This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking


Brockman poses a question every year and this year it was which idea people would be better off with if they mastered. The result is well worth the read

The Rabbit Hole is written by Blas Moros. To support, sign up for the newsletter, become a patron, and/or join The Latticework. Original Design by Thilo Konzok.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Mediocrity Principle
    1. The mediocrity principle simply states that you aren’t special. The universe does  not revolve around you; this planet isn’t privileged in any unique way; your  country is not the product of divine destiny; your existence isn’t the product of  directed, intentional fate. Most of what happens is just a consequence of natural,  universal laws – laws that apply everywhere and to everything, with no special  exemptions or amplifications for your benefit…We look for general principles that  apply to the universe as a whole first, and those explain much of the story; and  then we look for the quirks and exceptions that led to the details. It’s a strategy  that succeeds and is useful in gaining a deeper knowledge.
  2. Double-Blind Control Experiment (Richard Dawkins)
    1. We would learn not to generalize from anecdotes
    2. We would learn how to assess the likelihood that apparently important effects  might have happened by chance alone
    3. We would learn how extremely difficult it is to eliminate subjective bias, and that  subjective bias does not imply dishonesty or venality of any kind. This lesson goes  deeper. It has the salutary effect of undermining respect for authority and respect  for personal opinion
    4. We would learn not to be seduced by homeopaths and other quacks and  charlatans, who would consequently be put out of business
    5.  We would learn critical and skeptical habits of thought more generally, which not  only would improve our cognitive toolkit but might save the world
  3. Scientific Method
    1. The core of a scientific lifestyle is to change your mind when faced with  information that disagrees with your views, avoiding intellectual inertia, reflecting  the past rather than shaping the future.
  4. Thought Experiment
    1.  It involves setting up an imagined piece of apparatus and running a simple  experiment with it in your mind, for the purpose of proving or disproving a  hypothesis. In many cases, a thought experiment is the only approach. An actual  experiment to examine retrieval of information falling into a black hole cannot be  carried out.
  5. Nexus Causality
    1.  For many things, it is more accurate to represent outcomes as caused by an  understanding, or nexus, of factors
  6. Self-Serving Bias
    1.  Most of us have a good reputation with ourselves. Accepting more responsibility  for success than for failure, for good deeds than for bad
  7. Bias is the nose for the story
    1. Bias, in the form of expectation, inclination, and anticipatory hunches, helped  load the dice in our favor and for that reason is hardwired into our thinking. Bias  is an intuition – a sensitivity, a receptiveness – that acts as a lens on all our  perceptions
  8. Control your spotlight
    1. Willpower is inherently weak and children who tried to postpone their treat –  gritting their teeth in the face of temptation – soon lost the battle, often within  thirty seconds. Instead, Mischel discovered something interesting when he studied  the tiny percentage of kids who could successfully wait for the second treat.  Without exception, these “high delayers” all relied on the same mental strategy:  they found a way to keep themselves from thinking about the treat, directing their  gaze away from the yummy marshmallows. This is the skill of “strategic allocation  of attention,” and Mischel argues that it’s the skill underlying self-control. Too  often, we assume that willpower is about having strong moral fiber. But that’s  wrong. Willpower is really about properly directing the spotlight of attention,  learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory. It’s about  realizing that if we’re thinking about the marshmallow, we’re going to eat it,  which is why we need to look away.
  9. The focusing illusion
    1. Income is an important determinant in people’s satisfaction with their lives, but it  is less important than most people think. If everyone had the same income, the  differences among people in life satisfaction could be less than 5%
  10. Uncertainty
    1. Uncertainty is a central component of what makes science successful. Being able  to quantify uncertainty and incorporate it into models is what makes science  quantitative rather than qualitative. Indeed, no number, no measurement, no  observable in science is exact. Quoting numbers without attaching an uncertainty  to them implies that they have, in essence, no meaning
  11. Because
    1. When you’re facing in the wrong direction, progress means walking backward.  History suggests that our worldview undergoes disruptive change not so much  when science adds new concepts to our cognitive toolkit as when it takes away  old ones.
