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Large home libraries may have a long-term impact on proficiency: study (smithsonianmag.com)
249 points by devy 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 153 comments

I grew up in a household that had passed that 350 book mark, and beyond all of the actual meaningful improvements it has made to my life, it also meant that reading comprehension on standardized testing was laughably easy. So teach your kids to love books, and enjoy reading. It doesn't have to be high-brow intellectually challenging shit, just make sure that they associate books with fun.

I think most parents with large household libraries are probably pretty bright. And most kids from pretty bright parents are pretty bright too.

You could fill a library with all the studies that tried to improve people's lives through increased reading. And none of them replicated in large way.

You should check out '30 million words'. It's a book about the importance of spoken language on young minds, and books may be a means. Fascinating data in it.

Before I invest the time.and money in buying a book. How did they deal with the confounds? And was there a study on the intervention you could point me to?

Reading the summary of the book on Amazon, the experiments looked pretty confounded and it didn't mention any successful interventions.

I think that last part is especially true.

Due to school and forced reading assingments, reading gets associated too often with work or boring assignments.

In elementary school we would have assigned reading periods, during which we were supposed to read one chapter of the book we were on. Turns out that if you read five chapters instead you just fail all the quizzes because you don't have a fucking clue what happened in chapter 12, given you read that weeks ago and can't really tie chapters to events anyway.

They tend to try to make reading excruciating, particularly before high schools. I don't know if they still do this, but for some reason it was a big trend when I was in grade school to break up into "reading groups", and you'd go around in a circle reading a paragraph at a time out loud. I still despise reading aloud for that reason; I always got a rash of shit for being a few chapters ahead when my turn came up again and having to page back to find the right spot.

Reading aloud is something I've returned to in later years as speaking practice, vocal warmup, and testing my own writing. It was, of course, a chore in school.

That's true. I was reading a lot as a kid but I barely read anything we had to read for school. Reading assignments took the fun out of reading because now you had the pressure to be able to report on the reading.

To be fair, interpretation and writing are just as important as reading.

I strongly disagree. I think enjoyment of reading is vastly more important that interpretation and writing. What is the point of these kinds of assignments if it causes the kids to have negative associations with reading?

Even beyond school though, I find the idea that good novels require careful analysis antithetical to the concept of a good book. Good writing should be excellent at every level. It is wonderful if new narratives and ideas can be discovered upon careful analysis, but if that analysis is necessary for comprehension it ruins it for me. I believe that reading a story should be something natural and seamless.

Yeah, I strongly believe that all books carry significant value. You don’t need high level concepts to gain value. We sometimes over focus on the best case scenrerio ignoring what we can get kids interested in.

What I really hated in primary school was that when you finished your homework, you were allowed to read a book. However, all the books were pretty dated and not all that interesting. Furthermore, when you'd finished it, you'd have to write a report on it. One year, I got sick of this system, so I found one book I enjoyed and basically read that one a couple dozen times over the rest of the year.

School assignments should always be voluntary.

In a sense, they are. You'll just lose points for not doing the work. Clearly not what you were suggesting of course, but it's true.

Can you clarify how you think this would work?

>> it also meant that reading comprehension on standardized testing was laughably easy

I'm actually curious to hear how various HNers have done on on standardized reading comprehension tests. I grew up with massive bookcases in the house, I've now populated my own, I read a lot, get a lot out of it, and enjoy it. On the ACT I had perfect scores on every category but a literal 0 on reading comprehension. As far as I'm aware, that's always been the case on my standardized tests, and I wasn't surprised because the questions seemed ludicrous to me (I nodded vigorously while reading [1]). I primarily read non-fiction and have wondered if I just don't grok fiction. What are other people's experience on that?

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/01/...

I read a ton as a kid, and I always struggled a bit on reading comprehension tests. To me it generally seemed like the "reading comprehension" questions would focus on minutia I didn't consider important, and simply didn't bother to remember. It's been a long time since then, but I want to say I'd read a story about a kid sledding on a hill with his friends, and then later to test your reading comprehension they'd ask you what color his shirt was.

Maybe that is reading comprehension and I am just bad at it, but to me shirt color was unimportant.

I can't imagine why just memorizing shirt colors would be worthwhile.

But if, for example, the author made it clear that the other kids were all wearing the same color shirt and the main character was not, you might infer something about their relationship from that--like maybe that the other kids all went to the same school, but the lead character went to a different school.

Details do matter for reading comprehension, because every detail is chosen. The real world is full of superfluous detail... writing, especially good writing, is not. Every word on the page represents a choice by the author--a choice to put that detail in, and to use that particular word instead of a different one.

The color thing maybe is an indirect test to see if you're actually imagining the scene vividly, instead of thinking of it as some abstract "sledding" activity. It's not really memorization... Though literal imagining of things is something not everyone can do, so it also seems out of place on a reading comprehension test.

Personally I don't really appreciate any comprehension tests that can be answered somewhat easily by computers, which the "shirt color" thing could be. And tests that are hacked by simple human algorithms are boring. In elementary school I got really far ahead in extra credit reading packets by realizing I could skip the reading and just go straight to the questions, skim for the answer, repeat. Somehow I think that certain peers in high school never mastered this trick since they were complaining about lack of time on the ACT... The better test of comprehension was to read something and then write about it, but the writing section of the ACT was separated and made optional.

And yet standardized test writers seem to think they understand those choices better than the authors themselves.

Critics have an opportunity to understand those choices better than the authors themselves because critics have the opportunity to look at the work from a different perspective.

