Don’t Forget the People

by F.

David Leonhardt reviews More Sex is Safer Sex and correctly (in my view) describes why the book—while excellent—is no Freakonomics:

I suspect this book will command a much smaller audience than some of the economics-tinged best sellers, mostly because it is short on the nuance that comes from real human stories. Landsburg’s characters tend toward the hypothetical — Benny the Burglar and Manny the Mugger; Jane the A student and Mary the B student; Albert and Alvin, two imperfect altruists — and his arguments, as he puts it at one point, can sound like “idle Sunday dorm-room chitchat.”

This problem plagues many of the new economic imperialists: like the overly chaste singles who are supposedly contributing to the H.I.V. epidemic, they don’t get out enough. They are asking good questions about epidemiology and psychology, but they are not spending much time with epidemiologists and psychologists, let alone with the people who are the subjects of their academic research. As a result, they arrive at conclusions that can be clever but lack wisdom, as the economist David Colander points out in his recent book, “The Making of an Economist, Redux.”

I noticed something similar in a couple other books I read recently, The Black Swan and I Am a Strange Loop. Both are great books. But writers with mathematical backgrounds seem prone to casting the unfamiliar in terms of the unfamiliar—new ideas explained in terms of hypotheticals which are themselves new. Philosophers do the same thing.

This violates a basic principle of explanation: give the new in terms of the familiar (and the concrete.) For instance, when you use a metaphor to explain, you cast the new in terms of the old: an iPod is like a Walkman, only digital. But if the reader doesn’t know what a Walkman is, that explanation does no good. An atom is like a little solar system—but if the reader doesn’t know what a solar system looks like, he or she won’t get much out of your metaphor. And the point, after all, is to be understood.