Here is part one of a very wide-ranging interview I did with Scott Jacobsen over at In-Sight, covering my interests in scientific skepticism, the science-pseudoscience demarcation problem, biological vs cultural evolution, and of course, Stoicism. Here is the beginning (continue reading part I, part II is here, Part III here; Part IV here):
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.
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.