Massimo Pigliucci


American Chair of the Department of Philosophy at CUNY-Lehman College, Editor in Chief for the journal Philosophy & Theory in Biology

Author Quotes

Scientists are not gods, even though one may sometimes have some difficulty making the distinction, judging from the ego that some of them (the scientists, not the gods) display when talking about what they do. It is not uncommon to hear physicists and cosmologists expounding on the possibility of ?theories of everything,? although what they mean is actually a mathematical solution to a specific problem concerning the conceptual unification of natural forces. Cosmologists such as Stephen Hawking freely talk about having seen ?the mind of God? when they come up with a new theory about the distant future of the universe (never mind that so far we do not have a unified theory of forces or that Hawking?s initial predictions about the fate of the universe have been proven spectacularly wrong by recent empirical research). Or consider biologist Richard Dawkins, who goes so far as to (mistakenly, as it turns out) claim that science can refute what he calls ?the God hypothesis.? The examples above are instances of scientism, a term that sounds descriptive but is in fact only used as an insult.

The downside of skepticism: it can easily turn into an arrogant position of a priori rejection of any new phenomenon or idea, a position that is as lacking in critical thinking as the one of the true believer, and that simply does not help either science or the public at large.

The history of evolutionary biology offers another instructive story of blunder and embarrassment, this one complete with a clever hoax and a culprit who has never been found: the story of the so-called Piltdown Man. Whenever one debates creationists (admittedly a questionable, yet hard to kick habit), one is bound to run against the infamous Piltdown forgery. This is the case of an alleged missing link between humans and so-called lower primates, which was found in England (near Piltdown, in fact) and announced to the world on 18 December 1912. The announcement was made by Arthur Smith Woodward, a paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, and Charles Dawson, the local amateur paleontologist who had actually discovered the fossils. The problem is ? as creationists never tire to point out ? that the ?Dawn Man of Piltdown? (scientific name Eoanthropus dawsonii, in honor of its discoverer) turned out to be a fake. Moreover, it took scientists four decades to figure this out, an alleged example of what happens when one takes science on faith, in this case the theory of evolution. But is this view accurate?

The nature of science is not that of a steady, linear progression toward the Truth, but rather a tortuous road, often characterized by dead ends and U-turns, and yet ultimately inching toward a better, if tentative, understanding of the natural world.

The term ?scientism? encapsulates the intellectual arrogance of some scientists who think that, given enough time and especially financial resources, science will be able to answer whatever meaningful question we may wish to pose ? from a cure for cancer to the elusive equation that will tell us how the laws of nature themselves came about. The fact that scientism is an insult, not a philosophical position that anybody cares officially to defend, is perhaps best shown by the fact that there is no noun associated with it: if one engages in scientism one is ?being scientistic,? not being a scientist.

According to news reports, members of the sect believed in an assortment of pseudo-religious and paranormal ideas, including resurrection (obviously), astrology, and psychic powers. They were also avid watchers of paranormal shows on TV. This of course does not imply that watching The X-Files leads to suicide, just like millions of people playing Grand Theft Auto video games are not automatically turned into criminals on a rampage.

A set of twenty-five studies involving five hundred astrologers examined the average degree of agreement between astrological predictions. In social science, such as in psychology, tests that have less than o.8 (i.e., 8o percent) agreement level are considered unreliable. Astrology's reliability is an embarrassingly low o. I, with a variability around the mean of o.o6 standard deviations. This means that there is, on average, no agreement at all among the predictions made by different astrologers.

Given the power and influence that science increasingly has in our daily lives, it is important that we as citizens of an open and democratic society learn to separate good science from bunk. This is not just a matter of intellectual curiosity, as it affects where large portions of our tax money go, and in some cases even whether people?s lives are lost as a result of nonsense.

I do not think that science amounts to the sum total of rational inquiry (a position often referred to as scientism), which he seems to (implicitly) assume. I do think that science should inform the specifics of our ethical discussions, and hence is in an important sense pertinent to ethics, but I maintain that ethical questions are inherently philosophical in nature, not scientific. This is a problem, I think, because ignoring this distinction does a disservice to both science and philosophy. Finally, as a corollary of my rejection of scientism above, I do think that there are significant differences between science and philosophy, even though of course the demarcation line between the two is far from being sharp. Indeed, I think that a combination of these two disciplines -- which used to be called "scientia" (knowledge in the broadest possible sense) -- is our best hope for a more rational and compassionate humanity.

