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Interview with Dr. Massimo Pigliucci on Skepticism, Science, Pseudoscience, Cultural Evolution, and Mysteries and Problems (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/01/01


Prof. Pigliucci has a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He currently is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of science, the relationship between science and philosophy, the nature of pseudoscience, and the practical philosophy of Stoicism. Prof. Pigliucci has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudo-scientific attack.” In the area of public outreach, Prof. Pigliucci has published in national and international outlets such as the New York TimesWashington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others. He is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Contributing Editor to Skeptical Inquirer. He writes a blog on practical philosophy at At last count, Prof. Pigliucci has published 162 technical papers in science and philosophy. He is also the author or editor of 12 books, including the best selling How to Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books). Other titles include Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press), and The Philosophy of Pseudoscience (co-edited with M. Boudry, University of Chicago Press). He discusses: pivotal moments of becoming more skeptical, and early life; on science, pseudoscience, and skepticism as separate streams in life for him; state of science in America; state of pseudoscience in America; the ‘line’ between science and pseudoscience; psychology, evolutionary psychology, and the lack of an overarching theory in psychology; the definition of cultural evolution; and the difference between mysteries and problems.

Keywords: cultural evolution, evolutionary psychology, Massimo Pigliucci, mysteries, philosophy, problems, Pseudoscience, psychology, Science, Skepticism.

Interview with Dr. Massimo Pigliucci on Skepticism, Science, Pseudoscience, Cultural Evolution, and Mysteries and Problems: K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy, City College of New York (Part One)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Of course, you are a very prominent skeptic and new stoic, and so on. Let us maybe, do a brief touching on early life and education to provide a context of what you are doing today. What were some early pivotal moments in terms of becoming more skeptical?

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci: Those are different questions. My attitude and interest toward science started very early, as far as I can remember. I was a kid, my family tells me, when I decided to become a scientist.

I wanted to become an astronomer and then switched to a biologist, which is what, in fact, I ended up doing. It is hard to tell where, exactly, that came from [Laughing] because I was so young. I was watching the Apollo 11 landing.

I am sure that had an impact on a five-year-old. My adoptive grandfather fostered this interest through buying me books on science, and eventually my first telescope. It helped in providing a nurturing environment.

The interest in skepticism came later. That is connected to a very specific episode in my life. After my post-doc at Brown University, I took my first academic position as a full-time faculty at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Knoxville is in the middle of the Bible belt.

I was surrounded by creationists.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: My neighbours were creationists. Some of my students were creationists. One of them, in particular, told his fellow students not to listen to what I was saying because, otherwise, they would end up in hell.

This brought to my attention the idea of science and pseudoscience, and attitudes such as creationism. I started doing some outreach. I organized one of the first Darwin Days at the University of Tennessee In 1997 with Douglas Joel Futuyma as a guest speaker.

He later became one of my colleagues at Stony Brook. As I started doing outreach, I was approached by a local skeptic group in Knoxville. They said, “Hey, there are a lot of other people out here trying to do the same thing. Maybe, you want to do stuff together.”

That is how it started. It is still going. I started writing for the Skeptical Inquirer. I wrote two books on the topic. One, specifically on creationism, called Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science. Another one called Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: It was on pseudoscience more generally and the nature of science. That is how it got started.

2. Jacobsen: Why separate the questions in skepticism? Why do those not necessarily come together as a knit package?

Pigliucci: They started out as separate streams of thought based on life experience and trajectory. Most scientists are not interested in pseudoscience. Most scientists just do their job because they like science. Most are not even aware of pseudoscience.

Because I was living in the South and exposed to that attitude to science and evolutionary biology in particular; that is why that second stream came in later. Interestingly, when I made the switch from science to pseudoscience, then the two came together quite nicely.

In the philosophy of science, now, people call this branch philosophy of pseudoscience. I deal with the Demarcation Problem between science and pseudoscience. The two streams are very connected from a philosophical viewpoint. They, definitely, come together.

3. Jacobsen: What is the state of science in America now? What is the state of pseudoscience in America now?

Pigliucci: That is a complicated question [Laughing]. The state of science is “meh, okay.” There is a general vibrant scientific community in the United States in all areas of science, e.g., physics, biology, and so on. There is a significant amount of funding that goes into research.

There are some prestigious research laboratories. The state of science in the United States is pretty healthy. But we have a divided population. About half rejects climate change. About half think autism is caused by vaccines. More than 50% are creationists and reject evolution. 25-40%, I think, believe in astrology and ghosts.

In that sense, the situation is pretty bad. Pseudoscience is rampant in the United States – more so than other Western countries. It is not like people in Western Europe do not believe in nonsense. Many do. But not nearly as many.

But the National Science Foundation puts out surveys every few years on pseudoscientific beliefs in the United States compared to other countries. It is pretty clear the United States is much worse by several percentage points when it comes to accepting pseudoscientific notions.

We have a president, right now, who is a climate changed denier, among other problems that he has [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: I would not even say that that’s the worst. We have an entire party, the Republican Party, who are climate change deniers. Some believe what they say. There are some who do this for ideological reasons or financial reasons.

One of the reasons to deny climate change is because the solutions must include a large effort on the part of the government, especially a worldwide coordination in governmental efforts. Republicans and Libertarians are opposed to that, by definition.

It is an interesting thing that ideological position trumps, essentially, – want to be careful with that word! – other reasons.

One example is vaccinations. The number of people who vaccinate their kids has gone down significantly in several areas of the country. We have seen a resurgence of diseases that were almost wiped out until a few years ago. Pseudoscience has very, very practical and impactful consequences, it isn’t just a question of having some fun talking about people who deny reality. It is really not funny at all. It has consequences for all of us.

4. Jacobsen: What is the line between science and pseudoscience?

Pigliucci: It is not a line as much as a gray area. There are some fields that are obviously pseudoscientific. Nobody with a decent amount of education should seriously consider homeopathy or astrology or anything like that.

It is like, “No, it doesn’t make any sense.” Also, no one with any decent amount of education should question the scientific status of fundamental physics, evolutionary biology, or anything else like that. But it gets more interesting when you get to borderline situations.

Some notions are considered pseudoscientific, but there may be something to it. I do not know. Until recently, I would have put certain claims about paranormal phenomena into that area, e.g., telepathy, telekinesis. Up until recently, it was reasonable to think there might be something in there.

So, doing some research in that area was not an unreasonable thing to do. Now, those are also pretty clearly out. But those cases are far less obvious cases than, say, homeopathy or astrology.

On the science side, there are situations that are also borderline. Do I think evolutionary psychology is a full-fledged science? Not really. The basic idea is fine. The notion that human behaviour evolved in part via natural selection. Sure, human beings are animals. We are not an exception to the natural world.

So, we are not an exception to evolutionary biology either. But whether certain specific behaviours evolved in the Pleistocene, well, that is far more debatable. The evidence is not there. The connection between the claims and the evidence is far shakier.

So, I consider that not quite a pseudoscience, but borderline.

5. Jacobsen: Some prominent researchers in the area make very bold claims. I recall Buss making one claim that – he would hope – in the future evolutionary psychology would drop evolutionary” and just be psychology.”

Pigliucci: That is right. That is a bold claim. Now, that bold claim comes from the interesting reality that psychology still does not have an overarching theory, like physics has General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Evolutionary biology, too, has its general theory. Geology has Continental Drift. Psychology does not. Psychology tried. Freud tried. Then Jung tried to produce an overarching theory for all evidence in psychology. Behaviourists tried too.

They all failed. It is not clear why. Is it because psychology has not had its Darwin or Newton yet? Maybe. Is it because psychology is involving sub-sciences that do not admit of a unifying theory? That is also possible.

So, claims like the one from Buss, wherein evolutionary reasoning will be the reading key for psychology, are not out of the question. The proof is in the pudding. But I do not think it will happen. I think evolutionary psychology will go the same way of the other overarching attempts that have characterized psychology over the last century or so.

Again, I do not go as far as saying that evolution has nothing to do with present human behaviour. That would be silly, honestly. But I do not think biological evolution has a lot to say about that. Modern human behaviour is mostly the result of cultural evolution, not biological evolution.

Now, we can have a different discussion on “What is cultural evolution?” That is an active area of research. Biology, I think, in the case of human behaviour sets certain constraints and allows certain things to happen or not to happen.

But I think most of the behaviours are the product of cultural evolution, not biological evolution.

6. Jacobsen: What is cultural evolution?

Pigliucci: Cultural evolution is a descriptive term for how cultures change. I do not mean simply cultural artifacts, but also ideas and general theories about stuff, and how people think about stuff.

