SGU Episode 3

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SGU Episode 3
7th June 2005

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Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
P: Perry DeAngelis
M: Massimo Pigliucci
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Show Notes


S: Hello and welcome to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Today is June 7th, 2005. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me this week are Perry DeAngelis –

P: Hello, everybody.

S: – and Bob Novella.

B: Good evening.

S: We have a special guest this week, Massimo Pigliucci, who I will introduce in a moment. But, first, some follow-up from our discussion last week.

News Items[edit]

Smithsonian ID Fiasco Follow-Up (0:32)[edit]

Science education failing in the US from SGU Episode 2.

The Washington Post: Smithsonian Distances Itself From Controversial Film

S: Last week we talked about what is now being known as the Smithsonian Institution ID Fiasco. For those of you who listened, the Smithsonian Institution agreed to co-sponsor a film, which was being promoted by the Discovery Institute, which is an intelligent design creationism proponent. The film was called –

P: Shocking lack of judgment.

P: Shocking.

S: A shocking lack of judgment and, we agreed, it was extremely naïve.

P: Yep.

B: And, Steve, they're more than just proponents. I mean, they are the major arm –

S: Yes.

B: – of the movement.

S: That's correct. They exist to promote intelligent design creationism. The film was The Privileged Planet: The Search for Design in the Universe, or Purpose in the Universe. As in response to the Smithsonian Institution's plan there was a backlash of criticism from the scientific and skeptical communities –

P: I'm shocked.

S: – and, which has happened in many cases, as we have discussed in the past, when school boards or institutions, you know, fall prey to either creationism or intelligent design, or are being used in this purpose, the blogosphere jumps on it, the cyberspace skeptical and scientific community can react almost instantaneously. Mr. Randall Kremer, who was the public affairs agent for the Smithsonian Institute, was flooded with emails. They were essentially embarrassed out of co-sponsoring the film, which is, you know, a minor victory for skeptical activism.

B: I mean, they should have been embarrassed.

S: They should've been embarrassed. Here, I'm going to read to you the email that I personally sent to Mr. Kremer –

B: – which, I think, just put it over the edge.

S: Yes.

B: That was the, you know, the straw that made them cave.

S: Clearly it was instrumental –

P: No doubt. No doubt.

S: – in this victory—which is, I think, probably representative of the kind of scientific backlash that they received. So here's the email:

Mr. Kremer, As a scientist and educator I was very dismayed to hear that the prestigious Smithsonian Institution was co-sponsoring the screening of a film promoting the pseudoscience of intelligent design, The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe. I strongly urge you to reconsider this. The Discovery Institute is a pseudoscientific organization dedicated to promoting religious belief as science. Intelligent design is a thinly-veiled religious belief system designed deliberately to remove any overt religious references from what is otherwise classic creationism. Its purpose is to infiltrate institutions like SI in order to convince the public that it has scientific credentials. Do not be so naïve, as unfortunately others before you have, in thinking that screening this film at SI will not be used by the Discovery Institute and other promoters of ID as scientific authoritative endorsement of ID. In fact, they are already doing so. You have stated that SI policy is such that events of a religious or partisan political nature are not permitted. I would add to that list egregious pseudoscience. Even if you accept the propaganda that ID is not a religious belief, you must acknowledge the consensus opinion of the scientific community that it is simply not science. Do not let SI be exploited to promote an anti-scientific agenda.

P: Hear, hear.

S: And, again, feedback like that, you know, very—within days forced, embarrassed the Smithsonian Institutiton –

P: Must've – he must've got thousands of those.

S: Must've gotten thousands. I hope so. I mean, we and the New England Skeptical Society did our part in spreading the word and encouraging people to write similar emails.

P: And the JREF, with their financial offer –

S: Yeah, well, Randi offered $20,000 to SI to not show the film. They did not accept his offer –

P: Right.

S: – and, in fact, they declined to accept the $16,000 from the Discovery Institute. So they're getting no money.

B: Well, I –

S: They're showing the film anyway.

B: Steve, I don't think they actually declined to accept it. I think they gave it back.

S: Well – yes, fine. The returned it.

P: My understanding was they returned it. They returned it, yeah.

S: They returned the $16,000 and they removed their co-sponsorship of the film, so – The film is still being screened, you know, at a private function in the Smithsonian Institute, but it's not being sponsored, they're not accepting any funds from them, and clearly the imprimatur, the validation, of a prestigious scientific institution like the Smithsonian Institute has been removed from this film and from the Discovery Institute.

P: So it's 90% good. It's not 100%, it's 90%.

S: And I think that they'll be more wary the next time.

P: Right.

S: The real victory here is that this will not happen again. Hopefully.

P: What were they thinking?

S: What were they thinking?

P: Yeah. It's crazy. Crazy.

S: Just incredible.

Science or Fiction (5:09)[edit]

S: We are going to also introduce a new segment this week, a segment called "Science or Fiction". In this segment, I am going to challenge my panel of skeptics. I have three news items—scientific breakthroughs, scientific news items—from the past week. I'm going to read you a brief summary of each of those items. The trick is that one of these items is not real. One of these items is fiction. The other two are genuine scientific breakthroughs, one is fiction. The challenge for you two this week is to try to decide which one is the fake one.

P: Mere child's play.

S: You have to bring all of your skeptical tools to bear to see if you can sniff out the fake. You can make your comments about each one as I present them, but wait until I've stated all three before you make your guess as to which one is fake. Are you ready?

B: Mm-hmm.

P: Sure.

S: Let's play.

B: Go for it.

S: Item number one: Dolphins have been observed not only using tools, but also teaching tool use to their children. This is the first example of cultural tool use in a non-primate species. That's item number one.

P: Interesting.

S: Item number two: Astronomers have discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting a nearby star, 50 light-years from Earth. This is the first Earth-sized planet discovered around another star, and astronomers say there are indications that the planet has an atmosphere. This is the best candidate so far for extraterrestrial life.

P: How far?

S: It's about 50 light-years from our system.

P: All right.

S: Item number three: French scientists have discovered a way to keep water from freezing at hundreds of degrees below zero—near absolute zero. Those are your three items. What are your thoughts?

B: Wow. I've got problems with all of them.

S: I know. That's why they were chosen.

P: (laughter)

B: OK, the dolphins. You said one thing at the end, though, that piqued my interest there. You said that it's the first non-primate species shown to use tools?

S: Right. Well, cultural tool use. In other words, they're – it's not something that's just innate. They're actually teaching this to their children.

B: OK. 'Cause when you said that, I thought of – 'cause I know there are birds that will actually use tools to –

S: There are. And there're some birds that have some problem-solving skills.

B: Right.

S: But this is – they're actually –

B: It's cultural. There's actually a cultural thing.

S: They were observed teaching the tool use, yes.

B: OK, now I – I mean, since, of course, they don't have any hands or opposable thumbs, I assume they're not using their flippers. It would have to be their mouth. So maybe somehow they're using their mouth to manipulate an object they find on the sea floor. I don't think that's – I don't think that's a fact.

P: As for me, I'm gonna say that the first one is the truth. I recently, within the last week, saw a special, I think on the Discovery Channel. You know, it showed dolphins being very sophisticated, particularly a thing that they showed that really struck me was how two males would team up for a long time and keep a female hostage between the two of them. They'd swim around with her, never let her get very far from them –

B: I've heard of that.

P: – for months –

B: Months?

P: – months, they would keep her, so that she would only mate with them.

S: They're smart critters. They're vey smart critters.

B: Wow.

P: She'd try to get away, they'd attack her and really keep her corralled.

