How to recognize self-help, pop-statistics, “Big Idea” books?

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How to recognize self-help, pop-statistics, “Big Idea” books?

Post by kayanco » Fri Feb 17, 2017 11:33 am


Since I respect the knowledge of folks here, I'd like to ask for some guidance.
Can you please either answer or point me to some resources?

1. How do I recognize a self-help book?

More generally I'm trying to educate myself on the genres of books. If I see a book, how do I know what category it belongs to?

It seems like even within self-help, there are sub-categories, like "self-help memoir", “misery memoirs”.
I guess then are books that can be classified as "alarmist" and "anti-alarmist". For example a book might claim that children are in peril, they need therapy, etc. But another book might counter it by claiming that everything is fine with children.

2. I've come across terms like “Big Idea” book, pop-psychology/pop-statistics book. What are these, and are they the same as self-help? How can I recognize this category?

3. Recently I'm realizing that many books are influenced by theories/themes of many years (even generations) ago, like Human Potential Movement, New Thought, Prosperity gospel, etc. But when I pick up a book, it doesn't tell me any of this.


4. Even books that I initially thought were better/different because they were based on Philosophy, like The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday, or books of Alain de Botton, are still really self-help books.

So I fear that I might be reading books thinking that I'm increasing my understanding, but in reality I might be filling my mind with poor ideas and actually decreasing understanding. As Thomas Jefferson said:

"The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors."


Background of this post:

I came across quotes like:

"Read Seneca, Not Lehrer. .. not worry about someone like Lehrer bringing us narratives of the latest discoveries." Nassim Taleb

"the numberless bad books, those rank weeds of literature ..
One can never read too little of bad .. bad books are intellectual poison .." Arthur Schopenhauer

Suchlike and some articles made me realize that So I need to understand the context around the books I see.

For example, how do I get this type of information about a book:

"This book "The Happiness Advantage" belongs to a broad category of books applying the concepts of Positive Psychology to the workplace. This and many of the "Happiness" books are under the same umbrella. Positive Psychology itself has some core themes (e.g. you can control/change your level of happiness) and all these books just rehash these themes from different perspective. One will claim how being happy increase the size of a brain region. Another will claim writing a gratitude journal will make you X% more productive .."


"This latest "Midnfulness" books is just one of a large category of books on a stripped-down fad version of mindfulness. It's claims that mindfulness will increase your IQ, boost your immunity, etc are not supported by rigorous."


"Books like Outliers, Power of Habit, etc are type of books written by journalists. They look at research papers and create a narrative around it. Then they mix in stories/anecdotes which "confirm" their narrative."


Maybe I've described my dilemma poorly, but if any of you are familiar with what I'm talking about, please share.

Thank you all !!

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Re: How to recognize self-help, pop-statistics, “Big Idea” books?

Post by nisiprius » Fri Feb 17, 2017 12:07 pm

To me, a "self-help" book is a book that offers specific guidance you can follow so that you can learn something or improve your skills or your life, just by reading the book, without a human teacher or coach or instructor.

For example, Nolo Press publishes self-help books that give you instructions for performing simple legal tasks without hiring a lawyer. "If You Can" by William J. Bernstein tells you how to invest and save for retirement without using an advisor. I don't know the book, but I think Swing Flaws and Fitness Fixes tells you how to improve your golf swing without taking lessons from a golf pro.

"Self-help" does shade into "self-improvement" and "motivation." How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, offers to help you... will, the title is clear. Stephen R. Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (I've never read it, and I'm not highly effective) is a self-help program for becoming more effective. Your Perfect Right is a self-help assertiveness training book.

At some point things shade off into general motivational books, spirituality, and so forth. Bookstores tend to put them all under "self-help" so I guess the category includes them, too.
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Re: How to recognize self-help, pop-statistics, “Big Idea” books?

Post by Christine_NM » Fri Feb 17, 2017 12:17 pm

The more books of all kinds you read, the better you will be able to spot what category a book is in. Until you are well-read you are pretty much at the mercy of publishers and critics. The only important category is "do I want to read this, am I curious about it?".
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Re: How to recognize self-help, pop-statistics, “Big Idea” books?

Post by black jack » Fri Feb 17, 2017 5:36 pm

I feel for you. Your question assumes that someone, somewhere, knows what is true, and you'd like to piggy-back off their knowledge.

I've spent much of my life looking for those people, have gotten into a few jobs where I was around the kind of people who are supposed to "know," and have discovered, as William Goldman said, "Nobody knows anything." In his case, he was talking about what will make for a successful movie, but the principle applies generally.

In fact, much of what is talked about at this site is how most financial advice books are wrongheaded, most financial experts overrate their expertise, and that you are better off tuning all that out.

It is not so easy to be so dismissive outside of finance. Finance has the nice feature of being measurable: studies can show that one approach does better than another (though even so there are all sorts of factors that complicate comparisons). In the field of philosophy, or how we should live, results are even less clear, and much depends on individual effort.

So you are looking for some way to sift the wheat from the chaff. The difficulty is that people disagree about what is wheat and what is chaff. Also, there is a sort of placebo effect: people can find all sorts of things useful in helping them to understand themselves and others that other people find useless. A friend of mine says that, to a reflective person, a fortune cookie saying can be an aid to understanding, while to a stupid person a book of wisdom will be useless.

Jefferson was undoubtedly smarter than I, but the statement you quoted was not an example of his best thought.

How about an older quote: in Plato's Apology, he has Socrates say (I paraphrase) "it seems that the Oracle at Delphi declared me the wisest of men because I know that I do not know what is true, while there are many men considered wise who think they know what is true, but when I questioned them it became clear they did not know either."

You can try looking at the qualifications of the authors. Much of what journalist authors do is restate the work of academic researchers. Why not go the source? For example, you mentioned mindfulness. Daniel Siegel, a neurologist who writes about the mind, the brain, and mindfulness, is presumably a more authoritative source than a journalist for that topic. Likewise, if you want to read about what makes people happy, Dan Gilbert (Harvard psychologist, "Stumbling on Happiness") is probably a more reliable source than most.

In the end, all that you can do is read widely, reflect on what you read, perhaps discuss it with other people, and see what seems true or useful to you.
We cannot absolutely prove [that they are wrong who say] that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason. | -T. B. Macaulay (1800-1859)

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Re: How to recognize self-help, pop-statistics, “Big Idea” books?

Post by Akiva » Fri Feb 17, 2017 5:47 pm

Outside of finance, the thing to look for is a meta-analysis. That is a statistical analysis of all of the science on a given topic. So you'll know what the bulk of the evidence says. A good example of this in education is Hattie's _Visible Learning_. Anything that can cite a meta-analysis is likely good. If it can't do that, then you at least want something that can be scientifically confirmed. So you want to think about how you know that what is being claimed has objective truth. What would you need to do to confirm this for yourself? What did the author or the scientists he's citing do? What kind of statistical support does this claim have? This kind of critical thinking gets easier the more you read and the more you know. It's also easier if you understand basic linear regression models from statistics (like those covered in _Introductory Econometrics_ by Woolridge.)

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