Dr. Massimo Pigliucci

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci (pictured above next to the cover of his most recent book, How To Be A Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living)​ was kind enough to take some time to answer some questions I had for him about what's keeping all of us from practicing stoicism, the philosopher's approach to bringing science to the mainstream, and how to determine real from fake in today's news.

The following interview took place on August 18 and August 25, 2017.

 

INTERVIEWER

Where did you grow up? Were you a practicing scientist in your early days?

 

PIGLIUCCI

I grew up in Rome, Italy. At an early age I got interested in astronomy, and by middle school time I was building my own telescopes and later on spending nights camping with friends looking at meteors, the Moon, and so forth. Gradually my passion moved to biology, and in high school I placed third in a national competition for scientific projects, together with a friend of mine. So, yeah, I practiced, in a sense, since I was very young.

 

INTERVIEWER

Who and what inspired you in your early days as a scientist?

PIGLIUCCI

Carl Sagan and Peter Medawar. Sagan’s Cosmos series, and more importantly his many books, were very early inspirations. Then I read Medawar’s, Advice to a Young Scientist, and things got exciting because I realized this could actually be my future. A bit later on, when I was studying biology in college at the University of Rome, Stephen Gould’s clear and sophisticated popular essays were an inspiration, as well as his technical work, together with that of Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin. During my graduate career at the University of Connecticut I got to meet Lewontin and thank him for his inspiration.

 

INTERVIEWER

Can you briefly describe your graduate work in Carl D. Schlichting’s lab? 

 

PIGLIUCCI

It was a project aiming at better understanding the genetics and ecology of phenotypic plasticity — the property of a given genotype to produce different phenotypes in response to varying environmental conditions. We used the weed Arabidopsis thaliana (the “Drosophila botanica”) as a model system. That work was directly inspired by a classic paper by Lewontin, published in 1974, on the analysis of variance and the analysis of causes.

 

INTERVIEWER

What is something today’s graduate students should be jealous of from your graduate school experience? In what ways are you jealous of current graduate students?

 

PIGLIUCCI

Jealousy is not a good scientific or human value. I made my way in academia by following a rather unusual path, and mostly ignoring people’s advice to be conservative ("Don’t pick a new model system, you don’t know if it will work! Don’t waste your time writing a book, that’s not how you get tenure!"). The most important things are passion, perseverance, endurance, and a good advisor. Lucky for me, I had all of that and then some.

 

INTERVIEWER

What would you say is key to the young scientist’s development? It seems research science and the arts run parallel paths – both careers mired in failure (failed experiments, rejections from publishers) that require obstinate will power and a creative approach. 

 

PIGLIUCCI

Right, that’s why the above list included perseverance and endurance. When I was on the job market, Carl promised to buy me a beer for every rejection letter I would get. I drank a lot of beer for a couple of years…

INTERVIEWER

You have a Doctorate in Genetics, and PhDs in Biology and Philosophy of Science. You’re currently a professor of philosophy, but at your former post (Stony Brook University), you taught ecology and evolution. You’ve written prolifically on subjects covering a wide range of scientific topics. Which of these disciplines excites you the most?

 

PIGLIUCCI

All of them, but in different ways, and at different times of my life. Right now, for instance, the things that attract me the most are the history, theory, and practice of Stoicism, as well as the whole notion of pseudoscience. But passions change during one’s life, and I was lucky enough to be able to follow mine with comparatively few constraints.

INTERVIEWER

Specifically, what aspects of Stoicism and pseudoscience are you digging into right now?​

PIGLIUCCI

Let's start with stoicism. There are two things I'm interested in right now. One is actually practicing it - merely studying the theory is kind of missing the point. The practice takes time, the exercises, daily repetition.

          In terms of theory, I'm interested in what parts of the philosophy need to be updated to the 21st century because there is an interesting issue related to stoicism that you don't find in other philosophies of life like Buddhism or even Christianity, as every religion comes with a philosophy of life. Christianity has evolved for 2,000 years, Buddhism has evolved for 2,400 years, which is why you now have, in both of those cases, difficulty thinking about them in the singular. There are different conceptions of each - some more fundamentalist, others progressive. What happened with Stoicism was an interruption - after five centuries of being a predominant philosophy in the Greek and Roman world, it stopped as being a formal school once the Christians took over the Roman empire.

