Nonsense on Stilts

Topic questions:
1. Is there a fight between religion and science for power in this country?
2. How much is someone’s credibility harmed when they get something wrong?
3. How do you define science?
4. Based on this quote, do you think there is a battle between philosophy and religion?
5. Does it make you mad when people try to use science to advocate for racist or sexist policies?
6. How do you deal with your own bias and the bias of the researchers when evaluating an article?
7. Let’s discuss this quote.
Kindle Location: 1,461 (page 74)
Everyone has a right to be irrational, but rampant irrationality in a society can be highly wasteful and destructive…
8. How much does this bother you? Someone makes a weird claim and then asks you to dispute it?
9. Should you bother debating people that believe in weird things like the flat earth?
10. Let’s discuss this quote.
Kindle Location: 2,588 (page 131)
I argue that it is still a moral duty of all citizens, and of intellectuals in particular, to intervene in public discourse. In this I am squarely on Chomsky’s side. Be that as it may, Richard Posner’s points [academics being swayed by monetary reward and the push to entertainment] well taken.
11. Let’s discuss free speech and what should be done about the news media, the government, twitter, facebook spreading lies.
12. Should the taxpayers fund research?
13. How much does it pain you when you find out someone you held in high esteem has a blemish?
14. Let’s talk about scientism
15. Did you like the handy checklist to help you toward a path of being a virtuous skeptic?

The  above questions, for discussion for the book group meeting the first Sunday in July 2020 to discuss Nonsense on Stilts by Massimo Pigliucci, were motivated by the below quotes.

****Kindle Location: 58 (page 1)
“The foundation of morality is to . . . give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible propositions about this beyond the possibilities of knowledge”  said Thomas Henry Huxley

**Kindle Location: 82 (page 2)
[Popper said] theories that are “unfalsifiable” are unscientific

*Kindle Location: 508  (page 26)
The idea is that when some physicists tell us that “in principle” all knowledge of the world is reducible to physics, one is within one’s rights to ask what principle, exactly, they are referring to. Fodor contends that if one were to call the epistemic bluff, the physicists would have no idea where to begin to provide a reduction of sociology, economics, psychology, biology, and other sciences to fundamental physics. There is, it seems, no known “principle” that would guide anyone in pursuing such a quest—a far more fundamental issue than the one imposed by merely practical limits of time and calculation.

***Kindle Location: 523 to 529 (page 26-27)
Cartwright suggests that theories are statements about how things (or particles, or fields) would behave according to idealized models of reality. … Cartwright distinguishes between two ways of thinking about laws: “fundamental” laws are meant to describe the true, deep structure of the universe. “Phenomenological” laws, by contrast, are useful for making empirical predictions, and work well enough for that purpose, but strictly speaking are false.

*Kindle Location: 555 (page 28)
[Is] comparing different sciences even a meaningful enterprise

****Kindle Location: 603 (page 30)
But the point remains: even the queen of the sciences [particle physics] sometimes gets things wrong over a period of many years,

***Kindle Location: 651(page 33)
Psychology and evolutionary biology—unlike particle physics—deal with complex layers of causality.

****Kindle Location: 677 (page 34)
Does this mean that we shouldn’t trust psychology, medicine, and possibly other sciences? No, because of three considerations: [1. We are aware of the limitations of the experiments 2. Science in the long run is self-correcting 3. There is no other alternative]

****Kindle Location: 709 (page 36)
[Science is] systematic observations and the construction and testing of hypotheses. Kindle Location: 736 (page 37)
intelligent use of observational evidence can be science … there is more than one way to do science, depending on the nature of the questions and the methods typical of the field.

