Books that changed my mind

4 October 2017

When James Leeder and Emma Johnstone won the 2017 World Debating Championships, they upheld Sydney's position as the most successful university in competition's history. Now, the winning pair talk books they love, and why.

The book Weapons of math destruction

Emma Johnstone

Weapons of Math Destruction (2016)

Written by Cathy O’Neil

Most people think numbers can be relied on to describe things in an accurate, dispassionate way. Weapons of Math Destruction showed me that isn’t the case.

I read it in the lead-up to the debating competition after hearing a podcast. The book's premise seemed to combine my interest in mathematical modelling with issues of social justice and structures of poverty and inequality. In particular, it challenges the idea that ‘objective’ data and modelling will in fact undercut inequality and discrimination. It explores the way in which the theoretically value-neutral field of mathematics is used and manipulated to produce models for companies and government that, whether they are explicitly aware of it or not, can be skewed, often with significant consequences for vulnerable populations.

The reframing of the social consequences of data collection use, often with the shield of eliminating bias, as in fact justifying further oppression for many people, helped me see the problems with a lot of, often necessary, models used in society. In particular, the need to question claims despite an amassing of evidence – but what does that evidence actually mean?

This book helped me think critically about what objectivity really means, and how the way that criteria are defined can determine outcomes in a desired way. For example, ‘objective’ bank ratings can actually lock in cycles of poverty when what they identify as risk factors are closely tied to underprivileged, often racial-minority, communities.

It also re-enforced the issue of accurate and functional science communication, which often goes absent. Misunderstandings and simplifications of modelling and big data, when the general population is not given accessible and engaging information about scientific fields, only escalates possible negative consequences from too much faith and too little questioning of such models.

This book reminded me to remember the power of both mathematical modelling and consciously keeping it in check.

Emma and James with their books

Team players Emma Johnstone and James Leeder talk about reading.


The book Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end

James Leeder

Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end (2014)

Written by Atul Gawande

Despite the abundance of medical documentaries and melodramas, rarely is the end of someone’s life portrayed honestly or realistically. Certainly, my vision of this difficult time was dominated by the tropes of the popular imagination: hurried, attractive 20-somethings making spur-of-the-moment decisions and hoping to keep the patient alive, whatever the cost. In reality, the majority of us will face death after a long decline and the decisions we and our doctors have to make will be complex and imperfect.

This difficulty is compounded when the medical system is profoundly ill equipped to deal with decisions that have no easy answers. As we age, do we want to be cared for and supported but lose our autonomy, or preserve our independence at the risk of accident or injury? In the face of terminal illness, do we want more time but with potentially more treatment side-effects, or less time but in a state better able to enjoy life’s simple pleasures?

These questions and the problematic way the medical system answers them are at the heart of Atul Gawande’s excellent book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.

Gawande is a professor of surgery and public health at Harvard University in the United States, in addition to being a staff writer for The New Yorker for almost 20 years. These roles contribute to the success of his book. In it, he combines the close focus of the surgeon with the macro view of a public health researcher. Studies of patients confronting their own mortality, whether in old age or due to illness, are presented with extreme sensitivity. Thankfully, Gawande’s book is more than just a diagnosis of the current faults in our approach to ageing and dying, but also a considered work with practical suggestions.

I first read this book last year, shortly after the passing of my grandmother at the age of 96. Much of what Gawande discusses I had seen firsthand. In my grandmother’s case, external care was a necessity and was well managed, but it wasn’t hard to note the difficulty of it all. Now, as a medical student, I’ve returned to his book several times as I have met elderly and infirm patients in need of wise decisions, and I’ll continue to do so. In my opinion, this is essential reading for all, not just those in the health system.

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