Nonsense on Stilts, by Massimo Pigliucci

Nonsense on Stilts

Massimo Pigliucci is, among other things, a writer for Skeptical Inquirer, as is Massimo Polidoro, and I’ll be damned if I’ve ever been able to keep straight who’s who, though perhaps having now read a whole book by one of them I’ll have a little better sense of who at least one of them is.

Pigliucci has a background as a scientist—doctorates in genetics and botany—but then switched academic careers to be a philosopher, specializing in the philosophy of science and critical thinking. Nonsense on Stilts is right up his alley, then, as it concerns distinguishing science from pseudoscience, and combating the intrusion of religion and irrationality into science and science education (e.g., the incessant efforts to find some way to package the Genesis myth so as to get it to pass muster as some sort of science rather than religion).

I’m very much in agreement with the main thrust of this book. I’m going to highlight a few places where I have a quibble with the content, style, and/or tone, but those are the exceptions. (And even where I disagree, it’s entirely possible I’m just not reading that closely, just not focusing all that well on this kind of material at this point in my life, so he’s right after all.)

A lot of what I like about the book doesn’t feel fresh to me because I’ve read so much material like this over the years. I mean, how hard is it to make creationists look ridiculous for an audience with even a minimal commitment to rationality and science? Still, for readers less familiar with the field, there’s plenty that is worthwhile here.

Certainly I liked the point (though he’s quoting someone else when he makes it) that when people who are not using language precisely make bold sounding claims, it usually turns out that if their claim is interpreted so as to give it any substance then it is false, and if it is interpreted so as to make it true then it is trivial. Early in my college career my philosophy mentor and friend Jim Fetzer made just that point—that very often when people make ambiguous pronouncements they turn out to be either false or trivial—and it’s amazing how accurate that is, and how often that comes up in life.

A classic example being when someone says something like “It’s impossible to act unselfishly.” Depending on what they mean by “selfish” and “unselfish,” the claim is either blatantly false, or it’s trivial in a way that has no significant implications for ethics or anything else.

I also like his disagreement with the bizarre notion—prevalent in the mainstream media among other places—that being “objective” or “unbiased” means taking the two most popular “sides” of an issue and presenting them as being of equal merit. My impression is 90% or more of the population believes that (they just disagree about who is and isn’t living up to this ideal).

And my God that’s one of the things that makes people most easily manipulated. Just use enough money and propaganda to put your point of view in the top two on a given issue, and no matter how ludicrous it is, almost everyone will think you’re being treated unfairly if that point of view isn’t presented as being equally as justified as its alternative.

So for most of the book I was nodding along, appreciating his points and the clarity with which they are expressed (this is as non-technical a book as one can reasonably expect, given its scientific and philosophical subject matter), and enjoying his beating up on the usual suspects. But here and there I wasn’t convinced.

It seems to me he makes an ontic/epistemic confusion in his dismissal of a correspondence interpretation of truth, that he runs together “What does it mean for X to be true?” with “How would we know whether X is true?” I think of the correspondence theory of truth as addressing the first, but his criticism has to do with it not adequately addressing the second.

In any case, I’m not sure what his preferred alternative is, and how it would not itself fall prey to the difficulties he attributes to the correspondence theory, or worse.

The passage where Pigliucci paraphrases a thought experiment of Galileo’s I’ve read multiple times and still can’t make sense of. Surely it’s me and I’m just having a brain fart, but here it is in its entirety, from p. 220:

Aristotle had claimed that bodies fall at a speed that depends on their weight, the heavier bodies faster than the lighter ones. Galileo therefore invited his readers to consider a situation in which a heavier and a lighter body were joined by a cord and were falling together. According to Aristotelian physics, the heavier one should drag the lighter one down faster so that the combined body would have a higher speed than the lighter by itself. Then again, by the same Aristotelian theory, the lighter body would be expected to slow down the heavier one, so that the combined bodies would fall at a slower speed than the heavy body by itself. The punch line is that the first prediction is logically contradictory to the second one: one cannot be true without the other being false, and yet Aristotle would have to admit that both stem out of his conception of bodies and speed. Ergo, Aristotle’s conception of bodies and speed must be wrong.

Really? The notion that bodies fall at different speeds depending on their weight is logically impossible (rather than just not being how the laws of nature happen to work)?

I don’t see the contradiction. How do 1. The bodies tethered to each other would fall slower than the heavy object dropped by itself, and 2. The bodies tethered to each other would fall faster than the light object dropped by itself, contradict each other?

Think of the old movie cliché scene where a man and woman are fleeing some monster or villain, and the woman has twisted her ankle and is hobbling along very slowly. The man—despite her insistence that he leave her and save himself—grabs her and they run together as best they can.

Now it seems clear to me that the two of them holding on to each other while they run will travel faster than the woman running alone would, and slower than the man running alone would. Am I supposed to believe instead that that not only doesn’t happen, but is logically impossible?

I seriously doubt Galileo flubbed this. So either I’m being dense in not getting it, or Pigliucci has paraphrased it incorrectly.

Anyway, for me Pigliucci’s main points attacking pseudoscience and such are pretty much preaching to the converted. I wonder how convincing this book would be to a reader who was not already inclined to agree.

The reason I say this is Pigliucci repeatedly mentions how ridiculous a given point of view is that he disagrees with. And for the most part, he’s right. But surely this is a case where an author should show rather than tell. Granted, he does show—it’s not like his derogatory labeling and such replace evidence and arguments; they are additional to them—but he tells as much or more.

Sure, postmodernists and their ilk are mostly buffoons whose views are incoherent, but just give your argument against them and let it speak for itself. Or at most point out that they’re buffoons at the conclusion of your argument. Don’t state before, during and after the argument that they’re buffoons.

There were times in the book I lost the forest for the trees. That is, it wasn’t always clear to me how what he was saying in a given section related to whatever is the overall argument of the book. I would not now be able to diagram his argument, say. For instance, as I read the material where he traces the history of philosophy and science, I only had a vague idea where that background fit in the grand scheme of the book.

That’s almost certainly me rather than the author, though. If I had been reading more carefully, or if I went back through it again, I’d probably see that it all hangs together quite well.

On the whole, Nonsense on Stilts is a solid work on an important subject. It’s alarming how little grasp people in certain countries—primarily the United States and the Third World—have of the basics of science and critical thinking. Sometimes it seems like people who don’t base their worldview on Biblical literalism or astrology or some other form of magical thinking (or on some form of relativism or postmodernism) are this tiny, intellectual elite that the masses either aren’t aware exists or hate and distrust. This book is a (very, very, very small) pushback against that ignorance.


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