Book review: Dance with Chance, by Makridakis/ Hogarth/ Gaba

This ambitious book is chock-full of quotes and quips, but it struggles to make a useful point, says Andrew Davidson.

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

What a piece of luck! A book on chance arrives on my desk. Will it prove provocative? Will it lapse into an irritating, matey question mode to camouflage its well-researched core? Let's take a look.

Makridakis, Hogarth and Gaba, the three authors of Dance With Chance - all business school professors - love a bit of chumminess. They exhort, they chide, they joke, they start tougher sections with 'Let's turn our attention to'. All so they can lead us by the hand through some knotty subjects.

Perhaps that's no bad thing. They try to unpick how chance can unravel our best-laid plans - yes, the Burns quote is in there - yet how we humans love 'the illusion of control'. This has implications for the way we approach financial markets, how we organise our wealth and look after our health. It's all slightly tragic, when a tsunami can whisk us off the beach, or a coconut drop on our head.

You're thinking: I don't need this. Why would I want to read 287 pages that delight in showing how life and luck always trip us up? But persevere - it's full of unexpected pleasures. Alas, one is missing. The book must have been in proof when the full extent of the meltdown became evident. Bad luck indeed. The blurb promises: 'You'll discover why no one predicted the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression' - but actually, you won't. That's a publisher covering the options. The coconut got this trio good and proper.

How great it would have been to have them dissect Madoff madness or skewer the bankers in their exposition of boom and bust. For parts of this book are fascinating and provocative. A section on life expectancy and forecasting narrows into an analysis of why prostate cancer screening encourages more men to go under the knife than it should. It's all good stuff.

The problem lies in what business publishers call 'the take-away', the easy-read lessons readers crave. On the unreliability of medicine, the authors' advice seems to be: get a second opinion and do a lot of research on the internet.

Well, thankyou, but that's not news to me. Likewise, when they move to the markets and start unpicking trends. There is snappy analysis of the effect of gurus and on how esteemed companies can swiftly disappear. Tom Peters and Jim Collins get a slap for their methodology, while Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Taleb receive fond cuddles. Taleb, author of the much-praised The Black Swan, gives our authors a nice quote for their front cover. I am not suggesting for a moment there's a connection - oh, alright, I am.

So how should we protect ourselves in this wild world? Here's their advice on planning for the unexpected in financial markets: diversify your investments. Blimey, there's a novel thought. And the book finishes with a wrap-up on happiness, and how we can find more of it: play golf, see friends, be healthy. Good points, but I've heard them before.

And that is the nub. This book is stuffed with fascinating facts, it is ambitious in scope and endlessly discursive. There are nuggets you can impress your friends with, and quotes from high and low culture, so that you are never more than a page away from a quip or an epigram. But I'm just not sure it has got a useful point to make.

The section on patterns is frustratingly short, and that initial foray into medical negligence and best practice could have grown to be its own book. But in the end, the authors can't advise on how to make luck work for you.

As Bertrand Russell put it: 'To teach how to live with uncertainty, yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy can do.' But this ain't philosophy. The Russell quote, by the way, is another the authors pop in, and then squash with a bouncy 'don't worry, we're not heading off into the esoteric realms of philosophy'. Why not? They've headed everywhere else.

At times it's like being taken on a moorland yomp by your local pub quiz champions, who know a lot about everything but promptly get lost everywhere, never finding the promised destination. It's fun, till you get tired. 'Will this book ... sell?' they ask chirpily. 'Will readers like it?' Oh, shut up. What they needed to do was pare it down. Shit happens, and we deal with it, or not. There you are, saved you the price of the book.

Dance With Chance: Making luck work for you
Spyros Makridakis, Robin Hogarth and Anil Gaba

Andrew Davidson is business editor of the forthcoming '1000 CEOs', published by Dorling Kindersley

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