B: Now –

P: Anyway, it sounds accurate to me, the first one.

B: The second one has got to be false. We simply are not at the –

P: Yeah, it's too far.

B: No, not actually.

P: To see an atmosphere?

B: Fifty light-years is not too far. It's the actual size that can't be right. Earth-sized planets we simply don't have the technology yet to ascertain the – to determine or to find planets that are Earth-sized. Typically, the only things we find are bigger than actually Jupiter –

P: Yeah.

B: – so we're talking thousands and thousands of times bigger than the Earth.

P: He went beyond that, too, Bob. He said that they had evidence that there was an atmosphere on it. How the heck –

B: Well, that's possible. I mean, you could – I think –

P: Not that size.

B: Well, using something –

S: All it requires is spectroscopic analysis –

B: Right.

S: – of the light coming from the atmosphere.

B: Spectroscopy would tell you if there were certain elements in the atmosphere. That's not what concerns me. It's the size, and that's just too small. We haven't – we're not close to detecting Earth-sized yet.

P: That one sounds false to me.

B: We will get there, though. We'll get there, but we're not there yet. Now, that – it doesn't matter what technique they're using. They could be using, you know, the gravitational disturbance of the parent star caused by the planet.

P: Wobbling.

B: Still, Earth-sized planets are just too small to create a nudge that's detectable yet.

S: Interesting.

P: Now, the last one, about the water. I mean, it's impressive –

B: Let me make one more comment about the second one. The other technique is actually—and it was recently perfected. They've actually – they claim to have discovered a planet that was the first planet discovered purely from the reflected light of the parent star, which was quite an achievement. But, still, that was a huge planet, a huge amount of light, relatively speaking.

S: So you don't think we're ready for this breakthrough yet.

B: No, not yet. We will definitely get there, and maybe relatively soon. Maybe, you know, maybe ten years, six years, but I've heard nothing approaching Earth-sized yet. And, the third one. Perry, did you want to comment on the water?

P: I was simply saying that it's impressive, but it simply seems more reasonable. Not precisely sure how you'd go about doing it.

S: Even though they were French scientists?


P: Yeah, well, we're suspending our disbelief for the moment.

B: At what temperature did you say, Steve? You mentioned near absolute zero.

P: Hundreds of degrees below zero.

S: Single digits.

B: Single degrees near absolute zero?

S: Yeah. Eight degrees was, I think, the figure given.

P: That's crazy.

B: That's – now that's liquid? Liquid water? I don't – no, I don't see that happening. No.

P: You gotta choose between the two of them.

B: I know. That's just too damn cold. I mean, even, you know, moving water can get colder than 32 by the fact that it's moving, will lower the freezing temperature a little bit, but to that degree? Maybe there's some sort of state that can get water into that makes it somewhat immune to freezing, but I can't imagine what that might be. Let's see. What – how could they – what could they possibly do to liquid water to maintain that state?

P: I have – I don't know.

B: – even that close –

P: Move it at an incredibly high speed?

S: So it's time to cast your votes.

B: OK. By definition –

P: Yeah, I'm still – I still think number two is less reasonable.

S: Perry votes for number two, the Earth-sized planet around another star. Bob?

B: Is what, true? Science or fiction?

S: As the fake one. As the fiction.

P: As the fiction. I'm writing that down as –

B: Now, there's two fiction. Aren't there two fiction?

S: No, there's one fiction. There's two are real.

P: Right. I believe that number two is fiction.

B: I could have sworn you said one real, two fiction.

P: Come on, Bob.

S: Two are science, one is fiction.

P: These rules are not complicated, Bob.

B: OK. Then, well, it's gotta be two. Two is definitely fiction.

S: So you both cast your vote for two.

P: Correct.

B: Too small.

S: OK. Well, you are both good skeptics. You got the correct answer.

P: Course we are!

S: You did very well.

P: Now, how did the scientist do that with the water?

B: I'm dying to know.

S: Well, we'll take them in order. Let's take them in order.

P: We'll take them in order.

S: A group of dolphins living off the coast of Australia teach their offspring to use their snouts with sponges while foraging for food in the sea floor. So, they actually put sponges on their noses to protect their – to protect them while foraging on the sea floor.

B: How do they do this?

S: Then they caught – They stick it on there. And then they caught mothers teaching this to their children.

P: Wow. Wow.

B: That's fascinating. So if they get, like, a –

S: You were right. Your intuition was right. It was something – they use their snout, not their flippers.

P: Smart critters.

B: Absolutely. So, if they get, like, a red sponge and stick it to their nose, they look kind of like clownfish? Is that how it works?

P: Bob.

S: I guess so.

P: Badum-bum.

S: This is by Krützen and colleagues. They analyzed thirteen, what they're calling "spongers", and 172 non-spongers, and concluded that the practice seems to be passed along family lines, primarily from mothers to daughters, for some reason.

B: That's very believable. I mean, they're just so intelligent. It seems –

P: Women do most of the work in the animal kingdom. That's why.

B: It seems very likely that they improvised some sort of tool use with their snouts. OK. Makes sense.

S: You're absolutely right with number two. I think that that is eventually going to be a headline –

P: Right.

S: – but it's just a few years too early.

B: Mm-hmm.

S: But Bob is just too up-to-date on the planet-hunting state of the art.

P: Hey, hey! I guessed it, too.

S: You did! But Bob had the details. It's true. You both sniffed that one out.

P: Thank you.

B: Water me! Come on, tell me, what's the (inaudible) do this?

S: OK. Here's the headline. You're gonna love it. "Nanotube water doesn't freeze, even at hundreds of degrees below zero."

B: Wow.

S: So, what French scientists have done is, they've – they are using the carbon nanotubes as a template, and the water molecules filling these tubes take on a similar structure, where the hydrogen and oxygen atoms form a lattice-like bond, and they – it will not freeze. It will continue to flow through this tube, even down to near-absolute temperatures.

B: That's fascinating.

P: Hum.

B: My god. It changes the molecular arrangement of the water?

S: Yeah, it actually changes the molecular arrangement of the water.

B: But can you still consider it liquid water, though?

S: You know, it's – that's a good question. I didn't say it remained a liquid. I said it didn't freeze.

B: A-ha! OK.

P: It's true.

S: It may actually be another state of water.

B: That makes more sense.

S: It may not technically be the same state as, you know, normal liquid water.

P: Sort of plasmic?

S: It's not a plasma.

B: No.

S: I mean, it's a new – and I don't know if they're actually going to call it a new phase, but it definitely is a new state that water is in. And it is more like liquid than like ice. It certainly does not form ice crystals. It stays in this lattice formation and does not, you know, freeze into the normal crystalline structure that water ice has.

B: Yeah. It definitely doesn't sound like any of the other states of matter could account for that. I mean, you couldn't – it doesn't sound liquid to me, it doesn't sound – maybe it's a different type of solid. It's definitely not the other types, like plasma that Perry mentioned, or some of the more exotic ones, the Bose–Einstein condensates and the fermionic condensates. It can't be that, either. So, maybe it's a new type of solid for water. OK.

P: Interesting as heck.

S: Very interesting. It remains to be seen what the applications of this would be, but these nanotubes technology is, you know, very, very new and very, very active area of research, and this is just one example.

B: The applications are – appear to be just utterly mind-boggling for these nanotubes. I've never seen a discovery take off in quite the way that nanotubes has. I mean, just from the get-go, you know, the interest was worldwide, and since then they've found potential applications from computing to fibers to, maybe—to all sorts of applications—electronics. It's amazing how versatile this material appears to be. I think we'll be hearing a lot about nanotubes.

