Skip to main content

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. The authors swoop between engaging philosophical discussions of the nature of probability and the frequentist v Bayesian debate and descriptions of pretty heavy duty mathematical thinking on specific aspects of probability and its applicability.

Some of the 'ten great ideas' are fairly straightforward, whether we're talking the early work from Cardano or Bayes' theorem (though, again, the way it's presented here is really surprisingly impenetrable, when it could be covered for more accessibly). But others really strain the non-mathematician's brain. And these can come quite early. The second chapter opens 'Our second great idea is that judgements can be measured and that coherent judgements are probabilities.' Although I felt I ought to be able grasp what was going on here, I found that the way it was presented went totally over my head. It's just not very well written.

So, unless you know much of this stuff already, the chances are you will find some parts hard going - but I found it well worthwhile using the old university student approach of 'just let it wash over you and you'll get to a bit where it starts to make sense again'. This, for me, was the way to cope and the parts I could get my head around were really interesting. I just wish there had been someone involved in the project who knew how to communicate to ordinary readers.

Hardback:  


Kindle:  

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Wonderworks - Angus Fletcher *****

If you are interested in both writing and science this is an unmissable book. Reading can not just impart information, but can influence the way that we feel. Angus Fletcher describes 25 literary techniques (many also applicable to film and TV), ranging from those known to the Ancient Greeks to modern innovations, that can have a particular influence on our feelings and state of mind. Interestingly Fletcher describes this as technology - devices to make something happen. But rather than being a purely philosophical exploration, what lifts the book significantly is that for each of these techniques, Fletcher describes how studies of the impact on the brain show the physical effects occurring in different parts of the brain as a result. The chapters (one for each technique) end with a faintly self-help feeling bit - for instance, how you can use the 'clear your head' technique by reading certain texts, but that really isn't the point. This isn't a self-help book, it's

Being You - Anil Seth ***

The trouble with experts is they often don't know how to explain their subject well to ordinary readers. Reading Anil Seth's book took me back to my undergraduate physics lectures, where some of the lecturers were pretty much incomprehensible. For all Seth's reader-friendly personal observations and stories, time after time I got bogged down in his inability to clearly explain what he was writing about. It doesn't help that the subject of consciousness is itself inherently difficult to get your head around - but I've read plenty of other books on consciousness without feeling this instant return to undergraduate confusion. There are two underlying problems I had with the book. One was when complex (and, frankly, rather waffly) theories like IIT (Integration Information Theory) were being discussed. As the kind of theory that it's not currently possible to provide evidence to support, this is something that in other fields might be suggested not to be science at

Life is Simple - Johnjoe McFadden ***

This is a really hard book to review, because it has two quite distinct parts and the chances are that if you are interested in one of these parts, you may well find the other part less engaging. The first section concerns the development of Occam's razor - the idea of keeping your explanation of something as simple as possible while it still works - and the impact this would have on philosophy (and proto-science) in the Middle Ages. The second part treads very familiar ground in taking us through some of the major developments in science from Galileo onwards, occasionally tying back to Occam's razor to show that the impact of the idea continued. As it happens, I love the first bit as I find the medieval development of science and its intertwining with religion and philosophy fascinating. Jonjoe McFadden brought in a lot of material I wasn't familiar with. Of course I was aware of Occam's razor itself, but I knew nothing about William of Occam as a person, or the way hi