Friday, September 8, 2017

Reviewing Non-Fiction Is Hard

Sometimes I read non-fiction books, and really enjoy them. “What an awesome book,” I’ll think. But it’s actually quite hard to tell if non-fiction books are any good or not. At least, it’s hard to tell just by reading them. I guess you could read a review. But someone has to write the reviews.


The reason it’s hard is that you’ll usually be in one of two situations. Either you’ll be an expert in the topic the book is about, or you won’t be. Suppose you’re not, and so a lot of the stuff in the book is new to you. You don’t know if the book is any good or not, because you don’t know whether the stuff in the book is right or not. You can try factchecking it, but even if you can track down the sources they’ll often be buried in difficult academic writing of a sort you’re not really competent to understand. And if the book you’re reading is any good, a lot of what it’s telling you won’t be checkable facts, but rather a kind of expert insight and analysis that you wouldn’t be able to reconstruct yourself. And of course some books contain original research, in which case they can’t really be checked because in a way they are the source. These three all blur into each other, but they all make it very hard for a non-expert to tell if a non-fiction book is any good just by reading it. (And if we’re being strict about “just by reading it”, you’re not allowed to factcheck it anyway! But let’s not be strict. It's hard in any case.)


A good example of this danger is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is one of the world’s top psychologists, he did pioneering work on cognitive biases with Amos Tversky, and he won the economics Nobel "for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty". The book is about cognitive biases and decision-making under uncertainty, and the title refers to two styles of thought, one automatic and not very conscious and the other fairly carefully thought through and more conscious. It tells you about lots of cool little findings from psychological research, like how people are more likely to believe something they read if it’s written more legibly (pp62-3), and it integrates the anecdotes into a general narrative about the different ways people think.


When that book came out, it was very well received by people who weren’t already experts on the topic. I vaguely remember experts being more divided on it, but I’m not an expert and I thought it was awesome. I was entertained by the anecdotes, and I really felt like I was learning something. I told my friends the anecdotes as if we could be confident that they were true, and I recommended the book to them. But since it came out, psychology has had a bit of an existential crisis based on the fact that lots of its little findings don’t replicate. A lot of effects people found may well have been flukes that only seemed representative of how people behave because when psychologists have done experiments and not found anything cool they haven’t told anyone about them. Or they have but nobody has listened, which makes them less likely to bother telling people next time. Kahneman himself is very concerned about the whole thing, and he thinks he was a bit too credulous about some of the stuff in the book.


Now, I don’t want to set Kahneman up as some kind of fall-guy here. It may still be a good book, and the issues with some of the anecdotes may be kind of minor. He’s still a great psychologist and communicator, he was writing in good faith, and his willingness to publicly address problems with his own work is impressive and an example to his colleagues. The point is that I wasn’t competent to judge how good his book was. And to be honest, I still couldn’t tell you.


So, it’s hard to tell if a non-fiction book is good if you’re not already very familiar with the subject. Well, duh! But what if you are an expert? What if you could have written the book yourself? In that case you have a different problem: The Curse Of Knowledge. In his book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker argues that the reason people often write badly is they struggle to imagine what it’s like not to know things that they in fact do know. You know what you want to say, but your reader has to try to work it out from what you’ve written, and it’s hard to put yourself into their mind and work out whether what you’ve written would still be clear. And if you’re trying to explain something you already understand but they don’t, you have to put yourself into their mind and work out whether they can understand the thing you’re trying to explain on the basis of what you’ve written. That’s hard too. Now, imagine you’re an expert reading a book by another expert on the same thing, and you’re trying to work out whether a non-expert will be able to understand the thing the book is about on the basis of what the book says. It’s not easy to do.


So, who should be reviewing books, if both experts and novices face systematic obstacles? Three suggestions come to mind.
  • Someone who is neither an expert nor a novice. What you want is someone who doesn’t already know what the book says, and so doesn’t have the curse of knowledge, but who’s competent enough in the sort of thing the book is about to be able to check if it’s right, once they’ve been told the things the book says. In general it’s often easier to check an answer to a question than find the answer. While I wasn’t competent to check if Kahneman’s book was any good, maybe a psychologist in a different field could have done it.
  • A great teacher. The curse of knowledge essentially arises because a certain kind of imaginative exercise is difficult. But some people seem to be quite good at it. Being good at it is part of the skillset of a great teacher: they need to be able to get into the minds of the students and tell whether what they’re saying would communicate the material to someone who wasn’t already familiar with it.
  • A novice and an expert working together. The two problems are pretty separate, so in theory the expert ought to be able to read the book to check that what it says is sound, while the novice reads it to see if they feel like they’re learning something. And after they’ve both read it, the novice and the expert can talk to each other so the expert can check that the novice really did learn the things they felt like they were learning.

My favourite one is the last one. While an expert in an adjacent field might be able to do a decent job of factchecking, they won’t do as good a job as an expert, and it’ll be harder for them. Their transferable research skills will also mean they still have to do a bit of difficult imagining to get into the minds of the intended audience. A great teacher might be able to do the job, but we don’t even have enough great teachers to fill all the teaching jobs, let alone all the reviewing jobs as well. This leaves the last option. Unlike great teachers, experts are ten a penny, and novices are twenty a penny. Of course, you do need two people. But it’s still my favourite option, and it’s kind of odd that it practically never happens.

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