on April 25, 2012
The origin of this book is a simple one: The editor, John Brockman, tossed out the question "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" to over 150 contemporary thought leaders, and recorded the results. Brockman has worked for decades to bring thinkers together, under the premise that great things happen when cross-disciplinary exchanges of brilliant thinking take place. Bacteria, because they are so profligate in exchanging genetic information across species, are astoundingly capable of arriving at new and adaptive solutions to environmental (including antibiotics) challenges. Brockman, I'm guessing, would be comfortable with the notion that in posing annual questions to leaders in the fields of many different disciplines he is increasing the adaptability, creativity, and problem solving capabilities of the human race. This Will Make You Smarter is excellent evidence that he may well be correct. Bacteria have something to teach us.
Almost everyone gets a say here: astrophysicists, sociologists, environmentalists, historians, microbiologists, newspaper columnists, particle physicists, philosophers, and a host of notables in other disciplines. The result is a truly provocative treasure heap of notions that just might do what the title of the book claims. The book is a bucket of pearls: succinct (for the most part!) notions with real punch are the order of the day. John Brockman's website, Edge.org, aims to represent cutting edge ideas, and the included authors often are forced to create neologisms or resurrect arcane vocabulary (e.g. Interbeing and apophenia) to express their thoughts fully.
This book is not a quick read. I left it at my bedside and knocked off a few every evening, often with a new concept, or an improved version of an old one, caroming around the confines of my cranium as I drifted off to sleep. Some ideas seemed both verbose and obtuse. Most seemed refreshing and useful. My favorite was also the shortest of all the selections, almost haiku like in intensity. In its entirety, here is Susan Fiske's (Princeton Professor of Psychology) essay: "The most important scientific concept is that an assertion is often an empirical question settled by collecting evidence. The plural of anecdote is not data, and the plural of opinion is not facts. Quality peer-reviewed scientific evidence accumulates into knowledge. People's stories are stories, and fiction keeps us going. But science should settle policy."
As several previous reviewers have noted, this book is available free online at Edge.org. Why spend ten bucks? There is one reason that you might want to consider: it's a book that you'll savage with your pen, assaulting the pages with highlighter ink, filling the margins with thoughts, and littering the essays with circles and exclamation marks. You'll pull it down off your bookshelf regularly, every time you want tangible evidence in your hands that human beings do, on occasion, have some REALLY good ideas.
on April 18, 2012
Description of the book doesn't make clear that it comprises over 100 small texts, all available for free on Edge.org.
In spite of that, texts are interesting and may help you on your life (or make you "smarter", as the title suggests). The book would be more useful if it contained suggestions on how to apply those concepts on daily life, or if texts were grouped in categories. They indeed follow a logic order, but grouping chapters could help organize content into blocks.
I'm just not sure if they are truly "New" scientific concepts as the subtitle suggests. But it's sure a good general guide on what some of the world's most important thinkers are focusing on their researches right now.
on February 27, 2012
Just got this book today, so perhaps I'm breaking a rule by posting a review before finishing the book. However, I love this book's structure and breadth of topics. If you like TED, you'll love this book since both distill topics to their essence by leading experts and both leave the audience more informed but wanting more. That and the price is a bargain.
First off the structure of this book is great. 397 pages of short essays ranging from one to several pages. The table of contents (all 24 pages of it) at the beginning gives you the essay titles, authors, and a short phrase describing the essay. There's also an index in the back if you prefer more topical browsing. This structure makes this book very accessible since you can pick it up and read as much or as little as you have time for.
Each essay is self-contained and distills topics which are easy to get out into the weeds on. As the book's title suggests, rather than just factual essays, the authors try to show how elements from their field of study can be used to alter your thinking or better understand the world around you. Each essay presents its own kind of mini world view, a single data point describing not not what to think but how to think.
The range of topics is amazing as well. From the back cover, topics include:
* cognitive illusions/delusions
* fear of the unknown
* paradigm shifts
* the natural world
* uncertainty & randomness
* and lots more
I highly recommend this book.
on April 6, 2012
150 short essays. Some of them worthy of 10 stars, some - only of 1. If you are willing to invest some time and effort in order to search for real jewels, then definitely read this book!