  12. The name game
    1.  Too often in science we operate under the principle that “to name it is to tame it,”  or so we think. One of the easiest mistakes, even among working scientists is to  believe that labeling something has somehow or other added to an explanation or  an understanding of it. The normal fallacy is the error of believing that the label  carries explanatory information. Stuart Firestein
  13. Living is fatal
    1. Probabilities are numbers whose values reflect how likely different events are to  take place. People are bad at assessing probabilities. They are bad at it not just  because they are bad at addition and multiplication. Rather, people are bad at  probability on a deep, intuitive level: they overestimate the probability of rare but  shocking events – a burglary breaking into your bedroom while you’re asleep, say,  Conversely, they underestimate the probability of common but quiet and insidious  events – the slow accretion of globules of fat on the walls of an artery, or another  ton of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere.
    2.  This blind spot in our collective consciousness – the inability to deal with  probability – may seem insignificant, but it has dire practical consequences. We  are afraid of the wrong things, and we are making bad decisions.
  14. Truth is a model
    1. Bugs are features – violations of expectations are opportunities to refine them.  And decisions are made by evaluating what works better, not by invoking  received wisdom.
    2.  abies who keep babbling turn into scientists who formulate and test theories for  a living. But it doesn’t require professional training to make mental models –  we’re born with those skills. What’s needed is not displacing them with certainty  of absolute truths that inhibit the exploration of ideas. Making sense of anything  means making models that can predict outcomes and accommodate observations.  Truth is a model
  15. Failure liberates success
    1.  Often the only way to improve a complex system is to probe its limits by forcing it  to fail in various ways
  16. Holism
    1. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the most impressive is that  carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorous, iron, and a few other  elements, mixed in just the right way, yield life. And life has emergent properties  not presenting or predictable from these constituent parts. There is a kind of  awesome synergy between the parts. Nicholas Christakis
    1. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch
    2. The universality of the fact ta you can’t get something for nothing has found  application in sciences as diverse s physics (laws of thermodynamics) and  economics.
  18.  Shifting baseline syndrome
    1.  Each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock and size and  species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers and uses this to  evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have  further declined, but it is the stocks at the time that serve as a new baseline. The  result is obviously a shift in the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping  disappearance of resources species
    2. A shift, for the better or worse
  19. Positive-Sum Games
    1. A zero-sum game is an interaction in which one party’s gain equals the other  party’s loss – the sum of their gains and losses is zero. Sports matches are  quintessential examples of zero-sum games: winning isn’t everything, it’s the only  thing, and nice guys finish last. A nonzero-sum game is an interaction in which  some combinations of actions provide a net gain (positive sum) or loss (negative  sum) to the two participants. The trading of surpluses, as when herders and  farmers exchange wool and milk for grain and fruit, is a quintessential example, as  is the trading of favors, as when people take turns baby-sitting each other’s  children. In a zero-sum game, a rational actor seeking the greatest gain for himself  or herself will necessarily be seeking the maximum loss for the other actor. In a  positive-sum game, a rational self-interested actor may benefit the other actor  with the same choice that benefits himself or herself. More colloquially, positive-sum games are called win-win situations and are captured in the cliché  “everybody wins.”  
  20. Structured Serendipity            
    1. Two techniques seem very promising: varying what you learn and varying where  you learn it. I try each week to read a scientific paper in a field new to me – and  to read it in a different place. New associations often leap out of the air at me this  way…In my view, we should each invest a few hours a week in reading research  that ostensibly has nothing to do with our day jobs, in a setting that has nothing in  common with our regular workspaces
  21. Randomness
    1.  Randomness is so difficult to grasp because it works against our pattern-finding  instincts. It tells us that sometimes there is no pattern to be found. As a result,  randomness is a fundamental limit to our intuition; it says that there are processes  we can’t predict fully
    2. The First Law of Randomness: There is such a thing as randomness. Random  events can mimic nonrandom ones
    3. The Second Law of Randomness: Some events are impossible to predict
    4. The Third Law of Randomness: Random events behave predictably in aggregate  even if they’re not predictable individually. The larger the number of events, the  more predictable they become. The law of larger numbers is a mathematical  theorem that dictates that repeated, independent random events converge with  pinpoint accuracy upon a predictable average behavior
  22. Cognitive Load
    1.  The amount of information entering our consciousness at any instant is referred to  as our cognitive load. When our cognitive load exceeds the capacity of our  working memory, our intellectual abilities take a hit. Information zips into and out  of our mind so quickly that we never gain a good mental grip on it. The  information vanishes before we’ve had an opportunity to transfer it into our long-term memory and weave it into our knowledge.
