Favorite books & papers
Here is an annotated selection of article and book recommendations, always subject to change. Some are in fields closely related to our research. Some contain valuable advice. Some are just cool—they’re papers we* find interesting and worth reading. While many are highly cited and widely considered classics, a few are underappreciated diamonds in the rough. We won't be featuring our own work here, no matter how much we like it—check out our Publications and Research pages for that. Lastly, please note that these lists reflect personal interests/preferences/literature knowledge**, and are not intended to be authoritative ‘what everyone should read’ lists. My apologies in advance if your favorite paper or author isn’t on here. But if there are gems you think we've missed, suggestions are welcome (email@example.com)!
*As the lab expands, each member will be encouraged to contribute recommendations of their own.
**Consequently, if you’re a prospective student or postdoc, I imagine this list might give you a helpful sense of what types of questions and approaches I get most excited about.
Matt’s paper recommendations:
1. Detecting causality in complex ecosystems (Sugihara et al. 2012, Science 338: 496)
Sugihara et al. develop a new method of time-series analysis, which uses manifold reconstruction to identify causal links between variables. They use their approach to show that sea surface temperature, not competition, is likely responsible for sardine-anchovy cycles in the California Current. Their approach has since expanded into a larger toolbox and R package. Although originally developed for ecology, this toolbox could be applied to any quasi-stationary system with observational time-series data. It likely has broad applicability in economics and other social sciences. In fact, it is one of the few papers that I’ve seen published in the years since I became an academic that I think could earn a Nobel Prize one day (if so, probably in Economics, but maybe in Physiology and Medicine).
2. Human cooperation (Rand and Nowak 2013, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17: 413)
Updating a previous review by Nowak (2006, Science 314: 1560), Rand and Nowak provide an accessible review of research on some of the main mechanisms by which human cooperation may have evolved.
3. Entrepreneurs, chance, and the deterministic concentration of wealth (Fargione et al. 2011, PLoS One 6: e20728)
This may be the most underappreciated paper I know of. Fargione et al. use a simple agent-based model to show that--even absent differences in initial wealth, talent, opportunity, etc.--the combination of chance and inheritance causes wealth to deterministically and rapidly concentrate. They also show how estate taxes (taxes on inheritance) can be used to alleviate wealth concentration by this mechanism.
4. Rules rather than discretion: The inconsistency of optimal plans (Kydland and Prescott 1977, Journal of Political Economy 85: 473)
Economists often use optimal control theory to analyze how 'social planners' (i.e., governments, resource managers, etc.) should set policy. But it turns out control theory often doesn't work when the social planner is trying to manage a system in which rational actors, who can influence the objective, are responding adaptively to the management outcome. In such cases, the social planner ends up wanting to make different and contradictory choices at different times. For instance, a government might want to have a policy of not negotiating with hostage takers so that there is little incentive to take their nationals hostage. But once their nationals are already hostage, they might rather negotiate. Knowing this, hostage takers may become emboldened to take hostages despite the no-negotiating policy. Kydland and Prescott demonstrate this class of problems and argue that rules (e.g., don't negotiate with hostage takers under any circumstances) result in better outcomes than discretion. This was one of the key contributions that won Kydland and Prescott the Nobel Prize in economics in 2004.
5. The new synthesis in moral psychology (Haidt 2007, Science 316: 998)
One of the reasons I include this paper is that Haidt's book expanding on this topic, The Righteous Mind, barely missed making my book list below. Moral psychology is rapidly emerging as a field that anyone concerned about the modern state of political polarization and 'post-truth' discourse needs a primer in. In this paper, Haidt offers a concise and accessible primer of our current understanding (as of 2007) of how moral thinking works, what social purposes it serves, and how political differences can be partly traced to different weights people put on five moral foundations (harm, fairness, ingroup, authority, purity).
6. Habitat destruction and the extinction debt (Tilman et al. 1994, Nature 371: 65)
This paper provides one of my favorite examples of an extremely simple model with very powerful insight. The whole paper is two pages long. In it, Tilman et al. show that habitat destruction can deterministically doom species to future extinction, but it can take a while for the extinction to materialize. Thus, it can be thought of as an 'extinction debt' that will be collected from future generations owing to today's habitat destruction.
