Nonsense on Stilts

  • by Massimo Pigliucci
  • Narrated by Jay Russell
  • 16 hrs and 50 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Recent polls suggest that fewer than 40 per cent of Americans believe in Darwin's theory of evolution, despite it being one of science's best-established findings. More and more parents are refusing to vaccinate their children for fear it causes autism, though this link has been consistently disproved. And about 40 per cent of Americans believe that the threat of global warming is exaggerated, despite near consensus in the scientific community that manmade climate change is real.
Why do people believe bunk? And what causes them to embrace such pseudoscientific beliefs and practices? Noted skeptic Massimo Pigliucci sets out to separate the fact from the fantasy in this entertaining exploration of the nature of science, the borderlands of fringe science, and - borrowing a famous phrase from philosopher Jeremy Bentham - the nonsense on stilts.
Presenting case studies on a number of controversial topics, Pigliucci cuts through the ambiguity surrounding science to look more closely at how science is conducted, how it is disseminated, how it is interpreted, and what it means to our society. The result is in many ways a "taxonomy of bunk" that explores the intersection of science and culture at large.
No one - not the public intellectuals in the culture wars between defenders and detractors of science nor the believers of pseudoscience themselves - is spared Pigliucci's incisive analysis. In the end, Nonsense on Stilts is a timely reminder of the need to maintain a line between expertise and assumption. Broad in scope and implication, it is also ultimately a captivating guide for the intelligent citizen who wishes to make up her own mind while navigating the perilous debates that will affect the future of our planet.
NOTE: Some editorial changes to the original text have been made with the author’s approval.

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What the Critics Say

"How can we decide what counts as science? That is the central question of this brilliant book, which ought to be required reading for, well, everyone." (New Scientist)
"Jay Russell's excellent narration guides listeners through the skeptic's arguments, even when Pigliucci bogs down in scientific language. Russell delivers the author's passion for his subject with some sarcasm or anger but, overall, maintains his role as a reasoned guide." (AudioFile)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Good and detailed content, tolerable narration

As for the book itself, I concur with what others have said: a very detailed, compelling, and for the most part well-written account of the boundaries of science (as opposed to pseudoscience and emerging knowledge) with excellent accounts of specific topics like evolution vs intelligent design, various pseudo-scientific claims, etc. The author can be a bit dry or overly-lengthy in places, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Pigliucci does not pull his punches in defence of the scientific consensus on evolution, climate change, etc., which may come off as closed-minded for those who disagree with his stances.


As for the narrator... I'm afraid that you'll find a lot better ones on Audible, but for me it wasn't a consistent distraction. Notable mistakes include once saying "physics" rather than "psychics" in Ch. 2, which was actually funny in the context, and mispronouncing the name of well-known figure Noam Chomsky as "Noah Chumsky". It seems like someone should have caught those, but then I don't know much about the editing process that goes into these audiobooks.

With that qualification, highly recommended.
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- Christopher

Thought provoking and relevant

The most interesting book I have read in a long time. Beginning as a standard de-bunking book, where Pigliucci uses clear-sighted logic to dissect pseudo-scientific ideas, like UFO's, Psi studies, and the Dover, PA Intelligent Design case, he thankfully moves into new territory, saving it from being another Michael Shermer book.

Instead, the author uses these cases studies as a spring-board to illustrate the power of science. Slowly, and with increasing resonance, he begins to unveil the unique contribution that philosophy could bring to the understanding and advancement of science. In the process, he takes solid aim at "Scientism," the near religious belief in Atheistic Science as the only thing that produces value--think Richard Dawkins.

What I really enjoyed was how Pigliucci moves beyond Popper-ian "experiemntal falsifiabilty" into a more nuanced, updated view of what contemporary philosophers of science tell us what it really means to be "scientific." Science means close observation, and adherence to the peer review process to even out our biases. It also means using and careful reasoning, both inductive and deductive. Ultimately, being truly scientific means realizing that our current theory is just a temporary understanding that further study will, likely, sweep away.

The book finishes with a wonderful meditation:"How can you tell an expert from a charlatan?" Healthy food for the grey cells. Of course, Pigliucci, or any relatively competent thinker can, with relative ease, debunk things coming from the Cato Institute. But what about us? Regular people. You know; "John Q. Public?" He looks at 1) The quality of the evidence provided. 2) The reputation of an "expert" among their peers. 3) The expert's biases.

Overall, a great book on skeptical thinking. Instead of an easy debunking of straw-men like Depak Chopra and ESP experts, his focus is on the philosophy of how science works in the real world. Indeed, it looks at science's role as perhaps the only surefire way to overcome our frail human biases when uncovering the truth about things the way they are--and not, for good or ill, the way we want them to be.
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- thunder road

Book Details

  • Release Date: 10-26-2010
  • Publisher: Audible Studios