The most useful ideas/concepts for me:
1) a keener awareness that for the Universe "far more time lies ahead than has elapsed until now." "There is abundant time for posthuman evolution, here on Earth or far beyond, organic or inorganic, to give rise to far more diversity and even greater qualitative changes than those that have led from single-celled organisms to humans." "So humans are surely not the terminal branch of an evolutionary tree but a species that emerged early in cosmic history, with special promise for diverse evolution." [Martin Rees]
2) "the history of life on Earth doesn't support this evolution toward intelligence [...] Play the movie differently and we wouldn't be here [...]" [Marcelo Gleiser]
3) "No matter the domain of life, one's generation's verities so often become the next generation's falsehoods that we might as well have a pessimistic meta-induction from the history of everything. Good scientists understand this. They recognize that they are part of a long process of approximation. They know they are constructing models rather than revealing reality. [...] The idea behind the meta-induction is that all of our theories are fundamentally provisional and quite possibly wrong. If we can add that idea to our cognitive toolkit, we will be able to listen with curiosity and empathy to those whose theories contradict our own. We will be better able to pay attention to counterevidence - those anomalous bits of data that make our picture of the world a little weirder, more mysterious, less clean, less done." [Kathryn Shulz]
4) "Cognitive machinery guides us to think in terms of THE cause - of an outcome's having a single cause. Yet for enlarged understanding, it is more accurate to represent outcomes as caused by an intersection, or nexus, of factors (including the absence of precluding conditions.) [...] "The complexity and noise permeating any real causal nexus generates a fog of uncertainty. Slight biases in causal attribution or in blameworthiness allow a stable niche for extracting undeserved credit or targeting undeserved blame. If the patient recovers, it was due to my heroic efforts; if not, the underlying disease was too severe. If it weren't for my macroeconomic policy, the economy would be even worse. The abandonment of moral warfare and a wider appreciation of nexus causality and misattribution arbitrage would help us all shed at least some of the destructive delusions that cost humanity so much." [John Tooby]
5) Technologies have biases. "Soft technologies, from central currency to psychotherapy, are biased in their construction as much as their implementation. No matter how we spend U.S. dollars, we are nonetheless fortifying banking and the centralization of capital. Put a psychotherapist on his own couch and a patient in the chair and the therapist will begin to exhibit treatable pathologies. It's set up that way, just as Facebook is set up to make us think of ourselves in terms of our "likes". [Douglas Rushkoff.]
6) "But without our biases to focus our attention, we would be lost in that endless and limitless expanse. W[...] Biases mediate between our intellect and emotions to help congeal perception into opinion, judgment, category, metaphor, analogy, theory, and ideology, which frame how we see the world. Bias is tentative. Bias adjusts as the facts change. Bias is a provisional Hypothesis. Bias is normal. [...] Truth need continually to be validated against all evidence that challenges it fairly and honestly. [..] Like the words in a multimensional crossworld puzzle, it has to fit together with all the other pieces already in place, The better and more elaborate the fit, the more certain the truth, Science permits no exceptions. It is inexorably revisionary, learning from its mistakes, erasing and rewriting even its most sacred texts, until the puzzle is complete." [Gerald Smallberg]
7) The focusing illusion. "Income is an important determinant of people's satisfaction with their lives, but it is far less important than most people think. If everyone had the same income, the differences among people in life satifaction would be reduced by less than 5 percent." "Paraplegics are often unhappy, but they are not unhappy all the time, because they spend most of the time experiencing and thinking about things other than their disability. When we think of what it is like to be a paraplegic, or blind, or a lottery winner, or a resident of California, we focus on the distinctive aspects of each of these conditions. The mismatch in the allocation of attention between thinking a bout a life condition and actually living it is the cause of focusing illusion." "People can be made to believe that school uniforms will significantly improve educational outcomes, or that health care reform will hugely change the quality of life in the United States - either for the better or for the worse." [Daniel Kahneman]
8) "[...] When it comes to understanding probability, people basically suck. [...] When a state government requires its citizens to buy car insurance, it does so because it figures, rightly, that people are underestimating the odds of an accident." [Seth Lloyd]
9) Shifting Baseline Syndrome. "it forces you to continually ask what is normal. Is this? Was that? And, at least as important, it asks how we "know" that it's normal." [Paul Kedrosky]
10) "[...] Not all explanations are created equal; some are objectively better than others. [...] It's inference to the beast explanation that gives science the power to expand our ontology, giving us reasons to believe in things that we can't directly observe, from subatomic particles - or maybe strings - to the dark matter and dark energy of cosmology. It's inference to the best explanation that allows us to know something of what it's like to be other people on the basis of their behavior." [Rebecca Newberger Goldstein].
