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Book of the week: Nonsense on Stilts

Lou Marinoff on a scholarly volunteer's heroic and humorous battle to turn back the moronic tide

"Give me an adequate army, with power to provide it with more pay and better food than falls to the lot of the average man, and I will undertake, within thirty years, to make the majority of the population believe that two and two are three, that water freezes when it gets hot and boils when it gets cold, or any other nonsense that might seem to serve the interest of the State."

- Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays

These days we are all enveloped by a massive explosion of data - information, misinformation, disinformation - emanating from the "Bit Bang". While the Big Bang originated from a single source, the Bit Bang gushes from minds galore. The demise of public intellectuals, and the proliferation of talking heads, spin doctors and celebrity ignoramuses, only add confusion to the chaos. Anyone who endorses freedom of expression yet values truth must filter an ever-increasing volume of variegated nonsense. 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. He holds a PhD in evolutionary biology, is familiar with central issues in the history and philosophy of science, and has a habit of regularly exercising his faculty of reason. These attributes fit him out nicely for the expedition. Add some polemical flourishes, flashes of humour, mild histrionics, Romanesque virtu and moments of near-humility, and you get a pretty good "bang" for your buck. Or however many bangs you get to the pound.

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. One of the most likeable things about Nonsense on Stilts is the author's insistence that you start by training your baloney-detector on the very book that teaches you how to build it.

Human reason is not exercised pristinely in a vacuum. We are all susceptible to biases, prejudices and misjudgments, so even the lens of "objective" scientific scrutiny is bound to admit of subjective occlusions, aberrations and distortions.

Pigliucci usefully distinguishes a number of areas: hard science (ie, natural sciences), soft science (social sciences), almost-science (eg, the Drake equation); and pseudoscience (pop astrology, parapsychology, intelligent design, Aids denial, New Age psychobabble, postmodernist anti-realism). He rounds up all the usual suspects for this kind of investigation, and scrutinises them under the sharp light of reason.

He has a gift for elucidating core concepts in concise, accurate and mostly balanced terms. Thus he makes issues intelligible to non-specialists, without drastically oversimplifying them. He is, in other words, an artful teacher. And, as he points out, it is up to the reader to investigate further: you must satisfy your own appetite for truth. But this book will get you started, and it will alert you to some of the common pitfalls, fallacies and pseudoscientific claims that perennially bamboozle credulous consumers of media-driven controversies, dupes of political power struggles, and even sceptics caught in the withering crossfires of ideological warfare.

Pigliucci is a courageous author, if somewhat mercurial, and possibly tenured, or maybe all of the above. He does not hesitate, for example, to bash mainstream media for its pandering to sensationalism and scandal, relentless dumbing-down of consumers, and wilful misrepresentation of sound bites. Having been misquoted by an unscrupulous US reporter, he revenges himself by exposing her nonsense on stilts in his Nonsense on Stilts. He has painfully discovered that journalism is not a science, and that "journalism ethics" can be an oxymoron.

But Pigliucci's real courage is far removed from personal vendetta, and is grounded in hard-boiled humanism. He has no qualms, for instance, about accusing select African politicians of "crimes against humanity" for their flagrant denials of the aetiology of HIV, and endorsements of bogus folk remedies in lieu of clinically tested medication. Their political embrace of pseudoscience costs needless suffering and countless lives, and for this he rightly takes them to task. He does not hesitate to hunt every hare, and trains his baloney-detector with equal opportunity on anti-realists wherever he finds them. He even-handedly exposes irrational anti-scientific dogmas of religious fanatics, and egregious evasions of objective truths by hysterical feminists and posturing postmodernists. I certainly hope he has tenure, for his impassioned defence of reason, reality and truth will surely have made him a political leper in today's People's Democratic Universities of the formerly "free West".

Beyond treating the hot-button issues that drive contemporary debates between science and nonsense, Pigliucci contextualises this tendency by revisiting the history of science, and revealing what befell Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein. (I would have included Hobbes, Pasteur, Lister and Hubble). All of them, to greater or lesser degrees, encountered and overcame the regnant superstition and dogmatic opposition of the day, from friends and foes alike. Such is scientific progress.

When I took Pigliucci's advice and trained my baloney-detector on this book, I found more than enough for lunch. He is a fan of Al Gore, and thus an ardent apologist for the sophomoric science of An Inconvenient Truth, while he reviles the critique of the politics of environmentalism made in Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist on ridiculous grounds, namely that Lomborg's footnotes contain a high percentage of pointers to URLs!

He accuses Lomborg of not being a specialist in environmental science, but carefully omits all mention of Lomborg's primary expertise in statistics. Since most arguments over the environment repose squarely on statistical analysis, a statistician is certainly a qualified judge of their validity. Pigliucci's defence of Gore and attack on Lomborg rest ultimately on his appeal to "current consensus among scientists" - while much of the rest of his book reveals how such consensuses have been time and again exposed as nonsense by the Galileos, Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins he rightly applauds.

Your baloney-detector should ring its shrillest alarms whenever Pigliucci strays into politics. For example, he mounts a quixotic attack on think-tanks, including the libertarian Cato Institute, which he insinuates is in the pocket of global oil interests. In fact, it produces rigorous books defending every cherished liberty in the Bill of Rights, which Massimo somehow neglects to mention. At the same time, he is enthralled by the fatuous rhetoric of Noam Chomsky, whose ravings are completely off the baloney scale. We clearly need another unit of measure for political bunk, which (to honour the author) might be called the Pigliucci.

That said, I enthusiastically applaud this book. Bravo, Massimo! You have given us two instruments for the price of one: a baloney-detector for pseudoscientific nonsense and a Pigliucci-detector for political nonsense. No reader could ask for more.

The author

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure of evolutionary theory and the relationships between science and philosophy, and between science and religion.

Pigliucci is a proponent of humanism, which is one of the subjects he discusses on his blog, Rationally Speaking. He writes on the blog that his aim is to live up to the Enlightenment ideal of a public intellectual as expressed by Marquis de Condorcet: "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.'?"

Through the "5-minute philosopher videos", a series on YouTube, he aims to introduce people to ideas and influential figures in the field.

Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk

By Massimo Pigliucci

University of Chicago Press 336pp, £45.00 and £13.00

ISBN 9780226667850 and 67867

Published 7 June 2010

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