An excerpt from

Nonsense on Stilts

How to Tell Science from Bunk

by Massimo Pigliucci


But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.
—Carl Sagan

It has a 100 percent cure rate for … 
—A pseudoscientist

“Here’s a forecast for a particularly bizarre consequence of climate change: more executions of witches.” This chilling opening is from a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof. The article cited a study by an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, Edward Miguel, who found that women are routinely murdered as witches in rural Tanzania, but that the rate of killings increases when there is a drought or a flood, that is, whenever the living conditions for the local populations are dire and depend on the quirks of weather. Kristof goes on to suggest that there is good reason to think that historical European witch hunts were also triggered by environmental factors, coinciding with crop failures. Indeed, according to the same column, research conducted by Emily Oster, an economist at the University of Chicago, shows a strong correlation between cold dips in climate in Europe and witch hunting in the period between 1520 and 1770.

Despite widespread skepticism about global warming, it took little more than a month for Kristof’s prediction to come true: an article in the Italian newspaper la Repubblica published on 21 May 2008 reported on fifteen women accused of being witches burnt at the stakes. Only the location was slightly off: Kenya instead of Tanzania. According to the original report by the Agence France Presse, a mob of about a hundred people went “blind with rage” in a village three hundred kilometers west of Nairobi, picked up the women in their homes, tied them up, beat them, and finally burned them alive.

The external trigger in these cases may very well be an environmental event, such as a flood or a period of drought. But those women were killed because superstition kills. Ever since I became interested in pseudoscience (which can be pinpointed to coincide with my move to Tennessee in 1996, near the site of the antievolution “monkey trial” of 1925), I have often encountered a casual and pernicious attitude toward pseudoscience and superstitious belief in general. Even educated and progressive people have a tendency to think of “skeptics” as asocial curmudgeons bent on denying any positive new knowledge unless it comes through the “orthodox” channels of anointed science. I was once invited by a talk-show host on a very popular local radio station in Knoxville, Tennessee, together with Skeptic magazine publisher and author Michael Shermer. We chatted amiably with the host for a while before the beginning of the show, as is common practice in these cases. As soon as we were on the air, however, the host felt compelled to share a surprising discovery with his listeners: skeptics can laugh and be generally pleasant! While most of the broadcast was about the ever popular (in the Bible Belt) creationism versus evolution “controversy,” the host did ask us a question that I have heard countless times since: so what if people believe in pseudoscience or are superstitious? Who are they hurting anyway? Ask the fifteen women burned to death in Kenya, to begin with.

While not often lethal, faulty thinking about how the world works can hurt plenty. People can be swindled out of significant sums of money by practitioners of “alternative” medicine (alternative to what? to practices based on evidence?), can make really bad decisions about their lives if they listen to an astrologer, and can be taken advantage of emotionally and financially by “psychics” who claim that they will put them in touch with loved ones who have died. Everyone has a right to be irrational, but rampant irrationality in a society can be highly wasteful and destructive, and giving a pass to credulity on the grounds that “it doesn’t hurt anyone” is, well, not a very rational position to take. In this chapter we will briefly examine various aspects of pseudoscience, from the new AIDS denialism to more canonical beliefs in astrology, parapsychology, and UFOs. This is of course not meant to be a comprehensive treatment of pseudoscience—to which many excellent books have already been devoted. The emphasis, instead, will be on what these beliefs have in common and how they differ from the sciences and quasi-sciences we have encountered in the previous two chapters. All, of course, while attempting to maintain that relaxed perspective that so confounded my radio host in Knoxville.

Death by Pseudoscience: AIDS Denialism in Africa

President Yahya Jammeh, who has ruled Gambia for more than a decade, has suddenly found a cure for AIDS. Indeed, he has opened shop to treat AIDS on Thursdays and asthma on Saturdays, the rest of the week being devoted to political matters. The cure, according to Emma Hurd of Sky News, consists of “a rub down with [a] cream, a splash on the face with another potion and a drink of a murky looking liquid.”  The remedy is, not surprisingly, endorsed by Gambia’s Department of Health and we are assured by Jammeh himself that it works. “One hundred per cent the President can cure everyone. It is absolutely medically proven,” said Minister Tamsir Mbowe.

