Andrew Skretvedt's Reviews > Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk

Nonsense on Stilts by Massimo Pigliucci
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's review
May 23, 2010

liked it

(unedited and lightly proofed)

I found this book well worth reading, esp. the last 30 pages or so. I withheld two stars from my rating mostly for what didn't happen in Chapter 6. If you're short on time, here's a shortcut approach to getting the book's chief take-away:

Start with Chapter 11, § "Science as a Bayesian Algorithm" (page 275 in the edition I read from), and read from there through Chapter 12 and the Conclusion. That'll be about 31 pages. The essence of the book and its take-away for readers is right there. Glance at the footnotes for that portion too. After this, if you're wanting more depth, rewind to the beginning and start. Otherwise, you'll have the most important bit and will be primed to think about Goldman's Five Criteria when evaluating the judgements of experts you may be exposed to, no matter what the topic of interest. That will serve you quite well. This last part of the book is really the only part that to me affirmatively addressed the statement in the subtitle, "How to tell science from bunk." That there wasn't more to flesh out the premise of the subtitle perhaps was also a reason I withheld some stars.

As for the rest of the book, I felt there was somewhat less than I wanted on the philosophy of science and science-vs.-pseudoscience. The types of logical fallacy are important, and didn't get much more than an incidental treatment here. I need bolstering in this area myself, and didn't get it here. Types of logical fallacy seem to show up very often in arguments portrayed in media, so having a toolkit for this would help in making quick evaluation of what some "news" program's analyst or magazine article's author is trying to sell you.

The history of the development of science is interesting backstory, and worth including, but I think if other parts of this book were edited down to make room for it, I would have appreciated a different cut.

That's about it for the hard review. In the remaining space, I'm going to talk about a silent parade of elephants that sit quietly among you as you read Chapter 6, which is good, but could really be a whole book in itself if you wanted to address said elephants. As it is, the author pretty much confines himself to an orthodox narrative and leaves the elephants unaddressed (perhaps he wasn't even aware of them).

Chapter 6 addresses the relationship of science and politics by focusing on the global warming issue, which is too bad in my view, because this issue has too much baggage attached to it for many lay readers, myself included, and as a result it makes too narrow a survey of the relationships between them.

There is much more to say about the relationship of politics and science, and I won't touch on any of it except to suggest that this alliance of politics and science (where it gets the majority of its funding now, a relatively recent innovation for good or ill) is a key reason behind the anti-intellectualism addressed in the book. "Scientific American" magazine, for example, today could be regarded more as a public-policy advocacy magazine which derives its authority from the science it portrays, rather than a magazine devoted to the promotion of science, and dissemination of its discoveries. The politically focused parts of the magazine have become dominant over the pure science articles. The pure science features have also been cut down in length and scope to make room for the political, with more reliance on freelancing science writers over the researchers themselves, who used to write up their own features more often.

When the name of science is used to justify political ends, and those ends run counter to basic human liberties, or even simple expectations about the role of government in a polity, the resentment for the politic bleeds over into a mistrust of science too. Science then gets tossed out wholesale, at worst, as just additional government propaganda. The solution may be greater separation. Science should retain its typical conservative (in the non-political sense) approach and disclaim public policy action when the science upon which the policy is relying for its authority, doesn't support that policy. We have good science supporting bad policy, and when the policy fails or backfires, the public will (and has) link the failure with the science, and this may be unjustified if the science didn't support the policy action in the first scientists should say so...beforehand!

I have serious reservations about the conventional presentation of current climate change science. I have to do several gut-checks each time I confront it to try and evaluate if my own biases can be justified. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think they can, yet I will listen. But I am also tired of being labelled a "denialist" just for having my doubts, and being able to conceive of a mechanism whereupon the science process could be hijacked for a political result. This chapter doesn't soothe this ache any, but instead left me with an impression along the lines of: "You shouldn't take my word for it, but if in fact you don't, you're a denialist because Al Gore got it mostly right. Just sayin'..." Oh man.

