Books, newly arrived

Back to blogging a bit, I’ve really been too remiss.
This post is about three books that just arrived, and which I am eager to read, parallel to David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution for Everyone, which I’ve started and am enjoying a lot:

  1. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb;
  2. The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, by Bryan Caplan;
  3. Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction, by Thomas McCraw.

The first one is a long essay about really unusual, unpredictable, and important events, such as 9/11, that upset our understanding of the universe. The author claims that many sciences, social ones in particular, rely overly heavily on the famous normal distribution of Gauss fame, which underestimates the frequency of really extreme events. He seems to think this invalidates a large swath of empirical work in these sciences, and that scientists are too blinkered by their use of standard statistical tools to even see this. Judging from the first few pages, at the very least this will be a rollicking read, as Taleb obviously had great fun writing the book so it’s great fun to read.
The second book is by an economist who enjoys provoking everybody and poking holes in accepted wisdom (well, the same goes for the first book, but it’s not written by an economist). Winston Churchill’s comment about democracy immediately springs to mind: it’s a lousy system for political decision making, but all others are worse (I’m too lazy now to find the exact quote). I suspect I will have some serious disagreements with his arguments, but I can’t dismiss them a priori, as it’s pretty clear that democracies pick some really awful policies to implement, much too often.
The third book got rave reviews from places such as The Economist. Given the high standard of writing and argumentation in The Economist, I figured it should be a great read, in addition to tackling an important subject. Joseph Schumpeter was quite an unusual figure in the world of economics. He coined the expression “creative destruction”, wrote a still unsurpassed classic on the history of economic thought, was a finance minister for Austria, had much fun with the ladies, taught at Harvard, survived horrible blows in his life (such as going from wealth to pennilessness and the loss of loved ones) and created a line of thought that still animates a whole school in the periphery of mainstream economics (which makes regular incursions to capture mainstream economics forts, often successfully). Once again, judging from the first few pages, a great read.
Which one will I finish first? I’ll report here.


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