Just because every bit of writing is a choice, that doesn't mean the author him- or herself fully understood why they made that choice. We're all shaped by our own life experiences, our family, the time in which we grew up, etc. Often, it's easier for a third party to connect those dots. That's why coaching and therapy works, for instance.

That said, when we're talking about standardized tests, they tend to (and should be) sticking to pretty well-understood and obvious examples of this sort of thing.

And of course, sometimes they're just not well done. Standardized test writers face the same challenges as every other writer, and I think we can guess that the very best writers probably do not end up in that job...

I'm sorry you completely lost me in the second paragraph. If reading comprehension comes anywhere near connecting an author's life experience to their word choice, then I'll gladly take my 0 and call the whole thing garbage. Sure, coaching and therapy work. They're also fields that churn out massive amounts of pseudo-science when it suits the author's ego.

If I do not understand why I write something, then some critic that cannot see into my mind is hardly going to make a better effort. Anything they said would be mostly speculation.

You aren't supposed to read the text and then answer the questions from memory.

You are supposed to look at the question and then find the answer in the text.

We were explicitly taught to read the questions first, then scan for the question's keywords in the text, and pick the answer based on the best match for that sentence alone.

I agree; I typically finished a book a week just reading between classes in highschool (and more at night), and was one of the only ones who could fully read the passage and still have time to answer all the questions. They were weirdly analytical and overly-literal, not something that made any sense in a "comprehension" test.

We had a few books at home, but more at my grandparents and my mom worked as a librarian for awhile. Reading was always for enjoyment and fun, so it was easy to read when 'required.' I never struggled with standardized tests. I was shocked and disappointed if I wasn't somewhere in the 90+ percent range on a test, and once scored an 800 on the GRE.

I read constantly when I was younger, mostly fiction. The first time I took one of those reading comprehension tests in grade 4 or something it said I was reading around a grade 12 level. I've also got a fairly high reading speed and retention level for fiction.

Non-fiction is different. I read slower and usually end up rereading sections a few times to fully understand them especially if I speed up and start skimming or something.

The thing is, I don't really read much fiction anymore. I find the stories all get kind of samey and findy self leaning towards technical books and non-fiction when I read now.

I do feel like comprehending fiction and non-fiction require two different skill sets in the brain. I've definitely been improving my comprehension of non-fiction stuff but I still don't feel like it's up there with fiction comprehension.

Poetry and stuff like that is something altogether different...i've never really been able to appreciate most poetry. I don't know why. I understand why it's impressive to be able to convey ideas through rythmic or patternised wording...I just don't really care that much.

I started reading from a very young age, as a hobby & used to read any & every book available around me. So much that had been termed as bookworm by siblings or people around me.

At age of 28 I took IELTS test or International English Language Testing System, which has four modules Reading Writing Speaking Listening. I always scored full bands on Reading & I believe its because of all those years of me reading & loving enjoying the process of it. Reading module for me felt like always too easy & simple, whereas others used to dread it. Although at same time, I was terrible at explaining the same module to others that why I think x is the answer to y question.

I read a lot of hindi comic books & literally used to feel like watching a movie with all those sound effects of punches flights laughs etc instead of just reading.

I think standardized tests are just not the way to measure reading comprehension, and questions like those in the article you linked are totally detached from reality. I personally managed to get by okay on them, but it seems pretty well understood that true comprehension - at least when it comes to fiction - is best gotten at in a more discussion based setting with more flexible interpretative possibilities.

I actually had a whole other experience being a really slow reader, and got taken out of other subjects to spend more time on it even though I scored "college level" on vocabulary. Always wondered if it's due to some mild dyslexia or something.

I always found that the reading comprehension part of the test as the easiest by far, and would generally score at the highest level the test could predict.

I can offer these two data points: CA High SChool Exit Exam percentile: Reading: 99%, Spelling: 12%.

10 years later Im still of the opinion that if you deduced my intent, how i spelt everything really doesn't matter all that much.

I grew up in a house of readers. My earliest exposure was a 500+ comic book collection before I knew how to read, which graduated to children's novels by early elementary, and devouring the classics beginning in 3rd grade. By high school I was finishing most the 'great american authors'. During HS french existentialists and the beatniks were perfect foundations for a too-smart-for-his-own-good arrogant teen. I am lucky to be alive. I dropped out of high school, but tricked my way into Harvard. Worked with Mandelbrot, was on the Sony PSX OS team, and quite a bit more. Primarily thanks to my exposure to multiple lifetimes of wisdom, generating inner confidence, thanks to reading. It's been quite entertaining, to say the least...

We all can't be high brow, at times the VCR manual does the job.


Halfway through the article, when I saw the part about how the number of books varied between nations, I thought, "oh cool! They're going to use that to address the possible confounding affects, since otherwise you might just be measuring whether parents who make sure their kids are well educated end up with a lot of books in their home. If kids in the 90th percentile for their country (for number of books in their home) have less similar outcomes than kids with the same number of books (from different countries), this would be indicative that the books that actually matter." If that point is in the article, though, it's sure not in Smithsonian's article, and since it's Elsevier I can't look at the original. :(

I'll bet you equally good correlations can be found when the parents have a Kindle library that the kid doesn't have access to. You'd expect articles like this to have a paragraph, "The researchers controlled for biological heredity by ________" but it seems they don't want you to take them seriously.

Edit: Oh, they also show that growing up in a home full of books makes you more numerate, too. So, no surprise, there's a general intelligence factor involved that has nothing to do with books.

