WAR OF REVIEWS
By Mark Perakh
Posted October 13, 2004
In this essay I will discuss some of the devices intelligent design (ID) advocates and purveyors of other brands of creationism employ in what they refer to as the “cultural war” which they intend to “win” at any cost regardless of whose side the truth is on.
The term “cultural war” was, for example, used by one of the most prolific advocates of “intelligent design,” theologian William Dembski in his lecture at the Fellowship Baptist Church in Waco, TX, on March 7, 2004.1 The intention to win that war regardless of whose side the truth is on, was, for example, clearly stated by Dembski in his post. 2
I will refer here mainly to the reviews posted to the Amazon.com website which serve as one of the devices creationists often employ to achieve their goals, in particular to denigrate the books critical of the ID literary production.
One example illustrating my thesis is how the ID advocates have reviewed my book, Unintelligent Design, as well as the anthology Why Intelligent Design Fails (edited by Matt Young and Taner Edis), the book Creationism’s Trojan Horse by Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross, and the book God, the Devil and Darwin by Niall Shanks.
My book Unintelligent Design was released by the publisher, Prometheus Books, toward the end of November 2003, but it had become actually available (for example, from the Amazon.com online bookstore) closer to the third week of December 2003.
As of October 9, 2004, to my knowledge, besides the six blurbs written by respectable scientists and mathematicians and placed on the dust cover of my book, there are 50 other reviews of my book available. Among them, 8 reviews have appeared in print media, and 42 reviews online. I also received dozens of private messages responding to my book.
The printed reviews appeared in Fortean Times, 183, 2004 (by Tom Ruffles), in The Journal of Scientific Exploration , v. 17, No 4, 2004 (by Henry H. Bauer), in the Australian Humanist, Winter 2004 (by Ken Wright), in the Quarterly Review of Biology, v.79, September 2004 (unsigned), in Evolution and Development, 6:4, 2004 (by Rudolf A. Ruff), in The Skeptic, Summer 2004 (by Paul R. Gross), in the Skeptical Inquirer, July-August 2004 (by Matt Young); and in Today’s Books, February 2004 (unsigned). As far as I know, one more review of my book (by Jason Rosenhouse) is scheduled to appear in the Reports of NCSE. All printed reviews are positive (although in some of them the reviewers have suggested certain critical comments).
Among the online reviews I am familiar with, one appeared on the Campus Inquirer website where my book was selected as the Book of the Month for January 20043 and, as of October 9, 2004, 41 reviews were posted to the Amazon.com website.
Among the 41 reviews on the Amazon.com website, 29 reviewers gave the book the highest possible mark – five stars. One reviewer gave it 4 stars, 2 reviewers gave it three stars, 2 reviewers gave it two stars and 7 reviewers gave it just one star, which is the lowest possible mark (there is no option of giving the reviewed book zero stars). If we construe five and four stars as a definitely positive rating, three stars as a neutral rating and two or one star as a definitely negative rating, the summary of the Amazon readers’ evaluation of my book, as of October 9, 2004, seems to be as follows: 30 reviewers evaluated the book definitely positively, 2 readers were neutral, and 9 reviewers evaluated the book definitely negatively. Of course, this picture may change at any time as more readers choose to post their reviews.
While the overall rating given to my book by all Amazon reviewers (the mean value is about 4.05 out of the maximum possible of 5) seems to be rather encouraging, I will discuss here only the nine negative reviews (from now on, the “one-star” or “two-star” reviews) because some of these attacks on my book illustrate the level of underhanded assaults employed by the advocates of both ID and their predecessors of the young-earth creationism category.
THE ELUSIVE “READER” FROM TEXAS: WILLIAM DEMBSKI AS A REVIEWER
The first one-star review of my book appeared on the Amazon.com website already on December 22, 2003, i.e. just a few days after Amazon started shipping the book. When it appeared the first time, its author’s name was given as “Reader from Waco, Tx.” Soon, however, it was changed to “Reader from Riesel, Tx.” As of today, it is just “Reader,” although there is no assurance it will not change again in the future.
The reasons for these changes seem to be rather transparent. After this negative review appeared, another reviewer referred to it, disputing its negative attitude to my book. By changing the author’s appellation from “Reader from Waco” to “Reader from Riesel” and then to simply “Reader” its real author has dodged the critical comments that addressed his review. Indeed, if some other reviewer disputed the contents of the review by a “Reader from Waco” while a review signed by the “Reader from Waco” was not found any longer at the website in question (being replaced by the same review now signed differently) then the critical remarks addressing the reader from Waco became hanging in the air, addressing a seemingly non-existent review.
This simple trick has been employed by ID advocates more than once (for example, the same trick was used regarding the book by Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross (Creationism’s Trojan Horse); a negative review of this book, when originally posted to Amazon.com, was signed by a “Reader from San Jose, CA”; a few days later the same review was already signed by a “Reader from Sunnyvale, CA”, and now it is simply “a reader” without a reference to specific whereabouts).
The story about the review by the reader from Waco, a.k.a. reader from Riesel, a.k.a. simply a “reader,” has, however, some other no less interesting and educational features.
It is known that at the time the reader from Waco posted his one-star review of my book, William Dembski was employed in a non-teaching position at Baylor University which is situated in Waco, Tx. It is also known that at the time the review in question was posted, as well as when its authorship was changed to “reader from Riesel,” William Dembski resided in Riesel, Tx (where he co-owned a barbecue stand as a silent partner). And, of course, it is known that William Dembski’s literary output has been critiqued in detail in my book. In view of the above, one feature of the review by the ”reader from Waco” etc., seems to be of a special interest. The reader from Waco, Riesel, etc., while disdainfully dismissing my book, recommends instead a book by William Dembski, which, according to the “reader,” would respond to most of my critique.
Here is the relevant quotation from the review in question: “Especially recommended here are John Campbell and Steve Meyer's Darwinism, Design, and Public Education as well as Dembski's _The Design Revolution_, which answers many of Perakh's concerns.”
