Thursday, July 31, 2008
Saturday, February 23, 2008
The following post is a little long and somewhat conspiratorial, so bear with me.
- Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health is a book by L. Ron Hubbard. It founded the ostensibly therapeutic practice of Dianetics, which is aimed at making someone "Clear" from "engrams" and overthrowing psychiatry. It is utter hogwash and dangerous in both theory and practice. The book has a volcano on the cover because XENU blew up billions of ghosts millions of years ago with thousands of atomic bombs. This is an integral part of the money-making scheme known as the Church of Scientology (CoS.) Let me be clear: this is on the one hand just plain silly, but on the other hand a legitimately dangerous and harmful theory that has lead to the creation of several organizations who are themselves dangerous and harmful.
- Amazon.com is an online marketplace where persons can buy and sell many kinds of goods - especially books - and includes options for customer reviews and discussion of products.
- Reddit.com is a social news site, where users can post web pages they think are interesting and other users vote them up or down based on personal preference. As such, it reflects the biases of a certain kind of active (American) Internet user: pro-Ron Paul, anti-Scientology, and lots of funny pictures of cats.
On February 11, a call to arms to review the book was issued on Reddit. The book had a five star review and many Redditors found this unacceptable and wrote poor reviews for the book. My guess is, most of them had never read it or attempted to read it, but were informed enough of its controversial contents to add to a discussion on the topic. I imagine a minority of them were simply trolling about writing "dianetics=gay" as a review. I don't have any numbers to back up this claim, nor could I possibly. Since...
On February 14, someone posted on reddit that Amazon had deleted many comments and reviews of the Dianetics book, in particular the overwhelming amount of negative reviews. This includes not only recent ones from Redditors, but virtually every negative review. (Amazon has a five-star system, and I am considering one- and two-star reviews to be "negative.") This included a negative review I wrote. I do not have the text of it, so suffice it to say that I called the book quackery and I recall explicitly mentioning that Scientology was a money-making scheme. So, I inquired as to why this was deleted. I called them and I was told to send an e-mail.
I wrote in part:
A review I wrote for Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health has been deleted without explanation. I would like to know why this was deleted. Furthermore, it is clear that several reviews of the book (mostly 1- and 2-star reviews) have also been deleted, whereas a vast majority of the remaining reviews are positive (ie. 4- and 5-stars.) I would like an explanation for this phenomenon.
Response in part:
Your review... was removed because your comments in large part focused on authors and their intentions, rather than reviewing the item itself.
Our guidelines do not allow discussions that criticize authors or their intentions...
As such, your review cannot be posted on Amazon.com in its current format. What I can suggest is that you resubmit your review, restricting your comments to critically analyzing the content of the item.
I did not read the review guidelines at this time and I thought the deletion was altogether reasonable as long as it was applied fairly. All the "scientology is gay" and "L. RTON HUBARD WAS A QUAKC!!!!!!111" reviews probably should be deleted. Mine was nowhere near as inflammatory, but I figured I could write an equally scathing review without even mentioning the author or his intentions. There were at the time many positive reviews that were essentially "L. Ron Hubbard is my hero! Buy this book!" so this standard was not being applied fairly, but whatever. I'll just do my thing.
I re-wrote it:
Dianetics purports to be a system better than clinical psychiatry, but it offers none of the verifiability or credibility of its alternative. The method presented in this book is harmful and dangerous and the style of writing is simply awful - a poor and sub-literate attempt at legitimized science fiction. I cannot recommend this book or the practice that it teaches to anyone for any reason.
I tagged this product "quackery, fraud."
Even though I wrote this review on February 19, for some reason, it was dated February 3. I have no idea why. Another Amazon user - Nick Cardy Fan - (who, I guess prefers to be called "morgie") responded to my review:
For a person who has studied other philosophies of thought [Ed: I'm guessing he is referring to my university studies in political science and philosophy and my personal interest in religion; this is evident from my Amazon profile and my Wikipedia userpage, which is listed as my homepage], you are surprisingly narrow-minded. Dianetics is not a science book. If you actually read the book, you would have understood Hubbard's stand on psychiatry (electro-shock, drugs) as not being too helpful for the benefit of people. Your proof is in doing the procedures. Do you have the guts?
