New and noteworthy – 17 May 2018

A critique of the political class; overcoming groupthink; the father of fractal geometry; the golden age of American teen car culture and a theory of cultural evolutionary psychology

May 17, 2018
Street cleaner outside Downing Street
Source: Getty

The Political Class: Why it matters who our politicians are
Peter Allen
Oxford University Press

In Britain, writes Peter Allen, “we continue to elect politicians who are similar to each other and unlike everyone else”. Many of us “might as well forget the idea of holding political office altogether”. This is not only unfair in itself, but often leads to worse policymaking and widespread disillusion with politics. This book analyses the true nature of “the political class”, assesses the arguments often used to justify it and considers “how who politicians are is affecting the kind of society we live in”. In the light of the problems we see around us, it also offers bold practical suggestions about how we might put things right.

No!: The Power of Disagreement in a World That Wants to Get Along
Charlan Nemeth
Atlantic Books

Consensus may sound like a good thing, but in reality, according to University of California, Berkeley psychologist Charlan Nemeth, “we make poorer decisions and think less creatively when we adopt the majority perspective”. If ideas and decisions are openly challenged, we are forced to reflect more carefully, explore alternative perspectives and use multiple problem-solving strategies – even if we ultimately decide that the dissenter is wrong. Drawing on extensive evidence from her research with “simulated juries” as well as real-life examples in areas ranging from plane crashes to surgical errors, Nemeth makes the case for dissent and offers useful tools for overcoming groupthink.

Clouds Are Not Spheres: A Portrait of Benoît Mandelbrot, the Founding Father of Fractal Geometry
Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon
World Scientific

Haunting images of fractals made visionary maverick Benoît Mandelbrot (1924-2010) famous among people who would struggle to name another leading 20th-century mathematician. In this lavishly illustrated account, Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon – a director who has made three films about Mandelbrot and also written popular books about fractals – has produced a lively short survey of the man and his work. Taking in the strange worlds opened up by Julia sets, the Joseph Effect and “self-squared dragons”, it also offers many striking illustrations of the power of fractals to illuminate everything from ferns and wave formations to stained-glass windows and the art of Salvador Dalí.

Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession
Gary S. Cross
University of Chicago Press

For generations of young Americans, claims Gary Cross, a central element of “growing up” was “getting the driver’s license, buying, driving, and maybe crashing the first car; the ritual of being picked up for the date and ‘making out’ in the front or back seat; even the pleasures of repairing, customizing, or racing that car”. Since car ownership became common in the US far earlier than in the rest of the world, the period from the 1930s through the 1980s represented a “golden age of American teen car culture”, represented most clearly in the figure of “the white, working-class, and largely male hot-rodder”. Machines of Youth recreates this fascinating but largely neglected slice of social history.

Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking
Cecilia Heyes
Harvard University Press

As well as physical machines, human beings have created what Cecilia Heyes calls “mental machines”, which are “embodied in our nervous systems” and “enable our minds to go further, faster, and in different directions than the minds of any other animals”. Examples include causal understanding, episodic memory, imitation and the ability to read other people’s minds. In setting out her theory of “cultural evolutionary psychology”, Heyes explains the implications for what it means to be human – and why “human minds are more agile, but also more fragile, than was previously thought”.

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