Liars and Outliers: a review

Liars and Outliers
by Bruce Schneier
Review by Lorenzo Grespan
March 2013

[TL;DR] A truly excellent book. Well researched and extremely insightful. Worth reading either if you’re into understanding complex dynamical systems made of human beings or if you just are interested to know why “it’s not that simple” to fix society’s problems. It’s the book I wish most politicians had read and it changed the way I look at societal dynamics.

[Longer version] Liars and Outliers lies (no pun intended) halfway between an academic dissertation on a large research area (human behaviour in social contexts) and a collection of thoughtful, intertwined essays on the fascinating world of security and social dilemmas. The structure of the book is very clear and takes the reader through situations going from the simplest we experience almost daily (such as paying for a service with a credit card) to the most complex issues of corporation policing, large-group interest shaping and scaling up security solutions.

The first half of the book deals on the “human” side of the issue, presenting with a rare clarity complex issues such as genetic predisposition for behaviour, theories on brain evolution and security models to evaluate and explain large systems. Although no topic is dealt upon in great depth, the reader is guided carefully through such large fields of research but never has the sense of “getting lost” or going off-topic. Every time I told myself “so what” while finishing a chapter, Schneier somehow had read my mind and presented a thoughtful answer right in the next sentence – enticing me to keep reading with a striking example and a witty remark. Overall it is a very well-written review of current academic research and literature on the topic.

The second half of the book deals with a topic the author is much more familiar with: “security” at large, and its practical applications to day-to-day life. It is more than just a collection of his usual essays: rather than being directed at security geeks, I imagine a community leader enjoying this book as well. It does make you think.

To give an example of the extent of the topics covered by the book, here are a few questions relevant to todays’ society:

  • Why does the Catholic Church value more covering up scandals than ensuing justice in paedophilia?
  • Whistle-blowers and the pressures they have to sustain.
  • Why was the pharmaceutical company Merck-Serono a repeat offender in marketing the drug Rebif illegally?
  • Gay marriage.
  • Sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Why Romans did not like early Christians? (hint: not because they were worshipping another god)
  • Why do large corporation behave against society, even when they are fined? (hint: the fine becomes a business cost)
  • Overfishing.
  • CEO salaries and bonuses.

The above examples were drawn by literally opening the book at random pages in the latter half. The beauty of this text is that it indagates the causes of such societal dilemmas rather than trying to change the readers’ opinion. To me, that’s what a textbook should be.

The take-home message is simple: the inherent complexity of society requires constant, ever-changing norms to keep it afloat. Some of these are self-imposed as laws and regulations; other mechanisms emerge spontaneously. There is no ultimate solution to society’s problems, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

The book is even more relevant for what our future looks like: as we’re more connected and data about us doubles every year, soon we’ll be facing the dilemma on how to deal with all that information. Old paradigms, developed in a world where traveling was costly and information was scarce, do not work any more. We will have to create new rules, new systems, new mechanisms to keep it all running.

I particularly loved how the book challenged my assumptions. Every time I thought a certain “group”  was made only of “bad guys”, there came a special corner case that made it obvious it’s not that easy. A simple example: smuggling (inherently “bad”) – unless it’s done to help Jews flee the Nazis. Or stealing during a natural disaster (“bad”) – unless your family requires food. And so on.

Ultimately, it’s worth reading if you have an interest in any of the research areas discussed, as it will provide links and connections to other areas you might not have considered; and if you want to get into this sort of things, it’s an excellent starting point. Lots of great work will come out of his book; and I look forward to read more.

One comment

  1. Pingback: On government surveillance, and its costs | An Exercise in Understanding Trends

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