Tuesday, February 09, 2010
Read More Books!:
If you really want to understand any issue more complex than Brad and Angelina's marital status, there's really no substitute for a book. Not instead of blogs and newspapers and Twitter, but in addition to them. So: read more books! They're good for you.
I've heard and read about how awesome Charles Darwin was as a thinker, but I had to (re)read The Origin of Species to really grok what was being communicated here. So yes, books are important. The point that the content of what is being examined is critica can't be overemphasized.
It seems that disciplines which exhibit a great deal of tight contingency, such as the natural sciences, are easier to digest in purely non-book form, than those more humanistic domains which are messier and less causally clear in the network of the relationship of facts to frameworks. As an example, very little of Charles Darwin's argument in The Origin of Species was illuminating as such, it was by and large integrated seamlessly into the body of science if it was worthy, and discarded if it was not. This applies much more forcefully to the physical sciences which have been more strictly formalized. There is also the problem that if you picked up a scholarly book which discussed evolutionary fitness landscapes or the physics of quasars it would probably be unintelligible to you unless you had absorbed the prerequisite scholarship. The structure of learning in extremely contingent disciplines is relatively straightforward. If you want to learn quantum physics, there are necessarily specific math and physics prerequisites. If you want to learn about Russian history from the time of Ivan the Terrible to the rise of the Romanov dynasty, some prior knowledge of late Byzantine history might be useful to understand the cultural-political roots of Russian Orthodoxy, but it is not necessary.
When it comes to "softer" disciplines I think books are critical, because it is so easy to mislead yourself on the shape of scholarship. When I occasionally hear Creationists observe that there is a scientific controversy about evolutionary theory, or even more blatantly that evolutionary theory has fallen into disrepute within biology, they are either being lied to, or, they are lying. It is simply impossible to avoid the fact that there is no alternative universe of Creationist scholarship which has a credible scientific framework which explains the pattern and nature of biological diversity. But what about a discipline such as economics, one of the "harder" domains outside of natural science? You'll get a very different perspective if you read Greg Mankiw (PhD, MIT) vs. Paul Krugman (PhD, MIT). More outlandishly, many individuals with a political ideology of libertarianism are strongly attracted to the Austrian school of economics, despite the fact that this is a totally marginalized heterodox tradition today. In this case, normative preferences generate a positive feedback loop in terms of how one explores the sample space of scholarship. One can debate whether the marginalization of Austrian economics is justified or not (see The Eclipse of Darwinism), but it is also an empirical fact that it is marginalized.
Reading a wide range of books is a good way to diminish the power of preferences when exploring scholarly landscapes with which one is unfamiliar. When searching for journal articles it becomes easy to get caught in circular networks of citation, or fixating on particular journals which one finds congenial. Additionally, in less contingent disciplines the synoptic vision of a scholar who has dedicated their life to absorbing and reprocessing a mountain of data and generating insight and inference can often be helpful. If they are honest they will sample from the distribution of data in a manner which is not selection biased, something that you as an outsider will likely not be able to do because you do not know the shape of the distribution.