Massimo Pigliucci – Nonsense on Stilts

November 05, 2010

It’s a longstanding debate in the philosophy of science: Is “demarcation” possible? Can we really draw firm lines between science and pseudoscience?

Massimo Pigliucci thinks so. In his new book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, Pigliucci attempts to rescue the notion that there are claims we can rule out, and claims we can rule in—a real means of determining what’s science and what isn’t.

Along the way, Pigliucci touches on howlers like creationism and astrology, and borderland areas of research like SETI—and weighs whether science can ever hope to test claims about the supernatural.

Massimo Pigliucci is chair of the philosophy department at CUNY-Lehman College. He was formerly a professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook. He’s a prolific blogger and commentator on issues concerning science and skepticism and a prominent battler of creationists and other nonsense peddlers. You can find him online at

This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 5th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. My guest this week is Massimo Pierluigi, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. I’ve asked him on to discuss his new book, Nonsense on Stilts How to Tell Science from Bonk, which attempts to resuscitate the notion that we can actually draw lines between what counts as science and what doesn’t. I’m going to ask Professor Bill Yuchi how to do that and what he would have us rule out and what we can rule in. Massimo Pierluigi is chair of the Philosophy Department at CUNY Lehman College. He was formerly a professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook. He’s a prolific blogger and commentator on issues concerning science and skepticism. And you can find him online at, rationally speaking, dot blogspot dot com. 

Massimo Pelusi, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. 

It’s great to have somebody on to do a kind of philosophy of science. What is science? How do we know show? This is a field that I really enjoy and haven’t done yet. And one one sort of hoary old problem in philosophy of science is the one you address in your book, The Problem of Demarcation. How can we draw a line where science ends and non science begins? It’s a it’s a hard thing to do. 

It is. And in fact, there is a classic answer which was given by a called Pupper at the beginning of the 20th century. And it turns out, of course, to be the wrong answer, or at least a little too simple of an answer. But this has been a problem in philosophy science for, you know, about a century or so. And a major point of the book is precisely to get the message across that it is a complex landscape that we’re looking at. There is not going to be a simple answer that is going to allow us to separate science from pseudoscience. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make any sense to ask the question or that there aren’t some distinctions that can actually be made. 

And I’ve always found this question fascinating because, you know, I get the sense that philosophers will sort of tut tut shake their heads when you tried to to do it. But on a practical level, we do it all the time. We we distinguish between science and and nonsense all the time. We might do it wrongly, but people everybody thinks we can do it. And certainly I think I know somehow that homeopathy is not scientific cryptozoology, astrology, creation, science. Somehow I know these things are pseudo science. So it sort of flies in the face of common sense to think that we can’t draw lines. 

Right. And I think that there’s two issues there. One is that, as you pointed out, this is, in fact the practical question in more than one sense. It’s a theoretical question, of course. And on the one hand, because science gets funding from from the public and the private sector. So it does actually make sense to try to distinguish what is, in fact, the good scientific research program program from something that is not a scientific research program, because otherwise we’re going to end up giving money and resources to things that are not. Case in point might be, for instance, the funding over the last few years by the NIH of some research into so-called alternative medicine. I believe that some of that money could have been spared because we knew that some of those things were not going to work and some of that money could have been redirected because some so-called alternative medicine is, in fact, nothing other than, you know, evidence based medicine that could have been addressed by the standard NIH panels. So there’s that practical aspect. There’s also the practical aspect, I think, in everyday life that is science is very important in our society and we make a lot of social decisions based on our understanding of science. And so to be able to tell that their friends, at least roughly between science, non science and pseudoscience, it’s important even for for people who are not scientists or philosophers, but people would just want to make up their minds about, well, this person is telling me that there is a connection between vaccines and autism. 

These other person is some. I mean, there isn’t. So why should I believe in. On what grounds? 

I want to make it the focus of the show to really talk about how we can make these kind of distinctions. The first, I want to ask you about your particular background and how you come to this problem, because I understand you started out as a research scientist in evolutionary science and then switched over to philosophy. Does that color your approach to figuring out what science and what isn’t? 

