Skip to main content

Thinkonomics - Robert Johnson **

Although Thinkonomics is borderline as popular science, it claims to cover logic and critical thinking, aspects of mathematics and the scientific method respectively, so I thought I’d give it a go.

This is, without doubt, an unusual little book. In fact I’d go so far as to say I’ve never read anything like it. It’s like sitting in a pub, listening to a highly opinionated person hold out on his favourite topics of the day, from politics and sport to animal rights.

Despite the promise of insights into critical thinking and logic, what we get instead is opinions stated as if they were facts. Some of them may indeed be true, but the weakness in terms of presenting arguments in an allegedly scientific fashion is that there is very rarely data provided or any other evidence given to back up the statements.

This means that sometimes we get what feel like political stereotypes (the Conservative party is intent on selling off the National Health Service, for example) and sometimes there are evidence-free remarks that feel totally off the cuff. So, for example, when talking about physics, we are told that ‘however small you get, something else logically must make up that "thing". Atoms contain electrons, which orbit a nucleus, which is made of protons and neutrons, which are made of quarks... etc... this must go on forever, as far as we understand;’. It’s certainly news to me that electrons and quarks aren’t fundamental particles - we certainly don't understand that this goes on forever, nor is there any argument given as to why this 'must go on for ever.'

All this is supported by a writing style that feels distinctly old fogey, though as the author refers to a living grandparent, I assume he is a relatively young fogey. That isn’t helped by quite a few writing errors, the most egregious of which is probably the use of the mangled phrase ‘the proof is in the pudding.’ No it isn’t. ‘Proof’ here means ‘test’; the proof is in the eating - we test the pudding by eating it - not in the pudding.

Thinkonomics is not all bad by any means, though it certainly doesn't bear any resemblance to titles such as Freakonomics that it appears to be attempting to emulate. A book like this provides useful challenges to personal viewpoints. in some cases, the reader will probably agree with the presented opinions - for example, I thought Robert Johnson’s comments on the ludicrous nature of many Olympic sports were spot on - which gives the reader a mental pat on the back. In other cases, the opinions will run counter to the reader’s own - giving some opportunity for reflection, though due to the lack of factual backup to the arguments, there will probably be very few who are converted in their viewpoint.

Interesting, then, but I really don’t think it does what it says on the tin.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …