About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Podcast Teasers: Genie Scott on climate change denialism & The question of neuroskepticism

by Massimo Pigliucci

Very soon Julia and I will have our first ever returning guest on the Rationally Speaking podcast: National Center for Science Education’s executive director Eugenie Scott! Genie will be in New York on Sunday, October 23rd, to give a talk to New York City Skeptics on the topic of “Denialism of Climate Change and Evolution.”

We will ask Genie the extent to which the (obviously derogatory) term “denialism,” famously used by New Yorker writer Michael Specter in the title of his book about crazy beliefs in America, should be applied and by what criteria. In the case of climate change, of course, several notable skeptics have been, well, skeptical of the notion, including Michael Shermer (who has since changed his mind), Penn & Teller (who have since softened their stance), and James Randi (who I have criticized openly).

The second episode of the podcast will be about a mounting degree of “neuro-skepticism,” i.e. skepticism about the many claims being made by neuroscientists based on fMRI studies. We have tackled a narrow portion of the issue in our interview with Cordelia Fine about neurosexism, the tendency to unduly extrapolate from small numbers of methodologically questionable studies to grand conclusions that just happen to confirm entrenched cultural notions about the differences between men and women.

More recently, an interesting article in Slate by Ron Rosenbaum broadens the criticism by reviewing a number of pop-science books about increasingly bolder claims by neuroscientists, as well as the ever more widespread criticism of such claims. Clearly fMRI-based neuroscience is not pseudoscience, but even mainstream science has made unwarranted and exaggerated claims before (think of studies “demonstrating” the racial inferiority of certain ethnic groups, for instance), sometimes with dire consequences for the rest of us. So it makes sense to take a closer look at what is being said in this area and on what bases.


  1. I think is great that the NCSE is taking their battle to new levels. I'm sure they will be of much help in dealing with the climate change pseudoskeptics since their arguments and tactics are so much alike.

    I also think that the skeptical movement has to take a stronger stance on Climate Change specially since, as you noted, there are a disturbingly large number of people within the movement that at least, flirt with climate change denial.

  2. I think that fMRI studies suffer from three mains pronlems: 1) Sample size are small since this are very expensive studies. 2) The very nice colorfuls pictures we see of the brain give a false impression since they are based on averages acroos subjects and not one subject. 3) Just because we see some activity in some areas in the brain, does not tell as much about substantial questions related to actual behaviors, or why people decide to do something and not the other.

  3. It is curious that those who are not specialists, i.e. those who are not climate or earth scientists, should think they have the epistemic right to hold a belief at odds with the relevant scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic climate change. Surely everyone agrees that only particle and mathematical physicists can make pronouncements on the existence or non-existence of elementary particles such as the Higgs boson. (Indeed, I took an undergraduate in physics along with logic and computation at Carnegie Mellon and I wouldn't begin to form an opinion contrary to the scientific consensus.) So, why would anthropogenic climate change be any different?

  4. Because the Higgs boson has nothing to do with our daily lives and the way people think the world works (or at least very little.) Man-made climate change does...

  5. I am very skeptical that this podcast will ever see the light of day. I hope I am wrong. Does that make me less of a skeptic?

  6. Leroy,

    no need to be skeptical, the episode is in production...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.