> when I saw the part about how the number of books varied between nations, I thought, "oh cool! They're going to use that to address the possible confounding affects, since otherwise you might just be measuring whether parents who make sure their kids are well educated end up with a lot of books in their home

Per the abstract to the original article, they didn't need to address parental education as a confounding factor by such an indirect means, since parental education (as well as the subject’s education and occupation) was one of the directly studied factors, and the library size contribution existed even after taking those other factors into account.

> and since it's Elsevier I can't look at the original.

Well, yeah, I'd like more than just the abstract and secondhand reporting, too.

My parents would basically (with a few exceptions due to price) buy me any book I wanted growing up (without it hitting into my allowance); they thought it was incredibly important to grow up well-read, and even more important to learn how to teach yourself stuff, and similarly every standardized test I took was insultingly easy.

I'm definitely not some pillar of intellectual vigor either (I don't even have a college degree), so the fact that my reading comprehension is good, I think, is because of the exposure to books.

That said, I realize that one anecdote doesn't mean anything.

>That said, I realize that one anecdote doesn't mean anything.

Nevetheless, I appreciate the hack you suggested of excluding books from allowance. As a parent, that's something I'll now implement. Thanks for sharing.

Do you charge your kids' allowance for food? Rent? If you all go out to eat?

It's odd to me that anyone would ever think of charging their child for a book.

I have heard of parents making kids buy their own clothing out of allowance, as a way of teaching them the value of money and how to shop responsibly.

My parents never bought us (or themselves) books, but they took us to the library all the time, and we all like to read. I now take my kids to the library often as well.

Buying as many books as we read as kids would have cost a fortune.

I completely agree with this article, based on my own anecdotal experiences (I don't think the science behind this article was the best, but I'll save that for another post).

My great grandma never had the chance to go to school, but she loved to read. She would work, save up, and buy books whenever she could. Books were all she ever wanted for her birthday or Christmas. Even though she had no formal education to speak of, she was an intelligent woman and wrote prose and poetry as good as any I experienced in college.

My great-grandmother's love of reading has been passed down through four generations now (down to my children). I have over a thousand books in my house, some of which belonged to my great-grandmother. I learned software engineering by reading books I borrowed from my local public library and built a successful career through reading and studying these freely available tomes on my own. When my kids were in school, I told them to put all their efforts into reading. I knew from personal experience that if they could read well they would be able to learn anything they wanted to. So far, that has been the case.

If I could only have one life skill, it would be reading. Having access to hundreds of books growing up certainly helped me and made me who I am today. Of course, having books around does nothing for you unless you crack them open and read. The only downside has been schlepping all those books around every time we move.

The study this summary refers to studied books as an indicator of a “culture of scholasticism.” It didn’t even really try to disentangle socioeconomic effects, because it was looking to use books as a proxy for them.

It did not say “books in the home make you smarter.” It was arguing “books are a reasonable cross-cultural proxy for orientation towards scholasticism in the home.”

This summary, to my reading of the actual article, completely confuses cause and effect.

Their confusion goes beyond using books as a proxy for scholasticism.

No doubt its just a proxy for IQ itself (higher IQ people tend to read more books, thus own more books, thus score better on scholastic measures).

I grew up in a house that had a library with 1000+ books. Unfortunately I didn't read much of any of them. Nobody ever tried to get me to read them. However, I blame myself for not reading much as a kid.

My point being that the mere presence of books is not enough.

I don’t think it makes sense to blame yourself. It is absolutely the job of parents to encourage their kids to read from a young age.

To kids, reading looks terribly boring, until they actually find a book they like - then they devour everything in sight.

How much I miss the combination of childhood imagination and fantastic stories!

> To kids, reading looks terribly boring, until they actually find a book they like - then they devour everything in sight.

So important and always ignored. My mom read to us often, and I and my brothers hated reading. Later I encountered an Animorphs book and that was my gateway. One of my brothers, several years after that, discovered Redwall, and that did it for him.

Redwall and Salamandastron were great stories. Go Matthias.

I believe that talent is best understood as arising from liking the thing you do, thus seeking it out from a young age, during the period when practice is most effective. It is the fact that one does not find most things boring that makes a person talented.

Having casual access to books at home is critical for cultivating a talent for reading, because it increases the likelihood of the child stumbling upon the books that will catch their attention.

I had mostly infinite access to all kinds of media so would always turn to video games and TV. These things are now so affordable that I imagine that is the norm for kids today.

I am curious if there is a big difference between immersing yourself in video game worlds compared to a books. Books would require more imagination, but early video games were pretty sparse and often required a large amount of imagination as well.

Kids are not supposed to make the right choice on their own. Someone should have nudged you a bit into reading.

Growing up, we had very few books in my house. My grand parents on the other hand had a library, full encyclopedia, and hundreds of National Geographic back issues. Combined with nothing else to do at their house, I would often just sit and read from random articles. At the time, I found fiction boring. It was not until much later that I began to appreciate fiction.

Fair, I grew up in the middle of nowhere, tv was a weekend only activity, and internet was pretty strictly regulated. As a result I read a lot.

Why does that point follow? Do you feel your literacy, numeracy, and technical skills are lower than the average population?

I read an average amount as a child and frankly I found books such as "The Count of Monte Cristo", "The Red Badge of Courage", "Great Expectations", etc to be absolutely mind-numbingly boring and would have to force myself to finish them. As a young adult I actually picked up some books I found interesting (i.e. nonfiction) and became a voracious reader. It was like an entire new world had opened up that wasn't constrained by the boundaries of some form of supervision. Admittedly, most of my reading as a youngster came in school and you were either reading fiction, or nonfiction that had to do with the holocaust or WWII. My advice to young people struggling with books is to find a genre that interests you, and dive in.

