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Problems with Popular Nonfiction


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#16 taion

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 02:18 AM

I think this is different because it is observable. I can introspect and say:

  • I read "The Great A.I. Awakening" in the NYT Magazine and thought it broadly constituted misinformation with respect to the mechanics and the significance of deep learning
  • I accept pieces I read in the NYT Magazine that cover areas where I have no special familiarity as being generally true

But this makes no sense unless I think the NYT Magazine is somehow especially bad at specifically at those things with which I'm familiar.

 

Or alternatively I think of the Gell-Mann amnesia thing more as an argument than an observation – namely that if you find the quality of pieces where you can independently verify said quality to be low, then you should not assume that pieces where you can't independently verify the quality generally have higher quality.


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#17 Lex

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 04:08 AM

If someone doesn't read non fiction books how do they acquire knowledge? Newspapers? TV? The Internet? Talking to people in bars?

I've learned things from all four but I've learned a lot more from non fiction books. Of course someone would need to read multiple books about a subject to be able to form a complete picture. They would also need to engage their critical judgement in order to weigh the information. Occasionally misinformation is repeated by multiple authors.

But that's the exception and further research ultimately exposes those types of misconceptions.

Rejecting non fiction in principle leads people to construct their own "reality." That never ends well.


"I don't understand what's wrong with thinking of correlation as a pricing convention the way one thinks of Black-Scholes vol. I mean, vol curves aren't "real" anyway, but nobody uses local vol models to price vanilla options." - Taion
 
"But this is blatant ultracrepidarianism on my part." - Taion

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#18 Wilfrid

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 02:09 PM

By the way, I disagree with Rail Paul's observation that blurring between fiction and nonfiction is recent. It's always been with us. Robinson Crusoe.

But despite the grey area, the overwhelming majority of works fall quite clearly on one side or other.

#19 Wilfrid

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 02:14 PM

@taion, if you consistently find misinformation in a source, then of course you can conclude the source is unreliable. That doesn't require a fancy label.

But it's folly to assume that because you occasionally find error that the source produces nothing but error. The New Yorker thread here often identifies errors: the reason they're worthy of note is because it's generally so closely edited.

Perhaps you are oblivious to the number of things you can check that the NYT magazine gets right? After all, who reads a magazine and pauses in surprise over accurate statements?

#20 Wilfrid

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 02:30 PM

Here's a live example. I just finished a long study of Housman's life and influence. In a couple of passages the author ineptly tries to relate Housman's poetry to decadent literature, a topic with which he is insufficiently familiar, to the extent of getting an author's name wrong.

In the longest chapter of the book, he studies Housman's influence on British composers. That's not my specialist subject, but I don't infer from the writer's mistakes about Decadence that he makes mistakes about Vaughan Williams and Elgar. He just seems much more interested in them.

#21 Lex

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 02:45 PM

Sometimes learning is messy.  Authors are not scientific instruments that are perfectly calibrated to present only facts.  They filter reality through their own judgement, picking which facts to emphasize and attaching their own interpretation to them.  There's nothing sinister about that.  If someone asks us for our opinion on a given topic that's what we all do.
 
Getting back to non fiction, some authors get it more right than others and of course multiple readings in a topic allows us to triangulate on the truth.  But to reject all non fiction because it isn't perfect leads to a kind of solipsism.


"I don't understand what's wrong with thinking of correlation as a pricing convention the way one thinks of Black-Scholes vol. I mean, vol curves aren't "real" anyway, but nobody uses local vol models to price vanilla options." - Taion
 
"But this is blatant ultracrepidarianism on my part." - Taion

I have a dream of a multiplicity of pastramis.

"once the penis came out, there was discussions as to why we didn't order the testicles" - Daniel describing a meal in China

#22 Orik

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 04:40 PM

Most non-fiction books intend to teach you fact (and not about the human condition) or to convince you of opinion, or to convince you that opinion is fact (wheat is murder!).

 

Since they are intended for consumption by non-experts, they necessarily have to simplify and dance around the more difficult parts of their subject matter (and of course the ones who try to convince you of something are generally replete with fraud). These books encourage a certain kind of intellectual laziness, and a sort of non-critical, non-probabilistic thinking also promoted by TED(x) talks, where people believe that if they know about something then they know the thing itself. There are some areas where this is true, for example delivering a historical account, but they are limited. 