***Kindle Location: 764  (page 38)
… while it is relatively straightforward to figure out what happened after the fact, it is mightily difficult to predict what will happen and when. … asymmetry of causal determination

*Kindle Location: 880-886 (page 45)
Photons behave as particles if you use one slit, but switch to a wavelike behavior if you use two slits … Physicists typically say that the double-slit experiment is a demonstration of the dual nature of light: wave and particle, depending on the circumstances. … Photons are characterized by a “wave function,” a mathematical construct that tells you what the probability of finding the photon in a particular location is. When you actually make the measurement…this action collapses the wave function to a single value…

*Kindle Location: 914 (page 47 and 48)
string theory, supported by Brian Greene at the NYU event and beautifully explained in his book The Elegant Universe. … Kindle Location 938:  at the moment at least, string theory does not seem to make any empirically testable predictions that both differ from those of other competing theories

*Kindle Location: 921 (page 47)
Quantum mechanics does a beautiful job predicting how matter will behave in the very microscopic world, at the scale of quarks, electrons, photons, and the like. Relativity, on the other hand, works very nicely when it is a question of describing the very macroscopic world—the behavior of systems like planets, galaxies, and so forth. …

****Kindle Location: 968 (page 49)
Philosophy has often been the placeholder for areas of intellectual inquiry that have subsequently moved to the domain of science

***Kindle Location: 981(page 50)
Just because we are curious animals, there is no assurance that nature behaves in a way that will allow us to get answers to every mystery that happens to intrigue us.

***Kindle Location: 988 (page 50)
Paraphrased:  Unicorns are logically possible, empirically possible, but not empirically realized. String theory is logically possible but we don’t know if they are empirically possible. Extraterrestrial intelligence is logically possible and empirically possible, but not empirically realized.

*Kindle Location: 990
Strings and multiple universes are certainly logical possibilities, since they are features of mathematical theories (assuming that the math doesn’t contain mistakes). What we don’t know is whether they are also empirically possible

**Kindle Location: 1,026 (page 52)
This means that we need to ask about the conceptual underpinning of the SETI program: what makes it more than the simple hope that we will find someone

****Kindle Location: 1,165 (page 59)
is evolutionary psychology a legitimate branch of evolutionary biology, or is it more nearly a pseudoscience,… [He says that it is uncontroversial that behaviors and cognitive traits can evolve over time BUT is there sufficient evidence that natural selection has shaped any particular human behavioral pattern?]

***Kindle Location: 1,174 (page 59)
Telltale signs of pseudoscience:
                the glorification of mysteries, the appeal to myths, a cavalier approach to evidence, an appeal to irrefutable hypotheses, an 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.

***Kindle Location: 1,255 and 1296 (page 63-65)
As biologist Jaren Diamond puts it…evolutionary biology is in fact a historical science…
Diamond says that if one sees the same general pattern occurring in different places and times in human history, one can examine the similarities and differences among these natural experiments to infer something about the underlying causes.

**Kindle Location: 1,328  (page 67)
As a biologist, Diamond knows very well that many human diseases evolve in parallel with the domestication of animals and with the development of large populations, especially when grouped in small areas

****Kindle Location: 1,343 (page 68)
A colleague of mine teaches introductory philosophy courses in which she tries to get across the consequences of inequality of resources—a small version of the same sort of causal factors Diamond is after at a much larger scale.

**Kindle Location: 1,407 (page 71)
Peter Turchin, a theoretical ecologist complains that there are more than two hundred explanations proposed for the collapse of the Roman empire … A central concept advanced by Turchin is that history is characterized by regular and predictable patterns, from which we can learn and that we can predict.

****Kindle Location: 1,461 (page 74)
Everyone has a right to be irrational, but rampant irrationality in a society can be highly wasteful and destructive… [Massimo offers this as one example:]  Their attitude was that antiretroviral drugs, which have been medically tested and shown to be effective against HIV, are poisons deliberately marketed by Western pharmaceutical companies. Moreover, according to the pair—and contrary to almost the entire medical-research profession—there is no evidence that HIV causes AIDS;

****Kindle Location: 1,507 (page 77)
Science is a human activity, and human beings can legitimately hold different opinions about empirical evidence.

****Kindle Location: 1,518 (page 77)
Big Pharma is indeed far from spotless, and the practices of international pharmaceutical companies have been under fire for years even in the West. The search for profit at all costs often translates into literally inventing medical “conditions” out of thin air

*Kindle Location: 1,557 (page 79)
Science and religion are rather fuzzy concepts. …. this book is in great part devoted to exploring how “science” itself is a family of loosely related practices, not a monolithic thing.

