Interview: Massimo Pigliucci


I went to hear Massimo Pigliucci at SUNY Ulster on May 5th (2012. He was promoting his book, "Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk." It's full of lucid examples from the borderlands of science and pseudo-science, and a lot of fun to read. The talk included a funny and useful slideshow. He presented some remarkable (and challenging) points about the methods we use to determine the validity of what we read and hear.

Afterwards, I was able to tag along for drinks with Massimo and three teachers, and we had a jolly time until 10 pm, when the bar cranked up the Stones (for Cinco de Mayo), and I fled the noise.

Massimo is the head of the Philosophy Department at CUNY-Lehman College, and has three PhDs. (He made the point during his talk, though, that authors who feel a need to put PhD on the cover should be taken with a grain of salt.) He was down-to-earth, accessible, and consistently articulate. And generous with his responses to my wide-ranging questions.

1. Are there any belief-based issues or ideas that offer a useful, fruitful point of engagement, for both critical thinkers and believers? Theology was the primary opportunity for intellectuals for over a thousand years, and is still coasting along on the fumes, attracting the more intelligent believers, who perennially attempt to sort out the apologias and issues with some critical thinking rigor, however fractured. Some of the issues raised by belief (the problem of evil, the existence of free will, etc.) are rewarding to examine, but usually result in a reinforcement of the divide between believers and non-believers.

Well, I do think that one can engage in good reasoning when it comes to philosophy of religion, which does include issues like the problem of evil. But at this point in the history of philosophy I do not consider theology a viable intellectual enterprise anymore. Its premises are both unreasonable and unsubstantiated, so that the whole thing becomes a house of cards easily knocked down by even the most tenuous critical thinking wind, so to speak. A believer who begins the discussion from within a particular apologetic tradition is already bound to fail at the onset.

2. How do secular humanists accomplish community? (And is it critical to the success of secularism?)

Secular humanists have alternative community models, ranging from formal congregations (like the "Society for Ethical Culture") to highly informal ones ("Drinking Skeptically" and the like). However, humanists also tend to be more independent by nature, and find social support where it is most logical to find it: with friends and family. It is interesting to note that even religious people are far less likely to go to church once they develop interests and meaningful connections on their own - as is for instance the case throughout Europe, and even among fairly large sections of the American population.

3. Must we change our species, so that ongoing processes are our focus, instead of fixed stories that reinforce cherished beliefs?

Seems to me that to change our species just to get away from narratives is overkill. Besides, science and philosophy are also types of narratives, and so of course are the arts. Should we not read or profoundly alter those, too? And how? More importantly, who would be making the decisions inherent in choosing a new path for Homo sapiens? I think its better to do the best we can with what we have. Its a basic philosophical precept that it is wise to accept the hand that is dealt to you, the skillful part consists in trying to play that hand at your best.

4. Are we seeing something new, in the demonstrated abilities of multi-media and the internets reach, that can trump our efforts to inculcate critical thinking skills? If there are emerging criteria for Best Practices using multi-media (educate, dont advocate; identify, dont conclude), will these suffice against the far more entertaining and compelling complete narrative that believers of all kinds can muster?

The only thing new is the medium, but the problem is as old as philosophy itself. The new media offer both great new opportunities for engaging people in critical thinking and fertile new ground for spreading ignorance, bigotry, or just mindless entertaining. Again, though, this happened before: think of television, and radio before that, and of course even of the invention of the printing press itself (dont forget that the first book to be printed for mass distribution was the Bible...). It is true that the internet poses problems of its own, such as the ease with which it is possible to create bubble universes and echo chambers where one only hears what one wants to hear. (Though, again, this was already possible before by simply skipping altogether certain sections in the bookstore.)

But the internet also provides new opportunities to reach many more people than ever before. I can now blog, post the link to my writings via Facebook, and have that sent out automatically as a tweet, and suddenly Ive reached tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes. Thats just awesome.

5. What are our shared values/traditions with believers, and how do we bond around these? I suggest middle-class reality is one, another is liberty itself, and together these two are arguably the values that regular citizens hold most dear.

