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Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk


An excellent introduction to scientific skepticism. Not only does it cover a really good sampling of skeptical issues, with a lot of coverage on global warming and evolution, and shorter mention of SETI, AIDS denialism, and Freudian psychoanalysis. What’s best is the foundational concepts he gives to science itself. He gives the historical context of science as beginning in natural philosophy. He also helps resolve how much to trust science, and how to decide who counts as an “expert.” Good start. Nothing new to most “skeptics,” except for maybe the relationship of science to philosophy. Might be my first recommendation to any trying to understand scientific skepticism.

I did disagree with his point on supernaturalism, which stuck out to me because of my earlier disagreement with Steven Novella. To Pigliucci and Novella (who I bet is influenced by Pigliucci’s stance), we must be methodological naturalists because allowing the supernatural makes investigation pretty much impossible. I think that we’re methodological naturalists for the same reason we’re methodological non-alien-technologists (surprised if that makes sense to anyone): not because we need to rule out certain types of explanations, but because we look at what explanations are parsimonious, and have the most historical success. In principle though, evidence could build us to be convinced of a certain supernatural or alien explanation.

Kindle Notes:

there goes the theory, falsified by one negative result, regardless of how many positive confirmations I had on my notepad up to that point (39).

the quintessential example of soft science, psychology, actually displays a remarkable and surprising degree of consistency in its results (216).

Hedges’s results: while the reliability of measurements may be roughly the same in physics as in psychology, the ability of the two disciplines to explain and predict is very different (219).

Let us take stock of what we’ve got so far. While Platt’s argument that strong inference is very effective (when it can be applied) is right, he was wrong in the conclusion that what makes a soft science soft is the inability or unwillingness of its practitioners to employ that method. Hedges’s work showed that the perception of a much higher level of reliability of results in physics compared to psychology is not, in fact, borne out by the empirical evidence. But Howard reminded us that the ability of physics to explain its results is much higher than that of psychology, even though I think he unnecessarily singled out human agency as the explanation for the difference (251).

good science does not require experiments, it can be done with an intelligent use of observational evidence; second, there is more than one way to do science, depending on the nature of the questions and the methods typical of the field (289).

The common thread in all science is the ability to produce and test hypotheses based on systematically collected empirical data (via experiments or observations) (329).

Philosophy has often been the placeholder for areas of intellectual inquiry that have subsequently moved to the domain of science. Physics itself, up until Rene Descartes, was part of natural philosophy. Descartes considered himself a scientist, not a philosopher (which is the way he is remembered today), and it is obvious only with hindsight that he lived at the time of separation between the two modes of inquiry. Similarly, psychology originally was a branch of philosophy, and philosophy of mind is now increasingly turning its attention to neurobiology and cognitive science (with the result that the latter two may eventually replace the former) (447).

Note: “The goal of science is to kill itself.”

results, that pushes SETI uncomfortably close to the status of pseudoscience (489).

Note: Why not use Bayesianism? Each lack of evidence is slight reason to lower prob of life.

These include anachronistic thinking, the glorification of mysteries, the appeal to myths, a cavalier approach to evidence, an appeal to irrefutable hypotheses, the emphasis on probably spurious similarities, explanation by scenario (“story-telling”), “literary” rather than empirically based interpretations of facts, extreme resistance to revising one’s positions, a tendency to shift the burden of proof, and sympathy for a theory just because it’s new or daring (599).

But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.-Carl Sagan (792).

Similarly, the documentary makes much out of one of the favorite, and most abused, ideas in quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It essentially says that it is impossible-in principle, not just as a matter of insufficient instrumentation-to accurately measure both members of certain pairs of properties of subatomic particles, such as the momentum and position of an electron. Physicists often refer to this, rather improperly, as the “observer” effect, but they do not mean that an actual human observer is necessary for the effect to take place; they are talking about a particular kind of physical interaction, which has nothing to do with consciousness per se. So to conclude that Heisenberg’s principle implies the necessity of a conscious agent in order to literally “make” reality is a preposterous misunderstanding of the physical theory (1382).

t is at least 9o% certain that human emissions of greenhouse gases rather than natural variations are warming the planet’s surface.” This is the conclusion, reported by the BBC on 2 February 2007, reached by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in a report that was then a conservative summary of our understanding of how much and why the world’s climate is being altered (1916).

unlike the case of global warming-which was, in fact, legitimately debatable until recently-such consensus about evolution developed almost a century ago, and has hardly changed since (2288).

every theory has “gaps,” meaning sets of facts that are not (currently) explained by the theory or, conversely, makes hypothetical statements that are not (currently) supported by empirical evidence (2410).

The endorsement test was explained by the Supreme Court: “School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political com- munity” (2501).

“under the Lemon test, a government-sponsored message violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment if: i) it does not have a secular purpose; 2) its principal or primary effect advances or inhibits religion; or 3) it creates an excessive entanglement of government with religion (2511).

Judge Jones concluded that ID fails as a science on three grounds: “(T) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 198o’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community (2532).

Naturalism, in this context, is simply the idea that the world works according to natural laws and processes, but it comes in two varieties: methodological and philosophical. A philosophical naturalist is, essentially, an atheist, or someone who believes-as a result of philosophical (not scientific) considerations-that there really is no supernatural at all (2546).

Supernatural explanations aren’t explanations at all, because one doesn’t know why and how God decided to do what he decided to do (after all, he is God!),29 which means that any so-called explanation that invokes the supernatural turns out to be nothing more than an elaborate admission of ignorance (2569).

Note: Not necessarily.

The Greeks, in particular, imported a significant amount of mathematical and astronomical knowledge slowly accumulated by the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, and then ran with it to establish in a matter of a couple of centuries the foundations for what we still today recognize as philosophy and science (2674).

His famous phrase “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” often quoted as a sign of humility by a great scientist, was nothing of the kind: it was more likely a nasty jab at Hooke, who was a very short man (3145).

Daniel Dennett (perhaps not surprisingly a philosopher) in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination” (3229).

a moment’s reflection shows that Dennett, of course, is right. For example, as we have seen in some detail, scientific practice requires the assumption of naturalism, that is, the idea that natural phenomena are, well, natural, and therefore scientists do not need to invoke the supernatural to explain them (3231).

The important thing to realize is that in the context of our discussion naturalism is not an empirically verifiable position, and it is therefore by definition outside of science itself (3234).

Kuhn, to his chagrin, began early on to be favorably regarded by some science critics-to the point that he felt it necessary to write a postscript to the second edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he said: “later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress” (3780).

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