One of the most notable developments in the book business in the last decade or so has been the rise of the likes of Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, etc.), Steven Leavitt, Stephen Dubner (Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics), Ian Ayres (Super Crunchers), and Nicholas Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan). All of their books are best-sellers; all of them have been embraced as business books, management books, and general interest books. For anyone trained in the sciences, this is a thrilling development, a sure sign that scientific thinking has enthralled the public.
This welcome development was an inspiration for writing my new book, titled Numbers Rule Your World: The Hidden Influence of Probability and Statistics on Everything You Do (McGraw-Hill, 2010). As a long-time reader of my Junk Charts blog noted, the book is an attempt to “humanize the subject of statistics.”
In a perceptive essay, Bending Science in Service of Promotion, John Grohol pointed out that this class of non-fiction bestsellers relies on three secrets to success, namely, Sales, Sexiness, and Simplicity.
Having also pondered the reasons for the breakthrough achieved by this group of authors, I offer a longer list of factors:
- While dealing with science, none of these books contains any mathematics at all; the authors explain the insights but stop short of delving into the technicalities.
- The style is narrative, almost always revolving around one “big idea” (read: simplicity), reappearing in various guises.
- The voice is invariably first person. It may be the case that readers reward credibility points if they learn that the author is friends with or has direct interactions with the scientists being profiled. With rare exceptions (Taleb, for one), these books read like a series of interviews with friends.
- Sparingly do these authors cover opposing views. It is this discipline that allows each of these books to be reduced to one sentence (e.g., Blink is about the power of intuition), and it is this simplicity that empowers fans to spread the word efficiently.
- The arguments are built upon an accumulation of numerous short episodes, rather than an in-depth exploration of a single story. Examples with sensational value are often picked (read: sexiness).
My recent series of blog posts on SuperFreakonomics has received positive attention from Grohol, Chris Shea (Boston Globe) and Andrew Gelman (Columbia University), among others. Some commentators have interpreted my work as “vetting” or “debunking.” This was not my intention, as my book owes much to those pioneers.
At the same time, I have reservations about some parts of the formula, and thus altered it in the following ways:
- I rejected the first-person point of view because I dislike the trend in non-fiction publishing, as if every book is a confessional or memoir. I prefer to stay in the background.
- I wanted to explain a little more of the science while adopting the narrative style.
- In each chapter, I set a quota of two richly-developed examples, and no more. I was aiming for a less discursive, more cohesive argument.
- I wanted to sketch a more realistic portrait of science in practice: in particular, the best science does not always get realized – the process by which science gets out of the lab is as complex as what happens in the lab.
These guidelines shaped how the book came out. They put constraints on the writing process. For example, the restriction to two examples per chapter pushed me to explore each topic more deeply: inconsistencies are harder to gloss over when writing thirty pages rather than a paragraph or two.
I quickly learned that English has many imperfections when it comes to describing mathematical concepts; much time was spent re-writing sentences to render them more precise, less bulky, more accurate. And, in conveying the process of implementing science, I needed to detail people, their motivations and their conflicts, which brings balance to the narrative.
It is the readers who will judge whether these changes to the formula for success are a step forward or backward. I am looking forward to hearing your comments.