  23. To curate
    1. “To curate” is finding ever wider application because of a feature of modern life  impossible to ignore: the incredible proliferation of ideas, information, images,  disciplinary knowledge, and material products we all witness today. Such  proliferation makes the activities of filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing, and  remembering more and more important as basic navigational tools for 21st century  life. These are the tasks of the curator, who is no longer understood simply as the  person who fills a space with objects but also as the person who brings different  cultural spheres into contact, invents new display features, and makes junctions  that allow unexpected encounters and results. – Hans Ulrich Obrist, This Will  Make You Smarter
  24. The senses and the multisensory
    1. What we call “Taste” is one of the most fascinating case studies for how  inaccurate our view of our senses is: it is not produced by the tongue alone but is  always an amalgam of taste, touch, and smell, touch contributes to sauces tasting  creamy and other foods tasting chewy, crisp, or stale. Flavor perception is the  result of multisensory integration of gustatory, olfactory, and oral somatosensory  information into a single experience whose components we are unable to  distinguish. In sensory perception, multisensory integration is the rule, not the  exception
    2.  Other surprising collaborations among the sense are due to cross-model effects,  whereby stimulation of one sense boosts activity in another. Looking at someone  lips across a crowded room can improve our ability to hear what they are saying,  and the smell of vanilla can make a liquid we sip “taste”
  25. Think bottom up, not top down
    1. One of the most general shorthand abstractions that, if adopted, would improve  the cognitive toolkit of humanity is to think bottom up, not top down. Almost  everything important that happens in both nature and society happens from the  bottom-up, not top down. Water is a bottom-up, self-organized emergent property  of hydrogen and oxygen. Life is a bottom-up, self-organized emergent property of  organic molecules that coalesced into protein chains through nothing more than  the input of energy into the system of Earth’s early environment. The complex  eukaryotic cells of which we are made are themselves the product of much  simpler prokaryotic cells that merged together from the bottom up, in a process of  symbiosis that happens naturally when genomes are merged between two  organisms. Evolution itself is a bottom-up process or organisms just trying to make  a living and get their genes into the next generation; out of that simple process  emerges the diverse array of complex life we see today. Most people, however,  see the world from the top down instead of the bottom up. The reason is that our  brains evolved to find design in the world, and our experience with designed  objects is that they have a designer (us), whom we consider to be intelligent. So,  most people intuitively sense that anything in nature that looks designed must be  so from the top down, not the bottom up. Bottom-up reasoning is counterintuitive.  This is why so many people believe that life was designed and that countries  should be ruled from the top down
    2.  For the past 500 years, humanity has gradually but ineluctably transitioned from  top-down to bottom-up systems, for the simple reason that both information and  people want to be free
  26. Scaling Laws
    1.  Scaling Laws are found throughout nature. Galileo in 1638 pointed out that large  animals have disproportionately thicker leg bones than small animals to support  the weight of the animal. The heavier animal, the stouter their legs need to be.  This leads to a prediction that the thickness of the leg bone should scale with 3/2  power of the length of the bone
  27. Constraint satisfaction
    1. A constraint is a condition that must be taken into account when solving a  problem or making a decision, and “constraint satisfaction” is the process of  meeting the relevant constraints. The key idea is that often there are only a few  ways to satisfy a full set of constraints simultaneously
    2. In general, the more constraints, the fewer the possible ways of satisfying them  simultaneously. And this is especially the case when there are many “strong”  constraints’ strong constraint is like the positioning of the end tables: there are  very few ways to satisfy it. In constant, a “weak” constraint such as the location  of the headboard, can be satisfied in many ways. Constraint satisfaction is  pervasive in part because it does not “require” perfect solutions. It’s up to you to  decide what the most important constraints are and just how many of the  constraints in general must be satisfied (and how well). Moreover, constraint  satisfaction need not be linear: you can appreciate the entire set of constraints at  the same time, throwing them into your mental stewpot and letting them simmer.  And this process need not be conscious. “Mulling it over” seems to consist of  engaging in all-but-unconscious constraints satisfaction. Finally, much creativity  emerges from constraint satisfaction. Many new recipes have been created when  chefs discovered that only certain ingredients were available – and they thus were  either forced to substitute those missing or come up with anew dish. Creativity can  also emerge when you decide to change, exclude, or add a constraint. Einstein had  one of his major breakthroughs when he realized that time need not pass at a  constant rate. Perhaps paradoxically, adding constraints can actually enhance  creativity – if a task is too open or unstructured, it may be so unconstrained that  it’s difficult to devise any solution.