The allegation that I am narrow-minded is spiteful. As I stated before, the theories and techniques in this book are not better than the alternative, ergo, I do not recommend them. Simple. Yes I do have the "guts" to be audited.
As far as I'm aware, "morgie" did not respond to this prior to my review being deleted. Let me also state that, as I recall, something like 154 out of 157 users found my review "helpful;" it was the top-rated negative review of the book.
On February 21, someone posted on Reddit that Amazon had deleted (virtually) all negative reviews of the book again. Mine was included again. This time I was sincerely surprised and disappointed, because I think my review was completely legitimate and I restricted my comments to the substance of the book itself, rather than any attack on the author or speculation on how this was an elaborate ruse to become rich. So, I wrote them again.
A review I recently wrote of Dianetics and it was deleted. I was told this was because I discussed authors and their intentions in the review. I re-wrote it focusing exclusively on the content of the book and the style of writing and this review has been deleted as well, even though over 150 users and 99% found it useful. Please explain to me why this review was deleted.
I've checked both the reviews for "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health" and see that they doesn't follow our guidelines.
Your latest review of "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health" was removed because your comments in large part focused on your personal opinions of the subject matter, rather than reviewing this item.
We provide our customer reviews section for you to comment on the merits of the item and its style. We ask that you not use it as a place for a discussion of the subject matter...
What I can suggest is that you resubmit your review, restricting your comments to critically analyzing the content of the item.
This was outrageous to me: I am supposed to review books, but not mention my personal opinion of the subject matter? What on earth does that mean? Am I supposed to literally review the type-font and the cover? I figured it was only fair to actually read the review guidelines this time and see if I had somehow missed the part about not reviewing the content of books while reviewing books. It reads, in its entirety, with emphasis added:
The recommended length is 75 to 300 words.
Your comments should focus on the product. You must also include a valid e-mail address, but you can opt not to display your e-mail address if you do not want others to have access to it. The best reviews include not only whether you liked or disliked a product, but also why. Feel free to mention other products that you consider similar and how this product rates in comparison to them. Comments that are not specific to the product or that violate our guidelines in any way, may be removed from the Amazon.com Web site at any time, at our discretion. Please limit yourself to one comment per item.
Amazon.com wants to know about your product safety issues. If you have safety concerns about the product you are reviewing, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please make sure to include all information about the product (product title, and ASIN or manufacturer's SKU) and the details of the incident.
Amazon.com is proud to provide this forum for you to air your opinions on your favorite (or not-so-favorite) products. While we appreciate your time and comments, we respectfully request that you refrain from including the following in your review:
- Comments on other reviews or features visible on the page. (This information, and its position on the page, is subject to change without notice.)
- Notification that our catalog has typos in it. If you'd like to tell us about a specific problem, please e-mail us.
- Profanity, obscenities, or spiteful remarks
- Time-sensitive material (e.g., promotional tours, seminars, lectures, etc.)
- Single-word reviews. We want to know why you liked or disliked the product.
- Comments focusing solely on the actors, directors, authors, or artists.
- No spoilers! Please don't reveal crucial plot elements.
- Phone numbers, mail addresses.
- More than one URL.
- Availability, price, or alternative ordering/shipping information.
- Solicitations for helpful votes.
Any review in violation of these guidelines might not be posted or could be removed from the Amazon.com Web site at any time.
These seem fairly reasonable and make no mention of the whole "no subject matter in book reviews" problem. Even my first review did not "focus solely on the authors." So, I called back. I got put on hold and the person hung up on me. I'll assume that this was a mistake, but it's still unprofessional and irritating. I immediately called back, and the woman who assisted me told me that any review I write has to focus solely on the literary merit of the work. In other words, if I review Mein Kampf, I can't talk about its explicit calls for genocide, I can only discuss its merits as literature. Huh.
This woman was very patient, polite, and professional (the three p's), and she encouraged me to write another review and express my misgivings with Amazon in an e-mail. Okay. So I did.