Apparently, though, independent verification is not welcome. Jammeh told Hurd that “I do not have to convince anybody. I can cure AIDS and I will not explain it to those who don’t want to understand.” But plenty of people do want to understand, Mr. Jammeh, and, yes, you do owe the world and especially your patients (“victims” would be a more appropriate term) an explanation of how the alleged cure works. Failing that, you should be prosecuted as an international criminal.

But President Jammeh is far from being a loner in the increasingly dangerous AIDS denialist movement. On the same date as the previous report, another Sky News journalist, Ian Woods, wrote about a miracle cure being offered by the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia. In this case it is “holy” water (i.e., water), being administered to thousands, some of whom are brought in chains by relatives because they are skeptical of the proffered cure. The treatment consists of priests hurling water to the faithful (and the recalcitrant), while at the same time beating them with wooden crosses, for good measure. Interestingly, while men must be totally naked, women can wear panties, though the medical principle behind this gender-based discrimination is not entirely clear. The priests are also—unconscionably—telling people that they can’t use standard “Western” medications because they interfere with the action of the holy water, something disputed by Dr. Amone Wodoson at one of Addis Ababa’s major hospitals, who—trying to strike a compromise while saving people’s lives—went on record to say that “there is no adverse interaction between the two” (of course not, water doesn’t adversely interact with anything in the human body, unless one is about to drown). Not everyone can be cured in this way, however, since women with wigs are “obviously” possessed with demons, and the water wouldn’t work on them. Menstruating women and people who have had sex recently are also turned down. If they are lucky, they can make it to Gambia by the following Thursday, to be cured by President Jammeh.

Besides Ethiopia and Gambia, however, the big story as far as AIDS denialism is concerned has been South Africa. As a complex nation with a tense history of racial relations, to say the least, perhaps it was inevitable for South Africa to become fertile ground for a rejection of Western medicine in favor of local traditions and solutions. Still, it is simply astounding to discover the depths of irrationality reached by some South African leaders—and the absurd cost in human lives that their inane policies are directly causing (once again, it would seem appropriate to invoke a United Nations condemnation for crimes against humanity, but I’m not holding my breath). Michael Specter of the New Yorker published an investigative report so frightening that I can hardly do it justice here. It begins with a truck driver’s “vision” (a dream), in which he was instructed by his grandfather to put together a concoction to cure AIDS. The truck driver, Zeblon Gwala, then set up shop in the city of Durban, posted a “Dr. Gwala” sign on the door (despite not actually having a medical degree), and his “HIV and AIDS Clinic” opened for business, attracting hundreds of people every day and equally certainly condemning them to death by their fateful choice of magic over science.

How is this possible in an advanced and economically thriving country like South Africa? Because of the positions taken by former President Thabo Mbeki and by his then (until September 2008) health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, among others. Their attitude has been that antiretroviral drugs, which have been medically tested and shown to be effective against HIV, are poisons deliberately marketed by Western pharmaceutical companies. Moreover, according to the pair—and contrary to almost the entire medical-research profession—there is no evidence that HIV causes AIDS, which instead is just another lie spread by Big Pharma (with the help of the CIA, naturally) to sell their products. Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang insist that salvation can be found in local knowledge such as the remedy that came in a dream to “Dr.” Gwala. This while 5.5 million people—out of a total population of 48 million—are infected by HIV in South Africa, a huge humanitarian disaster unfolding in slow motion under our (and Mbeki’s) eyes.

Of course, Mbeki’s and Tshabalala-Msimang’s absurd notions do have some support from a minority of academics (in a similar vein, we will see later on in the book that one can always find critics of global warming or evolution with legitimate academic credentials, if one looks hard enough). Science is a human activity, and human beings can legitimately hold different opinions about empirical evidence. Of course, sometimes the dissenting opinion is motivated by a thirst for fame, financial gain, or sheer obtuseness. In the case of AIDS denialism, the biggest academic dissenter is Peter Duesberg, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the discoverer of the fact that some retroviruses (the same kind of virus that causes AIDS) can trigger the onset of certain types of cancer. Duesberg expressed his skepticism on the HIV-AIDS causal link back in 1987. This was only three years after the first published claim in favor of a connection, and Duesberg’s paper at the time was a legitimate dissenting opinion published in a respected academic journal, Perspectives in Cancer Research. The problem is that Duesberg is stuck on his 1987 position, disregarding the overwhelming evidence put forth by literally thousands of studies published since. It is hard to know why Duesberg holds to his initial skepticism, whether out of simple stubbornness or because of the modicum of fame that such position has brought him or for the sheer pleasure of playing heretic. What is important is that his position is giving ammunition to inept leaders like Mbeki and indirectly killing millions of people.

