Best reads of 2015
What are the dominant themes for making this list? These books deliver more knowledge from foundational subjects on the left, in order to try and understand what’s happening on the right:
Here are our choices, in no particular order:
1. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Phillip Tetlock and Dan Gardner
This book is a must read for behaviorists and belongs in the same category as works by Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler. There are enough behavioral books that remind us we’re cognitively challenged; fortunately this isn’t one of them. Based on rigourous analysis that’s derived from a five-year forecasting tournament, Tetlock makes a compelling case that some people do think in certain ways that make them superior forecasters. Is it replicable and can we learn from them? Yes, at the margin, we can improve, and the best practices shared in Superforecasting can make a difference.
2. Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, by Richard Thaler
Behavioral economics confronts a remarkable paradox about human behavior: what we’re saying, thinking, wishing or doing can all be different things. Ad makers, politicians and parents have always known this—and taken advantage of it—but economists have been slower to catch on. They’ve often dismissed deviations from classical economic theories as anomalous misbehavior. But nearly 20 years of macro booms, busts and meltdowns have shown that core beliefs like rational optimization can be sabotaged by emotional, cognitive errors. By this measure alone, economist Richard Thaler deserves credit for enlightening his profession about how misbehaving humans actually make decisions.
3. Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind, by Yuval Noah Harari
A scientist who can explain and write clearly about global history is golden. Harari is an intellectual outsider to markets and economics who cuts through all the figures, theories and acronyms in order to reaffirm our conviction that understanding human behavior is a daunting but critical challenge. This book is not a light read, as you’ll want to slow down and think through many parts. “Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals”.
4. The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers, by Gillian Tett
Motivational sayings don’t belong in a decision-making process and Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett avoids them in her book. Differentiated among writers by her training as a social anthropologist, Tett believes that observing how people naturally interact is distinctively bottom-up, and more attuned to actual human behavior than anything seen on an org chart. “Life does not always fit into official descriptions of what people are supposed to do. Much of the time we ignore these messy realities. It feels easier to stick with classification systems rather than constantly rewriting them”.
5. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking, by Richard Nisbett
Richard Nisbett co-wrote a classic book in social psychology, The Person and The Situation. In this book, he reinforces something about influence that breaks new ground: our unconscious mind pre-perceives influence for us, often because we’re unwittingly anchored on reasoning provided by others, particularly if they’re labelled as experts. “Remember that all the perceptions, judgements and beliefs are inferences and not direct readouts of reality”. Our unconscious mind is already anchored on assumptions planted by social influence; having the intelligence and humility to recognize this reality is critical.
6. Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Dr. Henry Marsh
This book highlights a profession that demands years of focus on process and learning from mistakes, all justified in a relentless pursuit of uncertain outcomes. There’s an obsession with finding small details to be obsessed about, like clipping an aneurysm or drilling into a skull. It makes you realize, once again, that searching for repeatable patterns in order to reduce uncertainty is an unavoidable bias. It’s simply human nature and, at best, it can be channeled but not eliminated.
7. The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism, From al Qa’ida to ISIS, by Michael Morrell
Failures of imagination, misleading information and flawed analysis all contribute to making bad decisions. A failure of imagination dismisses certain outcomes as improbable. Misleading information corrupts decision-making when not enough time is spent analyzing ‘accepted’ facts in order to determine whether they’re outdated, out of context or just wrong. Flawed analysis originates from ad hoc, inflexible processes that have never been critically examined. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell addresses all three errors in this book as well as providing a timely assessment of U.S. counterterrism strategy.
8. Fool Proof: How Safety Can Be Dangerous and Danger Makes Us Safe, by Greg Ip
In this more readable (and less bombastic compared to Nasim Taleb) take on ‘antifragile’ thinking, Wall Street Journal reporter Greg Ip talks about mindset differences between ‘engineers and ecologists’. Engineers, better described in this sense as central bankers, politicians or regulators, believe they can design better outcomes in markets, economies and societies. Ecologists (libertarians, the Austrian school) concede that the occasional forest fire, bear market or cyclical recession is unavoidable and, in the long run, defuses the likelihood of greater damage.
9. The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, by Matt Ridley
Very bright people continue to believe that very bright people can opine about why something happened or needs to happen and then present a brilliant plan to make it all happen. This is delusional, says Matt Ridley in his latest book. Bottom-up tinkering by trial and error, combined with a chaotic mix of random variables (events, people, errors or accidents) beats results from top-down planning in every instance that Ridley carefully selects in order to support his thesis. Confirmation bias aside, Ridley’s tone is combative because, in his opinion, evidence that’s grounded in evolutionary biology is irrefutable.
10. Rise of The Robots: Technology and The Threat of a Jobless Future, by Martin Ford
An optimist believes automation and artificial intelligence are creatively destroying jobs but those jobs will be replaced by better jobs—so just get over it. A pessimist, or perhaps a realist like Martin Ford, believes that the converging forces of globalization and corporate influence in politics destroy middle-class jobs and exacerbate income inequality to levels that threaten the consumer economy. You can disagree but what differentiates Ford is the fact that he runs a private company in Silicon Valley. His perspective is thoughtful, bottom-up and timely.
11. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and The Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance
A balanced overview of a bold visionary who would not be a pleasant work colleague. Behaviorists are justifiably suspicious of secular change that’s supposedly being driven by One Powerful Person. True, and this is still a compelling read because you’ll learn a lot about electric cars (and all the issues that surround them: batteries, charging stations, grids etc.), solar power and space travel. Are massive egos part of the unplanned and random forces that create game-changing innovations? Yes, which is why Musk’s ego is one you’ll want to understand.
12. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle
We’ve all walked into packed conference room where everyone is looking at a mobile device. There may be some murmurings of conversation but it’s really just ‘phubbing’ (talking with someone but giving preference to your digital device). Beyond reinforcing the disturbing nature of those experiences, this book also should prompt you to do two things: rip the mobile devices away from your kids, and realize that connectivity addiction is degrading your thinking (and maybe quality of life) as well. You know its wrong, and you want to change these habits. So if you want to be ‘scared straight’ then Turkle’s book might help.
13. Being Nixon: A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas and One Man Against The World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner
If you want to understand the roots of America’s ideological divide, these books about President Nixon offer remarkable perspectives. A ‘silent majority’ fears an infiltration by outside influences while elites are vilified because of their indifference to middle class values. Sound familiar? Well, voter behavior is human behavior. Nixon, driven to some degree by a haunting fear that a ‘fifth column’ of enemies was emerging in the media and on college campuses, responded in ways that he knew were wrong but believed to be justifiable given the turmoil created by Vietnam and race riots. Suspend judgement of him while reading these books and this knowledge will recalibrate your thinking as an election year approaches.
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