         So now, what you've got is a leap from the 2nd century to the 20th, which is when Stoicism is coming back into vogue, with a brief intermission in the 16th century when people like Justus Lipsius and Michel de Montaigne tried to revive Stoicism as Neo-Stoicism. My question is, with the developments that have occurred in the intervening centuries both in philosophy and science, which parts of ancient Stoicism still make sense and which parts need to be updated? In other words, running the thought experiment of, if Stoicism had continued, what would it look like today?

INTERVIEWER

Are there others out there working on these same problems?

PIGLIUCCI

Yes, a couple others. Lawrence Becker, author of A New Stoicism, is involved in a similar project, but from a different perspective.

INTERVIEWER

Now what about pseudoscience?

PIGLIUCCI

Right. In terms of pseudoscience, a project I'm working on with a colleague of mine, Maarten Boudry, is investigating the nature of informal logic. Terms like ad hominem and genetic fallacy, people are using these informal logic fallacies regularly today without really understanding what they mean. It used to be that skeptics would do it to undermine pseudoscience; now pseudoscientists are using it against skeptics. It's become a common way to end a discussion instead of understanding what's going on.

         A second project, also with Maarten, we have a book coming out later this year through Chicago Press called Science Unlimited?, and it's about scientism, which is defined usually as almost a faith-like belief in the power of science. I see it as the symmetrical opposite to pseudoscience. Pseudoscience diminishes science to the point of triviality to support whatever your fantasies are, scientism elevates science to a new priesthood and makes it so that only scientific questions are important. I think that some of the same mechanisms are going on in both areas.

INTERVIEWER

What is the first step from discerning science from bunk? Obviously, it's predicated upon the mechanisms of the individual, but do you think there's a first step that everyone can apply?

PIGLIUCCI

That's a good question. I tend to think of it in terms of Bayesianism. The Bayesians think in terms of priors, so the first question to ask is, what is the prior or a priori probability that a notion is true or not. One person says, I just saw a flying saucer, versus another person saying, I just went out for pizza, my priors are much higher in the second case than the first. Why is that? Because my background knowledge tells me that there's nothing particularly strange about going out for pizza, but there's a hell of a lot of strange pertaining to a flying saucer.

          The first step you make is to put the notion into the realm of your background knowledge and make an assessment. Of course you don't stop there. If you did, there'd be no new discovery. I think of science-pseudoscience as a continuum, similar to a map where there's clearly areas of pseudoscientific notions and others of sound science with a lot of shit in between, when the answer turns into, well it depends. That landscape changes over time. So, the first step tells you which area of that map you're going to start looking at.

          But the second step, as a skeptic, is to figure out the story. What did you think you saw, what were the circumstances, what tangible evidence do you have, that sort of stuff. It's possible, that at some point, you realize there actually are flying saucers! I wouldn't think so, but it's a possibility. 

INTERVIEWER

Had you always wanted to teach or did that desire develop during your schooling?

 

PIGLIUCCI

I wanted to be a scientist first, but I began appreciating good teaching in high school, thanks to a number of good teachers I had the luck to encounter (especially in philosophy, Italian literature, and physics). At some point, after my first doctorate, I had a chance to get a non-teaching, research-only position in Italy, and I preferred to move to the States instead. I guess that’s when it became clear to me that I wanted to teach as an integral part of my academic career.

 

INTERVIEWER

For PhD students, obtaining the degree requires a comprehensive learning of their chosen scientific field so that they can advance or improve the understanding of a singular subject within that field. In essence, learning a lot about one very specific thing and contributing a novel insight. You’ve achieved that in a couple different fields. Was that always the plan or did you run into questions that demanded deeper investigation and thus an alteration of career path?

PIGLIUCCI

No, that wasn’t always the plan. The switch from biology to philosophy happened in part because of a midlife crisis (okay, I’ve done this for a couple of decades, now what?), in part because of serendipity (the University of Tennessee, where I was a faculty, hired a young philosopher of science, Jonathan Kaplan, with whom I became friends, and who became my new advisor), and in part because my high school philosophy teacher had sowed the seeds of a new passion all those years ago.