Clearly, the story here is enormously complicated by intricate psychological and sociological factors. Again, it is hardly surprising that people emerging from an apartheid regime may be inclined to suspicion of white knights in shining armor coming to their rescue, and may wish instead to emphasize their own traditions and practices. Big Pharma is also far from spotless, and the practices of international pharmaceutical companies have been under fire for years even in the West. The search for profit at all costs often translates into literally inventing new medical “conditions” out of thin air or aggressively marketing “new” drugs that are actually trivial variations of existing ones. Increasing reports of undue pressure exercised by the pharmaceutical industry on scientific researchers, which in several cases has culminated into halting by means of legal threat the publication of data showing that a new drug was in fact harmful to an unacceptable degree, have tarnished the image of the entire sector.

Nonetheless, one cannot help but find it ironic to the utmost degree that people like Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang resort to quoting the very white and very Western Peter Duesberg in support of their claim that there is a vast white Western conspiracy against African peoples. This is a clear example of why fighting pseudoscience entails more than just science education or critical thinking. People believe in shamanism, UFOs, telepathy, astrology, and creationism for reasons that go well beyond their poor grasp of science and difficulty in deploying the tools of critical thinking (though certainly more appreciation of both science and logic would not harm our planet even one bit). But the AIDS denialism case is also a terrifyingly clear example of why superstition is dangerous to the point of lethality, and hence something much more important than just the obsession of a small number of self-professed skeptics who think they know better than everyone else.

An additional irony of the debate about HIV-AIDS is that HIV is a spectacular example of evolution happening right now and dramatically affecting our lives, despite the millions of people denying that evolution itself takes place. HIV—if you believe scientists who work on the problem—has “jumped” from monkeys to humans only in the middle of the twentieth century, and has managed to kill already more than 25 million people, infecting at least twice as many. The reason the disease is so difficult to cure is because the virus evolves very fast, and so it continuously adapts to whatever barriers the natural response of the human body and modern medicine throw at it. So far the most effective treatment comes with so-called cocktails made of several drugs attacking the virus simultaneously. The rationale behind the cocktail idea is exquisitely evolutionary: even a rapidly evolving organism can only cope with so many environmental challenges (drugs, in this case) at the same time, and the more problems it has to solve the less likely it is that random mutations and recombination—the two mechanisms producing genetic variation in all organisms—will be able to yield an effective solution to the new environmental threat.

Even more interesting from a scientific perspective, there is now good evidence to think that retroviruses in general have played major roles in the evolution of mammals (again, if you believe in evolution over millions of years). Most mammals have placentas to protect their developing embryos, and placentas evolved from modified eggs. Thanks to placentas, embryos started to develop literally as parasites inside the mother’s body, protected not only from outside threats like bacteria and viruses, but also from the mothers’ own immune systems. In the 1970s scientists discovered retroviruses on the placenta of various species from humans to mice. At first the discovery was puzzling and largely interpreted as yet another example of how pervasive the viral threat is to mammals. But a much more intimate connection was subsequently discovered at the molecular level: retroviruses in the placenta are found in the syncytium, a layer that constitutes the major barrier between mother and fetus. The protein that allows the fundamental property of cell fusion that makes placentas possible in the first place is called syncytin, and also provides the molecular mechanism that allows retroviruses to bind to the cells they attack. Some biologists are now suggesting that retroviruses played a major role in the evolution of the placenta itself, which means that one of the biggest threats to our health and survival may have also been a catalyst for crucial steps in mammalian evolution. It is a splendid example of how science can make sense of the complexity, beauty, and even irony of life. How much more convincing than a charlatan claiming to cure AIDS on Thursdays by using a murky liquid of suspicious origins.

