo Science stands out.

The demarcation problem – the third reason – has attracted the attention of philosophers of science. The distinction between science and pseudoscience is not always obvious, and the very definition of science requires some care. The best philosophically oriented work up to now has been Daisie and Michael Radner’s brief Science and Unreason. Now Pigliucci has undertaken a more thorough survey of the demarcation problem, with many more examples. His background as biologist and philosopher has prepared him well for this task, as has his long-standing interest in pseudoscientists, quacks, and screwballs.

Pigliucci approaches his task systematically. He points out that a good general definition of science must be broad enough to encompass not only the physical sciences (which have been used as models by many philosophers of science) but also the “softer” sciences (e.g., the life sciences) and the “almost sciences” – scientific theorizings that presently have scanty evidential bases. In this category he places string theory, SETI, evolutionary psychology, and quantum mechanical interpretations. Many readers will argue that these are not so much “almost sciences” as scientific fields where a paucity of hard data leaves much room for speculation.

He then considers two practical matters. The first is media’s frequent mishandling of science and pseudoscience – a distinction not always clear to reporters. The second is the distorting role often played by think tanks with political missions. Two chapters concern prominent present-day examples, global warming and intelligent-design creationism.

The next two chapters get back to philosophy and are the best in the book. They constitute a history of natural philosophy from classical Greek times, and its evolution into modern science. Pigliucci approaches this with gusto and skill.

Two chapters follow on “The Science Wars.” Pigliucci takes this term to cover much more than the silly “postmodern” stuff that Alan Sokal exposed so hilariously in his 1996 hoax paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” He includes such subjects as the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, and a not entirely impersonal attack on the iconoclastic views of philosopher Paul Feyerabend. He also considers, briefly but neatly, Thomas Kuhn’s views of the nature of science. Kuhn was aware of his reliance on physical-science models and promised to extend his arguments to the life sciences, but never did so. As a biologist, Pigliucci is sensitive to this imbalance.

Under the same heading, he makes strong criticism of such prominent scientists as Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, whom he accuses of “scientism, a term that sounds descriptive but is in fact only used as an insult.” In his view, such writers overreach the bounds of science in claims of having seen “the mind of God” (Hawking) or having used science to refute “the God hypothesis” (Dawkins.) He finds a root of this view in the “oversized ego … likely to be an ingredient for becoming a scientist.” But, scientist-turnedphilosopher that he is, Pigliucci finds “a major reason [for such views in] widespread ignorance of, or even contempt for, philosophy.” Subsuming such a wide range of subjects under the heading “Science Wars” may be polemically convenient, but I thought it not terribly useful.

Pigliucci then adds another essential ingredient to the mix – the issue of expertise. No one can have deep insight into all of science, and the need for trustworthy experts is ever-present. Unfortunately, frauds, quacks, and screwballs can all claim to be experts, and they often acquire broad credence. Pigliucci discusses a number of examples, including economist Bjørn Lomborg’s expansions on global warming, biochemist Michael Behe’s on irreducible complexity, and physician Deepak Chopra’s on “quantum mechanical elixirs of youth.” There follows a fine discourse on the crucial questions of choosing a real expert and telling an expert from a phony.

In the concluding chapter, Pigliucci argues that one cannot define science, or distinguish it from its imitators, in a sentence or two. Nevertheless, there are reliable ways of doing so on a case-by-case basis. Most scientists will agree.

Concerning the book’s weaknesses: Although Pigliucci uses biological examples well in his account, physicists will find flaws in his accounts of physical phenomena. A few examples:

It is not true that wave-particle duality is inherent in Young’s two-slit interference experiment. The result did indeed favor a wave picture of light over a particulate one, but Young’s contemporaries did not regard his work as having “settled the dispute.” Newton had, after all, observed singleslit diffraction (of which Pigliucci seems unaware, as he asserts that a single-slit experiment displays purely particulate results.) And Newton had offered a plausible if incomplete explanation in particulate terms. It was Fresnel’s equations, almost two decades after Young, that settled the issue with their comprehensive wave-based description of reflection, refraction, transmission, and polarization. The issue of waveparticle duality has one root in this matter, but involves much more. Einstein’s 1905 insight into the particulate characteristics of light was based on quite different considerations. It was not light diffraction but de Broglie’s magnificent 1926 symmetrization that led to experimental detection of electron diffraction in 1929. More important from a philosophical point of view, Pigliucci misses the central point: Waves and particles are ideal abstractions. Photons and electrons are real entities whose behavior, under proper conditions, is well explained by models based on those abstractions. His analogical argument that Mars is always a planet and not a star has no value and bespeaks a basic misunderstanding.

In discussing Galileo’s Dialogue, Pigliucci writes, “A busy Urban VIII skimmed through the manuscript and gave the imprimatur.” But of the five imprimaturs conferred, three are by Florentine church and civil officials, one is a buck-passing referral, and the remaining one, in Rome, is by Niccolò Riccardi, the Master of the Sacred Palace; the Pope did not confer a formal imprimatur. Galileo’s conviction and sentencing, though they were surely a “sad ending,” by no means concluded his “life and career,” considering that he published his Discourses during that period. And he did not escape “burning at the stakes [sic]” on account of his friendship with the Pope.

Pigliucci also gets Galileo’s famous falling-body thought experiment wrong. When a light and a heavy body are connected by a string and dropped, it is true that according to Aristotle the two fall slower than the heavy body itself (because the light body holds it back) and the two fall faster than the light body itself (because the heavy body pulls it.) But there is no contradiction here; both can be true at the same time, the pair falling at some intermediate speed. Pigliucci misses the real contradiction: the two bodies together constitute a still heavier body that, according to Aristotle, should fall faster than the heavy one by itself.

Cold fusion is not alleged to be a “chemical phenomenon that … fus[es] atoms” but a nuclear fusion phenomenon that takes place in a more or less standard electrochemical cell.

Finally, it was disconcerting that the manuscript seems never to have passed a copy editor. There is disregard of the pesky distinction between “like” and “as.” We read “sprinkle” for “sprinkler,” “tale” for “tail,” “flaunted” for “flouted,” “subsided” for “subsidized,” “mathematics were” for “mathematics was,” “spinal chord” for “spinal cord,” “mantel” for “mantle,” “forcefully” for “forcibly,” “shelve” for “shelf,” inter alia. And the English word Renaissance is not from the Italian but a direct borrowing from the French. (The Italian is rinascimento.)

In spite of these shortcomings, Nonsense On Stilts is a good read and a worthy addition to the literature on pseudoscience and its cousins.

Lawrence S. Lerner
California State University, Long Beach

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.