October has been a month of fairly light reading for me, at least as compared to normal. But I have polished off a few really great books (and reread a couple of older ones) that I want to tell you about. So we’ll start off with a little critical thinking, move to some quotes and quantum biology, then have a bit of novelistic enjoyment and finish off with some low-carb. A nice variety, I would say.
I’ve just finished a superb book on really, deeply thinking through difficult questions. The book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, is about the experiences of a scientist who studies the ability of people to forecast the future. Not forecasting the future in terms of being psychic, but forecasting the probabilities of given events either happening or not within a specific time frame. Questions might be along the lines of whether the United States will send ground troops to Syria by December 1, 2015. The people in the studies could use any sources they could get their hands on to come up with their own probabilities of that event’s happening.
In 2010, the Intelligence Advance Research Projects Activity (IARPA), an agency no one outside of the intelligence community knows anything about, approached Philip Tetlock, one of the authors of Superforecasting, to help them with a long-term study of average people to see if any were truly super forecasters, and, if so, what made them that way. The people recruited weren’t paid and were housewives, pipe fitters, IT people, retired folks and those still working at various jobs. The people selected were not in the intelligence biz, as in CIA agents or anything like that. Just normal people.
They were assigned very specific questions about events and were asked to provide their own estimates of the probability of these events’ occurring before a specific date. Over time a number of good forecasters emerged from the herd, along with a handful of absolutely phenomenal forecasters, the so-called super forecasters of the book’s title.
The book discusses many of the issues presented to these super forecasters and how they approached them to come up with their phenomenally accurate forecasts.
One of these issues was to predict the probability that Yasser Arafat had been poisoned. Arafat, the leader of the PLO, became severely ill in early October 2004 with vomiting and abdominal pain. He was flown to France where he went into a coma and finally died on November 11, 2004. There was great uncertainty about what actually caused his death. Almost ten years later, researchers in Switzerland found high levels of polonium-210, an extremely radioactive element that can be fatal if ingested. Arafat’s widow gave permission for him to be exhumed and tested by a couple of different agencies. Before the testing took place, the IARPA asked the forecasters the following question:
Will either the French or Swiss inquiries find elevated levels of polonium in the remains of Yassar Arafat’s body?
It’s not as simple a question to answer as you might think.
Or what about Steve Ballmer’s prediction made in 2007 while he was CEO of Microsoft?
There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.
Was this an idiotic prediction or did he have it right? You might be surprised. You’ll learn why pundits are almost always wrong, and why statements like Ballmer’s often aren’t as absurd as they seem. And learn how to unpack a statement that seems to say one thing on the face of it, but really means something else.
The entire book is fascinating, but what I found most interesting is the traits all these super forecasters have in common. One of the primary ones is the ability to overcome the confirmation bias. Usually, when people stake out an answer to some question, they become wedded to their answer. Then everything they read or hear, they try to make fit their answer to the question, i.e., their hypothesis. The more they become wedded to their hypothesis, the more feverishly they try to make everything they find fit. Even if it’s a square peg in their round hole of an hypothesis.
Not so with super forecasters. When new data came along, they didn’t try to make it fit. Instead, they evaluated the data to see if it warranted a change in their hypothesis. Too bad there’s not more of that going around. Read this book; learn its lessons; and I think you’ll find yourself thinking more deeply in probabilistic terms and becoming much more insightful.
Another similar, but different, book I read was Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. This book truly is a toolkit for those wanting to make sense of studies of all kinds and even the daily news. What makes people act as they do? What kind of statistical analysis should be applied in what kind of situation? How can you cut through the crap and get to the essentials of an argument. And, importantly, for those who want to know: what’s multiple regression analysis (MRA) and why does it rear its head in most medical studies? The chapter on MRA in this book alone is worth the price of admission. A better, simpler description of a statistical operation that pops up all over the place and leads to such idiotic headlines as ‘Bacon Causes Cancer’ I’ve never read. When you read dreck like that, you can be sure MRA is lurking in there somewhere. It’s nice to know what it is, and this book tells you in workmanlike fashion.
