Oldest, youngest, or in between

Author Schönbeck, Elizabeth
Original title Äldst, yngst, eller mittemellan
Original language Swedish
ISBN 978-91-7232-200-4
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Project Gutenberg
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This is a book that easily could have been incredibly interesting to just about anyone: It deals with the role birth order and our place among our siblings plays in shaping our psychology. Certainly, it throws out a lot of tidbits. Unfortunately, it does so in a manner that feels haphazard and unconvincing.

So why was I unimpressed? In part, I found the book confusing. Some of this may be intrinsic to the scope and subject matter: Whether you deal first with single children, then pairs of sibling, then larger families; or with eldest children, then middle children, then younger ones, you still have to repeat yourself to cover all the combinations.

Another problem that may just be in the nature of the beast is that sometimes I felt that the author said very little, though in many words: She would describe what such-and-such siblings are generally like, then turn around and say they might on the other hand be like this, or yet again, entirely different. But, as before, this may just be the way it is: It’s not the author’s fault, after all, if human psychology is complicated and full of exceptions!

On to the third and by far most grievous problem (and its adjuvants): The book just was not convincing to me. There were a scant few nods to statistics, and even in these rare cases there was often little context: what does it really mean to say that 60% of practitioners of a certain profession have no brothers, without mentioning what one should expect by chance, or how large the sample size is, or whether it’s statistically significant? But most statements had not even this. Some were bald assertions; others, even worse, were ‘supported’ by statements like in my experience or in my practice, and if you know anything at all about biases and confounders, this should raise your eyebrow Spockishly. Perhaps the most common support of all was also the most aggravating: Specific examples of celebrities that affirm the author’s position! (Hilary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher were made to serve as examples, for instance, though most were Swedish politicians or musicians.) Many explanations of putative causation read like Just So stories, and I have no idea whether they are true.

Ultimately, I suppose the problem is that I approached this in the hope and belief that I was about to read a layman’s book on science. There were certainly assertions of scientific fact, but there was no science to be found.

  • I’ve read the original Swedish version.