the nays have it

BookishJenLuc 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.

And at least one user/reviewer of Greene's tome thinks he has all the answers: 

*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.

14 thoughts on “the nays have it”

  1. I’ve heard similar complaints about Roach’s Bonk before, and from people who are pretty far from the “humourless feminist” stereotype. Chacun a son gout, I guess, in sex and in writing — and what goes for one goes quadratically for the combination of the two.
    And I think the pompous pedant with the physics PhD has a point — well, something of one, though he’s poking it in the wrong direction. Without the mathematics to tie ideas together, learning physics from pop books about it can be an intensely frustrating experience. I speak from experience here: one of the confusing conundrums which perplexed me in my teenage years was how the different “explanations” of quantum mechanics I’d read fit together. This book talks about a cloud around the nucleus of the atom, that one about particles taking every path from A to B, another about blackbody radiation and the “quantizing” of light . . . what I would have given for a thread of logic which tied it all together! Many of the other things which left me confused in junior high continue to boggle me now, but on the quantum physics front, what I know now could have helped my younger self out.
    The problem isn’t that we have books which try to explain quantum electrodynamics or general relativity without using mathematics (or with less than the full apparatus employed by workaday physicists). The problem of my adolescence was, “Now that I’ve read these books, where do I go next?” Unlike some folks, I was lucky enough to realize that there was this great big body of knowledge, beyond what the paperback in my hands got into, but I had no way of exploring it myself, no signposts to point into the wilds of university physics. I had a few more serious books lying about the house — a luxury many kids don’t, I’m sure — like my father’s old calculus textbook, a monster which beat out the dictionary in thickness and weight. But what in that massive book did I need to study in order to handle, say, the Schroedinger Equation? I know now that if I’d finished the whole darn thing, I would have had the mathematical background I needed for a quantum-mechanics course on the level of, e.g., David Griffiths’ textbook; however, there were plenty of sections I wouldn’t have needed at all.
    I knew there was more, and I wanted to learn it. I had the leisure and perhaps even the drive to do so, but the science shelves at our local Barnes-and-Borders-a-Million could only help me so far.
    A while back, I set about writing the book I wished I had in ninth grade, though for the past few months, I’ve had to shelve that project in favour of hacking away on the book I wished I had when I was a senior in college.

  2. Thanks for further proving my point. 🙂
    But it does demonstrate one way to approach anonymous Amazon reviews: look for those that reinforce your own personal pet peeves and subjective tastes/biases. Chances are, you’ll feel the same about the work in question. But that won’t invalidate anyone else’s very different assessment — because reading is not just fundamental, it’s highly subjective. And thus, you can’t please everyone.

  3. This struck a chord with me, so I wrote a blog post 🙂
    I’ve offered a positive consolation for writers: some of us (e.g. me!) exploit the mistakes of reviewers to help better work out what the book is not. (Of course, these really ought to be covered in the publishers material or the better reviews, but I treat it as an independent confirmation 🙂

  4. (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.)
    No he didn’t

  5. At the risk of being accused of proving your point, I wanted to object to the inclusion of this quote reviewing A Short History of Nearly Everything:
    “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.”
    I don’t know as there were more errors than any pop science book I had read “in a long, long time”, but there were more than average, and it was annoying. Criticizing the errors is not the same as criticizing popularization. That said, I did enjoy the book and would recommend it.

    One to add to your list, a review of Street Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving by Sanjoy Mahajan:

    The title implies that this book might contain remedial activities for street kids. It contains nothing of the sort.

  6. It’s not just scientists who are prone to such intemperate critique. All England was agog a while back at the antics of orlando@birkbeck as he slashed and burnt his way through recent academic offerings in the historical field. And who was this fellow? None other than Orlando Figes (A People’s Tragedy, Natasha’s Dance etc.) Once he started denying his authorship of the reviews things went from silly to sad, and don’t bear recounting. Maybe he should have used a less obvious nom de clavier

  7. I am actually quite shocked that Bill Bryson’s wonderful book received such ire. I genuinely consider it to be one of, if not the, best popular science books I have ever read. I generally give journalists a hard time when writing popular physics, but I think Bryson did a pretty excellent job (I’ve certainly seen physicists be more inaccurate than he was). I’ve recommended his book to practically everyone I know who has an even passing interest in science because I think it is really top-notch. Maybe all of the exciting natural science history was flawed and I just didn’t know it, but what I did know, I think he did a wonderful job of presenting to the general public.

  8. Haven’t read Bryson, myself, but my aunt has, and called me up when she got to the section on X-ray crystallography, just to let me know that she recognised the word.

  9. Pretty amazing and somewhat depressing. I wonder if many of those reviewers are the same ones that comment on on-line news stories. It is incredible to me that every news event is the fault of Obama and the liberal socialists. With very few exceptions, we seem to have entered the age of idiots on line. Maybe the authors of the above mentioned books are at fault for expecting an intelligent audience.
    I guess Don Marquis was right when he wrote: “If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that’s read by persons who move their lips when they’re reading to themselves.”