I grabbed a copy of The Quotable Feynman when it came out. I’m a huge Feynman fan, and having all his pithy statements (along with some not so pithy ones) at hand all in one place is a delight. The book is laid out by broad topics and lists germane quotes from letters, speeches and papers. So it’s great fun to dip into it here and there to see what Feynman had to say about almost everything. And, as this book proves, he had something to say about almost everything.
I’m in the process of reading Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. After I’m through, I’ll give it a more thorough review, but I’m far enough along that it will definitely be a recommendation. It’s about how the quantum laws work in biological systems. Who knew that quantum rules governed the processes of both photosynthesis and the capture of electrons running down our own pathways in the capture of energy stored in food. Quantum mechanics is sort of spooky (to use Einstein’s term) and extremely technical. This book makes it available for the lay reader and describes the weird quantum forces involved in almost all biological activity.
Let’s turn to fiction. I’ve been on a one author binge this month. A friend of mine recommended The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow. It’s a fictionalized account of how the Sinaloan drug cartel works. Since I travel to Mexico a bit, I figured I would give it a read, even though a book on the drug trade isn’t something I would ever have picked without my friend’s recco. It took me a while to get into it because the book is written in short little paragraph-or-two runs of text that kind of drove me crazy at first.
Then, I got engrossed. Then the action jumped from Mexico to New York. I figured it would all tie together, but the New York part seemed to have no correlation with what I had read about Mexico. Then I began to wonder if what I was reading was really a book of short stories, which, for whatever reason, I hate. (OK, other than those by Saki.) So I went to Amazon to read some reviews and learned that it truly is all one novel that all ties together. Indeed it does. And it is riveting. I couldn’t tear myself away from it until I finished it. I’ve got one warning: if you are put off by graphic violence, don’t read this book. But the violence isn’t gratuitous; it’s just de rigueur for the Mexican drug culture. I love books like this one, because I learn so much while being entertained.
The next book in the series by this author is a continuation of The Power of the Dog and is titled The Cartel. I decided not to read it for a while because I couldn’t afford the time to totally escape into another intense reading experience that wouldn’t let me go. I’ll ultimately read it, but probably not until I make another long trip when I have luxury of time.
But, when I got finished with The Power of the Dog, I did as I always do when I read a book I love. I read all about the author. And I found out that when Winslow started writing, he wrote a series of five detective novels, a genre I love. So, I took a flyer on the first one, A Cool Breeze on the Underground, and was smitten. I raced through it and through the next three. I have the last one left to go. These books are fabulous. Start with the first one because it sets the stage for the rest. A Cool Breeze on the Underground. Give it a read. Great premise. Gripping. And, strangely enough, very funny. I laughed out loud in many, many places.
Finally, for those of you low-carbers out there, I’m going to re-recommend a couple of books. I periodically reread or at least skim through books important to my career in nutritional medicine. I hadn’t picked up the great book by Jeff Volek and Steve Phinney, both good friends of mine, since I read it a while back. The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living: An Expert Guide to Making the Life-Saving Benefits of Carbohydrate Restriction Sustainable and Enjoyable is the low-carb diet book I wish I had written. I reviewed it on my blog a few years ago, and in my re-reading, I found nothing to change my mind since my first reading a few years ago. I unreservedly recommend this book. It really is the book I wish I had written.
Also, I re-read Sam Feltham’s Slimology: The Relatively Simple Science of Slimming. I read it again because I had just finished the book Superforecasting and, as I mentioned above, one of the primary attributes of a super forecaster is the ability to overcome the confirmation bias. Sam gradually came to the idea of low-carb dieting without any preconceived notions. It was really fascinating to see how he felt his way along in his search for the optimal diet for the most people. And it’s nice to see an author of a nutrition book actually say that perhaps his favorite diet may not be the best diet for everyone. He simply says the data show the best diet for most people to start on is the low-carb diet, because it has shown to have the greatest probability of working. But it doesn’t mean that for some, another diet might not work just as well or even better. It’s fun to read his intellectual journey.
I hope some of these books intrigue you enough to grab one or two. There are no losers in this bunch. I guarantee you’ll be well rewarded if you read any of them. In case you’re wondering, I do end up reading a few losers (or at least a ways into them), but they don’t make their way on to these pages.