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10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

On trusting science and data

10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

How do children acquire language?

This is one of the research topics that Steven Pinker has worked on as a cognitive psychologist and psycholinguist. He has concluded that language also goes through the process of natural selection.

Pinker is the author of several books. These include, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ and ‘Enlightenment Now’.

His recommended list of books will enlighten you about the universe, our world, and science.

Let’s go through their overview.

10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

Who made us, God or natural selection?

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and an author.

In this book, he argues that only Darwin’s theory of evolution provides a logical explanation of human origin.

Theologian William Paley gave the analogy of a watch for the universe. He said that the watch is complex and intricate, letting us know about its watchmaker. The universe is the same. Its complexity points towards a creator.

“In the case of living machinery, the ‘designer’ is unconscious natural selection, the blind watchmaker.”

As an atheist, Dawkins criticizes the belief in God.

Dawkins says that the only thing that has designed this universe is natural selection. And it is blind. It has no plans for the past, future, or present.

The author calls living organisms ‘survival machines’ for DNA.

Dawkins also says that physics is difficult because its ideas are difficult to understand.

“Our brains were designed to understand hunting and gathering, mating and child-rearing: a world of medium-sized objects moving in three dimensions at moderate speeds.”

Our brains were made to do primal activities. Well, that makes me feel less dumb!

10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

Is there a limit to progress?

Our senses are not the only way to acquire knowledge, the author says.

We use speculation and guesswork to understand the universe. These theories are then tested.

“…there is no fundamental barrier, no law of nature or supernatural decree, preventing progress.”

When the evidence points to the truth of a theory, it becomes knowledge. And the 18th century was the start of purposeful knowledge creation.

Progress is infinite. And it will continue to happen. This is the view held by Deutsch.

“In some environments in the universe, the most efficient way for humans to thrive might be to alter their own genes.”

He shows us that intelligence is not just computational power. If AI is able to conjure up knowledge from random numbers, without human input, then intelligence is perhaps not that complex, he says.

The author also touches on the multiverse theory in his book. Somewhere in the multiverse, fiction is a fact.

10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

Truth vs lie, a battle.

Jonathan Rauch is an American writer and journalist. He is also a Yale University graduate.

In this book, he tells how the truth is at the risk of being drowned out, in the face of oft-repeated lies.

“… intelligence is no defense against false belief.”

A 2018 MIT study found that falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth. That figure alone is horrifying.

Rauch called the liberal science values the ‘Constitution of Knowledge’. Undermining them would undermine the truth.

The author mentions in detail, the tactics employed by Trump. He didn’t feel accountable. This led to a crisis.

“Trump and his media echo chambers [lied] because their goal was to denude the public’s capacity to make any distinctions.”

Rauch reminds us again and again of the need to uphold the values of the Constitution of Knowledge especially as the world gets increasingly online.

10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

Old is gold.

George Gamow is a Russian theoretical physicist whose work in the field is well-known.

This book was initially published in 1947. But it remains famous still.

The book deals with a wide variety of interesting topics related to math and science. The book is comprehensible for middle schoolers.

It uses analogies and anecdotes to explain complex subject matter.

For example, the author uses the following poem when explaining the theory of relativity.

“There was a young girl named Miss Bright,
Who could travel much faster than light.
She departed one day,
In an Einsteinian way,
She came back on the previous night.”

The book also includes concepts from biology and chemistry.

Some of the facts have been changed since the publishing of this book, thanks to scientific advancement.

Nonetheless, it is a good resource for someone who wants to learn science or perhaps have a peek into the history of scientific progress.

10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

Why do good parents have bad kids?

Judith Rich Harris is a psychologist.

This book calls into question the belief that parents are the most important influence on kids. As the author puts it, the most important effect on kids is that of peers.

This is why kids of immigrant parents take on the culture they are brought up in, not what’s practiced in their homes.

“Parenting has been oversold.”

In short, you cannot do much about how your kids turn out. Genes and environment are the determinants of how one turns out.

Environment, however, doesn’t consist of parents only, as mentioned.

“What children learn from their parents about morality doesn’t go any further than the door of their home.”

I do understand the author’s hypothesis. It does match my observation of the world. However, I am not ready to completely dismiss the role of parents.