  28. Keystone consumers
    1.  The term “keystone species,” inspired by the purple sea star, refers to a species  that has a disproportionate effect relative to its abundance. Similarly, it is possible  for a small minority of humans to precipitate the disappearance of an entire  species
  29. Cumulative error
    1. Humor seems to be the brain’s way of motivating itself – through pleasure – to  notice disparities and cleavages in its sense of the world. In the telephone game,  we find glee in the violation of expectation; what we think should be fixed turns  out to be fluid
  30. Scale analysis
    1. Nonlinearity is a hallmark of the real world. It occurs any time that outputs of a  system cannot be expressed in terms of a sum of inputs, each multiplied by a  simple constant – a rare occurrence in the grand scheme of things. Unpredictable  variability, tipping points, sudden changes in behavior, hysteresis – all are frequent  symptoms of a nonlinear world. One of the most robust bridges between the linear  and the non-linear, the simple and the complex, is scale analysis, the dimensional  analysis of physical systems. It is throughs scale analysis that we can often make  sense of complex nonlinear phenomena in terms of simpler models. At its core  reside two questions. The first asks what quantities matter most to the problem at  hand (which tends to be less obvious than one would like). The second asks what  the expected magnitude and – importantly – dimensions of such quantities are.  This second question is particularly important, as it captures the simple yet  fundamental point that physical behavior should be invariant to the units we use to  measure quantities.
    2. Of course, anytime a complicated system is translated to a simpler one,  information is lost. Scale analysis is a tool only as insightful as the person using it.  By itself, it 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”
  31. Science
    1. The idea that we can systematically understand certain aspects of the world and  make predictions based on what we’ve learned, while appreciating and  categorizing the extent and limitations of what we know, plays a big role in how  we think
  32. The expanding in-group
    1. The phenomenon of hybrid vigor in offspring, which is also called heterozygote  advantage, derives from a cross between dissimilar parents. It is well established  experimentally, and the benefits of mingling disparate gene pools are seen not  only in improved physical but also improved mental development. Intermarriage  therefore promises cognitive benefits
    2. Life is a self-replicating hierarchy of levels
  33. The Pareto Principle
    1. Also known as 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 than average. Furthermore, the pattern is  recursive. Within the top 20 of a system that exhibits a Pareto distribution, the top  20% of that slice will also account for disproportionately more of whatever is  being measured, and so on.
    2.  The top 1% of the population controls 35% of the wealth
    3. The recursive 80/20 weighting means that the averages far from the middle. This  in turn means that in such systems most people are below average, a pattern  encapsulated in the old economics joke, “Bill Gates walks into a bar and makes  everybody a millionaire, on average.”
  34. We are lost in thought
    1. We must recognize thoughts as thoughts, as transient appearances in  consciousness – is a primary source of human suffering and confusion
  35. Information flow
    1. The concept of cause-and-effect is better understood as the flow of information  between two connected events, from the earlier event to the later one. If you can  master the technique of visualizing all information flow and keeping track of your  priors, then the full power of the scientific method – and more – is yours to wild  from your personal cognitive toolkit.
  36. Negative capability
    1. Being able to exist with lucidity and calm amid uncertainty, mystery, and doubt,  without “irritable reaching after fact and reason”
  37. Systemic equilibrium
    1. The second law of thermodynamics states that, over time, a closed system will  become more homogenous, eventually reaching systemic equilibrium. It is not a  question of whether a system will reach equilibrium; it is only a question of when  a system will reach equilibrium. Living on a single planet, we are all participants in  a single physical system that has only one direction – toward systemic equilibrium.  This goes for food, water, intellectual resources, and more
  38. Recursive structure
    1. Recursive structure is a simple idea with surprising applications beyond science. A  structure is recursive if the shape of the whole recurs in the shape of the parts: for  example, a circle formed f welded links that are circles themselves. Each circular  link might itself be made of smaller circles, and in principle you could have an  unbounded nest of circles made of circles made of circles. Some parts of nature  show recursive structure of a sort: a typical coastline shows the same shape or  pattern whether you look from six inches away or sixty feet or six miles
