As the founder and publisher of edge.org, a website devoted to great thinkers discussing the world’s greatest challenges, John Brockman has a pretty decent idea of what makes a person smarter.
Here, he’s collected ideas from many of today’s top thinkers—including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Kahneman and Kathryn Schulz, to name but a few—in one book, aptly named This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking. Brockman was kind enough to allow us to run a few passages from this collection that we called in a starred review, “a winning combination of good writers, good science and serious broader concerns.”
Read more new and notable in nonfiction for February.
WE ARE NOT ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE
J. Craig Venter
Genome scientist; founder and president, J. Craig Venter Institute; author, A Life Decoded
I cannot imagine any single discovery that would have more impact on humanity than the discovery of life outside our solar system. There is a humancentric, Earthcentric view of life that permeates most cultural and societal thinking. Finding that there are multiple, perhaps millions, of origins of life and that life is ubiquitous throughout the universe will profoundly affect every human.
THE DOUBLE-BLIND CONTROL EXPERIMENT
Evolutionary zoologist, University of Oxford; author, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
Not all concepts wielded by professional scientists would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit. We are here not looking for tools with which research scientists might benefit their science. We are looking for tools to help nonscientists understand science better and equip them to make better judgments throughout their lives.
Why do half of all Americans believe in ghosts, three-quarters believe in angels, a third believe in astrology, three-quarters believe in hell? Why do a quarter of all Americans believe that the president of the United States was born outside the country and is therefore ineligible to be president? Why do more than 40 percent of Americans think the universe began after the domestication of the dog?
Let's not give the defeatist answer and blame it all on stupidity. That's probably part of the story, but let's be optimistic and concentrate on something remediable: lack of training in how to think critically and how to discount personal opinion, prejudice, and anecdote in favor of evidence. I believe that the double-blind control experiment does double duty. It is more than just an excellent research tool. It also has educational, didactic value in teaching people how to think critically. My thesis is that you needn't actually do double-blind control experiments in order to experience an improvement in your cognitive toolkit. You need only to understand the principle, grasp why it is necessary, and revel in its elegance.
THE FOCUSING ILLUSION
Professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University; recipient, 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences
Education is an important determinant of income—one of the most important—but it is less important than most people think. If everyone had the same education, the inequality of income would be reduced by less than 10 percent. When you focus on education, you neglect the myriad other factors that determine income. The differences of income among people who have the same education are huge.
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 satisfaction would be reduced by less than 5 percent.
Income is even less important as a determinant of emotional happiness. Winning the lottery is a happy event, but the elation does not last. On average, individuals with high income are in a better mood than people with lower income, but the difference is about a third as large as most people expect. When you think of rich and poor people, your thoughts are inevitably focused on circumstances in which income is important. But happiness depends on other factors more than it depends on income.
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 about a life condition and actually living it is the cause of the focusing illusion.
THE PARETO PRINCIPLE
Social and technology network topology researcher; adjunct professor, NYU Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program; author, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
You see the pattern everywhere: The top 1 percent of the population controls 35 percent of the wealth. On Twitter, the top 2 percent of users sends 60 percent of the messages. In the health-care system, the treatment of the most expensive fifth of patients creates four-fifths of the overall cost. These figures are always reported as shocking, as if the normal order of things had been disrupted, as if the appearance of anything other than a completely linear distribution of money or messages or effort were a surprise of the highest order.
It's not. Or rather, it shouldn't be.
The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto undertook a study of market economies a century ago and discovered that no matter what the country, the richest quintile of the population controlled most of the wealth. The effects of this Pareto distribution go by many names—the 80/20 rule, Zipf's law, the power-law distribution, winner-take-all—but the basic shape of the underlying distribution is always the same: The richest or busiest or most connected participants in a system will account for much, much more wealth or activity or connectedness than average."
Research professor, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University; author, Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love
"I am large, I contain multitudes," wrote Walt Whitman. I have never met two people who were alike. I am an identical twin, and even we are not alike. Every individual has a distinct personality, a different cluster of thoughts and feelings that color all their actions. But there are patterns to personality: People express different styles of thinking and behaving—what psychologists call "temperament dimensions." I offer this concept of temperament dimensions as a useful new member of our cognitive toolkit.
Psychologist; director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin; author, Gut Feelings
Literacy is the precondition for an informed citizenship in a participatory democracy. But knowing how to read and write is no longer enough. The breakneck speed of technological innovation has made risk literacy as indispensable in the twenty-first century as reading and writing were in the twentieth. Risk literacy is the ability to deal with uncertainties in an informed way.
Without it, people jeopardize their health and money and can be manipulated into experiencing unwarranted, even damaging, hopes and fears. Yet when considering how to deal with modern threats, policy makers rarely ever invoke the concept of risk literacy in the general public. To reduce the chances of another financial crisis, proposals called for stricter laws, smaller banks, reduced bonuses, lower leverage ratios, less short-termism, and other measures. But one crucial idea was missing: helping the public better understand financial risk. For instance, many of the NINJAs (No Income, No Job, No Assets) who lost everything but the shirts on their backs in the subprime crisis hadn’t realized that their mortgages were variable, not fixed-rate.
Another serious problem that risk literacy can help solve is the exploding cost of health care.
…. Unlike basic literacy, risk literacy requires emotional rewiring—rejecting comforting paternalism and illusions of certainty and learning to take responsibility and to live with uncertainty…
Cognitive neuroscientist and philosopher, Harvard University
There's a lot of stuff in the world: trees, cars, galaxies, benzene, the Baths of Caracalla, your pancreas, Ottawa, ennui, Walter Mondale. How does it all fit together? In a word . . . supervenience. (Verb form: to supervene.) Supervenience is a shorthand abstraction, native to Anglo-American philosophy, that provides a general framework for thinking about how everything relates to everything else."
John Brockman's This Will Make Your Smarter is out today.