Posted by: CJ | February 23, 2013

Theory of Pop Science Books

I have some rules of thumb regarding pop science books. At least when the reader is fairly educated and scientifically literate.

  1. Don’t buy it, read it, or respect it if it isn’t by an expert that’s spent years researching the subject.  If the author isn’t a subject matter expert then odds are excellent they’ll screw up the facts and come to the wrong conclusion. This is sometimes called the “Igon Value Problem” after a particularly egregious case. 
  2. If it’s by a subject matter expert, odds are excellent that their best book–likely their first or second–will be far and away better than any others. This is simply because it’s SO HARD to know something with much more to say than that. There are many excellent examples of this phenomenon, but my favorite is the first freakanomics book vs. the second. The first was excellent and based on one of the author’s original research. The second was based on material both authors were much less familiar with, and both the facts and conclusions suffered.
  3. Don’t take what the author says at face value. They’re writing for a pop audience, which means loads of caveats in the empirical studies and the theoretical underpinnings will be left by the wayside. Incidentally, this is how you can end up with clueless ^#%*-tards that took Econ 1 in college and start spouting off some of the most intellectually lazy anti-government regulation crap you’ve ever heard. They were taught the simple version of the material without absorbing that you can’t mindlessly generalize extremely simple models to very different scenarios. 

The above rules are a weaker version of the rule: “If a book is popular and it’s based on scientific articles then just go read the original articles.” I’d prefer just reading the original articles, but that often requires both background reading and reading followup studies as well. That’s a lot of time. 

Anyways, back to trying to figure out which pop econ and pop psych books on Amazon I might want to buy and which I should avoid like the plague. 


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