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Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  10,432 ratings  ·  402 reviews
With the stock market breaking records almost daily, leaving longtime market analysts shaking their heads and revising their forecasts, a study of the concept of risk seems quite timely. Peter Bernstein has written a comprehensive history of man's efforts to understand risk and probability, beginning with early gamblers in ancient Greece, continuing through the ...more
Paperback, 383 pages
Published September 14th 1998 by Wiley (first published August 24th 1996)
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Tim O'Hearn
May 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Books published at the end of the 20th century have a certain purity to them. Free from the banalities of the information age yet aware of the implications of the technological revolution, the best among them are wonderfully endearing. Against the Gods is a classic, a 1996 tour de force by the late Peter Bernstein.

This book is about how our perception of risk, especially with respect to decisions with financial outcomes, advanced (rather slowly) from ancient times to the present. A generation
...more
Supratim
Jun 19, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: business, non-fiction
I had started the book with very high expectations but unfortunately, I am disappointed for the most part.

I have to say that the title of the book is not totally compatible with the content. “Against The Gods” gives the impression that the book would illustrate how human beings overcame their superstitions and prejudices, and opposed blind faith. The book talks about how the development of mathematics and statistics provided human beings with ways of quantifying risks but it does not talk about
...more
Michael Quinn
Apr 16, 2013 rated it it was ok
Unfortunately, Bernstein just isn't a very strong writer. This is visible from the very beginning in his word choice and his many slips into generalization. He is very prone to hyperbole and "dressing up" relatively meaningless statements with strained poetic language. For readers, it can often be groan-inducing.

Take Bernstein's introduction, for example:

"The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more
...more
Craig
Dec 20, 2014 rated it liked it
This was a pretty good book, and it made a valiant attempt to thread the needle between being a book for math/ stats geeks and normal humans, but I am not sure it made it. I suspect the non-geeks would give up before making it through, and the geeks would make it through, but be disappointed by the lack of depth. As one of the geeks, I did enjoy it. It provided great back story on the development of statistics and the people that did the work. But I found myself wanting more depth. It was a ...more
Joseph Devon
Sep 12, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Thoroughly enjoyed this. It examines the study and the notion of risk throughout...well throughout forever. A lot of the reviews make this out to be chock full of math, but speaking as a very non-math person I found it perfectly accessible.
The author has a nice way of mixing background color and the personalities of the various people he discusses in with the overall examination of risk. I enjoyed thinking along with notions like why the number zero didn't exist until society had moved forward
...more
Lobstergirl
Jul 21, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: own, business-finance

Disappointing; Bernstein is not a great writer and it was not really what I was expecting. Most of the book covers the time period before the 20th century and concerns mathematicians' and others' discoveries about probability. My interest in risk is in the areas of insurance - actuarial science - and corporate risk assessments/risk management. The only example of actuarial science Bernstein used was from the 18 century. I began to get slightly interested when he brought up Procter & Gamble
...more
Siby
Oct 09, 2011 rated it liked it
Risk is inherent to any activity and uncertainty is all prevalent. Today, we have comlpex mathematical and statistical models to help us quantify and assess risk, but this was not always the case. This book tells the story of how modern Risk Management evolved with contribution from eminent scientists, statisticians, mathematicians and later, economists. What I really liked about this book is the fact that I was able to place the various names like Bernoulli, Pascal, Fermat, Fibonacci, Da Vinci, ...more
Cyrin Cyriac
Jul 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Against the Gods is a perfect title for this book. It was thought during the Roman era only Gods could predict out comes however, with the development of probability theory even mortals are starting to predict future events. This book is packed with information from the origin of money to the origin of probability. Bernsteine has a very unique way of conveying information that not many other authors do, he talks about the discovery as much as he talks about the discoverer for example, on the ...more
Jessica
Jan 13, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: book-club-reads
I will readily admit that part of my dissatisfaction with this book comes from it being so different than what I thought it was going to be; that is, a story of risk management throughout history. Although, to be fair, I got that idea from the subtitle of the book, so it's not that far-fetched.

No, instead this is a book the first two-thirds of which are a history of probability and forecasting, which, though related to risk, are not the same thing as risk, as evidenced by the author awkwardly
...more
Vincent Li
Jan 01, 2017 rated it it was ok
The book leaves a bit to be desired.

