The Hunting of the Snark

miniweilProfessor Joseph Weiler, who is facing criminal charges in France for posting a mildly negative book review on a web site he edits, has asked supporters to search out and email him copies of even more negative reviews (presumably of academic writing), to submit to the court as evidence that this sort of thing happens all the time.

The review I’ll be emailing is a classic of the genre. It was written by Andre Weil, one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and possibly the most erudite person who ever lived. Here’s how I described Weil shortly after his death:

His profound grasp of mathematical history made him seem all the more a part of that history; he was the natural heir to the tradition he cherished. In paper after paper, Weil exhibited his own ideas as natural extensions of the foundations long since laid by great masters like Fermat, Euler, and Gauss in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Steeped in the history of mathematics and the history of civilization, he was thoroughly a scholar. He spoke and read multiple languages (besides his native French, Weil was comfortable in Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, English, German, Portuguese and probably more), wrote poetry and literary criticism, mastered the Bhaghavad Gita and the Upanishads, and was renowned for the clarity and directness of his prose. He spoke incisively and knowledgeably about philosophy, painting, music and architecture.

Weil’s presence was enhanced, as is the case with many great geniuses, by his personal eccentricities and the legends they inspired—the strangely guttural French accent, the acerbic wit, the exacting standards, the complete inability to tolerate any form of stupidity (quite a burden for a man compared to whom almost everyone else in the world was basically a dunce), and the mischievous vanity. These traits live on in his writings and in the oral history that is lovingly preserved by mathematicians worldwide.

In 1973, an associate professor at Princeton University had the temerity to write a biography of Weil’s revered Fermat, and the bad luck to draw Weil as a reviewer. Weil begins by reminding us that “in order to write even a tolerably good book about Fermat, a modicum of abilities is required”. He then lists these abilities:

  • ordinary accuracy
  • the ability to express simple ideas in plain English
  • some knowledge of French
  • some knowledge of Latin
  • some historical sense
  • some familiarity with the work of Fermat’s contemporaries and of his successors
  • knowledge and sensitivity to mathematics

Weil then proceeds to consider these requisites one by one, and to argue—via annotated quotations from the book under review—that the author apparently possesses none of them. The full text is here.

For its incisiveness, its acerbicism, and the towering authority of its author, I nominate this as the most devastating book review in the history of academic journalism. Can you suggest another contender?

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21 Responses to “The Hunting of the Snark”


  1. 1 1 Biopolitical

    I don’t have access now to Sex, Lies, and Social Science, by Richard Lewontin, but as far as I remember it was both harsh and enjoyable.

  2. 2 2 John Faben

    This has to be a contender, although I admit to having little or no knowledge as to how eminent William L Petersen is in the area of Syriac studies (Google mostly turns up the guy from CSI…), the tone is decidedly less moderate than either Weiler’s or Weil’s.

    http://syrcom.cua.edu/Hugoye/Vol6No2/HV6N2PRPetersen.html

    To quote just the final paragraph:

    One could go on. Everyone has lapses of judgment; everyone makes mistakes—even Homer nodded. But that is not the issue. Here the errors are so frequent and so fundamental that this volume can contribute nothing to scholarship. What it says that is true has already been said elsewhere, with greater clarity and perspective. What it says that is new is almost always wrong, plagued — as we have shown above — with philological, logical, and methodological errors, and a gross insensitivity to things historical (both within the discipline, as well as the transmission-history of texts). Reading this book fills one with dismay and despair. It is shocking that a work which does not rise to the level of a master’s thesis should be approved as a doctoral dissertation; how it found its way into print is unfathomable. One shudders to think of the damage it will do when, in the future, it is cited by the ignorant and the unsuspecting as “demonstrating” what it has not.

  3. 3 3 Peter

    It would be difficult to top Weil’s review, but Mordell’s review of Weil’s Diophantine Geometry is another review that is famous for its bite. Steven Krantz called it the harshest review he’d ever seen.

  4. 4 4 Peter

    Oops, I meant Lang’s Diophantine Geometry.

  5. 5 5 Patrick R. Sullivan

    It’s been many decades since I read it, but:

    STIGLER, G.J. “The Economist Plays with Blocs.” American Economic Review, Vol. 44 (1954), pp. 7-14.

    attacked J.K. Galbraith’s theory of Countervailing Power. That led to a lively back and forth between the two (who I believe were actually friends). I paraphrase JKG’s response as; Stigler laments that so many read Galbraith and so few read Adam Smith, but I think his real complaint is that no one reads Stigler.

