To Learn, Try

Luke Muehlhauser recently interviewed me as part of his Conversations series. Seeing the lightly edited transcript reminds me of why I usually write instead of posting transcripts. But with a little more cutting, I can find at least one satisfactory quote:

Some people have been brought up in a Popperian paradigm, where there’s a limited scientific method and there’s a limited range of topics it can apply to, and you turn the crank and if it can apply to those topics then you have science and you have truth, and you have something you’ve learned and otherwise everything else is opinion, equally undifferentiated opinion.

I think that’s completely wrong. That is, we have a wide range of intellectual methods, [and] some of those methods work better than others. … But honestly, there are very few topics on which you can’t learn more if you just sit down and work at it. … Of course, just because you can learn about almost anything doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t mean it’s worth the effort to society or yourself, and it doesn’t mean that there are … easy ways to convince other people that you’ve learned something. … [Also,] it isn’t necessarily well-suited for being an impressiveness display. (more)

If an topic is important enough, just start to study it; if you are smart, then eventually you’ll make progress, and learn important things. Just don’t expect it to be easy to persuade or impress other people with what you’ve learned.

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  • efalken

    It’s crucial to look at fruitful questions, ones neither too parochial or too big. I once read Jim Watson say he was fortunate to have attacked a soluble important problem, that was the cause for a lot of his success. I know many very smart guys who were in threads of econ that simply couldn’t answer the questions that they thought they might be able to answer.

    Many problems are important and insoluble in their current methodology, in my opinion, and decades of studying civilization via the post-modern deconstructionist view, business cycles via large-scale Keynesian macro models, stock prices via technical analysis, or perhaps superstring theory trying to figure out the nature of the universe…I don’t think they’ve lacked attention from thoughtful people, but their solutions haven’t generated better ways to live. Only as an effort in themselves they are successful.

  • Stephen Diamond

    You give the crude view you describe far too much credit by calling it Popperian. Popper was far from thinking that everything but (what he deemed) “science” was “equally undifferentiated opinion.” He surely wouldn’t call most economics science, but he equally surely wouldn’t say it’s mere guesswork.

    You have to read “Conjectures and Refutations,” not just “The Logic of Scientific Discovery.”

    • adrianratnapala

      Yes. I sometimes see this crack-turning attitude in popular discussions of science — but I never thought to associate it was Popper. Indeed the best known bit of Popper’s philosophy (falsification) means that doing science doesn’t quite get you the “truth”.

  • Stephen Diamond

    If an topic is important enough, just start to study it; if you are smart, then eventually you’ll make progress, and learn important things.

    But I think this is way too optimistic—perhaps self-delusional.

    The most that might be said is that you will have insights that could deepen human understanding were they brought into “elite” discussions or into the general intellectual dialectic. On an individual level, there’s no assurance that these insights constitute knowledge. (The resulting confrontation might well be negative (and probably will be)—which would be progress [qua Popper] but only if there’s confrontation.)

  • Daniel Meyer

    You don’t always have to persuade people that you know things – sometimes you can order/coerce them into doing it. That might make hierarchy a more useful technology than I’ve given it credit for.

    It also makes for a good reason to create your own startup (assuming you’ve learned a lot): you can bake a lot of your tacit knowledge into company ‘culture’

    • adf

      Except that coercive structures select for people who are good at coercing rather than being useful.

      • Daniel Meyer

        Coercive structures have a lot of flaws, especially if it’s difficult to exit*. I’m just pointing out that I hadn’t absorbed this particular advantage until now.

        * In a startup it’s relatively easy, but vesting schedules (among other things) try to make it a little harder.

  • jonas

    Lot easy to persuade or impress other people with what you’ve learned if you’re in the elite (look at elite spouses publishing cookbooks). Normal people who do that just get cut down by the Tall Poppy Syndrome.