If a theory purports to explain everything, then it is likely not explaining much at all.

Many scientists are rather embarrassed by the Piltdown debacle, apparently feeling guilt by association, considering themselves indirectly responsible for whatever goes wrong in their chosen profession. And yet, Piltdown should instead be presented in all introductory biology textbooks as a perfect example of how science actually works, as we shall see in a moment. First off, we need to realize that before Piltdown, very little was known of the human fossil record. When Darwin wrote The Descent of Man he had to rely largely on comparative data with other living species of primates, for then only the clearly almost-human Neanderthals were known to paleontologists. A few years before Piltdown, two important discoveries were made: that of ?Java man? in 1891 and that of ?Heidelberg man? in 1907, but neither of these was very ancient. When a significantly older set of pre-human remains was allegedly found at Piltdown, the scientific world was simply ready for the discovery. It was what practitioners in the field had expected, something that surely the perpetrator of the hoax knew very well and magisterially exploited.

Not only can science never in principle reach the Truth because of the untenability of the correspondence theory of truth, but it has also demonstrably blundered in the distant and recent past, sometimes with precisely the sort of dire social consequences that constructionist critics are so worried about. The only reason scientists are by and large unmoved by such instances is because most of them don?t ?waste? their time studying the history of their own discipline. If they did, they would realize with dismay that every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong. What makes us think that the story will not continue and that everything we hold true now will not in turn be seen as na‹vely wrong by our descendants? Of course, the same history of science can also be read from the diametrically opposite viewpoint, since it equally well illustrates the idea that science is a self-correcting, arguably cumulative enterprise. It may blunder today, but it will likely make up for the mistake a few years or decades down the line.

Piltdown ? far from being an embarrassment to the scientific community ? should be prominently featured in biology textbooks: it is an example of how the nature of science is not that of a steady, linear progression toward the Truth, but rather a tortuous road, often characterized by dead ends and U-turns, and yet ultimately inching toward a better, if tentative, understanding of the natural world. The problem is that some of those U-turns can be painful to society when the consequences of scientific blunders don?t stay neatly confined within the rarefied atmosphere of the ivory tower, but spill into the everyday social world with sometimes disastrous consequences for human welfare. The quintessential case study of this dark side of science is the eugenic movement that swept America during the first half of the twentieth century. Eugenics is often referred to as a ?movement? (rather than a science) for a good reason: it was weak on science, but strong in the area of public outreach and even political intervention. It was a political ideology cloaked in the shining mantel of science, a disguise that all pseudoscience attempts to don, from the anti-HIV movement to the intelligent design movement.

Science is a social activity unlike any other that human beings engage in: it is a game of discovery played against a powerful but neutral opponent ? nature itself. And nature cannot be ignored, at least not for long. The reason suspicions kept mounting about the true origin of the Piltdown remains was that the more paleontologists uncovered about human evolution, the less Dawn Man seem to fit with the rest of the puzzle. In a sense, the very factor that made the acceptance of Eoanthropus dawsonii so fast in the beginning ? because it seemed to be the much sought after ?missing link? in human evolution ? was also the reason why, four decades later, scientists kept pursuing the possibility that it was not genuine after all. While forty years of delay may seem an inordinate amount of time, they are but the blink of an eye when compared to the history of the human pursuit of knowledge. Moreover, it is important to note that it was scientists who uncovered the hoax, not creationists, which is both an immense credit to the self-correcting nature of science and yet another indication that creationism is only a religious doctrine with no power of discovery.

If you reject the theory of evolution, or think that there is such a thing as alternative (as opposed to evidence-based) medicine, or claim without evidence that aliens are visiting the planet, or think that the stars influence human destiny, and so on, you are anti-science and live in a dream world with no connection to reality. More damning, you are engaging in the ultimate act of arrogance: to declare something true or untrue not because you have reason or evidence, but only because it makes you feel better. May I suggest that you need a good dose of humility, and that one way to get it is to admit that the universe is not about you, and that some people out there really know more than you do, as unpleasant a thought as this may be?

Science, unlike advertising, is not about finding patterns—although that is certainly part of the process—it is about finding explanations for those patterns.

Contrary to what many anti-intellectuals maintain, science is by nature a much more humble enterprise than any religion or other ideology. This must be so given the self-correcting mechanisms that are incorporated into the scientific process, regardless of the occasional failures of individual scientists.

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American Chair of the Department of Philosophy at CUNY-Lehman College, Editor in Chief for the journal Philosophy & Theory in Biology