*Kindle Location: 1,748 (page 89)
Philosophers have long since abandoned the idea that knowledge about the world can be gathered by just thinking about it,

****Kindle Location: 1,836 (page 93)
It is a logical fallacy to shift the burden of proof from the person who makes the extraordinary claim (to whom such burden logically belongs) to the person who simply asks for the evidence before accepting the belief.

***Page 98—A few logical fallacies:
Appeals to authority
Affirming the consequence (such as the universe is so large that there must be other civilizations out there)
Bandwagon appeal
Conspiratorial appeal (the government knows, but they will not tell us)
Salvational appeal (wishful thinking?)

****Kindle Location: 1,950 (page 99)
[Regarding conspiratorial appeal]: Unfortunately, governments all over the world, including that of the United States, do have a poor record in leveling with their people, despite much talk about democracy and freedom. But again, while this is reasonable ground for skepticism about what a government says (or does not say), one needs positive evidence before scientists can seriously consider a new phenomenon.

****Kindle Location: 2,145 (page 109)
Colleagues like Richard Dawkins are adamant that one should not “lower” oneself to that level, because this legitimizes and gives a platform to pseudoscientists [this was in response to debating flat earthers, etc]

****Kindle Location: 2,235 (page 113)
… it should be obvious that not all alternative positions are equally deserving of public attention; by presenting all opinions as equivalent and saying, “you decide,” reporters may mislead their audiences. … If the news media are to truly inform the public, they cannot simply present competing ideas as equally valid but must do the hard work of investigating them, to help the public filter the few golden nuggets from the ocean of nonsense that will otherwise overwhelm intelligent social discourse.

****Kindle Location: 2,267 (page 115)
[He discusses think tanks that let their bias mar their opinions] The Cato Institute, it should be added, is funded in part by the Exxon-Mobil Corporation, not exactly a neutral player in discussions about energy production and use. … Of course, the suspicion of bias is not enough to condemn but the alert level on one’s baloney detector should go up …

****Kindle Location: 2,313 (page 117)
But evidence of bias, as we will see when talking more in depth about “think tanks,” is a useful warning sign

*Kindle Location: 2,322 (page 118)
What the Bleep Do We Know?, released in 2004 and, at almost $11 million and counting, one of the highest grossing “documentaries”

***Kindle Location: 2,524 (page 128)
political activist Noam Chomsky in his classic article “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” wrote “Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments…It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”

**Kindle Location: 2,546
[Of course, public intellectuals might not get it right. Chomsky offers Martin Heidegger as an example.] Heidegger was elected rector of the University of Freiburg in Germany in 1933 under the auspices of Hitler’s regime. … Heidegger in his inaugural address went on to say that “German students are seeking leaders through whom they want to elevate their own purpose so that it becomes a grounded, knowing truth … The much-lauded ‘academic freedom’ will be expelled from the German university.”

****Kindle Location: 2,588 (page 131)
I argue that it is still a moral duty of all citizens, and of intellectuals in particular, to intervene in public discourse. In this I am squarely on Chomsky’s side. Be that as it may, Richard Posner’s points [academics being swayed by monetary reward and the push to entertainment] well taken.

****Kindle Location: 2,607 (page 132)
We come next to Posner’s concept of “solidarity value.” …The idea is that many, perhaps most, people don’t actually want to be informed, and even less so challenged in their beliefs and worldview. Rather, they want to see a champion defending their preconceived view of the world, a sort of ideological knight in shining armor. Blatantly partisan outlets such as Fox News (on the right), MSNBC (on the left), and the countless evangelical Christian radio stations are obvious examples…

****Kindle Location: 2,637 (page 134)
The phrase originated with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote the dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States, an infamous case argued before the Supreme Court in 1919. The case was a test of a law passed the year before, which made criticism of the US government a criminal offense. The law was upheld, and the statute not invalidated until Brandenburg v. Ohio, during the Vietnam War.

