Book Talk

Spotting the Bozos of Science

"THEY LAUGHED at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers," said famed astrophysicist Carl Sagan. But then he added, "They also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

His is one of the choice epigraphs with which Massimo Pigliucci begins each chapter of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press), a spirited attempt to "map the complex territory dividing science from pseudoscience."

Pigliucci is a Lehman College professor of philosophy also trained in biology and the author of several books (most pertinently, Making Sense of Evolution, with Jonathan Kaplan), and he addresses a serious problem, especially in this age of that splendid playpen for bozos called the Web, because scientific bozos can do a lot of harm when they get the last laugh. AIDS denialism, for example, has cost countless lives in sub-Saharan Africa.

We begin on an aptly somber note, with Pigliucci quoting the fierce proponent of Darwin, Thomas Huxley, on our moral duty to "give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence." Distinguishing sense from nonsense is not an easy or lighthearted task, but Pigliucci's expository style is ingratiating; he is often slyly witty about the arrogance of scientists and pseuds alike; and he is generous with deft layman-friendly explanations of some of the necessary analytical jargon. His farewell sentences are: "But never, ever forget to turn on your baloney detector. Most of the time you will need to set it at least to yellow alert."

Pigliucci sums up in his final pages: "What all scientific inquiry has in common . . . are the fundamental aspects of being an investigation of nature, based on the construction of verifiable theories and hypotheses. These three elements, naturalism, theory, and empiricism, are what make science different from any other human activity." All pseudoscience fails on at least one of these three tests. Intelligent Design introduces supernaturalism, while the "theory" of astrology is "hopelessly flawed" because constellations do not exist. Early on, Pigliucci declines to rate the latest cosmological bright idea, string theory (with not four but 11 dimensions), as scientific because it cannot be empirically verified. Pigliucci cites Yogi Berra on verification: "You can observe a lot by just watching."

Chapters are devoted to the tussles between "hard" or ahistorical sciences (like physics and chemistry) or "soft" historical sciences (like paleontology or astronomy). "Almost" sciences like the search for extraterrestial intelligence and evolutionary pscyhology are also discussed. Among the telltale signs of pseudocience are: anachronistic thinking, glorification of mysteries, appeal to myths, cavalier treatment of evidence, explanation by scenario ("story-telling"), and -- my favorite! -- extreme resistance to revising one's positions. One logical fallacy prominent among ufologists and creationists particularly frosts Pigliucci: the "tendency to shift the burden of proof from the person making the extraordinary claim ... to the person who simply asks for the evidence." If he had to pick one logical fallacy "we could magically erase from the repertoire of humankind, this would be the one."

Another chapter chides our media for how "positively dangerous" it is for our media to allow celebrities with no scientific background to spout off on scientific matters. Richard Gere on crystal therapy, say, or Tom Cruise scorning psychiatry. Pigliucci does praise John Stewart's "Evolution, Schmevolution" coverage of the evolution trial in Dover, Pa., in 2005 for getting "the science of evolution and intelligent-design proponents exactly right."

A fascinating chapter on "Science in the Courtroom" is devoted to the trial and the judge's brilliant decision.

Another full chapter is devoted to the global warming wars, with Pigliucci gaily deconstructing the "science" of The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg, a noted proponent of the "no big deal" response to warming. To Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth Pigliucci is kinder, but he adds that Gore gives his readers "very little useful information to go on."

In his eighth chapter, Pigliucci shifts into pure intellectual-history mode with an astonishingly compact summary of the interrelations of science and philosophy, starting with Bertrand Russell's pithy remark: "Science is what you know. Philosophy is what you don't know." He begins with the pre-Socratics, who were the first to accept conclusions that went against common sense (a smart move, Pigliucci thinks). Then appear Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (the first scientist, says Pigliucci). In the next chapter he moves on to Bacon, Descartes, Galileo and Newton, who collectively had the effect of finally leaving science "well on its way to a complete separation from both religion and philosophy for the first time in human history."

