Interview. Philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci of the Rationally Speaking Podcast and blog spoke to il manifesto about the science of pseudoscience and how to find the right experts to listen to. ‘Scientists base themselves exclusively ... on the theory and the data. These are necessary, but not sufficient.’

Why scientists aren’t convincing

Massimo Pigliucci was born 54 years ago in Liberia, grew up in Rome, and has been teaching in the United States for many years. Today, he is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. But for the first 25 years of his academic career, he worked in the field of evolutionary biology at universities in Connecticut, Tennessee and New York.

Pigliucci is also popular outside academia, thanks to his now-defunct blog Rationally Speaking, dedicated particularly to the topic of critical thinking and fighting pseudoscience. His latest book published in Italy is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (in Italy, Come essere stoici. Riscoprire la spiritualità degli antichi per vivere una vita moderna, ed. Garzanti, tr. by Paolo Lucca). As a guest speaker Sunday at CICAP Fest in Padua, the festival organized by CICAP (the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Pseudosciences), he devoted his talk to the line between science and pseudoscience, to which he has devoted much of his research.

Can we trust that a clear boundary line exists between the two?

This is a theme on which philosophers such as Popper have worked, until the 1980s, when Larry Laudan convinced everyone more or less that the problem had no solution. As a result, philosophers mistakenly abandoned the problem. In 2013, together with Maarten Boudry, we invited philosophers of science to return to this question, and we have compiled their answers in a book entitled Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (University of Chicago Press). To summarize: there is no clear border between them. On the extremes, such as creationism on one side and quantum mechanics on the other, we all agree. In between these, there is a gray area. Because It’s not enough for a theory to be wrong to be pseudo-scientific: error is a common part of science. Sooner or later, every theory will be superseded by a more effective one. But if people keep organizing research and conferences and writing articles around a mistaken theory, we are dealing with pseudoscience.

If even experts don’t manage to do it, how can non-experts distinguish between truth and hoaxes?

You can’t be knowledgeable in all fields, and you can’t expect the public to always be able to distinguish scientific theories from fake news. But there are some experts whom you can trust, while acknowledging that even scientists sometimes make mistakes. If your car breaks down, you take it to a mechanic and trust them to fix it, even if they aren’t necessarily honest or infallible. Yet, at the same time, we don’t trust scientists. This is a paradox.

So, while specialists should discuss everything on the basis of the data, the others have to figure out who they should trust, even at the risk of neglecting some “misunderstood genius.”

There are several tools to figure out whose opinions you can give credit to or not. In 2001, the philosopher Alvin Goldman listed five criteria to measure the trustworthiness of an expert, based on how their ideas are viewed by colleagues, their academic titles and their conflicts of interest. This is a useful method. In the US, some are appealing to “experts” who are denying human responsibility for climate change. The Goldman criteria would be enough to make people understand that these are not credible specialists.

There are many today who are criticizing those who tout the slogan “Science is not democratic.” But it is unclear what one could replace it with. How can people’s trust be won through popularization?

This is a problem that Aristotle already focused on: for an idea to be convincing, it needs all three of “logos,” “ethos” and “pathos.” Scientists base themselves exclusively on the “logos,” i.e. on the theory and the data. These are necessary, but not sufficient. “Ethos” is also required: giving the impression of speaking in the interest of the listener. This is why treating the audience with condescension doesn’t work. And then, scientists particularly lack “pathos”: the ability to touch the listener or reader on an emotional level—especially when it concerns socially relevant issues, such as vaccines and migration.

At CICAP Fest, you spoke about the danger of “scientism.” Given everything you’ve just said, isn’t the bigger risk that of veering into the opposite extreme?

First of all, it’s a matter of intellectual honesty. For example, some are arguing that science will also solve moral questions, but this is not true. Then, there is a more concrete problem: using science as an ideological weapon hurts the reputation of science itself. For example: I’m an atheist, and I’m one of the skeptical rationalists. But I think it’s scientism to try to use science to prove that God doesn’t exist, like Richard Dawkins and others have tried. It risks pushing away an audience that is already hostile to that idea. And with this, we go back to the topic of trust.

According to Richard Feynman, “the philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” Was he wrong about that?

I could answer by pointing out that without ornithology, many birds would have become extinct. In fact, Feynman himself did some philosophy of science. And Stephen Hawking argued that philosophy was no longer needed, but then published a book about the philosophy of astronomy. In Italy, the physicist Carlo Rovelli is writing very interesting things about the philosophy of science. But Feynman was partly right, because the philosophy of science is not itself science: it serves to complete the sociology and history of science in explaining how it works and, most importantly, how it fails.

Philosophers and scientists have been working together, particularly in the fields that touch on the empirical verifiability limit, such as string theory. A few years ago, I got an invitation to go to Monaco and hold a talk on string theory. At the time, I thought the organizers must have mistakenly sent the invitation to the wrong guy. But they were actually looking for an expert on the issue of demarcation, because the physicists were arguing about Popper, about science vs. pseudoscience, but didn’t know much about the philosophy of science. So, physicists, including Nobel laureates, came to listen to my introductory lecture on Popper.

You claim you have gone through a “constructive mid-life crisis.” What happened?

I was 40 years old and I was teaching evolutionary biology at the University of Knoxville, Tennessee. The research lab was doing well: there were publications, awards, financing and researchers. But I had the impression that I was always doing the same research over and over. This happens to many people. Typically, what you do is look to other close academic fields for new inspiration. But I did my PhD in molecular biology in Italy, so there was nothing new for me in this approach. Then, a young philosopher, Jonathan Kaplan, came to Knoxville. He asked me about the interaction between genes and the environment. We became friends and began to publish together. I was enjoying it, so I decided to go back to studying: with my university’s approval, while I was running my research lab I also got a PhD in philosophy, with Jonathan as my supervisor. Today, almost 10 years later, I am teaching philosophy at the City University of New York. The academic freedom in American universities helped me.

CRISPR and the new discoveries in genetics are renewing interest in philosophical problems, from eugenics to genetic determinism. Isn’t it a good time to go back to biology?

I’m working on these topics now as a philosopher. The new biotechnologies point to the need for a public debate. We need to understand the complexity of evolutionary mechanisms, which go far beyond mere genes. Many scientists are aware of all this, more so than in the past. But not everyone is. When the debate involves the general public, the urge to oversimplify the issues may make a comeback.

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