 

INTERVIWER

On your site Footnotes to Plato, you post frequent reading suggestion lists compiled of articles, op-eds, and the like. Considering the amount of reading and writing you do, I’m interested in your opinion of scientific journalism in the U.S. and how it compares to the work of writers in some counterpart countries.

 

PIGLIUCCI

I actually think that there are a lot of good journalists in the US, and a lot of good science writing. But of course journalism as a profession is in turmoil, with the new media and the downsizing of legacy papers, not to mention the era of post-truth and alternate facts. Still, I believe there is opportunity in change, and what look like obstacles may offer new ways of doing things. The internet is a chaotic place with lots of misinformation and trolling, but also a treasure trove of good and thoughtful writing.

 

INTERVEWER

Do you make time for indulging literature? Fiction? Music?

PIGLIUCCI

Of course! Right now I’m re-reading La Noia, a classic of Italian literature by Alberto Moravia, for instance. And I listen to a fair amount of music during my down time. Mostly classical, opera, blues and jazz. Living in New York City is an added bonus, in that respect, since it’s so easy to go out and actually listen to a lot of great performers.

 

INTERVIEWER

In your own writing, you certainly do not shy away from critiquing scientists for their flawed arguments. For example, in your Aeon article “Must science be testable?”, you discuss the ‘string war’ among physicists and Karl Popper’s work on falsifiability as a tool to distinguish science from pseudoscience. Your conclusion is that both scientists and philosophers “have bigger targets to jointly address for the sake of society, if only they could stop squabbling and focus on what their joint intellectual forces may accomplish.” How do you see the physicist-philosopher debate playing out?

 

PIGLIUCCI

I’m constantly puzzled by it. And I think previous generations of physicists, for instance (Einstein, Bohr) would have been too. There is something profoundly and disconcertingly anti-intellectual in this interdisciplinary bickering, fueled by sheer ignorance (mostly, but not only, on the part of the scientists involved) and oversized egos. I’m hoping that with time we can all get back to what really matters: doing our own research, and devoting some time to educate the public about why both science and philosophy matter.

 

INTERVIEWER

What is the future of science? It almost seems like music at this point, being broken down into smaller and more specific sub-genres, which can contribute to alienating the public. However, it also contributes to collaboration.

PIGLIUCCI

If there is anything one quickly learns from the history of futurology is to never make predictions about the future…but yes, the problem of hyper-specialization that you are referring to is a real one, in all academic disciplines, not just the sciences (though it’s more acute there, because of the nature of the research). That, of course, is precisely why we need more people from different backgrounds involved in the conversation: scientists and philosophers of science, and journalists and popular writers. Science is a social enterprise of primary importance, too important to be left to scientists alone, or to be allowed to spiral into an increasingly narrow focus on minutiae while losing track of what we are doing and why.

 

INTERVIEWER

Bill Nye is back with a new show. Neil De-Grasse Tyson, Seth McFarlane, and Ann Druyan recently rejuvenated Cosmos. Nerds are cool. Science seems more prevalent in popular culture today. Do you pay any attention to that?

PIGLIUCCI

Not really. I mean, I’m glad those people are doing those things, but I’d rather spend my time reading a good book or having a dirty martini with friends. 

 

INTERVIEWER

On that topic, Tucker Carlson of Fox News recently invited Bill Nye onto his show to debate climate change. Nye undoubtedly had the more difficult job, but he was quickly sidetracked by Carlson’s line of questioning and failed to deliver a strong argument. One school of thought is that Nye shouldn’t have been there in the first place because he’s not a climate scientist. Yet, for topics like climate change and GMOs where public trust in science is waning, one could posit scientists should intervene in public debates. What is the scientist’s responsibility to the public?

 

PIGLIUCCI

We need science popularizers like Nye to explain things to the public in a way that is accessible, and even entertaining. Most scientists are not good at doing that, though I do think they have a responsibility to either talk to the public directly or help science popularizers do a good job. Nye’s mistake, I think, was to accept an invitation from Faux News. It’s not a serious outlet, we shouldn’t be wasting our time with them.

 

INTERVIEWER

Your latest book, How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, promotes stoicism as a pragmatic framework for dealing with the stressors of modern life. What are the cultural barriers to implementing this philosophy in our lives?

