Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Book Review: Nonsense on Stilts

While I've been reading plenty of books recently, I haven't really sought to write reviews on them. Mainly because in terms of content I don't have the expertise to judge the content so I can only really say what I enjoyed about it and what I got out of it. Massimo Pigliucci's book Nonsense On Stilts is along those very lines, explaining the ability for there to be scientific knowledge and how as laypeople we can go about discerning it.

The necessity of this book should be self-evident. We live in a culture dominated by science, specialisation means prosperity at the same time as leaving people in the dark about the underlying explanations for all the things that make their life convenient. This is why I'm an advocate for science, I don't need to understand how a television works in order to know that it's a product of the scientific enterprise.

But being a science advocate is not enough, the authority that is given to science means that there are always going to be people trying to give their ideas the perception of scientific legitimacy. And to be able to "tell science from bunk" as the subtitle suggests, this requires an exploration of just what science is. For that, read the book.

Where I see the book's success is whether it's able to actually do what the subtitle suggests: "how to tell science from bunk". And on this I think in part it fails. The book starts out well, giving an account of the demarcation problem and explaining the contentions through both philosophical and empirical accounts. Then by contrasting practical examples of legitimate science, near-science and pseudoscience there was at least there were things to look out for. But where it fails is the admission at the end that really it comes down to expert domains and we as laypeople are meant to rest where the preponderance of experts rest.

This is an understandable position, but doesn't really tell us how to tell science from bunk. Instead it's consensus among experts that we should look for, but only in cases where expertise is relevant. The example in the book was Quantum Mysticism, where being an expert in nonsense isn't an expert at all. And this again requires some knowledge so one can see whether the relevant expertise takes it seriously - in this case it's the quantum mechanics experts. Not the ideal situation really, indeed I have seen pro-science types reject science they don't like because they don't consider that particular discipline of science is actually science.

So how do we tell science from bunk? For the most part we look to experts and see where the weight of expertise lies, which doesn't really solve the problem but tells us where to hedge our bets. But while this doesn't give us the ability to answer the question, it does frame questions of importance such as AIDS denial that does cause harm.

In the context of a sibling society where information is transmitted from person to person irrespective of expertise, being able to tell science from bunk is vitally important. Take something like alt-med, has great transmission from person to person yet very few of us are medical experts and / or have domain knowledge about what's on offer. From the ivory towers, medical researchers can proclaim that homoeopathy is bunk until the cows come home, but how does that help the average person?

We are drawn into discussion of ideas that are well beyond our own expertise because so much of what is science is also part of our lives. Luckily I don't have to render an opinion of the validity of nucleosynthesis much, but I do come across climate change deniers and creationists and adherents of SCAM* with claims passing from person to person left unchecked.

The need for such a book is because we are in a society where expertise is seldom part of the facilitation of ideas. Where is the medical expert when someone talks about SCAM? Where is the evolutionary biologist to step in when a creationist dismisses biology, or the climatologist to counter those arguments against climate change?

As individuals we need to be able to tell science from bunk because our lives are full of people pushing bunk (genuinely or maliciously), and it can't be just more than being a personal barrier. Even if we as individuals aren't transmitters, there are still plenty of transmitters out there. As Massimo makes the case, nonsense harms. Even something like astrology can lead people to make foolish choices. Climate change denial means inaction, creationism weakening science education.

It's for this reason that I think the book is worth reading. Not because it gives a baloney detection kit**, but because it illustrates what our limits are both as individuals and as a species. And through an understanding of science of what science is (and what it isn't), it gives a path to follow in order to get some knowledge - consult experts. Because even if this book does serve to teach us our limits, there is the need for us to be informed enough to hopefully carry the beacon of science in a society where the implications don't match the level of engagement that experts have.

* Supplements, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine
** for that read Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World

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