It's a truth secretly believed, if not universally acknowledged, that "user reviews" on Amazon rarely provide much insight into the value of the work being critiqued -- although it's often a fascinating window into the mind of the would-be critic. Leaving aside "professional" Amazon reviewers, and an author's family and friends, there's some strong anecdotal evidence supporting that belief. Blogger Cynical-C has a recurring feature he calls "You Can't Please Everyone," wherein he randomly picks some great work of literature, or film, or music, what have you, and highlights the most amusing negative comments from Amazon reviewers. (Check out a few examples, just for laughs.)
Any published author could relate. Some "reviewers" are barely literate, others have an obvious personal vendetta against the author, others complain something was "boring" and "dumb" without ever specifying why they concluded this, while still others clearly harbor bitterness that their own creative greatness continues to go unrecognized and feel compelled to slam any book within their perceived "specialty" on the grounds that they could have done so much better if only someone had given them a book contract. (Hint: any user who insists on listing his/her "credentials" within said review often falls into the latter category.) And don't get me started on people who give one-star reviews because the Kindle version didn't come out fast enough. (That's an issue y'all should be taking up with the publisher, not punishing the authors.)
Is there anything more subjective than personal taste in books, music, film, art, theater, TV, you name it? That's Cynical-C's point. So while browsing the science section on Amazon this weekend, looking for new or overlooked science books, I thought it might be fun to highlight a few of the more entertaining negative reviews of some popular science books.
Newton and the Counterfeiter, by Tom Levenson. Sure, Tom's a friend, but I'm sure he won't mind my leading off with his excellent book. This is a meticulously researched, beautifully written account of a little-known period in the life of Isaac Newton. Indeed, there's only one bad review, from "Jill in California," who apparently was under the impression she was buying a mystery thriller and instead got stuck reading about boring old science:
*This book was not exciting at all! It read like a dry scientific textbook, not an exciting mystery story. For the most part, this book wasn't even about Newton's pursuit of a counterfeiter - it was about the science behind many of his philosophical discoveries. I would not recommend this book to anyone, unless you like reading boring science books.
Newton's classic work, Principia -- nearly unparalleled in its importance to human knowledge -- doesn't fare much better with a couple of Amazon reviewers. One uses the forum to complain about the particular edition available, while the other seems to think perusing a 17th century Latin text would be an awesome introduction to calculus, and was understandably disappointed.
*I read this book prior to taking test my school offered to "pass-out" of Calculus I and II. I assumed that this would be the best source since Newton is said to have invented Calculus in this book. I never saw it. I spent three weeks trying to cram this book, and I did not come close to passing the standardized exam. The test didn't resemble this book at all. If you need to learn Calculus or Physics, stick with a recently written book. If you need to learn some archaic way of expressing simple ideas, then this is the book for you. I'm now a second year medical student and I still don't know why I had to learn all that math. Nor do I know why I ever bothered to read this book. It turns out Physics and Calculus are really really simple things, but not if taught by Newton.
I mean, there was nothing in there that was on the calculus test! Newton, Schmewton! Most worrisome: this idiot is in med school. I personally agree that Newton would have been a lousy math teacher, but anyone who bothered to read a Wikipedia entry could have figured out the Principia was never intended to teach beginning calculus, or help modern students pass their exams. (In fact, just for the record: while Newton used his snazzy new tool, calculus, in deriving the ideas contained in the Principia, he didn't formally publish anything on calculus until the publication of Opticks, many years later.)
Moving on, here's a user review for Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter, by someone who doesn't seem to know the difference between a novel and a nonfiction biography:
*Don't be fooled by all these positive reviews! If sunspots and Galileo's laundry don't interest you, save your money. The title is a total misrepresentation of the novel. It is a straight biography of Galileo and very little more. I read the whole book to get to the so-called surprise ending and wish I had my time back... what a waste.
Spoiler alert! Galileo runs afoul of the Catholic Church, spends years under house arrest, and then (gasp) dies of old age. What about Sobel's bestselling and widely praised classic, Longitude? Certain science-y sorts were merciless in their condemnation (often badly spelled, with random capitalization and weird punctuation) of this lovely straightforward tale:
*This book, a disjointed ancedotal gobbelydygook [sic] of sweeping generalizations, innne [sic] ponderings and wretched science, is systematic of what happens when a layperson attempts to explain science. You could read this book 500 times and still never find out how the protogonist [sic] solved the greatest scienfic [sic] problem of his time. The author glosses over the answer to this question - which is the very thesis for this book - because she has no ability to understand the eureka moment of science.