Yeah, that’s correct. I did start out as a evolutionary biologist. I pursued that career for more than 20 years. And then I guess as a result of a midlife crisis, I decided to switch fields. The fact is what happened was that over a period of years, I realized that I was more interested in the theoretical and in fact even conceptual aspects of evolutionary biology in particular and of science in general. And that brought me pretty close to philosophy. What happened that little more than a decade ago, I moved to Tennessee to initiate that scene in Knoxville and I stayed there for nine years. And that was the first time that I was actually directly confronted with the everyday debate about pseudoscience, because, you know, Knoxville is only about 50 miles or so from the site of the Scopes trial. And so the creationism and intelligent design are always at the top of the agenda there. And, you know, in everybody’s mind and that’s that was the first time that I was actually faced as a scientist. In fact, as a practicing evolutionary biologist with these kind of issues. And that got me to thinking about pseudoscience. And again, closer to those are the philosophical debates about the mutation problem and so on. So that’s that’s how the switch happened over a pit of years in terms of both my actual interest in theoretical science and also the practical debate that I was getting myself into in terms of pseudoscience. 

Would you say that you have some means of rescuing demarkation attempts? And what would your what do those means and what would your fellow philosophers of science say about that? 

Well, it’s an interesting question. I don’t have a magic bullet like the one that Popper thought you’d come up with if, you know, Popper famously thought that his idea of falsification was going to be the magic bullet, that if a beauty is falsifiable, then it is scientific if it’s not falsifiable. Which means that if it’s not even possible in principle to reject it, then it’s not scientific. It was a great art tampering was it was very influential in the philosophy of science in the early part of the 20th century. And, you know, all these all these discussions about science and pseudoscience and philosophy today would not happen if it hadn’t been for Popper’s trying to give it good at a good attempt at the problem solving the problem. The main reason the falsification criterion doesn’t work as demarkation criterion. It’s because it’s pretty obvious from the history of science that scientists don’t actually work that way. Very few scientists tried to fault actively falsify their hypotheses. What they do is exactly what Popper said they shouldn’t do, which is they try to confirm that. I thought this is. And not only that, but we know that these are classic objection to the demarcation problem framed as it was framed by by Pupper. And this is called the do ham objection or the D’Wayne problem, which is this it? It’s it’s pretty obvious, again, from these through of science that scientists rescue their hypotheses all the time by modifying sound some of the color assumptions, some of the additional assumptions that go into making proposing certain hypothesis. And that’s exactly what Barbara again said you shouldn’t do. And yet we do it all the time in science. There’s the spectacular example that I did. I go into some detail in the book, for instance, is Concerns Astronomy. And you don’t hear mechanics at some point when the last planet in the solar system to be known was Uranus. It was clear at that point the mechanics was not predicting the positions of the planet accurately. There was a systematic error of some sort. According to a strict opinion, therefore, astronomers should have been rejecting Newtonian mechanics because it was made making systematic, not random, errors in predicting the positions of a planet. Instead, what it’s done did, of course, was to postulate the existence of an additional planet. Pointed telescopes in the right direction after they made the calculations and they discovered Neptune. That’s a spectacular case of confirmation, of a theory. And in something that there was definitely that definitely didn’t work the way Pupper was, supposing it were work. But a few years later, a similar problem came up with the orbit of Mercury. Mercury also turned out not to be predicted. The position of Mercury also turned out not to be predicted accurately by Newtonian mechanics. So at that point, you know, Sarmad thought, well, we know what happens here. There must be another planet, this time closer to the sun that is causing the anomalies. Let’s calculate where the planet is. And they were so confident that they were found a planet. But they even gave it a name before the discovery was called Vulcan. I assume because a lot of assignments time the time where Star Trek fans and the fact is Vulcan doesn’t exist. What happened in that case is that, in fact, the Newtonian mechanic was, in fact rejected in favor of Einstein’s relativity. It turns out the mercury is close enough to the sun that relativistic effects become dominant and they’re necessary. They need to be taken into account when calculating the orbit of the planet. So those are two really interesting cases where the falsification criterion couldn’t possibly be applied to both cases. And he chose very, very nicely why the falsification. Catherine doesn’t work. Do we have an alternative? 