11) "attention is highly selective." "Although there are billions of neurons in our brains firing all the time, we'd never be able to put one foot in front of the other if we were unable to ignore almost all of that hyperabundant parallel processing going on in the background. [...]" [Douglas T.Kenrick]
12) "The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its umwelt. The bigger reality, whatever that might mean, is called the umgebung. The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality "out there". Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense? [...] Truman show [...] A good illustration of our unawareness of the limits of our umwelt is that of color-blind people: Until they learn that others can see hues they cannot, the thought of extra colors do not hit their radar screen." [David Eagleman]
13) "While most of us go through life feeling that we are the thinker of our thoughts and the experiencer of our experience, from the perspective of science we know that this is a distorted view. There is no discrete self or ego lurking like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. There is no region of cortex or pathway of neural processing that occupies a privileged position with respect to our personhood. There is no unchanging "center of narrative gravity". In subjective terms, however, there SEEMS to be one - to most of us, most of the time." [Sam Harris]
14) "Supervenience explains, for example, why physics is the most fundamental science and why the things that physicists study are the most fundamental things. To many people, this sounds like value judgement, but it's not, or need not be. Physics is fundamental because everything in the universe, from your pancreas to Ottawa, supervenes on physical stuff." [Joshua Greene]
15) A cognitive toolkit full of garbage. "Is there a pragmatic way out, other than to radically get rid of mental garbage? Yes, perhaps: Simply not using the key shorthand abstractions explicitly in one's toolkit. Working on consciousness, don't use the SHA "consciousness." If you work on the "self", never refer explicitly to self. Going through one's own garbage, one discovers many misleading SHAs." [Ernst Poppel]
on March 6, 2012
I am enjoying the concise and stimulating essays gathered together in This Will Make You Smarter. There are a number of positive reviews that paint a clear picture of this book, but the skewed one-star review by Open Sesame dated March 6, 2012 compels a rebuttal. This reviewer is apparently knowledgeable enough to judge the book to be devoid of new ideas, yet I expect most readers will find, as I have, an ample number of fresh ideas within their experience to stimulate thinking in new directions. Open Sesame is miffed to have purchased the book upon later discovering that the contents are available for free at the Edge web site, but this information is available through Amazon's "look inside" feature which displays a substantial amount of the book contents and the introduction describes how it was developed through the dialogue at the Edge web site. I find a touch of irony in such a smart individual broadcasting their own blunders. There is also a derisive implication that with the book contents being available online that it would be foolish to order the book; this doesn't recognize the perspective of many people who prefer the format and convenience of reading a physical book over that of reading online. Secret agent Maxwell Smart had a favored phrase that sums up the perspective of Closed Sesame: "He missed it by that much....."
on February 12, 2013
"This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking" is a collection of micro-essays by over 150 authors, primarily scientists. The book's title stresses two ideas: that the essays contain scientific concepts that can make you smarter and that those concepts are relatively new. Unfortunately neither is true for the majority of the essays.
The scientific concepts discussed in the various essays can be clumped into a few categories. For example, the first six essays are all variations on the theme that we are small and unimportant in the cosmos. Later essays discuss how we are unique and important in the universe, how people work against each other, how people work together, the importance of powers of ten, double-blind experiments, and more topics going off into the sunset. So are these topics that will make you smarter? Perhaps, but for most readers of this book, you will already know most of the ideas mentioned in this book and will find the repetition annoying.
Most people interested in reading books of this kind are science enthusiasts. Unfortunately, these same people who would be most interested in this book are also the people who have the least to learn from it. Is it really valuable to know the importance of powers of ten? Did you realize that the universe is unimaginably huge? Do you know what a sunk-cost fallacy is? Reading about these topics was boring. I don't need to read an essay by Richard Dawkins to know that double-blind experiments are crucial for scientific inquiry; as someone who finds science interesting, I already know the basics of double-blind experiments (and the same is true for most of the essays).
That these essays are just the basics is an important point. The essays range from 1/2 a page to a maximum of 4 pages. In that kind of space it is impossible to explain general concepts of science in detail. So what is good about this book?
Some of the micro-essays are interesting and I even learned from a few of them. The people who wrote these essays are big names in both popular and academic science and it is great to be able to read little pieces by each of them. Unfortunately the new and interesting ideas make up only a small proportion of the essays and therefore I cannot recommend this book to anyone besides maybe an absolute beginner in science and scientific thought.
on July 9, 2012
The more tools you have in your tool box the better you may be able to complete the job. In this essay compilation, in book form, provides the reader with 151 such mental tools for their tool box. A quick read as all the essays are under 5 pages each with most of the essays 2-3 pages in length. Just enough information to give you a quick analogy of the mental tool that may help you see the world more clearly. As the reviewers provide much of the background, I will cherry pick a few of my favorite mental references that I use:
* Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science - Because even the most seemingly bulletproof scientific theories of times past eventually proved wrong, we must assume that today's theories will someday prove wrong as well. This mental reference helps keep my skeptical eye open.