I mean those books you listed as examples are not aimed at children at all and indeed in the modern era are not really particularly good in a modern cultural context. That does not mean that they are not worth reading, but if they were the things that you thought most worth reading as a child it's not a surprise you were dissapointed.

I am unable to read the actual study (paywall) and this article doesn't really talk about the methodology, but did they account for socioeconomic factors?

I would assume on average that the more books your family could afford, the more money they have.

Great, thanks! It looks like they didn't account for family wealth unless I'm mistaken.

In the omitted variables section:

> However, prior research using longitudinal data from Australia with corrections for measurement error showed that a substantial impact of home library size on adult education existed net of the effects of academic ability (IQ) of adults or their father’s scholarly habitus (i.e. employment in occupations where use of books is common) as well as family income or wealth (Evans, et al., 2010).

The relevant bit from the paper, emphasis mine:

> Cross-sectional data with retrospective indicators of scholarly culture are affected by measurement error and indicators could reflect unmeasured influence of other confounding variables which may lead to over-optimistic estimates (de Vries and de Graaf, 2008). However, prior research using longitudinal data from Australia with corrections for measurement error showed that a substantial impact of home library size on adult education existed net of the effects of academic ability (IQ) of adults or their father's scholarly habits (i.e. employment in occupations where use of books is common) as well as family income or wealth (Evans et al., 2010). Although we have no means of correcting for these potential biases in ways available in longitudinal data, we argue that even somewhat optimistic estimates are of value as an initial step in proposing and assessing hypotheses for future, more stringent tests. To limit the potential for confounding adolescent and adult literacy-enhancing activities, we control for adult out-of-work activities related to literacy, numeracy and ICT skills that might correlate with scholarly culture experienced in adolescence but are indicators of adult scholarly culture.

> I am unable to read the actual study (paywall)

Here you go: https://sci-hub.tw/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2018.10.003

I wonder how outdated/lagging these studies are.

When I was a kid I was reading nearly every waking moment between say 3rd grade and 9th because It was the only form of entertainment I had (until I got a computer). That is because my parents thought that TV rotted a child's brain and didn't have one in the house until after I left.

Today, my kids read, but they have phones, TV's, computers, and a ton of other distractions that have proven nearly impossible to control without an outright ban in the whole house.

> and a ton of other distractions that have proven nearly impossible to control without an outright ban in the whole house.

So your parents were right.

I grew up in similar environment my parents restricted how much TV my sisters and I were allowed to watch. We were given a certain number of hours of TV a week that they would let us watch (something like 3 hours per week) and as punishment for failing to do chores or similar we would have some tv time taken away.

As a result we read a lot of books. I also spent a lot of time playing with things like Lego and as I got older I was into Meccano and building Model aircraft/cars etc.

Eventually I got into Computers. In my mid teens I bought a second hand computer (a 386) from street market. It wasn't working so I read up on how it all worked tracked down spare parts etc and once I got it booting I spent hours everyday on the thing.

Leaving aside the poor science of this study, I wonder if there is any impact to the fact that I have a large collection of books that sit on my kindle. Living in my parents house I was surrounded and influenced by their books. My children read a lot, but they may not be as aware as I was of what their parents are reading. And there is a lot less of that social signaling that happens when a guest sees a book on the bookshelf that they read or are interested in.

This particular instance of correlation and causation has always been fascinating to me.

Is it possible to have a non causal correlation that is impossible to bring about without increasing (causing) the effect.

For instance suppose you tried an experiment of getting 500 books into a household with a new infant and zero books. Let’s say you did this with no special attempt to produce the cause, but made no attempt to ensure the process of getting 500 books over there had no influence either.

How would you go about this? Ask for donations? Collect books? How would you find donors, how would you find families to donate to?

My guess, which I make purely on a hunch, is that you would have to make dramatic (perhaps unconscionable) efforts to ensure that this process would not bring about the effect of higher literacy on average.

Not sure by how much but I think (just a thesis) that it would be meaningfully measurable

Books are cheap. I'd get 500 books from a used bookstore and put them in a hut in some primitive village. Note that books would not be in the native language, and nobody in the village can read anyway. My hypothesis is that books will make no difference.

An interesting and useful experiment would be to place books in the homes of poor people who can read but don't. Turns out cities all over the US are doing this experiment on a large scale right now (often paid for by United Way). While the experiment isn't completely controlled anyone who cares to can collect data and analyse it.

Sounds like they’re running the experiment. The first scenario you described is a good illustration of the kind of effort it would take to ensure no effect. The second? I’d be interested in knowing how they find families and decide what books to include. I’d expect (and I admit I hope) it will have a measurable efect.

I’ll search for it but please post a link if you have one.


They claim studies support the idea, but I'm not able to figure out which

Or it could be only a correlation. Smart parents have books, but they also have smart children.

Maybe.... natural predilection is no replacement for experience, though, and reading is a type of experience. Arguably a high quality one.

Also, there are obviously countless examples of seemingly intelligent people having kids which aren’t.

Yes. Genetics is messy and non-exact, but on the _average_ IQ is highly heritable.

On the average, IQ is 100. That is quite heritable. I’m not sure that’s meaningful genetically.

Even correlated high IQ across generations can easily be a nuture over nature deal—see the above article for one hypothesis.

Finally, even if high IQ is genetically heritable, it may still require cultural or experiential “activation” to nuture intrinsic ability.

There are simply too many variables to casually state any causal relation.