7. Productivity is a poor predictor of plant species richness (Adler et al. 2011, Science 333: 1750)
Whenever a colleague of mine is disappointed by a negative result, I always send them this paper. Negative results are results! They often—as in this case—carry really important insights. Publishing them is good for science. In ecology, the role of ecosystem productivity in regulating biodiversity has been debated for decades, with one prevailing view being that species richness has a hump-shaped relationship (initially increasing and later decreasing) with productivity. In a study of nearly 50 plant communities on five continents, Adler et al. found that productivity simply was not a very good predictor of plant species richness--an important negative result, suggesting that researchers should look at other mechanisms driving multivariate links between productivity and richness. This paper was published in Science and has been cited >300 times as of July 2018.
8. Combining satellite imagery and machine learning to predict poverty (Jean et al. 2016, Science 353: 790)
This list could not have been complete without a paper making clever use of the modern computational and 'big data' revolutions to achieve an important insight. In this paper, Jean et al. develop a method that uses nighttime maps, daytime imagery, and machine learning to estimate local consumption and wealth. They test their method in five African countries, finding that their approach can explain 75% of the variation in observed local outcomes.
9. Prices vs. quantities (Weitzman 1974, Review of Economic Studies 41: 477)
This is another one of my favorite examples of a fairly simple theory with a very powerful insight, and continuing policy relevance. In highly stylized models, in which planners have perfect information, regulating pollution and other public bads using quantity instruments (e.g., tradable quotas) achieves the same outcomes as does using price instruments (e.g., taxes). Weitzman shows how uncertainty in the costs of abating pollution (or other analogous public bads), and in the benefits and costs of production and pollution to society, breaks the equivalence of price and quantity instruments. He illustrates conditions under which each type of instrument is expected to produce better results on average than the other. Weitzman's insights remain relevant to important public policy debates, such as whether to use carbon taxes or cap-and-trade to reduce carbon pollution.
10. Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science (Open Science Collaboration 2015, Science 349: aac4716)
This paper is a key part of the reproducibility revolution currently ongoing in the field of psychological science. The authors attempted to replicate 100 experimental and correlation studies published in top psychology journals in 2008. Their replications confirmed the result of the original study in only one third to one half of cases, highlighting the scale of the reproducibility problem in the field, and shedding light on the appropriate level of skepticism with which readers should treat un-replicated results of individual studies.
Matt’s book recommendations:
1. The Sense of Style (Steven Pinker 2014, Penguin)
This is the how-to guide to modern writing that everyone should read. It provides in-depth style advice rooted in the cognitive science of how readers digest what they read. Reading this book, which I did over Christmas in 2014, had by far the greatest positive impact on my writing of any single piece of advice I've read or received.
2. Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahnemann 2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A great primer on some of the most important insights from behavioral economics, and the cognitive science behind it. Like DeFries's The Big Ratchet (#7 below) and West's Scale (#9 below), this is a book that will make you love science, if you don't already.
3. Political Tribes (Amy Chua 2018, Random House)
One of the most incisive and accessible reviews of political tribalism and the challenges it poses to foreign policy, domestic politics, and democracy. A must-read for the current moment in history.
4. The Defining Decade (Meg Jay 2013, Twelve)
An excellent, no-nonsense, self-help book aimed at helping people in their twenties maximize their happiness and success. Much of Jay's advice can be applied to other stages of life as well.
5. The Blank Slate (Steven Pinker 2003, Penguin)
It is an indisputable fact that humans, our behaviors, and our cognition, are and have been shaped by evolutionary forces, and we are not born a 'blank slate'. However, human nature is often ignored or denied in academia and politics. Such denials are typically rooted in laudable ethical objectives, such as non-discrimination and desires to avoid repeating past atrocities (e.g., eugenics) fueled partly by warped interpretations of the science of human nature. Pinker argues that, besides being scientifically untenable, denials of human nature often undermine the very ethical objectives that they intend to serve. Moreover, denials of human nature can just as easily be warped to motivate atrocities (e.g., mass murder and repression under communism).
6. The Bottom Billion (Paul Collier 2007, Oxford University Press)
Collier offers a sharp and concise summary of insights from decades of development research into what is keeping the poorest countries poor, why many foreign aid interventions have failed, and what might be done differently to achieve better results going forward.