I think secularists have a lot more in common with (most) religionists than either group acknowledges or is even aware of. Most of us wish to live in an open and thriving society where people can pursue their interests and goals, where opinions are respected and people are free to expressed them. Most of us are fundamentally decent human beings who wish to do the right thing and do not want to harm others. Most of us respect and enjoy the benefits of things like democracy and science.

Political philosopher John Rawls comes to mind here: in his "A Theory of Justice" he tackled the problem of how people who subscribe to different ideologies may talk to each other in a pluralist society. His answer is that what we need to do is to translate our preferences in neutral language so that we can interact with people who maintain different positions because they subscribe to a different ideology. For instance, a religious person may oppose abortion because he thinks it is contrary to gods commandments, but that same person can make a secular (in the sense of neutral, not atheist) argument against abortion, based on concepts like personhood, pain, rights, etc. about which we can all have a meaningful conversation (which of course doesnt mean we are all going to agree).

6. Why is contradiction, irony, and satire so effective, for believers and non-believers alike? You noted in your talk at SUNY Ulster that you frame your critical thinking course at CUNY as a way to learn about bullshit (uniting the classroom as humans who dont like to be lied to, believers and non-believers alike).

Because irony and satire - or humor more generally - fundamentally work like philosophy: your interlocutor begins by telling a story (the joke, the philosophical argument) that you think you know where its going, and then all of a sudden the story takes an altogether unexpected turn (the punchline, the conclusion of an argument). You are startled, and you take note of the fact that your brain has been shocked into considering things from a different perspective.

Thats why combining philosophy and humor (or science and humor) is a very effective way of getting people to think, which is the whole point. You might want to check out an unusually insightful combination of topics in an edited book that came out a few years ago, "The Daily Show and Philosophy: Moments of Zen in the Art of Fake News" (disclosure: I have a chapter in it!), where a bunch of philosophers looked at Jon Stewart as a sort of modern Socrates wreaking havoc of conventional (boring, humorless) punditry.

7. How do amateurs do science and critical thinking? If a nine-year-old can effectively debunk Therapeutic Touch with a well-designed, simple experiment, why cant anyone deploy science?

The case of "Emily Rosa", the 9-year old you are referring to, is somewhat exceptional (and, crucially, she was guided by a supportive family), but obviously shows that critical thinking can be learned and practiced at a very young age. The thing to understand, though, is that critical thinking - like science itself - doesnt come natural to human beings, it is a skill that needs to be acquired. We naturally tend to jump to conclusions based on very little evidence, rationalize our theories to the utmost degree, and stick with the wrong idea long after it has been shown to be false.

The counter to that is, however, quite simple (at least in principle): early schooling in critical thinking (Im talking elementary school here) and better family support of education. It would also help if our society valued thinking over believing (i.e., having faith regardless or in spite of evidence). That is why grassroots skeptical and humanist organizations are so crucial: they are one of the main conduits between academics (who typically have little time, inclination or incentive to talk to the general public) and the media and public at large.

That is arguably the most important role that these groups can play, and it is one that could - in the long run - change society for the better in a rather dramatic way.


Massimo Pigliucci is a Professor of Philosophy at the "City University of New York-Lehman College". His research is concerned with philosophy of science, the relationship between science and philosophy, and the relationship between science and religion.

He received a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara in Italy, a PhD in Botany from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has published over a hundred technical papers and several books. His most recent technical book is "Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology" (co-authored by Jonathan Kaplan, University of Chicago Press). Prof. Pigliucci has been awarded the prestigious Dobzhansky Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution. He has been elected fellow of the "American Association for the Advancement of Science" for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack.

In the areas of outreach and critical thinking, Prof. Pigliucci has published in national magazines such as "Skeptic", "Skeptical Inquirer", "Philosophy Now", "The Philosophers Magazine", "Secular Nation" and "American Atheist " magazine. He has also been elected as a Consultant for the "Committee for Skeptical Inquiry". Pigliucci pens the Rationally Speaking blog (""), and has authored the popular science book "Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science" (Sinauer). His newest book is "Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk" (University of Chicago Press).

("from his Amazon authors page")


Originally published on Does This Make Sense? for Nikki Stern

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