Friday, July 16, 2010

Barnes, Barry. Review of Massimo Pigliucci, NONSENSE ON STILTS. NDPR (July 2010).

Pigliucci, Massimo. Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010.

The title serves well as an indication of the genre to which this book belongs. Directed to the general reader, it is an attempt by a philosopher of science to assist her in dealing with the problem of demarcating science from non-science. For the author this is a moral problem and not simply a technical or aesthetic one: belief in science is conducive to our good, whereas belief in non-science or pseudoscience, of which instances are worryingly abundant, is conducive to harm and has to be opposed. Thus, we shall not go too far wrong if we identify Pigliucci as a science warrior and his book as a contribution to the literature of the science wars.

The content is certainly as this would lead us to expect. The usual suspects are attacked: postmodernists, humanist intellectuals, religious fundamentalists and the like. The usual examples appear: UFOs, paranormal phenomena, and of course criticisms of evolution. A potted history of science from Aristotle's time is laid on (innocent Whiggism for the most part), and a flatpack philosophy of science (naturalist and verificationist). More idiosyncratic and slightly more interesting are discussions of science in the media ('it's crazy out there') and of think tanks ('Caveat Emptor!'). And the author is a little less respectful than usual of heroic figures in science and philosophy, scorning to conceal the sheer viciousness of Isaac Newton, for example, and hinting that Plato/Socrates may well have been an overbearing old bore whose notion of dialogue bears scant resemblance to our own. None of this, however, alters the fact that for anyone who has encountered this sort of thing before little of philosophical interest is likely to be learned from the present example, unless it is through reflection on the function and design of such texts themselves. . . .

I suspect that there is no way of presenting the knowledge and methods of the sciences to general readers that does not fail in some important respect. And the comparison of these with alternatives, whether those that engage in competition with the sciences, or those that pretend to be sciences themselves, or those that rub along with them, peacefully co-existing at other locations in our elaborate division of technical and intellectual labour, is inordinately difficult, as Pigliucci is obviously well aware. But he does not even try to meet the challenge this implies, choosing instead for the most part a facile approach that covers its limitations with the truculent style and affectation of contempt for one's fellow human beings increasingly encountered in the literature of the science wars. The sciences deserve better than this. . . .

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