* Nexus Causality (Abstract Blindness) - for enlarged understanding, it is more accurate to represent outcomes as caused by an intersection, or nexus, of factors (including the absence of precluding conditions).
* Control Your Spotlight - `A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention' - Herbert Simon. In today's age of information makes the ability to focus on the important information incredibly important so keep your mental spotlight pointed in the right directions.
* Structured Serendipity - The sudden burst of insight - the Aha! Or Eureka! Moment - comes when the brain activity abruptly shifts its focus. By varying what you learn and where you learn it may help in shifting focus, plus my experience says that travel also helps open thoughts.
* Pareto Principal - much like the 80/20 rule, we should stop thinking that the largest future earthquake or market panic will be as large as the largest historical one; the longer the system persists, the likelier it is that an event twice as large as all previous ones is coming.
A worthy addition to your library, or ebook collection.
Many of those who purchase and then begin to read this book will learn, for the first time, about Edge.org, a website offering an abundance of resources. John Brockman is the Editor of This Will Make You Smarter (2012) and This Explains Everything (2013). He is also the Editor and Publisher of Edge. As he explains, its purpose is to "arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."
He goes on to suggest, "Edge is a Conversation: Edge is different from the Algonquin Roundtable or Bloomsbury Group, but it offers the same quality of intellectual adventure. Closer resemblances are the early seventeenth-century Invisible College, a precursor to the Royal Society. Its members consisted of scientists such as Robert Boyle, John Wallis, and Robert Hooke. The Society's common theme was to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. Another inspiration is The Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal club of the leading cultural figures of the new industrial age -- James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgewood, Joseph Priestly, and Benjamin Franklin."
In 2011, those involved with Edge were asked to respond to a question proposed by Steven Pinker and seconded by Daniel Kahneman: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" Pinker ("Positive Sum Games") and Kahneman ("The Focusing Illusion") were also among the 160 contributors. David Brooks provided a Foreword, followed by Brockman's Preface in which he offers this clarification: "Here, the tern 'scientific' is to be understood in a broad sense -- as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be human behavior, corporate behavior, the fate of the planet, or the future of the universe."
Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer's Market at which a few merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples. In that spirit, I now offer a few brief excerpts from the lively and eloquent narrative:
o Richard Dawkins explains the need for "tools to help nonscientists understand science better and equip them to make better judgments throughout their lives." (Page 17)
o Although the unconscious mind may be most of the mind, Jonah Lehrer observes, "we can still focus on those ideas that will help us succeed. In the end, this may be the only thing we can control." (48)
o Kevin Kelly: "We can learn nearly as much from an experiment that doesn't work as from one that does. Failure is nit something to be avoided but something to be cultivated." (79)
o Steven Pinker: "An explicit recognition among literate people of the shorthand abstraction 'positive sum game' and its relatives may be extending a process in the world of human choices that has been operating in the natural world for billions of years." (97)
o Douglas T. Kenrick: "Thinking of the mind as composed of several functionally independent adaptive subselves helps us understand many apparent inconsistencies and irrationalities in human behavior." (131)
o Alison Gopnik: "The greatest advantage of understanding the rational unconscious would be to demonstrate that rational discovery isn't a specialized abstruse privilege of the few we call scientists but is instead the evolutionary birthright of us all." (149)
o Irene Pepperberg: "Given an understanding of our fixed-action pattern, and those of the individuals with whom we interact, we -- as humans with cognitive processing powers -- could begin to rethink our behavior patterns." (161)
o Giulio Boccaletti: "By itself, [scale analysis] does not provide answers and is no substitute for deeper analysis. But it offers a powerful lens through which to view reality and to understand 'the order of things.'" (187)
o Linda Stone: "Articulate, intelligent individuals can skillfully construct a convincing case to arguer almost any point if view" by narrowing our vision. "In contrast, projective thinking is expansive, 'open-ended,' and speculative, requiring the thinker to create the context, concepts, and the objectives." (240)
o Victoria Stodden: "One interesting aspect of the phase transition is that it describes a shift to a state seemingly unrelated to the previous one and hence provides a model for phenomena that challenge our intuition." (371)
These are but a few of hundreds of observations that caught my eye. I realize that no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope of material that is provided in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. I also highly recommend the aforementioned This Explains Everything and, especially, checking out the ever-increasing wealth of resources at Edge.org. Thank you, John Brockman, for the thought leadership you and your Edge colleagues continue to provide. Bravo!