****Kindle Location: 2,646 (page 134)
You see, for the best ideas to win the competition the judges must be, well, competent. But the judges here are a public that is generally badly informed and undereducated with respect to the relevant issues.

****Kindle Location: 2,725 (page 138)
Paraphrased: Just because someone is born with different abilities, it doesn’t mean they should be assigned different status as human beings.

***Kindle Location: 2,727 (page 138)
Instrumentalism is the idea that learning is to be encouraged if it is aimed at addressing practical concerns … Instrumentalism makes less and less sense the more a society develops above the level of direct struggle for life.

*Kindle Location: 2,757 (page 140)
The other current pits absolutism against relativism, particularly when it comes to moral problems. The fear here is that if, as postmodernist Michel Foucault put it, there is no truly universal truth…

*Kindle Location: 2,860 (page 145)
“Punctuated equilibria” ….long periods of time during which organisms do not appear to change punctuated by relatively sudden spikes of morphological change …This tension between stasis and fast change, according to Eldredge and Gould, is a real feature of evolution, not an artifact of missing data, and ought to be considered in expanding the classical theory of evolution—which has often been described instead as a theory of gradual change.

****Kindle Location: 2,870 (page 146)
While Sagan took on global warming and nuclear war, Gould concentrated on racism and the relationship between science and religion. … Gould and Richard Lewontin were very critical of what he perceived as attempts to give scientific credence to racist ideologies.

****Kindle Location: 2,891 (page 147)
We are different from each other for a variety of reasons …but all of us should be treated the same when it comes to the law.

****Kindle Location: 2,908 (page 147-148)
people who understand religious texts to be taken metaphorically, and therefore not to be read as science textbooks, are not the ones who are fueling the science-religion cultural war to begin with.

****Kindle Location: 2,959 (page 150)
“advocacy think thanks” … often (though not always) to blatantly blur the lines between research and advocacy.

****Kindle Location: 2,993 (page 152)
Science progresses; ideologies tend to linger unchanged (and often unquestioned).

*Kindle Location: 3,000 (page 152)
Remarkably, even the Cato Institute finally had to admit, with predictable reservations, that climate change is real. In 2016 it published Lukewarming: The New Climate Science That Changes Everything by P. J. Michaels and P. C. Knappenberger. Wait another decade or two and they’ll finally get on board with real science. . . .

*Kindle Location: 3,019 (page 153-154)
In 2002 CEI won a lawsuit against the FDA [which then allowed drug companies to do less testing]. Congress responded by writing the Pediatric Rule into law. … Finally, though the list could be much, much longer, in 2017 the CEI boasted of having influenced President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change, potentially one of the most disastrous political choices by a US administration in recent memory.

***Kindle Location: 3,209
Deduction allows one to arrive at guaranteed conclusions if the premises are true and the structure of the argument is valid.

***Kindle Location: 3,219 (Page 164)
Induction is the process of generalizing from a number of observations (more sense data) to broader instances. …The idea is that induction is always fallible, and its conclusions are at best probabilistic. Deduction yields foolproof conclusions if the premises are true.

****Kindle Location: 3,226 (page 165)
This is why scientific theories are always tentative: because they are based on a combination of deduction and induction (and a few other ingredients), and the inductive component is always open to revision.

*Kindle Location: 3,418
The tone was set by Augustine (354–430 CE), who argued that philosophy (including natural philosophy, i.e., science) should be encouraged only as a handmaiden to religion. … The burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, in the 1600’s, was a stark reminder of this.

****Kindle Location: 3,538 (page 181)
Francis Bacon was done with the model of science as handmaiden to either philosophy or religion and wrote that the new science was relevant to humankind mostly because “knowledge is power.”