No, the average of white people was normed at 100. I'm saying the average case is that people are the average of their parents. I'm not a genetic determinist and I am not an environmental determinist, but there is vast amounts of evidence that IQ is, for a large proportion of the causality, a heritable trait.

Wikipedia says: "The heritability of IQ for adults is between 47% and 53% with some more-recent estimates as high as 70% and 76%."

My house didn't have that many books (less than 100), but I didn't have a computer (I'm from a developing country), so when I got extremely bored I just picked up whatever book I could to keep myself entertained for a couple of hours. This is how I fell in love with Asimov's stories and eventually got into programming.

As a child in a boarding school I actually got to grow up in a literal library. I would say most of what I am today, the good parts, come from me getting the opportunity to be among books, and that too of such diverse nature.

I liked how Matt Yglesias summarized the quality of this research: "Kids who grow up in households with lots of pants suitable for tall adults grow up to be tall as adults."

Making causal claims without accounting for genetic confounds is simply pseudoscience, there are no excuses.

This comment breaks the site guidelines, which ask: "Please don't post shallow dismissals, especially of other people's work. A good critical comment teaches us something."

It's embarrassing to see HN users reflexively posting (and upvoting) five-second internet tropes to swipe something away. We need to avoid that if we're to have substantive conversation. Criticism is fine, but when criticizing, you owe it both to the material and to the community to engage specifically with specific content.


I usually love your moderation, dang, and agree with you 99.99% of the time. But I think the parent here's criticism of the article does add something - the idea of genetics as a powerful confounding variable. He could have expanded on it, but it didn't add nothing.

Criticizing something that could be wrong with the methodology of a study is always 100% inappropriate. Either you've read the study and understand what it was trying to show and the methodology the authors used, in which case by all means demonstrate that and then state your criticism, or else you haven't and shouldn't comment.

But trying to get others to not read someone else's work or take it seriously based on something you dreamt up that could be wrong with the study design is a completely inappropriate.

"Accounting for genetic confounds" is extremely difficult--so difficult that no one in the world knows how to do it reliably--for basically any aspect of human behavior.

So the dismissal reads like "there's no excuse for not doing an extremely difficult thing that no one knows how to do reliably." I don't find that to be a useful or informative comment, so I agree with dang's approach here.

There's a gazillion twin studies out there. There are huge databases of twins to facilitate their creation. It's really not that difficult. They might be imperfect but I would not call them unreliable.

We already know from earlier twin studies that genetics play a large role in literacy and numeracy.[0][1] So it's not like this is a shot in the dark, everyone already knows it's a confounder that must be taken into account.

[0] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1469-7610.... [1] http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797613486982

I give the post credit in that it provoked your comment and some potentially enlightening discussion for someone not entirely familiar with the study of human behavior (like me). For instance, I would have thought that twin studies might be considered reliable for purposes of accounting for genetic confounds with respect to aspects of human behavior. It sounds from your comment that they are not.

On the OP getting warned, it wasn't immediately clear to me if the objection was more about a) knowledge that Matthew Yglesias didn't read the study and therefore was not in a position to summarize his analysis with a pithy analogy and be quoted, b) the use of any pithy analogy itself, or c) the use of an analogy that seemed to explain a confounding issue? There seemed to be some additional, non-obvious context missing (at least to me) that led to the warning.

> Making causal claims without accounting for genetic confounds is simply pseudoscience, there are no excuses.

This study was done in response to the Scarborough and Dobrich paper that found that how much parents read to their children (generally) isn't correlated with children's future reading ability, but how many books are in their household is a positive predictor of future reading ability.

It's one of the most famous and surprising findings in all of social science.

I'd suggest rather than the authors not "understanding science" or whatever, perhaps it's more likely that their target audience wasn't people on HN who would complain without knowing anything about the field.


That's the whole point - there is research supporting the point that "how many books are in their household is a positive predictor" not only of future reading ability but also a bunch of other things, but there seems to be no research supporting that "Growing Up Surrounded by Books Could Have Powerful, Lasting Effect on the Mind". These are very, very, very different things.

In essence, a very likely explanation for the observed "childhood books vs adult success" observation is that growing up surrounded by books is an indicator that your parents may have higher socioeconomic status than average, or that they have an above average educational background and IQ, or possibly all of it, and for those things it's well known that they have hereditary (both nature-hereditary and nurture-hereditary) effects that indicate that the kids are somewhat more likely to be successful in most aspects of life.

That observation (both in your link and in the studies described in the main article above) is not a reason to assume any causal relationship; the original studies don't claim that, but the article we're discussing does try to imply such claim without any appropriate justification, and that is inexcusable pseudoscience.

> there seems to be no research supporting that "Growing Up Surrounded by Books Could Have Powerful, Lasting Effect on the Mind"

Maybe not in this particular study, but the whole point is that any given study is going to be done in the larger context of a one or more fields of pre-existing research.

If you look at the paper I linked to, the proposed model is that in order for kids to be good at reading, they need to read. And the kids who read the most are going to be those who love reading. Now when you as a parent read books to your kids, some kids will love that and others will hate it. And if you read to them if they don't like it, that can actually turn them off from reading and lead to them being worse at reading in the long term. Whereas if you just leave books around the house, sooner or later they're likely going to read some of them, and are more likely to develop a love of reading just by reading things they're interested in when they're interested in them rather than having reading being forced on them before they're interested.

No one is arguing that there isn't an SES component or whatever. But the actual proposed explanation comes from the context of the last 50+ years of research on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation, and is interesting on its own.