Of course, despite the strong indication that the reader from Waco (or from Riesel) was not anybody else but our friend William Dembski, I would not mention this reasonable guess unless I had decisive evidence to this effect. The evidence had come to light because of a glitch on the Canadian version of Amazon.com. For a whole week, the real names of the reviewers who chose to hide their names happened to be revealed on that website. And surprise! The real name of the reader from Waco (or Riesel?) turned out to be… William Dembski (as if there was any doubt about it until then).
With this knowledge at hand, we can judge with confidence the real merits of the one-star review in question..
Dembski’s “review” consists of two parts, neither of which referring to any specific points in my book. This “review” creates the impression that its author has not read the book he purportedly reviews.
One part of the “review” maintains that my book is bad because it was published by Prometheus Books, which is allegedly a notoriously atheistic publishing enterprise. Dembski writes: “Prometheus Press (sic) is one of the most militantly atheistic and ideologically driven presses around.”
In fact, Prometheus Books has in its list of publications a variety of books covering a wide spectrum of topics and philosophical-religious world views. Many of these books have been authored by highly respected scholars.4 In any case, whatever the merits of my publisher, a review of a book is supposed to reflect the merits or faults of the reviewed book rather than of the publishing house. Moreover, such a reproach from Dembski sounds quite odd given the fact that a considerable portion of his own output has been published by InterVarsity Press which, unlike Prometheus Books, is indeed known for its narrow scope of publications, all reflecting only a specifically Christian religious world view (InterVarsity Press is self-defined as an outlet of the Christian Leadership Ministries). It seems that Dembski should have been more cautious in selecting his negative comments, as this particular remark is like a boomerang hitting him more than the author of the reviewed book.
The second part of Dembski’s review is just a self-promotional acclaim of his and of his cohorts’ books, allegedly coming from an impartial “reader” but in fact composed by the author of the acclaimed book himself, hiding behind anonymity. This self-promotion to which Dembski resorted under cover of a supposed “reader” allows us to conclude that Dembski has a peculiar concept of intellectual integrity.
As to Dembski’s “review” of my book, the conclusion is obvious: it contains nothing about my book as such and therefore can be dismissed as a non-consequential and unsubstantiated assault aimed at undermining the critique of his work without responding to the critique’s substance.
The reviewer who posted his “review” of my book to Amazon.com on January 14, 2004 and signed as “A reader” seems to have some problems with logic. A funny feature of his very short “review” is that he gave my book a “two-star” rating but concluded his review with the words “not recommended.” If the book is so bad as to be not recommended, why not give it just one star?
As to the validity of the “reader’s” critique, here is his main argument:
“ …he [i.e. Perakh; MP] tries to undermine the work of Dembski and Behe by not so subtley [sic] equivocating [sic] their work with the work of Bible Coders and preachers.”
Perhaps this “reader” wanted to say that I have “not so subtly” cast doubts on Dembski’s and Behe’s work by somehow equating (if that is what he means by “equivocating”) their arguments to those by unnamed “Bible coders and preachers.”
Sorry, dear “reader.” You got it wrong. Nowhere did I attribute to Dembski or Behe the arguments of the proponents of the Bible code, whose papers and books have been discussed in part 3 of my book on their own merits and quite independently of Dembski’s and Behe’s output (discussed in part 1). Likewise, the arguments of Dembski and Behe are discussed in my book without any connection to the Bible code. As to the unnamed “preachers” I can only guess who you refer to. If “preachers” are meant to be the authors of the books asserting the compatibility of the Genesis story with the data of science which I discussed in part 2 of my book (which is separate from part 1 where Dembski’s and Behe’s work is discussed) there was no attempt on my part to obscure the difference between the opuses of those defenders of Bible inerrancy and ID advocates. Quite the contrary, the arguments of the two breeds of creationists are discussed clearly as two distinctive brands, each on its own merits.
I would be embarrassed if this “reader” had recommended my book.
NEITHER FAIR NOR BALANCED
The title of this section reproduces the title of the “two-star” review of my book which appeared on Amazon.com on January 18, 2004 (and which is perhaps a reference to the motto of Fox News). Like the latest version of Dembski’s quasi-review discussed in the preceding section, this review is also signed by a “reader,” without any elaboration.
One of the perhaps most interesting peculiarities of this review is that it is a copy, word for word, of a review posted on the same day and also signed by anonymous “reader” but “reviewing” another book! The other book is Creationism’s Trojan Horse by Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross.
The anonymous “reader” writes: “In the book ‘Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design’ by William Dembski, Charles Colson, Dembski, a philosopher/mathematician who has been an important theorist for the intelligent design movement, handles a wide range of questions and objections that should give both fans and detractors of ID plenty to chew on.”
Does this not indicate that the real goal of the anonymous ”reader” was not to review my book but rather to propagandize Dembski’s production? Moreover, the quoted sentence seems to allege that Dembski’s opponents have so far not paid enough attention to Dembski’s arguments. Of course, nothing can be farther from the truth. Dembski’s literary output has been discussed in minute detail in many papers, books, and web posts, including my book where a discussion of Dembski’s books and articles occupies over 100 pages. The “reader’s” review contains not a single specific counter-argument addressing my critique of Dembski or any other part of my book– and this makes ironic his suggestion to “chew” Dembski’s arguments, which have already been “chewed” much more than they deserve.
Like Dembski’s review of December 22, 2003, this “reader’s” “review” of January 18, 2004 says nothing of substance about my book and therefore also looks like it was written by somebody who has not even read my book which he purports to review.
The quasi-review in question appeared on Amazon.com when Demsbki’s book praised by the nameless “reader” had not yet been released. Hence, either the nameless “reader” is a clairvoyant or perhaps he is the same self-admiring Dembski we are familiar with from the preceding “review.” If, though, this “reader” is not Dembski himself but rather one of his close colleagues in the intelligent design enterprise, his/her effort aimed at both denigrating my book (without saying a single word about it actual contents) and praising instead Dembski’s forthcoming output, disguising his/her propagandizing subterfuge as a “review” of my book, is still a trick which hardly is more respectful.