It's a general mathematical history of risk management, but most of the material is rudimentary. The material itself is probably just a basic statistics and finance course stripped of actual formulas. For people really into mathematical history and etymology this book might be more interesting than it was for me. The book starts with the adoption of arabic numerals goes through the basic history of probability and statistics before concluding with finance and
...more
Jason ("jcreed")
Jan 22, 2008 rated it did not like it
A puerile abuse of mathematics, statistics, biography, and history, badly paced and full of pointless and likely apocryphal anecdotes. Religious awe for Gaussian distributions appearing in nature makes me wonder if the author has ever heard of the fucking central limit theorem. Something like a version of "how to win friends and influence people" for economists or day traders or something, except it won't even make you feel good about humanity.
Todd Martin
Sep 24, 2019 rated it it was ok
You know the phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover”? Well … who ever came up with that one never read Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, because this book features a thrilling, storm-tossed boat on a raging sea … and the text features a thrilling, storm-tossed story about ……… !!!

Hold on, my heart is absolutely pounding.
{sits down, head between knees breathing into a paper bag}

Ok … here we go … it’s about the mathematicians who developed the mathematical probability theories in
...more
Josh Friedlander
Sep 02, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: economics, maths
I once read that a reason Christianity overcame paganism was that ancient Romans practiced haruspicy, and so the Christians had the advantage of basing their tactics on literally anything less insane. (Plus, "There shall not be found among you any one that...useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter...or a consulter with familiar spirits" - Deuteronomy 18:10-11)

It's not crazy. Bernstein, an economic historian and fund manager, begins this enjoyable history of risk with the
...more
Mike
Mar 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
For someone who avoids topics like risk and finance, this was a well-written and relatively clear introduction. The history and development of probability and statistics wasn't handled as well as in some other popular books I've read about the history of mathematics (most notably Dunham's Journey through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics and Hawking's God Created The Integers), and had a couple of mistakes, but it was fundamentally solid.

Where it gets interesting is when it goes beyond
...more
vemban.muthukumar
Simple and Erudite

To trace uncertainity from the beginning of history and link upto modern day financial engineering makes this a very interesting book to read. At some places it was too intense...so intense that a normal cover to cover reader like me had to pause,reflect and then proceed.At the end of it you realise we are not there yet when it comes to human behavior and modern day economics.
Kristina
Mar 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: on-the-shelf
Read this instead of Sapiens.
Matt
Feb 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
A bit wordy, but full of useful and interesting information on the development of risk analysis. I especially enjoyed the later chapters regarding markets & behavioral analysis.
Mario C
Feb 21, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: capital-markets
Should be required reading for finance professionals because of the context it provides for how and why we got to the point where our models are what they are.
Alessandro Forte
Apr 23, 2017 rated it liked it
I am glad I read this book for the many historical insights it revealed me, a bit less for the way it has been written. It is fascinating to discover the roots of mathematics are lie in the Mediterranean Sea: words such as algorithm, algebra, cypher, hazard, calculus and many others come from Arab, Latin and Greek. The "Liber Abaci" by Fibonacci in the XIII century presented Arab numbers to Europe, and the Renaissance made probability a science when applied to game of chances.

It's been
...more
Jim Ainsworth
Aug 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
I have heard Peter Bernstein speak and have read a lot of his articles, so I knew I might be in for a tough slog on this one, but the subtitle The Remarkable Story of Risk, got my attention.

Like Bernstein, I spent the majority of my career in financial services (that may be the only similarity between us), so I have always been fascinated with people’s attitudes about risk and money in general. I also wanted to know more about my own proclivities on those matters. Sometimes, I look back in
...more
Svetlana
Aug 03, 2014 rated it did not like it
This is a strange and infuriatingly confusing book. It is a composite of two parts: the part that describes the historic development of probability and statistics and the part that focuses on modern developments of risk management (20-th century modern). Neither is especially good.
The historical part is mildly interesting. Although it is written haphazardly as a series of anecdotes about famous mathematicians and other important savants, it is good to place names and concepts into some sort of
...more
Louis
Sep 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, math-stats
One problem with the teaching of math and statistics as practiced in the U.S. is that it often seems like a series of topics that are sprung out of whole cloth with no context. Against the Gods has two parts: a history of how views of risk developed within western civilization and then a examination of the tools and (mis)use of risk managements in modern finance. In doing so it paints a picture of not only what the principles of probability and risk management are, but why they were developed ...more
Steele Dimmock
Mar 24, 2014 rated it it was ok
The Remarkable Story of Risk? More like the history of statistics.
I recommend you have at least univeristy level understanding of stats before you undertake this read.

