Good Judgment professional Superforecasters are an extraordinary, diverse, and intellectually curious bunch of people. In addition to their shared passion for forecasting, they have a shared passion for debating politics, philosophy and books on our forums.
Typically, Superforecasters are expert in their chosen domain, but also tend to be polymaths. When the Superforecasters started debating their favorite books, the results were fascinating. Over 250 books were discussed and ranked.
We have asked the Superforecasters to narrow this down to a top 10 list of book recommendations. The results are in, with a bonus 11th book included at the end.
Top 10 Books Recommended by Superforecasters (ordered alphabetically by author)
1. Foundation/Foundation Series, by Isaac Asimov
A classic science fiction tale about predicting the future. The whole series, in particular the novel Foundation was noted. One of our Superforecasters noted, “The Foundation Series is particularly of interest to forecasters because it is in part about ‘psychohistorians’—essentially super-Superforecasters—with the ability to forecast the broad movement of history.”
“It’s an accomplishment all the more remarkable given that the story driving the Foundation Trilogy — an epic tale of the fall and rise of future galactic empires —contains virtually none of the usual tropes that are associated with science fiction. The novels span the entire galaxy, but no extraterrestrials make an appearance. It depicts the future history of human society, but it’s neither explicitly a utopian nor dystopian parable. There’s plenty of futuristic technology—from faster-than-light spacecraft to personal force fields—but all of this serves as the background, not the driver, of the plot. In fact, Foundation appears to contradict Asimov’s own definition of science fiction, as a ‘branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.’” – io9
2. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond
“Guns, Germs, and Steel seeks to answer the biggest question of post-Ice Age human history: why Eurasian peoples, rather than peoples of other continents, became the ones to develop the ingredients of power (guns, germs, and steel) and to expand around the world. An extraterrestrial being visiting the Earth 14,000 years ago could have been forgiven for failing to predict this outcome, because the human populations of other continents apparently also possessed advantages. Africans enjoyed a huge head start, because Africa is the continent with by far the longest history of human occupation. North America is a big fertile continent, with the result that it supports the richest and most productive nation today. Australia provides by far the earliest evidence for human ability to cross wide water gaps, and some of the earliest widespread evidence for behaviorally modern humans. Why, nevertheless, were Eurasians the ones to expand?” – Jared Diamond
3. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter
A Superforecaster described this book as: “Great read, hard to summarize. On the nature of consciousness and intelligence, with lots of math, music, and cleverness along the way.”
“In a word, GEB is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle? What is an ‘I’ and why are such things found (at least so far) only in association with, as poet Russell Edson once wonderfully phrased it, ‘teetering bulbs of dread and dream’ — that is, only in association with certain kinds of gooey lumps encased in hard protective shells mounted atop mobile pedestals that roam the world on pairs of slightly fuzzy, jointed stilts?” – On What GEB Is Really All About
4. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
“System 2, in Kahneman’s scheme, is our slow, deliberate, analytical and consciously effortful mode of reasoning about the world. System 1, by contrast, is our fast, automatic, intuitive and largely unconscious mode. It is System 1 that detects hostility in a voice and effortlessly completes the phrase ‘bread and….’ It is System 2 that swings into action when we have to fill out a tax form or park a car in a narrow space. (As Kahneman and others have found, there is an easy way to tell how engaged a person’s System 2 is during a task: just look into his or her eyes and note how dilated the pupils are.)
“More generally, System 1 uses association and metaphor to produce a quick and dirty draft of reality, which System 2 draws on to arrive at explicit beliefs and reasoned choices. System 1 proposes, System 2 disposes. So System 2 would seem to be the boss, right? In principle, yes. But System 2, in addition to being more deliberate and rational, is also lazy. And it tires easily. (The vogue term for this is ‘ego depletion.’) Too often, instead of slowing things down and analyzing them, System 2 is content to accept the easy but unreliable story about the world that System 1 feeds to it. ‘Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is,’ Kahneman writes, ‘the automatic System 1 is the hero of this book.’ System 2 is especially quiescent, it seems, when your mood is a happy one.” – The New York Times
5. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn
This Kuhn book, which introduced the concept of “paradigm shift,” made the top 10 list. However, one of the Superforecasters noted alternatives. “As an undergrad, I loved the simplicity of Kuhn and Popper. Once I started to actually practice science, I felt that Feyerabend is much, much closer to the truth. Highly recommended for everyone interested in a non-orthodoxal view of how science actually works.”
“Kuhn’s version of how science develops differed dramatically from the Whig version. Where the standard account saw steady, cumulative ‘progress’, he saw discontinuities – a set of alternating ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’ phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst. These revolutionary phases – for example the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics – correspond to great conceptual breakthroughs and lay the basis for a succeeding phase of business as usual. The fact that his version seems unremarkable now is, in a way, the greatest measure of his success. But in 1962 almost everything about it was controversial because of the challenge it posed to powerful, entrenched philosophical assumptions about how science did – and should – work.” – The Guardian
6. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli
When seeing Machiavelli had made the list, one Superforecaster commented with surprise that there was no Marx.
“The book is The Prince, its author Niccolò Machiavelli. Minus television and Twitter, it seems the techniques of ambitious ‘new princes’, as he calls them, haven’t changed a bit. But why did Machiavelli write a whole book about them, peppering it with men who soared to power by greasing palms and exploiting weaknesses: Julius Caesar, Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia?
