Recommendations for great books about probability and risk.
August 17, 2012 5:29 AM   Subscribe

Recommendations for great books about probability and risk.

I'm looking for great pop-science books (well-written, well-referenced) about risk and probability as well as books relating to perception of risk and the associated cognitive biases.

I'm also interested (it may seem tangential but it isn't to me) in books that explain mathematical modelling of real-world processes (e.g. Bayesian statistics, Game theory) in non-mathematical terms so that an intelligent non-mathematician could grasp them.

If it helps, my motivation: I am a doctor, I spend much of my life talking to people about probability and risk. I wish to deepen my understanding and develop a more intuitive appreciation of it partially to satiate my own curiosity and partially so that I am better able to navigate patients' pre-existing cognitive biases.
posted by inbetweener to Science & Nature (18 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This isn't precisely what you're asking for, but I'd start with Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow". It's a rare pop sci book written by a Nobel laureate, and he's one of the godfathers of the study of cognitive bias.

I also enjoyed "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives". Again, not precisely what you're looking for, but it's great background info.
posted by griseus at 5:39 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Behavioral Law and Economics — edited by Cass Sunstein. Lots of information about cognitive biases and perception of risk.
posted by John Cohen at 5:41 AM on August 17, 2012

Slightly off-topic, but definitely relevant: Sources of Power
posted by devnull at 5:44 AM on August 17, 2012

Dan Gardner's The Science of Fear (also called Risk, depending on what country you're in) is a great read and exactly what you are looking for.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 5:53 AM on August 17, 2012

I like Mary Douglas' collection of essays titled "risk and blame," and she has other books.

Her approach is anthropological, so not just focused on one type of risk.
posted by tulip-socks at 6:01 AM on August 17, 2012

I liked how Tim Harford described the misunderstanding of risk in mortgage-back securities in this publicly available, revised chapter of his recent book.
posted by keasby at 6:06 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed Reckoning With Risk by Gerd Gigerenzer a lot.
posted by ominous_paws at 6:06 AM on August 17, 2012

Fooled By Randomness is good - although you have to sort of tune out the author's high opinion of himself.
posted by COD at 6:08 AM on August 17, 2012

I remember Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by
Peter L. Bernstein from the end of the last century.

the following reviews ay it all.

"A Business Week, New York Times Business, and USA Today Bestseller

"Ambitious and readable . . . an engaging introduction to the oddsmakers, whom Bernstein regards as true humanists helping to release mankind from the choke holds of superstition and fatalism." -The New York Times

"An extraordinarily entertaining and informative book." -The Wall Street Journal

"A lively panoramic book . . . Against the Gods sets up an ambitious premise and then delivers on it." -Business Week

"Deserves to be, and surely will be, widely read." -The Economist

"[A] challenging book, one that may change forever the way people think about the world." -Worth

"No one else could have written a book of such central importance with so much charm and excitement." -Robert Heilbroner author, The Worldly Philosophers

"With his wonderful knowledge of the history and current manifestations of risk, Peter Bernstein brings us Against the Gods. Nothing like it will come out of the financial world this year or ever. I speak carefully: no one should miss it." -John Kenneth Galbraith Professor of Economics Emeritus, Harvard University

In this unique exploration of the role of risk in our society, Peter Bernstein argues that the notion of bringing risk under control is one of the central ideas that distinguishes modern times from the distant past. Against the Gods chronicles the remarkable intellectual adventure that liberated humanity from oracles and soothsayers by means of the powerful tools of risk management that are available to us today.

"An extremely readable history of risk." -Barron's

"Fascinating . . . this challenging volume will help you understand the uncertainties that every investor must face." -Money

"A singular achievement." -Times Literary Supplement

"There's a growing market for savants who can render the recondite intelligibly-witness Stephen Jay Gould (natural history), Oliver Sacks (disease), Richard Dawkins (heredity), James Gleick (physics), Paul Krugman (economics)-and Bernstein would mingle well in their company." -The Australian
posted by kryptos at 6:19 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Deep Survival, while mostly about survival (or not) in extreme situations, covers human's perception of danger, risk assessment, and mitigation strategies (and how they go wrong).
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:26 AM on August 17, 2012

Came to recommend Against the Gods but kryptos beat me to it. Great book.

(Mis)Behaviour of Markets by Mandelbrot is also good but perhaps too specific to the financial markets.
posted by mullacc at 7:09 AM on August 17, 2012

The Emergence of Probability and The Taming of Chance, by Ian Hacking, are superbly written and researched accounts of the ways scientists and mathematicians learned how to quantify risk, featuring lots of examples from medical science and public health.

Nate Silver's bok The Signal and the Noise, out next month, ought to be a really good primer on mathematical modeling and prediction. (He's the guy who does the "538" column for the New York Times.)

I second the recommendation for Taleb, while simultaneously seconding the warning that his style is off-putting for many.
posted by escabeche at 7:24 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Indirectly, John Allen Paulos writes about those topics in great detail.
posted by k5.user at 7:47 AM on August 17, 2012

I read Should We Risk It? for a class once and thought it was solid. Maybe a bit more hard core textbooky than what you're looking for but it's written for policy folks, not scientists. You can take a look at the Table of Contents via Amazon and see if it's covering what you're interested in.
posted by yarrow at 8:01 AM on August 17, 2012

You might try some of the pop behavioral economics books that have cropped up over the past several years. I particularly like Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, Nudge, Super Crunchers, Influence, and Animal Spirits.

And nthing Thinking, Fast and Slow.
posted by commander biscuit at 9:04 AM on August 17, 2012

Probably Not by Lawrence Dworsky
posted by lathrop at 10:05 AM on August 17, 2012

+1 for Thinking Fast and Slow - that is _the_ book if you want to understand how humans think about risk.

If you want something on the mathematical side of things you could try Tom Korner's Naive Decision Making. It is a bit on the tough side if you don't have a maths background, but it covers a lot of real world situations involving probability and risk - gambling, insurance, game theory - and his style is very engaging even if you can't follow all the theorems.
posted by crocomancer at 12:55 PM on August 17, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks all!

So many great suggestions. I think I'm going to start with "Thinking Fast and Slow" and then work through much of the rest of this list as many of these books sound very interesting.
posted by inbetweener at 10:31 AM on August 24, 2012

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