Note from the editor: Books are excellent. Read Hard is a semi-regular column about some of the books you ought to read. For the first installment in this series, look here.
Contrary to how this site occasionally sounds, I don’t think I know everything. What I think I am quite good at is evaluating new ideas, which isn’t a skill you’re born with, and isn’t really something that’s emphasised enough, considering that it’s one of the most fundamental things you might need to do in your whole life. Does God exist or not? Which get-rich quick book should I buy? Which programme promising me a six-pack is going to get me the best results? This post won’t answer a single one of those questions, but it will point you towards some books that’ll help you answer them on your own. These books can’t entirely bulletproof your head against stupid ideas, but they’ll give you a good start.
The Black Swan
Nicolas Nassem Taleb
Think about this: out of every one of the hundreds of thousands of people who play slot machines in Vegas every year, quite a few are going to come out ahead. Some of them might even come back the next year, and come out ahead again. The group gets smaller, sure – but the starting group was big enough that maybe one guy makes big money every year, for five years, and then writes a book about how to win big on slot machines. The question is, would you buy that book?
Nicolas Taleb’s central point in The Black Swan is that a lot of professions work like that Vegas casino. Certain types of stockbroking, for instance, are virtually identical – by law there’s basically no skill to them, so you should be pretty wary of anyone writing a book on how to get rich because of something that has worked for them. Maybe 10,000 other people entered the profession with similar skills, did similar things, and failed – but they lost money, and they got fired, and so they don’t get to write a cautionary tale about how it doesn’t work. Similarly, this principle is at work in professions that aren’t entirely luck-based: when some self-made entrepreneur talks about burning your boats, never looking back and the like, consider that he can say that because he’s already made it – maybe there are a thousand other guys who burned their boats and now just don’t have any fucking boats, let alone a blog or book deal. When you see Ryan Lochte flipping a tractor tyre, consider: is the tyre-flipping making him a better swimmer, or did the 10,000 hours of pool-time do that? When Will Smith tells you that you just have to work hard and believe in yourself, consider the possibility that that won’t be enough. Don’t give up on your dreams: just consider where you get your advice from.
Anyway, that’s what the Black Swan is about. It’s pretty heavy going, so you might want to dip a toe in with this excellent Malcolm Gladwell piece about Taleb himself. Once you’ve digested the thought process, you might want a more systematic way of evaluating ideas. Which brings us nicely to…
You’ve probably heard of this one. Outwardly it’s a collection of bang-your-head-on-the-desk anecdotes about homeopathy, anti-vaxers and outlandish medical claim, but more importantly – at least for this post’s sake – it’s a great primer in scientific thinking. To quote the awesome Carl Sagan:
‘Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking.’
In other words, what you know about atoms or gravity or the large hadron collider isn’t as important as the system you use to check whether ideas are right or not. And beyond the anecdotes, that’s what Goldacre’s book is about: a way of analysing ideas and theories that’s systematic and sensible. Whether you agree with his specific arguments or not, you can’t fault his logic.
Flat Earth News
This book, by Godzilla-among-investigative-journalists Nick Davies, is the perfect companion piece to Bad Science. It’s about how stupid ideas – whether they’re PR fluff, scare stories, deliberate plants or just outbreaks of mass hysteria – get into the news, and why you should always consider the source of what you see or read. Bonus: once you realise that 80% of most news content is just fill-the-pages tosh (or churnalism, as Davies has it), you’ll have more time to spend getting your bench press up to par, or reading Davies’ other uniformly excellent books – I’d start with Dark Heart.
The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading
Odd choice? Maybe. Perhaps you don’t think cold reading has much effect on your life, or that you’re too smart to be taken in by it. Fair enough: maybe you don’t believe in horoscopes or tarot cards. But cold reading goes beyond that: pickup artists, salesmen and businesspeople use it all the time. Some people know they’re doing it, and some don’t: maybe the astrologer who says ‘You’re doing some serious self-examination at the moment,’ really believes that’s an insight provided by the stars, and maybe guy in a bar who goes ‘I can tell you’re a bit of a perfectionist in some ways, and quite talented when you put your mind to things,’ actually thinks he’s developed a deep connection with you in ten minutes. Maybe not, though: and either way, this book will allow you to assess those sorts of statements for what they really are. It’s a very swift read, and it’ll change the way you think about things: like all these books, really.