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Book Review

Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk

Being able to distinguish between science and bunk (or pseudo-science) is vital. On a personal level, we need to be able to recognize phony claims made in ads for such things as bogus health products. On a more public level, we need to be certain that our public institutions and public policy are not led astray by specious postulates (such as creationism) masquerading as science.

Recent polls suggest that fewer than 40 percent of Americans believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, even though it is 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 percent 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? Pigliucci sets out to separate the fact from the fantasy in this 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 analysis. In the end, Nonsense on Stilts is a reminder of the need to maintain a line between expertise and assumption.