No wonder Dembski and Co are so unnerved by both Forrest-Gross’s and my books that they resort to posting more than once the same anonymous boilerplate pseudo-reviews in an attempt to mislead visitors to the Amazon website.
Again, the conclusion is inevitable: the pseudo-review of January 18, 2004 by an anonymous “reader” can to be ignored as an act by some partisans of intelligent design who seem to interpret the concept of intellectual honesty in a peculiar manner.
“SKEPTICAL SCIENCIST” MAKES AN APPEARANCE
After the pseudo-review of January 18 by a “reader” appeared, there seemed to be a hiatus in the assaults upon my book for about eight months. Then in September 2004 a series of “one-star” reviews of my book were posted to Amazon.com within just a few days. Almost simultaneously a series of similar “one-star” reviews were posted about the anthology Why Intelligent Design Fails (edited by Matt Young and Taner Edis) where, among its thirteen contributors, my name appears in the bylines of two chapters.
In particular, there seems to be an odd similarity between the “review” of my book signed by a “Skeptical Sciencist” (sic) and some “reviews” of the anthology in question. In both cases, the “reviewers” have resorted to the same device – they posted lengthy texts which have no relation to the contents of either my book or of the anthology in question. In both cases, the posted texts of the reviews are incoherent and seem to have been designed only to enable their authors to mark the “reviewed” books with only one star. In both cases, the “reviewers” seem to be not familiar with the actual contents of either my book or of the anthology, but have filled the texts of their “reviews” with extraneous ruminations without even trying to make their texts in any way relevant to the discussed books or logically coherent in itself.
Look, for example, at the following quotation from the “review” by the “Skeptical Sciencist”:
the adjectives that are the problem with these theoried phrasings, such as
intelligent vs. unintelligent, targeted vs. nontargeted, mindful vs. mindless,
but the descriptor nouns themselves that are the irreducible, irremediable
Selection mechanism. Unsearching-engine. Designation process. Choice harvester. Opting criteria. Voting ballot-booth-box-tabulator-winner/loser/tie declarer. Game referee. Trial & Error scientist/know-hower. Experimentation laboratory. Picking as in or out, good or bad, functional or non-functional, beneficial to the organism or harmful, utility or non-utility or mal-utility. It's all about the initialization, organization and energizing of complexity, information and purposiveness. It's all about ONGOING CORRECT DECISIONMAKING and somehow knowing the difference that makes a difference - eventually, individually, cumulatively. And all somehow better than unprogrammed, undirected, unaimed-for, happenstanced results could achieve. Nature is the acknowledged pan-ingenuity factor of scientific faith system.”
What is the meaning of the above words? I submit that there is none. No wonder another reviewer felt desirable to post a rebuttal of the pseudo-review by “Skeptical Sciencist” wherein she referred to it as “mumbo-jumbo.” I believe this is a fair evaluation of the pseudo-review in question, whose author seems to be neither “skeptical” nor a scientist. Moreover, what is the relation of the quoted passage to the contents of my book? Again, I submit that there is none. Why, then, has the pseudo-skeptical pseudo-scientist who so pusillanimously shied away from revealing his name posted the quoted abracadabra as a supposed “review” of my book? What other reason could he/she have besides using Amazon’s tolerance to hurl mud at my book by giving it one star?
The ID advocates seem to be unable to find reasonable arguments against the critique, such as suggested in my book and in the anthology edited by Young and Edis, if they resort to such meaningless diatribes as the above quoted opus by the supposed “skeptical scientist.”
SALMA TALKS ABOUT OXYMORONIC TESTS
Salma Shapiro’s “review” was posted on September 20, 2004. She wrote, “It is fascinating in looking at these reviews that it needs a whole family: David, Helena and Alexander to stand in support of it (and other anti-ID books), thus loading up 5-star ratings from one household.”
Having read Salma Shapiro’s review (if this indeed is her name), I checked all the reviews of my book, both on Amazon.com and elsewhere and still have no idea what she is talking about. What family of three – David, Helena, and Alexander - tried “loading up 5-star rating” of my book? There are on the Amazon.com reviews by Alexander Eterman and Helena Eterman, the first posted in December 2003 and the second in September 2004. There are also two Davids among the authors of the reviews of my book at Amazon.com. One is David Turell who gave my book three stars, hence Salma could not refer to this David as somebody trying to push up “5-star rating.” The other David gave only the initial of his surname as F, so he hardly could be assumed to belong to the same family as the two Etermans mentioned above. So the closest to the “family” referred to by Salma seems to be the pair of reviews signed by Alexander Eterman and Helena Eterman. The name of Alexander Eterman is well known – in particular he is the author of several articles posted to the Talk Reason website (www.talkreason.org). These articles deal with problems related to Judaic theology and show Eterman’s wide knowledge of theology, history, and philosophy. If Alexander Eterman wished to review my book, which in his opinion deserves 5 stars, and has done so under his own name, he certainly has the right to do so without asking for approval from those pseudo-reviewers who hid their names. As to Helena Eterman, how does Salma know that she is part of Alexander’s family rather than just having the same surname? Even if she is, what is the significance of that fact? Can’t she have her own opinion and the right to let it be known? Unlike some other “reviewers” she has not used a pseudonym or anonymity, so her review has to be judged on its merits rather than hinting at alleged conspiracy to “load up” the rating of my book.
If the “family” of the Etermans has indeed posted their reviews only to “load up 5-star rating” wouldn’t they rather use pseudonyms or remain anonymous like many authors of “one-star” reviews chose to do? The very fact that they signed their posts with their real names points to a lack of collusion on their part – and in that their reviews differ favorably from some of those anonymous and pseudonymous negative reviews which have not invoked any protests from Salma Shapiro.
