NY Times Reviews Mooney's Storm World

Chris Mooney's Storm World is reviewed in Sunday's edition of the NY Times, a major moment for any author since the attention will surely give a major boost to the book's profile and sales. Indeed, to date, the buzz about Chris' new book has been glowing.

(Full Disclosure: Currently on a joint speaking tour with Chris, I have first hand experience with the growing buzz. I've been in rooms where climate scientists have been lining up to have Chris autograph multiple copies of his book.)

But don't take my word for it, consider the evidence: The Boston Globe called his tale of the science and politics of hurricane science "riveting," in starred reviews Library Journal dubbed it "captivating," Booklist described it as "thought provoking and accessible," Publisher's Weekly declared that Mooney "turns this complicated stew into a page-turner," and Kirkus called it an "absorbing, informed account." Over at the immensely popular blog RealClimate, Penn State's Michael Mann writes that "anyone who is at all interested in the scientific history that has led to our current understanding of Hurricanes and their potential linkages with climate change, will find this book a page turner."

So it appeared experts from both the publishing and science worlds were in unanimous agreement about the significance of Storm World. That's why the Times review strikes me as such a strange outlier. In her review, Lisa Margonelli, a journalist and fellow at The New America Foundation, concludes that Mooney:

...has written a well-researched, nuanced book that suffers from poor organization and a lack of pizazz. This is a contrast with his previous book, "The Republican War on Science," in which he juggled extensive research and sharp arguments the way chefs at Benihana toss big knives -- with precision and a showman's wink that made his unpromising subject fun. In "Storm World," Mooney makes us wait until the end of the second appendix before revealing the "Thingamabobbercane" -- an "oddball cyclone" that formed off the coast of Oregon last November.

Certainly, judging a book is a subjective process. But given the enthusiasm and praise across a dozen or so previous reviews, you might expect some reliability and consistency in Margonelli's evaluation. So it got me thinking about the sociology of the book review process at major newspapers and magazines. Much like the news production process itself, it's a zig zagging path of gatekeeping, selection, and framing.

In a past column by NY Times Public Editor Byrone Calame, he takes us inside this multi-layered decision-making process. Here are the key excerpts:

A) The first choice is what books get reviewed:

One thing is certain: There is no shortage of books to review. The section has logged more than 6,000 books into its tracking system this year, even after excluding all self-published, how-to, diet and financial-guide books. About one in six will wind up getting a stand-alone review in the section. (The paper also publishes book reviews in the daily paper, but in this column I am just looking at the larger weekly operation.)...Incoming books first go to "previewers," who each go through 10 or so of them a week to identify books to review. Previewers write a "skip" memo on each book they reject, and it goes to Mr. Tanenhaus for a second look. He said books are most often rejected because they lack originality, are really "packaged assemblages of smaller pieces" or are "simplistic red-meat rants."

b) The next big step is selecting the reviewer:

After a book is chosen to be critiqued, the selection of a reviewer begins. This seems like the phase of the process where issues of fairness really emerge. First, the previewer proposes four or five possible reviewers for each book recommended for review. Mr. Tanenhaus then decides which reviewer will be asked to do it. His list of the main qualities of a good reviewer: a willingness to take the book on its own terms, narrative skill, a track record (because established authors have a right to be assessed by equally established reviewers), and professionalism in working with editors and deadlines. Most, but not all, of the reviews are written by people not on the paper's staff. Accounts of the recruiting and vetting of reviewers in recent months indicate that editors tend to first seek a commitment that the person will do it. Then it's time for what Mr. Garner calls "my Kenneth Starr questions," a reference to the former Whitewater prosecutor: "Do you know the author? Have you written about this person, or vice versa? Are there any other potential conflicts of interest?" Mr. Harris uses a simple test to determine whether a relationship between a potential reviewer and the author is too close: "Do you know the names of her children?" If the reviewer knows the names? "It's not good."

c) The other factor is that any book is interpreted through a strong frame of reference:

Calame doesn't touch on this, but in the selection of a reviewer and in reviewing the book itself, the author's previous books and profile likely serves as a powerful perceptual screen. Everyone is a cognitive miser, even book reviewers.

And here is what I think ultimately accounts for Margonelli's review being such an outlier from the other dozen or so reviews.

Mooney's smash success The Republican War on Science has sold more than 50,000 copies and earned previous cover attention at the NY Times Book Review and an appearance on The Daily Show. It was the right book at the right time. As I've told Chris it had "frame resonance," hitting on the public accountability interpretation that the Bush administration was trading science for ideology. It was one part investigative look at political wrong-doing and one-part hard hitting polemic in the tradition of The Jungle or Fast Food Nation.

Storm World is a very different kind of book. Moreover, it's probably better and purer science journalism. Storm World is a historical and sociological look at how we come to know what we know about the complex world of hurricanes and climate science. It details a paradigm struggle among scientists of varying sub-disciplines, social networks, and personalities arriving at slightly different interpretations of still uncertain data and observations, all against the backdrop of a major political fight, a news media frenzy, and an increasingly important policy debate.

In judging Storm World as "lacking pizazz," Margonelli was probably expecting the "Republican War on Hurricane Science," but instead she encountered a richly detailed and thematic popular science book. So in delivering her review on time and boiling it down to 800 words, the easy heuristic and interpretation for the miserly Marinelli was to run with the contrast effect.

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