Some of the book was good, like when the author briefly touched on the golden ratio, insurance through Lloyds of London and derivatives. I felt like the he could have gone deeper in to some of the sections or extrapolate more applications of the newly discovered statistical calculations - ie through analysis of the bell curve and
...more
Brian
Jan 05, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: investingfinance
Don't read this book unless you are a professional investment adviser or regularly read investment books for fun in your spare time.
If you happen to meet those criteria, this book will help answer the question: "how well have humans done at trying to predict the future, in order to avoid risky situations?" The book does this by tracing risk management back to the VERY beginning of people trying to understand numbers (interesting history of the number zero) up to the Black-Scholes model of
...more
Jan
Jul 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
Written in fluid prose and with complete mastery of the subjects the author confidently takes you by the hand and escorts you through our struggles to tackle and understand risk from the fairly finite spaces of probabilities to the must more bewildering and elusive domains of uncertainty, irrationality and human behavioural interdependencies. The eventual focus is on the financial world; it could have been great to have seen the discourse expanded to many other domains where risk is a constant ...more
Dave
Nov 13, 2015 rated it liked it
Probably would have been 4 stars if I'd read it a decade ago, but the most key pieces of this were done better by Daniel Kahneman (who Bernstein credits) in Thinking, Fast and Slow years after this work was written. Interesting history of the beginnings of useful societal statistics in England with analysis of death rates, and a cool thought that da Vinci, who only knew Roman numerals, may struggle in a modern day 3rd grade math class. The West owes a great debt to Indian and Arab civilizations ...more
Jase Goldsmith
Mar 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
Mathematics and in particular financial mathematics has been an important part of evolution of the modern economic world.

Out of this, banking was created and trade evolved including the ability to evaluate risk and calculate interest risk which gave rise to modern banking, stock trading, insurance and other mathematically based industries which are the cornerstone of our modern financial structure.

It can be a little dry at times, but skipping the mathematical lessons will not detract from the
...more
Ushan
Jul 23, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: economics
This book is a popular history of probability theory (Kolmogorov does not get a mention, but von Neumann does; I was surprised to learn that Laplace anticipated the notion of Kolmogorov complexity). It is also a history of its applications to finance and insurance for managing risks and rewards, from maritime insurance to investment into equity and options. Of course, the next 15 years proved that this civilization's management of risk has been disastrous. The CFO of Goldman Sachs memorably said ...more
Meen
Aug 02, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Meen by: Steven Picou
As some other reviewers have mentioned, this book demonstrates the importance of math in humanity's "conquest" of nature, but it does so in a way that is not at all intimidating to mathphobes. I actually read this as a text in an advanced principles of sociology class as the foundation for examining Ulrich Beck's thesis of "risk society."
Markt5660
Aug 06, 2013 rated it it was ok
This turned out to be a bit of a slog for me. I enjoyed the first half (which is more of a history of general probability and risk) than the second (which focuses on Wall Street financial tools). I certainly learned some things though.
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Fantastic Review of Against the Gods 1 35 Sep 22, 2011 09:57PM  

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Founder and President of Peter L. Bernstein, Inc., which he established in 1973 as economic consultants to institutional investors and corporations around the world.

In 1951, after teaching economics at Williams College and a five-year stint in commercial banking, Peter became Chief Executive of a nationally–known investment counsel firm, where he personally managed billions of dollars of
...more
“The information you have is not the information you want. The information you want is not the information you need. The information you need is not the information you can obtain. The information you can obtain costs more than you want to pay” 26 likes
“The word 'risk' derives from the early Italian risicare, which means 'to dare'. In this sense, risk is a choice rather than a fate. The actions we dare to take, which depend on how free we are to make choices, are what the story of risk is all about. And that story helps define what it means to be a human being.” 18 likes
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