Barry McNamara  |   Published November 03, 2015

Science vs. pseudoscience

Monmouth College’s McMullen Lecturer explains why the debate matters
  • Massimo Pigliucci sits for an interview while on campus to give this year’s McMullen Lecture.
According to statistics shared by scientist/philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who presented this year’s McMullen Lecture at Monmouth College, one-fourth of the U.S. population would’ve had no problem believing that Halloween participants dressed in tall black hats and carrying broomsticks were actual witches. Another 50 percent, he reported, believe that extra sensory perception (ESP) is real, and 30 percent are buying what astrology is selling.
  “That is troublesome,” said Pigliucci, who authored “Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk.” A professor of philosophy at CUNY-City College, he is also co-host of the “Rationally Speaking” podcast and editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon magazine.   Before getting into how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience and why belief in some pseudosciences creates problems, Pigliucci shared that, centuries ago, astronomy and astrology were “essentially the same thing, but then they evolved. One stayed a science, and the other became a pseudoscience, which I think is something on which most of us can agree. But in other situations, the demarcation is not quite as clear.”   To show how difficult it is to define exactly what makes one discipline a science and another a pseudoscience, Pigliucci posed a different conundrum.   “There are no set criteria – no all-encompassing definition – for something as simple as what constitutes a ‘game,’” he said. “Similarly, there’s no sharp line between science and pseudoscience.”   Pigliucci placed several disciplines on a simple two-axis graph, with one axis being “empirical knowledge” and the other “theoretical understanding.” The discipline of physics scored high marks in both and was placed in the upper right corner of the graph. But others, such as SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence), were lost somewhere in the middle.   “There are 0 data points yet for empirical knowledge,” he said of SETI. “This could change tomorrow, of course, but right now, that’s the case.”   Pigliucci said, generally, “We are neat freaks, and we like things to be precise,” but it’s simply not possible most of the time. For example, if he were to set up a simple line graph of moral vs. immoral, some actions would be very easy to quantify, such as helping others at one extreme and genocide at the other. “But what about what’s in between?” he asked.   Why does the demarcation between science and pseudoscience matter? Money, for starters, Pigliucci said.   “Let’s say I had $100 million to give toward a project. Would I give that money to SETI, or to something else? Would I give that $100 million to astrologists? No.”   He continued, “You have to be able to make a judgment of some sort. If you’re a policy maker, how do you make a decision? You ask scientists and philosophers for their input.”   Pigliucci said when scientists are called in to assist with an issue, the benefits are almost always seen. However, he did note that science failed when it came to handling agricultural problems in Scotland that resulted from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1986.   “Scientists were brought in, but they did not have a clear knowledge of the unique agricultural situations in Scotland,” he said. “Everything they told the farmers wound up being wrong, and it was catastrophic. In that case, local knowledge trumped science. The Chernobyl mistake cost trust, and it set things back 20 years.”   Pigliucci said scientists are becoming wiser in their role as mediators, a theme that Monmouth College often emphasizes in explaining why scientists benefit from a broader liberal arts education.   “Scientists are becoming much better with public outreach, such as blogging about the research they’re conducting and explaining it to the public,” he said. “They are rapidly changing the culture, and attitude has changed dramatically.”   Pigliucci took his message to a personal level when he answered a student’s question near the end of his time on the Dahl Chapel stage.   “You’re the next generation,” he said. “The future of the planet is in the hands of the science/pseudoscience debate, such as climate science. This is the latest you can really study this debate. This is your last chance, so that’s why I’m here talking to you.”
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