My new review:
Literary train wreck
Hubbard is attempting to introduce a new system of therapy in this book and as such, it is necessary that he take pains to write in a particularly lucid and precise style; this is not the case. This book rambles on for far too long in many places, introduces concepts out-of-step with their field in a brash manner that is not thoughtful, and does not sufficiently refute its interlocutors. It is also hard to tell how seriously the author himself takes these theses in the course of his writing. As a piece of rhetoric, self-help, or literature, this is a failure. Also, I can only speculate on why there is a bursting volcano on the cover; this makest he book less credible and more sensational in my opinion.
This review only mentions the author in regards to his writing ability and contains no tags.
I also wrote them an e-mail (long, but you might find it worthwhile):
Dear sir or madam,
I have recently had two reviews I wrote of Dianetics (ISBN: 0884042693) deleted. I was told this was because I discussed authors and their intentions in former review and the subject matter of the book in the latter. After perusing the review guidelines, I noticed that nowhere are these restrictions about authors and their intentions or subject matter listed. As far as the text of these guidelines go, I did not contradict them in either of my reviews.
I spoke with customer service twice today (the first time I was hung up on), and I was told that a review must be restricted entirely to the literary merits of a book. I have two problems with this approach. First of all, it is neither mentioned nor implied in the review guidelines. If you want your reviews of books to focus exclusively on literary merit, it is necessary to state this in the review guidelines.
Secondly, I think this standard of reviewing books only on their literary merit is completely illogical. Clearly, these guidelines cannot take into account all possible contingencies, but I suspect many reviewers would think it acceptable to discuss authors' intentions and subject matter when reviewing a book; this is a standard practice you can see in any magazine, newspaper, or scholarly journal review. I have no idea why Amazon would be so out of step with basically any other reviewing outlet and I would like to know why this is the case. Furthermore, this is especially the case when the book itself makes controversial claims. I think it is entirely legitimate to give a poor book review to a well-written piece of quackery or hoakum. If someone wrote a very fine anti-Semitic novel, I would be entirely within my rights and it would be completely reasonable to give that novel a poor review because of its incendiary and racist content, wouldn't I?
Over the past two weeks, virtually all negative reviews of Dianetics have been deleted. Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of the positive reviews have been maintained. While I cannot prove this conclusively, it appears that there is an agenda at work to keep positive reviews of Dianetics on Amazon and delete negative ones. For instance, the first five-star review I see reads:
"I have just reread this book after 15 years. There is something very calming about looking at life from the viewpoint that man is basically good but just needs to handle the past experiences that are causing him to not operate at full moral and mental capacity."
This clearly discusses subject matter and intentions and does not mention literary merit at all; it should apparently be deleted. If someone applied the same standards to the negative reviews of this book as the positive, the vast majority of them would be deleted (I suspect the vast majority of all Amazon book reviews would be deleted as well!) For that matter, this review I have quoted has been found helpful by 5 of 74 persons. My deleted second review was found helpful by (as I recall) 156 out of 157 persons when I last checked. Obviously, unhelpful and apparently inappropriate reviews are still on this site and helpful reviews that do not in any way contradict the guidelines as written are being deleted. I would like some kind of account for this behavior on Amazon's part and I would like to state that the unwritten clauses of book reviews about intentions and subject matter are utterly ridiculous and reviews should be held to the standards as written, allowing issues of subject matter and authors' intentions to be fair game.
While writing this blog post, I got a response (paraphrased, emphasis added):
I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. Unfortunately, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters.
We have re-evaluated your review for "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health" and our previous response. After careful consideration, I must concur with my colleague’s evaluation of your submission. Your review was found to violate our review guideline :
**** Comments focusing solely on the actors, directors, authors, or
As mentioned earlier, your review... was removed because your comments in large part focused on your personal opinions of the subject matter, rather than reviewing this item.
As such, your review cannot be posted on Amazon.com in its current format. What I can suggest is that you resubmit your review, restricting your comments to critically analyzing the content of the item.
My second review does not focus solely on the author, but I agree that it does focus on the subject matter, which I believe is the entire purpose of a non-fiction book review. A fiction review would focus almost entirely on style and grammar, spelling even. A non-fiction review would probably reference these, but would focus on the extent to which the ideas presented have something to do with reality. Dianetics is not a piece of literature, according to Amazon's own classification system. They place it in two categories:
- Health, Mind & Body > Self-Help
- Religion & Spirituality > Other Practices > Scientology
Note that one of the Reddit comments states that the book was in the category "Health, Mind & Body > Psychology & Counseling > Applied Psychology." This would be offensive to a Scientologist, as they view the entire enterprise of psychology and especially it application of psychiatry as illegitimate. The rest of the world views Dianetics as illegitimate, but they would recognize from an objective stand-point that Dianetics is a system that is intended to supplant mainstream psychiatry with its own psychological methodology.