  10. Posted for Tom Levenson, who’s been having trouble, for some reason:
    Many thanks for the kind words above. (I know I’m a little slow getting here, but it’s summer, and I’m hot and slow. My reptilian past catching up with me, I guess.)
    A quick thought: Much though I enjoy Blake’s stuff, and our carbon-carbon interactions, I don’t follow his comment here. I’ve popularized (or attempted to) special and general relativity and the pre-history of quantum mechanics in one book, and the birth of mechanics in another. I don’t think any of my readers were under the illusion that “Einstein in Berlin” and “Newton and the Counterfeiter” (or my Einstein film, for that matter) were going to teach them how to do physics — though I was certainly pleased when the the-then head of MIT’s physics dept., Marc Kastner asked me where I had done my formal studies in the discipline. (Nowhere.)
    Rather, my goal, and that of the others I know on your list (you, of course, Lisa and Brian, for two more), is to come up with a grasp of concepts, and an understanding of the process of scientific thinking.
    Richard Feynman is the patron saint of this activity in some ways. (Though you could point to Einstein, with his volume “Relativity”…or even, in a way, Newton’s “Opticks,” in parts, among others as ur-texts. Hell, if I recall correctly, and ThonyC can correct as needed, Newton himself prepared a gloss of the Principia for John Locke, free of mathematics, to convey what the great Isaac saw as the essential ideas to an intelligent but mathematically unsophisticated reader.)
    Anyway, Feynman: he said once something on the order of if you can’t explain what you are thinking about in physics at a level a Caltech freshman will understand…you don’t understand it. Clearly Caltech first years have a leg up on the true lay audience, and Feynman was here thinking about the training of physicists, not communicating to the public. But he pursued the logic of his thinking into that realm in some very approachable books. Most physics minded readers have heard, I think (and hope) of his “The Characteristic of Physical Law”and there are other good ones. In none of them does Feynman try to teach you physics as physicists do it; rather, his interest, and mine when I wander onto this turf, is to convey at least something of physics as physicists understand it. Even more I try as our hostess does, and many more besides, to place such thinking, not just about physics but the other sciences as well, in the context of place and time, the cultures and societies and human concerns out of which individual scientific ideas emerge.
    More simply: I try to convey how scientists work, something of what science means or implies, and not just to the particular discipline under scrutiny, and, if I do my job right, something of the beauty and wonder, the “grandeur of this view of life.” That’s so that my readers, if they happen to be like the 9th grade Blake Stacey, might be moved to pull down from the shelf the kind of books they need to go deeper into the technical elements of science, and those other readers, who may not be driven to a life doing science, may still take pleasure, and perhaps something more, from a non-technical story told in which the thinking and the discoveries and the broader significance of science are given their due.
    Whew. Glad that’s off my chest.

  11. Hell, if I recall correctly, and ThonyC can correct as needed, Newton himself prepared a gloss of the Principia for John Locke, free of mathematics, to convey what the great Isaac saw as the essential ideas to an intelligent but mathematically unsophisticated reader.
    Unfortunately Tom this time your memory has not served you well. Locke was still living in exile in Holland as the Principia first appeared and he could not cope with the mathematics, so he asked Christian Huygens whether the mathematics was correct or not. Upon being informed by Huygens that it was indeed correct he proceeded to read the philosophical parts of the book ignoring the mathematics, even writing a review that was published anonymously in the Bibliothèque universelle in the Netherlands. In 1689 Locke returned to England and he and Newton became friends and Newton presented Locke with a special edition of the Principia. However this was not a simplified version but one into which Newton had inserted all of the correction to the text that he had made up until then.
    On your theme of scientists producing semi-popular versions of their work I would include both Galileo’s Diologo and Discorsi as scientific texts that were written for the well-educated layman.

  12. Actually, the review of Longitude makes a good point. The book doesn’t really discuss the chronometer and how it worked. What little is said is rather vague. Nothing is really said as to why this particular clock worked so much better than other clocks at the start of the art. (On the other hand, I read a history of gear making machines – did you know that modern gears have involute teeth? – that spent so much time discussing the details of improvements that it took a leap of perspective to remember that gears are expected to mesh with other gears.)

  13. marvin thalenberg md

    Thanks for reminding us. Bill Bryson’s book should be available everywhere, like the Gideon Bible as a way to introduce science literacy to needy audience.

  14. Michelle Dowell

    As a physics teacher I know that I have a wide variety of students to reach in some fashion. From where I sit as an educator there are scientific books for all students, no matter their scientific maturity. And what would be perfect for some would be unlikely to reach others…or disastorous in helping further a students curiosity about a scientific concept. And why would anyone think that there is ‘one’ right way to dissiminate scientific subjects? Or that there is a correct writing style that would resonate with all readers? I say the more the better! And have an educator, or librarian, help guide a student to an appropriate book for them!

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