Pharyngulate Something Meaningful Today! April 8, 2011

Pharyngulate Something Meaningful Today!

We all love crashing polls, but most of them don’t have a lot of meaning. They’re often there to bring hits to a website without having any real significance.

But here’s a case where your votes could make a difference.

A few years ago, my friend Dale McGowan wrote a wonderful book called Parenting Beyond Belief. It’s all about how to raise children without religion, and it features a variety of perspectives on issues so many atheist parents have to wrestle with — Should you raise your children as atheists? Should you teach them about Santa Claus? Can you have non-religious rites of passage for your kids as they grow older?

I *love* the book and I know I’m eventually going to refer to it when I have kids of my own.

Here’s the issue: On Amazon, the top comment right now gives the book 3/5 stars and criticizes it for having contributors without children (ignoring the substance of their essays) and suggesting that the main writers are “angry atheists” (when anyone who’s read the book would tell you that’s absolutely not the case).

Since these comments go a long way in helping people decide whether or not to purchase the book, it’s really disappointing to see this one on top when the majority of commenters give the book 5/5 stars. (In fact, as I write this, only 2 out of all 58 comments give this book 3 stars… and no one rated it lower than that.)

So I’m asking that you:

  1. Go to Amazon.
  2. Find the 3-Star comment.
  3. Click on “No” where it asks “Was this review helpful to you?”
  4. (Optional) Read through the other comments and click on “Yes” for any of them that you think better represent the book.

I wouldn’t ask you all to do this if I didn’t feel so strongly about the book. And I hope you’ll do this because you feel the same way (and not only because I’m requesting it). Hell, if you think the book deserves a 3-star rating, then say so… but I don’t think many of you would feel that way.

For what it’s worth, Dale didn’t ask me to write this. It’s just a problem I’d like to help fix. Can we please bury that comment?

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  • Joshua

    I hope this works out for you.
    I vote and I hope that other people do too.

  • Kat

    I love the book, too. My fiancé and I bought both it and Raising Feeethinkers. I will go vote.

  • Jalyth

    I did, although I haven’t read the book and don’t know for sure.

  • I never give five stars and would consider three stars an endorsement for a readable, but not great, book. Nobody hated the book and the two people who merely liked it expressed their opinions. Not having read it myself I’m unable to comment on whether or not I agree with the reviews.

    If I were considering buying this book I would read the negative reviews and think that, if that is the worst that they can say, then it must be pretty good. Negative reviews are useful too.

  • Larry Meredith

    I haven’t read the book so I don’t think I can properly judge whether or not it really is worthy of 3 stars.

    I don’t deny that it’s helped a lot of people, especially parents, with serious issues, but just because it helps people with serious issues doesn’t make it an automatic 5 star book. The bible helps people with serious issues and I wouldn’t give that a high rating…

  • Nico

    No, it’s the reviewer’s opinion and we have to respect that.

  • Jeff

    Yeah, but Hemant, it isn’t as though Amazon is going to remove the review for getting low ratings. I once had to argue with them to get them to remove one that was blatantly antisemitic (they did, however, refuse to publish my review of The Purpose-Driven Live because I said, “Christians can't seem to write a grocery list without condemning people to hell" – then I remembered Amazon's headquarters are in Texas [or were at the time]!).

    They will remove inappropriate comments on reviews if you badger them, but it's very difficult to get them to remove a review. They don't like to do it – or they just can't be bothered.

  • I don’t think this is an entirely ethical use of the power of pharyngulation (don’t you just love that pharyngula is now a verb?) as whatever the motivation of the reviewer they are presumeably just voicing a genuine opinion. Personally I haven’t read the book and am unlikely to as I’ve never felt the need to seek a stranger’s view on parenting, much as I can sympathise with the philosophy behind this book. But no, I’ll stick to pointless polls and leave Amazon reviews alone.

  • brent

    it’s a great book.

    everyone else must’ve pharakansdfkhdsalated it because it’s already got rave reviews.

    as it should.

  • Vystrix Nexoth

    Yes, the reviewer is just expressing their opinion. So are we.

  • Peter Mahoney

    I’ve read Dale’s book and it is awesome.
    The review stating it reflects angry atheism is VERY INACCURATE, (in my opinion) so I have no problem voting that comment as being NOT helpful.

  • Andrew Fox

    One need not have read a book to find a review of that book helpful or unhelpful. The whole point of a review is to help one decide whether or not to invest one’s money and time in buying and reading a book. A review that says only “I loved it” is just as unhelpful as one that says only “I hated it.” We’re not looking for a reviewer’s random opinions, we’re looking for his opinion of the book. If an Amazon reviewer provides an ideological screed in lieu of an actual review, I do not hesitate to rate it unhelpful.

