Thursday, May 24, 2007

When a Book Reviewer Is In Over His Head

From a post by Robert Miller on a bad book and a worse book review:
Here’s the latest example of a fascinating, though depressing, cultural phenomenon. A fellow who clearly knows nothing about a deep and difficult intellectual problem produces a manuscript purporting to resolve the problem definitively. Such a fellow is a crank, you might think, and will quite properly be ignored. But, no, he actually finds a publisher for his book, and a respected one at that. Even more surprisingly, the New York Times commissions a review of the book from a famous columnist, and, instead of exposing the book for the ignorant twaddle that it is, the columnist writes a glowing review. How does this happen?

Generally speaking, of course, it doesn’t. We have social institutions like the New York Times Book Review precisely in order to make sure that it can’t. Given the amount of material published nowadays, it’s essential to be able to sort the good from the bad, and we rely on prestigious publications like the Times Book Review to do part of the work for us. Book reviewers for this paper are expected to know something about the topics of the books they review, and they are expected to exercise informed judgment, separating the serious books from the intellectual junk in a basically fair sort of way. If a book like the one I describe makes it all the way to a positive review in the Times, there has been a serious failure of the epistemic institutions of our society.

And such there has been, and such there commonly are, when the subject is the philosophical treatment of religion. In case you haven’t guessed yet, the book to which I refer above is Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, just out from Twelve/Warner books, and the review (which can be found here) is that of Michael Kinsley, who writes for Time and the Washington Post.

Hitchens has solved, he thinks, some of the deepest problems in metaphysics and the philosophy of religion—or, at least, he would say he had if he realized that there were deep problems at stake here. But, unfortunately, he doesn’t even know what the real problems are. . . .

Now, there are intelligent arguments in favor of atheism, of course, but it’s painfully clear that neither Hitchens nor Kinsley knows what they are. . . .

I can understand, just barely, how an intelligent man like Hitchens might make a very bad mistake and write a whole book on a topic without realizing that there is relevant scholarly literature that he ought to have mastered before offering his own views on a subject. I know that I have written some things that I now see to be uninformed, and so I have some sympathy for Hitchens. As to Kinsley, however, in agreeing to review a book, he assumed a responsibility to provide the reading public with an informed and honest judgment, and so in agreeing to review a book that he is obviously incompetent to evaluate he committed more of a breach of trust. I blame him more harshly than I do Hitchens, but let it pass, for perhaps he too somehow never discovered that there is such a thing as the philosophy of religion.

The malfeasance of the editors of the New York Times Book Review, however, is unforgivable. I mean that, if not literally, then at least not merely hyperbolically. For it’s part of an editor’s job, in commissioning a book review, to figure out who’s a competent judge of the book in question. The review of God Is Not Great, along with similar reviews of similar books, shows that the editors at the Times Book Review are not doing their job in a minimally competent way. That means that all their reviews are suspect. The clock at the Times has struck thirteen.