Sunday, 14 February 2016

Book review: Why

As part of their support for user groups, O’Reilly sent me a free copy of “Why: A Guide to Finding and Using Causes ” by Samantha Kleinberg to review.

Kleinberg is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science, so I was interested to see what she had to say about finding “causes”. It probably wouldn’t be the first book I chose if I was browsing, but I’m always interested in learning new things.

What I liked about this book was the use of written examples and illustrations. The first chapter opens with the story of Sally Clark. A tragic miscarriage of justice that resulted in Clark serving 3 years in prison for the murder of her babies. One of the significant pieces of evidence that was used to convict Clark was the suggestion that the probability of two babies dying of SIDS was 1 in 73 million. This is wrong, because the witness (a medical expert) didn’t understand statistics and probability. The expert witness believed Clark was the cause of death the two babies.

The Clark story isn’t the only one told. I’m glad for the generous sprinkling of those examples – without which it would be pretty dry going. It is very helpful to bring things back to something you can relate to.

A warning, this is a pretty in-depth book. I can’t say I found it an easy read, but there’s plenty of detail there.

Before reading this book I guess I assumed that finding the cause for something was a pretty straight forward. Turns out the correct method is “it depends”.

Trying to identify the real cause of an event is not always easy. Kleinberg takes us on a journey to better understand ways (and there are more than one) of finding causes – Beginnings (concepts), Psychology (how do we learn about causes), Correlation (correlation and causation aren’t the same thing), Time, Observation (watching to learn), Computation (automating the process), Experimentation (experiments and research), Explanation (this caused that), Action (making decisions).

The writer comes from the Computer Science field but she writes in a generally accessible (if a little bit academic) way. There are plenty of references (the notes and bibliography take up a not insignificant amount of the book). I noticed a lot of examples were medically-related, so if you work in the medical field, then I think you would get a lot out of it too.

Finally, a suggestion for the title of the sequel – “Just Because” Smile

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