Furthermore, Salma Shapiro reproaches Alexander and Helena for criticizing other reviews instead of reviewing my book. First of all, this is not true regarding the review by Alexander Eterman, who did not write in his post anything about any other reviews but only about my book. Second, even though Helena Eterman has indeed written about the “review” by “Skeptical Sciencist,” what wrong was with her arguing against the “mumbo-jumbo” offered by that “sciencist?” Has Salma Shapiro herself not referred to the reviews by Alexander Eterman and Helena Eterman in a post supposedly reviewing my book? If this was allowed Salma, why was it wrong for Helena?
Besides the sniping remark about the alleged “family” trying to “load up” the five-star rating of my book, Salma’s “review” contains no notions casting any light upon the contents of my book. She recommends, instead of my book, a book by Jonathan Sarfati. Recommending some other book is OK, except for one odd side to Salma’s recommendation. Sarfati (whose name and literary production has not been mentioned either in my book or in any other of my publications because I am not interested in his writing) is a propagandist of the biblical literal inerrancy, of the young-earth creationism variety. In comparison to Sarfati’s production, the books of Dembski or Behe which I criticized in my book look like pinnacles of a quality research (of course, everything is relative, as, in my opinion, both Behe’s and Dembski’s books are in fact unsatisfactory and contain poorly substantiated concepts and arguments). Sarfati represents a narrow, strictly evangelical literalism many tenets of which, in particular, are inimical to the tenets of Judaism. On the other hand, Shapiro is a typical Jewish surname. This gives rise to the suspicion that Salma Shapiro is a pseudonym selected because it sounds Jewish thus providing a false picture of a wide front of unbiased readers of varying persuasions, all dismayed by my book.
The absence of any reference in such “reviews” to the actual contents of the reviewed book is apparently of no consequence from the creationist’s viewpoint, as long as he/she can give the offending book a low rating.
ABOUT FAITH AND NONINTELLIGENCE
The title of this section is based on the title of the next “one-star review of my book which was posted to Amazon.com the same day (September 20, 2004) as the review by Salma Shapiro discussed in the previous section. The author of this review signed his name as Abel H.
Perhaps the best way to start discussing this review is to quote it almost in its entirety. Here it is:
to follow the reasoning here, the following questions came to my intelligence:
How could there be the development of a Natural Select Process before processing even existed, before development existed, before 'existed' existed?
How could there be Time from non-Time, Space from non-Space, Natural from non-Nature, Origination from non-Origination, Physics from non-Physics?
Where does the mechanism of Selection arise from non-mechanism?
How does Absolute Scratch itself originate Recipes like DNA, Physical Laws from scratch? We've heard of Intelligent Creative Chef with necessary implements, equipment, ingredients using a Recipe to bake edibles from scratch, but never imagined unintelligence, non-creativity, non-Chef without necessities formulating a Recipe or any useful edibility. This book means to suggest to rational readers: Scratch itself baked the Chef, Ingredients, Recipe, Mixing Bowl, Oven, Appetite, Nutrition, Taste, etc.?
How do Evolution and Volition, Necessity and Chance arise from Absolute Vacuum?”
What can the expressions such as “Absolute Scratch itself originate Recipes… from scratch, ” “Origination from non-Origination,” “before ‘existed’ existed?” or “non-Chef without necessities,” etc, possibly mean? And what all that gobbledygook has to do with the contents of my book which Abel H. purports to review? It looks as though Abel H, like some other authors of the one-star “reviews,” offered the above pseudo-sophisticated claptrap with the sole purpose of giving my book one star. If we distill from the quoted piffle its apparent gist, shrugging off its quasi-philosophical verbiage, it boils down to Abel’s preconceived disagreement with the thesis of my book. As in the case of some other reviews discussed in the preceding sections, such a disagreement is fine in itself, but it is not sufficient reason to evaluate the reviewed book as bad – such an evaluation has weight only if it is supported by specific argumentation. Abel H. provided none (unless we construe his rhetorical questions about “mixing bowls,” “appetite” etc, as arguments).
Perhaps an example may be helpful. I have reviewed more than one book on Amazon, signing my reviews with my real name. Among my reviews was one of the book by Del Ratzsch.5 Needless to say, I don’t share Ratzsch’s views – he is one of the prominent “design theorists” whereas I am an opponent of “intelligent design.” I disagree with Ratzsch’s views in many ways. However, in my review of his book (which still can be seen at Amazon.com website though it was first posted a couple of years ago) I gave Ratzsch’s book five stars! I did so because the mark given to a reviewed book is not a device to argue against the reviewed author’s thesis (although such argumentation may be included in a review) but a reflection of the reviewer’s opinion regarding the quality of the reviewed book’s arguments with which the reviewer may disagree without denigrating the reviewed writer’s effort. If the reviewer wants to argue against the writer’s views then, to give the critique legitimacy, the reviewer has to offer specific counter-arguments rather than resorting to “one-star” rating plus rhetorical questions in a hardly comprehensible “philosophical” jargon.
A “SCHOOL TEACHER” WONDERS
The next “one-star” review of my book is signed by “James Rockwell.” Like most of the rest of one-star reviews, clicking on the button “see all my reviews” reveals that there seem to be no more reviews on Amazon.com posted by James Rockwell. This suggests that here we again have a case of a pseudonym used to provide the “reviewer” a free hand in writing whatever his/her fancy may be, with impunity. Also as in the other one-star reviews, Rockwell shows no signs of having in fact read my book as he does not refer to any specific points discussed in it.
While short on argumentation, Rockwell’s review is quite categorical. He writes, “In all my years as a high school teacher, I never thought I would encounter such lack of higher-critical thinking outside of a room full of students. But this book makes one wonder....”
I would rather say Rockwell’s review makes one wonder what kind of a teacher he is as he seems not to realize that his opus is utterly irrelevant to the book he pretends to review.
In the quoted sentence Rockwell hints at the author of the reviewed book being an incompetent fool incapable of a “higher-critical thinking” in which the high school teacher Rockwell (if he indeed is such) is supposedly much better versed. If this is so, Rockwell has succeeded in keeping his own expertise in “high-critical thinking” well concealed. His review contains no cogent arguments in any way related to the contents of my book, suggesting instead some nebulous notions about “micro vs. macro investigator in the ID search for the source of intelligibility in our universe.”
