Friday, December 05, 2014

Book: This Will Make You Smarter - New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking by John Brockman


In 'This Will Make You Smarter', scientific intellectuals are asked to contribute an idea they believe will improve the reader's state of understanding of the world and how it works. This is a chunky book and the hop-scotch format can be difficult to wade through; afterall, many of the concepts could easily be fleshed out into full books. Nevertheless, it is packed with a bucket load of good ideas, some of which are recorded below for future reference, you know, so I can make myself smarter and all that.  

All in all, this is good, mind-expanding stuff.

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Quotes and Notes

When you're facing the wrong way, progress means walking backwards.

Knowledge as a Hypotheses - Einstein said "all our science measured against reality is primitive and childlike and yet ... it is the most precious thing we have."

Everyday Apophenia - The brain is an amazing pattern detecting machine but we often see patterns where none exist. The term was originally applied to patients suffering from certain forms of mental illness but it is clear this tendency is more broad based.

The Pointless Universe - Purpose and meaning are things that we create, not things that we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world. The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it's up to us to make sense of it and give it value.

The Double Blind Control Experiment - Over and above its research value, to understand it is to improve your thinking.

Promoting a Scientific Lifestyle - "Then there's what we do with the information we have. The core of a scientific lifestyle is to change your mind when faced with information that disagrees with your views, avoiding intellectual inertia, yet many of us praise leaders who stubbornly stick to their views as 'strong'. The great physicist Richard Feynman hailed a 'distrust of experts' as a cornerstone of science, yet herd mentality and blind faith in experts is widespread. Logic forms the basis of scientific reasoning, yet wishful thinking, irrational fears, and other cognitive biases often dominate decisions.

Good scientists understand they are part of a process of approximation. ... All of our theories are fundamentally provisional and quite possibly wrong > pay more attention to counter evidence, hold beliefs "a bit more humbly, in the happy knowledge that better ideas are almost certainly on the way"

Microbes Run the World - Microbes run our atmosphere. They also run much of our body. The human microbiome in our gut, mouth, skin and elsewhere harbors three thousand kinds of bacteria with 3 million distinct genes. ...New research is showing that microbes-on-board drive our immune systems and important parts of our digestion.

Experimentation - Every aspect of life is an experiment that can be better understood if it is perceived that way. But because we don't recognise this, we fail to understand that we need to reason logically from evidence we gather, carefully consider the conditions under which our experiment has been conducted, and decide when and how we might run the experiment again with better results. The scientific activity that surrounds experimentation is about thinking clearly in the face of evidence obtained from the experiment. But people who don't see their actions and experiment and don't know how to reason carefully from data will continue to learn less well from their experiences than those who do.

Self-Serving Bias - The question "What have I done to deserve this?" is one we ask of our troubles, not our successes. Also, we think we are better than average drivers, lecturers, and that we do more housework than our other halves. Perceiving ourselves favourably protects us against depression, buffers stress and sustains our hopes. But it does so at the cost of marital discord, bargaining impasses, prejudice, national hubris and war.

Cognitive Humility - We may be good at storing information but we are poor at retrieving it. We can recognise a face from years ago but forget what we had for breakfast yesterday. Human memories are subject to context - e.g. scuba divers are better at remembering words they studies underwater when they are tested underwater. We are more prone to recall evidence consistent with our beliefs rather than information that is inconsistent with it. Overcoming these biases is a life long struggle but recognising them is a first step.

The Focusing Illusion - When people are induced to believe that they 'must have' a good, they greatly exaggerate the difference that the good will make to the quality of their life.

The Usefulness of Certainty - The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore, a good scientist is never 'certain'. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than conclusions of those who are certain, because a  good
scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view...

The Name Game - ...we use it all the time when we're teaching, leading students to believe that a phenomenon named is a phenomenon explained, and to know the name is to know the phenomenon. ...called the 'nominal fallacy'. In biology, especially, we have labels for everything - molecules, anatomical parts, physiological functions, organisms, ideas, hypotheses. The nominal fallacy is the error of believing that the label carries explanatory information.

