Before I get going, I invite everyone to check out my Amazon Community Member page.
I have been asked a couple of times: “Why do Amazon reviews? If anything, why not just focus on doing some academic book reviews, or not even bother?” Initially, I did a couple of Amazon book reviews just for fun. I quickly realized, especially being that I read so many books in mathematics and the sciences, that there is a great value to doing book reviews: scientific literacy advocacy. That was the first major gestalt shift I experienced. Competent in science and math literature, educated in a very cross disciplinary manner (physics, astronomy, pre-med track, mathematics, humanities, history, and philosophy), I stand a much better chance of being able to straddle the boundary between the “two cultures” than most individuals. Moreover, being interested in education, as I am, I have found myself particularly capable of communicating ideas to individuals of varying degrees of scientific and mathematics knowledge, which puts me in a place where I feel some compulsion to make non-experts aware of literature that they should take serious, look at, or ignore. One of the biggest problems the public faces in trying to acquire information from an expert in the sciences is that the scientists, while knowing their science, may articulate it in a misleading way, have ideological (e.g., philosophical commitments, etc.) bases for interpreting what their technical understanding into everyday language. Additionally, I seek to inform actual students (high school and early university, occasionally graduate students) as to which books are most worthy of spending time on, and to indicate interest-specific points about the books, which is to say, books should not necessarily be judged universally by bivalent assessment, but by which students would best benefit from specific books.
On that business of “two cultures,” I also find myself as much a defender of letters and arts as I am an advocate of STEM education and scientific literacy. The arts and letters remind teach us how to be human, and it is a great wonder to me whether a large-scale lack of appreciation for these have led to the kinds of pervasive psychological unhealth, so to speak. On this score I see myself as a man after the heart of J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose understanding and appreciation of arts and letters may have surpassed that of all modern scientists. Bearing this conviction of the value of arts and letters firmly in mind, I hope no further apologia is necessary for the reader to understand why an advocate of scientific literacy would also write reviews on pieces of fiction, history, art, religion, and items of the like.
Most of all, I do consider myself a philosopher, as my “About” page notes. My task, on this front, is to help provide students of philosophy with their reading list, not only in philosophy proper, but also with figuring out what it is that they need to read to do philosophy of science and mathematics —and, for those of sufficient courage, readings in the history of science. One of the very big problems that plagues Amazon is the silly contingent of faux scholars, wannabes that mislead readers by writing incompetent reviews, which would never grace the pages of a journal as a scholarly review, yet seeking to pass (as charlatans are wont to do) for something of the sort. My favorite example is Viktor Blasjo. The problem is that, in writing reviews that are artificially critical, opining from some ideological and foolishly hyper-opinionated standpoint, many folks get the wrong impression. Since I have chosen Blasjo as the example, I should begin by remarking that he should probably stop reading books altogether: he apparently can’t find many he likes, even those by great scientists (e.g., Robert Boyle) and philosophers (e.g., Leibniz). When the great authors of history continue to be read hundreds of years later, it’s probably not the place of some nobody-mathematics instructor to be critical of their achievements, which continue to stand the test of time —while, as a matter of natural course, nobody-mathematics instructors are forgotten as soon as class lets out. Additionally, such types enjoy writing reviews of books in which they attack an entire book (written by a top scholar of a particular field, mind you!) on the basis of a single chapter (click here, and feel free to click the not helpful button); or who is interested in only whiggishly written history of mathematics (no postmodernists, or anyone he disagrees with!). This is a small bit of the damage I am working to undo.
Finally, my biggest object is to write reviews on all topics for, what I call “at-large intellectuals.” These are folks who are scholars, in the sense that they embrace a daily plodding and grind through the gears of academia; yet they are extremely knowledgeable (compare to most laypeople) about numerous subjects, and simply allow the passions of the subject matters to take hold of them. Sometimes, these are K-12 teachers, engineers, adjunct professors with tremendous teaching loads and little time for research, or even a college-educated janitor or security officer who spends quite a lot of their free time (and maybe some of their supposed on-clock time) to read and study whatever tickles their fancy. People with professional jobs tend to have a hard time getting enough of their passion satisfied in their precious time off, especially if there are familial duties or something of that nature; so my interest, on that score, is to guide them to books, authors, and ideas that might best help scratch the itch. This is why I try to supply some amount of detail in my reviews, much more than you might be used to finding on Amazon.
There are two ways you can help me. The first is to click the helpful-buttons on my Amazon reviews, if you found them helpful. That way, I know I am doing a good job. The other thing you can do is tell me what you would like to see in my reviews, whatever it is you think they are typically lacking. On this, you may suggest something I am missing generally in reviews (e.g., some aspect that I am not addressing of books) or some question you have about a particular review. I will also review requests occasionally, supposing you are not the author. (If you are the author, I typically require a copy of the book before deciding whether I will review it, and monetary compensation in cases where it is not in my range of central and primary interests.)