NONSENSE ON STILTS: HOW TO TELL SCIENCE FROM BUNK
By Massimo Pigliucci
The University of Chicago Press, $20, 336 pages
The view from the ivory tower has become increasingly obscure and gloomy of late. The great unwashed masses by this time in history should have discovered and aligned themselves with scholastic luminaries who are grounded in their individual disciplines. Instead, the hoi polloi are relying on a vast array of nonacademic sources to formulate their positions on the important scientific issues of the day.
“Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science From Bunk” by Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at the City University of New York, presents a highly approachable review and analysis of the unfolding and advancement of both the philosophy of science and science itself. The complex relationship of the two is illuminated in such a way that anyone with even a passing interest in the topic will find himself drawn by the fascinating descriptions of the personalities and controversies that have advanced science thinking and practice through the centuries.
For instance, Mr. Pigliucci offers a wonderfully lucid discussion of the critical importance and difference between deduction and induction in scientific reasoning. More important, he provides a terrific overview of what science theory and practice entail: a combination of induction, deduction, perspective and intuition, contra superstition, mythology and postmodernism, including emphasis on constructivism (thank you), et al.
While the theoretical understanding of science is expressed rather thoroughly in “Nonsense on Stilts,” the real-world (i.e., beyond the campus), modern practice is almost negated. Perhaps the negation is because the conditions that most disturb many, if not the majority, of career academicians are: real-world experience and having their opinions challenged (so much for “critical thinking” which tends to boil down to students making sure their thoughts match those of their professors). Thus, complete comprehension of complex issues is limited to a substantial degree. This limitation is most clearly visible in Mr. Pigliucci’s treatment of the global-warming topic.
The proclamation from Mr. Pigliucci’s hallowed halls is unfurled to read: We know the future of the world’s climate, and it is dire unless you masses comply with our prescriptions. Here is where the “baloney detector” of the general populace had better be pegging beyond “yellow alert.”
The current collegiate “consensus” presents a view that largely ignores the insight of professional, practicing atmospheric scientists who are outside the academy. And just because an academically popular science hypothesis, which is offered and boosted by the media, is challenged does not mean those who know and rely on the academic intellectual community should jump up and yell, “Pseudoscience!”
Mr. Pigliucci’s attack on those who challenge the primarily academic view of anthropogenic climate change as akin to pseudoscientists or simply politically motivated actors ignores the expertise and critical thinking skills of the large number of well-informed air-science practitioners who are honestly skeptical of humans’ long-term role in global climate modifications. In fact, the human-induced-climate-change hypothesis may go down in history as one of the many “scientific blunders” identified by Mr. Pigliucci.
As Thomas Sowell aptly stressed in his recent book “Intellectuals and Society,” “the population at large may have vastly more total knowledge - in the mundane sense - than the elites, even if that knowledge is scattered in individually unimpressive fragments among the vast numbers of people.” How much more true this is if many in the specialized group of atmospheric scientists at large have serious doubts about the popular but principally academic view of the causes of our planet’s current temperature trend.
Although “Nonsense on Stilts” is a good book for academics, students and professionals to read and contemplate, Mr. Pigliucci’s own modest warning from his introduction should be heeded. He hopes the reader will use his work as “a springboard toward even more readings and discussions, to form a habit of always questioning with an open mind and of constantly demanding evidence for whatever assertion is being made by whatever self-professed authority - including of course yours truly.”
And so, with a better understanding and consideration of the experience and insight of academic as well as practicing nonacademic scientists, the vista from the ivory tower can encompass a more expansive horizon.
Anthony J. Sadar is a certified consulting meteorologist and primary author of “Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry” (CRC Press/Lewis Publishers, 2000).