*A mediocre book, the author clearly has no scientific knowlegde [sic] and drags the story out as if it was a Soap opera. No diagrams/drawings/patent descriptions are included , meagre technical information. NOT worth the effort of reading. this publication is an insult to the intelligence. ABSOLUTE RUBBISH.
Intrigued by all the venom-spewing, I checked out a couple of my personal favorite popular science authors. Mary Roach's Bonk, for example, was so engaging that I devoured it in a mere two days (ditto for her new book, Packing for Mars). Yet the very qualities I so admire in Roach's writing, others find "juvenile" and downright offensive. Here's what "feminist military spouse" had to say about it:
*I guess I just don't cotton to juvenile sex humor. Maybe it's because I am old (late 20s). Maybe it is because I am a scientist or really open about my sexuality and thus do not feel uncomfortable thinking or reading about, OMG! Sex! I don't know, but I found this woman's humor to be a distraction at best and outright retarded at worst. [Not doing much to counter the false 'humorless feminist" stereotype here.]
Taking a more priggish view was this reviewer:
*I had hoped for witty and informative reading on sexuality, but this book is just light pornography.
Perhaps Spook fared a bit better? Alas, it drew the ire of one of those self-styled "experts in the field" (at least s/he didn't list credentials):
*The word "Science" has no place on the cover of this irritating, utterly biased piece of fluff. Believers and disbelievers alike will find no substantive information on the subject. ... As someone who has done a fair amount of research on this subject, I found this book offensive in it's frivolity. If you are looking for a thought-provoking look at the subject of the afterlife, you will be very dissapointed.[sic]
Other one-star reviews slam the fact that Roach is not a scientist, concluding that thus she can't possibly write well about scientific topics. I call shenanigans! Bill Bryson faced similar criticisms when his marvelous A Short History of Nearly Everything was published, and also drew his share of venom on Amazon. Several humor-impaired folks helpfully pointed out that Bryson's book wasn't short, and did not, in fact, cover nearly everything. The science-minded bemoaned the popularization of their respective fields (how dare science be treated as entertainment, or as anything less than nutritious edification?):
*Don't bother with this book. Read a proper book by someone with some scientific education.
*It is too obvious that the author has not any knowledge of physics.
*I have looked at sections which are related to things I work on, or have worked on. This book has more errors than any pop science book I have seen in a long, long time.
Then we have a couple of user/reviewers with a clear chip on their shoulders ("Life of the Mind? I'll show you life of the mind"):
*If you are an intellectual snob of the highest order who likes impressing other intellectual snobs with quirky and unusual historical anecodes [sic] at university dinner parties, then by god, this book is for you.... This book is little more than a [sic] encyclopedia of what most people would consider useless information. ... Worst of all, his humor is of the sort that can ONLY appeal to snobbish intellectuals and professors.
*Call me an optimist, or a right-wing nut-job if you want if you feel that's what my belief makes me but I hold my fellow man in much higher esteem than this author does, and the self-loathing of his race is pathetic and insulting to me. ... Many of our greatest scientists were eccentric, but Bill's anecdotes of them sound like the insecure rumor mongerings of an english major who never did very well in chemistry.
I'll have my readers know I did great in chemistry. Biology, too. Fortunately, while Roach, Bryson and other like-minded sorts are yukking it up over our juvenile humor in the local pub, and having a hell of a good time, the naysayers will be slowly pickling in their own vinegar.
Roach and Bryson -- at least -- are crying all the way to the bank. But do you think the professional scientists fare any better? Think again. Brian Greene's bestselling The Elegant Universe has tons of user reviews, all over the spectrum. Several of the one-star reviews are by those who clearly have a vendetta either against Greene himself, or string theory in general. A sampling of the vitriol:
*Five stars for literature but minus four stars for science, false statements, inaccuracy, and strong manipulation of public perception! [long diatribe on how string theory is destroying the next generation of physicists follows]
*Having followed Brian Greene for years now, I really have written him off as a scientist, and reclassified him as a public relations genius. The Elegant Universe, like most of Greene's writings is chock-a-block with romantic images of an alternative reality. The only problem is, where is the axiomatic working formula? Greene is always an interesting read, but I always toss his books on my same library shelf as my sci-fi and comic book collections.