Most people today assume that Machiavelli didn’t just describe their methods, he recommended them – that he himself is the original Machiavellian, the first honest teacher of dishonest politics. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adjective has come to mean ‘cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics.’ Along with our daily news, popular culture has brought legions of Machiavellian figures into our homes and made them both human and entertaining: Tony Soprano, Frank and Claire Underwood in House of Cards, Lord Petyr Baelish from Game of Thrones. These Machiavellians are scoundrels, but subtle ones. In watching their manoeuvres on screen we, like their victims, can’t help being a little seduced by their warped ingenuity. So it no longer shocks us to think that a highly intelligent man who lived five centuries ago, in times we imagine were far crueller than ours, spent night after night at his desk in the Tuscan countryside, his wife and children sleeping nearby, drafting the rulebook for today’s cynical populists and authoritarians.”– The Guardian – How We Got Machiavelli All Wrong
7. 1984, by George Orwell
There was much debate over which Orwell was the most important. Homage to Catalonia received many votes. Politics and the English Language was noted by many as influential, though not eligible as it is an essay.
“In ‘1984,’ Orwell created a harrowing picture of a dystopia named Oceania, where the government insists on defining its own reality and where propaganda permeates the lives of people too distracted by rubbishy tabloids (‘containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology’) and sex-filled movies to care much about politics or history. News articles and books are rewritten by the Ministry of Truth and facts and dates grow blurry — the past is described as a benighted time that has given way to the Party’s efforts to make Oceania great again (never mind the evidence to the contrary, like grim living conditions and shortages of decent food and clothing).” – The New York Times
8. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver
Nate Silver’s blog is often referenced as a data source on forecasts, and his book also received numerous votes.
“More broadly, forecasts are hampered by ‘overfitting,’ ‘the act of mistaking noise for signal.’ Given a series of data points, an analyst can choose between a number of different formulae that ‘fit’ the information on hand. Given the increasing ease with which complicated calculations can be undertaken, the temptation exists to devise elaborate models that fit the data very closely. After all, the more elaborate the model, the more impressive your abstract. But as Silver points out, this often results in over-emphasizing random fluctuations, leading to horrible predictions. In other words, we need some kind of underlying theory to guide our forecast, with the data increasing or decreasing our confidence. The level and sources of variation in the earth’s climate, for example, are so great that ‘there would be much reason to doubt claims about global warming were it not for their grounding in causality.’ The case is persuasive in light of the scientific basis for believing in a greenhouse effect, but simply pulling temperature readings can lead to mistakes like the hype in the media (though not the scientific community) about ‘global cooling’ in the 1970s.”– Slate
9. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Taleb’s other books Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder and Fooled by Randomness also made the list, but The Black Swan received the most votes.
“Before the discovery of Australia, it was generally assumed that swans were always white. Suddenly, black swans turned up, unsettling people’s expectations. In his new book, The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb asks why this discovery seemed so surprising. And in response he argues that it is because we are hard-wired to find order in randomness, to turn scattered points into a coherent narrative, and to expect identified patterns to last forever. We become emboldened by our successes, and we think that we achieved control or at least can see what is coming next. The search for patterns and order can be a dangerous trap, distracting us from ‘the impact of the highly improbable,’go to cite the book’s subtitle. Taleb, a long-standing financial analyst and investor, is the author of Fooled by Randomness, a book about our tendency to mistake luck for skill. In The Black Swan, he preaches a bracing sermon in favor of an angst-ridden, but socially beneficial, plunge into wrestling with the unknown.” – Slate
10. Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut was a favorite for many Superforecasters, who noted the accuracy of many of his predictions — including computers beating humans at chess in Player Piano, written in 1952. These were books that are re-read with great pleasure. Special mentions also to Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Galapagos and Slaughterhouse V.
“In Breakfast of Champions, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s most beloved characters, the aging writer Kilgore Trout, finds to his horror that a Midwest car dealer is taking his fiction as truth. What follows is murderously funny satire, as Vonnegut looks at war, sex, racism, success, politics, and pollution in America and reminds us how to see the truth.” – Barnes and Noble
11. A bonus recommendation
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
No list of forecasting books is complete without reference to Superforecasting, The Art and Science of Prediction. There is no surprise that this came in as the most recommended book by the Superforecasters.
“… for all the importance people attach to forecasting, hardly anyone bothers to keep score. Philip Tetlock is a rare exception. His most recent book, Superforecasting, (written with Dan Gardner, a Canadian journalist with an interest in politics and human psychology) is a scientific analysis of the ancient art of divination. Mr. Tetlock, who teaches at the Wharton School of Business, became famous for concluding, on the basis of a 20-year forecasting tournament that ran between 1984 and 2004, that the average expert is ‘roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee’. His findings were more subtle than that, and his new book is an attempt to set the record straight. It shows that the future can indeed be foreseen, at least in the near term. More interestingly, it shows that some people are much better at it than others. And, crucially, it shows that prophecy is not a divine gift, but a skill that can be practised and improved.” – The Economist
Due to the rating method used, this list tends to show the books that were a majority recommendation. Some criticize the summary for losing the diversity and interest of the full list. So for those who want to go deeper, for a full list of Superforecaster 250 book recommendations, please click below:
Never satisfied with the status quo, the Superforecasters have already started building a 2017 reading list. This list will be more focused on new releases Superforecasters are recommending to their peers.
Be sure to subscribe to our email newsletter on the homepage to receive an update on their new list.
Happy Reading! – The Good Judgment Team