Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

23 MAY, 2012

Carl Sagan on Mastering the Vital Balance of Skepticism & Openness

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Fine-tuning the machinery of distinguishing the valid from the non-valid.

David Foster Wallace famously argued that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” Yet in an age of ceaseless sensationalism, pseudoscience, and a relentless race for shortcuts, quick answers, and silver bullets, knowing what to think seems increasingly challenging. We come up with tools like The Baloney Detection Kit and create wonderful animations to teach kids about critical thinking, but the art of thinking critically is a habit that requires careful and consistent cultivation. In his remarkable essay titled “The Burden of Skepticism,” originally published in the Fall 1987 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Carl Sagan — always the articulate and passionate explainer — captured the duality and osmotic balance of critical thinking beautifully:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.

Here’s to an exquisite addition to these famous definitions of science.

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23 MAY, 2012

Prophetic Animation: Douglas Adams Traces the Evolution of the Book from Rock to Silicon and Predicts eBooks in 1993

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How we went from boulders to scrolls to screens.

In 1968, Arthur C. Clarke predicted the iPad; in 1991, Francis Ford Coppola predicted YouTube; in 1993, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, recorded a short piece of audio for his then-publisher in the U.S. — Bob Stein of Voyager Expanded Books — tracing the evolution of the book from rock to silicone and predicting its transition into the digital age with astounding accuracy. This year, The Literary Platform hosted an international competition titled “Getting the Book Invented Properly,” inviting visual storytellers to animate Adams’s prophecy in interesting ways — a fine complement to these short videos on how books were made over the ages.

This entry by U.K. designer and illustrator Gavin Edwards takes the prize in my book.

The actual winners are being selected by a jury featuring the inimitable Stephen Fry and Bob Stein himself, and will be announced on Friday. You can vote for Edwards’s film here.

Thought You Should See This

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22 MAY, 2012

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See

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The art-science of walking the fine line between keen and crass.

Since its inception in 1925, The New Yorker has garnered remarkable reverence as much for its editorial style as it has for its inimitable covers, a singular medium for political and sociocultural visual satire matched perhaps only by Al Jaffee’s legendary MAD magazine fold-ins. In Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See, Françoise Mouly, New Yorker art director of nearly two decades, offers exactly what it says on the tin — a delicious forbidden taste of the art that didn’t quite nail it, or nailed it a bit too hard.

From Monica Lewinsky with a lollipop to Osama Bin Laden appraising proposed designs for the new World Trade Center, the images come from a slew of beloved New Yorker regulars, including Brain Pickings favorites Christoph Niemann, R. Crumb, and Art Spiegelman (who happens to be Mouly’s partner), and explore — some might say, exploit — our most deep-seated cultural conceits, our grandest fears, our most irrational beliefs, and our greatest unspoken truths. What emerges is a fascinating and unprecedented glimpse of the creative process behind the art of walking the fine line between the humorous and the haughty, the keen and the crass, the unapologetic and the too unapologetic.

Before arriving at the right character set to poke fun at our fears of terrorism -- two Arab men -- Barry Blitt tried the idea with two children and two businessmen. Ultimately, the idea was scrapped -- the reference to the mild DIY explosive, despite the viral fame of the Mentos + Diet Coke mixing experiments, was deemed too obscure for the magazine's audience.

Art Spiegelman winked at Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom from Want' to comment on anti-Muslim violence.

Immediately preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christoph Niemann captured the anti-French sentiments sweeping America.

After Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was assaulted by white NYPD officers in 1997, Harry Bliss zeroed in on then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's semi-secret paranoia.

Though Art Spiegelman didn't make the cover cut with this 1993 sketch, he and Mouly made it into the family's Christmas card that year.

Much of what makes the book special — and, no doubt, what makes New Yorker covers sing — is Mouly’s relationship with the artists, whom she consistently encourages not to self-sensor or hold anything back. There emerges a kind of “fail better” mentality, underpinned by her conviction that even the most outrageous idea may serve as a gateway to an inspired, publishable line of thinking.

The book’s companion site offers a weekly cover contest, the entries to which have been surprisingly excellent. My favorite, by writer and illustrator Ella German, came last week, themed “The Gays,” in light of the recent historic moment for marriage equality, but also referencing Maurice Sendak, who had passed away the previous week. Though far from a gay rights activist, Sendak lived as an openly gay man with his partner of half a century. The two never had the opportunity to marry.

What Here At The New Yorker did for the magazine’s editorial voice on its 50th anniversary in 1975, Blown Covers has done for its brand of visual satire, offering a rare glimpse of Oz behind the curtain. And to those whose first blush might be that Oz is better off unseen and omnipotent, Mouly offers the following lens in this interview on Imprint:

One could have to do with demystifying, making the process more predictable. But I actually think that it’s so rich and so interesting that it’s actually even more interesting if you have a sense of how the images are thought about, rather than less. It doesn’t explain anything because it still is genius when somebody gets the right idea.

Images courtesy of Abrams Books

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