This Will Make You Smarter: 150 New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking by John Brockman
"This Will Make You Smarter" is a thought-provoking book of scientific essays brought to you by The Edge that provides readers with better tools to think about the world. The Edge is an organization that presents original ideas by today's leading thinkers from a wide spectrum of scientific fields. The 2011 Edge question is, "What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?" This worthwhile 448-page book contains 151 short essays that address the question. The quality of these essays range from the obvious to the truly profound.
For my sake, I created a spreadsheet of all the essays and graded them from zero to five stars based on quality. Five star essays are those that provide a great description of the author's favorite scientific concept. On the other hand, those receiving a one or even a zero represent essays that were not worthy of this book. Of course, this is just one reviewer's personal opinion. I basically reprised the same formula I used to review, "This Explains Everything".
1. This series by "The Edge" always deliver a high-quality product.
2. A great premise, "What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?"
3. A great range of scientific topics: biology, genetics, computer science, neurophysiology, psychology, and physics.
4. There were a number of outstanding essays deserving of five stars for me. I will list my favorites as positives in this review. In order of appearance, the first by P.Z. Myers' "The Mediocrity Principle". It discusses the importance of having basic math skills and accepting the notion that we aren't special. Sounds harsh on the surface but P.Z. won me over with his persuasive argument.
5. Sean Carroll's "Pointless Universe". His contention is that the universe is not advancing toward a goal but is caught up in an unbreakable pattern.
6. Max Tegmarr's "Promoting a Scientific Lifestyle". The need to educate the public on science. Hit on all the pertinent points with mastery.
7. Kathryn Schulz's "The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science". Makes the compelling case that there are no absolutes in science. Understanding that science is about constructing models rather than revealing reality.
8. Jonah Lehrer's "Control Your Spotlight." Learning how to control short list of thoughts in working memory.
9. Kevin Kelly's "Failure Liberates Success." Failures in science can lead to success.
10. Steven Pinker's "Positive-Sum Games." A great explanation on the value of understanding positive-sum games.
11. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's "Inference to the Best Explanation." One of the best essays of the book. Explains what is behind the power of science.
12. Donald Hoffman's "Our Sensory Desktop." The importance of refining our attitude toward our own perceptions.
13. Michael Shermer's "Think Bottom Up, Not Top Down." Great explanation on emerging properties.
14. Terrence Sejnowski's "Powers of 10." How to think about things in the world over a wide range of magnitudes and time scales.
15. Guilio Boccaletti's "Scale Analysis." Understanding this concept can help us on many complex problems.
16. Sam Harris's "We are Lost in Thought." The distorted views of the self.
17. Sue Blackmore's "Correlation is not a Cause." The need to spread this concept to the public.
18. Lee Smolin's "Thinking in Time Versus Thinking Outside of Time." Important and very little discussed topic, it's about time.
19. Geoffrey Miller's "The Personality/Insanity Continuum." Very interesting topic.
20. Mathew Ritchie's "Systematic Equilibrium." The second of thermodynamics applied.
21. Mark Henderson's "Science Methods Aren't Just for Science." Solid defense of science.
22. Scott D. Sampson's "Interbeing." Another one of my favorites.
23. Satyajit Das's "Parallelism in Art and Commerce." A unique contribution.
24. Vinod Khosla's "Black Swan Technologies." Low probability events with extreme impact.
25. Fiery Cushman's "Understanding Confabulation." Understanding our own behavior.
1. Some essays were not worthy of this book. It's not my intent to denigrate any of these great minds so I'm not going to mention them by name. Thankfully just a few received zero or one stars.
2. Some of my favorite authors let me down while others flourished.
3. It requires an investment of time.
In summary, I enjoy these kinds of books. The Edge does a wonderful job of selecting a thought-provoking question and an even better job of bringing in intellectuals from a wide range of fields to answer it. The search for knowledge is a fun and satisfying pursuit. Pick up this book and enjoy the ride.
Further suggestions: "This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works" by John Brockman, "A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing" by Lawrence Krauss, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution" by Richard Dawkins, "The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements" by Sam Kean, "The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human" by V.S. Ramachandran, "The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies" by Michael Shermer, "How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed" by Ray Kurzwell, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker, "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" by Jared Diamond, "Why Evolution Is True" by Jerry A. Coyne, and "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior" by Leonard Mlodinow.