Eavesdropping on Facebook, and Other Book News

by admin on June 1, 2018

I have to pass along this wonderful conversation about The Book of Why that took place on Facebook. A friend of mine sent me a link to it; I do not know any of the commenters personally. More than any sales numbers or Amazon rankings, this conversation warmed my heart because it shows that our readers are “getting it.” I’ll copy the whole conversation below, using only first initials in case they would prefer to maintain their anonymity.

E: Judea Pearl’s new book is enormously impressive; it could end up being more important than his 1988 book. [Includes link to the book at Basicbooks.com.] (10 Likes, 8 Shares, 9 Comments.)

P: Cool! I have a long overseas trip coming up in a few weeks and was considering this for my kindle. Sold! Double sold because I’ve been working on causation and counterfactuals for so many years and he’s preaching to the choir.

A: Great! Have you read it E.?

F: I am reading it right now. Really good reading! I strongly recommend it!

H: Thanks for posting this. Can someone say in one or two concrete sentences, what they think is great about the book?

E: A: I’m about 2/3 of the way through. H: This has been the most dramatic experience I’ve had in many years where you read a really simple idea — essentially, rather than avoiding any mention of causality as if it were Sasquatch, statistics should use causal models systematically — and that simple idea makes all kinds of things enormously clearer. It’s not obvious immediately in the book, which starts a little slow, but by the time you get to the chapter on Confounders it’s dazzling. Pearl and others have been doing this for some years now, but (embarrassingly) I wasn’t aware of it, so this comes as a revelation.

H: Great, thanks, my mouth started watering and I will buy it now.

F: I really loved the historical perspective!

E: I’m curious to know what is the reaction in the mainstream statistics world — people like Andrew Gelman, for instance, or for that matter Nate Silver. If anyone sees a review or discussion, please post.

T: It’s SO good.

As it turns out, the original poster is somebody whom Judea, my co-author, is acquainted with. When I relayed this conversation to Judea, he responded with his typically wry sense of humor: “Strange. To get your colleagues to understand what you do, you need to go behind their back and write to the general public.” I replied to him, “If you are going behind their back, it is only because they have turned their backs on the public.”

In our culture, scientists (with a few notable exceptions) have lost the knack of addressing themselves directly to the public. Perhaps this book can help persuade them that it’s worth the trouble. If you state your case in terms that ordinary people can understand, you just might find that your colleagues understand you better, too!

Many thanks to A, E, F, H, P, and T for their enthusiastic and unsolicited praise. By the way, I loved E’s line about Sasquatch. I might use that line in the future myself!

Several readers of my chess blog have said that they don’t mind seeing updates about my book, even if it isn’t about chess. So I’ll continue posting them. But if they start getting stale or tiresome, please let me know.

One of my regular readers asked when my book reading will be. I mentioned in an earlier post that it will be on June 4, but I neglected to say what time! So here’s the full information: the talk will be at Aptos Public Libary, 7695 Soquel Drive, Aptos, California, on Monday, June 4, at 6:00 pm. There’s also a possibility that I will do a book reading in Berkeley in July; I’ll give you more information if and when that gets firmed up.

Some of you might wonder how I feel about hearing The Book of Why referred to as “Pearl’s book.” It is, after all, a joint effort. However, I am delighted every time I hear that phrase. It signifies to me that readers are accepting the work as being written in Judea’s voice and conveying Judea’s authority. Believe me, this is an incredibly high honor; it’s a goal that I was working toward for the entire 2½ years we were collaborating on the book. If people started referring to the book as “Pearl and Mackenzie” I would get a little bit worried: maybe they would blame the bad parts on me! (Not that there are any bad parts.) So please be assured that I am quite comfortable in the background.



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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Smith June 2, 2018 at 7:34 am

Dana, fwiw, it’s your blog and you can write about what you want! An entry on medieval heraldry might be rather unexpected, but even so your readers could hardly complain. It’s your nickel.

Above, you wrote: “In our culture, scientists (with a few notable exceptions) have lost the knack of addressing themselves directly to the public.” Since you mentioned it, in your opinion which scientists do you think fall into the “notable exceptions” category? Or, to be somewhat negative about this, which ones don’t?

As a layperson, my exposure to scientific writing is necessarily of the “popular” sort, and by and large I find these writings to be quite accessible. Of course, if I were to run into a less user-friendly scientific paper/article, I would probably lose patience and simply abandon it. And so my experiences in this area would tend heavily towards an evaluation of “accessible” being more of the norm.


Hal Bogner June 3, 2018 at 6:53 pm

Dana – I’m loving this – keep telling us more!

Larry – Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote of how medical “case histories” used to be about the people, not just about the clinical details, over a century ago, and after he had his early writings as a neurologist rejected by a medical journal, he found success writing for general circulation magazines. A few of his books are somewhat heavy on detail, but most are incredibly readable and informative.

I hope readers here can tell me of others like Oliver Sacks, who is my 2nd favorite non-fiction author behind only John McPhee.


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