What We Are Reading?
This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, Ed. John Brockman
Often an era has its influential group of writers: think of the Bloomsbury Group in London and Sussex in the first half of the 20th Century. Currently there’s a highly influential group of thinkers, mostly originating from the US, but some from the UK, who are setting the intellectual temper for our time. They are mostly social scientists: psychologists; linguists; evolutionary theorists – people such as Steven Pinker; Noam Chomsky; Daniel Kahneman and E.O. Wilson, but also philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and physicists such as Carlo Rovelli. These people have assumed the role of Public Intellectual, in the way in which, in previous times, the Bloomsbury writers and critics assumed this role. This new cohort, however, champion science and the methodologies of science as the best ways of achieving an understanding of the world (they are not so willing, as per the Bloomsbury Group, to assume that social position and professional standing could by themselves provide the necessary authority with which to claim the public’s attention). And in championing scientific methodology they exhort the wider public to think more like them: to rely on methods which prod and examine the real world – methods which make claims to knowledge based on scientific concepts and practices.
It isn’t that we all need to be scientists. These people claim that underlying the more rigorous (and sometimes laboratory based) methodologies, there are simple heuristics, rules of thumb, thinking practices, which can benefit us all. So, for instance, Kahneman has found that we are subject to cognitive biases, that we make quick judgements based on skewed reasoning, and that we could counter some of these biases if we were aware that we are subject to them. We often, for example, offer an anecdote as sufficient proof for an assertion, but if we thought this through, we’d realise that statistical verification is required, and that anecdote alone is insufficient. Or to take another example, we often assume that correlation amounts to causation: that because something occurs when something else happens, it is bound to be the cause of the thing.
This Will Make You Smarter is full of examples of wonky reasoning and corrective cures in the form of scientific concepts. The chapters are short, one or two pages in length, but each is a nugget of practical, sometimes counterintuitive, and mostly fascinating material. I’m really enjoying it, and I’m hoping it will, as the title promises, make me a whole lot smarter.
This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, Ed. John Brockman. Transworld Publishing. Paperback: £9.99. In stock. (Review: Darion).