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[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on March 23, 2008
Tags: book_reviews

Brecht. Galileo

Brecht explores the moral difficulties in Gallileo’s decision to recant. Not bad.

Paulos, John Allen. Innumeracy

A fun little book that provides a healthy dose of motivation to the non-mathematical to get their (our!) act together. Paulos provides lots of examples of fuzzy thinking that follow from a neglect of basic mathematics. At times Paulos seems to cast his net a bit more broadly than mathematics even, commenting on various fallacies in informal reasoning. But that’s ok - those mistakes matter too.

Frank. Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class

Entertaining and reasonably well-written. Frank charts the rise of inequality in American society since WWII, and then explains why he thinks that inequality is so harmful. Some goods are absolute goods. These we care about regardless of how much other people have. Others are positional goods. These we value very differently depending on context, most importantly how others around us are doing with respect to that good. Frank argues that many more goods are positional than one might first think, and then ties this insight to his observations about rising inequality. The result is a decent critique of a lot of mainstream assumptions about inequality in American society, and more broadly of the social policies that have produced it.

Two quibbles. First, it’s ok to dumb down a bit for a popular book, but Frank’s remarks about evolutionary psychology were pretty silly at times. I’d have to read Frank’s other work on the subject to know whether I would find a more careful statement of his views silly. But anyway, I don’t really think Frank needed to introduce claims about evolutionary psychology in the first place. His motivation for doing so, if I understood it correctly, was just to point out that the psychological tendencies he’s attributing to us are fairly stubbornly entrenched. But a) you don’t need to point to evolutionary considerations to do that; and b) you shouldn’t point to evolutionary considerations to do that (just for starters, innateness and malleability are completely distinct issues).

Second quibble: Frank talks throughout about the middle class. He even put the middle class in the subtitle of his book. But the book really seems to be about how just about everyone gets screwed by rising inequality, even very well-off people. So perhaps the subtitle to his book ought to have been “How Rising Inequality Harms Us All.”

Tufte, Edward R.The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Superb. Tufte wrote the book in the last seventies and early eighties; it changed the way many people think about how to display quantitative information in a clear, engaging and helpful way. Tufte’s book is part polemic against a dumbing down of statistical charts on the grounds that no one finds them interesting, and part analysis of what considerations go into getting it right. Good stuff.