The problem of non-critial reviewing of "popular science" books - a review of a review

As I mention in one of my pages, there is currently a serious problem with garbage "popular science" books, and part of the problem is that when scientists review such books, they don't criticize them properly. Here I review such a review. Note that this is not a specially bad one, but a typical review. The main reason I selected it is because it is available online, so you can (and should) read it first. See also my review of the same book.

This review appear in The Times Literary Supplement, which defines its target audience: people with interest in various intellectual questions, but in most of the cases without a professional background.

The reviewer is an expert in linguistics, and in this area he feels free to criticizes the author. For example, he attacks the way the author uses "reference". He then tell us:

"As a measure of the difficulty (but also of the seriousness with which Deacon's book is being taken) I can report that I have participated in several reading groups, of university lecturers and postgraduate students in Linguistics and Cognitive Science, devoted to Deacon's chapter entitled `Symbols aren't simple'. In all cases, the discussion groups have ended in disarray, with no one person able to convince the others of any particular interpretation of Deacon's complex three-layered diagram with six different kinds of arrows in it (p.87), illustrating his vision of the relationship between `symbolic reference' and `indexical reference'." {1}
Now, I think it is generaly acceptable that the first attribute of any scientific text is that it has a clear meaning, at least to its target readers. Clearly, Deacon's discussion does not have a clear meaning, even to experts in the relevant field (or at least people that the reviwer thinks are experts). The obvious conclusion is that deacon's text is not a scientific discussion. However, it is obvious only to a critical reader. A non-critical reader may skip this point, and the reviewer tries to help them. In the next few sentences he mentioned his own interpretation (that it is similar to Quine's view, though the author of the book does not mention Quine) and that other people didn't accept it, and then says:
"I have a hunch that Deacon's insight may be very valuable, but he has not explained it in terms that are unequivocally clear to linguists and philosophers."
We obviously don't know where the "hunch" comes from, and the reviewer doesn't try to support it. Here is my "hunch", or more accurately, an educated guess, as I have seen this pattern many times: The reviewer feels that he was too harsh to the author, and hence that he must balance it, and this "hunch" is the best that he could come out with.

The reviewer gives the author much more credit when he discusses the brain. He writes:

"The chapters in the middle part, `Brain', take one systematically through the problems with evaluating the contribution of brain size, the genetic encoding of the developmental programs by which brains unfold in various species, the selective wiring processes in the brain that are not specifically genetically encoded, the parts of the brain responsible for signalling behaviour in birds, whales and humans, the special contribution of the prefrontal cortex in human mental activity, and the localization (or otherwise) of languages processes in specific brain areas."
The long sentence makes it difficult to figure out that the discussion does not contain an overall description of the brain, and that the list omit obvious subjects like perception, problem solving, memory, etc. The reviewer doesn't help the reader to notice these omissions. In fact, he is using a quite neat demagogical trick here: He puts in the beginning of the sentence "take one systematically", to give the reader the impression that the discussion is systematic. Only very alert readers can figure out that the chapters "take one systematically" through only small fragments of the system that is the brain.

Notwithstanding his demonstration that the main idea of the book is meaningless, and that apparently he realized that the discussion of the brain is very fragmentary, the review is in general positive, and sometimes even more than positive. In the first line the reviewer refers to the book as "such monumental books as this", and in the penultimate line he writes "There is no doubt that this is an important book." Thus the reviewer mislead the readers to think it is a good book, even though it clearly isn't, even from his review.

{1} The reviewer suggests that the lack of disagreement is to some extent because the diagram is complex, but that is simply false. The diagram contains many arrows, but because of the high symmetry and lack of explicit specification of what the arrows mean, it actually conveys very little information. Thus every person can interpret it as fitting to their own view of the subject, and the disagreement is between the opinions of the people.