Questioning the Origins of Pseudoscience



By Cathy Rainone

Fourteen years ago, when he was an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Massimo Pigliucci was alarmed to learn that a bill requiring equal teaching of creationism and evolution in public schools had been introduced into the state legislature.

The bill was voted down, but it had made a strong impression on him.

"It was the fist time that I woke up to the possibility that I would be living in a society where our kids would be taught nonsense," says Pigliucci, now chair of the philosophy department at Lehman College. "And since I have a kid who goes to public school ... that was a very personal attack on my own family."

That experience spurred Pigliucci to become an advocate for educating the public about evolution. In 2002 he published "Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science." Now he has published a new volume, "Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk," an outgrowth of the previous book.

MassimoIn it, he points out that fewer than 40 percent of Americans believe in Darwin's theory of evolution even though it's one of science's best-established findings, and that 40 percent of Americans believe that the threat of global warming is inflated, in spite of a near consensus among scientists that man-made climate change is real.

"The point of the book is to try to convince people that some of these beliefs do actually have consequences and it does pay to inform yourself and think critically about certain kinds of beliefs," says Pigliucci, who received his Ph.D. in philosophy of science from the University of Tennessee in 2003 and taught at SUNY Stony Brook before coming to Lehman in 2009.

There's no problem "if you open your horoscope and just read it for fun. On the other hand, if you plan your financial investments based on what your horoscope tells you, you're likely to run into trouble."

Pigliucci, who is teaching a new course at the Graduate Center, "Philosophy of Pseudoscience," this fall, says several factors influence people's beliefs in UFOs, astrology, intelligent design and other pseudoscience. He says people often don't have the time or inclination to investigate the basis of their beliefs, or it makes them feel good to believe something regardless of the evidence. He also blames the media for propagating pseudoscience and inviting people who have no scientific background to speak publicly about scientific notions, as when actor Tom Cruise has bashed psychiatry or actress Jenny McCarthy has insisted on a link between vaccines and autism.

"The media has taken this attitude that if there are two sides of a particular controversy they both need to be treated equally," says Pigliucci. "But if your opinion is that the earth is flat and mine is that it's actually a sphere, I don't think your opinion should have as much credence in the media as that of astronomers."

Pseudoscience can be deadly, Pigliucci stresses. In Africa, where several government leaders have denied that HIV causes AIDS, millions of HIV patients died due to the lack of access to retroviral medicines. The denial of AIDS, he says, is one reason why fighting pseudoscience should be an ethical duty both for scientists and for citizens in general.

"You have the right to believe in nonsense, but I have the right to tell you that you believe in nonsense, especially when it does have practical consequences," he says.

Pigliucci admits that it's often difficult to tell good and bad science apart. In the last chapter he provides a series of tips on how to distinguish the two. He says it's like finding a good car mechanic: You find an expert, investigate whether he has the proper training and credentials, then get a second opinion from other experts. Still, that's not a foolproof method.

"The bottom line is that science is not an infallible activity," says Pigliucci. "The reasonable thing to do is always question whatever beliefs and whatever notions come your way, no matter who is presenting them to you. Always set your baloney detector to at least the yellow alert, because a lot of people will try to take advantage of you."

"Always set your baloney detector to at least the yellow alert, because a lot of people will try to take advantage of you. "

-- Massimo Pigliucci