****Kindle Location: 3,543 (page 182)
Bacon tells us that before one can do serious science, one must overcome a series of “idols” affecting the mind (the word derives from the Greek for “phantoms,” i.e., sources of deception):
1. Prejudices associated with living in a given time and place in history 2. Language can set its own traps against clear thinking 3.  Grand views of the universe 4. Overreliance on faulty sensorial experience and wishful thinking

***Kindle Location: 3,616 (page 185)
the more probable the scientific statement is considered to be (because of evidence in its favor), the higher the burden of proof on the skeptics who doubt it.

****Kindle Location: 3,635 (page 186)
The fourth item on Descartes’s list of his “method” to establish scientific knowledge:  the constant reexamination of the current status of the puzzle to make sure we are still on the right trajectory. … Scientific knowledge is more like a web than an edifice built on foundations.

****Kindle Location: 3,713 (page 190)
all of this simply goes to exemplify the general point that personal character has little to do with scientific (or, for that matter, artistic) genius.
[He is talking about Newton but might we want to discuss it as it relates to all geniuses we admire or hate?]

***Kindle Location: 3,862 (page 197)
David Hume was among the first to take this approach, wondering, for example, about our concept of causality (his analysis, still surprisingly challenging today, was not very encouraging, as he concluded that we do not really know what we mean when we talk about “causes”).

****Kindle Location: 3,948 (page 202)
“Postmodernism” and “deconstructionism” are the most common terms (and the two are not exactly equivalent), although for the purposes of this chapter I will refer to them under the umbrella of “constructivism,” in reference to the basic idea they all share: that scientific knowledge (or any knowledge, for that matter) is socially constructed, with little or no input from outside of human conventions.

***Kindle Location: 3,988 (page 204)
Occam’s razor, the epistemological rule (named after the fourteenth-century philosopher William of Occam) that one should not invoke more explanatory principles than are strictly required by the evidence.

***Kindle Location: 3,994 (page 204)
Epistemology is the field of philosophy that deals with how we acquire (or fail to acquire) knowledge and thereby arrive at truth.

****Kindle Location: 4,024 (page 206)
That is why scientific findings should always be considered tentative, open to revision if new evidence comes about. … “Epistemic limitations” are the limits imposed on human knowledge by our biological characteristics. While philosophers since Kant have understood that such a view is forever inaccessible to human beings, many scientists continue to behave as if science somehow, magically, allows us to transcend the problem and gain access to the Truth. That is what a scientistic attitude is all about. The ancient Greek philosophers called it hubris.

***Kindle Location: 4,102 (page 210)
It is painfully clear that science depends on an assumption of honesty on the part of its practitioners.

***Kindle Location: 4,151 (page 213-215)
The eugenic movement reached its peak in the USA during the 1920s, when its ideas got the ear of politicians at the local and national level (including, for example, Presidents Coolidge and Hoover), as well as the financial support of magnates like George Eastman (founder of Kodak) and John D. Rockefeller Jr. … For instance, the intellectual and progressive magazine the Nation invited prominent eugenicist Herbert Jennings to write an article for its “What I Believe” series, meant to showcase highly respectable intellectuals’ views on issues of the day. … Eugenics eventually met its demise largely, it can be argued, because of the atrocities of Nazism…

**Kindle Location: 4,212 (page 215)
Although we know how to splice foreign DNA into a cell, we are a long way from being able to effectively and reliably fix human genetic diseases by repairing mutant genes or replacing them with functional parts off the shelf, as if we were in an auto mechanic’s shop.

***Kindle Location: 4,242 (page 217)
Every new technology does pose risks, sometimes unknown ones (until they occur). Moreover, there are good, rational reasons to maintain at least a moderate level of distrust of large biotechnology firms, especially when it comes to labor practices, if not environmental impact, given both their past record and their obvious profit motives.

***Kindle Location: 4,302 (page 220)
Science remains by far the most effective way of gaining knowledge (and power, as Francis Bacon famously pointed out) over the natural world and improving the human condition.

****Kindle Location: 4,608 (page 236)
Scientific knowledge (in the objective sense discussed above) is provisional, and each successive theory, each newly established conceptual framework (or paradigm) represents our best understanding of some aspects of nature at a given point in time.

