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The Sciences

The Blessing of Amazon.com Reviews

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJanuary 12, 2006 5:22 PM

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If an alien from Mars arrived on Earth, visited the United States, and wanted to understand the issues that exist at the intersection of politics and science in this country, he, she, or it would have a problem. You see, there are two popular books out that have garnered significant public attention and that purport to address this topic. Unfortunately, they come from diametrically opposed perspectives, and reach irreconcilably different conclusions. One book, as you may have guessed, is my own, The Republican War on Science. The other is Tom Bethell's Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. In essence, I argue that there's a serious science abuse problem from the political right and especially the Bush administration. Bethell, meanwhile, says the problem is coming from the left. For him, global warming is little more than a hoax, evolution is nonsense (though he offers no replacement hypothesis), and even AIDS in Africa is questionable at best. (Bethell himself is listed as a member of the "board of directors" of an organization called the "Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis." In his prior writings he has also questioned Einstein's theory of relativity (!).) Confronted with these two books, where is our poor alien to go in order to determine what's going on when it comes to politics and science? Well, as I've just learned, the alien can go to Amazon.com and consult the reader reviews there. If they're examined carefully, I think they're quite revealing. As of this posting, my book has received 47 reviews; Bethell's has received 51 reviews. The similar numbers--in addition to the subject matter--naturally lend themselves to a comparison. So let's say our alien undertakes such an analysis. Here's what he/she/it would find. Bethell and I both have our fans who have given long, glowing 5 star reviews. But that's not what's really interesting. Instead, what's striking from the comparison is the relative number of single star reviews for each author, and what these extremely negative reviews actually contain. By my count, I have received a total of 8 reviews (out of 47) that were one star reviews. Of those, I rate only 3 as "substantive" in the sense that they actually explain in a specific way something that is allegedly wrong with the book, or actually try to engage one of my arguments in an intellectually serious manner. And here I am being generous, because even the "substantive" reviews often contained ad hominems in addition to actual arguments. But now let's look at Bethell's one star reviews. By my count, he's received 23 of them out of 50, or almost half!!! Some of these are what I would call drive-by reviews, lacking any real meat or substance. Nevertheless, I would classify 11 of them as being substantive. Within that group, many of the reviews are extremely thorough and lengthy, refuting Bethell's arguments on a variety of different points. One or two of them even seem inspired by my own substantive refutations of Bethell (yes, I have read his book, though I did not post my very negative review on Amazon). In addition, Bethell also received 5 two-star reviews (I did not receive any of these). Every single one of these was detailed and substantive, and quite critical. One of these two-star reviewers (a generous rating, in my opinion) has even posted a thorough chapter-by-chapter review of Bethell that bends over backwards to be fair to him but nevertheless winds up being extremely negative (see here). So in short, I think that our alien could go to Amazon.com, read the negative reviews of my book and of Bethell's book, and, on that basis, begin to make an informed judgment about the substance and merits of these works. Granted, I'm obviously highly biased on this question, and my classification of these reviews does have an admitted element of subjectivity to it. But if you check out the reviews yourself (click here for my book and here for Bethell's), I suspect you'll find yourself in agreement with my analysis. In my own highly self-interested opinion, then, the Amazon.com reviews system seems to be working pretty well.

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