Glenn Branch's picture

What Price a Milestone?

Milestone 8 on the Upper Boston Post Road in Harvard Square, via Wikimedia Commons

The Discovery Institute’s Evolution News and Views blog was recently pleased that there are now five hundred reviews on Amazon.com for Stephen C. Meyer’s screed Darwin’s Doubt (2013). I don’t begrudge the anonymous author his or her pleasure. There wasn’t much in the legislative season now drawing to a close that the Discovery Institute could boast about: versions of its model bill died in committee in Oklahoma and Virginia, while less subtle antievolution bills that it would prefer to disavow died in committee in Missouri and South Dakota. (See NCSE’s scorecard for details about antiscience legislation, and “Antiscience Legislation chez NCSE” for a reminder about what we count as antiscience legislation and why.) There’s little for the Discovery Institute to boast about on the standards front either, after a recent carpetbag-in-hand visit to South Carolina to support Senator Mike Fair’s attempt to undermine the treatment of evolution in the state science standards there was unavailing. Small wonder that in seeking a happy place, the anonymous author finds it in such a milestone.

So all that’s perfectly understandable. But I confess that I am perplexed by two sentences (of a total of four) that appear in the post: “No controversy about evolution, you say? Oh that controversy!” (emphasis in original). It is not enough to rejoice in the attainment of the milestone, apparently; moreover, a conclusion is to be inferred. The argument is enthymematic, but, supplying the implicit premise, it seems to be something along the lines of the following:

If there are five hundred reviews on Amazon.com for a book disputing a particular subject, then there must be a legitimate controversy about that subject.

There are five hundred reviews on Amazon.com for Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt, a book disputing evolution.

Therefore there is a legitimate controversy about evolution.

I supply “legitimate,” since nobody denies that there are various social, cultural, and religious controversies about evolution, and it would hardly take five hundred reviews on Amazon.com for any book to make the point. But the Discovery Institute claims further that evolution is scientifically controversial—a claim that NCSE, in common with the nation’s leading scientific organizations such as the AAAS and the NAS, rejects—so the post is best understood as arguing for that conclusion.

The problem, of course, is that the argument is just a little too facile. For if the five hundred reviews on Amazon.com of Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt establish that there is a legitimate scientific controversy about evolution, then surely the 429 such reviews of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? establish that there is a legitimate archaeological controversy about whether humans or extraterrestrials constructed the pyramids. Surely the 385 such reviews of Jenny McCarthy’s Louder Than Words establishes a legitimate medical controversy about whether autism is caused by vaccines. Surely the 373 such reviews of Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code establish that there is a legitimate cryptological-cum-theological controversy about whether God encoded prophetic messages in the letters of the Pentateuch. And surely the whopping 3842 such reviews of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret amply establish that there is a legitimate psychophysical controversy about the power of positive thinking. Teach the controversy!

Still, I won’t deny that the reviews on Amazon.com of Darwin’s Doubt are occasionally instructive. Quite a lot of Amazon.com reviewers compared Darwin’s Doubt unfavorably to James Valentine and Douglas Erwin’s The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity (2013), which Roy E. Plotnick, writing in Reports of the NCSE, described (PDF) as “an invaluable reference for understanding the true nature of [the Cambrian] period and its implications for the evolution of life on Earth.” Donald Prothero, who reviewed the book for Skeptic, appears, noting, “Almost every page of this book is riddled by errors of fact or interpretation that could only result from someone writing in a subject way over his head, abetted by the creationist tendency to pluck facts out of context and get their meaning completely backwards.” Prothero’s review on Amazon.com attracted no fewer than 4716 comments, showing, I suppose, that the controversy about whether Meyer is over his head when writing about paleontology is about nine times as legitimate as the controversy over evolution.

Of course, there are reviews, and then there are reviews. Darwin’s Doubt, like a handful of antievolution screeds—including Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (1996) and Jonathan Wells’s Icons of Evolution (2000)—received a review in the bona fide scientific literature, in the pages of Science, from the paleontologist Charles R. Marshall in 2013. Behind the times, Science doesn’t have a ranking system involving stars, but it’s hard to believe that Marshall’s ranking would have been stellar. He concludes, “Darwin’s Doubt is compromised by Meyer’s lack of scientific knowledge, his ‘god of the gaps’ approach, and selective scholarship that appears driven by his deep belief in an explicit role of an intelligent designer in the history of life.” But even before the five-hundred-review milestone was reached, Marshall drew the appropriate moral from the reviews of which the anonymous blogger is so proud: “the book’s subtext is to provide solace to those who feel their faith undermined by secular society and by science in particular. If the reviews on Amazon.com are any indication, it is achieving that goal.”