  • ATL-Apostate

    The review you mentioned is no longer available. There are only two three-star reviews, both of which are from atheists, expressing disappointment in the content of the book. They are entitled to their opinions. No pharyngulation for me. Sorry.

  • Done, and buying the book.

  • I’m pretty sure that the review by Scott Roberts is the one Hemant was talking about– he never claimed the author wasn’t an atheist.

    And that review, Hemant, may disagree with your assessment of the book but it is considered, polite, and expresses regret that he couldn’t rate the book more highly. So, sorry, but there’s no way I’m going to rate that review as “unhelpful.” And if that is indeed the one you were talking about, I think it was rather petty to ask.

  • Ben Zalisko

    I read the comment he refered to and found it very reasonable. (except for his reference to “Dwakins”) I haven’t read the book, but I can understand how someone could object to writers not having children, and not having enough of an agnostic/humanist/soft atheist point of view.

    As for phyrangulation in this case, this sounds like something a fundamentalist site would do to silence legitimate opposition. Unless he stated something that is blatantly untrue, which I encourage Hemant to clarify, his comment should stand.

    I tagged his comment as helpful to me. If you find his comment as reasonable as I did, I encourage you to do the same.

  • beckster

    I will go and write a review. I have led discussion groups using the book and have been meaning to write a review for awhile.

  • Valhar2000

    I don’t think Hemant is asking for anything unethical here. He is not asking that we petition to have the comment removed: he simply wan’ts it voted “not helpful”. If the review is, as he claims, inaccurate, then voting it down is very much the right thing to do.

    I will not participate in this because I have not read the book and do not, therefore, know how accurate the review is, but if I thought it was inaccurate I would do it gladly.

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    It’s by no means unethical to urge a large group of people to devalue the opinion of another person simply because you don’t agree with it, but as someone already pointed out, it is kind of petty. The proper response would have been to urge people that have read this book to post their own reviews and hoped that one of those new, more positive reviews would have appeared at the top.

  • I’m sorry, but I can’t endorse this book in that way if I haven’t read it. I’m a little taken aback that you would ask your audience to rate an item higher without asking them to at least read it first and give their honest opinion. It may be that the majority of your readers would endorse it if they read the book, myself included, but your wording in this post makes me uncomfortable.

  • Anna N.

    why is that a problem? 2 out of 60 being lower(not even low) is a pretty good result. I don’t understand why you are upset about that. The majority of customers loves the book. the two who don’t have a) plenty of comments explaining why they are wrong and b) are in a stark minority.

  • Ibis

    Are you seriously suggesting that it is ethical to recruit people to try and “bury” the review of a book because you, personally, disagree with it and are friends with the author?

    Surely Dale has tough enough skin to take some criticism and dismiss it if he doesn’t find it warranted. As far as I know, Amazon has a practice of putting up the highest reviews alongside the lowest rated reviews so that potential buyers can read both and make up their own minds. Haven’t you ever read the 1 star reviews of classic literature?

  • Valhar2000

    Are you seriously suggesting that it is ethical to recruit people to try and “bury” the review of a book because you, personally, disagree with it and are friends with the author?

    For heaven’s sake! That’s not what he is doing! He claims that the review makes inaccurate claims about the content of the book!

  • Hemant

    Wow. People taking this post completely out of context…

    If you don’t like the book, say so.

    If you like it, which I think most of you who have read it do, then help by voting up the good comments.

    And, yes, I’m saying downvote the bad review. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s inaccurate — and if you’ve read the book, you know that.

    I hate to see a good book taken down by a negative reviewer (at the top of the list of reviews on that page no less) when the overwhelming majority of reviewers loved the book enough to give it a 4 or 5 star review.

  • I hate to see a good book taken down by a negative reviewer (at the top of the list of reviews on that page no less) when the overwhelming majority of reviewers loved the book enough to give it a 4 or 5 star review.

    I think you should’ve asked people who have actually read the book and agree with you that the review is unfounded to go and vote on its helpfulness. The rest of us have no way of knowing.

  • Ibis

    And, yes, I’m saying downvote the bad review. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s inaccurate — and if you’ve read the book, you know that.

    I haven’t read the book or any of the reviews, but the two problems you specify in your post are:

    1. That the reviewer notes that there are contributors who have no children and think that’s a problem for someone doling out advice about raising kids.

    Is the assertion that those contributors have no children inaccurate? Again, from what you say, it is not inaccurate. The rest is a matter of opinion, not fact.

    2. The reviewer judges the authors to be “angry” atheists.

    Again, this is a matter of opinion. You may find them to be friendly and lighthearted, but not everyone has to agree with you.

  • Miko

    suggesting that the main writers are “angry atheists” (when anyone who’s read the book would tell you that’s absolutely not the case).