*Hawking has said string theory has been oversold in mass media and, in a recent paper, claims that string theory is an insane approach to quantum gravity. Therefore, I sincerely wait that Brian Greene and the publisher of this "best-seller" (only was in USA) explain to world why this book was published. To confuse to people about basic scientific facts is somehow irresponsible. Unfortunately for crackpots, history will be implacable.
*Special Relativity is obsolete because it is unfalsifiable. General Relativity gives the right results but in a round about and convoluted way. Einstein is at his best when it comes to quantum mechanics. A much simpler approach to physics and understanding the Universe can be found in the Michelson-Gale and Brillet-Hall experiments as well as the Sagnac experiment and Hayden's exposition on star aberration. Ultimately, all paradoxes can be resolved through classical physics alone. [I'd ask him to show his work, but, well, he might take me up on it. BTW, the image to the right is provided courtesy of string theorist Jeff Harvey, who has an excellent sense of humor.]
Here's a user/reviewer for Lisa Randall's Warped Passages whose pride is still smarting at the lack of response from prominent physicists to his personal letters/emails:
*If [interested readers] want to better understand string theory and multiple universes, I fear that they will have to study them, because as far as I can tell, no popular author actually manages to explain them. I have even written a few with my questions, and they (including Randall) never bothered to write back.
And then we get this pompous pedantic ass, who in addition to being annoyed that Randall uses the "theory of general relativity" as opposed to the "general theory of relativity", clucks his tongue at those lazy sods who didn't bother becoming PhD physicists and therefore don't deserve entry into the glorious paradise of theoretical physics:
*Writing about advanced topics in modern physics for the layman is almost always an exercise in futility. Attempting to provide meaningful explanations of notions requiring sophisticated mathematics like differential geometry, topological groups and Lie algebras for someone who can't balance a chequebook is worse than ridiculous.... If you want to understand modern physics, do the work. Learn the maths first. You can't run if you can't stand. [Thanks, I'll sign right up for that Learning Annex course on differential geometry, topological groups and Lie algebras before all the slots are filled by the clamoring unwashed hordes.]
For some tunnel-vision reviewers, personal politics trumps science, even when that science has nothing whatsoever to do with, say, Al Gore and global warming:
*Lisa Randall was on with Art Bell in Feb 2006 and I thought she was fantastic (an obviously brilliant, straightfoward, [sic] sensible female physics professor from Harvard!) ... until she started gushing about Al Gore and babbling about global warming. I'm trusting the other reviewers' outstanding reviews and taking a chance buying Randall's book ... but if it's larded with any Gore-type nonsense, I will return it. [I would love to know if this reviewer returned it.]
Okay, how about the grand-daddy of them all, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time? Well, it gets some of the most amusing pans by the Dumb-And-Durned-Proud-Of-It contingent:
*I didn't read it because the cover looked stupid.
*Before I read this book my views on thermo-dynamics was clouded by bordom [sic] and the fact that I have things that arn't [sic] boring to do. They are still the same now. This book was so boring and droning that I thought I had slipped into a coma.
*This book is unclear and hard to understand. If you want to impress your friends who haven't read this book or don't understand it, certainly you can buy A Brief History of Time, put it in your bookshelf, and pretend to know what it says. [Hey, I think this guy once tried to hit on me back in 2003, inviting me up to his place to discuss black holes and show me his etchings.]
*I read it half way through and could not finished [sic], for the first time in my life. I read each page three times, and at the middle I tried to review what I learned, and I realized I did not have a clue of what the book is all about. Certainly is not about the "hitory [sic] of time". Waiste [sic] of money and, more important, a huge waste of my time.
The lesson to be gleaned from all this, for all those who've written books, or are contemplating doing so, is this: just as you can never really believe your own publicity, so, too, you should never take what reviewers -- especially of the anonymous variety on Amazon -- say to heart. You have trusted friends and colleagues who will give you a clear, honest appraisal of your work, right? Trust them for your feedback, both positive and negative. (All good writers serious about their craft have such wonderful people in their lives.) Let the naysayers howl as they will. You're not required to listen.