Yeah. So that’s the question, right. Is then, if that is the case and that’s a great illustration from the history of science one, then I think everyone. Really, really kind of grass. But it but what then do you substitute? 

I think the best candidate did on this one, I should say there is no agreement among philosophers these days, agreement that falsification doesn’t work and that there is agreement that it doesn’t work for the reasons that I described. So. So that much we got down. There is no agreement at this point necessarily what the best alternatives alternative is. And there are several possibilities on the table. My favorite, the one that I think is the most promising and I see a good number of philosophers going in that direction, is touched briefly in the book. And is applications of Bayesian decision making theory to science. The idea is, of course, Bayesian theory is a general theory in probability. That tells you how you should proportion or adjust your belief to evidence. And, you know, it’s encapsulated in by his equation, which is actually fairly simple little equation that tells you how your apriori belief in a particular theory or notion should be modified depending on the new empirical evidence that comes in. The idea that several philosophers of science have proposed in the last few years is that scientists work approximately like Bagian natural Bayesian calculators. That is what scientists do is to update the degree of belief in one hypothesis or another in rough proportion with the evidence. And what through those scientists don’t do is exactly that. So what what what constitutes a pseudosciences when the Bayesian calculus stops working, when the people that endorses certain notions do it regardless of the evidence? If they don’t change their degree of belief when new evidence comes in, then that particular hypothesis that that particular we’re looking at things becomes a pseudoscience science even that it’s probably a little too simple. But I think it’s a very promising way of thinking about it. 

Well, and this is, of course, very important to be able to do this, because as I think you know well, this issue of how do we determine what counts as science and what doesn’t? Certainly it has many implications in terms of the research that we fund. But it’s also been tested in several court cases with regard to the teaching of evolution as opposed to the teaching of creation science or intelligent design. I think that there was a I’m right, it’s Epperson, which was one of the cases. And then another one was the Dover trial. In the Dover trial, Robert Penick offered a definition of of what is science? And in the other case, Michael Ruse offered a definition of what is science? What do you think about those philosophers on the stand? 

That’s to me, that’s an interesting case, because those are the two cases you mentioned are instances in which in Fed philosophy has literally made a made a difference in the lives of students that have been affected, of course, by those legal decisions. In particular, if you look at the Dover decision from 2005, the judge based ease its final decision largely on the arguments presented by both Pennock and Barbara Forrest, both of whom are philosophers of science. And the decision, the judge’s decision reads almost like, you know, introductory man on philosophy of science at some point, which which is very interesting, because it does mean that, in fact, it is pragmatically important to think about general notions or conceptual notions such as science and sort of science and what makes a difference between the two. Now, in the case of creationism and intelligent design, things get really interesting because, of course, a lot of scientists themselves seem to think that somehow science can say ionno disprove religion or somehow falsify the notion of existence of gods and things of that sort. And on the other hand, the judge in the Dover trial made it very clear that he bought into the standard philosophical approach to these things, that science can not say anything about the supernatural for the simple reason that science needs natural laws and natural continuity in order to work. It’s one of the fundamental assumptions of science, I would say one of the fun, the metaphysical assumptions of science, that there is regularity out there. There is there is lawful behavior in the universe. That’s how we understand things. If that were not the case, if things happened in a capricious way because, you know, a God or another woke up in the morning and decided to change the laws of nature without telling us, then you would not have science. Science simply wouldn’t be possible. So it has consequences that are even not understood particularly well in this society. By by some scientist themselves, which is not surprising. But because the business of scientists, of course, is to do science is not necessarily think about how science works. 

I do remember reading the Dover Dover opinions, and actually I was there in the courtroom and I saw some of the testimony. I know and I don’t think I saw Robert Pennock mean, they did. 

But I do remember this point about them stressing that science describes the natural science, can’t speak to the supernatural. And then, of course. That has since been criticized, not necessarily by prominently by philosophers of science, and I do wonder, you said that it’s sort of the standard thing in the field. Is it the standard thing in the field? 

