Friday, July 12, 2013

How Not to Review a Book

Gareth Cook at the New Yorker does his best to discredit Darwin's Doubt and its author Stephen Meyer, but his best isn't very good. Maybe his heart wasn't in it. Maybe he realized that he had no real case to make but felt he had to go through the motions anyway. He sprinkles in enough innuendo to make the reader think that maybe there really is something disreputable about Meyer's effort, but Cook's allegations suffer from a dearth of factual support and often completely ignore the arguments that Meyer makes. Cook's review will only convince those who either haven't read the book or who simply don't want to believe its message.

The message of Darwin's Doubt in a nutshell is that the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, the conjecture that all of life can be explained in terms of purely mechanistic, unguided processes like natural selection acting on random genetic mutations, is a failed hypothesis. It's staggering around academia like a drunk looking for a place to lie down and pass out.

David Klinghoffer has a fine response to most of Cook's review here, but there are a couple of things that Cook says at the end of his piece to which I'd like to offer a reply. For example, he says this:
Most absurd of all is the book’s stance on knowledge: if something cannot be fully explained by today’s science—and there is plenty about the Cambrian, and the universe, that cannot—then we should assume it is fundamentally beyond explanation, and therefore the work of a supreme deity.
Meyer, however, says no such thing. He does not say that the Cambrian fossils are beyond explanation and must therefore be the work of a supreme deity. He says, in fact, that the Cambrian fossils are evidence that the explanation for them is ultimately intelligent and purposeful, not random and purely physical. In other words, intelligent mind is an explanation and it's the best explanation for the appearance of the kind of information that must be present to create all the phyla of animals, especially suddenly and in a relatively brief period of time.

"But do not underestimate Darwin’s Doubt,” Cook adds, "it is a masterwork of pseudoscience."

Pseudoscience? What Meyer has done is essentially compile a very thorough search of the literature on several of the main problems afflicting Neo-Darwinian explanations of phylogenesis, and he concludes from the statements made by people working in the field, most of whom are themselves Darwinians, that there simple is no plausible, non-purposive explanation for the phenomena they're trying to explain. How is that pseudoscience? Cook never tells us, of course. It's easier to just throw the word out there and leave people with the impression that it fits.

The most dismaying statement he makes, though, comes close to the end of his essay:
The book’s best, most honest moments come in the concluding chapter, in which Meyer travels to see the famous Burgess Shale in person. His son goes ahead on the trail but then suddenly freezes, stricken with vertigo after peering down the mountainside. Meyer likens his son’s paralysis to modernity’s despair at materialism, its shock at the prospect that the universe is utterly indifferent. Meyer writes frankly, saying that his quest is to give people back their sense of meaning and purpose. Here, at last, Meyer is not pretending to be a scientist. (My emphasis)
Clearly the impression Cook wishes to leave with his reader is that Meyer has been dishonest in what he has written, that he has distorted or fabricated facts, but such a charge demands support, otherwise it's a sleazy cheapshot. Cook, however, offers none. He indulges, rather, in what might be called "refutation by smear." He suggests to the reader that Meyer has been dishonest and thereby discredits his book in the reader's mind.

Resort to this tactic is vile, but it has the advantage of sparing the one who employs it the burden of having to actually construct a logical refutation when there's none to be had.

Moreover, his suggestion that Meyer has been "pretending to be a scientist" is asinine. It suggests that Cook only read snippets of the book before he wrote his review. Either that or he naively thinks that unless one is actually performing experiments one is not a scientist. Darwin's Doubt is a multidisciplinary look at the Cambrian fossils. Meyer's background as an historian and philosopher of science as well as his ability to report on current research makes him very well-qualified for the task he undertakes.

In a way, the sorts of insults Cook deploys are actually a compliment. They're an admission that the reviewer has no substantive brief against the book, that he can't find any significant fault with it, and can only hope to diminish its impact by somehow casting aspersions on the integrity of the author. It's a loathsome practice in the eyes of people who value truth and honesty, but it's common enough among those desperate to resuscitate a paradigm that seems to no longer offer answers and which demands an incredible degree of blind faith to believe.