Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk

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Overview

Creationists who dismiss Darwin's theory of evolution. Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Climate change deniers who dismiss the warming planet as a hoax. These are just some of the groups that, despite robust scientific evidence, embrace pseudoscientific beliefs and practices. Why do they believe bunk? And how does their ignorance threaten us all?

Noted skeptic Massimo Pigliucci sets out to separate the fact from the fantasy in this entertaining exploration of the nature of science, the borderlands of fringe science, and– borrowing a famous phrase from philosopher Jeremy Bentham–the nonsense on stilts. Covering a range of controversial topics, Pigliucci cuts through the ambiguity surrounding science to look more closely at how science is conducted, how it is disseminated, how it is interpreted, and what it means to our society. The result is in many ways a "taxonomy of bunk" that explores the intersection of science and culture at large.

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Editorial Reviews

New Scientist
How can we decide what counts as science? That is the central question of this brilliant book, which ought to be required reading for, well, everyone.”

— Amanda Gefter

Times Higher Education
How is an intelligent layperson with general interests, or for that matter a narrow but deeply focused specialist, supposed to make sense of the torrents of nonsense that spew from all directions? How can we distinguish fact from fancy, medicine from snake-oil, science from bunk? What hangs in the balance? And who dares plumb the fathomless depths of data, teeming with creatures contradictory and controversial alike? Enter Massimo Pigliucci, a brave volunteer for this mission....His book serves a seriously worthwhile purpose: that of giving you, the reader, tools and instructions for assembling your very own 'baloney-detector.' Armed with this, you stand a vastly improved chance of separating the wheat of reliable knowledge from the chaff of fashionable nonsense in your daily harvest of data.

— Lou Marinoff

Choice
Nonsense on Stilts is a very interesting, useful compendium of thinking about and within science. . . . Valuable as a reference for courses in science, philosophy, political science, and journalism, as well as a handbook for the public. . . . Highly recommended.”

— R. E. Buntrock

Quarterly Review of Biology
An informative, well-written, how-to guide for distinguishing science from nonscience and pseudoscience. . . . There is much to recommend in this book, beginning with Pigliucci’s analysis of the heterogeneity of the sciences, his discussion of the merely “quasi” sciences such as evolutionary psychology, history and interpretations of quantum theory, and his critiques of the pseudosciences.”

— Richard A. Richards

Dr. Philip Plait
“A frightening percentage of the American population cannot tell the difference between sense and nonsense—astrology, creationism, and antivaccination propaganda are rampant despite overwhelming evidence against them. If only we could get everyone to sit down and read Nonsense on Stilts, this country would be in far better shape! Pigliucci carefully lays out the case for why science leads us to the truth, but will always be battling superstition and antireality along the way. His book should be required reading in every science class.”
Paul Kurtz
Nonsense on Stilts provides a masterful analysis of the demarcation problem. There is no easy litmus test to distinguish genuine from junk science. Even Karl Popper’s criterion of non-falsifiability is too simplistic. For Pigilucci, hard science is based on empirically verifiable hypotheses and theories. A richly insightful provocative book in defense of naturalism.”
Eugenie C. Scott
“A research scientist who then became a philosopher helps you tell the difference between what is science, almost science, and pseudoscience. An eminently readable, insightful, and sensible book. I enjoyed it very much.”
David Shenk
“This is such an important book, and a great read. It is not an overstatement to say that our future survival may depend on the public’s ability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. With patience, precision, and humor, Massimo Pigliucci charts a careful course for all scientists and communicators to follow.”
New Scientist - Amanda Gefter
“How can we decide what counts as science? That is the central question of this brilliant book, which ought to be required reading for, well, everyone.”
Times Higher Education - Lou Marinoff
"How is an intelligent layperson with general interests, or for that matter a narrow but deeply focused specialist, supposed to make sense of the torrents of nonsense that spew from all directions? How can we distinguish fact from fancy, medicine from snake-oil, science from bunk? What hangs in the balance? And who dares plumb the fathomless depths of data, teeming with creatures contradictory and controversial alike? Enter Massimo Pigliucci, a brave volunteer for this mission....His book serves a seriously worthwhile purpose: that of giving you, the reader, tools and instructions for assembling your very own 'baloney-detector.' Armed with this, you stand a vastly improved chance of separating the wheat of reliable knowledge from the chaff of fashionable nonsense in your daily harvest of data."
Choice - R. E. Buntrock
Nonsense on Stilts is a very interesting, useful compendium of thinking about and within science. . . . Valuable as a reference for courses in science, philosophy, political science, and journalism, as well as a handbook for the public. . . . Highly recommended.”
Quarterly Review of Biology - Richard A. Richards
“An informative, well-written, how-to guide for distinguishing science from nonscience and pseudoscience. . . . There is much to recommend in this book, beginning with Pigliucci’s analysis of the heterogeneity of the sciences, his discussion of the merely “quasi” sciences such as evolutionary psychology, history and interpretations of quantum theory, and his critiques of the pseudosciences.”
Times Higher Education

