Massimo Pigliucci has written a book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science From Bunk(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), that actually sounds very interesting — it takes a strong skeptic’s approach to truth claims. What really makes it sound worth reading, though, is a review by Carlin Romano that pans it, Pigliucci, and a whole great legion of scientists irritated with the public endorsement of nonsense: Romano complains that we’re on “ego trips.” Why? Because Pigliucci expresses such strong certainty about the conclusions of science.
Here’s the heart of the review. It’s a lot of aggravating piss-pottery about tone.
Pigliucci offers more hero sandwiches spiced with derision and certainty. Media coverage of science is “characterized by allegedly serious journalists who behave like comedians.” Commenting on the highly publicized Dover, Pa., court case in which U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent-design theory is not science, Pigliucci labels the need for that judgment a “bizarre” consequence of the local school board’s “inane” resolution. Noting the complaint of intelligent-design advocate William Buckingham that an approved science textbook didn’t give creationism a fair shake, Pigliucci writes, “This is like complaining that a textbook in astronomy is too focused on the Copernican theory of the structure of the solar system and unfairly neglects the possibility that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is really pulling each planet’s strings, unseen by the deluded scientists.”
Is it really? Or is it possible that the alternate view unfairly neglected could be more like that of Harvard scientist Owen Gingerich, who contends in God’s Universe (Harvard University Press, 2006) that it is partly statistical arguments–the extraordinary unlikelihood eons ago of the physical conditions necessary for self-conscious life–that support his belief in a universe “congenially designed for the existence of intelligent, self-reflective life”? Even if we agree that capital “I” and “D” intelligent-design of the scriptural sort–what Gingerich himself calls “primitive scriptural literalism”–is not scientifically credible, does that make Gingerich’s assertion, “I believe in intelligent design, lowercase i and lowercase d,” equivalent to Flying-Spaghetti-Monsterism?
Tone matters. And sarcasm is not science.
Romano is oblivious to the actual facts of the Dover case. William Buckingham was not some thoughtful theist who wanted a philosophical discussion in the science classroom; he wasn’t even an ID proponent. He was a born-again jesus freak befuddled on hillbilly heroin who was more of a young earth creationist. He wanted to get the Christian Bible into the public school classrooms, was willing to lie on the witness stand to do it, and saw intelligent design only as a tool to smuggle Jesus into the science classes.
“Inane” is also how Judge Jones described the school board’s actions: to be precise, he called it “breathtaking inanity”. The view they were trying to push on children, that the there is a magic man in the sky who poofed us all into existence, is actually entirely as silly as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Pigliucci was right. Romano is wrong.
But what if Buckingham had been a genteel, considerate, ruminative Owen-Gingerich-style Pennsylvania populist? Would that make any difference? No. Gingerich is a religious cosmologist who believes that “a common-sense and satisfying interpretation of our world suggests the designing hand of a superintelligence.” There is absolutely no evidence for this, despite his claims that that bogus ‘fine-tuning’ argument supports the notion. It’s a fabulous fantasy of a grand cosmic super-brain hovering about at the beginning of the Big Bang that is just as ludicrously unfounded as the claim that Jesus did it, or that the Flying Spaghetti Monster flapped a few noodly appendages to conjure a home for pirates into existence. Leaving the word “Jesus” out of your explanation does not turn it into science.
The only thing I agreed with in Romano’s cranky review was the second to the last sentence above: “Tone matters.” It certainly does, but not in the way he imagines. Romano has written a kvetching review in which he reserves all of his bile for the fellow promoting an evidence-based view of reality, and provides nothing but gentle strokes for people who favor fantasies over hard truths…and his complaint is that scientists are insufficiently conciliatory to those deceitful purveyors of faith and fables. Tone does matter when you use that brand of argument to beg special treatment for liars, and to justify chastising those who deliver a blunt truth — it means one is pandering to faith-based folly.
Tone matters, because too many have been insufficiently fierce in their criticism of pious excuses for sloppy thinking. Tone matters because we haven’t been rude enough in the face of special claims of privilege for religious inanity. We need to flip that tone argument around 180°—the problem isn’t that our tone is so harsh, it’s that yours is so inappropriately soft towards people who lie to children, who want to gut our educational system, and who want to taint science with a bias for magic.