Not in the Stars: Astrology as Bunk

Next on our brief tour of pseudoscience is a venerable one: astrology. In some senses, astrology is almost too easy a target for the skeptic, since, as we will see in a moment, it is both hopelessly flawed theoretically and it demonstrably does not work in practice. Still, one out of ten thousand people in Western countries take it very seriously, wasting countless hours of their active lives while being swindled out of millions of dollars to pursue it. Moreover, it is an almost perfect example of pseudoscience, because its claims can in fact be tested, have been tested repeatedly and shown to be wrong, and yet people continue the practice.

Let us start with a brief examination of the principles behind astrology. Historically, the idea dates back at least to the Chaldeans and Assyrians of three millennia ago, although the modern codification of twelve zodiacal signs was done by the Babylonians around 450 BCE. Still, astrology was not well developed or particularly popular until it was spread in the Hellenistic world by Alexander the Great, eventually making it into ancient Rome. Simply based on the fact that the basic principles of astrology were laid down in a prescientific era, one should be skeptical of how well such ideas might stand scrutiny in the twenty-first century, when humanity can count on sophisticated theories and observational instruments in both physics and astronomy (the “wisdom of the ancients” is often overestimated). But let us proceed one step at a time.

To begin with, it should be noted that star constellations, which are a centerpiece of the entire astrology edifice, actually do not exist. What I mean is that the constellations identified by the ancient Babylonians are optical illusions, because the stars that make up any given constellation are positioned at very different distances from Earth (though they are all within our galaxy), and the only reason we group them together is because of a projection effect. This is analogous to, say, observing the moon over Manhattan and concluding that the moon is right over (as in, at a short distance from) the Empire State Building. This is obviously absurd, but the claim that a constellation is an actual ensemble of stars is by no means less silly. Moreover, the demarcation lines between constellations are themselves completely arbitrary. It is instructive to note that different cultures “discovered” completely different constellations in the sky, a fact that is more consistent with the idea that constellations are a whimsical projection of the human mind than a reflection of astronomic reality. Additionally, today’s astrologers can, if they wish to, purchase a small telescope or a pair of binoculars and check for themselves that there are many more stars in the sky than were known to the Babylonians. Are these “new” stars (they’ve been there for a while, obviously) part of the constellations? Should they not thereby affect astrological calculations?

Even if one understands the constellations to be meaningful, astrologers seem to ignore yet another fatal flow in their reasoning: the zodiac has shifted position during the last 2,500 years because of a well-known astronomical phenomenon called the precession of the equinoxes. The earth, like any other planet, has an axis of rotation (which causes the alternation of day and night) and an axis of revolution (around the sun). These two axes are not parallel, but diverge by a little more than 23°, a discrepancy that has several consequences, including the fact that we have seasons. An additional consequence is that the positions of the zodiacal constellation shift imperceptibly over centuries. The shift accumulated since the Babylonians is such that the position once occupied by a given constellation at a particular time of the year is now occupied by the previous constellation in the zodiac! This means, for instance, that my astrological sign should not be Capricorn (I was born on the 16th of January), but Sagittarius. Well, then, which sign should I look up when I open my Sunday paper, I wonder?

These are strong, in fact definitive, theoretical arguments, but they do not seem to convince either the astrologers or their devotees. “But look at the huge effects that the moon has through the tides,” they will say, “is that not enough evidence to believe in cosmic influences on earthly affairs?” Well, it depends on what one means by “cosmic influences” and what kind of “affairs” we are talking about. The moon argument is an example of common sense applied to a problem that requires more than just common sense, but it is precisely these sorts of arguments that are often deployed by people who accept pseudoscientific claims, and the reason is that such arguments are indeed superficially very convincing. Similarly, defenders of creationism will tell you that it is obvious that living organisms are the result of the actions of an intelligent designer. In fact, living organisms look like well-designed organic machines adapted to their environment. Global warming deniers will make a similar argument and ask you why, if the earth is warming, do we see harsher winters in some areas of the planet. Again, a very reasonable question. The answer to evolution deniers is that natural selection results in organisms that are well adapted to their environment without the need of a conscious designer; and global warming skeptics should realize that harsh winters in some areas of the globe are precisely what one would expect if the planet is warming up (because the earth’s climate doesn’t work like a simple human appliance, but is instead characterized by complex—but statistically predictable—nonlinear effects). The problem is that these scientific answers are counterintuitive, like much of science itself.

