Saturday, January 26, 2013

A note on the Vegter review

I've been pleasantly surprised by how popular my review of Ivo Vegter's "Extreme Environment" has proven. I initially thought that only a handful of people would care to read something of that length, but less than a week after it was first posted, and it has already garnered around 400 unique page views. (Small change for some, but a decent figure for a humble grad student blogging in relative obscurity.)

While the reception has generally been positive, several commentators appear puzzled by the fact that I still come out with a qualified endorsement after highlighting (what I perceive to be) a number of obvious problems in the book. Some quick responses:

1) As I pointed out in my review, despite being highly critical at times, there are parts of the book that I thought were very good. These sections could prove useful to informing public debate.

2) I wrote my review in stages. The first part (which generally covers the better, first half of the book) was written just before I flew back from holiday. The remainder came from notes that I made whilst reading on the plane, and just after I arrived back. I think this helped to keep the good and bad separated in my mind, as well as contributing -- I hope -- to a more evenhanded review.

3) Similarly, the problem with books of this type is that they tend to be very polarising. I don't think it does justice to the relevant issues if the whole of a book is judged by its weakest parts and summarily dismissed. 

4) Eirik K. asks whether I would be "so forgiving when reading an academic paper?" The short answer to this question, naturally, is no. I don't think this is a fair comparison, though. The margin for error is substantially tighter for journals and academic studies. Moreover, a scientific paper will typically have a fairly narrow focus, while a general interest book like EE covers a much broader spectrum. (To be sure, in the purely hypothetical case where I was asked by Ivo's editor to referee the book before publication, I would have asked for significant revisions. Chiefly to the chapter concerning climate change -- which in its current state would be better omitted altogether -- but in other areas as well.)


  1. I am constantly amazed that when I talk about things I like and things I don't like people assume that I didn't like it.

    A reviewer for a book review I did for (still forthcoming) said he couldn't tell if I liked it or didn't like it. Simple! I liked some parts and not others!

    My 1920-21 article is regularly seen as an argument against ABCT - it's not!

    My recent posts on Casey Mulligan have gotten the same reaction from those on Casey's side and those against Casey. I actually talked about things that I liked and that I didn't like in his argument.

    People always feel this need to pick a side...

    1. I'm glad someone feels my pain :)
      FWIW, I read your first Mulligan post and thought that it was extremely fair. I find it pretty depressing that he would go off the handle about that.

  2. Okay. I get your points. I don't want to push it too much however, but my point is really about getting the important things right. Climate change is the most obvious one and there are other books out there that do a better job explaining the key issues. (Like Weart's 'The Discovery Of Global Warming'.)

    1. I haven't read Weart's book (though I've heard good things about it). My understanding, though, is that it is less about the economics and more about the just the science? Nonetheless, I've just started reading Dieter Helm's excellent new book and that may be a candidate for what you are talking about. Review coming shortly! (Perhaps...)


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