Analysis of Terrible Review of Monton by Sarkar in NDPR
March 22, 2011 — 22:52

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Books of Interest Existence of God  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 7

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.

  • Robert Gressis

    Wow. That was feisty!

    March 22, 2011 — 23:21
  • Matthew Mullins

    The review struck me as the kind of thing I’d expect someone to say over beers, not in a published work. In fact, I’ve been hearing these kinds of shots at the book over beer for a while. I didn’t expect the book to get a favorable review, but I was surprised that the review was short on details and long on rhetoric. I suspect/hope that most philosophers will see Sarkar’s rhetorical flourishes for the hand waving they are.
    A couple of notes:
    1. Sarkar received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Chicago. I believe he was a student of William Wimsatt.
    2. I suspect Sarkar takes himself to giving praise when he says “The result is a somewhat more philosophically sophisticated defense of the possibility of ID. The fact that this defense fails, in the sense that it does not make ID plausible … underscores the difficulty of the task.” You might see it as faint praise though.
    3. When Sarkar says things like “Monton does a better job of developing the objections than the arguments themselves…” he never says why. If Monton is especially clear with the objections, it would be odd that he develops the primary arguments with less clarity. This would have been a good place to show, or point to, the unclarity.
    4. More than once Sarkar accuses Monton of making ad hoc moves. I’d feel more confident in Sarkar’s assessment if he could provide some example of why these moves are ad hoc.

    March 23, 2011 — 0:45
  • Robert Gressis

    I should say, I think you did a good thing by writing this rebuttal; though I don’t think such aggression is altogether out-of-place in scholarly book reviews, when someone is as aggressive as Sarkar was, he really needs to back up his claims better than Sarkar did. It’s not like NDPR has a word limit that Sarkar approached (my last review in NDPR was about three times longer than Sarkar’s).

    March 23, 2011 — 8:36
  • Trent Dougherty

    UPDATE: Brad has said a few modest words in his own defense here:
    There are a few things to add here that he doesn’t say (he obviously has more self-restraint than I do (but that’s a low bar)).
    It’s pretty clear that the issues he wants Brad to talk about aren’t really relevant to his main line of thought .
    And Brad does criticize Sober in his book, he just got faulted for only criticizing Sober’s 2007 paper, and not his 2004 or 2008 papers (or however the dates went). The 2008 paper was probably published too late for him to include it in the book, and as for the 2004 paper, well, he can’t talk about every paper by everyone…

    March 23, 2011 — 13:44
  • Blinn Combs

    I’m certainly no defender of Sarkar, but this “analysis” is pretty poor stuff.
    1. Morton’s atheism. You might be less “at a loss to understand the force of the following statement” if you had included its opening (which includes the main verb): “Its [the book’s] claim for attention comes from…”. The book’s title prominently proclaims its author’s atheism. Why should this be relevant? Presumably because of the well-grounded suspicion that ID is a theory promulgated by a certain variety of religious zealot; and that in the absence of religious conviction, the theory has little to recommend it. The book’s title invites the inference that the author’s atheism enables him to stand above what many see as the prejudicial pull of religious conviction and evaluate ID impartially. This inference invites a non-religious readership. That he clearly finds some merit in ID arguments invites a religious readership. These together clearly amount to the book’s “claim for attention.” In fact, for this to work, his self-portrayal *has* to be honest, or at least perceived to be so. Worse, given that Monton takes seriously the claim that the acceptance of ID does not entail theism, it’s unclear how exactly the arguments he’s considering might “contradict” his own views.
    2. Unedited. In this context, “unedited” presumably means that Monton has not revised the existing essay, and the follow up makes clear that he has extended it. This at least signals to those who have been following Monton’s progress that he found none of the comments or criticism from doing the rounds with the paper sufficiently moving to merit significant revision. This itself is an interesting fact.
    3. Ad Hoc. Sarkar provides a list of the ad hoc maneuvers he has in mind: “(we need a new model for science education, ID arguments are interesting, students would hear about them in any case, and so on).” These are all ad hoc in the straight-forward sense of being extraneous to the question ostensibly being addressed. Obviously, we can grant the truth of each of the three stated parenthetical conclusions and still strongly deny that ID has any place in science classes.
    4. Manufactured. The review clearly contrasts “manufactured” with “genuine scientific” controversies. This contrast is so commonplace that it’s difficult to take your incomprehension seriously. So there is, e.g., a manufactured controversy over whether smoking cigarettes is good for your health; but there is no genuine scientific controversy about it. There’s also a manufactured controversy over whether our current President is a “natural born” US citizen, but it’s clearly not a scientific controversy in any meaningful sense. If you really fail to understand the sense in which ID is a manufactured controversy, you would do well to acquaint yourself more thoroughly with the history of the Discovery Institute.
    I’m genuinely baffled, though, by your inference preceding “That dog won’t hunt.” It is, of course, *because* Sarkar takes ID (at least in its most common form) to be a form of krypto-creationism that arises from a theistic impulse that he denies that it “arise[s] in a natural way from considerations of the origin of the universe in light of features of the universe.” (There is, to be sure, a sense in which *any* given theoretical musing, whether from a Thales or a Ken Ham, meets that description, but that’s surely not the point here.) The inference is clearly that ID is a post-hoc rationalization of a dogmatic belief, and *for that reason* fails to be the product of impartial reflection based in any clear sense on objectively verified features of the universe.

    March 28, 2011 — 12:04
  • jenann ismael

    i agree totally. I’ve read a number of reviews in NPDR over the years that shouldn’t have been published.
    There’s not the hint of pretentiousness that he notes in the book. And the pointer on the Leiter blog ought to be rebutted.

    March 28, 2011 — 14:45
  • Keith DeRose

    The opening (first 2 sentences) of the review is regrettable & gets things off to a bad start. The rest seems pretty standard review stuff.

    March 30, 2011 — 7:33