As to the substance of Rockwell’s own notions, it is expressed as follows:
“My view is: as much as the details, math, explanations, ideology and illustrations the author uses, it's magnifying glass sort of data and evaluation on the forest floor. What's needed is a Big Picture Sweep of the canopy with focused binoculars to see if we're in the right jungle according to the maps. As the old saying goes: "What good are maps drawn from not being there? Get up and scope things out from Higher Air."
Well, I leave it to Mr. Rockwell to write a book wherein he would offer the “Big Picture Sweep” he favors. Perhaps he will even find a publisher interested in the virtues of Rockwell’s eloquence and in comic values of his attitude. What, though, does it say about the contents of my book? Nothing. I can myself suggest a long list of points I have not discussed in my book, but listing them hardly says much about what in fact my book talks about.
ARE ANTI-IDERS ON THE DEFENSIVE?
The “one-star” review” posted on September 27, 2004 and signed by “T.S.E.” makes an odd impression. This reviewer writes, for example, that my “writing was well done and the arguments were quite lucid.” He also states that my book is “valiantly” trying to make its points; if this is so, and if writing is well done and arguments lucid, it seems to suggest that my goal was successfully achieved - at least this is the conventional logic. Then why has T.S.E. gave the book just one star?
Contradicting himself, T.S.E. tries, using his own words, “to prove the improvable, establish the disestablished, demonstrate the undemonstrative, conclude the inconclusive” whatever these words may imply.
He also says, “the book is recommended,” but adds a condition – “only as companion to Johnson's 'Darwin on Trial', and Dembski's 'Intelligent Design' and Behe's 'Darwin's Black Box' and other recent publications showing anti-IDers on the defensive trying to shore up Blind and Unintelligent forces at work to no purposeful end developing all that is thought to have purpose at this end of the spectrum of life.”
Well, the books recommended by T.S.E, “as companion” to my book are exactly those subjected to a critical analysis in my book. Naturally, if I offered a critique of these books, readers were invited to check them on their own and therefore T.S.E.’s condition seems to be utterly superfluous. The question still remains: why one star? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that T.S.E. in all probability has not read my book and the sole purpose of his/her review was to push down the rating of my book by giving it one star. As to alleged “defensive” position of “anti-IDers,” it exists only in T.S.E.’s imagination and betrays his being a member of the ID crowd whose sweet dream is to gain respectable status in the mainstream science. So far there are no signs of that happening any time soon.
ONCE AGAIN ABOUT OXYMORONS
This one-star review signed by “Max” is a rather lengthy discourse about many things except for the contents of my book. This reviewer writes first about probability; his notions are not related in any discernable way to those parts of my book where I discuss probability, hence there is nothing for me to argue about as far as that part of Max’s review is concerned. Then he deviates into abstract ruminations about such concepts as “metaphoring” whatever this term means, and again, his remarks do not address any parts of my book but are just general notions which I see no reason to discuss, as they have little relation to any part of my discourse.
Max writes that my book “implodes just from the title and premises: UNintelligent Design. It acknowledges appearance tantamount to Design, equivalent to Design, intelligible as Design and labeled Design, but of course not the dictionary definition of Design. It's all a metaphor. A more accurate term for the theory would be Spontaneous Generation in Vacuo.” All this is Max’s own notion as none of it appears in my book. Max concludes, “UNintelligent Design is the ultimate Oxymoron of the 21st Century. What hath nonGod wrought?”
Whether my book “implodes” just by virtue of its title regardless of its
contents, or, regardless of its title its contents are meaningful (as scores of
other reviewers, many of them scientists of high stature, not to mention the
authors of private messages I have received, seem to think) is an interesting
point for discussion; in such a discussion the term “oxymoron” could perhaps
indeed emerge, but more plausibly in regard to some statements by Max.
ARE THE NINE REVIEWED POSTS UNIQUE?
Although in the preceding sections I discussed only the “one-star” and “two-star” reviews of my book, a similar picture emerges if we look up the reviews of some other books critical of the intelligent design ‘”theory,” such as the already mentioned anthology Why Intelligent Design Fails (edited by Young and Edis), Creationism’s Trojan Horse (by Forrest and Gross), and God, the Devil, and Darwin (by Niall Shanks).
I will briefly discuss now the negative reviews on the Amazon.com web site of the three books in question.
As of October 9, 2004, there are on the Amazon.com website 27 reviews of the anthology Why Intelligent Design Fails (edited by Matt Young and Taner Edis). Out of 27 reviews, 15 gave it five stars, and 12 – one star.
One of the “five-star” reviewers, Al Exvol, wrote, among other things, that “While a positive review may legitimately be of a general type without delving into a book's specifics, a negative review carries no weight unless it critically addresses specific notions in the discussed publication.” This statement has invoked a sharp rebuttal by one of the “one-star” reviewers, who signed his post as A. Mollison Jr. I would like to comment on this point.
I share Exvol’s opinion. Here is why. If a reader has a positive view of a book and wishes to announce it to other potential readers, he/she may not necessarily suggest new, additional arguments to those offered by the author of the recommended book. By expressing his/her positive opinion of a book, the reviewer asserts that he/she accepts the arguments of the reviewed author. These arguments have been already offered in the reviewed book and therefore need not be repeated in the review – every potential reader may turn to the source and see what these arguments are. This does not mean that a positive review must not contain argumentation. It may, but not necessarily so, and if it does not, it does not make the review illegitimate or meaningless – it states for the record that the reviewer shares the opinions of the reviewed author, while the argumentation favoring these opinions is already known and available for all to see.
Negative reviews have to meet different criteria. The “negative” reviewer rejects the reviewed author’s opinion and finds his arguments faulty, either in their entirety or partially. Of course the reviewer may simply state his disagreement with the reviewed author, for the record. However, without specific counter-arguments a negative review carries little weight being nothing more than simply a statement of disagreement with the reviewed author, and such a disagreement is not convincing unless it is substantiated by a specific analysis of the reviewed work.
