Friday, August 26, 2011

Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci

Nonsense on Stilts is a decent exploration of the scientific method(s), recent topics in the world of psuedoscience and some philosophical foundation for the entire scientific enterprise. The book consists of two halves: the first about science and psuedoscience, and the second about science, philosophy and knowing. Unfortunately, I think Pigliucci would have been better served writing two books instead of two halves. One reason is that much of the examination of science (or non-science) topics in popular culture is dated - books and movies reviewed are more than 5 years old. A second reason is that the audience that would typically be interested in the content of the first half wouldn't be in the second and vice-versa (although I am, and think others should be).

Part I:
Nonsense on Stilts provides an important service when it explores different aspects of what science is and the different types of scientific methods, as well as how some disciplines are more amendable to precision or similar results, but face differential amounts of variance due to what they measure.  It is a good review of the main topics in the skeptical community, as well as a look at some areas of science that may have less rigour than commonly believed.
Topics convered include: Quantum theory; Evolutionary psychology; SETI and the Drake equation; Astrology; UFOs; "What the bleep do we know?"; Intelligent design (Dover trial, Behe, Irreducible complexity, media misleading); Responsibility of intellectuals; Anti-intellectual themes in American history and life (isn't it interesting that sports stars are venerated while intellectuals, whose abilities are also beyond those of the average person are sometimes disdained?); Anti-rationalism; Gould and Sagan as case studies of public intellectuals in science; and Global Warming.

Part II:
Pigliucci successfully presents an intellectual-philosophical overview of some key minds in the history of the development of science and rational thinking. I quite enjoyed this examination of the path of scientific and intellectual ideas forward throughout time, especially the Renaissance (and I was less familiar with this content than that of the first part). Additionally, it provided a much needed rebuttal to the absurd position of Steven Weinberg and Stephen Hawking who argue that philosophy is useless or dead.

Topics/People covered include: Plato; Aristotle; Hume; Kant; Empiricists and Rationalists; Induction and Deduction; Bacon; Descartes; Galileo; Newton; Darwin; Scientism and Post-moderism, Sokal hoax; Notions of truth (correspondence theory and others); Kuhn; Perspectivism (objectivism and social construct); Bayesianism; and the nature of expertise.

Given all of the above, you will know if this book is for you. Personally, I was hoping for more.


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