The Book of Why Book Summary - The Book of Why Book explained in key points
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The Book of Why summary

Judea Pearl and Dana MacKenzie

The New Science of Cause and Effect

4.4 (81 ratings)
23 mins

Brief summary

The Book of Why by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie explores the power of causality and how understanding it can lead to better decision making and problem solving.

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    The Book of Why
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    The notion of causation has been disparaged by some statisticians.

    If you’ve spent any time near an institute of higher learning or, frankly, if you’ve ever heard a brainiac dismissing government reports on the news, you’ll likely have heard the phrase “correlation does not imply causation” repeated ad nauseam. It has virtually been accepted as fact for the last few decades.

    In part, this is down to the fact that causation has been downplayed as an idea by the scientific community. At the start of the twentieth century, English mathematician Karl Pearson epitomized this view.

    Pearson’s biometrics lab was the world’s leading authority in statistics, and he liked to claim that science was nothing more than pure data. The idea was that because causation could not be proven, it could not be represented as data. Therefore, he saw causation as scientifically invalid.

    Pearson liked to prove his point by singling out correlations that he considered spurious. A favorite was the observation that if a nation consumes more chocolate per capita, it produces more Nobel Prize winners. To him, it was a meaningless correlation, so looking for causation was unnecessary.

    But this attempt at ridicule actually hides a causative factor; it is likelier that wealthier nations consume more chocolate, just as it’s likelier that they’ll produce scientific advances noticeable to the Nobel committee!

    On top of that, it later turned out that causation could be represented mathematically. This is what geneticist Sewall Wright showed while researching at Harvard University in 1912.

    Wright was studying the markings on guinea pigs’ coats to determine the extent to which they were hereditary. He found the answer to this causal question by using data.

    It began with a mathematical diagram. Wright drew arrows connecting causes and outcomes, linking the colors of the animals’ coats to contributing factors in their immediate environment and development.

    Wright also developed a path diagram to represent these relationships, in which a “greater-than” sign (>) signifies “has an effect on.” For instance: developmental factors > gestation period > coat pattern.

    Wright then turned this diagram into an algebraic equation, using the collected data. It demonstrated that 42 percent of a given coat pattern was caused by heredity, while 58 percent was the result of developmental factors.

    Given the scientific climate, Wright came in for some stick: he was so vehemently attacked that his methods for establishing causation from correlation were buried for decades.

    But times have changed; it is now finally time to revive his work. Research fields from medicine to climate science are now beginning to welcome causation as a principle. Surely the Causal Revolution has begun.

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    What is The Book of Why about?

    The Book of Why (2018) introduces basic concepts of statistical methods of argumentation and makes the case for a mathematical model of causation. For decades, the mantra “correlation does not imply causation” has been hammered home by statisticians. The result has been stagnation in many forms of research, and this book aims to push back against this trend.

    The Book of Why Review

    The Book of Why (2018) is a thought-provoking exploration of causality and how it shapes our understanding of the world. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • By unraveling complex concepts, Pearl and MacKenzie make causality accessible, providing readers with a deeper understanding of their everyday experiences.
    • This book challenges conventional thinking and offers a new perspective on the nature of causality, sparking curiosity and inviting readers to question the status quo.
    • Through a combination of real-world examples and insightful analysis, this book makes the study of causality engaging, ensuring that readers won't find it boring.

    Best quote from The Book of Why

    A causal link between smoking and cancer was not acknowledged by the US Surgeon General until 1964.

    —Judea Pearl and Dana MacKenzie
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    Who should read The Book of Why?

    • Followers of national news and government reports
    • Social scientists reliant on big data
    • Humanities students looking to break with dominant paradigms

    About the Author

    Judea Pearl is a computer scientist and philosopher. In 2011, he won the Turing Award, the most prestigious prize in computer science. He is the author of Causality, Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems and Causal Inference in Statistics.

    Dana Mackenzie is a writer and mathematician. He is the author of The Universe in Zero Words and The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be.

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    The Book of Why FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Book of Why?

    The main message of The Book of Why is understanding the causal relationships behind events and the importance of causal reasoning in science and everyday life.

    How long does it take to read The Book of Why?

    The reading time for The Book of Why varies depending on the reader, but it typically takes several hours. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Book of Why a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Book of Why is worth reading as it provides a profound insight into the field of causality and its impact on our understanding of the world.

    Who is the author of The Book of Why?

    The authors of The Book of Why are Judea Pearl and Dana MacKenzie.

    What to read after The Book of Why?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Book of Why, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • When Einstein Walked with Gödel by Jim Holt
    • Spark by John J. Ratey & Eric Hagerman
    • The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose
    • Zero by Charles Seife
    • 12 Rules For Life by Jordan B. Peterson
    • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
    • Effective Decision-Making by Edoardo Binda Zane
    • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
    • In Pursuit of the Unknown by Ian Stewart
    • Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell