Top influential books – 2017 edition

Along with some other people, I was asked to produce a list of the top 5 books that had the largest influence on me.

Note that this is not the same as listing the top 5 books by (perceived) quality because a given book’s influence on me depends on what I already knew before reading it, and thus depends on the order in which I read books/learned stuff. The Bell Curve, for instance, is great, but it had comparatively little influence on my views as such because I was already well read on IQ matters before reading it.

A second difficulty is that my reading history is quite long, and covers a lot of stuff unrelated to my current main research focus on differential psychology, behavioral genetics, population genetics etc.; in short: human biodiversity. My Goodreads history contains a total of 338 nonfiction books. Of these, 41 are tagged as linguistics and thus presumably of not too much interest for the asker, 21 are related to computer science and programming, 15 to statistics, 12 to various intellectual monopoly issues, and there’s 33 related to philosophy, a quite broad area that may or may not be relevant to the asker’s interests. If we take a simple approach of looking at books I gave the maximum rating on Goodreads (5/5), there are 43 such books. Still too many.

Looking over the 43 books, an attempt a list of very influential books is:

  • The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker
  • The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
  • Bias in Mental Testing, Arthur Jensen
  • The g Factor, Arthur Jensen
  • Fashionable Nonsense, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
  • The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, Bryan Caplan
  • The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth about Morality and What to Do About it, Joshua D. Greene
  • Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, Charles Murray
  • The Web of Belief, Willard Van Orman Quine and J.S. Ullian
  • Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, Aubrey de Grey
  • Eugenics: A Reassessment, Richard Lynn
  • Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, Philip E. Tetlock
  • Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, David Buss
  • An Introduction to Statistical Learning: With Applications in R, Gareth James, Trevor Hastie, Robert Tibshirani, Daniela Witten

These 14 books are in no particular order. Missing from the list are the readings that introduced me to scientific skepticism, but these were in the form of briefer texts, not books. Especially worth mentioning is Paul Graham’s essay What you can’t say. Aside from this, I greatly benefited from many hundreds of hours of discussion on the new defunct discussion board, FreeRatio. In particular, I’d like to credit the relatively unknown philosopher, Kenneth Stern, for introducing me to many good books and ideas. Norman Swartz, another relatively unknown philosopher, also had a large influence on my early thinking, but none of his books quite make it to the top list above, though I’d recommend them if you’re into analytic philosophy.

Funny that the list above has no linguistics books, given my long history into this matter and degree. This is because, as I’ve noted to some people, linguistics is a field that’s in the category of ‘cool, but mostly useless’, similar to e.g. astronomy.

If one absolutely must try to pick only 5 books, one will probably have to sample by domain, as some of the picks are somewhat redundant. Perhaps a reasonable selection is:

  • The g Factor, Arthur Jensen
  • The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth about Morality and What to Do About it, Joshua D. Greene
  • The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
  • The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker
  • Fashionable Nonsense, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont

Notes

  • An alternative to Fashionable Nonsense, is the follow-up Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture by Sokal alone.
  • I recommend following interesting people on Goodreads for inspiration: gwern, Razib Khan, (others?)
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