The last two chapters return to "The Science Wars," the first asking, "Do we trust science too much?" Pigliucci begins by pointing to the insult-word "scientism," which he says "encapsulates the intellectual arrogance of some scientists who think that, given enough time and especially financial resources, science will be able to answer whatever meaningful questions we may wish to pose." Those afflicted with "scientism" can be a pain, thinking they have what Pigliucci calls "a God's-eye view of things." Then he cites some famous scientific banana peel moments: Einstein opining that "There is not the slightest indication that energy will ever be obtainable from the atom." Also Lord William Kelvin's prediction, "X-rays will prove to be a hoax" and the British Astronomer Royal saying in 1956, "This talk of space travel is utter bilge."

But Pigliucci says the Piltdown Man hoax, a famous scientific screwup, should be taught as a shining hour in biology. Scientists caught  the problem, and this shows "how the nature of science is not that of a steady linear progression toward the Truth, but rather a tortuous road, often characterized by dead ends and U-turns." Scientists, Pigliucci concludes, should not be entirely trusted because they are "not always successful in being detached, rational agents interested only in the pursuit of truth."

The next chapter asks, alternatively, "Do we trust science too little?" Here Pigliucci rousingly sallies forth against "the postmodernist assault on science." He recounts the wicked practical joke of physicist Alan Sokal, who wrote a gibberish-filled article attacking science and got it accepted by a prestigious postmodern journal, "Social Text." And with undisguised glee he ridicules the controversial Berkeley philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, who cheekily called for a "formal separation between science and state."

Pigliucci saves the most important question for last: "Who's your expert?" He summarizes recent research on expertise, how to acquire it and judge it, then draws from Alvin Goldman a list of five questions to ask about a would-be expert: How do his arguments and those of rivals compare? Do other experts agree with him? What is the evidence for his expertise? What biases might he bring to the subject? And what is his track record? (For more on experts and other topics this book raises, visit the author's blog: www.rationallyspeaking.org.)

Pigliucci's big final point about doing science is that it requires getting used to being wrong: "every scientific theory ever proposed in the past has eventually been proven wrong and has given way to new theories." The chief virtue of genuine science is its "ability of self-evaluation, self-criticism, and self-correction."  Progress in science is just "one partially wrong theory after another."


Protecting Human Guinea Pigs

In The Professional Guinea Pig: Big Pharma and the Risky World of Human Subjects (Duke University Press), Roberto L. Abadie, a visiting scholar in the health-sciences program at the CUNY Graduate Center, examines experiences of healthy volunteers who earn a living continually serving as the first humans on whom new drugs are tested. Abadie contends that hazards presented by continuous participation, such as exposure to potentially dangerous drug interactions, are discounted or ignored by research subjects in need of money and by a pharmaceutical industry dependent on them. He argues  for the need to reform policies regulating participation of paid subjects in so-called Phase 1 trials.


Imagine If He'd Tweeted

In 1927, a 25-year-old Air Mail pilot from rural Minnesota stunned the world  by making the first nonstop transatlantic flight. Charles Lindbergh's flight from New York to Paris ushered in America's age of commercial aviation. In The Flight of the Century (Oxford University Press), Thomas Kessner explains how what was essentially a publicity stunt became a turning point in history. Kessner, a Distinguished Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center, vividly recreates the flight and explains the euphoric reaction to it at a time when the world desperately needed a hero to restore a sense of optimism and innocence after World War I. Kessner also shows how new forms of mass media made Lindbergh into the most famous international celebrity of his time.


Where's the Nutrition?

How did our children end up having nachos, pizza and soda for lunch? Taking us on an eye-opening journey into the nation's school kitchens, Hunter College sociology professor Janet Poppendieck explores the politics of food provision from perspectives of history, policy, nutrition, environmental sustainability, taste and more -- in Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press). Explaining how we got into the absurd situation in which nutritionally regulated meals compete with fast food items and snack foods loaded with sugar, salt and fat, she concludes with a sweeping vision for change.


Flights of Hubris

In The Icarus Syndrome (HarperCollins), Peter Beinart -- an associate professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism -- tells a story about the seductions of success. He describes Washington on the eve of three wars -- World War I, Vietnam and Iraq -- three moments when American leaders decided they could remake the world in their image. Yet each time, a war conceived in arrogance brought untold tragedy.