I’ve had a month heavy in reading books devoted to critical thinking, which is one of my favorite subjects. So, consequently, this month’s list of recommendations are going to be weighted in that subject. No matter what you read, it helps if you use critical thinking skills (which need to be constantly practiced) to help spot faulty arguments and slipshod reasoning in the material. When your critical thinking skills are honed, and you read a lot, you will be constantly amazed at how many authors rely on flawed reasoning to make their points.
Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. I’m putting this book first on the list because it will help with all the others. Make it Stick teaches you the latest research on learning. You may be surprised to learn that the way the educational system has taught most of us does not particularly foster good learning, and it especially does not foster retention. Recent randomized trials show the methods we’ve all used to retain what we’ve learned are pretty much useless to help us retain this information for any length of time. Reading, rereading, underlining and note taking in particular are lousy ways to imprint info into our brains permanently. I’ve got a story showing how worthless this is, in my case, at least.
A coupe of years ago, in reading a book about digestion of fiber, I came across a reference to The Year of the Gorilla, purporting to contain a certain quote about how the burbling and farting of gorillas, which consume tons of fibrous plants, could be heard from hundreds of yards away. I immediately ordered a used copy of the book, first published back in 1964, from Amazon. I got the book about a year spent by the author George Schaller and his new bride in the Virunga Volcano area studying the habits of the mountain gorilla (pre Dian Fossey). The book was absolutely fascinating (and I highly recommend it – it’s back in print now), and I did my usual underlining, marginal noting, and turning down of pages to mark the especially pertinent quotes. (I never did find the quote about the burping and farting.)
When I finished the book, I went to put it in my library under the appropriate category and found another copy. When I pulled this other copy from the shelve and thumbed through it, I discovered that it, like the copy I had just read, was filled with underlining, marginal notes, turned down pages, and even little post-it-note type bookmarks. I was horrified because I had obviously spent a lot of time with the book sometime in the past, but I had absolutely no recollection of ever having read it.
It was then I decided that I needed to do something to improve my retention. I read a number of books on how to study better, but all were rehashes of the same way I had learned to study, so I really didn’t get a lot out of them. Why? Because the old ‘tried and true’ methods of studying don’t work. Make it Stick shows you why.
You can read and reread till you’re blue in the face, however over the long term you won’t remember but a fraction of what you spend all this tedious effort learning. Using a few simple tricks, shown by serious research to work, makes learning, if not effortless, at least lasting. Why go through all the effort of learning if you don’t retain. I mean what’s the point?
So, before you read any other books on this list — other than fiction, which is for pleasure — read Make it Stick so you’ll remember next year what you read this year.
Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. This was one of last month’s recommendations, but I touted it before I had finished it. Now that I’ve finished it, my take is that it is a much better book than I thought it was last month. A really excellent primer on statistics for any sentient person. Shows how people who don’t understand statistics and the importance of good, controlled clinical trials — experiments as the author terms them — fall victim to ideas that seem good on the surface but don’t work. Or even make things worse. To name a couple, there is the Head Start program and Scared Straight, the subject of a movie. Turns out that a number of studies have shown that juveniles exposed to Scared Straight tactics actually commit about 15 percent more crimes than those never so exposed. So, a program many communities spend a fortune on costs them more in terms of increased crime than had the kids never been exposed. It seems counterintuitive, though. I think it would have made an impact on me to be taken to a prison and had hardened criminals tell me what prison life was like. But often what sounds good actually isn’t when studied. And, in the US at least, we pay God only knows how much money for programs that seem like they should work but in reality don’t. Mindware discusses a lot of these programs and uses them to show why you can’t really know anything for sure until you do the experiments. And even then the experiments have to be done correctly. A very good read.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things. If you own a business, are an executive in a business, are thinking about becoming an entrepreneur and starting a business, this book is absolutely essential. It is written by and from the perspective of a CEO of a Silicon Valley startup business. Instead of resorting to the idiocy of many (most?) business books and positing the three (or however many) magic things you need to do to ensure success, this book deals with the down and dirty, real nitty gritty (and however many other banal clichés I can come up with) of running a business day to day. How to hire people, how to fire people, how to poach people (legitimately) from competitors – in other words how to do the really hard things to keep your business from being one of the vast majority that fail. A terrific, terrific book by someone who has been there and done it.
Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. This book is a previous month’s recommendation as well. I’m re-recommending it because I was attempting to describe one of the anecdotes in the book to someone, and I realized I had forgotten. So, with the techniques in Make it Stick firm in my mind, I reread it. It deals with what happens when a given philosophy or political leaning runs headlong into hard data that refutes it. There are three main stories in the book about academic kerfuffles in which a particular academic, and expert in a given field, performed and reported research that flew against the (mostly liberal) sensibilities of the academic community at large. One engrossing case involved trans gender research. I would never ever have volitionally read anything about trans gender research, but didn’t realize that was what part of this book was about. Turns out it’s a fascinating subject, and not only that, one of the transgendered people who got her (his?) panties in a wad about the research was Deirdre McCloskey, who has long been a hero of mine. I knew she was trans, but I never knew she was so involved in the whole affair written about. Another academic who got himself in trouble was Napoleon Chagnon, the world’s foremost researcher on the Yanomamö, a much studied group of people from the jungles of Brazil who were living a stone age existence when first discovered not all that long ago. Chagnon described them as they were, which caused big trouble for him academically since the prevailing notion about primitive people was that they were gentle, non-discriminatory people who treated women with respect.
The author of Galileo’s Middle Finger is an exceptional writer. I marveled at her skill all the way through – that was as much a treat for me as were the events she described. If you read this, you will be in the hands of a real master. And, to her credit, she had to overcome many of her own academic beliefs to work with these victims of academic harassment. Give this one a read. You won’t be sorry.
The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future. A book about the famous bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon over whether or not Ehrlich’s views on the coming (formulated back in the late 60s) population explosion and its consequences. To save you the suspense, Ehrlich lost badly.
Paul Ehrlich’s ideas and his book The Population Bomb are one of the main reasons I’m a climate change skeptic. I was present for two speeches Ehrlich made when I was in college — one to the engineering school and a much larger one to the full university student body. When I learned he was going to be on the Johnny Carson Show, I dragooned my parents into watching. My father thought it was idiocy, and I was hugely offended because he couldn neither see nor understand the ‘established science’ behind the threat. Hell, the British Isles were going to be consumed with widespread starvation within a little over a decade, and my own father didn’t give a flip. Turns out Dad was right. And Ehrlich was wrong, as he has been on virtually everything he has promoted since. I had major egg on my face.
So, I know first hand how these worldwide scares end up amounting to nothing, despite literally millions of people and thousands of scientists harping on them constantly, throwing out reams of supposedly scientific data to prove their point. I know second hand, having read and studied much on the subject, about another scare at the turn of the 20th century. It was the great starvation scare brought on by the realization the world was running out of fertilizer. Like the Ehrlich scare, all the scientist were on board with this one, too. And like the Ehrlich scare, it ended up amounting to nothing. I wrote a blog post on how the ingenuity of a couple of German scientists named Haber and Bosch saved the world from that one.
The Bet is a good book written from the perspective of one who seems to be a little in the Ehrlich camp (at least that’s how it came off to me). I had lived through these events, but had forgotten a lot. For instance, I didn’t remember till reading this that Richard Nixon started the EPA in response to Ehrlich’s ideas and those of his kindred spirits.
My only objection to the book is that the author apparently never learned about creating topic sentences then building paragraphs around them. He is a believer in portmanteau paragraphs that contain a dozen subjects. Sometimes single paragraphs go on for pages. Anyway, probably a small gripe about an otherwise very good book.
I came across an excellent essay written by a guy who, as he says, had his ass handed to him by a major hedge fund. Shows why you should always seek first principles when you’re trying to learn anything. A fun read.
Winter Journey. A fictional account of the Jedwabne massacre in Poland during WWII. In the small town of Jedwabne, with a little prodding from their new Nazi masters (but not a lot), people turned on their Jewish neighbors and slaughtered many of them. The ones not killed were herded into a barn that was then locked and set afire, burning the rest to death. Until discovered, it was a secret kept by the Jedwabne townspeople. Once made public, they tried to cover the whole thing up. Winter Journey unearths the situation from the perspective of a Polish-born Australian forensic odontologist who is called to help identify the remains of those excavated from the killing site by their dental remains. Interesting info about forensic odontology abounds. Although some of the plot turns seemed forced, turns out they all actually took place. An unsettling but interesting read.
Nobody Dies in Hollywood. Just for fun. A murder mystery set in Hollywood solved by a private detective who lives in Santa Barbara. The author, who has written for TV forever, decided to try his hand a novel writing and, in my view, did a pretty good job of it. Reads fast and is strictly for entertainment.
I’ve got a handful of other books that I’ll save till next month’s letter since this one has gone on long enough. If you want to get a head start on next month’s letter, you can read Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, an excellent book on why people find it so difficult to be found wrong. Speaks to the great Richard Feynman quote:
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.