Textbooks (Alone) Are Not Enough

Yesterday I tweeted:

After reviewing three books more-or-less titled “Data Science for Social Scientists”, I think what our field desperately needs is “Social Science for Data Scientists”. I don’t know enough to write it, but I’ll pre-order a bunch of copies…

Someone replied, “…what you’re asking for is a textbook - those exist.” With respect, I disagree. Most people—including most working programmers—won’t read a textbook unless they absolutely have to. Saying that we can fix this problem by writing (or pointing at) a textbook is like saying that abstinence programs are the solution to teen pregnancy: it allows you to claim you’ve solved the problem without threatening anything else you want to believe in.

This response highlights a perspective I’ve struggled against for many years. Brent Gorda and I chose the name Software Carpentry because it wasn’t software “engineering”. We wanted to teach people the equivalent of hanging drywall and fixing leaky taps, not the equivalent of digging the Channel Tunnel. What we learned is that (a) carpentry is more useful to most people than engineering, but (b) skilled trades have lower social status than “gentlemanly” pursuits involving multi-colored algebra on whiteboards.

Academia reacts the same way to popularization: John Galbraith and Carl Sagan were both looked down on by many of their peers for deigning to explain science to non-specialists. Those who do can have tremendous impact, and not always for good. Freakonomics persuaded literally millions of readers that the only valid way to analyze social interactions was through the lens of personal interest. By doing so, it built a constituency for changes in legislation and taxation that have fueled increasing inequality in society.

So if “programmers and data scientists don’t understand how society works” is the problem, I don’t think textbooks are the answer. They can help people who are already convinced they want to know more to keep learning, but “already convinced” is the hard part. For that, we need someone who knows enough to know what corners to cut and what simplifications will not mislead, and who doesn’t think that being comprehensible is somehow shameful. We need someone who can explain to programmers steeped in Silicon Valley’s small-L libertarian zeitgeist why racial discrimination persists even though it’s economically inefficient, how regulatory capture works, why CEOs keep getting away with sexual assault, and why Radical Candor is bullshit in the service of power. If this is you, please give me a shout.