Sahotra Sarkar lives just down the road from me in Austin, a grand town I visit often, and is in some way affiliated with the philosophy department there–I don’t know if it’s a courtesy appointment or what because I couldn’t locate his CV–and I’m a BIG fan of the UT philosophy department (though, of course, not the football team :-)–so I don’t want to cause trouble. BUT Sarkar is mean, and he attacked my friend Bradley Monton in a screedish review for NDPR. I’m honestly surprised–and dissapointed–that NDPR saw fit to publish this review at all. It’s not Sarkar’s first such one-sided rant. His review of Steve Fuller’s book showed his inability to review fairly (I didn’t like the book either, but it’s just not the case–as it rarely is–that the book had not a single redeeming feature).
His suggestion that Brad’s book is “one philosopher’s attempt to cash in” is insulting and demeaning. Worse, it’s false. I have been talking with Brad about philosophy of religion for about eight years now, and he is completely honest in his investigations, sincere in his affirmations and denials. And I am at a loss to understand the force of the following statement.
“Monton’s self-portrayal as an atheist who thinks that some Intelligent Design (ID) arguments have enough force to make him less certain of his atheism, though not eschew it altogether.”
“Self-portrayal”? Does he think Brad is lying about being an atheist or lying about thinking some ID arguments have *some* force? Is it now some kind of “weakness” to admit that arguments which contradict one’s views have *some* force? I have been unable to come up with some non-weasily understanding of these claims.
He accuses Brad of taking “many pedestrian detours” before getting to his point. I looked it up to be sure, and the top google def for “pedestrian” is “commonplace and dull.” Again, I can’t think of a non-offensive reading of this. And when interpreting a text, one is inevitably guided by prior remarks. And all the thus-far surveyed snarkiness occurs in the first two paragraphs!
Now, because I couldn’t find his CV, I don’t know whether his PhD is in Philosophy or Biology or History and Philosophy of Science or Ecology or what. Thus philosophers should presumably approach his work with an attempt at charity, even though he shows none.
He says Chater 2 “consists of an unedited version of a paper Monton has been circulating since 2006”. “Unedited?” Is he complaining about typos? Is he complaining that it’s not new? Granted, in my own NDPR review of Quinton Smith’s _Epistemology: New Essays_, I poke fun of the fact that many of the essays had been circulated for some time, including one that had been circulated for perhaps a decade before coming out in the book. But there’s no “New” in Brad’s title, so I don’t see the criticism here. What’s more, he notes that there is in fact new material added to it in that chatpter AND that he has changed his view on a crucial matter in it. So it just seems bizarre to criticize the chapter in the way he does.
The review is awash with weasel words. The new material in Chapter 2 is “heavy-handed” and for some reasons he places scare quotes around “truth” when mentioning–criticising?–Brad for noting that the question of the truth or falsehood of ID theory is ultimately more important than whether it is categorized as science or non-science, which is surely correct.
He later says of Chapter 4 that Brad’s position is defended “with one interesting argument and a variety of ad hoc moves.” Give me a break. A. Brad doesn’t MAKE uninteresting arguments. B. What is ad hocness here? C. What is ad hoc about his arguments? I submit Sarkar can give no good answers to B and C.
He just says so many weird things. He says the ID controversy is “manufactured”. I have no idea what he’s talking about. Are there unmanufactured controverseys? Given that Sarkar repeats Ruses weasely move of branding ID theory with the pejorative “creationism” (you can almos thear the cackles of glee in his review of Steve Fuller’s book when Fuller cowtows on this) and identifies creationism with theism, he can’t claim to be saying the controversy doesn’t arise in a natural way from considerations of the origin of the universe in light of features of the universe. That dog won’t hunt.
I LOLed when, after all this snarkage, he says “Turning to a more critical appraisal of the book…” Oh, I guess he hasn’t been critical above, eh. His judgment from on high: “it is at best somewhat disappointing.” That’s such nonsense. So it’s most likely *quite* disappointing. #reviewerfail I have read, what, close to a hundred NDPR reviews. I have seen some quite critical ones and some glowing ones. I have seen only two where the reviewer found next to nothing good to say. They are both by Sarkar. His is that doctrinaire, dogmatic, but (because?) massively insecure Naturalism which cannot budge an inch. Those who do, those who make the least admission that the God Squad might have something to say–even if one is an atheist–is utterly verbotten.
The follwing criticism is either dishonest or a complete failure to read properly. “The treatment of biology in the book leaves much to be desired. Natural selection is routinely called an undirected process (pp. 16, 17, 18, 51), which shows a rather unsophisticated lack of familiarity with what constitutes natural selection.” In the context, it is completely clear what he means, and it is not criticism of Brad’s use of “undirected” that natural selection is “directionAL” in a specified sense. Then of course the tired old charge of “ad hoc” is dragged out again. And of course his errors are all “elementary.” It’s just garbage.
I, too, would have liked to hear what Brad had to say about Fitleson and Sober’s criticisms, but look at the structure of the book:
Ch. 1: What is ID? Statement of the ID position. Ch. 2: Is ID Science? Ch. 3: Is ID true? Five args for ID. Ch. 4. Should ID be taught?
So where would this fairly complex discussion of some probabilistic minutia go? It would have to go in the latter half of Ch 3. It’s perfectly clear that this book–from Broadview Press–has a certain kind of goal. He’s not attempting to definitively settle the issue. The point is to get some of the arguments for ID on the table in a way that makes it clear that they have more going for them than is often thought. That goal does NOT require going into a protracted debate and review of the literature. That’s a book in itself. And it could be that Broadview specifically didn’t want that, and it could be that as a subjective Bayesian Brad doesn’t really think the Fitelson-Sober line is the most important one. There are a lot of options here that make it intellectually irresponsible for Sarkar to say that Brad is “intellectually irresponsible” for not treating those arguments.
And then the review deteriorates from there. Brad is “naive” he “accept[s] the Discovery Institute’s propaganda at face value” his style is “unusually pretentious” (#kettleblack) blah, blah, blah.
This is a bad review. It should never have been published. Sarkar is mean in multiple senses of the word. Shame on you Mr. Sarkar.