I realized recently that when I want to learn about a subject, I mentally group the available books into three categories.
I’ll call the first category “convincing.” This is the most useful kind of book for me to read on a topic, but for most topics, no such book exists. Many basic textbooks on the “hard” sciences (e.g. “settled” physics and chemistry) and the “formal” sciences (e.g. “settled” math, statistics, and computer science) count. In the softer sciences (including e.g. history), I know of very few books with the intellectual honesty and epistemic rigor to be convincing (to me) on their own. David Roodman’s book on microfinance, Due Diligence, is the only example that comes to mind as I write this.
Don’t get me wrong: I think we can learn a lot from studying softer sciences, but rarely is a single book on the softer sciences written in such a way as to be convincing to me, unless I know the topic well already.1
I think of my 2nd category as “raw data.” These books make a good case that the data they present were collected and presented in a fairly reasonable way, and I find it useful to know what the raw data are, but if and when the book attempts to persuade me of non-obvious causal hypotheses, I find the book illuminating but unconvincing (on its own). Some examples:
- The CIA World Factbook 2016
- The Better Angels of Our Nature (excluding the parts on hunter-gatherers)
- The Measure of Civilization
- Human Accomplishment
Finally, my 3rd category for nonfiction is “food for thought.” Besides being unconvincing about non-obvious causal inferences, these books also fail to make a good case that the data supporting their arguments were collected and presented in a reasonable way. So what I get from them is just some basic terminology, and some hypotheses and arguments and stories I didn’t know about before. This category includes the vast majority of all non-fiction, e.g.:
- Psychology Applied to Modern Life
- How the World Works
- Bowling Alone
- Understanding Power
- Guns, Germs, and Steel
- The Shadow World
My guess is that I’m more skeptical than most heavy readers of non-fiction, including most scientists. I’m sure I’ll blog more in the future about why.