Suppose you were reading a review of a new book about classical music. The reviewer doesn't think too highly of the book, though his objections are rather vague. Then you get to this paragraph:
One major aim of the book is to pay tribute to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an 18th century composer. His works are incessantly praised by the authors, and one of his operas is even enclosed as a CD. I have a couple of Mozart CDs on the shelf of my entertainment center, but I haven't listened to them. I confess that until now I never differentiated Mozart from various other lackluster and boring musicians of the Classical Era. Apparently I was unfair: Mozart seems in a different league. For one thing, he was evidently a child prodigy of sorts, and he received a great deal of acclaim in his lifetime and even afterward.
Now, I don't know about you, but if I came across a paragraph like this, my reaction would be, "How the heck did this guy ever get hired to review a book on classical music, a subject he obviously knows nothing about?"
Of course, this is a purely hypothetical example. Nothing like this could possibly happen in real life.
Or could it?
Consider an except from "The Soul of the Gaps," a review of Irreducible Mind, by Edward F. Kelly & Emily Williams Kelly et al, which appears in the magazine Skeptic (2009, Vol. 15, No. 1, p. 75). The review is online here. I learned of it only because Vitor Moura kindly sent me a copy.
The reviewer, Sebastian Dieguez, writes:
Indeed, one major aim of IM is to pay a dithyrambic tribute to Frederic W.H. Myers, a largely forgotten hero and pioneer of psychical research in England. His 1903 magnum opus Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death is incessantly praised in IM and is even enclosed as a CD. I have an abridged version of this book on my pseudoscience shelf, but I confess that until now I never differentiated it from other pompous and boring compendia of weird anecdotes, ghost stories and wacky theories from the turn of the century. Apparently I was unfair: Myers seems in a different league. For one thing, he was among the first to have theorized about what would be later known as "the unconscious." However, the reason Myers is now forgotten in non-occult circles is that Human Personality is replete with ghost stories and mediums of all sorts, which understandably has obscured the few interesting insights that could have been found in there.
So here we have someone hired by a professional journal to review a book about parapsychology, and, prior to reading the book, he apparently had only the vaguest idea of who F.W.H. Myers was, and had never read anything by him or about him. Oh, he did own Myers' book, but he had never troubled to, you know, look at it.
If this is so, then it's exceedingly unlikely that the reviewer knows much of anything about the early years of parapsychology, since even the most cursory study of the subject would quickly bring Myers' name to the forefront.
That means the reviewer presumably knows little or nothing about the decades-long investigations of Leonora Piper and Gladys Osborne Leonard, little or nothing about the early work of the Society for Psychical Research and its American counterpart, little or nothing about the work of Oliver Lodge, William Barrett, Richard Hodgson, Charles Drayton Thomas, William James, and their colleagues.
Is a person like this really qualified to review Irreducible Mind?
I'm sure the editors of Skeptic would say he is, and they would probably point to Sebastian Dieguez' biography:
Sebastian Dieguez worked for a time as a clinical neuropsychologist and is currently a graduate student at the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience of the Brain Mind Institute, at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland. He investigates the neural correlates of bodily awareness and self-knowledge, as well as a number of obscure neuropsychiatric syndromes. He has written on varied topics such as disorders of the body schema, cursing in aphasia, the neuropsychology of empathy, near-death and out-of-body experiences, and is a regular contributor to Cerveau & Psycho, the French edition of Scientific American Mind.
I agree that these impressive and notable credentials amply qualify Sebastian Dieguez to review a mainstream book on neuroscience, one that accepts the materialist paradigm popularized by Dennett, Pinker, and others. But Irreducible Mind is not a mainstream book. Its entire purpose, as stated by the authors, is to confront, challenge, and overturn the assumptions of mainstream neuroscience. It relies on decades of research showing various kinds of anomalous results that call the materialist paradigm into question. This research falls mostly under the umbrella of parapsychology.
Any given reviewer may disagree with the book's thesis, of course, but if it is to be an informed disagreement, then the reviewer needs to be familiar with the evidence that is cited - that is, with the work of parapsychologists over the past century or more. If a reviewer dismisses this entire area of research as "weird anecdotes, ghost stories and wacky theories," has not read the major works on the subject, and has no knowledge of major figures in the field, then he is simply not qualified to deal with this particular book.
The fact that Dieguez hasn't read Myers' book doesn't prevent him from remarking casually on "the few interesting insights that could have been found in there." How does he know there are only a few? Well, the same way he knows that all paranormal phenomena are nonsense. He just knows. He has some books on his shelf, doesn't he? Okay, he hasn't read them, but he doesn't have to. He knows.
Lacking the ability to address the authors' specific claims, all the reviewer can do is dismiss Irreducible Mind in its entirety by saying that, at 800 pages, it relies on "sheer quantity of information" to make its case.
That's right. The problem with Irreducible Mind is that it contains too much information.
Or, as the Emperor Joseph II once put it: "Too many notes, Mozart."
And we all know how history has treated that review.
Update, July 30: Sebastian Dieguez responds at some length in the comments thread. Among other things, he says he actually does know a lot about Myers but pretended not to for dramatic effect.