I think it is. There there’s some dissent because for one thing, because if you ask then philosophers about what they think on a particular topic, you do get eleven opinions. 

That’s the system or the business. 

Now, there is some sense, for instance, Russell Blackford is simply on on on a different side of that of that topic. There are some philosophers who agree with scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coin to name just a couple of names who think that science can say a lot about the supernatural. I think to some extent, well, we need to make to make a distinction there between what is it exactly exactly that science can say about who the science and what it is that he means. What? What does it mean to test scientific about this? So when we talk, for instance, about creation specific creationist claims like the Earth is 6000 years old or 10000 years old or whatever it is. Well, those specific claims are certainly testable empirically, and they can certainly be rejected by science. So there are no no philosophers, no nobody that is arguing that, you know, empirical claims made by sort of scientist cannot be rejected just in the same way. In fact, in which, you know, astrologers can make claims and those claims are empirical in nature and those claims can be tested and have been tested and rejected on the basis of empirical science. What the discussion is about is that is the further question. Well, does the fact that I can reject the notion of young Earth creationism, for instance. Does that amount to falsification of the God hypothesis to use Dawkins way of phrasing it? And the answer? There is no. In my opinion, for the simple reason that the God hypothesis is no hypothesis. You know, the notion of God. It simply doesn’t meet the minimum standards of what it means to have hypotheses in science. I thought this is not just an idea hypothesis, not just a hunch about how things are going or why things happen. I thought this is actually a very structured set of statements often expressed in mathematical formulation, but not necessarily. They are connected to a network, a large network of other such statements which are themselves based on unimpeachable evidence to say that, you know, God exists or God does this or that. It’s simply not a hypothesis. It is largely an empty statement. And that’s what I think means. That’s certainly what I mean when I say that science can not reject and falsify religion. Now, that said, of course, it doesn’t follow at all that therefore a religious point of view indicates, for instance, a creationism intelligent design is just as good as it is a scientific I bought this is because, you know, after all, if one cannot inform you on the other than they’re both equally good. I’m not I’m not a postmodernist. Absolutely. I, I think of statements such as God did it as largely empty statements which have no empirical content. No. Not particularly interesting to the physics behind it. So I don’t consider them to be at the same level as a scientific theory such as evolution. But that doesn’t mean that science really can tell you more than just that the earth is, in fact, older than 6000 years. 

And I’d like to alert our listeners that message of pillages book nonsense on stilts. How to tell science from Boehnke is available through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dot org. When we talk about these separating science from pseudo science and from non science, this kind of analysis, some of the most intriguing issues are always going to arise in the borderland area between what we clearly know to be science and what we don’t quite as clearly know to be science. 

So let’s talk about some of these. One thing I found really striking about your approach and potentially controversial is that it seems that it requires you to classify several cutting edge ideas in physics as not necessarily quite science. And those would be string theory and the idea of the multiverse. You don’t call them pseudo science, but you say they’re in the borderland because they’re not empirically testable. Can you explain this? 

