Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Review: Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk

I was watching "Real Time with Bill Maher" last night (Sept. 24th episode) and realized how his guests and the book I read recently came together in a nice fashion. Bill Maher had two conservatives: Andrew Breitbart and Amy Holmes on the show, going against Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan (the wife of Carl Sagan). The issue that created the most heated discussion (not to say yelling) was the climate change and its origins.
Andrew Breitbart gave the usual "not all scientists agree" nonsense with some additional, typical set of lies and Ann Druyan call him on it, saying straight to his face that the Right serves lies and distractions while we are still doing noting to mitigate the real issue.
The discussion brought up a very important problem that we all face almost every day, often without realizing it: how to tell what is "science" from all kinds of claims that people try to sell us?
This question, and a few possible answers are the core of the book "Nonsense of Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk"by Massimo Pigliucci:
















It is not an easy book to read, having a fair amount of philosophy in its content, but it also gives a great overview of the current "state of the game", or the anti-intellectual, anti-science attitudes so widely spread in our society. From the general rejection of science, mostly by the religious right, to the attempts of incorporating its own "soft" science into the mainstream by the "liberal" hipsters, we see this process almost every day.
Pigliucci starts off with a simple question: what is science and what is not (or what claims to be science, but in reality is pseudoscience). As we quickly find out, it is not an easy question to answer, since even within science itself there are disciplines that, while generally regarded as scientific, are having a hard time fitting into a number of predefined criteria.
We get a tour of current anti-scientific battlefronts, including various think tanks, which peddle any nonsense for which they get paid, under the covers of "real" scientific research, the current global warming debate (which is not really a debate from the scientific point of view anymore), and the Intelligent Design case from Dover. All of the above serve as great examples of how to define science and how to attempt to distinguish it from any other claims.
The final piece of this book and the one that I enjoyed the most was a discussion on how to tell an expert from a wanna-be. This is so important because, as I pointed out at the beginning, almost every day we encounter people who claim to have answers to all the issues of today's world. We also have to make our own decisions (some personal and some political) in an increasingly complex world, decisions that affect our health, our families and our way of life. It is therefore very important to know how to distinguish the real deal from "bunk".
If not for everything else, this is one reason to read "Nonsense on Stilts".