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Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk | [Massimo Pigliucci]

Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk

Why do people believe bunk? And what causes them to embrace such pseudoscientific beliefs and practices? Noted skeptic Massimo Pigliucci sets out to separate the fact from the fantasy in this entertaining exploration of the nature of science, the borderlands of fringe science, and - borrowing a famous phrase from philosopher Jeremy Bentham - the nonsense on stilts.
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Publisher's Summary

Recent polls suggest that fewer than 40 per cent of Americans believe in Darwin's theory of evolution, despite it being 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 per cent 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? Noted skeptic Massimo Pigliucci sets out to separate the fact from the fantasy in this entertaining 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 incisive analysis. In the end, Nonsense on Stilts is a timely reminder of the need to maintain a line between expertise and assumption. Broad in scope and implication, it is also ultimately a captivating guide for the intelligent citizen who wishes to make up her own mind while navigating the perilous debates that will affect the future of our planet.

NOTE: Some editorial changes to the original text have been made with the author’s approval.

©2010 The University of Chicago (P)2010 Audible, Inc.

What the Critics Say

"How can we decide what counts as science? That is the central question of this brilliant book, which ought to be required reading for, well, everyone." (New Scientist)

"Jay Russell's excellent narration guides listeners through the skeptic's arguments, even when Pigliucci bogs down in scientific language. Russell delivers the author's passion for his subject with some sarcasm or anger but, overall, maintains his role as a reasoned guide." (AudioFile)

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  •  
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 12-21-14
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 12-21-14 Member Since 2012

    Audible listener who's grateful for a long commute!

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    "Balderdash! Rubbish! Hooey! Identification Guide"

    Massimo Pigliucci's "Nonsense on Stilts: How to tell Science from Bunk" (2010) is a surprisingly in-depth history and analysis of critical thinking and scientific philosophy. It's surprising because a catchy title like "Nonsense on Stilts" implies a light, anecdotal read, perhaps with some pithy but shallow arguments to throw at earnest intelligent designers or creationists; or suggestions for explaining why, no matter what your friends say, you don't want to pick someone to date based on their "sign". I didn't expect a near screed about the difference between pseudoscience and actual science; a thorough but one-sided analysis of postmodernism criticism; or the history of philosophy and scientific philosophy. Those were all here, and more.

    (Confession: until I read this book, I didn't know there was a difference between creationists and intelligent designerists. Or whatever the ID folks call themselves. And my understanding of postmodernism was limited to architecture I don't particularly appreciate.)

    Listening to "Nonsense" was a little bit like overhearing half of a really impassioned debate on some issues. Pigliucci mentions some particular pseudoscientists he takes issue with, which actually lends those individuals and their arguments some credence. I'm very much a lay person when it comes to philosophy, and I had never even heard of the views those outsiders claim have merit.

    One of Pigliucci's better known targets in general is Mayim Bialik, PhD, brilliant neuroscientist with a wide following. She is an example of someone who is an expert in one field who believes she's an expert in another field - but falls dangerously short. Having Bialik opine about autism and vaccines is like having Neil de Grasse Tyson, PhD, offer an opinion about trade patterns and location of economic activities. Sure, de Grasse Tyson is brilliant and admired, but he's not the economist Paul Krugman. Where Pigliucci falls very short is suggesting that theories deserve short shrift because the proponent is popular. Bialik's theories don't deserve more credence because she's got a fan base but as Hedy Lamarr's pioneering work in frequency skipping technology proved, a screen presence and scientific thought are not mutually exclusive. Bialik's theories about homeopathic medicine must be disregarded, though, because, when subjected to scientific proof, they fail utterly.

    "Nonsense" did help me understand why some people refuse to 'believe' basic and widely accepted theories like evolution and global warming. It's a failure of logical reasoning, an inability to think scientifically. That problem can be fixed - if the problem is recognized.

    The book was a bit of an unstructured slog and I had it several months before I was able to listen my way through the whole thing. But it's Audible, I had a choice to listen or return - and, you know what? I'm glad I listened.

    [If this review helped, please press YES. Thanks!]

    6 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    02-25-15
    02-25-15

    ge-ko

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    "well-done intro in scientific thinking"

    a good listen for getting into the debate between science and pseudo science that nourishes the appetite for more thinking. it is partly rather anecdotal, but a well-founded book. the discussion of feyerabend would have needed slightly more substance and I missed lakatos, but great overall! the main point, to distinguish from pseudo science in an easily accessible way, was nicely done.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Andrew 09-16-13
    Andrew 09-16-13
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    "A good philosophical discussion on science."
    What did you like best about Nonsense on Stilts? What did you like least?

    I rather enjoy Massimo's writings and thoughts and this book reads much like his discussions with Julia and others. However Massimo does sometimes need somebody to keep him "on track" at times as he has a tendency to wander. Many topics are introduced and then "we'll come back to that later in this book." It can be difficult to keep track! But overall I'm quite happy to listen to Massimo wax philosophic on the topic of pseudoscience.


    Would you recommend Nonsense on Stilts to your friends? Why or why not?

    Yes - if I had friends who would like a philosophical discourse on the nature of science...


    Who would you have cast as narrator instead of Jay Russell?

    Massimo! But failing that Mike Chamberlain would have been better.


    Was Nonsense on Stilts worth the listening time?

    Absolutely.


    Any additional comments?

    The narrator mispronounces a lot of words and some equations (e.g. "two times ten-twenty-three" rather than "two times ten TO THE 23" for scientific notation, and "chumsky" for "chomsky" which just sounds odd to me). Overall I felt the narrator could have done a lot better.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Maggie Pine Bush, NY, United States 03-24-11
    Maggie Pine Bush, NY, United States 03-24-11 Member Since 2014
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    "Not great"

    First off the narration is bad. Very boring, almost sounds like a computer voice.