And does this anger physicists when you say those some people do get upset, but in fact, it’s interesting because that debate is going on within the physics community itself. There are at least two books written by physicists now by philosophers over the last few years that question the status of superstring theory precisely on those grounds. Now, the claim again, it’s not the subsistent theory is wrong. In fact, one of the two books I’m referring to is the title of It Is Not Even Wrong. Which, of course, underscores the idea that unless a theory is empirically testable, one can simply not say what it’s wrong or not. There’s no no discussion about the fact that the mathematics behind string theory is. Correct, as far as we know know, I’m certainly not an expert, I don’t have the mathematical background to make that kind of judgment call. But anybody we talked to, including critics of string theory, agreed that the mathematics is sound. The question is, does that mathematics amount to a scientific theory of the world the way the world is? Well, if there is anything that defines science, it ought to be that it has in particle consequences that theories in science. Having people consequence as opposed funding, for instance, tutoring, mathematics. You know, the Golden Theorem would be true regardless of whether or not you can actually draw or build triangles. There there’s nothing in the pinnacle world that informs the truth or not the validity or not the statements in mathematics or in logic. But of course, science doesn’t work that way or at least is not supposed to work that way. So it would seem like the answer would be very simple. Well, no, it’s true. So between theory doesn’t make any pinnacle. Prediction, therefore, is not science. But but it’s not quite that simple for this, for the reason that we know again from the history of science. One of the things that I do stress quite a bit in the book is that a lot of these debates don’t make any sense unless one actually has a understanding of the history of science, because the history is what puts things in perspective and allow us to do to take sort of the long perspective on things. Now, we know of instances in the past, feinting theories that when proposed, we’re not making novel and particle predictions. One of the most spectacular of which, of course, is the Copernican theory. As it turns out, and contrary to popular belief, when it was proposed in the original formulation, the Copernican theory about the sun being the center of the solar system didn’t really make any novel predictions and didn’t predict the positions of plants in the sky any better than the then current Ptolemaic theory. We had to wait quite a bit of time until finally Kepler figure out that Copernicus got something fundamentally wrong. The planets, the orbits of the planets are not secure. They are elliptical. Once you make that jump, then you then a new theory actually makes novel predictions that are significantly better than the older one. 

And that’s how, of course, the Copernican theory, or we should call it the Kepler in the current Copernican Clapperton theory was accepted. 

That’s really interesting, because if I remember my history of science, right, Copernicus actually thought this was the right model of the solar system because he thought it was simpler and more beautiful and more elegant. And that might also be something that motivates string theorists. 

Absolutely. There is a lot of that is a lot of talk in string theory about what it must be. True, because it’s so it’s very simply so elegant. It’s so compelling. But that’s the problem, because the example of Copernicus, for instance, is a clear one and shows that things are not always the simplest and in the most beautiful. However, you want to define beauty and simplicity, of course, which is a whole different discussion. Philosophers are pointing out that beauty and simplicity are not empirical criteria and therefore our extra scientific criteria. It is certainly the case that science scientists often are guided by these criteria, but they’re certainly not empirical. And so they when a scientist says, well, I prefer this theory because it’s simpler or it is more compelling from an esthetic perspective, they’re helping themselves outside of science, which is an interesting thought right there. But the second book that is critical of string theory, which I alluded to before, which is which is at least moments the trouble with physics actually goes into some detail in the recent history of physics, not origin back to Copernicus, but just the last century or so, and shows that it’s several points in fundamental physics. People have been attracted by theories because of their simplicity. And then more often than not, not always, but more often than not, those theories turned out to be too simple to do and in fact were superseded by more complex versions. So the issue with string theory is this. It’s not a surprise that a particular theory, one first proposed, doesn’t make any novel predictions that has happened before. And you know, itself certainly doesn’t tell us that theory is not scientific. The question is, how long are we going to wait? Or better better yet, how long is the relevant community of experts? That is fundamental physics going to wait before beginning to consider alternatives. And the charge, of course, against string theory is that, well, it has now been around for several decades. And more importantly, one of the things that it has done is has limited, significantly alternative approaches to solve the basic problem that it is supposed to address, which is to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. So the idea becomes then one of the sociologist science, as it turns out, over the last couple of decades or so, most grains in fundamental physics were given to string theorists because. Terrorist control panels at the National Science Foundation and so on. If you want to have a career in fundamental physics for the last couple of decades, you had to be pursuing theories because otherwise you wouldn’t be hired as the faculty in a physics department and so on and so forth. So that to me gets into these old dimension of the sociology and even psychology of science, which most scientists, frankly, are kind of recalcitrant to admit. 

It’s even part of the equation. And it is it makes things more fascinating, more interesting, in my opinion. 

Another area that you say lies in the borderlands and again, this may take some some people off is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. And you write, let me quote hundreds of millions of dollars, decades of active research by several teams of scientists and millions of hours of computer time have been spent. So far, however, nothing has turned up. Is this science? Well, is it? And what are the city people say when people like you come along and say it isn’t? 

