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RS09 - When Smart People Endorse Pseudoscience

Release date: May 23, 2010

It is very easy to make fun of not-so-educated people who reject evolution, but what happens when one of the most prominent contemporary philosophers, Jerry Fodor, writes a book about “What Darwin Got Wrong”? Similarly, we can dismiss extreme right wing politicians like Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who thinks global warming is a worldwide conspiracy of crazy scientists bent on destroying the American way of life. But what happens when two icons of the skeptic movement, Penn & Teller, do a whole show in which they completely deny all the well established evidence of anthropogenic climate change? And of course it is easy to laugh at Jenny McCarthy, the kook who claims (with Oprah Winfrey’s support) that she “just knows” that vaccines cause autism. But, what happens when a politically savvy atheist like Bill Maher says that people who get flu shots are “idiots?"

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's pick:  "The Miracle Detective"

Massimo's pick: The It's only a theory blog

Reader Comments (4)

After listening to this episode, I went back to listen to your debate with Fodor on The Infidel Guy. The first thing that came to mind was that quip about French philosophy -- sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory? In a way, it made me think of someone arguing that sure we know how the eyeball and brain interpret a certain spectrum of reflected light that we call "blue," but that makes no difference if we don't know why we call it "blue" (which is an entirely different question). So according to that logic, the HOW should be tossed out if we can't answer a tangential WHY, a WHY that he refuses to admit has no real bearing on the HOW.

Penn Jillette just seems to have a special frustrating blind spot for his favorite political stance, and refuses to apply the same kind of scrutiny he would to the claims of pseudoscience to the claims of libertarianism. And wasn't leaving out any mention of his being a fellow of the Cato Institute the sleight of hand in that episode?

Maher seems to a parallel blind spot for his favorite social stance as the outsider critic lobbing spitballs. He recently had a crazy debate about religion on his last show (some of the guests were Corey Booker and David Frum, that episode).

What can be frustrating about Maher is that he too easily conflates socio-cultural norms with religious norms, and then blames religion as the cause for those socio-cultural traits (a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy). His stance would assume something like honor killings didn't exist in the Middle East before Islam, and that Islam then introduced the practice, rather than reinforce it. This allows him to take broad swipes at religion, but it actively ignores how Islam -- and every religion -- is selectively tweaked in order to fit with already-existing social, cultural and political traits, needs and desires. The reason for those traits, needs and desires is then shifted onto the religion, the power structure of which can then shift the reason off to the mystery of [name your deity]. That frees the power structure from having to analyze and explain the particular matrix of traits, needs and desires upon which they base certain actions. In a way, it's a large version of a parent's "Because I said so!" argument.

After all, in their early years Christians didn't physically torture non-Christians into confession and conversion, and as far as I know they don't anymore. But for a period of European medieval history, that sort of thing was politically and culturally expedient for certain power structures, especially in the face of a spreading Islamic empire. Religion became the symptom and the excuse, but a real political threat was the cause. The same goes for Northern Ireland; I lived/studied in Ireland, and don't know any Irish who would simply play off The Troubles as a religious problem -- they all know it's a political issue that uses religion as a sartorial excuse.

However, I don't think Maher would grant such distinctions. After all, comedy often works by conflating distinctions into absurdities, but if not done carefully, that can also make the comedian absurd.

May 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJ
Good topic guys. About Global Warning, it always just seems like deniers are just basing their beliefs on other things besides the Science. Like Politics or even Economics for instance. So then it becomes really easy for them to deny the evidence when other influences are given priority. I guess that's what happens when people want something so bad to be "true".
September 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
Pigs don't have wings because pigs could not actually use the wings to fly, due to the massive weight of a pig. Thus, the wings would simply waste protein, calories, and other biological resources on a useless appendage. Therefore, natural selection favored pigs without wings. The offspring of a pig could spontaneously mutate two extra appendages, and further generations of pigs could develop those appendages into wings, but evolution would disfavor their further reproduction. Furthermore, as livestock pigs undergo artificial selection from pig farmers. Pig farmers might see wings on their pigs as abnormal and therefore choose not to breed them. Although, if some pig farmer did develop pigs with wings, one could expect "pig wings" to sell really well.

Penn and Teller also referenced a 1974 TIME Magazine article that cited the most prominent climatologists in the USA who predicted "global cooling that would lead to a new ice age in the near future".
February 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
Regarding Fodor's argument, the hosts of the cast think its an "epistemic thing," this shows they comprehensively missed the point. Don't confuse your epistemology with your ontology. Fodor doesn't care what "we" can tell, its what the theory of NS can tell. His argument is about what follows from the theory.
June 3, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAB

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