Tom Gilson

Darwin’s Doubt: Negative Reviews Undermining Their Own Principles

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 DesignJust what is the place of evidence in reviews of Darwin’s Doubt? It seems there are plenty of negative reviews undercutting their own principles.

Darwin’s Doubt: Negative Reviews Lacking Knowledge

ddreviewsAs 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.

Skewed Numbers

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.

Again, I wouldn’t want us to over-interpret that analysis. I can’t say it applies to any particular larger population. I will venture to say this, though: it’s consistent with the simplifying trend I’ve seen among Internet atheists, and it adds weight to that impression. It’s also quite consistent with reviews of Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. I don’t think it’s too far off base to say there’s a pattern being expressed here.

I will also say this: a lot of reviewers undercut their own stated principles in their rush to reject Darwin’s Doubt. It’s not impressive. Not in the least.

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19 thoughts on “Darwin’s Doubt: Negative Reviews Undermining Their Own Principles

  1. Good idea, Tom, and fair discussion. On the other hand, many of the 5-star reviews also admit, explicitly or implicitly, knowing little about the subject. I find the wide-eyed, uncritical wonder many of them express disconcerting. And several of the negative reviewers, and commenters, do seem to have relevant expertise. Some have issued specific scientific challenges to some of Meyer’s contentions, and I have yet to see a good response from Luskin.

    That many skeptics are not very skeptical in the best sense, we knew. I had especially good reason to know this, since I still have at least one ankle-biting troll following me from the Edge of Evolution wars on Amazon, telling whomever he thinks will listen what a shameless, illiterate liar I am, and how wretched my New Atheism book supposedly is. (Which he has “reviewed” some two dozen times on Amazon!) But such examples should only be all the more reason for us, as Christians, to ourselves be fair-minded and critical. I appreciate that you carefully hold your conclusions within bounds; but even there, I find much cause for concern with the positive reviews, as well. Frankly, I don’t see much critical thinking on either side on Amazon, and haven’t for years.

  2. This is a view championed by Matzke in defiant isolation.

    If what Berlinski said is accurate, it doesn’t look good for Matzke. But I’m just a layman when it comes to these things.

  3. Yep – stupid people exist on the internet – ever done such research on the comments of a typical Uncommon Descent article?

  4. Actually Tom… I’m asking you. If the hint isn’t clear, this is a charge that you don’t actually look critically at your own camp.

  5. I see. Well, you’re still welcome to take the lead in it.

    Looking critically at your own camp, that is. It would be instructive to do a comparative analysis of comments at UD with those at Pharyngula or Panda’s Thumb, for example.

    Or if you’d like to see where I’ve done it, it’s not that hard to find here on this blog. It’s even in a BreakPoint article I submitted this morning. But I’m not inclined to do a quantitative analysis of blog comments. Feel free to take the lead on that, too.

  6. Thanks, Tom. Berlinski is always fun to read. I’m only 50 or so pages into Meyer so far, though, and then I’ll read his critics. Then Berlinski, for sure. This could take a while; though I did finally manage to finish three books recently, so there is hope.

    The thing about Meyer’s book that almost no one seems to comment on, ironically, is the science itself — I mean the natural wonders. That’s why I enjoyed EO Wilson’s autobiography, one of the books I just finished, so thoroughly. That I think is where scientific atheists are closest to being Christians in their hearts:

    http://christthetao.blogspot.com/2013/06/are-there-atheists-on-mountains-in-new.html

    The debate itself can be intellectually fascinating, but the attitude that both sides (including me, sometimes) tend to adopt gets to be a bore.

  7. Thanks, David,

    d, there’s a practical consideration to bear in mind here, too. In order to run a quantitative analysis of qualitative material like reviews or comments, there needs to be something very definite to count. I didn’t try to count “stupidity” or “dogmatism” or “rudeness” in this study, for example. I don’t deny you could find it in these reviews, but they’re almost impossible to define operationally in such a way as to get a reliable and defensible count. I didn’t code reviews for, “man, I’ll bet he didn’t read the book!” either; I only coded them for what they objectively said or didn’t say.

    So no, I’m not going to try to run a quantitative analysis of UD comments, and it’s not because I don’t feel like criticizing my own. It’s because some things don’t lend themselves to that kind of analysis.

    If you can suggest something very countably objective, definite and interesting and relevant to analyze, I might be interested. I haven’t seen that kind of thing in most comment threads, however.

  8. Tom,

    I think a comparison between UD and Pharyngula would be relatively the same, if one is honest. And I think reviews on Darwins Doubt – and amazon reviews, in general – are functionally, essentially just comments on a website. So I don’t really see the difference… they are all…

    ..Idiots on the internet….

    But it seems to me like you consistently paint the picture that this is something that is an *atheist* problem -when its really a *human* problem. A quick read of UD comments will shatter the belief that there is something exceptional about contrarian reviews to books of ID-ists like Meyer.

  9. I’m willing to believe that.

    Could you point me to a thread you have in mind at UD? Because honestly, I haven’t read comments there in years.

  10. If it’s that I have consistently pointed out an inconsistency in New Atheists’ use of “reason,” I stand by that. I think they invite that criticism through their insistence that their way just is by definition the way of reason. That’s identifiably false, and false in a manner that harms people deeply by turning them away from God on deceitful premises.

    If it’s some other consistent message I’ve presented, then maybe it would be best if you would explain to me what you’re referring to, and where you find it.

  11. It appears to me that the typical internet atheist believes that he is more intelligent than the typical religious person, because of who he is and what he believes. (Notice I didn’t say what he knows, though he may believes he “know’s it all.”) I see very little effort on the IA’s part to explain, define or justify those beliefs… In the very worst case it appears that don’t have to consider an argument or read a book, they can just dismiss a POV because of who they are and what they believe. That sounds to me a lot like dogmatism. But wait! Isn’t that what they are against?

  12. In response to comparing this pericope to UD:

    Open forum versus single post ratings.

    Unless I’m completely misinformed of what is intended by the request of analyzing UD, I do think there is incompatibility in that request rendering it irrelevant.

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