I actually had the pleasure being viewed by the city people because they produce a radio program. And we had a really interesting discussions about this. At this point, I should say that, by the way, I’m looking at my computer screen and I am running one of the city programs that does the bit analysis for them. So I certainly don’t think that we should shut down everything and go home. But I wanted to point out that if city is science or is in some way a science, it’s truth and a different kind of science from most established science. First of all, there is no hypothesis to be falsified or reject that can be rejected in principle. Obviously, if we find. An extraterrestrial intelligence evidence of an actual threat intelligence. Tomorrow, we will have a spectacular confirmation of the central tenet of Sady of the city program, but it is perfectly possible that we will continue forever doing this sort of research and not being able to reject it. But this is simply because we were looking at the wrong place in the wrong time or in the wrong frequency and so on and so forth. And there was no failure, no conceivable failure of the Saudi program would actually amount to it to be able to conclude reasonably that there are no other civilizations, technological civilizations out there. So that one is one of the things that makes it different. But there’s another one that I think is more interesting, and that is there’s very little theoretical structure to the Saudi program, which is, again, something very different from most established sciences. I mean, pretty much the only thing you can find as a theory, Assadi, is the famous Drake Equation, which was proposed by Frank Drake. One of the originators of the entire program back in the 50s. It’s an equation that is supposed to list all the major variables that would determine the number of technological civilizations active today in our galaxy. And if that equation is supposed to be used to give you a ballpark measure of, you know, of what that number might look like. Well, the interesting thing is that not only many of the several of the parameters in the in the Drake equation cannot cannot be computed. They couldn’t be computed in the 50s and they cannot be completed today, although some of them can. But more importantly is that that’s pretty much it. The Drake equation was proposed in the 1950s, and it has been essentially the background that they did, the backbone of the city program. And there is not much else in the way of theory going on out in that field other than we’re hoping that somehow the effort, the rest in intelligence is more or less psychologically similar with the human beings, because that that would make them want to develop a theological civilization and want to get into touch with other civilizations. But that’s not a theory. That’s just the hope. That’s a projection of our own way of thinking about the universe. So all of that to me, it really doesn’t amount to much of scientific purity. And therefore, too much of a scientific field. Yet it is done with radio telescopes. It’s done by astronomers. There certainly is certainly not pseudo science. So it’s that kind of perfect example of the fact that the terrain separating really good science from really bad science or really good science from pseudoscience, it’s actually complex. And you do find these interesting things in the middle that don’t quite fit one definition or another. But there are reasons why that’s the case. And thinking about those examples, I think we learn something more about what it is to do science. 

I agree with you. I think thinking through these examples is very helpful. It’s a bit sort of saddening. I even feel wistful. I mean, if you can’t, it sounds like you can’t scientifically by this standard go looking for extraterrestrial life, because what you’re going to have this problem that you just described. I don’t see how you avoid it. 

That’s right. I mean, incidentally, when I mentioned that we’re projecting our own psychology, there, a there’s an interesting byproduct of that projection, if you think about it, since the city program started back in the 50s. We’ve been listening a lot, but we have only communicating one attempting to communicate at once. In the 1970s, Carl Sagan was instrumental in putting out the only radio signal that we have ever produced on purpose in order to communicate with other intelligences. And that was produced by the irascible rage of them in Puerto Rico. Now, if if we assume that that attitude that has been the case for the city program for the last 50 or 60 years is the same attitude that other civilizations have also adopted, then we might find ourselves in the biological situation of a lot of people listening out there and nobody talking. And there is reason for it, of course, because talking is much more expensive than listening, for one thing. And it’s also much less rewarding because if you send the signal out, you know that that signal, because of the limitation that the speed of light isn’t going to come back to you. An answer is going to come back to you for many, many centuries, depending on where you send the signal. But if you’re listening, of course, there’s an immediate payoff. If you do catch capture, that that message is going to be a payoff. But if everybody else is adopting the same exact strategy, then then we’re going to be all listening for a long time and nobody’s going to talk. 