 

As for the quality of writing - I think on average non-fiction books that receive any attention are more poorly written and edited (two examples I mentioned recently - "ten restaurants that changed america" and "Phishing for phools" (this second one just has to be the worst written book of all times), and if I'm spending time reading poorly written prose, I prefer generally to benefit by learning truths. 

 

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#23 Sneakeater

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 05:21 PM

Thanks for introducing me to The Miner.


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#24 Sneakeater

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 05:28 PM

There are also non-fiction authors you read because their writing is so good, irrespective of the subject matter (say, John McPhee).  Indeed, some you read because their writing is so good even though you're not especially interested in the subject matter (say, Roger Angell).  Or some you read because the writing is so good and the subject matter so interesting that you don't care that they may be playing fast-and-loose with the facts (say, Joseph Mitchell).

 

Interesting that all those examples are New Yorker writers.

 

Or the essayists, whom you read, irrespective of the subject (which can almost be secondary), because their writing is so good and their thought processes so interesting (Hazlitt on down).


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#25 Sneakeater

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 05:31 PM

In other words, there's a whole kind of non-fiction that taion isn't addressing, the kind that reaches the status of belle lettres.


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#26 Lex

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 05:36 PM

There are also non-fiction authors you read because their writing is so good, irrespective of the subject matter (say, John McPhee).  Indeed, some you read because their writing is so good even though you're not especially interested in the subject matter (say, Roger Angell).  Or some you read because the writing is so good and the subject matter so interesting that you don't care that they may be playing fast-and-loose with the facts (say, Joseph Mitchell).

 

Interesting that all those examples are New Yorker writers.

 

Or the essayists, whom you read, irrespective of the subject (which can almost be secondary), because their writing is so good and their thought processes so interesting (Hazlitt on down).

 

I'll give you another one.  Michael Lewis.


"I don't understand what's wrong with thinking of correlation as a pricing convention the way one thinks of Black-Scholes vol. I mean, vol curves aren't "real" anyway, but nobody uses local vol models to price vanilla options." - Taion
 
"But this is blatant ultracrepidarianism on my part." - Taion

I have a dream of a multiplicity of pastramis.

"once the penis came out, there was discussions as to why we didn't order the testicles" - Daniel describing a meal in China

#27 Wilfrid

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 06:45 PM

Are we discovering that there are good and bad writers and books?

#28 Wilfrid

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 06:49 PM

An example of what I think Orik is referring to is Spooky Action at a Distance which is so desperate to communicate difficult scientific ideas to a popular audience that it's stuffed with silly examples and analogies.

But around the same time I re-read Word and Object, which is kind of brilliant.

I just don't get generalizations about "nonfiction" as a category.

#29 Sneakeater

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 06:54 PM

 

There are also non-fiction authors you read because their writing is so good, irrespective of the subject matter (say, John McPhee).  Indeed, some you read because their writing is so good even though you're not especially interested in the subject matter (say, Roger Angell).  Or some you read because the writing is so good and the subject matter so interesting that you don't care that they may be playing fast-and-loose with the facts (say, Joseph Mitchell).

 

Interesting that all those examples are New Yorker writers.

 

Or the essayists, whom you read, irrespective of the subject (which can almost be secondary), because their writing is so good and their thought processes so interesting (Hazlitt on down).

 

I'll give you another one.  Michael Lewis.

 

 

Yup.  And Mark Kurlansky.  And Joyce Carol Oates on boxing.  You could go on and on.


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#30 Lex

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Posted 07 January 2017 - 06:57 PM

Are we discovering that there are good and bad writers and books?

 

No no no.  98% of non fiction is horrible.

 

I get all my facts from Twitter.


"I don't understand what's wrong with thinking of correlation as a pricing convention the way one thinks of Black-Scholes vol. I mean, vol curves aren't "real" anyway, but nobody uses local vol models to price vanilla options." - Taion
 
"But this is blatant ultracrepidarianism on my part." - Taion

I have a dream of a multiplicity of pastramis.

"once the penis came out, there was discussions as to why we didn't order the testicles" - Daniel describing a meal in China