    2. The recurrence of this phenomenon in art and nature underlines an important  aspect of the human sense of beauty.
  39. Collective intelligence
    1. Human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon. It is by putting brains  together through the division of labor – through trade and specialization – that  human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying  capacity, technological virtuosity, and knowledge base of the species. By sharing  and combining the results through exchange, people become capable of doing  things they do not even understand
  40. The base rate
    1. Whenever a statistician wants to predict the likelihood of some event based on the  available evidence, there are two main sources of information that have to be  taken into account: the evidence itself, for which a reliability figure has to be  calculated; and the likelihood of the event calculated purely in terms of relative  incidence. The second figure is the base rate
    2. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence
  41. Path dependence
    1. The fact that often something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a  choice that made sense at a particular time in the past but survived despite the  eclipse of its justification, because, once it had been established, external factors  discouraged going into reverse to try other alternatives. The paradigm example is  the seemingly illogical arrangement of letters on typewriter keyboard. Why not  just have the letters in alphabetical order, or arrange them so that the most  frequently occurring ones are under the strongest fingers? In fact, the first  typewriter tended to jam when typed on too quickly, so its inventor deliberately  concocted an arrangement that put “A” under the ungainly little finger.
  42. Ecology
    1. We now increasingly view life as a profoundly complex web like system with  information running in all directions, and instead of a single hierarchy we see an  infinity of nested and codependent hierarchies – and the complexity of all this is,  in and of itself, creative. We no longer need the idea of superior intelligence  outside the system; the dense field of intersecting intelligences is fertile enough to  account for all the incredible beauty of “creation.”
  43. The paradox
    1. Paradoxes arise when one or more convincing truths contradict each other, clash  with other convincing truths, or violate unshakeable intuitions. They are  frustrating, yet beguiling. Many see virtue in avoiding, glossing over, or dismissing  them. Instead we should seek them out. If we find one, sharpen it, push it into the  extreme, and hope that the resolution will reveal itself, for with that resolution will  invariably come a dose of Truth.
    2. Nature appears to contradict itself with the utmost rarity, and so a paradox can be  an opportunity for us to lay bare our cherished assumptions and discover which of  them we must let go. But a good paradox can take us further, to reveal that not  just the assumptions but the very modes of thinking we used in creating the  paradox must be replaced. Particles and waves? Not truth, just convenient models.  The same number of integers as perfect squares of integers? Not crazy, though  you might be, if you invent cardinality. The list goes on.
  44. Swiss Cheese model
    1. Losses occur only if all controls fail and the holes in the Swiss cheese align
  45. Black swan technologies
    1. With a black swan technology shot, you need not be constrained by the limits of  the current infrastructure, projections, or market. You simply change the  assumptions
  46. Entanglement
    1. Entanglement is spooky action at a distance. 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 the other, even though they are physical far apart!
  47. Time span of discretion
    1. Half a century ago, while advising a UK Metals company, Elliott Jaques had a  deep and controversial insight. He noticed that workers at different levels of the  company had very different time horizons. Line workers focused on tasks that  could be completed in a single shift, whereas managers devoted their energies to  tasks requiring six months or more to complete. Meanwhile, their CEO was  pursuing goals realizable only over the span of several years
    2. He who thinks longest wins
  48. The Einstellung Effect
    1. We constantly experience it when 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. Thus, whereas we may eventually solve the problem,  we may be wasting an opportunity to do so in a more rapid, effective, and  resourceful manner.
  49. Phase and Scale Transitions
    1. Phase transition is a change of state in a physical system, such as liquid to gas.  The concept has since been applied in a variety of academic circles to describe  other types of transformation, from social (think hunter-gatherer to farmer) or  statistical (think abrupt changes inn algorithm performance as parameters change)  but has not yet emerged as part of the common lexicon. 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. With knowledge of water only as a liquid, who would have imagined a  conversion to gas with the application of heat?
    2. Scale transitions are unexpected outcomes resulting from increases in scale. For  example, increases in the number of people interacting gin a system can produce  unforeseen outcomes: the operation of markets at large scales is often  counterintuitive. Think of the restrictive effect that rent-control laws can have on  the supply of affordable rental housing, or how minimum-wage jobs can reduce  the availability of low-wage jobs
  50. Statistically significant
    1. This means that the results are unlikely to be due by chance, the results  themselves may or may not be important

What I got out of it

  1. An amazing compilation of important ideas which would make us all better thinkers if we studied and implemented them

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