That’s an intriguing point. And when I came across in your book, I thought just that as I go wolfs. Yeah. I mean, it has to be a two way street, doesn’t it? Right. Well, let me again alert our listeners that Massimo pillages book nonsense on stilts How to Tell Science from Bunk is available through our Web site Poy of Inquiry dot org. Let me say something about the book I. I think it’s highly nuanced, it’s quite sophisticated and says this discussion being it blends together hard science, philosophy, science, history of science. A lot of new onslaught of distinction. How? That’s just the problem. How is the general public going to get a better idea of how to distinguish science and pseudo science when you cannot put it on a bumper sticker? 

Yes, good point. Now, of course, a major point of doing philosophy and in fact, especially doing philosophy for the general public, which was a major interest that I have, is precisely to get people away from this idea that if it doesn’t fit on a bumper bumper sticker and you cannot understand it right now, you say I do. I did. I did try to be as nuanced as possible, but not to the point of being pedantic. I hope at least that is video is that that these things are complex issues. And yes, if you want to get too into it at a deeper level, you probably need to embarking on a greater level, you know, course in philosophy of science. But there is much that can be understood as soon as we clear up one thing, that there is going to be a simple answer. You need to do some work. And the book is aimed at the general public. Of course, it’s aimed at the kind of general public that once actually to read books, which means, therefore, that a public that can deal with things that live longer than that, a bumper sticker. I mean, one of the things that we need to do as intellectuals and I’m talking now not just about academics and I’m not talking just about philosophers either. I’m talking about scientists. I’m talking about science journalists is exactly to bring us back to as a society to a point where we can have complex conversations, where is going to have that magic bullet? Nobody’s going to claim the truth with a capital T, and yet we all are enriched in our understanding by the fact that we’re having a more sophisticated conversation. And I know that these days, especially given the political climate in the United States, it’s difficult to even imagine a situation where we can have nuanced conversations but our conversations at all. Yeah, or conversations. No. But I mean that that is a fundamental criterion or necessity for a working democracy, for an open society. If we can not have that kind of conversations, then democracy turns into mob rule. And mob rule, of course, is what killed Socrates in ancient eighteens. And we don’t want to do that again. I hope so, yes. There is no simple answer. But, you know, we need to get to a point where we can talk and and agree to disagree. If that’s that’s going to be the result. Phase one, the message that I like people to get from the book is precisely that. There’s always a simple answer to every complex question. It’s always, almost always wrong. 

Well, I agree with you that we need better conversation. We need more nuanced dialog. We need more intellectual sophistication in our society. We need those things to be prized. But still, at the end of the day, you know, good old Carl saying and I think he had some pretty good bumper stickers, you know, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I mean, now on that one, you still agree with Ray? 

I do still agree with it. Of course, the Bagian we talked about Bayt by his analysis earlier about about belief in the Bayesian version of that will be that the D. There has to be a proportionality between the claims and the evidence, which is in fact, what what that phrase by Sagan actually meant. I mean, Feighan was actually paraphrasing David Hume and David Hume wrote these famous essay back in the 70s, hundreds on the UN Human Inquiry and How We Think About Things. One of the chapters in that essay by Hume was on Miracles. And that phrase that the feygin version of the phrase comes straight from Uma’s on Miracle, where he said what you said that, look, if you wanted to believe something as extraordinary as a miracle, you better be able to back up that sort of claim with an extraordinarily reliable set of testimony and evidence, because a miracle is by definition a violation of the laws of nature. We’ve never seen a violation of the laws of nature. So if you want to believe in that sort of thing, you really ought to be prepared to provide a huge amount of, you know, and destroy the amount of evidence. And that’s what Carl Sagan’s phrase captures so well. So, yes, we can make bumper stickers out of it. But but then we need to go beyond the bumper sticker, which is, of course, one of the things that Sagan himself did so well. I mean, one of the reasons he was so influential, not only as an assignment, but with the general public is because these books, particularly, for instance, the demon haunted world, are spectacular examples of how you talk in a nuanced way to the general public. 

Bumper stickers with footnotes or Tishler notes on the back. Well, on that note, Massimo Palencia, it’s been great to have you on point of inquiry. And best of luck with the book. 

It’s a pleasure, as usual. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about demarcating between science and pseudo science. Please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

One of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in AMR’s, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney