Okay here are some books I read recently which I heartily recommend.
They’re all in a vaguely ‘get fired up about the world’ sort of vein. I’m listing them in the order I recommend reading them in.
Bad Science – Ben Goldacre
Probably the easiest read, also the only one to be regularly laugh out loud funny. You may have caught a hint I’d been reading this from my last post on the Vitamin D content of sunshine. Goldacre’s a Guardian columnist who takes a very scathing look at shoddy pseudoscience in all forms – from the clueless ‘nutritionist’ nonsense of Gillian McKeith to the hocus pocus of homoepathy. He’s very entertaining and makes the more serious side of his point – that ignorance of basic science leads to people being deceived and ripped off, as well as being unable to exercise good judgement in other areas – in a way which ensures it’ll be accessible even to people who find Science a bit intimidating.
Flat Earth News – Nick Davies
Davies is another Guardian journalist, this time taking a look at ‘churnalism’. His premise is simple everyone was content to believe that the earth was flat… until someone checked. The basic lack of ‘checking’ by journalists leads to huge inadvertant deceptions to the public. He takes an honest look at why this happens, laying the blame in some unexpected as well more obvious places. He also gives a compelling history of investigative journalism at its best and worst and makes the case for why it’s important. Very readable and likely to make you want to shout in the face of the next person you see reading the Daily Mail.
The Tiger That Isn’t – Michael Blastland & Andrew Dilnot
The subtitle of this book is ‘Seeing through a world of numbers’ – it’s a look at how statistics and numbers are misused and abused in the press and by the government. Done in a very lighthearted and accessible way that mirrors Ben Goldacre in that it uses humour and attention catching anecdote to make the same serious point. It’s important to think twice and question the endless figures we’re presented with. If it sounds dry then just to give you a taste one chapter uses the flaw in using the number of squashed hedgehogs on the road to count how many live hedgehogs there are as a springboard to explaining how difficult it is to actually count anything. A short read and one that complements the first two books well.
The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
A more outside choice this one. Perhaps not as essential as the first three. This was the one that I read first and got me back into the mood for some polemical literature. This is primarily an economics book. The basic theory being that the impact of unpredictable events on a business, a share portfolio, or the economy as a whole is often devastating yet criminally overlooked by statistical models aimed at predicting how the markets will go. In this case it’s the idiosyncracies of the narrator – Taleb is a charming and quirky guide – that make it more readble rather than the content. Bits of this book are, I won’t lie, heavy going – several pages of graphs in some parts. But you’re always warned which bits you can skip. Taleb generalises the Black Swan to other fields such as history as well in a way that lifts the book somewhat out of an economics niche – but perhaps not often enough for it to be everyone.
So yes, if you fancy a bit of a brain workout with some very amenable guides the I recommend all four of these.