Therefore I find Mollison’s rebuttal of Exvol’s position lacking merit.
Since this essay seems to become rather long, I will discuss only one example of a negative review of the anthology in question.
The review by A. Mollison, Jr. seems a suitable example for my purpose.
Mollison starts his review with an odd accusation of some of the readers who posted positive reviews of the anthology. He asserts that there are among the positive “five-star” reviews four reviews written by the same “guy” under four different pseudonyms. He does not point out which four reviews he has in mind, so there is no way to verify his accusation. Anyway, I don’t know how one “guy” can post more than one review using different pseudonyms. When I open the Amazon.com website, it recognizes me as the visitor. When I post a review, Amazon knows which email address it comes from. I may not know all the tricks available to ingenious reviewers, so perhaps Mollison (which, according to Amazon, is a pseudonym as well) knows something I don’t. If this is the case, perhaps he also knows who the “guy” is who used four pseudonyms, and if so, why does he not name that resourceful “guy’?
I can imagine, though, that several reviews written by the same “guy” or “gal” may be posted with different signatures if this “guy” or “gal” asks his/her friends to post the reviews he/she has composed. However, if this is the case, there is nothing illegitimate in it unless the “guy” or “gal” is in a position of superiority – like a professor asking his/her students, or a supervisor in a company asking his subordinates, to post the reviews he composed. As a professor myself, I can’t imagine any professor risking his reputation and position in such a blatant manner. If, though, a reviewer has written several reviews and asked his friends and colleagues to post them, and the colleagues do it because they share the reviewer’s views, and have the complete freedom to reject the suggested text, or to alter it to fit own views, or to post it as it is, there is little to complain about, and Mollison’s lamentations about the alleged four “personas” all being the same reviewer, even it is correct (which is by no means clear) are immaterial. Moreover, even if some reviewer has indeed managed to post four positive reviews under different names (which is just Mollison’s unsupported allegation) it does not even come close to the documented tricks employed by ID advocates. A good example is the “review” of my book by Dembski who used the review of my book on Amazon to propagandize his own book, hiding behind anonymity. Another example is the use of boilerplate reviews applied to different books. One such boilerplate review was posted by an anonymous “reader” twice – once “reviewing” my book and once again “reviewing” the book by Forrest and Gross (both examples discussed elsewhere in this essay). Obviously, if the same review is posted for two different books this points to a “reviewer” who has not read either of the two books and posted his “reviews” only to throw mud on the books he is scared by. The level of integrity of such reviewers and of the ID crowd they represent and defend seems to be perfectly exposed by such invidious tricks as using boilerplate reviews.
Anyway, if there is anybody to blame for tricks used by reviewers, it is Amazon which employs no filters, thus enabling anybody to post as reviews any drivel with impunity. Amazon’s position is understandable. They are in the business of selling books. They are not concerned about the contents of the books they sell. From their standpoint, every device increasing sales is legitimate. The larger the number of reviews of a book, the more copies may be sold - as simple as that. Amazon has little concern about the reviews being positive. Negative reviews serve the same purpose, and when the “Readers’ reviews” section holds a mix of both positive and negative reviews, it is, generally speaking, even better for sales than a bunch of only highly positive reviews. Perhaps that is why the appeals to Amazon to stop posting anonymous reviews fell on deaf ears.
Let us see what Mollison’s arguments against the anthology under review are. He starts the substantive part of his review by the following unexpected admission, “The book itself admittedly is well done. No complaint there. Then why the lone star rating, you ask?”
Indeed, this is a natural question. If the book is “well done” (hopefully Mollison does not mean it in the sense applied to steaks in eateries), why is it rated as low as giving it just one star?
Here we have two competing explanations. One, given by Mollison himself, is hardly convincing and not quite logical. Explaining the one-star rating, Mollison writes, “Because it [the anthology. MP] assumes its points of contention - some valid, some invalid - are under its terms and conditions unanswerable and unassailable. But that is simply far from the case.”
To anybody who has read the anthology in question, is clear that its 13 contributors made no such assumption in any shape, form, or manner. First of all, each of the 13 chapters has its own topic, approach, and sets of arguments, independent of other chapters. To paint all 13 chapters with one brush could only mean the reviewer either has not bother to read the anthology or had a goal quite separate from an unbiased evaluation of its merits.
Second, Mollison’s explanation lacks logic. If the assumption attributed by Mollison to the authors of the anthology were indeed present in it, the book hardly could be referred to as “well done.” If, though, the anthology was indeed “well done,” it certainly must have offered better notions than the ridiculous assumption ascribed by Mollison to the 13 scientists who contributed to the anthology. Mollison has erected a straw man and then attacked it.
The alternative explanation of why the book that is “well done” was given by Mollison just one star is more plausible. It assumes that Mollison’s very goal in posting a review was to give the anthology just one star, thus pushing down its overall rating. In pursuing that goal the contents of his review mattered little but rather served as a filler whose gist was irrelevant to the goal except for providing a more or less credible maquillage covering the real purpose of the post.
To fill the review with a semblance of real discussion, Mollison chooses just one paper in the collection as his target, wherein he assaults Matt Young’s critique of analogies employed by Behe and Dembski. Mollison’s arguments regurgitate the same worn out and often repeated references to “astronomically” small probabilities of spontaneous emergence of complex biological structures – arguments refuted many times before. He does not refer, though, to any specific arguments against intelligent design suggested in the reviewed anthology, as if these arguments do not exist. Perhaps Mollison’s arguments sound convincing to himself and to other members of the ID crowd, but they do nothing to rebut the specific, detailed, and fact-based arguments by the 13 authors of the anthology in question.
A very telling point in Mollison’s review is the following statement, “Just wait for Behe's and Dembski's next books.”
