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.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…