    The content is OK. You can definitely tell the writer has a real disdain for conservatives and anyone with religion. His points are good and I agree with many of them, but he cannot hide his obvious disgust with all things conservative. In fact, he spends an entire chapter on one conservative judge who shockingly sided with reason over religion. He kept pointing out that he was a conservative judge as if it is totally beyond the realm of possibility that he would be fair and impartial.

    10 of 21 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Vinicius Hammond, LA, United States 05-14-11
    Vinicius Hammond, LA, United States 05-14-11 Member Since 2009
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    "Part 2 is worth the entire book"

    If it was based on the first part alone, I would have been very disappointed with my purchase, but like I said, part 2 makes it worthwhile.

    2 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ken Eagle Rock, CA, United States 12-04-10
    Ken Eagle Rock, CA, United States 12-04-10 Member Since 2004
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    "Informative but not worth the effort"

    I wanted to enjoy this book, but it is like taking a an interesting course where the professor loves to talk - it is very heavy on data, examples, history, asides, tangents, and very light on conclusions, points or meaning. All I can say it is that there is a lot of information provided by Pigliucci, he overwhelms with detail.

    8 of 19 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Navarro 4905 Balustrade Blvd Lacey WA 98513 02-05-13
    Navarro 4905 Balustrade Blvd Lacey WA 98513 02-05-13 Member Since 2010
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    "Interesting yet flawed"

    I thought this was a very interesting book. However in my opinion there is one major flaw. There is a distinct lack of objectivity in his book to the point of distraction.

    I wish Dr Pigliucci would have toned down his obvious loathing of Christianity. I'm a Christian but I'm not saying this because I disagree with him. In fact I agree with his views on evolution. But his acrimony against Creationists was just distracting. He seemed compelled to make snide remarks against them at every turn; even in areas having nothing to do with evolution.

    He also seemed very convinced about the "truth" of so called Man made Global warming. But his evidence was no better than that of the Global warming Deniers. I found it particularly galling how he listed various denier claims and simply labeled them as Myths. As if that were enough to settle the issue? For example He claims that the warming effects of heat islands caused by cities are a myth. But just last month Jan 2013 the University of California, San Diego stated that urban heat island do in fact increase the heat of faraway rural places. What else may he be wrong about in this area?He also claims that the majority of scientists in general and climate scientists in particular feel there is no doubt about human caused Global Warming. The funny thing is that the deniers also claim that the majority of scientists, feel that the issue is not settled! so who do I believe?

    But enough negatives. If you filter out the obviously politically nonsense on stilts that Dr Pigliucci puts forward. What you are left with is a fascinating look at what science is and what it is not. I was particularly intrigued by his discussion on Pseudoscience! All in all a very entertaining and educational work!

    1 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Mr North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada 08-13-12
    Mr North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada 08-13-12 Member Since 2011
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    "Too academic and rambling for it's own good"

    I'm not necessarily a fan of 'dumbed down' science books, which simply try to be as accessible as possible. But from the title and description of this book, I expected a light hearted and interesting discussion of how to tell good science and bad science apart.

    What I actually got was a rather heavy and at times rambling discussion into the philosophy and history of science. Interesting in parts, but not very coherent, and pretty hard work.

    I'd recommend Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science' far more than this one - it's narrower in scope, but a MUCH better listen.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joseph NEW YORK, NY, United States 07-30-12
    Joseph NEW YORK, NY, United States 07-30-12 Member Since 2013
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    "Scattered, pointless book"
    What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

    If the speaker had spoken 3x as fast (i listened to it on 2x and it was still to slow); if the book had a thesis -- it doesnt, its scattered statements that anyone who's read a news article or two on quantum physics or darwinism will already know. the opening chapter (to take one of the more egregious examples) is 40 minutes of yammering about what makes something a hard vs soft science, chock full of duh statements like "one thing that impacts the trajectory of different fields of science is how much funding they get from governments and universities." at the end of the chapter, i had no idea what was at stake in the distinction... the whole book feels like it was written bc the author wanted to get something published, not because he had anything to say.


    Would you ever listen to anything by Massimo Pigliucci again?

    no


    Would you be willing to try another one of Jay Russell’s performances?

    no


    What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

    Annoyance that the lack of a point.


    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Garth 07-06-11
    Garth 07-06-11
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    "Uninformative and dogmatic, not wroth the time."

    Every aspect of culture has is orthodoxies, religious, political, economic, artistic and even scientific. Inherent in each orthodoxy are their articles of faith, dogmas, adherents, defenders, evangelists and prophets. There is no fault with any of these, but they must be understood for what they are. Massimo Pigliucci is, without question, a minister of scientific orthodoxy, and as such uses the tools and methods of his avocation. He must be read with this understanding. The first line of defense for orthodoxy is consensus, which he sites repeatedly, ignoring the basic understanding that consensus has never established fact. Instead of discussing questions rationally on their merits, he falls back on insults and demeaning language while attacking the motives and personalities of those who disagree with him, questioning their right to speak outside of their credentialed areas of expertise while repeatedly doing so himself.
    As an engineer and physics instructor of 40 years, I have accumulated many questions on the positions commonly held in the scientific community, none of which were addressed seriously in this book. If you are looking for an emotional pep talk to sustain you in your commonly held opinions, this is your book, but if you are looking for an objective, rational discussion, look elsewhere. This is least informative and least credible book I have ever read on these topics.

    5 of 19 people found this review helpful
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