S: Very interesting. Well, it is now time to bring on our guest.

Interview with Massimo Pigliucci (16:22)[edit]

S: With us this week is Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, who we simply call our friend (booming voice) Massimo.

P: (laughs)

S: Massimo is Associate Professor of Evolutionary Biology at SUNY Stony Brook in Long Island. He has published over 70 technical papers in evolution and botany. He's written seven books. His most recent non-technical book is Denying Evolution [ISBN 0-87893-659-9]. He's the author of a column in Skeptical Inquirer magazine called "Thinking About Science", and he's a frequent contributor not only to Skeptical Inquirer but also Skeptic, Free Inquiry, Philosophy Now, and Philosopher's Magazine. He has a doctorate in genetics from the University of Ferrarra in Italy, a PhD in botany from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, Massimo.

M: Thank you for having me. That list always sounds a little bit embarrassing.


S: Yeah, it always is embarrassing to hear somebody else read your own CV.

B: I wish I had such a list.

P: It's daunting, yes.

S: Thank you for being on our show this week. We appreciate it.

M: My pleasure.

Intelligent Design (17:35)[edit]

S: So, I'm sure you've been following, in the news over the last few weeks, the recent activity of the – our friends, the intelligent design crew –

M: Yes, indeed.

S: – in Kansas City with the – We just got through talking about the Smithsonian Institute debacle –

M: Right.

S: – which, if you hadn't heard, they backed off from cosponsoring the Discovery Institute film.

M: Right. See, sometimes it works.

S: Sometimes it does work. Sometimes it does work.

P: Amen.

S: And, hopefully, people, you know, like the director of the Smithsonian, will think twice before, you know, falling for the Discovery Institute's coy offers in the future. So, what have you been doing recently, in terms of investigating or writing about the intelligent design crew?

M: Well, one thing that I've not been doing is to go to Kansas for those scam hearings that they organized with the local Board of Education.

S: Were you invited?

M: Yes, I was actually invited, and I followed the advice of Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, more or less politely responding that I was – it wouldn't be a good idea for any scientists to participate.

P: So, Massimo, you agree with the basic, what I've been reading, then, in that the scientific community is really refraining from speaking at those hearings? You agree with that?

M: Right. I agree, and that's actually a change of heart for me, because in the past I've been involved in direct debates with creationists, intelligent design proponents, and so on and so forth. Now, under certain circumstances, those debates are actually fun, I guess, and may have a purpose, depending on the venue and the format and so on. But, definitely, in front of a school board, it's not – it doesn't seem like a good idea, because it really, in that case, does provide the other side with some legitimacy that they, frankly, don't deserve.

S: But do you – critics have said – critics of the decision of Eugenie Scott, and you, obviously, and of scientists that she advised, to boycott those hearings, have said that they already have legitimacy by the mere fact that they're before a school board, and then, therefore, shouldn't the mainstream scientific position be represented? What do you say about that?

M: Well, it depends on – I think, when we're talking about legitimacy, it depends on who bestows the legitimacy. It seems to me that one thing is to be invited by a school board, who as we know, is elected, and doesn't necessarily have much of an effect on either science, or education for that matter. Another thing is to be, on the other hand, given some credence from a professional biologist or a professional scientist, and that's what, I guess, we wanted to avoid in this case. Incidentally, the message was, in no uncertain terms, directed mostly to the school board. In other words, we told them that this was not an acceptable way of deciding these sort of matters.

S: Do you think that strategy worked?

M: I think it worked better than the alternative in this particular case. We'll see, of course, what the final outcome of the Kansas equation is.

P: Right.

M: Apparently, in Kansas, there is never a final outcome.

S: Right.

M: They can change their mind every other year.

P: It's true.

S: We thought it was interesting, the other – the unique or new aspect of this case was that the school board's decision, what they've said so far—now, they haven't rendered a final decision—went beyond just the creation–evolution issue to actually redefining science.

M: Which is, of course – right. Which is, of course, what the intelligent design side actually wants. Beginning with Phillip Johnson's early books, and certainly now with their chief intellectual Bill Dembski, what they want is, in fact, to redefine science. And that's an interesting point, which, I guess, we should spend a couple of minutes on. I have often said—I've debated Bill Dembski a couple of times, and we have exchanged opinions in writings as well, and here is Dembski's position, which sounds very reasonable, and I think it's one of the reasons it's so appealing to, sort of, people who don't have much of a philosophical background, even some scientists. His position is the following: He says, look, it used to be that anything – different kinds of potential causes for events were allowed as possible explanations, since the time of Aristotle—Aristotle included final causes, of course, to which intelligent design will belong—as acceptable kind of answers when one wonders about what's going on in the universe. And, then, Dembski says, Bacon came on—the British philosopher—came on the scene in the sixteenth century and decided, more or less arbitrarily, that final causes were out, that science was only a matter of how and not of why, and, ever since, according to Dembski, science has been impoverished, and it's time to bring things back, essentially, to the wholeness of the Aristotelian approach. Now, that sounds very interesting, except that there are a couple of things that don't work. First of all, Aristotle never used final causes in a way that Bill Dembski will like to begin with.

S: Mm-hmm.

M: But that's a minor point. The major point is this: There was a very good reason why Bacon did – suggested what he suggested, which was, you realize that science wasn't going to get off the ground while it was still messing around with supernatural explanations. If one always had the supernatural card to play, any time that one was sort of running out of options, then science would simply never really be able to make progress in understanding the natural world.

S: Right.

M: So, that's why he said that those kinds of answers are out. Now, that worked very well for about a couple of centuries, especially in physics—Galileo, Newton, and so on. Then, Darwin came to play, and the game changed again, because, in fact, Darwin did contribute what—Dembski maintains—Darwin did reintroduce final causes in science, in biology. The question of why things happen is a fundamental question in evolutionary biology, and it is a perfectly fair question, which is pursued by biologists since Darwin. It's just that we answer in a different way. When we ask, "Why is the eye structured the way it is?", the answer is "Because natural selection favored certain variations on that structure, which worked better for the purpose of visualizing objects, and so on and so forth. In other words, there is a role for "why" questions in biology. It's just that the answer is grammatically different from the one that intelligent design proponents would want to see in – consider as questions in science.

S: Right. "Why" questions are essentially mechanism. "What is the mechanism of this phenomenon?"

M: The long-term mechanisms. So, the distinction here in biology is particularly clear, between "how" questions and "why" questions. So, I can ask those questions, for example, again, about the eye, and if I ask "How does it work?", then what I mean is, "What are the molecular, et cetera, mechanisms that allow the image to be – you know, the light to be captured, the image to be formed and to be sent to the brain, and so on and so forth?" But if I ask, "Why is the eye there to begin with?", then the answer is—regardless of specific mechanisms—the answer is, "Because there is an advantage for certain living organisms to be able to see what – you know, to perceive and understand their surroundings in terms of light waves.

S: Right. So, evolution is the ultimate "why" answer in – for biology, for biological "why" questions.

M: That's right.

S: Dembski and his crowd would like to reintroduce—essentially take us back before Darwin, before Galileo, before Bacon, even—and to reintroduce supernatural or divine causes into scientific questions. What they say is that by not allowing them we're essentially rigging the game against those types of answers.

M: Right.

S: What's your response to that?

M: Well, my response is that – suppose—I actually asked this question to Dembski at one point, at a meeting at the New York Academy of Sciences a couple of years ago—and the question is, okay, well, suppose, for a moment, that, in fact, we do allow intelligent design, in the sense that Dembski means, back into science. So suppose that I'm going to be, all of a sudden, I'm the director of the National Science Foundation, and I decide to give, you know, three million dollars, over a period of five years, to Dembski—which is a pretty good grant by NSF standards—and I ask him, "What would you do? What sort of experiments would you set up? What sort of empirical hypotheses would you be able to test?" And he had no answer.