  6. 6 6 Patrick R. Sullivan

    Or, how about this exchange (scroll down to find it) in Cato’s ‘Regulation’ over Paul Krugman’s Peddling Prosperity (or at least one chapter in it). Krugman opens with:

    ‘Let me start by saying that I have some sympathy for Liebowitz and Margolis (“Policy and Path Dependence: From QWERTY to Windows 95,” Regulation, 1995 No. 3). We have all seen the way that a good story that happens not to be true can take on a life of its own, and I realize that they are frustrated. With the way that an overstated version of the QWERTY story has spread despite their efforts to stop it, That frustration does not, however, justify the hectoring and unprofessional tone of their piece or the way it misrepresents what those of us who take path dependence seriously have said.’

    Which, after they leave Krugman’s argument in tatters on the floor, is met with:

    ‘Krugman’s position is that there are many QWERTY market failures, but we should be careful about trying to fix them. Our position, which is quite different, is that there are no known instances of QWERTY market failures, so there is not anything to fix.

    ‘As to our professionalism, the reader is our judge. But if Krugman considers our “tone” to be unprofessional, what must he think of researchers who continue to use a story that they know to be false so as to prop up a theory that apparently cannot stand on its own?’

    Though my favorite of Stan and Steve’s many replies to critics is
    this in Reason magazine. A man named Randy Cassingham had suggested:

    ‘My 1986 book, which Liebowitz and Margolis could probably have found in their university libraries, spent several pages pointing out gross bias behind….’

    Which drew this response:

    ‘We were disappointed, as Mr. Cassingham must be, that his 1986 book cannot be found in our university libraries. Nor is it to be found in the on-line catalogs at Harvard, the University of Michigan, Duke, or the University of Texas at Austin, all of which are thought to have substantial collections. (Readers can easily verify this for themselves.) We therefore cannot comment on Mr. Cassingham’s writings.

    ‘We did contact his publisher (Freelance Communications, Pasadena) and discovered that they offer only three titles, all of them by Mr. Cassingham. Thus it seems somewhat disingenuous for Mr. Cassingham to refer to his publisher in the third person.’

  7. 7 7 Bennett Haselton

    Not academic reviews, but Roger Ebert has published two collections of his worst reviewed movies, “I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie” and “Your Movie Sucks” — since people apparently enjoy reading the bad reviews so much more than the good ones.

    “The movie is being revived around the country for midnight cult showings. Midnight is not late enough.” [The Beyond]

    “That makes Hellbound: Hellraiser II an ideal movie for audiences with little taste and atrophied attention spans who want to glance at the screen occasionally and ascertain that something is still happening up there. If you fit that description, you have probably not read this far, but what the heck, we believe in full-service reviews around here. You’re welcome.”

    “‘It will obliterate your senses!’ reports David Gillin, who obviously writes autobiographically.” [Armageddon]

    etc.

  8. 8 8 Neil

    In science, Peter Medawar’s scathing review (Mind, 1961 (70)) of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man is considered a classic of the genre. I couldn’t find a link to it. He called Teilhard’s thesis a “dotty euphoristic kind of nonsense”.

  9. 9 9 SJA

    Coincidently, I just read a scathing review of The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White — a book that I have admired for many years. This review was so effective that it destroyed my admiration in a matter of minutes. It’s worth reading not merely because it demonstrates how to write an effective critique, but also because it sheds light on an important but widely misunderstood art.

    Check it out here: http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

  10. 10 10 Neil

    SJA,

    Wow. That was good. Thanks.

  11. 11 11 Patrick R. Sullivan

    SJA, that ‘review’ of Elements of Style has a few deficiencies itself. Consider:

    ‘…the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I’ve spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way.’

    Three redundancies in less than two sentences.

    Doesn’t, ‘…the opinionated and uninformed little book that put many people in a state of grammatical angst. I’ve spent much of my life in a scholarly study of English grammar.’, work better? I’ll bet EB White would think so.

  12. 12 12 dave

    no one of us is perfect. i found it incredibly well written. for someone like myself who chooses to eschew grammatical correctness for style on a routine basis, it seemed both poignant and humbling.
    i think eb white would cut the skin between his fingers just so he could be a better pianist.
    thx for the link, sja.

  13. 13 13 Steve Reilly

    Patrick,

    Surely taking “too” out of the second sentence makes it much worse. It really removes any connection with the previous sentence. It’s the difference between “I’ve spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way [to toast this little book]” and “I’ve spent much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way [to toast this little book]“.

    As for the other changes you made:
    1.”Overopinionated” and “opinionated” aren’t synonyms. The first is necessarily pejorative, the latter isn’t.

    2.”Uninformed” and “underinformed” are likewise not synonyms.

    3. “So” isn’t useless. It acts as intensifier. Even if you prefer the sentence with “so” removed, I’m not sure why you would call it ‘redundant’. Intensifying and pointlessly repeating are, after all, different.