Not addressed in Chapter 6 were issues like the co-opting of science for political ends. And climate science could be the poster child for this. We could say that the IPCC's pronouncements that current global warming is human caused are true. Our national and supernational governments immediately leap to a conclusion that they now have license to take action, and that they also know the appropriate action to take and the proper way to assess and balance the consequences of any such action. We've been presented truckloads of new proposals or in some instances been saddled with new law and regulation about various forms of anti-carbon or carbon-trading tax schemes. Evaluations of the likely impact of such schemes all so far as I am aware, all suggest that these will ultimately have insignificant effect, but do significant economic damage in the meanwhile, and simultaneously bolster and centralize government authority over economic affairs. Whoops! Was that what we wanted? The science may be sound, and careful analysis should answer any skepticism in time, but what we really ought to be skeptical of are governments and their plans to fix things. The track record is terrible, and the incentives almost always line up in ways that are destructive to long term freedom, prosperity, and enjoyment of life.

Few realize or take the time to contemplate the implications that the IPCC is primarily a government-consensus body, not a union of concern scientists. Further, it's divided into two groups, Working Group 1, which is charged with public relations, advocacy, and public policy, and whose work is usually what is reported by media. The other is Working Group 2, which in my opinion is the group to actually focus your attention, for this group is more interested in doing the research and integrating the scientific picture.

The results of present science and their interpretation between the two working groups, to my present understanding, has a wide gulf. While WG1 tells you we're sure what's going on here, it's going to be terribly catastrophic for all life on earth, especially human, and the fast majority (>90%) of scientists agree, WG2 is far more conservative, restricting itself to a more reserved opinion that the climate is changing, and that humans are influencing that change, but how bad it could be, and how it might go anyway if humans had no role is not clear. WG2 is more open about its confidence in current understanding of the mechanisms behind the climate system, and shows that the agreement among scientists is not so uniform as WG1 would like you to think; that the basis and confidence for selecting any particular sort of mitigation strategy is very premature at present.

WG2 shows that this science is largely one of measuring and modelling, making ever more complex data models to fit the observed historical data, then extrapolating these models to attempt to forecast the future. But why would such a model work? Answering this key question requires actually understanding the climate system, and unfortunately the focus has been too much on the data modelling (it's easier and gets funding). Here's a lesson on what that can get you:

Ptolemy had presumed the orbits of the planets were circular, and made predictions for their motion that soon strayed from observation. Not wishing to abandon the idea of circular orbits, he was able to introduce increasingly complex modelling terms he called "epicycles" that permitted this original concept to approach any desired level of accuracy and permit the observations to match his model. Great! At least you'll be able to predict where in the sky to look for a planet at any arbitrary time, but holding onto the Ptolemaic model, no matter how precise, would deprive you of actually understanding what was really going on: the planets' orbits are elliptical, not circular, and the reason is gravity. If you don't know this, you cannot progress in understanding the solar system or motion itself. Ptolemy's epicycles would've sufficed to predict the map of the solar system on the sky, but if we had held to them, we would have become stuck in his era, and our modern world would likely look more like his did then, and less like ours does today.

Our climate science is very possibly "Ptolemaic" at this point. And disagreeing with or remaining justifiably skeptical of the IPCC's orthodoxy gets you shunned as a "denialist." I think using such labels at this point is more a way to foreclose legitimate dissent, give license to policy ends for political reasons, and perhaps safeguard government funding streams to certain corners of the science establishment.

Okay, I shall end this massive digression and this review with a nod to Chapter 5, which is very useful if you are a "denialist" because you'll need to consider the sources that are feeding your "denialism". A process of re-normalization and filtering may need to be applied if there is any hope at screening out bias which may be present in opposition arguments. Ultimately, this could require you to become expert in the subject yourself. The end of the book, cited at the top of this writeup, is most helpful in giving you a strategy to proceed short of making that great leap to becoming expert.
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Reading Progress

May 23, 2010 – Shelved
September 4, 2014 – Started Reading
September 4, 2014 –
page 24
October 2, 2014 –
page 187
October 30, 2014 – Finished Reading

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