"How is an intelligent layperson with general interests, or for that matter a narrow but deeply focused specialist, supposed to make sense of the torrents of nonsense that spew from all directions? How can we distinguish fact from fancy, medicine from snake-oil, science from bunk? What hangs in the balance? And who dares plumb the fathomless depths of data, teeming with creatures contradictory and controversial alike? Enter Massimo Pigliucci, a brave volunteer for this mission....His book serves a seriously worthwhile purpose: that of giving you, the reader, tools and instructions for assembling your very own ''baloney-detector.'' Armed with this, you stand a vastly improved chance of separating the wheat of reliable knowledge from the chaff of fashionable nonsense in your daily harvest of data."—Lou Marinoff, Times Higher Education

— Lou Marinoff

New Scientist

“How can we decide what counts as science? That is the central question of this brilliant book, which ought to be required reading for, well, everyone.”—Amanda Gefter, New Scientist

— Amanda Gefter

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226667850
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2010
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. He has written many books, including, most recently, Making Sense of Evolution, with Jonathan Kaplan, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Science versus Pseudoscience and the "Demarcation Problem" 1

Chapter 1 Hard Science, Soft Science 6

Chapter 2 Almost Science 24

Chapter 3 Pseudoscience 56

Chapter 4 Blame the Media? 84

Chapter 5 Debates on Science: The Rise of Think Tanks and the Decline of Public Intellectuals 104

Chapter 6 Science and Politics: The Case of Global Warming 134

Chapter 7 Science in the Courtroom: The Case against Intelligent Design 160

Chapter 8 From Superstition to Natural Philosophy 187

Chapter 9 From Natural Philosophy to Modern Science 208

Chapter 10 The Science Wars I: Do We Trust Science Too Much? 233

Chapter 11 The Science Wars II: Do We Trust Science Too Little? 253

Chapter 12 Who's Your Expert? 279

Conclusion So, What Is Science after All? 302

Notes 307

Index 329

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 14, 2010

    Prepare to be educated and entertained

    Massimo is one of the few examples of a scientist that is not only logical and bright, but also a witty and entertaining, making this book a great read. You will be amused and educated simultaneously. Why do we trust experts, even though some have been wrong? Should we trust journalism? Read and find out. Highly recommended!

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  • Posted July 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Good introduction of some basic philosophy of science for the lay person

    Having read some of Pigliucci's other writings, including some of his technical work, I was hopeful about the direction this book would take. I am please to say that I was not disappointed. Beginning with the demarcation problem (how do we distinguish science from nonscience or pseudoscience) and ending with an explanation of why one should trust the consensus of experts as well as a fairly good heuristic to tell who actually qualifies as such in particular fields, Pigliucci is clear and concise throughout the text. He provides enough detail to explain the issue under consideration without getting so bogged down in technical jargon that the reader would require a strong background in the subject matter to understand the material. I was also happy with his handing of a couple of the biggest issues concerning the public's understanding of science today, those of creationism and anthropogenic climate change, both of which have had in the past and will continue to have in the future dramatic consequences for public life.
    I would recommend this book to anyone interested getting a rough idea of just what the philosophy of science is as well as how the public sees scientific discussions and why that matters.

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