The World is Unpredictable - We can't predict and we can't control. To accept this can be a source of liberation and peace. We're part of the unfolding world, surfing the chaotic waves.

Failure Liberates Success - Failure is not something to be avoided but something to be cultivated. That's a lesson from science that benefits not only laboratory research but design, sports, engineering, art, entrepreneurship, and even daily life itself. All creative avenues yield the maximum when failures are embraced. A great graphic designer will generate lots of ideas, knowing that most will be aborted. A great dancer knows that most new moves will not succeed. ..you should aim for success while being prepared to learn from a series of failures. More so, you should deliberately press your successful investigations or accomplishments to the point where they break, flop, stall, crash or fail. ... Children in many parts of the world are taught that failure brings disgrace and that one should do everything in one's power to succeed without failure.

The Umwelt -by David Eagleman  In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexkull introduced the concept of the umwelt. He wanted a word to express a simple (but often overlooked) observation: Different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different environmental signals. In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odour of butyric acid. For the black ghost knife-fish, it's electrical fields. For the echo locating bat, it's air-compression waves. 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 umgebnung.

The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the objective reality "out there". Why would any of us stop to think that there is more out there beyond what we can sense? In the movie the Truman Show, the eponymous Truman lives in a world completely constructed around him by an intrepid television producer. At one point, an interviewer asks, "Why do you think Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?" The producer replies, "We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented." We accept our umwelt and we stop there.

To appreciate the amount that goes undetected in our lives, imagine you're a bloodhound. You long nose houses 200 million scent receptors. The slits at the corners of each nostril flare out to allow more air to flow as you sniff. Even your floppy ears drag along the ground and kick up scent molecules. Your world is all about olfaction. ...without their olfactory capabilities of a bloodhound, it rarely strikes us that things could be different.

A good illustration of our unawareness of the limits of our umwelt is that of colour-blind people: Until they learn that others can see hues they cannot, the thought of extra colours does not hit their radar screen. The same goes for the congenitally blind. Being sightless is not like experiencing 'blackness' or 'a dark hole' where vision should be. Like the human compared with the bloodhound, blind people do not miss vision: they do not conceive of it. The visible part of the spectrum is simply not part of their umwelt.

The more science taps into these hidden channels, the more it becomes clear that our brains are tuned to detect a shockingly small fraction of our reality. Our sensorium is enough for us to get by in our ecosystem, but it does not approximate the larger picture.

It would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, of imagined possibilities.

Interbeing - "To be is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is." - Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese Buddhist Monk). At what point did you last breath of air, sip of water, or bite of food cease to become part of the outside world and become you? Precisely when did your exhalations and wastes cease being you? Our skin is as much permeable membrane as barrier - so much so that, like a whirlpool, it is difficult to to discern where "you" end and the remained of the world begins. Energised by sunlight, life converts rocks into nutrients, which then pass through plants, herbivores, and carnivores before being decomposed and returned to the inanimate Earth, beginning the cycle anew. Our internal metabolisms are intimately interwoven with this Earthly metabolism; one result is the replacement of every atom in
our body every seven years.

...It turns out that "you" are not one life-form - that it, one self - but many. Your mouth alone contains more than seven hundred distinct kinds of bacteria. You skin and eyelashes are equally laden with microbes, and your gut houses a similar bevy of bacterial sidekicks.  ....current estimates indicate that your physical body contains about 10 trillion human cells and about 100 trillion bacterial cells. In other words, at any given moment, your body is about 90 per cent nonhuman...You are not an isolated being.

...The interbeing perspective encourages us to view other life-forms not as objects but subjects, fellow travellers in the current of this ancient river.

Entanglement - In quantum physics, two particles are entangled when a change in one particle is immediately associated with a change in the other particle. Here comes the spooky part: We can separate our "entangled buddies" as far as we can, and they will remain entangled. A change in one is instantly reflected in a change in the other, even though they are physically far apart (and I mean even in different countries).

Defeasability - An inference is defeasible if it can potentially be "defeated". ..It is the hallmark of the scientific process that claims are forever vulnerable to refinement and rejection, hostage to what the future could bring. ...Between blind faith and radical skepticism is vast but sparsely populated space where defeasability finds its home.

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