To be a scientist is, among other things, to be a reviewer, for without the review process science would have no greater claim to truth than any other way of knowing. While peer review does not ensure that science's grasp of reality will always be firm, it does at least serve as a sort of collective feedback mechanism, minimizing spasms of error or prejudice that can lead isolated researchers astray. Realizing this, most scientists accept the task of reviewing proposals and manuscripts for publication, some viewing it as a necessary communal service, others relishing the occasional opportunity to quash a harebrained idea or join battle with a professional rival.

Writing reviews of scientific books is, in this sense, just another form of peer review, yet it is often more than that. A critique of a project proposal or a paper is usually technical and schematic; it never goes outside a...

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