Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Book Reviews: Zilliak and McCloskey and Taleb

Snork Maiden brought home borrowed copies of Ziliak and McCloskey's "Cult of Statistical Signficance" and Taleb's "The Black Swan". in a way both are rants against standard practice in quantitative analysis. But Taleb's book is ten times better or more than Ziliak and McCloskey's. The latter have a single point that researchers often misuse the concept of statistical significance and ignore the actual size of an effect or variable in favor of just stating that it is "significant" - which just means in statistics that there is a low probability that we think there is an effect when there is none (the probability of falsely rejecting a null hypothesis that is in fact true). Now many researchers write up ineffective discussions of what their research found or make fundamental mistakes in method. But it's not universal and the book never really explains key concepts such as what statistical significance is. It's just one huge rant against all the economists and statisticans that the author feels have oppressed them or their like-thinkers. It assumes we know these things and know the authors critique already (which I do as an economist). The statistician R. A. Fisher is the big villain of the story and Gosset the oppressed hero. But there is never any discussion of exactly what their contributions were.

By contrast, Taleb defines all the basic ideas he uses and has more than one idea. Not all are original of course. Many are commonplace in recent behavioral economics and in more general economics. And they are not esoteric ideas in economics. Winner takes all ideas are in Frank and Bernanke's introductry textbook that I used to teach from. There are notes for the sources at the end of the book. And yes he rants and raves against everyone he believes thinks incorrectly but he does it in an amusing way. I like to read him and didn't find him too annoying. Some people complain about his use of fiction, autobiography, and fictionalised autobiography alongside factual material. In this he reminds me of Robert Pirsig who embedded philosophical and autobiographical material in a story about a motorbike trip across America in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". I don't have a problem with it. It makes the book much more readable than it would otherwise be.

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