Any one paper isn't going to look at more than one specific thing, but if you're only looking at that one paper without understanding the larger context of the research then you're not going to understand what's interesting about it or why it was worth doing.

> - there is research supporting the point that "how many books are in their household is a positive predictor" not only of future reading ability but also a bunch of other things, but there seems to be no research supporting that "Growing Up Surrounded by Books Could Have Powerful, Lasting Effect on the Mind".

This is self-contradictory. Research that supports “X is a predictor of Y” which does not inherently refute “X is a cause of Y”, in and of itself, is research supporting “X could be a cause of Y”.

> It’s one of the most famous and surprising findings in all of social science.

Kind of makes sense in a way. Only anecdotal, but I’ve learned to read at 5 years of age almost all by myself (my dad had taught me the letters a little time before that) only because I was bored as hell while I was vacationing at my grandparents’ house and there were a couple of books around. I picked one and started reading it loud while I was alone, and that was it. I’m no genius, mind you, that’s why I think that my experience is not unique.

It is ethically impossible to ask for DNA samples to every participants in a social science study. Parent OP comment is equivalent than stating that social science is impossible. As any opinion, it can be held, and yet some people may find it ludicrous.

As for the conclusion of the study, it is rather mild and has been known for a while: social class has impacts on people, especially on education related outcome.

The standard is controls with adopted identical twins.

No one mentioned DNA samples. The standard way to control for genetic differences is to use genetic twins separated at birth and reared apart.

"but how many books are in their household is a positive predictor of future reading ability."

It will be interesting to see how this updates over time. My children are not physically surrounded by books, but they've got Amazon Freetime and nearly blanket permission to use it, which they take advantage of quite a bit. It's a lot more easy access to books than I had at their age.

How about: "Kids who grow up in households full of gym/sports equipments, grow up to be muscular/athletic".

The quality of this research may indeed be poor, but the "tall pants" analogy seems disingenuous.

This is a closer analogy. It has the same "sounds right" appeal, while sharing the problem with confounding variables. But Yglesias' analogy does a much better job of illustrating the problem; it is purposefully absurd in a way that quickly leads to the desired explanation.

I'm finding it interesting to consider all three scenarios together. What is the similarly between your analogy and the book study that makes them sound right while the pants analogy sounds wrong? I contend that it is the aspect of growth through practice. My intuition is that these three scenarios exist on a spectrum with regards to how much affect practice has. It is clear that working out a lot results in more muscles, and it's clear that trying on tall pants a lot does not result in becoming tall. To me, it's also clear that reading a lot of books "exercises" some sort of book-reading "muscle". But it's less clear what the follow-on effects of exercising that muscle might be. It's also not clear whether growing up with either gym equipment or books around usually results in heavy use of those things!

At a very basic level, it gives you experience. “Mileage” is important in mastery of subjects.

Suggesting genetics is responsible instead (as opposed to any other variable) is no less pseudoscience.

If only we could find some smart parents and get them to deny their kids books, we’d know for sure!

Suggesting that genetics could be the causative factor isn't pseudoscience. It's pointing out that this study cannot disambiguate between the two, and so claiming causation is false.

The “claim” the original poster complained about also hedged with the word “could”—it’s in the title ffs.

I am really tired of people talking about correlation and causation and completely ignoring carefully hedged phrases. Can we save them for when articles actually make concrete claims about causal links? There’s still interesting stuff here to discuss, and you can even soapbox your favorite theory. But there’s little to gain from actually discussing the (obvious) lack of causal link here.

Unless you can point out how you’d improve the study—it’s not entirely obvious to me what the next step would be as I’m not a scientist.

>The “claim” the original poster complained about also hedged with the word “could”—it’s in the title ffs.

Fyi... in the abstract of the actual paper that the article is based on, the authors used less hedging and suggested more of a cause & effect:


It also indicates that the conclusion is based on controlling for the major social confounding factors that are typically also viewed as key intermediary mechanisms by which genetic factors influence the outcomes of interest, including both own occupation and educational attainment and parental educational attainment.

Even if the underlying reality is that growing up around books is an effect of a shared hidden (genetic or otherwise) cause, the fact that it is a predictor even after for controlling for the identified alternative factors is quite a significant result.

(Though, as other comments point out, self-reporting may be a problem, though “people that are more successful than expected for their occupation, education, and parental education tend to overreport the number of books they grew up with compared to less successful individuals” would be an interesting result in its own way.)

You're right that the headline is cautious enough not to misrepresent the content of the study. I think controlling for parent and child educational attainment, which likely subsumes much of the possible confounders, is sufficient to claim a plausible causative effect of the presence of books.

Or lock a child in a room full of books for several hours each day as Liebnitz's father's will required to be done to Liebnitz (this may be an apocryphal story).

There’s plenty of smart people who don’t read books, they shouldn’t be hard to find for a study.

It doesn't even need to be genetic. People who deeply value learning and knowledge are likely to transmit those values to their charges, those people are also likely to own lots of books.

Already Freakonomics noted/claimed that reading to kids makes little difference to educational outcome, whereas having lots books at home matters. The following explanation (taken from https://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=1633286&page=1) was given:

"Well, no," he continued. "Much more likely is that any family that has 100 children's books in the home is likely to be pretty highly educated to begin with, is starting out with a pretty high IQ, and values or treasures or rewards education to begin with."

On top of that, the factor under consideration was self-reported:

'Respondents, who ranged in age from 25 to 65, were asked to estimate how many books were in their house when they were 16 years old.'

It's very likely that avid readers will overreport the books, while reluctant readers are likely to underreport.