 

PIGLIUCCI

None. We do it all the time. Buddhism is practiced by hundreds of millions of people, and so is Christianity and other religions, and all religions are also, at the same time, philosophies of life. Of course some work better than others, and not everyone responds well to any given philosophy. Stoicism is one more available alternative, a powerful one that may resonate especially to Western audiences that may not respond well to the foreign language of Buddhism, and yet do not want to pursue an overtly religious option like Christianity.

 

INTERVIEWER

What is or will be the biggest philosophical breakthrough in our lifetime? I think of something like CRISPR as a significant biological breakthrough, but it’s harder for myself to identify what the comparable philosophical breakthrough would be.

 

PIGLIUCCI

Philosophy doesn’t really work that way (indeed, I wrote a book about how it differs from science). There is progress, but it comes slowly and in the form of conceptual, not empirical, advances. Still, from time to time there are revolutions, like the one experienced by the sub-field of epistemology when Edmund Gettier, back in the ‘60s, published a short paper that for the first time seriously questioned the accepted definition of knowledge as “justified true belief,” which had stood since the time of Plato.

 

INTERVIEWER

You debated William Lane Craig, a Christian apologist, over the existence of God. How did that come about? What sort of response did you receive following the debate?

 

PIGLIUCCI

I was invited by the local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ to debate Craig, since no other faculty had volunteered. It was an interesting experience, and I learned a lot about rhetoric. But I don’t do debates anymore, they are shows of one-upmanship, not conducive to learning. I prefer having conversations instead.

 

INTERVIEWER

One of the reasons I believe your work is massively important for the public is because you repeatedly implore scientists to strip their work and opinions and sound bites of pomposity in favor of humility. Scientists can contribute to their own perception problem, in part, due to this. Alternatively, for an expert who knows more about a subject than 99.9% of the world’s population to be dismissed or ignored due to a talk show host stringing together a half-baked argument must be extremely frustrating. What makes you continue to fight for bringing science to the mainstream?  

 

PIGLIUCCI

I genuinely care about truth and understanding. But over time I’ve also realized that you can’t just beat it into other people’s heads. Many of my colleagues think that all they need to do is to present evidence and argument, and their job is done. If someone doesn’t get it then they are either ignorant or stupid, or both. That’s not the way it works, and Aristotle got it first, good psychologist that he was. In his book on rhetoric he said that one needs three components in order to attempt to persuade people: (i) logos, i.e., arguments and evidence; (ii) ethos, i.e., credibility with the audience; and (iii) pathos, i.e., an emotional connection with those you are addressing, because if people don’t care they won’t get the message. Many scientists and science popularizers stop at (i), with barely a nod to (ii), usually in the form of (impressive to them, but not necessarily to their audience) academic credentials. That’s why comedians are better, if they know enough science.

INTERVIEWER

Your mention of Aristotle's three components makes me think of politics. For the most part, conservatives have adopted ethos and pathos to appeal to their base, while liberals go with logos and ethos to find favor with theirs. After the 2016 election, there was a lot of talk in the media about scientists coming forward to run for office. If you had to nominate one scientist to run for President, who would it be?

PIGLIUCCI

I wouldn't. That's one of my pet peeves, I suppose. If you happen to be a scientist, but you also have what it takes to be a successful politician, you want to improve society and have the skills to gather support, by all means go ahead and do it. But that has nothing to do with being a scientist. One problem with trying to send scientists to public office is that, in my experience, they tend to be pretty narrow-minded individuals. They tend to be focused on a very specific view of the world in a way that is not going to work in a general policy discussion because yes, data is interesting, empirical evidence is important, but you have to put it in context. And that's why I'd vote for a comedian before a scientist because they think broadly and out of the box about things.

          On the other hand, what I'd like to see is more policy advising by scientists. We do have that, the National Academy of Sciences was established for that reason. It's an advisory body for politicians. There are a number of think tanks that do the same thing, but unfortunately, many have become ideological organizations pushing a particular agenda. 

INTERVIEWER

Last, but not least: Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd?

 

PIGLIUCCI

Verdi. Or Beethoven. Or Miles Davis. Or Buddy Guy.

Visit Dr. Pigliucci's website to stay up-to-date on his work and upcoming appearances. 

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the interview in the comments section.

©2019 by EG Lund.