It's been a busy couple of weeks, what with the beginning of the semester and all, and for the last few days, my son has been sick (sick and grumpy), so I've been way behind on my blog reading for some time. Today, my son is with his mother, and I'm just sitting around, so I decided to catch up on my blog reading. In the process, I came across this post by Brian Leiter from two weeks ago. It's an 1100+ word rant on a review of Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate in the New York Times. If you're a reader of Leiter, you probably know that 1100+ words is pretty long for a post that Leiter has actually written (rather than mostly quoted). And he is a Nietzsche expert, so I was eager to read it.
The gist of the post is that Leiter doesn't think that the author of the review, William T. Vollman, knows what he's talking about, and he provides several examples of Vollman's ignorance to prove it. As I read it, I was particularly struck by this in the last paragraph:
The broader issue, though, is about the responsibilities of newspapers, like The New York Times, that aspire to be serious and intellectual. If a decision is made to commission a long review of a book, why not enlist someone who actually knows something?Now that's a sentiment with which I can agree wholeheartedly, as anyone who's read this blog knows (and hey, I told you this was a personal rant, so why are you still reading it?). But as I read it, something didn't sit right with me. It's not that I think Leiter's wrong about Vollman's knowledge of Nietzsche, it's that I don't think Leiter really believes what he says about the "responsibilities of newspapers." I mean, I think the thinks he believes it, but I don't think he really believes it. You see, when I read it, my mind immediately went back to this post . In it, Leiter favorably links to this review of David Buller's Adapting Minds, by Sharon Begley. So favorably, in fact, that Leiter wrote:
Law-and-economics folks, who are often especially partial to this shoddy science, would do well to read the review and the book. [Emphasis mine]But wait a second. Wait a friggin' second! That review was written by someone with no qualifications in psychology, or philosophy, and it shows. She's a science editor for the Wall Street Journal, and has written on all sorts of scientific topics (ranging from psychology to astronomy), but she's not an expert in any of the areas of psychology or biology that Buller covers. To give one example of the ignorance of the issues that Begley displays, the last sentence of the review read:
After "Adapting Minds," it is impossible to ever again think that human behavior is the Stone Age artifact that evolutionary psychology claims.Ummm... no. Buller's book is very good in places, especially where he sticks to existing critiques of Evolutionary Psychology, but it fails where a critique of EP must be at its strongest, in critiquing the work of Cosmides and Tooby (see the link under "no" for why this is the area in which it is most important to critique EP, and why Buller fails to do so effectively). And thus, contrary to the title of Leiter's post and the last sentence of Begley's review, Buller has not demolished Evolutionary Psychology. Anyone who was qualified to write that review would have known that, as would anyone who was qualified to evaluate the book and the review.
When I pointed this out, and criticized Leiter for endorsing the review and hyperbolically claiming that the book itself spelled the end of Evolutionary Psychology, Leiter was none too happy, and he made this very clear in an email exchange. All of this begs the question, why does Leiter have no problem endorsing a book review by someone who is not qualified to write it, to the point of being rather angry about any criticism of that endorsement, in one instance, but he writes an extended post ending with a criticism of newspapers that use unqualified reviewers in another? My best guess is that Leiter endorsed Begley's review because it came to the same conclusion he had, and that he cared not about the substance of the review itself, but when the NYT's published a review on a subject that is near and dear to him (he's written a book on Nietzsche, as I'm sure you know), the substance of the review suddenly became important to him. My guess may be wrong, but I can't think of any answer to that question in which Leiter comes out looking good.
OK, thus ends my rant. I'll admit that it's probably unhealthy for me to have spent that much time on it, but this sort of thing really bugs me. I mean, Leiter and I agree about the merits of Evolutionary Psychology, even if the argument he has presented against it isn't a very good one. Heck, Leiter and I probably agree on a lot of things, as we're both on the same end of the political spectrum. Though I must say it's hard to tell, because it's rare that Leiter actually offers any positive political positions on his blog, and his scholarly writings aren't overtly political (at least not the ones I know of). But regardless of whether we ultimately agree or disagree, Leiter's selective criticism of intellectual irresponsibility strikes me as just another instance of the attitude that leads to the politicization of science and other scholarly endeavors. You just can't decide which scholarship is good and which is bad based on whether you agree with the conclusions. Otherwise, you're no better than the creationists and global-warming "skeptics," even if the issues are less pressing.