Let us analyze the “moon defense” a bit more closely then. Tides are indeed caused by the gravitational effects of the moon and the sun. Although the sun is much bigger than the moon, and thus has a much stronger gravitational field, it is also much further than the moon from Earth. On the balance, the tidal force exerted by the sun is about 46 percent of that exerted by the moon. Of course, the other planets of the solar system also exert a tidal influence on Earth through their own gravitational fields. But since the other planets are both distant and small (compared to the sun), their gravitational effects are essentially negligible. Tides exert bona fide cosmic influences on human affairs, as anyone who lives in coastal areas will readily tell you. But nobody has ever demonstrated a direct gravitational effect of the moon-sun system on the behavior of human beings (werewolves don’t count), and simple gravitation is certainly not what astrologers are talking about when they claim astral influences, otherwise the moon would be twice as important as the sun in astrological charts, and the planets wouldn’t figure at all.

What then? As astrology critic Phil Plait points out, physicists recognize three more forces in nature (other than gravity): the strong and weak nuclear interactions, and electromagnetism. That’s it—there are no other known physical forces to play with. We can exclude the strong and weak nuclear forces, because they can only be effective at the scale of atomic or subatomic, not astronomical, distances. Electromagnetism is a more promising candidate, but only at first glance. Again, this is something that science has studied for a long time, and we can measure the electromagnetic fields of the various planets and of the sun. Turns out that the latter is the only one that has any significant effect, as can be seen every time that there is a solar magnetic storm, a phenomenon capable of interfering with our communications and in some cases even causing blackouts in major cities. But if electromagnetism is the conduit of the astral influences then astrology should be based just on the sun—forget the moon, planets, and other stars. Clearly, that is not compatible with astrological practice either.

It is always possible at this point for the astrologer to retreat one step further and claim that astral influences are mediated by a fifth, yet undiscovered force. We cannot be certain that there is no such thing as a fifth force, but everything that has happened in theoretical and experimental physics over the past century indicates that there are only four fundamental forces, and in fact, if anything, physicists are convinced that the four forces are really different aspects of one fundamental force, which they are hoping to characterize mathematically very soon (in the so-called theory of everything). If astrologers really take the bold step of postulating a fifth force in direct contradiction of modern physics, they are making an extraordinary statement backed by extraordinarily little evidence. Moreover, even if there were a fifth force, it would appear logical to assume that—like every force known so far—its action too depends on distance, meaning that the further away two objects are the less strength force X will have. If this is the case, then astrologers would still not be out of the woods, because they insist on treating all planets as having the same influence on human affairs, regardless of distance (could this be a leftover from a time when our ancestors thought that all stars were at the same distance from us, fixed on the same celestial sphere?). This means that not only do they have to assume the existence of a fifth force, which is improbable enough, but also that this would be the only force whose action does not decrease with distance, thereby piling improbability upon improbability. In fact, come to think of it, recent discoveries in astronomy make even this last desperate way out not an option: as I mentioned while discussing SETI, scientists have discovered upwards of three hundred new planets orbiting around other stars in the galaxy, not to mention tens of thousands of asteroids within our own solar system. If the effect of force X does not depend on distance, then all these additional planets should be taken into consideration when preparing an astrological chart. Have you ever seen any astrologer drawing charts so complicated? Neither have I.

Theory in science, however, only goes so far. Philosophers have long abandoned the idea that knowledge about the world can be gathered by just thinking about it, and have yielded to the more complex approach of modern science, where empirical evidence and theoretical advancement continually interplay with each other. One could therefore argue that while astrology does not have a good theory to back it up (indeed, no sensible theory at all), it might still work in practice, in which case it is up to scientists to take it seriously, investigate it, and then try to come up with a theoretical explanation for why it works. Contrary to what many people might believe, scientists have in fact taken the claims of astrology seriously enough to conduct a variety of studies, close to a hundred of them. The results are out, and it’s not good news for the astrologers.

Researchers Geoffrey Dean and Ivan W. Kelly have looked at the available literature and cumulated the results of dozens upon dozens of studies of astrological claims conducted in a variety of settings.  For example, 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 0.8 (i.e., 80 percent) agreement level are considered unreliable. Astrology’s reliability is an embarrassingly low 0.1, with a variability around the mean of 0.06 standard deviations. This means that there is, on average, no agreement at all among the predictions made by different astrologers. As if that were not bad enough, the same authors compared another set of forty studies on nearly seven hundred astrologers, who had worked on 1,150 birth charts. When the birth charts were matched with personality profiles, the degree of accuracy was 0.05, with a variability of 0.12—again, not statistically different from zero.