I believe this statement cinches the matter – how familiar is this promise to answer all questions and solve all problems in the next opus by Dembski – the “Isaac Newton of information theory” (as ID defender Rob Koons referred to Dembski) resorts to such promises each time he deigns to react to a critique of his latest publication. This habit of Dembski and Co. has been documented in Forrest and Gross’s book Creationism’s Trojan Horse. We know, however, that when the promised next book appears we find there little new, but rather the same endlessly recycled mantras about astronomical improbabilities, complex specified information, the Explanatory Filter, mousetraps, the NFL theorems allegedly prohibiting evolution, the non-existing “low of the conservation of information,” and all that panoply of crank science familiar from the preceding opuses by the ID proponents.
Since Mollison took the liberty of accusing four “personas” of being the same “guy,” I feel entitled to my own guess. The promise “to get” the critics in the next books by Dembski and Johnson makes it seem plausible that he is closely connected to the denizens of the Discovery Institute’s amusingly named Center for Culture and Science.
QUASI-REVIEWS OF FORREST AND GROSS’S BOOK
As of October 9, 2004, there are on the Amazon.com website 22 reviews of the book Creationism’s Trojan Horse by Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross. Among them 12 reviews give the book 5 stars, 3 reviews give it 4 stars, 2 reviews give it 3 stars, 1 review gives it 2 stars and 4 reviews give it 1 star.
Perhaps the most interesting item in that list of reviews is a “review” posted on January 18, 2004 and signed by an anonymous “reader.” The interest here is not in the gist of that “review” since it is irrelevant to the contents of the book. It is interesting and telltale because it is an exact copy, word for word, of a review of my book, discussed previously in this essay. The title of these two indistinguishable “reviews” is in both cases “Neither Fair Nor Balanced,” and both were posted on the same date. Needless to say, a boilerplate review which is applied to two different books does not require reading the supposedly “reviewed” books. The only purpose of posting such boilerplate pieces of mud is to push down the rating of the “reviewed” books thus possibly sabotaging their sale. Apparently Amazon sees it differently, adhering to the principle that there is no bad publicity, so the larger the number of reviews, the better for sales, regardless of whether the reviews are positive or negative. Anyway, having these two boilerplate copies of the same piece posted is quite educational, as it testifies to the underhanded methods the ID crowd resorts to in their feverish fight against science.
The rest of the negative reviews of Forrest & Gross’s book are the familiar attempts to smear the authors’ well documented exposure of the ID movement and its “Wedge” strategy by accusing them of promoting “conspiracy” theories. These accusations are substantiated about as credibly as in the boilerplate review discussed above, which is not at all.
NIALL SHANKS UNDER FIRE
Although Niall Shank’s book God, the Devil, and Darwin was published almost simultaneously with my book and with that by Forrest and Gross, only 14 readers have so far (October 9, 2004) chosen to review it on Amazon.com website. Out of 14 reviews, 6 give the book 5 stars, 1 gives it 3 stars and 7 reviews give it just one star.
However, the sheer arithmetic tells little about the impact of that book upon the readership. To explain what I mean, I will present here copies of just two “one-star” reviews which speak for themselves.
Here is one of the reviews in question:
“Evolution Gone Bad, October 6, 2004
This truly mean-spirited book illustrates the evolution of Darwin's theory into Darwin's dogma.”
The only commendable feature of this “review” is that its author, unlike most other detractors of the anti-ID books, signed his post by his real name. Otherwise, it is just an expression of a personal belief not supported by any quotations or specific arguments. For anybody who has at least briefly perused Shanks’s book is obvious that the epithet “mean-spirited” is a deliberate distortion of the book’s contents.
Shanks offers a multitude of data from science, which testify against the tenets of intelligent design. What is mean-spirited in describing Bènard cells and Belousov-Zhabotinski reaction which demonstrate the spontaneous self-organization observed in nature? What is mean-spirited in the analysis of the role of the 2nd law of thermodynamics in evolution? Shanks book is written in calm and restrained language throughout, is void of personal attacks or insinuations, so the term “mean-spirited” seems to fit much better the meaningless epistle by Reese.
As to the alleged evolution of Darwin’s theory into Darwin’s dogma, obviously Mr. Reese is uninformed about the lively discussions among evolutionary biologists reflected in thousands of papers in biological journals where the only criterion for coming to a conclusion is factual evidence. With such an obviously meager ken of the actual situation in biology, for “reviewers” like Reese the only chance to be heard is to use the omnivorous character of the Amazon.com website.
The other “review” of Shanks’s book which I will quote is, however, even more remarkable. Here it is:
“Give it a rest Perakh, June 3, 2004
Perakh's itch for disputation and vituperative opining is matched only by his unfounded arrogance and his unhealthy fixation with William Dembski (I recommend more time outdoors; it might ease the choleric disposition).
Regarding the reviewer from Ann Arbor, the demands that he append his identity are pure pedantry. These are amazon blurbs, not formal literature.”
This review is a real pearl. Remember that it is supposed to be a review of Shanks’s book! Isn’t it funny that this supposed review does not even mention Shanks’s book or is in any way related to it. Instead it is a spiteful personal assault on me. Since this post has nothing to do with Shanks’s book, its purpose, besides insulting me, was obviously only to push down the rating of Shanks’s book. Therefore there seems to be a good reason not to attach any significance to the set of negative reviews of Shanks’s book – they do not reflect the book’s actual merits but are rather expressions of their authors’ visceral animosity to Shank’s thesis, an animosity which is probably even more spurred by Dawkins’s eloquent foreword to that book.
As to the quoted “review,” the full name of this reviewer became known after he posted a long series of comments to Panda’s Thumb (PT) weblog,6 where he used the same email address but openly signed his posts as Robert O’Brien. Like the quoted “review,” O’Brien’s comments on Panda’s Thumb were of the same type – full of personal insults and short on substance.
There was once on the PT blog a discussion of certain mathematical concepts including the so called Kantorovich metrics. In his usual disdainful style, using quite rude language, O’Brien claimed that all the contributors to PT were fools with a low status in science and/or mathematics, while he was a student of the prominent mathematician Rachev who, in turn, was a student of a Nobel laureate, the famous Soviet mathematician Kantorovich, the author of the Kantorovich metrics. One of the contributors to PT suggested to O’Brien, as to a supposed specialist in this matter, that he post to PT an explanation of the Kantorovich metrics. The effect was amusing – soon the name of O’Brien whose numerous vituperative comments until then were emerging on PT day in and day out, ceased appearing on the PT blog.