P: It's a good question.

M: Yeah! He had no answer.

S: Of course he has no answer. Yeah.

M: So, that is why, I think – so, I guess, to go back to your question, there are two different kinds of answers to "Why is it that the supernatural is out by definition?", essentially. One is the pragmatic one, the one that I just provided. You know, from the point of view of practical scientists, I want to see, you know, the proof is in the pudding. What is he going to do? Suppose that I do give you the money. What sort of hypotheses can you test? And, of course, the answer, again, is "None.", because, by definition, of course, the supernatural agent can do whatever the heck he wants –

S: Right.

M: – and, so, there's no way to predict, and therefore to test, what he's going to do. The other answer is, I think, a little deeper, and that's the philosophical answer—and, as you know, most scientists are not particularly well-versed in philosophy—but the philosophical answer is this: It is a matter of principle, once that you invoke the supernatural, you will not be able to propose empirically testable hypotheses. In other words, it's not just a matter of Bill Dembski's limited imagination, or anybody else's limited imagination, that at the moment we can't think of one, but give me enough time and I'll come up with one. A philosopher would argue that, as a matter of principle, if you abandon the position of methodological naturalism in science, you're dead. You're not doing science anymore. You're maybe doing something else—you might be doing theology, you might be doing some sort of philosophy—but you're certainly not doing science. And it is that difference, of course, between philosophical and methodological naturalism, that is very important, is apparently a little subtle for most people –

S: Right.

M: – but it's very important in terms of this debate.

S: Right, and they either don't get it or don't want to get it.

M: Right. (laughs) I do have the suspicion sometimes that they don't want to get it.

S: They don't want to get it. Because, you know, how many times can you explain it to them –

M: Right.

S: – and to really not understand it, you know, stretches the imagination.

M: Right. I mean, I can see how some people with no background in either science or philosophy might be a little puzzled by this difference, which, by the way, we should probably explain, but somebody like Bill Dembski, who does, actually, in fact, have a degree in philosophy, it's hard to believe that he doesn't understand the implications of that distinction.

S: Right, and I've had the same experience as you. If you remember, we were together at the World Skeptics Conference a couple of years ago –

M: Yeah.

S: – and I had the opportunity to ask, I think it was Nelson –

M: Mm-hmm.

S: – a similar kind of question –

M: Yeah, Paul Nelson.

S: – and what he said was that, you know, you cannot question the mind of god. If I say – which means, as you just said, any hypothesis about intelligent design—about the intelligent designer—that you could seek to test or falsify is rendered unfalsifiable by that statement –

M: Right.

S: – because you can't ask the question, "What would, or what should, the world look like if it were designed by an intelligent designer?", because there's no answer to that question. The answer is, "It looks like whatever it looks like." –

M: Right.

S: – and, therefore, it's not falsifiable, and, therefore, not science.

M: Correct. There is –

B: But couldn't –

S: You know they have to understand that.

M: Right. There is a caveat there—which, of course, is something that Dembski either as a matter of – either on purpose or because he really doesn't see the difference, he insists on this point—he says, "But, look: There's plenty of good science that is done under the assumption of intelligent design." He talks about forensic science, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and so on and so forth. And, of course, he's right: That kind of science—archeology, for example—is done under the presumption of intelligent design. But, in those cases, you can, in fact, question the mind of the designer.

S: Right.

M: In fact, the whole point is that you do know, or at least make hypotheses about –

B: Excellent.

M: – what the designer is doing and why –

S: Right.

M: If you couldn't do that, then there would be no archeology, no SETI –

S: Right,

M: – and no forensic science.

S: Exactly.

P: Exactly.

B: That's a good point.

M: And, so, intelligent design is a little too broad of a term in –

S: So it's a false analogy on their part.

M: That's right. Exactly. It is.

S: I've always – it's always struck me, too, that it's one enormous logical fallacy. Now, we keep track of logical fallacies on the show. We actually have our top 20 list of logical fallacies

M: (laugter)

S: – which you can read on our website. It's at There's a couple that they're using here. One, of course, is the argument from ignorance: "We don't know something, therefore god did it."

M: Right.

S: And we – specifically, in this type of explanation, you can also call that the "god of the gaps" argument.

M: Right.

S: But it's also confusing currently unexplained with unexplainable. Again, that's sort of, "The current gap of knowledge, that's what god did."

M: Right.

S: And, as that gap retreats, and the ever-advancing, you know, knowledge of science, god still fills whatever gaps and crevices are currently unexplained as if they never will be explained –

M: Right.

S: – even though, tomorrow, they are explained.

M: I would make, also, an even third-level distinction. That is, there are two kinds of unexplainable questions or phenomena.

S: Mm-hmm.

M: There is the impossibility to explain something because, in fact, there is, essentially, no explanation within the realm of natural laws—which is the sort of unexplainable phenomenon that Dembski likes—but there is also what philosophers call epistemic unexplainability. There may be some things out there that are explainable in the sense that there is an answer somewhere, but, because of the limitations, both current and for possibly future human understanding and human reason, we might never be able to get the answer.

S: Right.

M: So, one possible –

B: It's like a dog –

M: Yes.

B: It's like a dog trying to understand calculus.

M: That's right. Exactly.

B: It's never going to happen.

M: And there are some interesting possible examples within science. So, for example, the question of the origin of life may fall into that category—not because the origin of life is unexplainable in principle—i don't think it is—and, of course, we may explain it. I mean, you know, next week, we may see an article in Science or Nature, somebody has actually come up with the right answer. But it may also be the sort of thing that is epistemically unexplainable by human beings simply because there's very, if any, clues left, essentially. You know, something that happened four billion years ago. There are no fossils. We have very little understanding, or way to get decent information, about what the conditions actually were. So we might never be able to answer that question. But that—even that, even granting that—it still doesn't bring you any closer to the necessity of a supernatural explanation.

Relationship Between Science and Religion (33:15)[edit]

S: Right, right. Once again, we are speaking to Massimo Pigliucci, philosopher and evolutionary scientist, and author of many articles and books. We've been talking about the intelligent design phenomenon and proponents of intelligent design, which brings us, really, to the philosophical underpinnings of science itself. What is the difference between science and religion, philosophically?—and we've brought up some terms like "philosophical naturalism"—our organization, for example, advocates what I would call "scientific skepticism"—and there are some subtle differences between these types of philosophies. You've written several reviews and articles, for example, criticizing Stephen Jay Gould's summary, or summation –

M: Right.

S: – of the relationship between science and religion.

M: Right.

S: Gould came up with this idea of "non-overlapping magesteria", in which both science and religion occupy different –

B: Domains of knowledge.

S: – intellectual domains—right, different domains of knowledge he calls "magesteria"—and they each serve their purpose. You're very – you have been very critical of this idea.

M: Well, for plenty of reasons. I mean, there's not – I should probably start out by saying that I am not a Gould-hater like some of my colleagues. I really like some of the stuff that Stephen Gould wrote, both technical and non-technical, and I really dislike some of the other stuff. In particular, about religion, there are a couple of things that really, I think, are worth considering in that context. First of all, Gould did not come up with the basic idea that you mention, although he did come up with the fancy name, but that idea goes back, essentially, all the way to St. Augustine.

S: Yes, and he acknowledges that, to be fair, yeah.

