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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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