Opinion 63: A Negative Review of Negative Reviews

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: Jan. 12, 2005.

There are so many math books, and only a small fraction can be reviewed in the major math journals like the Notices, the Monthly, or Intelligencer. If a book gets the honor of being reviewed, it should be because the editors consider it to be a good book, and hence it should get a sympathetic review, possibly pointing out some shortcomings, but of a positive rather than negative tenor.

The problem with reading a negative review is that it is provably subjective. Anyone who wastes his time writing a review of a book that he or she dislikes, is a frustrated mathematician, who has an axe to grind, and just enjoys being mean. Even a cursory reading of the negative review reveals that the author dislikes the subject, or missed the point, and uses the poor readers of the Monthly (and especially the poor reviewed author) to dump his or her frustrations.

I was lead to write this after reading the extremely nasty and unfair review by Steve Kennedy (Amer. Math. Monthly Jan. 2005) of Christos Papadimitriou's charming novel "Turing: A novel about computation". Of course, a novel is a matter of taste, and the reviewer has a right not to like it, but what was so annoying was the arrogant tone and sarcastic style. Who is Steve Kennedy, with only 4 articles in MathSciNet (two of which are co-authored) to talk so patronizingly to Christos Papadimitriou, one of the greatest CS Giants (and in the Top 20 most-cited authors in CS)? It is clear that Kennedy thinks that mathematicians are superior to computer-scientists (what a laugh!, nowadays a mathematician is the analog of a dentist). He also thinks that Computation is intrinsically boring.

Myself, I enjoyed "Turing" very much, both as a story and for its gripping exposition of so much intriguing math and computer science. But that's not the point. Papadimitriou does not need me to defend his very well-received book.

At the end of the first paragraph, Kennedy says, when talking about mathematicians "We might be mad, but at least we have personalities". Well, Steve, you sure do have a personality! A mean and nasty one, or else you wouldn't bother to write negative reviews. But, perhaps you can't help it. The ones to blame are the editors Gerald Folland and Bruce Palka, who should not publish negative reviews, especially not obviously bigoted and unfair ones like this one. I hope that you won't do it again!

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