M: Right. Now, the basic idea, however, is, I think, a bit misleading, for two reasons: Number one, because it hinges on the definition of "god", which Gould leaves kind of up in the air for most of that book. At one point, he finally has to come to terms with the fact that, well, in fact, there are some conceptions of god that do go head-on against science. For example, if you are a Young Earth Creationist who believes that there was a worldwide flood four thousand years old – ago, then, I'm sorry, science just tells you you're wrong. And, if your belief in god hinges on that particular belief then you're dead in the water. So even Gould had to acknowledge that it really depends on what you mean by "god" and what particular version of "god" you're espousing, which is, of course, very different from the question of science. There are no different varieties of science that we're talking about here. It's either you're – you know, scientists disagree on specific theories, but there is, essentially, one body of methods and knowledge that we call "science". On the other hand, religion is an incredibly heterogeneous body of beliefs. So, one has to, at least, to be clear on what one means, because it sounds very nice, it sounds very ecumenical, to say, "Well, science and religion can be different areas of expertise, and let's just keep them separate." Well, it depends. But even within the kind of religion that does not have any direct conflict with science—So, suppose you're, you know, a progressive Catholic. You know, the Pope. The previous Pope, John Paul II, as we know, did acknowledge that the Catholic Church does not have much of a problem—have a problem at all—with the modern theory of – biological theory of evolution.

S: Right.

M: OK. Well, that sounds very good. That still does not amount to say that there's no overlap at all between the two areas of intellectual endeavor. For one thing, because part of science is now getting, actually, to the point of providing explanations, at least tentative explanations, for where religious beliefs and morality come from to begin with.

P: Mm-hmm.

M: Now, I'm not a particular defender of evolutionary psychology, either, but the ideas are out there. And the fact that the ideas are out there means that science is, in fact, beginning to encroach on the area of morality, and religious beliefs, and so on and so forth. Should we kick it out, just because we feel uncomfortable about it, or because some people feel uncomfortable about it? I don't think so. That's not to say that current ideas about evolution are more likely or necessarily correct, but it's just that it is worth exploring as a possibility.

S: Right.

M: And, lastly, there – the last thing that really, I guess, prompted my disagreement with Gould, is that he seems to somehow have forgotten that there is a whole different area of human knowledge, or human intellectual endeavor, that greatly overlaps, and often contradicts, some religious positions, and that's, of course, philosophy—particularly moral philosophy. So, to say, as he says in that book, that morality is the province of religion—well, wait a minute. Actually, morality is the province of a lot of different kinds of activities—as I said a minute ago, even possibly science—but certainly not only religion. So, in other words, the situation, it seems to me, is a lot more complicated than the nice and, you know, neat distinction that Gould was trying to make.

S: Yeah, I agree. He did see – he did go out of his way to sort of overstate the historical non-overlapping of science and religion, and it struck me that you have to sort of, you know, turn a blind eye to all of the cases of – you know, religion, essentially, completely dominated science, was the explanation for the natural world, and has had to retreat territory, if you will, to scientific explanations and the institution of science. But, do you think you could, you know, rescue a legitimate point from Gould's position by saying that what he's describing is not the historical relationship between science and religion but what the relationship should be—in other words, that religion should avoid overlapping with science and should restrict itself to the domains of morality and to the great unanswerable questions of existence that are inherently not explainable or not explorable by scientific methods? What would you say to that?

M: I think that is a fair point. However, the question then can also be asked the other way around: Should science be restricted from inquiries into morality and religious beliefs and so on?

S: Well, you could – as we were saying with the intelligent design thing, there are some questions that are simply outside the realm of science –

M: Right.

S: – and you can argue that, well, if, once you're outside the realm of science by, you know, methodological naturalism, then, you know, that is the domain of faith. You're free to have any arbitrary belief or faith that you choose, because these are questions that are inherently outside of the scientific realm. For example, you may – some people believe that the question of whether or not god exists—or any power or entity or thing that is outside of the natural laws of the universe, not bound by nature, if you will—that that's an inherently unanswerable question by science and therefore is in the realm of faith.

M: Right.

S: Would you agree with that non-overlapping aspect?

M: Right. Yes, I would agree with that nonoverlapping – I'm afraid, however, that that would leave very little outside, in fact, of the realm of science, and I'm perfectly happy – if people are happy with that conclusion –

S: Yes.

M: – I'm fine to go along with it. But the kind of questions—the kind of encroaching of science into the territory of religion and morality that I was referring to—does not deal directly with the question of the existence of god—which, you're right, it's by definition outside the realm of science. But there are other things that are close enough to really bother a lot of religious believers that science is now beginning to encroach upon.

S: Right.

M: So, suppose that we do come up, eventually, with a very reasonable, very serious theory of how morality—a sense of morality, at least, and even possibly some certain specific moral rules—evolved by natural selection among primates and particular, you know, groups or societies.

S: Right.

M: Well, you know, is that encroaching on religion, or not?

S: Well, this is what I would say to this—and this is – I've certainly heard humanists and others take this approach—that science deals with statements of fact—what is the state of history, the state of nature—whereas morality deals with statements of value. So, whenever you have to make a value judgment, that is a question that can be informed—factually informed—by science, but cannot be made scientifically.

M: Mm-hmm.

S: So, that is a very practical and real place to draw the line—again, to map out these domains.

M: Right. So, what you're referring to is what, in philosophy, is known as the naturalistic fallacy, which was discussed originally by David Hume. The idea was, in fact, that you cannot go from what is to what ought to be

S: Right.

M: – from a matter of fact to a matter of value. OK. Now, I have actually taken that position myself in the past and, quite frankly, at this moment I keep vacillating back and forth.

S: Right.

M: So, don't necessarily hold me to what I'm about to say in a few months, because I may change my mind again. But, there is some interesting situations here that need to be discussed. So, while I will certainly grant that there are – there is a large area of specific moral decisions that are very far from anything that science can say at the moment, there are some particular moral values—particular moral rules—that seem to be, in fact, fairly straightforwardly explainable by science. For example, there is a whole area now in philosophy of ethics and philosophy of morality that looks at the use of optimality models—game theoretical models—to predict what sort of behavior would be optimal in a group of individuals, given certain constraints. This is a sort of mathematical modeling that has been done in evolutionary biology for a long time, but until recently, it has not been applied, in fact, directly to questions of human morality. Well, it turns out that when people have—in the last three or four years, there've been a series of papers in major science magazines—when people have, in fact, applied that kind of game-theoretical approach to realistic situations and have actually tested their predictions, with actual real human beings, the funny thing that turned out is that the models were able to predict, very closely, what real human beings would consider – how they would act and what they would consider moral or nonmoral. That raises the question that some kinds of human behavior—human morality, such as our attitude toward killing people, or our attitude toward cheating, and so on and so forth—those actually may be a matter of fact, meaning that they are the expected outcome of the evolution of a society of a certain kind of (inaudible), certain kinds of animals, capable of thinking in fairly abstract manners and so on and so forth. If that is the case, seems to me that that approach begins to break down—it may not entirely break down, but it begins to at least blur the line—between factual and value judgments, because now the value judgment is predictable and explainable in terms of facts about nature.

S: Yeah, I agree that there are certain things that we, as human beings, value, and the evolutionary psychologists are certainly engaged in an attempt to explain why we make those value judgments—again, the evolutionary "why" –

M: Right.

S: – What was the advantage for us having these value judgments?—so – but I'm not sure I agree that having a causal evolutionary "why" to those values makes them not values. Again, I said that would – for me, that's science informing the value judgment. But we still place a value on life, we place a value on human life, and then we get to – there is some point where you have to make a judgment call. For example, how much relative value should we place upon animal life versus human life?