As a parent, my theory is ‘do your best and then know it is out of your hands’.

10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

To cancel or not to cancel?

This book is almost like a sequel to the book ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’.

In this book, a fourth untruth is added to the list of the previous three. It states ‘Bad people only have bad opinions’.

The authors discuss cancel culture, its mechanisms, and strategies to handle this phenomenon.

“The uptick beginning around 2014, and accelerating in 2017 and after, of campaigns to get people fired, disinvited, deplatformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is — or would be — protected by First Amendment standards and the climate of fear and conformity that has resulted from this uptick…”

It mentions many high-profile cases from both the political left and right.

The authors think that part of the reason for cancel culture is that Gen Z was over-supervised by parents and authority figures. They don’t know how to settle conflicts on their own. Generations before that experienced unstructured time and are better adept at handling differences.

However, I think that mob mentality is part of the human psyche. Previous generations have fallen into it too.

This book is a much-needed contribution in the era of online hate and bullying.

10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

Can data help us in doing the right thing?

The author is a Google data scientist. He uses his capabilities to help us use the big data to our advantage.

We have all heard, ‘Do what your heart tells you to do’, and ‘Trust your gut’. Perhaps that was not the best advice.

“Data has uncovered that the media gives us a distorted view of the age of typical entrepreneurs.”

Did you know that the average successful entrepreneur is 42 years old?

But the age of entrepreneurs mentioned in business magazines? Well… the mean is twenty-seven years.

A sixty-year-old entrepreneur is 3 times more likely to be successful than a 30-year-old entrepreneur, the book says.

This is one of the ways that common understandings and reality are at odds with each other.

“Reading the groundbreaking modern studies on happiness, I came to the conclusion that happiness is less complicated than we sometimes think.”

We do things that are least likely to make us happy. In fact, common sense and data tell us that spending time with friends or in nature will make us happy.

“A nerdy way to say this: the Get-Happy Checklist is much easier than the Get-Rich Checklist.”

This book is interesting and eye-opening.

10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

Who killed the most people?

Originally published in 2011, the book was named ‘The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities’.

In 2013, it was published under the new title ‘Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History’.

“People have been killing each other ever since they came down from the trees, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find bodies stashed up in the branches as well.”

This book is a heavy one. It dwells into one atrocity after the other.

The author ranks them by the number of people killed. World War 2 tops the list. The list also includes the regimes of Josef Stalin and Genghis Khan.

“War kills more civilians than soldiers. In fact, the army is usually the safest place to be during a war.”

The author provides a good analysis of the listed events. It makes this book way more than just numbers.

10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

Can we write, like we speak?

This book acquaints us with the classic style of writing prose.

The authors contrast plain style and classic style. They want us to see the beauty and intelligence that the classic way of writing offers.

“Seeing is believing” is plain.
“Seeing is believing only if you don’t see too clearly” is classic.”

The authors give many examples.

What I understand is that classic style adds to the plain, in order to make it more profound.

The authors say that plain style ‘values simplicity but shuns nuance’. Whereas the classic style embraces both. This book puts the classic style as the superior one.

“Classic style models itself on speech and can be read aloud properly the first time.”

When we speak something, we only have one chance to make our opinion known. This is how classical prose works. It aims to leave its mark on the reader, there and then.

If you want to improve your writing or perhaps try out different styles, this book will help you do that.

10 Recommended Books by Psychologist Steven Pinker That Will Expand Your Brain (No, I’m Not Kidding)

Are expanding cities good for us?

I think country areas are more green than urban areas. I always thought they were better than the concrete jungles that cities are.

This book argues in favor of urbanization. Along with this, it presents a counterintuitive approach to many challenges that face us today.

“Talk of “saving the planet” is overstated, however. Earth will be fine, no matter what; so will life. It is humans who are in trouble.”

The author argues for the use of nuclear technology as a green source of electricity. He also favors genetic engineering.

The author wants us to abandon irrational fear and let science take the wheel.

Some arguments presented in the book are stronger than others.

“At present, the best low-carbon source is nuclear.”

The overview of this book might leave you a bit on edge. But the author’s work is worth a read, even if you don’t end up agreeing.


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