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Nonsense on Stilts
by Massimo Pigliucci, 2010, 336 pages
Review by Larry Flammer, ENSI Webmaster

As science teachers, we are (or should be) charged with the awesome responsibility of helping kids to think critically, be objective, and be skeptical of tempting ideas. Unfortunately, science textbooks are not very helpful for doing this. It won't happen magically by reciting or even practicing "The Scientific Method." So what are we to do? This book does provide some helpful insights and suggestions.

One of the author's purposes is to help citizens become better able to make informed decisions about complex issues involving scientific claims. "We have a moral duty to distinguish sense from nonsense," he writes.

This book comes pretty close to being that handy, readable treatment of how to distinguish pseudoscience and non-science from near-science and "established" science. The author applies his extensive experience with both the philosophy and the practice of science, bringing thoughtful insights to focus on strategies for doing just that. He critiques not only a variety of different concepts, but also a range of different people who have become identified with those ideas, while clearly explaining how and why they fall short in their respective views.

Pigliucci discusses Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel, and the science and politics of global warming. This last is included in a chapter on Science and Politics, with a lengthy analysis of economist Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist (essentially denying the urgency of the global warming crisis - contrary to the conclusions of an overwhelming majority of climate scientists) - vs the fully science-based message of politician Al Gore). As part of this effort, the author includes a lengthy list of global warming myths and why each IS a myth. He provides suggestions and clues to look for in each case to help us to decide who's right.

In similar fashion, he weighs the issues of evolution vs creationism (and its essentially equivalent, "intelligent design") by comparing the explanations by biologist Ken Miller with those by biochemist Michael Behe. In addition, he brings the conclusions of conservative Judge Jones in the Dover trial, showing why the intelligent design idea is clearly pseudoscience. See sample chapter at NCSE:
Chapter 7: Science in the Courtroom - The Case Against Intelligent Design.

It doesn't help when the news media fails to do the hard work of investigating opposing claims, but instead merely gives often misleading "fair and equal balance" of opinions when objective scrutiny would reveal that certain views are clearly better supported by the evidence than others. When we are left with "fair and balanced" news reporting, plus the propagandizing by the various pundits with their vested interests, biases and agendas, it's very hard for us to make those critical decisions that could impact our lives in many ways.

Fortunately, Pigliucci leaves us with one of the several "baloney detectors" that are out there, and shows how it can be applied. It's something that you could help your students to learn and use. He uses the 5-point guide proposed by philosopher Alvin Goldman - five kinds of evidence that a novice can use to determine whether someone is a trustworthy expert - or not. They are:
1. How good are their arguments? Have they been critiqued by others?
2. Is there evidence of agreement by other experts?
3. Is there independent evidence that the expert IS an expert?
4. What are their biases?
5. What about their track records?

The author applies these questions to compare the views of Ken Miller and Michael Behe on intelligent design vs evolution, showing how one can rate them on each item on a score card (Miller wins 5:2).

An interesting and helpful plus in this book is a brief history of science, contained in two chapters (8 and 9), taking the reader From Superstition to Natural Philosophy - thence to Modern Science. Far too many teachers fail to study that history, catching only bits and pieces from their abbreviated treatment in textbooks and the occasional trade book on science that the busy teacher might find time to read. The author's treatment will give you a useful overview of how science developed and changed over time, to its current ways of knowing nature. This perspective is useful when trying to help students to understand the common misconceptions about how science works, often rooted in long-outdated features of science.

The book is an enjoyable and engaging read. If you should develop a lesson, or series of lessons that teach these ideas for helping your students to become functioning critical thinkers and skeptics, and provides examples for them to practice, please share with us, and we will add them to the ENSI website. Just send email to ENSI Webmaster: Larry Flammer