M: Right.

S: How much relative value should we place upon the life of an embryo versus the life of a mother?

M: Now, I think you're – I think you're right.

S: Science can inform these questions, but it ultimately comes down to a value judgment –

M: Right.

S: – that is outside the realm of pure empiricism.

M: I think you're right, but the way that, therefore, I would see it is not as clear a line of separation between facts on one hand and values on the other. I would see some values as actually explainable entirely, or in large part, as the result of facts of nature—for example, again, the kind of society – the kind of animal that we are, actually. Other values, are, on the other hand – may be informed by facts discovered by science but not entirely explained by it, and then there may be—but probably there very likely are—certain areas of moral judgment, such as, probably, the one you just touched upon, that is, how do we treat other animals—that are, in fact, essentially entirely outside the explanations of evolutionary biology.

S: Right.

M: That, to me, brings up an interesting model, however, of sort of a continuum between fact and value, rather than a sharp distinction.

S: I agree, which is true in so much of, you know, intellectual distinctions.

M: Right.

S: It's a fuzzy continuum, not a sharp demarcation. But that doesn't mean—and that's actually another logical fallacy –

M: Right.

S: – the false continuum—that doesn't mean that there isn't a distinction to be made at the extremes –

M: Right.

S: – that there aren't certain questions that are pretty purely factual and other questions that are pretty purely, you know, value judgments or moral, if you want to use that term.

M: Yes, I think you're right. But the question that concerns us as skeptics and scientists and so on is, well, how many people are going to be happy with this idea of a continuum? Now, it may be that a lot of people are simply going to be very unhappy with the idea that there is any continuity at all –

S: Right.

M: – and, you know, how do we deal with it?

S: You know, I agree, but I think that this is such a critical, core intellectual concept that I don't think you can water it down.

M: Right.

S: I think we just have to, through education, get people to think in a little bit more complex way, and to appreciate the concept of continuum, because I just can't imagine dispensing with it or trying to teach concepts with a false dichotomy –

M: Right.

S: – without giving people the appreciation for how to think about continuum with, you know, pseudoscience on one end and science at the other end, and with a continuum in between, for example. And, again, pretty much anything you can – any distinction you can think to make is really probably a continuum and not a sharp demarcation.

M: Right. Right.

S: So, I agree with you that that's a very common fallacy that people fall into, and I think we just need to force our way through with education, to make these kinds of decisions.

M: Which brings us to the question of what kind of an education? And, as you know, there have been – there's been a lot of talk about, we need more science education and we need more scientific education will help solving these kind of problems. And, over the years, I've become convinced that, actually, we don't need more science education—at least not the kind of science education we're doing at the moment.

S: Right, we need better standards of care.

B: Critical thinking skills.

M: Or different. I think we need quite a different kind of science education, because, still today, a lot of our science education is—especially in disciplines such as biology, much less so in areas such as physics—but biology is, to a large extent, you know, a factual – applied in a factual manner.

S: Right.

M: So, you know, really, an introductory course in biology, it's almost as charming as the yellow pages. I mean, you just, you know, start with A and end with Z. And there is very little that we do to actually train our students and our children toward the real objective of education, which I think is critical thinking abilities.

B: Yeah.

M: Now, it is true, of course, that you cannot think on an empty mind, so in order to be critically thinking about something, you actually do have to know some of the facts.

S: Right.

M: But I really don't believe the model that the facts – that the critical thinking is simply going to be the result of seepage through an ocean of facts. I don't think we need the ocean of facts.

S: No, yeah, I agree. Clearly, the critical thinking—theory, understanding, and logic—does not flow naturally from just memorizing a bunch of facts.

M: Right.

S: There are certainly people that know lots of facts but have no real understanding—like, oh, Creationists, for example –

M: Right. Yes.

S: – or anyone that we would think of as a crank, you know. We know these people. They have all this factual knowledge, but they just don't get it.

M: Right.

S: At the same time, empty theories—you know, you tend to drift off into La La Land if you don't have some actual empirical facts to anchor you to reality.

M; That's right.

S: So, it's an interaction, an intimate interaction between the two: theory and fact working together hand-in-hand. That's – that is what we need to teach kids, and that's why intelligent design and creationism is such a – would be such a critical blow—and has been, in fact, a critical blow—to the quality of our science education, 'cause it really undercuts that relationship.

M: Right. Yes. You cannot – it's hard to exercise critical thinking when one of the possibilities on the table is that a supernatural being just did it. "And, why did he do it?" "Well, because he felt like it."

S: Right.

M: "And, how did he do it?" "Well, who knows? He was supernatural."

S: Right.

M: Well, there's not much you can go on from that kind of premise, obviously.

Evolutionary Psychology (51:29)[edit]

S: You mention that you weren't a big fan of evolutionary psychology –

M: Right.

S: – which is basically the discipline of trying to explain human motivations, and beliefs, and morality in evolutionary terms. What's your beef with that?

M: Well, the idea, I think, is sound—meaning that – you know, the basic idea is that, look, human beings are, of course, one kind of animal, and, as all other animals on Earth, we have an evolutionary history. We evolved by natural selection, among other mechanisms, over a long period of time, and so it's only logical to think that natural selection did not shape just our physical bodies, but it also shaped some of—at least, in part—our mental abilities.

S: Mm-hmm.

M: We know that natural selection can shape and change the behavior of a lot of animals, so why not humans?

S: Right.

M: So, the basic premise, I think, is fundamentally sound. The problem is this: Since, of course, as we know, behavior, especially humanly interesting behaviors, don't fossilize. They don't leave much of a fossil record.

S: Right.

M: Since we don't have—not only that, but the solution is made worse by the fact that there are no close relatives—phylogenetically speaking, evolutionarily speaking—to human beings alive today. You know, our closest relatives are chimpanzees and bonobos, which have diverged from us several million years ago. That's not even close by any standard of so-called phylogenetic comparative analysis. So we don't have – of course, there were other species of humans, but they all, for one reason or another, died off some time ago.

S: Well, let me just pause there for a minute, though. Have you – did you read Carl Sagan's book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors?

M: Yes, mm-hmm.

S: So, I mean, actually, his line of argument in that book was looking at the behavior of chimps and primates to see if we can infer anything about human psychological evolutionary ancestors.

M: Right. Right, well –

S: So, you're not saying that we can't get any value from looking at chimps and our closest relatives?

M: No. No, I'm not saying that we can't get any value, but I'm saying that we can get very little value, for the following reason, and with all due respect to Carl Sagan, but – the reason is this: At best, we have a phylogenetic group—you know, close relatives—of three or four species. Right? You know, if you count the two species of chimpanzees and one gorilla.

S: Mm-hmm.

M: And that's simply not enough for any serious comparative phylogenetic analysis. In fact, comparative phylogenetics is – has been a booming discipline in evolutionary biology for the last twenty years, but all the best studies that have been done in comparative phylogenetic studies usually include a large number of species that are fairly closely related to each other—meaning, at a minimum, twenty or thirty. The reason for that is because then you can apply statistical techniques that have been, you know, developed over the last several years.

S: Right.

M: The problem, therefore, with the case of humans is not that it's impossible in – as a matter of principle, or that these are particularly unsound ideas. It just happens that we're pretty unlucky in terms of number of comparisons we can make.

S: Right.

M: Now, that said, of course, yes, one can look at the behavior of chimpanzees or bonobos—which, by the way, are very different from each other and equally –

S: Right.

