This Will Make You Smarter: A book review by Bob Morris

This Will MakeThis Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking
John Brockman, Editor
Harper Perennial/HarperCollins (2012)

Here are dozens of perspectives on what are, for most people, new scientific concepts for self-improvement

Edge.org is 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 everyone’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 term ‘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 sub selves 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 continue to provide. Bravo!

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