    A bit more reading comprehension, please. The “angry” comment was referring to the selection of atheists in the book, not the content of the book, and goes on to clarify that “angry” is being used to mean missionary. The review states that this influences what they write about (by spending too much time talking about the virtues of atheism rather than about parenting issues), not that they’re angry in the book.

    @Ben Zalisko: I agree, and have up-voted the comment. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to its general content, but that comment is definitely a legitimate review of the book and one which could provide would-be customers with information they want. Even if Hemant thinks that it doesn’t matter whether the parenting essays come from non-parents, the parents buying the book ought to be allowed to decide that for themselves.


    If you like it, which I think most of you who have read it do, then help by voting up the good comments.

    Not having read it, I can’t say. But I would suspect that many of those above who are objecting to your tactic have read and liked the book. Liking the book is not synonymous with agreeing that it’s proper to attempt to silence anyone with a different viewpoint. (And not even that different, since the three-star reviewer said that he liked the book too.)

    Now, I don’t know how that review rose to #1. Perhaps some theists decided to up-vote it en masse as the first strike in a fundamentalist war and Hemant is only leading the second offensive. Couldn’t say; don’t care. The tendency to redefine “helpful” with “agrees with me” is an unfortunate one that just makes finding legitimately helpful reviews more difficult, and I wish that all factions would knock it off.

  • Happycynic

    Mission accomplished: the review in question is no longer among the top three.

  • Ibis

    Wow. I just read the review in question. I thought it was intelligent, well-written, and gave useful insight into the book’s contents. Shame on you, Hemant.

  • Jeebus

    I haven’t read it and I won’t vote for something I have no knowledge of. Sorry, but books written about a certain subject by people with little to no knowledge of that subject are kind of rediculous. How do you even have the foggiest clue as to what you’re talking about without having experienced it first hand? And when it comes to child rearing, why would I listen to someone who has never had children? I know many people, including one of my sisters, who don’t have children and they are usually completely off base when it comes to commenting about children. I used to be that way before I had children. Maybe they should stick to writing about subject’s they have first hand experience at. Would you buy a book about how to raise dogs from an author that has never had a dog? Would you buy a science book written by Ray Comfort? Maybe I’m being a little harsh, but we’re talking about raising a human being, not fixing an engine.

  • Drew M.

    I won’t rate a book I’ve never read, but that’s not what Hemant asked us to do anyhow.

    I often read the reviews to help me decide on a purchase and if the review is stupid, I rate it as unhelpful. If it’s well-thought out, I rate it as helpful regardless of what rating the author gave.

  • dauntless

    Link to your friend’s book with your Amazon reference code. Down-vote the negative review of it. Everyone wins, right?

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    And when it comes to child rearing, why would I listen to someone who has never had children?

    Because education counts for something, and someone with a strong background in child psychology or education may posess some insight worth paying attention too. I don’t need for a historian to have ridden with William the Conquerer for me to appreciate his or her opinion on the Battle of Hastings.

  • The review looks helpful to me. Sure, I’m quite sure that I’d disagree with the assessment of “angry,” and perhaps some other things as well. But you know what? That, too, is helpful.

    PS A three star rating isn’t a bad rating.

  • Rich Wilson

    it’s really disappointing to see this one on top when the majority of commenters give the book 5/5

    Hemat, the reason it’s a ‘top’ review is because it’s the most popular ‘low’ review. Amazon picks two reviews to showcase, a high and a low. If someone gave this book one star, that would likely replace the 3 start review at the ‘top’.

    Can someone who has read the book tell us whether

    This is not a book that will answer any questions for you and others have noted this in their reviews as well, but it should be emphasized

    That’s the important bit to me. Would this be $10 well spent on a book that I would find useful as an atheist parent?

  • Often when PZ asks people to Pharyngulate something, he gets a lot of I’m-disappointed-in-you comments as well. That always surprises me.

    If I’m not mistaken, the point of Pharyngulating things is that online tabulations don’t really matter anyway – polls on the internet are almost always skewed and I would say possibly never scientific. Online reviews are the same. If you know nothing about the source of the review, why would you trust it regardless of what it says?

    Personally, I didn’t think the review was that bad (I have read the book) though I didn’t agree with it. However, reacting as though there is some integrity that should be preserved in the Amazon system of product reviewing in the first place is off base.

    It is kind of petty, but I think most people are petty at times – including when they’re Pharyngulating anything online. I probably won’t vote the review down, but I’m certainly not going to comment here about how Hemant ought to be ashamed of himself/is somehow being unethical for asking. That seems a bit pearl-clutchy to me.

  • KPL

    I’m not going to comment on the content of the book or the review itself, but 3 stars is not bad? Last time I checked, 60% is a failing grade.