And then there's those of us where the metric is invalid anyway because we checked them out from the library instead, having a different set of books every week.

> "Kids who grow up in households with lots of pants suitable for tall adults grow up to be tall as adults."

Parenting is rife with cargo cult activity. Even (or perhaps especially) in places like Palo Alto where you'd think parents would have some understanding of statistics and causality.

I think that there's an uncanny valley for statistics: Some people don't care about statistics and prefer to operate on philosophy, some people know about statistics but generally choose not to act on them because they know they don't understand, but a lot of people are aware enough of statistics to use them, and not skilled enough with them to know what conclusions they can draw.

Correlation does not equal causation but it must exist for causation to occur. I wouldn't dismiss a correlation on those grounds.

LOL. The fact remains that when you have a household full of books, it means that your parents or the people in your household READ. Period. It says that learning is emphasized. Screw genetics, you will read.

Even without reading them, the books on my parents' shelves had an affect on me due to the wacky titles. They stuck in my mind and to this day, I can still remember them: "Blind Ambition" or "The Winds of War" or "The Greening of America" - seeing these as a kid caused me to ask lots of questions, i.e. who is John Dean and why is America turning green? :)

I never had much of a home library my formative years (would estimate < 50, maybe < 30), but I always had such easy access to public libraries (in my schools, and more importantly one within walking distance in my town) that I still easily consumed 1-3 new books a week for most of my childhood and teenage years. While 500 books in a home library is impressive, I almost think that would have been more constrictive to my learning options compared to the selections available from a public library system.

One thing I noticed, and a reason that I depended on my local public library so much more than the school ones, is that the selection for libraries in schools before high school is way too age restricted. I once tried to donate a few of my favorite paperbacks (Stephen King novels) for future students, but the librarian told me the school system would just end up transferring those to a high school library.

Anyhow, my point is, I would be interested to know if living within walking distance of a public library is similarly correlated with better outcomes.

When I would get in trouble as a kid my mom would ground me for a certain number of books. As I got older/wiser/in-more-trouble the requirement moved from # of books to # of pages and she'd test me on random sections of the readings. A++ productive way of dealing with a difficult child!

I would've loved to see the creativity that went on between you trying to get through as many pages as possible and your mom trying to ensure you read them

There is supposedly a huge correlation between reading speed and standardized test scores, like the SAT/GRE/GRE, which while not the point of this article is still a powerful argument for reading books as a kid. And, this could be any book, it just matters that you're practicing reading.

This could make sense. The hardest part of the English SAT section was my abysmally slow reading speed.

I'll be the devil's advocate. There's this idea out there that you should get your kids reading, no matter what they read. I see the idea expressed here, and I see it expressed in my kids' school.

I wonder what that idea is based on. Any actual experimental studies that imply a causal link between any kind of reading and intelligence or success or some such metric? Anything to show how a heavy-reading childhood compares to a heavy-videogames childhood?

The answer is of course no. You can't run such a study and have it be experimental. So I'm extremely skeptical of this idea.

Not that I keep books from my children. Reading is one of life's great joys, and that's enough of a reason to encourage it, in my opinion.

How much of this is simply attributable to parents who love to read inculcating their kids with a love of reading -- as opposed to the presence of the books themselves?

I would say it is entirely parents inculcating a love of reading in their children. Kids could live in a library, but if they never read they wouldn't receive any benefit from their environment. That was the issue I had with the article. The author wrote it in a way that suggested the mere presence of books produced an effect. I believe the presence of books offers no benefit whatsoever unless kids read them.

How would growing up in a household with only ebooks, or a household with only physical books make a difference? (Assuming an equal number of both)

We had a room in the house that had a whole wall of books. There was a carpet on the floor. As a child I would wander in and become slowly transfixed by covers and just the pattern of the whole thing. I tried and failed many times to read books there, often falling back to simpler children’s encyclopedias. With perseverance I became able to infer word meanings through context (a skill that remains today), and slowly but surely titles were conquered one by one. Im eternally grateful to my grandfather for reading so much to me as an extremely young child and to my father who stocked that study with the equivalent of the best wine available. I don’t think that experience would have been possible with the kindle I now own :)

At an early age it is important to have contact with physical objects. (And no, an iPad wouldn't cut it.)

I think it is important at any age. I've been reading on a Kindle or iPad for years. My daughter recently bought a physical book for me and I had a hard time reading it. I've never had a difficult time diving into a book, but reading a physical book after using a kindle for so long made immersing my mind into the book quite challenging for some reason. I bought some other physical books the other day to see if the issue was just the story I was reading or if there is indeed an aspect of reading physical books that has atrophied in my brain after using electronic books for so long. If the latter, that would be quite concerning to me.

Perhaps completely irrelevant as long as an equal number are read?

Maybe, maybe not. These social studies are so poorly executed that you're just waiting for them to be debunked.

This feels like another version of nature vs nurture. That is, if your parents had books, lots of books, there's probably a reason(s) for that.

I would think, the ultimate study would be of adopted and/or children who do not share DNA with their parents, or other siblings. Is the environment an equalizer, so to speak?

This is certainly interesting, but it's more correlation than cause.

Definitely. When I was little, my parents had this amazing book about each of the planets in the solar system from the late 80s. It had all these theoretical paintings of what the surface of each planet looks like (or the interior of Jupiter). I didn't understand the science since it was more adult-focused. But it was definitely good to have around.

National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe (1980). I loved that book as a kid!