M: equally related to us—but, and, of course, get some clues or some interesting ideas, some interesting suggestions, about how certain human behaviors, or certain human traits have evolved. So, if, in fact, we were doing – if evolutionary psychology were a branch of philosophy, informed by science—that is, it's a way to build plausible stories about the origin of certain human traits, and you know what? We cannot really test them rigorously, but these are plausible—then I'm perfectly happy with them. In fact, that's exactly what I said a few minutes ago in this broadcast when I was talking about possible ideas about the evolution of morality, and so on and so forth.

S: Right.

M: But, the problem comes to me because when evolutionary psychologists really make a hard pitch for the idea that theirs is, in fact, a quantifiable science of empirically testable hypotheses. Largely, though not entirely, it's not. And it's not, not because of their fault, but because of the reality of the situation. We only have a few species to compare, not enough to carry out statistical tests, and we have otherwise very little information about what human environments were like—especially social environments were like—during the Pleistocene. We have next to nothing in terms of knowledge of what humans actually did, behaved, or thought at the time.

S: Right.

M: And so, you know, to me, evolutionary psychology, at the moment—and I don't see how this is going to change any time soon—is an interesting way of thinking about how certain human traits may have come about, but it is really not a science in the satisfactory sense of the term.

S: Now, there's one other method that you didn't comment on, that might be more plausible for evolutionary psychology, and that is looking at the phenotypic expression, if you will, throughout currently existing human populations. So, although we only have one species, we do have a number of races, we have a number of isolated cultures, and what evolutionary psychologists do is look for those psychological traits which seem to be universal among humans, despite vast disparities in culture, and that is one other window onto evolutionary psychology. What do you think about that?

M: Yeah, again, that is a really reasonable approach, and a reasonable approach that was used by evolutionary biologists in – when they study other species. In some sense, however, it suffers from the opposite problem from the one we were just talking about. So, if we're talking about long-term evolution, as we said a minute ago, we're missing a sufficient number of comparisons. If we're talking about very, very short-term evolution—so we're talking about evolution within homo sapiens—perhaps we can actually understand something about differences between existing populations of humans. But, when it comes down to how those universals that you were talking about actually get involved—you know, were they the result of natural selection, or of other evolutionary processes—there are evolutionary processes that are not selective in nature, so, for example, you know, random drift is the result of simply fixing certain genes in certain small populations—we know that human beings—we know from molecular data—that the human population at certain times in its history was, in fact, small enough to cause that sort of random drift of characteristics—so, for any particular camp that we see today, we're not going to be in a position to know if it was the result of natural selection—as, of course, evolutionary psychologists will maintain—or the result of, essentially, historical accidents. And that is, by the way, the one-million-dollar question in evolutionary biology, you know, how do you discriminate between selective histories and random accidents.

S: Right.

M: The way, usually, again, biologists do it is when they either have a very detailed level of information in the fossil record, or when they have a lot of closely related species. I can tell you one example: Look, this may be a little – the example itself is a little technical, but it's, I think, very illuminating about the sort of things that we would like to be able to do in evolutionary psychology, and that, I think, at the moment, at least, we can't do. One of the best examples published in the last few years of competitive phylogenetic studies in non-human animals was the – a study that dealt with the question of why certain fish have – the male fish have a long tail, which seems to be attractive to females. So, these are swordtail fish, which you can buy for your aquarium. And, it has been known for a long time that females have a preference for males that have a long tail. Well, the question was this: Did the preference evolve first, or did the tail evolve first? And how are you going to answer that sort of question? You cannot answer it by looking at variation within the current species, because you will find males with longer or shorter tails, and you will find females with more or less preference for long tails, but you won't be able—since they're all mixed around—you can't tell which one came first.

S: Right.

M: The way they solved this problem—this was an extremely elegant piece of work—they looked at – these researchers looked at the fifteen or twenty most closely-related species to the swordtail fish. Some of these species have the tail—the very close relatives—and some of them don't. The males don't have the tail. So, if you trace back the evolution of the tail, you will find that, at one point, a certain, you know, number of million years ago, there were fish that were closely related to the swordtail which did not have the tail. Turns out, however, that their females have the preference. So, if you expose the female of some close relatives without the tail, to a male that has an artificial tail, they'll go for it. That is a very strong indication that, in fact, the female preference evolved before the tail –

S: Before the tail.

M: Right. And the tail evolved as a result of the fact that, for whatever reason—which we don't know at the moment—some females did have that preference. Now, that's a beautiful example of how you can figure out, in fact, how natural selection can favor certain not only morphological traits, such as the tail, but certain – but interacts with behavioral traits, such as female preference. That's exactly the sort of stuff that evolutionary biologists would die to have in human species.

S: Right.

M: And, the problem, again, is that, unfortunately, we don't have twenty or twenty-five species to play with.

S: Right. One more attempt to rescue evolutionary psychology.

M: (laughter) OK!

P: (laughter)

S: One more attempt, and that is: computer models, where you essentially take preferences and subject them to computer evolutionary models, and then see what those – what advantages—survival advantages—those psychological preferences result in –

M: Right.

S: – to see how—statistically, how—that matches actual human preferences and human behavior. What do you think about that approach?

M: Right. Again, that's a very reasonable approach, and, in fact, actually, among the ones we've discussed so far, is probably the best.

S: Mm-hmm.

M: That goes back to the game-theoretical models of evolution of morality, actually, that I was mentioning some time earlier.

S: Right.

M: Again, those are very suggestive. And, you know, whenever we do get a match between a reasonably-built mathematical model and a reasonably valid –

S: Calibrated data.

M: Yeah, calibrated data, then – of course, that's a very interesting finding. It, by itself, of course, is not conclusive, but it's a heck of an interesting find. Now, that said, there are caveats there, too. Number one: Those models do depend, a lot, on the assumptions that are embedded in the parameters. So, the costs, for example, to fitness.

S: Mm-hmm.

M: And those assumptions are often just a guess of the modeler. You know, they're difficult to just find independently from an empirical perspective. This is not just for humans. It's a problem with game-theoretical models in general. The other thing is, again, it's difficult to get very reliable or meaningful data from modern human populations, because modern human populations, unfortunately, are, by and large, so mixed up, in terms of cultural values and influences. And, also, it's very difficult to measure fitness in modern environments. And, in fact, one can make the argument that fitness in modern environments is essentially irrelevant to the question, because what we really want to know is, what were the fitness payoffs in the Pleistocene –

S: Right.

M: – you know, during the time in which these traits really did evolve? Those fitness payoffs and trade-offs may have been very, very different from the ones you can measure today in modern human populations. So, again, it's not hopeless, but what I would like to stress is that I think evolutionary psychologists have a heck of a long way to go, and they don't seem—at least, I don't want to make a blanket statement here, but a lot of them don't seem—to be particularly concerned (let's put it this way) about these sort of limitations, which have been pointed out to them by a variety of sources.

Nomenclature: Brights, Skeptics, Humanists, Atheists (1:03:50)[edit]

S: So, just to change gears a little bit, reading through your website—which, by the way, if I didn't mention it earlier, you have a website called, which has a large number of essays covering evolutionary biology, creationism and intelligent design, philosophy, and you even venture out into the misty world of politics, which we don't deal with too much on this show—but I did notice that you wrote an essay about a topic which is – a humorous topic of interest to skeptics, about the Brights phenomenon fiasco a couple of years ago.

M: Oh, yes.

S: Now, just a very a quick history: A couple of years ago, a couple of humanists came up with the idea of essentially renaming those people who take a naturalistic worldview, who believe that there's nothing supernatural or paranormal in the world, and, rather than being labeled with the negative terms that we've been stuck with—atheist, and skeptic

B: Cynic.