I am thoroughly disappointed with Amazon and my disgust at the Church of Scientology and its interrelated social movements grows with the more I learn about them. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Dianetics and similar techniques are performed by other, non-CoS groups (including one that is older the the Church itself!) and they are not a litigious, greedy, and evil as the structure of the CoS is. They do not target celebrities, grossly inflate their numbers, or kill vulnerable and misguided persons as do the mainstream application of Dianetics and Scientology.
This does nothing to make the actual practice less junk science, but it shows that someone need not be thoroughly evil to believe in this. Furthermore, some Dianetics-related rehabilitation programs have been adopted by some Christian churches. I have no idea how effective these limited applications of some Scientology methods are, but I am willing to believe that they could be of some assistance to some persons if they are divorced from the avaricious organization that spearheads them (CoS) and the sheer ahistorical nonsense that justifies them (Xenu, thetans, et al.)
The Church of Scientology, is, as Germany recognizes, a money-making scheme. They have infiltrated Amazon, the IRS, and eBay (and again), among many others. If you are interested in helping combat the deleterious effects of the Church of Scientology, I recommend the following resources:
- Wikipedia's page on Scientology criticism
- Operation Clambake
- Bare-faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard
- Xenu TV, a place to see Scientology-related videos.
Live free or die!
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
One day in spring/summer, 2007, when I was unemployed, depressed, and generally a pathetic creature, I set my alarm to wake me at 11:00 a.m. My alarm is the radio playing WTTS, and it frequently starts in the middle of a song and leaves me jarred. This puts me on edge and I start off the "morning" unpleasantly. This time, it came on at the very beginning of Straight Lines by Silverchair. The song is a little silly and self-indulgent ("I'm a sex change/And a damsel with no heroin?"), but listen to it while you read.
At 11:00, I had probably gotten five and a half hours sleep, so I would typically wake up groggy. About 95% of the time when I sleep, I either wake up with a sore back or groggy. Sometimes both. This morning, I was slowly stirred from rest as I finished off a dream. I have no idea how it started.
Jordan, Kathi, and I were in an old-timey car with running boards. We were laughing and listening to music (Pixies - Gigantic?) and driving to nowhere. Whenever I looked to my left, another one of my good buddies would materialize: Jason, P. J. (Jillian? Joseph? Doug?) I had a gargantuan bag of buttery popcorn; twenty-gallon trashbag size, but clear, and purchased at Wal-Mart for 99¢. And it was delicious. The best popcorn anyone has ever eaten. And as we ate, the bag stayed full. Overflowing.
We drove along the straightest, longest road in history through golden fields of wheat (barley?) in Kansas (Nebraska?) The fields extended for eternity, with intermittent windmills and red barns dotting the horizon. The windmills were 300 feet tall and the barns were big enough to be aircraft hangers. We and the wheat were the only things alive.
In real life, the sun was warm on my cheek and the breeze blew in my window and smelled as fresh as life. In the dream, our car broke down; steam poured out of the radiator. We were stuck in the middle of nowhere and got out of the car. Someone passing by stopped and got out to assist. He had a sensible grey suit with a hat; he was from 1954 and had an Iowan accent. These men all carry today's newspaper and a briefcase. They pay their taxes in full on time and support the local ball team. They vote because it's their civic duty. They mean no harm, but we smiled and said no to his generous offer. He drove off puzzled. We started walking west, into the sun.
As we walked, we started laughing hysterically and we grew. Every step took us forward and upward. We were soon giants and then impossibly tall: 10 feet, 25 feet, 60 feet reaching for clouds. We grew and laughed and walked westward, casting shadows for miles. As we laughed, the sun shone brighter and the wind blew stronger and the wheat encouraged us to move and live. I looked to my left and my right and we were only happy and hopeful and young and full of love. We had nothing but love in our hearts. We were so young. And