I was fascinated by D&D rulebooks when I was a kid. The systems captured my imagination as much as the fantasy aspect. Because of that, my vocabulary included excellent words like "melee", "flail", and "barrage" while I was still in the single digits of age.

Wide availability of access to the internet could have a similar effect, unless time is mostly spent on sites like Facebook. Reading became a lot easier (wouldn't space out) once taking acetyl L-carnitine + alpha-GPC. SEMAX + selank + alpha-GPC is even better. Iodine protocol.

> Respondents, who ranged in age from 25 to 65, were asked to estimate how many books were in their house when they were 16 years old. The research team was interested in this question because home library size can be a good indicator of what the study authors term “book-oriented socialization.” Participants were able to select from a given range of books that included everything from “10 or less” to “more than 500.”

In order words, they just used the number of books as an indicator that very likely correlates with how much people used to read as kids, how many books their parents could afford and how much their parents cared about education and so on. If you accept this correlation, the results of the study become somewhat trivial.

It's amazing how the people at Smithsonian Magazine maganaged to spin this as a causal relationship, though, in the sense of "Just surround yourself with books and it'll have a powerful, lasting effect on your mind." Relevant xkcd: https://xkcd.com/552/

maybe being surrounded with 350+ books correlates with rich parents. And rich parents have an opportunity to pay for higher education for their children.

Growing up in homes advantaged enough to have large libraries could indicate you are, in fact, advantaged!

I could just say correlation != causation and move on.

...but I thought I would at least give it 5 minutes of googling.

Here's the first randomized controlled trial I could find testing whether access to libraries had any impact on literacy. TLDR (for this one study): access to libraries does not improve literacy.

"We conduct a randomized controlled trial of an Indian school library program. Overall, the program had no impact on students' scores on a language skills test administered after 16 months. The estimates are sufficiently precise to rule out effects larger than 0.053 and 0.037 standard deviations, based on the 95 and 90 percent confidence intervals. This finding is robust across individual competencies and subsets of the sample. The method of treatment, however, does seem to matter--physical libraries have no effect, while visiting librarians actually reduce test scores."

I will repeat the last line "visiting librarians actually reduce test scores." That seems counter intuitive. Maybe we should write articles w/ titles "LIBRARIES INCREASE ILLITERACY." That would be a dump article to write, but only slightly more dumb than the current article ;)


p.s. I like libraries.

Obligatory Schopenhauer: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/essays/...

On reading and books.

I never enjoyed reading fiction. Fiction trains your mind to look for fictitious narratives in real life; it distorts your perception of life and makes the world a worse place for others who don't follow those narratives.

Fiction certainly can have that downside.

But good fiction is also one of the most effective ways--apart from deep listening--of training empathy because it lets you step into someone's inner life. Rarely do we get a chance to see the world through someone else's eyes for long stretches.

If you're not an immigrant, you can vicariously live the life of one through fiction and see what they have to deal with.

If you're not a news reporter or a cop or a tycoon during the Great Depression, you can tag along with one through fiction.

The point of reading fiction isn't about content, but how they change you as a person.

Absolutely on the money! You can't walk a mile in someone else's shoes, but with the right book, you can imagine it - which can make you do a complete 180 change in how you see a situation. I've had this happen many times and I attribute a lot of that to fiction!

I might think that of biography, or autobiography. But fiction writers often don't know what it's like to be that sort of person, they just make it up.

This is kind of analogous to photorealism versus cartooning. A history or biography would attempt to adapt events and experiences directly to the page: "this happened, and then this happened, and it felt like that". Fictional work transforms those same elements into exaggerated characters and scenarios. Both kinds of works require some creativity to build up a coherent story, but fiction has a freer hand to manipulate elements and choose its focus.

Just making it up without adapting from anything real usually isn't something that good fiction is built up from, though. That path goes directly to cliche, and it's easy to find cliched fiction.

I don't read much fiction, but usually when I do, I feel as if I ought to read more, because it seems to engage creative imaginative thinking in a way that non-fiction doesn't.

Anecdotally, of course.

Do you not watch TV, movies, or plays or play video games? I'm just curious, avoiding fiction us a really interesting worldview and I'm curious whether it extends to every medium.

That's cheesy fiction.

Good fiction trains your mind to understand different world-views and other peoples' narratives of themselves and the world (as opposed to satisfying yourself with your own narrative as the "objective truth").

I would say that your mind already looks for fictitious narratives naturally. Cause is not so correlated with effect in reality, but we still attempt to apply myth and storylines (this especially applies with histories as they are usually told).

I also find that there is deeper meaning in analyzing fiction as to how its mythologies can be applied to personal growth and the journey towards it. I recommend reading Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces to help engender this critical view of thought when thinking about the templating of fiction.

That's quite the story you spun there...

(see what I did?)

What is fiction? How is it different from philosophy? What about soft sciences like sociology or psychology that rely heavily on trying to interpret human behavior (presumably based on their warped, distorted brains). What about theology? How about art as a whole? Or music?

Are you trying to propose that ENTIRE world would be better if there were no fictional creations?

IDK my dude, this seems like a pretty extreme and indefensible position...

One good thing about fiction is that the main character does not die in the middle of the story.

Some of the best fiction I've read involves the main character dying in the middle of the story, and is written in the first person, where the reveal that the author is not actually who he says he was is the climactic moment of the story.

That rule has been broken several times in fiction.

Got anything to back up your wild... dare I say fictitious... claims?

A lot of philosophical texts were written in the form of fiction.

YOU don't think that fictional narratives and tropes do not effect real life? Ever heard a good public speaker use rhetoric to effect?

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