    At any rate, the real complaints Pullum made were over fallacious grammar rather than stylistic niceties, so it’s hard to see why it would matter even if your rewriting happened to improve the sentences.

  14. 14 14 Philip

    Neil-

    Here are some excerpts from Medawar’s review of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man (Mind, 70, pp. 99-105):

    “Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.”

    “In no sense other than an utterly trivial one is reproduction the inverse of chemical disintegration. It is a misunderstanding of genetics to suppose that reproduction is only ‘intended’ to make facsimiles, for parasexual processes of genetical exchange are to be found in the simplest living things.”

    “There is much else in the literary idiom of nature-philosophy: nothing-buttery, for example, always part of the minor symptomatology of the bogus.”

    “The Phenomenon of Man stands square in the tradition of Naturphilosophie, a philosophical indoor pastime of German origin which does not seem even by accident (though there is a great deal of it) to have contributed anything of permanent value to the storehouse of human thought.”

    “I do not propose to criticize the fatuous argument I have just outlined; here, to expound is to expose.”

    “How have people come to be taken in by The Phenomenon of Man? We must not underestimate the size of the market for works of this kind, for philosophy-fiction. Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.”

    “French is not a language that lends itself naturally to the opaque and ponderous idiom of nature-philosophy, and Teilhard has according resorted to the use of that tipsy, euphoristic prose-poetry which is one of the more tiresome manifestations of the French spirit.”

    “It would have been a great disappointment to me if Vibration did not somewhere make itself felt, for all scientistic mystics either vibrate in person or find themselves resonant with cosmic vibrations; but I am happy to say that on page 266 Teilhard will be found to do so.”

    “In spite of all the obstacles that Teilhard perhaps wisely puts in our way, it is possible to discern a train of thought in The Phenomenon of Man.”

  15. 15 15 Neil

    Philip:

    LOL. I wonder how Medawar would have done in British court if Teilhard had decided to sue for libel.

  16. 16 16 Neil

    Pullum’s review of Elements is entirely valid. But I must admit, S&W made me a better writer. Before I read it in college, I was a typical bad writer–clumsy, convoluted sentences using the passive voice to avoid saying what you really mean (e.g., mistakes were made). I took the basic message of S&W as “Think what it is you want to say, and say it as directly and clearly as you can.” I’ve never looked back.

  17. 17 17 Patrick R. Sullivan

    Nice try, guy, but here’s the definition of opinionated:

    ————-quote————–
    opinionated [əˈpɪnjəˌneɪtɪd]
    adj

    holding obstinately and unreasonably to one’s own opinions; dogmatic
    opinionatedly

    adv
    opinionatedness n
    Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged 6th Edition 2003. © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
    ThesaurusLegend: Synonyms Related Words Antonyms
    Adj. 1. opinionated – obstinate in your opinions
    opinionative, self-opinionated
    narrow-minded, narrow – lacking tolerance or flexibility or breadth of view; “a brilliant but narrow-minded judge”; “narrow opinions”
    ————–endquote————–

    Please explain how one can be OVERobstinate. OVERunreasonable or OVER dogmatic.

  18. 18 18 Roger Schlafly

    I enjoyed that Weil review, but it is really not that devastating. It reads like a joke. Does it really matter if a biographer of a mathematician confused the Latin dative and ablative?

  19. 19 19 Philip

    Neil-

    I agree. Though I loved the critical review, nevertheless, S&W made me a better writer. Which just goes to show how much room for improvement there was (and no doubt still is).

  20. 20 20 Patrick R. Sullivan

    I thought that I smelled a rat when reading the harsh ‘review’ of Strunk and White. Now I know I did. The author doesn’t seem to be aware that Elements of Style has been revised (for political reasons, it seems). Revisions that White resisted when still alive, but was, of course, powerless to block after he died.

    Pullum isn’t reviewing Strunk and White, he’s reviewing recent revisions of their book. Consider what Strunk himself wrote about active v. passive voice:

    —————-quote—————-
    This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

    The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed to-day.

    Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

    The first would be the right form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the Restoration; the second, in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need of making a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.

    The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

    There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

    Dead leaves covered the ground.

    The sound of the falls could still be heard.

    The sound of the falls still reached our ears.

    The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.

    Failing health compelled him to leave college.

    It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had.

    He soon repented his words
    ————-endquote—————–

    Now, here is what Pullum says about that:

    ————union————
    What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

    “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.

    “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.

    “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)
    ————–endquote————

    Note that what Strunk said was:

    ‘The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.’

    Again: ‘a transitive in the active voice’.

  21. 21 21 Philip

    Patrick-

    An excellent piece of sleuthing!

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