Having just finished reading Fooled by Randomness and having only read 2 chapters so far of Bad Science, there is really no contest. One is a ridiculous collection of buzzwords and ego, and the other is an evidence based consideration of how the world actually works.
First: Fooled by Randonmess Avoid this like the plague. I foolishly bought it because I’d seen it mentioned several times in the press as somehow revealing something interesting about the current financial crisis and how the author Taleb had some kind of insight into the world of stock markets and beyond.
However, I think that most of the excitable reviews surroundng Fooled by Randomness have actually been Fooled by Hype. After all I realise that’s why I bought it…
For those who haven’t been initiated into the Cult of Taleb, he claims to have privileged information into the way the world really works in the same way other peddlars of reheated buzzwords like to claim. (See Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point for another one, although that’s a much more enjoyable read.) So instead of a reasoned and logical argument we get a stream of bitty chapters summarising his musings on randomness, stock markets, and, you know, life its-very-self.
The central thesis seems to be (brace yourself for this revelation): ‘you can’t predict the future’. Whilst technically correct, I’m not really sure we need 300 pages going on and on about it. I think most of the world realises you can’t predict the future of the stock markets – or indeed anything much, if you want to be literal about it.
If you really want to muse about the unpredictablilty of stock markets, then watch Aronofsy’s, ‘Pi’, which is in a totally different class – given that’s it’s a quite a good film.
The other big problem with the book is that he’s got the world’s largest, most irritating, overblown self regard for his own intelligence. His other main theme is: ‘if you disagree with me, you’re an idiot and I will ignore and laugh at you.’ Great. What a charmer.
I think the words I’m searching for here are: ‘he’s pompous prick who made a few million on the stock market and – contrary to his own ‘thesis’ – seems to think that fact alone justifies his own inflated opinion of himself.
So, forget him, and read Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’. It’s everything Fooled isn’t: considered, rational and backed up with those things that scientists like to call ‘facts’. Facts are a bit unfashionable at the moment, but they do a rather good job of explaining how the world works and making it easier to tell the difference between something that works (eg, medicine) and stuff that’s based on patent nonsense (eg, alternative therapies)
Goldacre is the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist who delights in debunking psuedoscience and showing how the media so often misunderstands and misrepresents scientific research to the public, who don’t generally have a scientific background to know the difference.
Bad Science is witty and funny, and yet deadly serious at the same time as it exposes how people are fooled not by randomness, but by the media’s often and infuriatingly irresponsible attitude to science reporting (see the MMR hoax). He also discusses (and despairs at) the deliberate misappropriation of sciencey sounding theories and words by everyone from homeopaths to nutritionists in order to peddle silly sugar pills or faddy ineffective diets.
If you really want a considered insight into how things are, go for Bad Science!