****Kindle Location: 4,634 (page 237)
Accordingly, when science blunders as it did while flirting with eugenics, both scientists and science critics play a legitimate role in correcting it…

****Kindle Location: 4,643 (page 238)
There cannot be such a thing as a lone scientist ….  unless they communicate their findings to a larger group of other scientists (and science critics) and expose their work to both technical and ideological peer review, they are not actually doing science, according to Longino.

***Kindle Location: 4,676 (page 239)
Ronald Giere calls “perspectivism.” … Giere begins by acknowledging that it is true both that science objectively expands our knowledge of the world and that science is a subjective activity because scientists cannot escape their limited access to the world as human beings—that is, they do not have access to a detached, all-encompassing, God’s-eye view

****Kindle Location: 4,821 (page 246)
Susan Haack said “What I meant by ‘scientism’ [is] a kind of over-enthusiastic and uncritically deferential attitude towards science, an inability to see or an unwillingness to acknowledge its fallibility, its limitations, and its potential dangers.”

*Kindle Location: 4,839 (page 247)
obvious examples of this troublesome attitude:  Sam Harris argues that science can determine human values, with no help from moral philosophy,

***Kindle Location: 4,871 (page 249)
Susan Haack’s “six signs,” which represent an excellent framework for understanding the phenomenon of scientism.
Paraphrased (only 1, 2, 5 and 6 made sense to me)

  1. Using the words science, scientific, etc honorifically as epistemic praise
  2. Adopting the terminology of the sciences when not doing real science
  3. A preoccupation with demarcation (Massimo takes issue with this one on page 250 but still concludes: That said, I do not endorse a strict demarcation between science and nonscience, or science and pseudoscience either.
  4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the scientific method (Massimo takes issue with the one on page 251 as he concludes: there is a recognizable scientific methodology that is clearly superior to any other way of acquiring knowledge or understanding )
  5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope
  6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific or the value of other human activities

***Kindle Location: 4,981 (page 254)
The science versus scientism discussion, then, is an exercise in demarcation, similar to the science-pseudoscience debate that has concerned us for much of this journey.

**Kindle Location: 5,015 (page 256)
yes, science is crucial in order to further our understanding of the world in which we live,

****Kindle Location: 5,050 (page 258)
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge and provides the criteria for evidential warrant—it tells us when it is in fact rational to believe or disbelieve a given notion.

****Kindle Location: 5,186 (page 264)
Turns out that a good number of “skeptics” are actually committed to specific political causes, including, but not limited to, libertarianism. …it becomes a problem when it is used as a filter to inform one’s allegedly critical thinking.

***Kindle Location: 5,205 (page 265)
Peer review … is a first step toward improving the quality of what we publish

****Kindle Location: 5,206 (page 265)
handy checklist for aspiring virtuous skeptics

  1. Did I carefully consider my opponent’s arguments and not dismiss them out of hand?
  2. Did I interpret what my opponent said in the most charitable way possible before mounting a response?
  3. Did I seriously entertain the possibility that I may be wrong? Or am I too blinded by my own preconceptions?
  4. Am I an expert on this matter? If not, did I consult experts, or did I just conjure my own unfounded opinion out of thin air?
  5. Did I check the reliability of my sources, or just google whatever was convenient to throw at my opponent?
  6. Having done my research, do I actually know what I’m talking about, or am I simply repeating someone else’s opinion?

**Kindle Location: 5,438 (page 277)
reason and emotions are both essential components of being human and that they need to be brought into balance for a human being to function properly.

***Kindle Location: 5,497 (page 280)
The five kinds of evidence that a novice can use to determine whether someone is a trustworthy expert are

  1. an examination of the arguments presented by the expert and his rival(s);
  2. evidence of agreement by other experts;
  3. independent evidence that the expert is, indeed, an expert;
  4. an investigation into what biases the expert may have concerning the question at hand; and
  5. the track record of the expert

****Kindle Location: 5,564 (page 283)
The question is not whether there is bias (there always is), but how much, where it comes from, and how one can become aware of and correct it.

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