  • CanadianNihilist

    A lot of uppity people on a moral high horse here.
    I’ll rate down that comment and even rate up five star ones without reading the book.

    Hemant has asked for a favour and I’m happy to oblige. In my life I have friends that have asked for much worse things than rating a book.

  • Gail


    I’f you’ve ever rated anything on amazon, I think they say a 3 is the same as “liked it.” A 4 is “really liked it” and a 5 is “loved it.” Stars don’t necessarily conform to grade percentages, just like British school grades don’t correspond. I once explained American grades to one of my British professors, and he asked me what the point was of having all the grades below seventy if they were all failing.

  • You’re asking people to go off and crash a poll about a book they haven’t read? That is so full of FAIL, it buggers the mind. What happened to demanding evidence instead of just taking things on faith?

    I’ve read the book, and attended a lengthy book club on the book with several other secular parents, and I can honestly say that the 3-star reviewer pretty much hit the nail on the head.

    Seriously, who wants to take parenting advice from people who have never faced any of the challenges unique to secular parenting? Take, for example, the couple who bragged about living downtown with their infant daughters. I defy anyone to find one scrap of wisdom in that essay. Seriously, paste it in here if you found some.

    Penn’s essay was similarly worthless, if you are looking for serious parenting advice. If you are just looking for some funny, it was okay. Would have been a bit funnier if McGowan had left in “Christards” but hey, an editor has a useful function in the world.

    There were a few decent essays, most notably those of McGowan and Downey. Those essay elevate the book to 3- maybe 4-stars at most, as they are surrounded by useless filler that essentially freethought background info rather than advice for parents about the challenges of secular parenting.

  • Of course, I’m willing to reconsider. Just fill in the blanks:

    On page _______ I found good advice on how godless parents should handle ________, which is the sort of situation which is likely to arise for them as secular parents trying to raise freethinkers in a faith-based culture.

    No points for citing Downey or McGowan, since I’ve already conceded those essays as 5-star material.

  • Wow, this is a really interesting discussion! I have read the book, and I loved it. I refer to it often as issues come up with my daughter related to our non-theism. I didn’t find it angry in the slightest. I actually read it when I was quite new to atheism and was still wary of strong atheists like Dawkins, etc. and I still very much enjoyed and valued the book. I also agree with the person who pointed out that whether or not the contributors actually have children is really quite irrelevant. That’s my opinion anyway. 🙂

    I didn’t read the review in question here, but I am fascinated by the discussion of ethics involved with online reviews/polls. Thanks everyone!

  • Korou

    Hemant, your site is wonderful and your posts are among my daily reading. You’re just great! But this one time, I think you’ve made a mistake. And I’m sorry to have to say it.
    Look, this Scott Roberts appears to have written a thoughtful critique of a book listing his disagreements with it and his reasons for them; and he ends up by giving the book a grade which might be described as “satisfactory.” I see no reason why he should be punished in any way for this, nor for those of us who haven’t yet read the book to give it a five-star rating. And I’m sure Dale would agree.
    Try another target for Pharyngulating. I’m sure you’ll get it right next time, and that we’d all be happy to help.

  • Sarah

    I agree that this post was rather petty, and immature. As someone else said, it reminds me of some religious people who try to silence the opposition. If a review is helpful, there is no reason to vote it down – and I think that review is very helpful and well thought out. I lost a little respect for Hemant on this one.

  • Korou

    I feel a little bad now after re-reading Hemant’s post – I see that he was just asking us to mark the five-star reviews as helpful, not to write any ourselves. And I understand he wants to help Dale, whose blog I also love reading. But I still have to disagree with voting down Scott, for the reasons I and others gave.
    I also understand that comments like these sound preachy and holier-than-thou and so on – but one of the things I like about atheist blogs, especially like Friendly Atheist and Pharyngula is the way the do stand up for what is right – especially when it’s things they find distasteful, like the way PZ wrote a post defending the cray Christian’s right to burn a Koran if he wanted, or the way Heman criticises atheists how are needlessly offensive.

  • Rebecca

    I know this post is fairly old, but my husband just ran across this book today. Immediately I thought of this post and had a negative reaction to the thought of buying it. I really think it’s unfortunate that you put that stain on someone else’s work. I know the author had nothing to do with this post, but it’s the impression that remains nonetheless.

    Plus, now if some crazy religious zealot comes along and gives a low rating, THEY will have the top spot until they get 800 or so negative reviews or a similar percentage of negatives. Not to mention, this is a blatant misuse of amazon’s voting policy (yes, they have a voting policy).

    I’m not even sure what you were trying to accomplish, but I’m pretty sure that intimidating people who post legitimate complaints about a book and making me (and no doubt, others) weary about ordering this book was not one of them.

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