S: – that have a lot of negative connotations—to come up with a positive term, modeling this after the gay community essentially branding themselves as "gay", to basically engender a more positive outlook. Now, you wrote an article a couple of years ago, in 2003, essentially praising this movement and this idea.

M: Mm-hmm.

S: It seems to me that it hasn't really taken off in the last couple of years. Has your opinion of this changed at all since then?

M: Yeah, this is one of those areas in which I'm afraid it was a good idea, but, as you said, it hasn't worked, and probably it hasn't worked partially for the very reasons that were pointed out by critics at the beginning, which is: The parallel with the gay community is in fact compelling. I think the analysis there is correct –

S: Right.

M: – that part of what helped—certainly not the entire thing, but part of what helped—creating a positive image for the gay community is, in fact, the decision to call themselves gay. However—and, therefore, you know, something like "brights" sounds like a bright idea, as initial reactions went—however, unfortunately, "bright", especially in a society like the American one, has a very different connotation than "gay". You know, nobody would disagree with being called "gay", no one would consider somebody, you know, a snob because they consider themselves gay.

S: Right.

M: The word "bright", on the other hand, of course, especially for certain people—and, I must say, especially in a country like the United States, with a long history of several different currents of anti-intellectualism—

S: Right.

M: – to consider oneself "bright", and actually vocally say so, it's obviously, if not the ultimate sin, it's pretty close to it. So, I suppose that's the reason the thing has not worked, and, therefore, I would like to concede that, yes, it probably wasn't exactly as bright an idea as it sounded at the beginning.

P: (laughter)

S: Yeah, it kinda struck us as misguided, and even other early supporters like Michael Shermer have backed off. He wrote a commentary saying that, basically, this was an attempt at rebranding –

M: Right.

S: – and it was done without any marketing research, and without – not even an email to the community saying, "Hey, what do you guys think about this?" Their defense was, well, we didn't want to do things by committee. It would have taken forever, and sometimes you just have to do things –

M: Right.

S: – to get them done. But, they really tried to impose a term onto a very – certainly independently-thinking group of people by fiat, and I thought it was doomed from the outset—especially, as you point out, you know, calling oneself "gay" is not an automatic offense to those people who are – to whom you are not referring, because they will not – you know, being not gay is not an insult.

M: That's right. But not being bright –

P: (laughter) Exactly.

S: Not being bright – yeah, "You're not bright." That is – so, no one is ever going to buy into a term that's an implied insult to everybody else.

M: That's right. Yes.

P: That's right.

S: So, I thought, for that reason, it was kind of doomed to failure.

M: Yep.

S: It does bring up the interesting question, though: What do we call ourselves? I mean, one thing that's interesting that came out of the "bright" brouhaha was that, you know what? No one came up with a good alternate.

M: Right.

S: I don't know if you have any thoughts on this.

M: Well, so, first of all, it depends on what you mean by "ourselves", because, as you know, the skeptic community, for example, does include some people who are believers in some sort of supernatural –

S: Yeah, exactly.

M: In that case, you know, I don't want to use the term, for example, "secular humanist", because those people certainly wouldn't consider themselves that way. So, I think my answer to that is two-fold: On the one hand, I don't think we need one term, because we do actually have a large – you know, several different kinds of constituencies that are – they join efforts in certain areas. Again, skepticism is one of them.

S: Right.

M: You don't have to have – be a nonbeliever in order to be a skeptic in most areas of, you know, science and pseudoscience and so on. The other thing is, when people ask me what I am, normally I just call myself a "humanist"—not even using the world "secular" because, at this point, there is essentially – there are no non-secular humanists, as far as I'm concerned, anyway.

S: There are no divine humanists?

M: There are no divine humanists. Even though, of course, as you know, that that's how the term originated in the Renaissance. There were only divine humanists. There were only, you know, religious humanists.

S: Right.

M: But, as far as I'm concerned, the term "humanist" is good enough to describe what I believe. I don't subscribe to any supernatural power out there, certainly none that is concerned with human affairs, and, therefore, I am optimistic about, despite all the evidence, about what human beings can do. And, so, the word "humanist" fits pretty well.

S: Right.

M: If we're not talking about metaphysics, then I call myself a skeptic, because I think it still is the best term, especially if you want to clarify, the skeptic is not necessarily somebody who always says "no". It's a positive skepticism in the sense of David Hume.

S: Right.

M: You know, a skeptic is somebody who entertains ideas and subjects them to rational and empirical scrutiny instead of either accepting them without hesitation or rejecting them outright.

S: I agree. I mean, I think – I'm happy to call myself a skeptic. Sometimes I'll modify it by saying I'm a scientific skeptic, but it's basically a skeptic. In terms of religious beliefs, I call myself an agnostic. But I've basically accepted the fact that, no matter what I call myself, I'm going to have to explain it a little bit.

M: Yes.

S: There is no one term that does not require some explanation. But, you know, that's the nature of this whole endeavor. There's a certain amount of complexity to our philosophy and our beliefs, and they defy a single, especially monosyllabic, label, right?

M: And, in fact, that's not a bad idea at all, because the fact that we have to explain ourselves as soon as we label ourselves is actually a good thing, because it implies that, look, part of what we are about is engaging in a discourse with people and educating people about certain aspects of thinking. So, yeah, it does require explanation, and I really wouldn't want to see a day in which it wouldn't require an explanation.

S: Right.

M: It's – explanations are good, because they engage people in discussions.

S: Yeah, although, admittedly, the downside to that is when you're trying to market a magazine like Skeptical Inquirer or Skeptic

M: Yes.

S: – or you're trying to sell an organization like the New England Skeptical Society, there is a branding—a marketing—issue here. You do want a term that's going to be looked at initially positively, or at least curiously, and not have an initial negative reaction.

M: Sure.

S: I think that, just culturally, historically, almost anything that would reasonably define us—and, again, as you point out, "us" is lots of different things, but with just very loose philosophical connections—that anything that would define us, you know, probably has some negative baggage that goes along with it.

M: True. But, then again, could be worse. I mean, I just got from Paul Kurtz this nice certificate that says that I'm a upraxifer. Well, now, there's a term that is not going anywhere.

S: A upraxifer?

M: Yes.

S: Yeah. Paul Kurtz is, by the way, the founder of both the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and the Secular – the Council for Secular Humanist [sic], and he has a long history of these really obscure terms.

M: That's right.

S: The original name for the Skeptical Inquirer

B: Zetetic. Exactly.

S: – was the Zetetic.

M: Yeah. (laughter)

S: Recently, I was at a meeting with him where we were trying to figure out what to name our medical journal that looks at, you know, controversial and pseudoscientific claims, and he had another Greek name that nobody would know what it meant. And I can't even remember what it was. That's how bad it is. But –

M: And that's bad sign right there, that you can't remember it.

S: Yeah, that's a (inaudible). Yeah, it's a challenge.

M: Ditto.

S: That's our cross to bear—in the skeptical movement, and in humanism, and in philosophical naturalism, and the entire spectrum and everything in between.

M: Yep.

S: Well, Massimo, it was a pleasure. We greatly enjoyed you having on our podcast, the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. You were, in fact, our first guest; our first guest skeptic on the show.

M: I am honored.

S: We appreciate it.

M: I am honored. It was my pleasure.

S: Thank you. We hope to have you back sometime.

M: Yes, definitely.

B: Thank you, Massimo.

P: All right. Thank you, Massimo.

S: And this is Steven Novella. Until next week, this has been the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For more information on this and other episodes, see our website at

Today I Learned[edit]

  • This is the first episode with a guest interview and the first episode to feature the Science or Fiction segment.
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