Book review – Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (Second Edition)

In a time of fake news and alternative facts, being able to separate the proverbial scientific wheat from the pseudoscientific chaff is vitally important. But seeing the wide acceptance of a lot of dubious ideas, critical thinking does not come easily. So, how, then, do you tell science from bunk? Updating his 2010 book Nonsense on Stilts, evolutionary biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci once again attacks this problem from many sides. Going far beyond cheap potshots at pseudoscience, I found a book that takes an equally serious look at the more insidious phenomena of think tanks and postmodernism, with a healthy side-serving of history of science. The result is a readable introspection on what science is and how it is done.

Nonsense on Stilts

Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (second edition)“, written by Massimo Pigliucci, published by the University of Chicago Press in October 2018 (paperback, 317 pages)

Pigliucci starts off with some recognizable and amusing examples of “frustrating conversations” he has had with people. These serve as cautionary tales that it is harder than we would think to quickly and mercilessly dispatch nonsense. For one, when does something stop being science and become pseudoscience? Philosopher Karl Popper called it the demarcation problem (though it has been considered before him) and people are still discussing it (see also Pigliucci & Boudry’s Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem). To help explain the subtleties, Pigliucci takes the reader through a sliding scale; considering hard vs. soft sciences; quasi-sciences such as string theory (empirically unverifiable for the moment), the SETI programme (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which has yielded zero results so far), and evolutionary psychology; and, finally, pseudosciences. For the last one he takes examples such as voodoo, astrology, UFOs, and paranormal phenomena.

Interesting as these chapters are, they are but an opening salvo for a much wider and philosophically-inclined examination. Pigliucci probes the tensions between modern media and science, and how scientists struggle to get their message across when talking to reporters. He ponders the decline of public intellectuals and the rise of think tanks, providing illuminating examples of both. And he has a particular bone to pick with postmodernism; the school of thought that denies science much of its power and agency by arguing that all knowledge is socially constructed and relative (see also Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture for a particularly famous incident). In the Trump-era this kind of thinking has gone mainstream with the whole “my-facts-are-just-as-good-as-your-facts”–spiel. But Pigliucci is equally critical of scientism: i.e. science overreaching, see also my review of his book Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism. And somewhere along the line he manages to squeeze in a short history of science from the ancient Greeks to modern science.

“[Pigliucci] has a particular bone to pick with postmodernism which argues that all knowledge is socially constructed and relative; the whole “my-facts-are-just-as-good-as-your-facts”–spiel”

If this sounds like a disparate collection of topics, I found that Pigliucci smoothly connected the dots between them. And not having a formal background in philosophy, I also very much appreciated how accessible he kept his writing, regularly stopping to take stock, to explain jargon, or to ask his reader to bear with him while he goes into a few finer points. For example, I found his introduction to Bayes’s rule and its accompanying equation very clear. Although he is fiercely critical, he is also fair to his opponents, e.g. admitting that science critics such as postmodernists have a role to play and do make some valid points. And where he scolds fellow scientists, he is equally clear in outlining why he disagrees with them, for example when reflecting on Stephen Jay Gould’s work, or critiquing anti-intellectual attitudes towards philosophy by scientists such as Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson.

But the real strength of this book, I found, lies in providing a very realistic picture of how science works, offering many notable observations. That science is a heterogeneous collection of disciplines, not a monolith, allowing soft and hard sciences to coexist. That we do not have all the answers and in some cases likely never will (resulting in such quotable phrases as “sometimes the wise thing to do is to accept human epistemic limitations and move on”, or “there is no assurance that nature behaves in a way that will allow us to get answers to every mystery that happens to intrigue us”). Or that science is a human endeavour with its share of blunders and oversized egos, but that postmodernist thinkers have yet to contribute to setting the record straight when mistakes have been made (see also The Fate of Knowledge).

He offers readers guidance on how to be better, more virtuous skeptics, rather than intellectually lazy skeptics that are not seriously willing to engage those who espouse bunk. And he offers advice on how to determine which experts to trust. As creationists and climate change deniers know, you can always find some rogue scientists willing to back your cause, further muddling the waters. So how can you, the reader, with no background in fields such as evolution or climatology, decide who to trust?

“[Pigliucci] provides a realistic picture of the limits of science, memorably writing that “there is no assurance that nature behaves in a way that will allow us to get answers to every mystery that happens to intrigue us””

How is this second edition improved? Not having read the first edition, that is hard to know; the blurb claims it is fully revised but Pigliucci does not provide details on what he has updated. A closer look at the notes and references shows a wealth of new material seamlessly woven into the text though, suggesting a thorough rewrite. There was only one segment that stood out to me as outdated, when Pigliucci, regarding genetic engineering, writes that “we are a long way from being able to […] fix human genetic diseases by repairing mutant genes or replacing them with functional parts” (p. 215-216). Though it has its limitations, the recent discovery of CRISPR has allowed us to do just that (see also my reviews of Hacking the Code of Life: How Gene Editing Will Rewrite Our Futures and A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution). Given what Pigliucci writes here about the specialised nature of scientists and the limits to one’s own expertise, it seems like the kind of minor oversight you cannot judge him harshly for.

Bunk comes in many guises, and Nonsense on Stilts is an intellectually stimulating journey that ranged far wider than I initially expected. Despite its coverage of philosophical topics, Pigliucci excels in demystifying whatever jargon comes his way, takes a balanced approach, and writes in a friendly, amusing, sometimes irreverent way. While a book like The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How To Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake is a great first plunge into this topic, Nonsense on Stilts is a perfect follow-up to give readers a philosophically more solid base from which to work.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Nonsense on Stilts (2nd edition) paperback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:




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