But, you might say, when I was given a chart by an astrologer it was so remarkably accurate! Dean and Kelly looked into that as well: ten published studies were based on the idea of allowing test subjects to pick the chart they thought matched them best, without knowing for which sign the chart was actually prepared. The “accuracy” of the pickings was a mortifying 0.002 (if you are curious, the standard deviation was 0.038, which means that the spread around the mean was even bigger than the alleged effect itself).

Dean and Kelly also examined the results of what would appear to be the ideal test for astrological predictions: they considered studies of so-called time twins, that is, individuals who are born five minutes or less apart. These people should have essentially identical astrological profiles, although it is not at all clear why birth is so important to begin with: do the stars and planets have no effect in the womb? What about after the individual is born and is developing into an adult? At any rate, again the results were not good news for astrologers: despite examining a whopping 110 variables in a sample of 2,011 time twins, the authors found no detectable effect at all.

Another ingenious scientific study of astrology was carried out by David Voas in England and Wales, exploiting the fact that the local census reports all sorts of data about individuals, including their birth dates and marriage statuses. Voas reckoned that if the stars have anything to do with it, one should find a nonrandom distribution of the signs of married couples in the sample. In other words, one would expect some sign-to-sign marriage, say Capricorn to Aries, to occur more (or less) than by the chance rate of one out of twelve times. The sample of married couples examined by Voas was very large by any statistical criterion: more than twenty million individuals. Once Voas corrected for known biases in the sample (like the peculiar habit of assigning a birthday of January 1st to someone if their actual birthday is not known), the results are—surprise, surprise!—that there is not even the slightest tendency for people to marry according to astrological signage.

One more, just to round it up nicely. This is perhaps the most damning study of them all, because it was conducted under the most rigorous scientific standard, the double-blind experimental protocol, and was published in the 5 December 1985 issue of Nature, arguably the premier scientific magazine in the world. The author was Shawn Carlson of the University of California, Berkeley. A double-blind test is a situation in which neither the experimenter nor the subject knows who is receiving the experimental treatment and who the control. This virtually eliminates the possibility of bias: the subject cannot guess in the “right” direction when answering a question, and the experimenter cannot interpret the data in a way favorable to one hypothesis or the other before all analyses are completed. For his study, Carlson selected thirty of the best-known and highly respected (by their peers) astrologers in Europe and the United States. Each astrologer was given three charts, one matching a target subject, the other two chosen randomly. The idea was to see how often these top astrologers would pick the right chart for their 116 clients, whom they could not, however, see or interact with. The result was once again very clear and very unfavorable to astrology: the “experts” picked correctly only once in three times, exactly as you would do by randomly choosing one of the three charts on offer. I do not know this for a fact, but I doubt that said astrologers looked at the published results and retired from their “profession” in shame, as they should have done.

Astrology can best be thought of as a psychological practice based on an astronomical theory. The theory from real astronomy shows that astrology is fatally flawed, and the empirical evidence equally clearly establishes that it does not work as a practice to help human beings. Yet, as everyone knows, astrologers keep making money off their trade, and millions of people keep wasting their savings. Why? The reasons are various and complex. One is the ability of astrologers—like psychics—to perform “cold reading,” that is, of guessing a few relevant facts from the demeanor or the talk of their client and extrapolating from there. We also know well, because of controlled psychological studies, that many people have a tendency to remember positive hits by the astrologer or psychic, and yet quickly forget the much more numerous misses: this rapidly builds an impressive, if illusory, record for the astrologer. But at the bottom, astrology, like much other pseudoscience, is a largely subconscious ego trip: we feel good about the idea that stars and planets have a direct effect on our lives, and perhaps we enjoy a sense of revenge of the everyday person at telling scientists that they don’t, after all, know everything under the sun (the latter part is, of course, true). And speaking of cosmic ego trips, our next example of pseudoscience also has a cosmic dimension, but with the added twist of alien intelligence being (allegedly) involved.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 56–68 of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2010 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Massimo Pigliucci
Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk
©2010, 336 pages
Cloth $70.00 ISBN: 9780226667850
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