The question is, “How does that work?” There are a lot of ideas in the field. I am going to be somewhat neutral about it, which I think is the reasonable thing to do. Whenever experts in a field disagree, the most reasonable position for someone from the outside is “Okay! You guys figure it out.”

Some people think that cultural evolution is mostly or strongly bound by biological evolution. People like E.O. Wilson. Others are more flexible like the other Wilson, David Sloan.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: Then there are people like me who think biological parameters put constraints on what humans can do and allows us to do certain things and not others.

Culture depends heavily on the fact that we are large-brained mammals, and large brains certainly evolved biologically.[Laughing] There is no question of that. It is a biological characteristic. But I think biological-cultural dynamics are their own thing.

They emerge. I do not mean this in any mystical sense. I mean they result from the biological substrate. But cultural evolution has its own dynamics and its own rules. We still do not know a hell of a lot about it.

Let me give you an example. Food habits, eating. You can make the obvious case. That is biologically constrained. We need to eat as biological organisms. If you do not eat, you are dead. You must eat some things and not others.

You must eat certain combinations of proteins and carbohydrates. If you eat differently, you will get sick or be unhealthy. Great! But this tells you precisely nothing about the gourmet foods that you find in New York City.

Most of these restaurants, or much of the grocery stores nearby, are there because eating is a biological necessity. But biology is no explanation whatsoever for you why we need so many and different restaurants in New York. What is the difference between sushi and Italian restaurants? It is all cultural evolution.

If we do not make that distinction, we make the true but trivial statement: “Well! We have restaurants because we need to eat.” Yes, no kidding.

7. Jacobsen: What do you make of the difference between mysteries and problems?

Pigliucci: A mystery is a problem that we do not know how to attack yet. So, I do not think that there are mysteries in the mystical sense of the word. There are things that we do not understand. There are gradations of understanding.

There are things that we do not understand and do not know how to go about. There are things that we understand and do know how to go about. I am not one of those people who think science will eventually find the solution to every problem. I think that is a silly position to hold. Scientists are human beings. Human beings have epistemic limits. We do not have access to infinite amounts of information or access to all the relevant information.

Let me give you an example, the origin of life, it has been a problem since Darwin. Darwin did not touch it. [Laughing] he did not even go there. He said, ‘Somebody else is going to do that.” There are plenty of theories. There are a lot of books and papers published. If someone tells you, “We understand how life started,” they are either lying or they are deluded.

Some ideas are more plausible than others. Some ideas become more fashionable for some time and then go out of fashion. But nobody really has a clue. Will we ever solve that problem? We do not know. Because the necessary clues are probably gone.

Whatever the early organisms were, they were wiped out by geological changes. Geologists are even questioning the exact composition of the early Earth atmosphere. When you are questioning that, there is really no reason to favor certain theories over others.

Even if you could postulate certain theories based on the right knowledge of the physico-chemical conditions at that time, you still have no fossil record. You do not know where to begin. Even if, in the future, we were able to replicate life in the laboratory, that still wouldn’t solve the problem, since life could originate in several ways. So, the artificial path may not be the one along which it happened on Earth billions of years ago. I am skeptical of ever answering the origin of life question. It is a mystery to me. But not in the sense of “Oh, it shows the limitations of science. Some God must have put it there…” No! It shows the limitations of being human.

A colleague of mine, Richard Lewontin, is a retired geneticist at Harvard. He once wrote a dissenting article in a book on the evolution of cognition. Lewontin’s comment was that we should get out of the childish notion that if something is interesting, then we will solve it. Sometimes, this is the case. Other times, it is not. The evolution of cognition may be another example, for the same reason.

We can say a lot about cognition. We can say a lot about the neural correlates of consciousness and how the brain produces language. But why did language evolved? Why have we gotten big brains? If you check Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, by Kevin N. Laland, it is about cultural evolution, the evolution of language, and the evolution of large brains. And, we have no clue! Kevin has his own ideas. He is a great guy. But there is no reason to go one way or the other. He has his preferences as others do.

Here is another case What was there before the Big Bang? Who knows? The Big Bang destroyed what was there before, if there was a before. You can make inferences based on the current laws of nature. But it is all speculation.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy, City College of New York.

[2] Individual Publication Date: January 1, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020: Image Credit: Simon Wardenier/Massimo Pigliucci.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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