Highlights from "This Will Make You Smarter"

Saturday December 29, 2012

This Will Make You Smarter
organized by John Brockman

I previously read and enjoyed John Brockman's What We Believe But Cannot Prove, so when I saw this volume as I was in line at Barnes and Noble, I picked it up. This Will Make You Smarter is not as good. The question was this: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" It isn't a bad question. He was looking for people to give novel "shorthand abstractions" such as "market", "placebo", and "random sample" once were. Most of the contributors didn't seem to understand the question. Many entries were not interesting or novel in the least. There was a lot of hemming and hawing over how un-scientific the general public is. I thought the last quarter of the book was by far the best. Here are a few of my favorite topics.

Kakonomics (Gloria Origgi) "the weird preference for low-quality payoffs"
This gives a word to that phenomenon wherein people claim to require and provide high-quality work, but everybody tacitly agrees to accept and produce low-quality work because it's easier. To be found, at least in pockets, in education, government work, and perhaps any sufficiently large organization.

Kafabe (Eric Weinstein) "an altered reality of layered falsehoods, in which nothing can be assumed to be as it appears"
He doesn't provide a better definition, I think, but the example that makes it clear is professional wrestling, in which everybody acts as if there's real competition but in fact the whole thing is planned. Maybe kayfabe is a specific case of Robert Trivers' entry in WWBBCP ("deceit and self-deception play a big role in human problems"), and then perhaps kakonomics is a specific case of kayfabe. Oh what a tangled web we weave?

Aether (Richard Thaler) (suggested as a pejorative for black box terms in theories)
This provides a word for use in criticizing theories that don't actually explain anything. Some other entries refer to the danger, well described years ago by Feynman, of thinking that naming a thing is the same as understanding the thing, and this is a little bit similar, but not exactly. I particularly like that he criticizes economics, saying that (among other things) time-varying risk aversion is an aether.

The Einstellung effect (Evgeny Morozov) "trying to solve a problem by pursuing solutions that have worked for us in the past, instead of evaluating and addressing the new problem on its own terms"
I didn't know there was a name for this. I do this kind of thing all the time. For example, if I think of doing a new web project, I immediately jump to Google App Engine, because I've used it before - even though it seems to not have much of a future, has a raft of clear drawbacks, and in any event is certainly not guaranteed to be the best tool for the job. But once you build one tool, you want to use it again rather than building a new one.

QED moments (Bart Kosko) "know[ing] what proof feels like"
This isn't really new either, but I like his angle on teaching the epistemological nature of mathematical proof as compared to other ways of knowing and how this sort of reasoning fits into the human experience.

The Veeck Effect (Gregory Cochran) "adjust[ing] the standards of evidence in order to favor a preferred outcome"
Yet another good name for something you already sort of know about.

Everyday apophenia (David Pizarro) the tendency to "err in the direction of perceiving patterns where none actually exist"
As in superstitions like lucky socks, etc.

Now that I go through my notes a bit, maybe it's me who didn't understand the question. The entries I found most interesting were the ones that gave names to phenomena I had some familiarity with already, not entirely new phenomena. One of the goals of the book was to create more cognitive shorthand, after all. Note also that these terms are useful in this - as, indeed, there is utility in having a term with which to refer to a specific type of bird. And perhaps it is too much to ask for such a book to provide entirely new concepts. Certainly really important new ideas would find expression in other outlets before being published in a compendium of this type. So there is some value in this tome, although I do maintain that it is not nearly as much fun as What We Believe But Cannot Prove. Still a fun series; I think I may check out What Have You Changed Your Mind About? next.

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