Expelled: "Intelligent Design" Advocates Gaming the System at Amazon

William Dembski and Jonathan Wells authored the successor to “Of Pandas and People”, titled “The Design of Life”. The Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) released the book on November 19th. Since then, Dembski has made a point of bragging about five-star reviews on the The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence In Biological Systems Amazon.com website.

But that’s not all that the IDC advocates are doing concerning Amazon. They managed, for a time, to suppress a critical review by a Top 50 Amazon.com reviewer, John Kwok. For those who gave credence to the notion that IDC advocates were serious when they said that they wished to foster discussion and “teach the controversy”, this should be a reminder that actions do sometimes speak louder than words. Abbie Smith at ERV wrote an entertaining treatment of a number of issues involved here.

I’ve published book reviews before, primarily concerning things in the evolution/creation socio-political controversy. My review of Dembski’s “The Design Inference” back in 1999 even got notice in some of the antievolution venues as a serious review.

So on December 6th, I emailed the contact address for the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) and requested a review copy of the new book by William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, “The Design of Life”. I provided my work address at Michigan State University for shipping. So far, neither a review copy of the book nor any correspondence concerning my request has appeared there, nor even a note in email.

But apparently FTE does have a message for those it believes will provide critical reviews of their book: ‘Buy it yourself.’

Of course, not all of the reviews posted in the first month have been as exuberant as those above; some are venomous. We are receiving numerous requests for review copies from people we know intend to try to destroy it. (We do not intentionally send complimentary review copies to these people.) But we are greatly encouraged and delighted by the extremely positive reviews and accolades coming in from highly respected research scientists and science teachers across the country and from overseas.

I will be discussing the book’s contents in the future, probably on a shorter time-frame than Michael Behe’s prospective perspective on being a co-author on the book (testifying to that effect in 2005). But for now, I will just take up the ethical dimension of FTE’s actions here.

Let’s start with a bit from William Dembski’s post about “The Design of Life”’s Amazon page:

William A. Dembski wrote:

An interesting thing is happening at Amazon.com under the reviews for THE DESIGN OF LIFE (go here). As of this writing, there are nine 5-star reviews and only one 1-star review (from the inimitable John Kwok).

So the relative numbers of positive and negative reviews seems to be of interest to Dembski. But later on, Dembski writes the following in a comment concerning a request from John Kwok to FTE for a review copy:

William A. Dembski wrote:

Needless to say, FTE did not send Kwok a free review copy.

TDoL was released on November 19, 2007. The following information concerns the reviews at Amazon as they stood early in December.

ISCID Fellow Bruce L. Gordon wrote a review of TDoL giving it 5 stars on November 21, 2007. ISCID was founded by William A. Dembski and is run by William A. Dembski.

Ralph Seelke gave TDoL a 5 star rating on December 5, 2007. Seelke also happens to be a signatory to the Discovery Institute “Dissent from Darwin” list and a co-author of the Discovery Institute’s own antievolution textbook, “Explore Evolution”.

“Darwin Researcher” gave TDoL a 5 star rating on November 29, 2007. While DR’s identity is not known, his review predilections are entirely predictable. DR has reviewed a number of books touching on “intelligent design”. All the books that credulously present or promote IDC get 5 star ratings; all the ones that approach IDC critically get 1 star ratings and review titles like “Irresponsible”.

Casey Luskin gave TDoL a 5 star rating on November 22, 2007. Luskin is employed by the Discovery Institute and runs an IDC cheerleading website franchise.

Darbesio Eugenio gave TDoL a 5 star rating on November 22, 2007. Eugenio runs an IDC cheerleading blog in Italy and writes IDC advocacy articles for sites like ResearchID.org.

Leif Asmark Jensen gave TDoL a 5 star rating on November 22, 2007. Jensen is a leading European IDC advocate, according to Wikipedia, and created a petition to protest the adoption of an anti-IDC resolution in Europe.

“Stephen” gave TDoL a 5 star rating on December 4, 2007. Almost all of “Stephen”’s book reviews give each book 5 stars; TDoL appears to be the only IDC related book reviewed by “Stephen”.

Donald Ewert gave TDoL a 5 star rating on November 20, 2007. Ewert is a signatory of the Discovery Institute’s “Dissent from Darwin” list and an antievolution advocate, one whom Abbie Smith has taken note of on the ERV weblog.

“Mark” at idnet.com.au gave TDoL a 5 star rating on November 20, 2007. Mark is an enthusiastic online IDC cheerleader.

If I’ve done the math right, I get the following spread of days post-release to the posting of the 5 star ratings on Amazon for TDoL: 1, 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 10, 15, 16. Only one of the reviewers does not have a documentable history of either involvement in or advocacy of “intelligent design” creationism. It appears that at least six of the favorable Amazon reviewers had to be working from advance copies of the book.

So the early positive review to negative review disparity is simply yet another instance of IDC advocates “gaming the system”. FTE, as implied by William Dembski’s comments, vetted copy requests, providing courtesy or review copies to known IDC sympathizers, and denying copies to known, or, as the recent FTE note implies, suspected critics.

Now, going beyond the unscholarly way in which FTE is treating requests for courtesy and review copies, there is the issue of IDC advocates putting pressure on Amazon to remove the (then) sole negative review, one written by John Kwok. Part of the argument to remove Kwok’s review was premised on William Dembski’s ability, through FTE, to track all the early copies of TDoL released by FTE, and deny that Kwok could have actually have seen the book. (It does not appear that Kwok had, at the time he wrote his review, seen TDoL. While Amazon has no policy against reviews written by people who have not read the book in question, this does strike me as inappropriate. Kwok’s actions notwithstanding, there is no excuse for the approach taken by FTE and Dembski.)

The attempts to game the system at Amazon appear to be deliberate, endorsed and abetted by FTE management (not just Dembski), and continuing. Denyse O’Leary, conservative commentator and “Uncommon Descent” co-blogger, had the following to say on December 19 about Amazon:

But if you think that the information service that Bill Dembski has provided you here for years - out of his own resources - is worthwhile, go to Amazon and vote up the reviews that sound like the person has actually READ the book. Vote the others down.

Like intelligent design? Hate it? No matter. This is a blow for civilization. Everyone who thinks they have a mind will be better off.

Given the fact that FTE has confessed to a program of restricting information flow, in the form of the book at issue to be read, O’Leary is either a willing part of the conspiracy to game the system at Amazon, or what used to be called a “useful idiot”, unable to recognize that her actions perpetuate a bias deliberately engineered by FTE. I would not expect O’Leary, as the IDC cheerleader her actions paint her as, to stand up to FTE and demand that they act like a responsible publisher of a serious text capable of withstanding critical scrutiny. But I wouldn’t mind being surprised.

Update: PZ Myers gave exposure to O’Leary’s Amazon-packing gambit on Pharyngula, and now the comments in the thread at “Uncommon Descent” are a smorgasbord of irony since the resulting approval numbers at Amazon are not going FTE’s way at all.