How To Think Better
Illustration by Mr Nick Hardcastle
Mr Steven Poole’s new book explores the history of new ideas, and how we can direct our thoughts at the past for future innovation.
“Innovation” has become a bit of a buzzword in the 21st century, so wildly is it thrown around in board meetings and magazine articles and various preachy blog posts on Medium.com. But did we square-eyed iPhone acolytes of the epoch invent innovation itself? No, of course we didn’t. The truth is, though it may feel like our world is bristling with more ideas than ever before, the story of humankind is one of a culture continually buffeted, poked and moved along by new ideas, some of which have caught on and revolutionised the way we live, and some of which… haven’t. Naturally, it’s clear to see how we’ve benefited from the former category (which includes such ideas as electricity, or antibiotics), but what about the latter? In his new book Rethink: The Surprising History Of New Ideas, author and journalist Mr Steven Poole reveals how many supposedly recent innovations, such as the electric car, or cognitive behavioural therapy, actually have their basis in ideas from the past that have since been forgotten or passed over for various reasons.
The main motivation behind the book, says Mr Poole, was “dissatisfaction with the Silicon Valley idea of ‘innovation as breaking from the past and disrupting everything’.” However, in the course of this project, in which he brings to light the modern relevance of ideas including stoicism – a school of philosophy founded in the third century BC – and those found in The Art Of War – an ancient Chinese military text – he sets out to answer a grander question: if we as a society have missed out on brilliant ideas, what have we been doing wrong? How can we think better, and more critically, and so produce better innovations? “The great democratization of information in the internet age has created a need for ever more critical scrutiny of sources,” says Mr Poole. “People on all sides of an argument too easily believe what confirms what they already think. Which is why, as I argue in the book, it’s important to suspend our disbelief more often than we do.” Inspired by this argument, we at MR PORTER quizzed Mr Poole on three key ways that we can all think that little bit better:
Question Your Morals
Should we avoid an idea because it’s been used to harm people in the past? The knee-jerk answer to this question is “yes”, but that reaction, says Mr Poole, glosses over the fact that many developments and disciplines within science – such as nuclear fission and genetic engineering – can ultimately be used to help humanity as much as they have the potential to cause harm. Dismissing them for moral reasons can therefore hinder innovation.
“Some ideas really are evil – like murdering millions. But other ideas are tainted by a particular history: they are what I call ‘pariah ideas’. Eugenics was used to justify the Holocaust and so is thought to be an inherently evil idea. But positive eugenics – the idea of improving the abilities or quality of life of a human being – is not in itself inherently evil. So we need to separate ideas from their historical context – and realise that morality evolves. Many of the things we think are fine today will no doubt be considered awful in the future.”
Plan For Disaster
One of the old ideas that Mr Poole traces into the modern world is a proposition from the 17th-century scientist and jack-of-all-trades Mr Francis Bacon – that when conducting a scientific experiment, you should hypothesise all outcomes, likely and unlikely, then attempt to falsify them. It’s a simple premise, but one that has been adopted by Dr Jochen Runde, of the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, as a method for making difficult management decisions.
“This is a new business method, based on old philosophy, for uncovering ‘unknown unknowns’ — events that aren't even on your radar. The basic idea is that when thinking about future possibilities, we imagine too narrow a range of outcomes, particularly nothing too bad. So this method says imagine the worst possible thing that could happen — and then, this is the crucial part, actively go out and try to find evidence that it might happen. Try to prove it. In doing so you might uncover some new facts that you hadn't previously considered, and these can feed back into your decision-making."
Watch Out for Zombies
Some ideas from the past were considered wrong at the time, because of circumstance, or morality, or the predominance of an easier proposition. Others were just plain wrong, but still won’t stay down. Mr Poole calls these “zombie” ideas. It’s important, says Mr Poole, to distinguish between these dead concepts from the past and others, which may still have something to teach us.
“A zombie idea is one that has been revived even though it shouldn't have been — like the current resurgence on the internet of flat-earth theories. Nothing has changed to make most people doubt that the Earth really is round. So this is just a kind of weird conspiracy theory. On the other hand, an old idea might have potential if something has changed in the meantime. The change might be the state of scientific evidence, so that this idea no longer seems definitively wrong; or just social attitudes, so that this idea no longer seems immoral or disgusting; or the discovery of some new mechanism or upgrade that makes an old idea work better than it used to. The paradox is, as I suggest in the book, that we probably can't have scientific progress and rediscovery without having a few zombies shambling around as well.”
Rethink: The Surprising History Of New Ideas by Mr Steven Poole is published on 30 June