This Will Make You Smarter

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.

Every era has its intellectual hotspots. The most influential thinkers in our own era live at the nexus of the cognitive sciences, evolutionary psychology, and information technology. John Brockman gathers members of this network for summits. He arranges symposia and encourages online conversations. Through Edge.org, he has multiplied the talents of everyone involved.

The disciplinary structure in the universities is an important foundation. It enforces methodological rigor. But it doesn’t really correlate with reality. Why do we have one field, psychology, concerning the inner life and another field, sociology, concerning the outer life, when the distinction between the two is porous and maybe insignificant? If there’s going to be a vibrant intellectual life, somebody has to drag researchers out of their ghettos, and Brockman has done that through Edge

The explicit purpose of this book is to give us better tools to think about the world. Nicholas Christakis is one of several scholars to emphasize that many things in the world have properties not present in their parts. They cannot be understood simply by taking them apart. You have to observe the interactions of the whole. Clay Sharkey emphasizes that while we often imagine bell curves everywhere, in fact the phenomena of the world are often best described by the Pareto Principle.

Most of the essays in the book are about metacognition. They consist of thinking about how we think. If you lead an organization, or have the sort of job that demands that you think about the world, these tools are like the magic hammers. They will help you, now and through your life, to see the world better, and to see your own biases more accurately.

There are insights about what sort of creatures we are. Some of these are not all that uplifting. Gloria Origgi writes about Kakonomics, our preference for low quality outcomes. But Roger Highfield, Jonathan Haidt, and others write about the “snuggle for existence”: the fact that evolution is not only about competition, but profoundly about cooperation and even altruism.

Several of the essays in this book emphasize that we see the world in deeply imperfect ways, and that our knowledge is partial. They have respect for the scientific method and the group enterprise precisely because the stock of our own individual reason is small. Amid all the charms to follow, that mixture of humility and daring is the most unusual and important.

David Brooks
Columnist, New York Times
Author, The Social Animal
from the foreword to This Will Make You Smarter – New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking

This will make you smarter were contributions to the conversation in response to the Edge Question for 2011 – What scientific concept would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit?

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 behaviour, corporate behaviour, the fate of the planet, or the future of the universe. A Scientific concept” may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or any other analytical enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous tool that can be summed up succinctly but has broad application to understanding the world.

Edge is a Conversation