7. The Big Ratchet (Ruth DeFries 2014, Basic Books)
In turbulent times, with major environmental problems like climate change already here and wreaking havoc, DeFries offers a much-needed splash of optimism. She details how, throughout human history, we have faced many major challenges, and we have been able to innovate our way towards remarkable progress despite these challenges.
8. Why Nations Fail (Acemoglu and Robinson 2012, Crown Publishing)
Acemoglu and Robinson—two of the foremost thinkers in political economy—offer a compelling argument about why some nations have achieved remarkable prosperity, while others—despite sometimes starting from seemingly similar circumstances—have not. The key difference, they argue, is institutions—'extractive' ones (which allow a small group to hoard wealth and power without creating value) in failing nations, and 'inclusive' ones (which provide the masses with secure opportunities to achieve their potential, contribute to society, and be rewarded for doing so) in succeeding nations.
9. Scale (Geoffrey West 2017, Random House)
Did you know that all mammals have on average roughly the same number of total heartbeats during their lifetimes? Did you know that people walk faster on average in bigger cities? West's book describes how the mathematics of hierarchal networks predicts with impressive accuracy how many features of biological (e.g., organisms) and social (e.g., cities, companies) entities scale with the size of the entity. He concludes with a partly speculative discussion of the implications of these scaling laws for sustainability, one of which is that major technological innovations will have to become progressively more frequent to sustain the current trajectory of humanity and the human footprint.
10. Zombie Economics (John Quiggin 2012, Princeton University Press)
The financial crisis of 2008 brought into sharp focus the shortcomings of several leading economic theories of the time. Quiggin reviews some of these theories, the evidence refuting them, and how they remain influential in some academic and political circles despite this evidence. For those interested in how parts of the economics profession are currently reinventing themselves, this is a great introduction to where we've been and some of the places we might be headed.
Tara's paper recommendations:
1. Jean N, et al. 2016. Combining satellite imagery and machine learning to predict poverty. Science 353(6301): 790-794.
2. Burke M, Lobell DB. 2017. Satellite-based assessment of yield variation and its determinants in smallholder African systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114(9): 2189-2194.
3. Carletto G, Jolliffe D, Banerjee R. 2015. From tragedy to renaissance: improving agricultural data for better policies. Journal of Development Studies 51(2): 133-148.
4. Bak P, Tang C, Wiesenfeld K. 1988. Self-organized criticality. Physical Review A 38(1): 364-374.
5. Sendzimir J, Reij CP, Magnuszewski P. 2011. Rebuilding resilience in the Sahel: regreening in the Maradi and Zinder regions of Niger. Ecology and Society 16(3): 1.
Tara's book recommendations:
1. Murakami, Haruki. Men Without Women. Vintage, 2014.
2. Murakami, Haruki. 1Q84. Random House, 2012.
3. McCann, Colum. Let The Great World Spin. Random House, 2009.
4. Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. Villard, 1996.
5. Rich, Adrienne. The Dream of a Common Language. W.W. Norton & Co., 1978.
6. Bernstein, Nell. Burning down the house: The end of juvenile prison. New Press, The, 2014.
7. Desmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Crown Books, 2016.
8. Eltahawy, Mona. Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015.
Ryan's paper recommendations:
1. Food web complexity and species diversity (Paine 1966, The American Naturalist 100:910)
2. Species packing and competitive equilibrium for many species (MacArthur 1970 Theoretical population biology 1:1)
3. Trophic structure stability and faunal change during recolonization (Heatwole and Levins 1972, Ecology 53:3)
4. Detecting strange attractors in turbulence (Takens 1981, Dynamical systems and turbulence 366-381)
5. Nonlinear forecasting for the classification of natural time series (Sugihara 1994, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A 348:1688)
Ryan's book recommendations:
1. Ficciones (Jorge Luis Borges 1962, Grove Press)
2. Gödel, Escher, Bach (Douglas Hofstadter 1979, Basic Books)
3. Growth and Development (Robert Ulanowicz 1986, Springer)
4. The Eye of the World (Robert Jordan 1990, Tor Books)
5. Strange Pilgrims (Gabriel García Márquez 1993, Penguin Books)