It is good that Amazon is so omnivorous and keeps on its website O’Brien’s spiteful assault on me in the form of a supposed review of Shanks’s book - it is a testimony to what kind of defenders are found in the ranks of the ID’s fighting force.
The authors of the negative reviews are entitled to their opinions and I’d happily appreciate their input. The “one-star” and “two-star” reviews of my book, however, clearly belong in a special category. These nine “reviewers” as well as many of those “reviewers” who pounced upon the other three books discussed in this essay, most probably have not read the reviewed books since their ‘reviews” contain no specific references to any points discussed in the books in question. Some of them – as the review by Dembski and by another anonymous “reader” – were obviously posted with a two-fold goal. First, to hurl mud at my book thus undermining its possible impact, and second, to propagandize instead their own output, in the case of Dembski’s “review” doing that under disguise of a supposedly impartial disinterested observer.
I must stress that I tend to dismiss the “one-star” or “two-star” reviews not because they gave my book just one or only two stars. I would gladly appreciate any reviews regardless of the number of stars if they contained at least a brief discussion of substance relevant to my thesis. In fact most of the negative reviews in question are useless as they do not at all relate to the contents of the reviewed books. Why then have many readers asserted on Amazon that they found the reviews in question helpful? The answer seems to be obvious – Amazon allows complete freedom and anonymity to whoever chooses to click the button asserting this or that opinion. There is little doubt that the ID crew has organized a concerted effort urging their cohorts and admirers to write “one-star” reviews of the books they feel threatened by, and the qualifications required for posting such a review do not entail having actually read the attacked books. If, though, a particular ID crew member or an admirer had difficulties writing a review, he/she was invited to at least click the button asserting that a review of his/her colleague is helpful. In a “cultural war” where, as Dembski has put it, the “Glory of God” is at stake,1 all means are acceptable, regardless of the norms of intellectual decency.
(1) On March 7, 2004 Dembski gave a talk at the Baptist Fellowship Church in Waco, TX. The lecture was taped and the tape is available on request. Among other things, Dembski said in that lecture, “When you are attributing the wonders of nature to these mindless material mechanisms, God's glory is getting robbed." He continued, "And so there is a cultural war here. Ultimately I want to see God get the credit for what he's done -- and he's not getting it."
(2) The intention of “winning” the “cultural war” regardless of means was, for example implied by Dembski’s assertion that the ID proponents will “never capitulate” to their opponents, which could be seen in his untitled post at www.arn.org/cgi-bin/ubb/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f13;t=000483 accessed December 26, 2002. It has since then been removed and seems not to be available any longer unless it is re-posted elsewhere.
(3) The review of my book of January 21, 2004, on Campus Inquirer can be seen at (www.campusfreethought.org/inquirer/2004.01.21.htm#a10 ; accessed on October 8, 2004.
(4) Prometheus Books is a publishing house located in Amherst, NY. Since its founding in 1969 it has published over 3,000 books and continues to do so at the rate of about 110 new titles annually. The categories of books it publishes include popular science, science and the paranormal, contemporary issues, social science and current events, children’s fiction and non-fiction, history, religion and politics, philosophy, humanism, Islamic studies, Jewish studies, biblical criticism, psychology, women’s issues, health, self-help, sexuality, reference, and more. Here are some randomly selected titles of books from its most recent (Fall 2004 – Winter 2005) catalog: Barry Parker, Albert Einstein’s Vision (page 3); Warren Ashby, A Comprehensive History of Western Ethics (page 9); Michael R. King and Gregory M. Cooper, Who Killed King Tut? (page 13); Isaac Asimov, It’s Been a Good Life (page 17); Andrew R. Thomas, Aviation Insecurity (page 25); Anwar Hekmat, Women and the Koran (page 33); Milton D. Heifetz, Ethics in Medicine (page 38); Steve Allen, Meeting of Minds (page 42); Aristotle, The Metaphysics (page 50); Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and The Meditations (page 50); Siegfried Mandel, Nietzsche and the Jews (page 66); Raye Linne Dippel and J. Thomas Hutton, Caring For the Alzheimer Patient (page 74); James Christopher, Escape From Nicotine Country (page 80), etc. I challenge Dembski to provide a similar random selection of titles from the catalog of InterVarsity Press which has published most of his books. Unlike Prometheus Books, with its wide range of topics, authors, and philosophical attitudes, InterVarsity Press is indeed a very parochial publisher with an ideologically restricted scope of publications all expounding the narrow evangelical world view. This shows the abject fallacy of Dembski’s disdainful reference to Prometheus “Press” (sic). As a devout Christian, Dembski should be familiar with the parable about noticing a straw in a neighbor’s eye but missing a log in one’s own eye. I feel quite comfortable with being published by the same publisher that also published books by Aristotle, Hegel, Descartes, Gardner, and Asimov.
(5) Del Ratzsch, Nature, Design and Science. NY: State University of New York Press, 2001.
(6) Panda’s Thumb (PT) is very popular weblog at www.pandasthumb.org/ . While its title is in a reference to the well known book by Steven Jay Gould and, accordingly, its main goal is defending evolutionary biology against pseudo-scientific attacks from creationists and their allies of various brands, in fact the material on that blog covers a wide range of topics. It consists, first, of essays posted by the members of a group of contributors which includes biologists, physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, lawyers, etc., and, second, of comments to the posted essays which can be posted by every visitor. According to the data by Alexa, PT is one of the most visited blogs on the web, and the number of comments accompanying its essays sometimes is in hundreds. These comments include many from creationists who obviously watch PT closely. While the administrators of PT display a considerable tolerance allowing the writers of comments sometimes quite sharp assaults on the posted essay, in those cases when the comments become too malicious, off-color, or immaterial, they may be transferred to the special subdivision of this blog named Bathroom Wall.