A review of Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier is an accomplished author and security expert. In my line of work, information security, I’ve studied his books before and I read his writing almost daily as his opinion is of great value and often quite interesting. If you’ve already read one of his books or if you already know what security is(something about keeping DAD away from your CIA) you should have already read Liars and Outliers (if not go buy a copy) and may not get as much out of this review.

As a much lauded and often quoted security expert, accomplished cryptographer, and prolific writer about security technology and politics Bruce Schneier has well established standing to ask questions like: “What is security? What is trust? How do they work? Where did they come from?” He, like many of us, has been searching for good answers to these questions for many years and many people already use his previous answers to these questions in the work and life. From his standing at the top of the field and his success in influencing how everyone thinks about security and trust issues in society (he coined the term “security theater”) he not only gets to seriously consider these questions but is likely to come up with new well thought out answers that will influence the world.

This is not a book on how security technology works internally. Instead the author explores how morals, social and societal pressures, security, and others factors influence and shape who and what we trust, for what, and even a bit of why.

As such the audience is much broader than some of his earlier works. This book will provide valuable insight and entertainment to the general science layman who has enjoyed works by Gleick, Singh, Gladwell, or other popular science authors and it should not be missed. It provides and provokes questions and answers key to human existence and help you understand why you do what you do personally, socially, and politically.

A great deal of research into many fields combined with the author’s knowledge and experience shaped the structure of the book quite deliberately. This is explained in the Overview after a brief introduction to some of the complex and pressing problems we face in the modern world as individuals and societies. In Part I the author pulls from many fields of science and thought to examine how trust and security may have developed in terrestrial organisms and in humans. To explain these processes and changes that were made he introduces concepts from evolutionary biology, social psychology, and game theory (et alia) with clear examples from biology or television to help the tools settle in. In Part II these tools and definitions are expanded and detailed with discussions of simplified versions of real world problems. In Part III the expanded and fully detailed set of tools is used to examine common problems. Part IV explores how these tools have changed and may need adjusting to be effective in the modern era.

Throughout the book Bruce gives terminology and structure to decision making that encourages a more complete and objective discussion of how important decisions are made and provides for intelligent discussion about how moral, social, institutional pressures can be brought to bear on pressing problems at every scale. He also gives ample time to discussing how all of these systems fail and how they may be improved.

Every decision, system, and failure is well explained and then demonstrated by one or more examples from recent history or current events. Complex processes are illustrated with clear crisp diagrams. Along the way many core concepts in economics, politics, social psychology, and many other fields are gently introduced which may substantially improve your rhetorical arsenal.

Any one trying to understand the many dilemmas that we and our societies face will find this book informative and valuable. It’s going to shape how I discuss politics and substantially influence my own work of explaining and improving security.

Categories: Book Reviews, Liars and Outliers, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.