One would think that self-proclaimed defenders of science would place great stock in the importance of evidence. It seems this should show up in any of their science-related knowledge claims. That does not seem to be the case, however, among those who have written negative reviews of Stephen C. Meyer’s new book Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. Just what is the place of evidence in reviews of Darwin’s Doubt? It seems there are plenty of negative reviews undercutting their own principles.
As of this morning, 34 percent of Amazon reviewers gave this book a one- or two-star rating. Of those negative reviewers, only 30 percent indicated that they had read the book, and just 27 percent displayed having knowledge of the contents. (By contrast, among the 61 percent of all reviewers who rated it with four or five stars, 83 percent indicated they had read the book and 60 percent demonstrated knowledge of the contents.)
I’m attaching the Excel file in which I recorded my coding of these reviews. Here’s how I coded it.
If a reviewer said in any way whatsoever that he or she had read the book, I coded that review as one for which the person had read the book. Otherwise I coded it as one for which the reviewer did not indicate reading the book. Of course it’s likely that some reviewers read the book without explicitly saying so. We should not conclude that only 30 percent of negative reviewers, or 83 percent of positive reviewers, actually read the book. Still the numbers are indicative of something, for it seems likely that any reviewer would be motivated to say something like, “I read the book and I found it to be … ”
I also coded each review for whether it displayed knowledge of the contents, meaning that it specifically referred to content actually in Stephen Meyer’s book, and not just to general discussion points on the topic. The same caveat applies: it’s likely that more than 27 percent of negative reviewers, and 60 percent of positive reviewers, had knowledge of the contents. Undoubtedly there were some who wanted to keep their reviews short, and thus had no space to comment on specific contents.
Brief Technical Interlude
You might ask whether these numbers are statistically significant. The question is irrelevant, actually. Statistical significance is (roughly) a measure of our confidence in the accuracy of numbers drawn a population sample. If a result for the sample is statistically significant, then we have (at least some) good reason to believe that we would get about the same result if we measured everyone in that population. One requirement for this is that the sample be randomly chosen out of the larger population. But Amazon reviewers are not a random sample of any population. Therefore my analysis applies only to the reviews included in it. I caution everyone against over-interpreting these results.
Still we can draw certain conclusions. For one, if you’re comparing numbers, obviously it makes sense to put more weight on the 61 percent positive reviews than the 34 percent negative reviews, because on average, the positive reviewers knew a lot more about what they were talking about.
Negative Reviews Undercutting Their Own Principles
But I want to frame the negative reviews in a different light. They are quite uniformly indignant at Meyer’s so-called “pseudo-science,” his willingness to base his conclusions on his religion, and other similar complaints. They generally try to defend science as they see it. But science is nothing without evidence, and there is nothing so unscientific as to jump to an evidence-free conclusion. To “defend science” by saying something about which you have no evidence is to undermine the very principles on which science depends. It’s prima facie evidence of biased dogmatism. And yet no one on the self-proclaimed pro-science side seems to be defending evidence-based knowledge here among these reviews.
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