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Costs and Benefits of Scholarship

40 Post author: lukeprog 22 March 2011 02:19AM

Scholarship is excellent, but it is also expensive. It takes a long time to catch up to the state of the art, even for a narrow subject.

I recently read 90% of the literature on machine ethics, a recent and small field of inquiry, and it took me about 40 hours to find all the literature, acquire it, and read (or skim) through it. Doing the same thing for an older and larger subject will take far more time than that. And of course most of the literature on any subject is not valuable.

Other times, you get lucky. Let's say you want to figure out how to beat procrastination. You could introspect your way to a plausible solution, but you might end up being wrong. So, you check Wikipedia. Not very useful. Next, you search Google Scholar for "procrastination." An article on the first page looks like what you want: an overview of the scientific research on procrastination. It's called "The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure," and it's available online! As it turns out, you can do a pretty decent job of catching up on the science of procrastination just by reading one article. (Of course it's not that easy. You should be more thorough, and explore alternate perspectives. Psychology is not settled chemistry.)

And in machine ethics, it turns out that most of what you'd want to know is summarized nicely in a single book: Moral Machines (2009).

But on other topics, you won't be so lucky. Suppose you want to study the neuroscience of how desire works. You check Wikipedia, and it has a section on the psychology and neurology of desire. But it doesn't tell you much. A Google Scholar search is even worse. You check the index of a large neuroscience textbook for "desire," and come up with basically nothing. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on desire is pretty good, but it barely touches on neuroscience. It does point you to two good resources, though: the book Three Faces of Desire, which sounds like it will cover the neuroscience, and the work of neuroscientist Kent Berridge. Now, because I have studied the neuroscience of desire, let me spoil the surprise at this point: this research project is not going to be so easy. You have a very long "literature slog" ahead of you.

So I won't argue that scholarship is always or even usually the instrumentally rational thing to do when you want to make progress on a certain problem. Sometimes the costs of scholarship outweigh the benefits.

But to make that judgment, it will help to know just what those costs and benefits are.

 

Some Costs of Scholarship

1. Scholarship takes time and effort.

This is the biggie. Scholarship takes time. Especially if you don't have much experience with it already. Resources like Google Scholar make it easier than ever, but scholarship still requires lots of patience and perseverance and procrastination-mastering.

 

2. Opportunity cost.

The fact that scholarship takes up time means that while you're doing scholarship, you're not doing something else that might be more productive. Scholarship can even serve as a form of procrastination, reading things just because they're on your to-read list so that you can avoid doing something else. [thanks taryneast]

 

3. Studying some subjects can weaken or corrupt you.

Without (and maybe even with) rationality training, studying certain subjects will make you dumber. To me, postmodernism and even most analytic philosophy look like a good candidates for stupid-making subjects of study. Other candidates include theology, literary theory, and scripture scholarship. These fields can teach bad modes of thinking, false "facts", and even absurdities. Luckily, there are some heuristics you can use to estimate the value of a field.

 

4. Some things cost money.

I've spent quite a bit of money on scholarship: on gas for trips to a university library so I can download papers from behind the paywall, on hard drives to store tens of thousands of PDFs, on books purchased from Amazon, and so on.

 

5. Scholarship can be a shiny distraction.

A long list of footnotes and references might be built up to conceal the fact that the ideas in an article or book are of little value. [thanks Perplexed]

 

Some Benefits of Scholarship

1. You'll avoid some mistakes and confusions.

Suppose you were about to argue, with Jeremy Bentham, that all intentional human action aims at pleasure. Doing some research on the neuroscience of intentional action would help you avoid that mistake. As it turns out, it's just not true that all intentional human action aims at pleasure. Pleasure is only one goal among many.

Scholarship can also help you avoid confusions, for example between two kinds of intrinsic value.

 

2. You'll learn to speak the same language as everyone else, and thus communicate more effectively.

When you read other works on the topic you're discussing, you discover the established terms already used for discussing that topic, and you can begin to speak the same language as everybody else.

 

3. If your rationality skills are sharp, you'll become generally smarter and wiser.

If you're equipped to recognize magical categories and mysterious answers, consuming a diverse array of fields can give you a broad, integrative kind of knowledge. But be especially wary of subjects that can make you stupid, like postmodern philosophy.

 

4. You won't waste time re-stating what has already been said elsewhere, better and more knowledgeably than you can.

Many times, I've decided I want to write about X. So then I start researching X to prepare for writing. Then I discover that somebody wrote an article that says everything I wanted to say about X, but they've been studying X for ten years and really know their stuff. Then all I have to do is type two paragraphs about it and link to it on my blog. Hurray!

 

5. You'll be taken seriously by more people, and have more access to useful experts.

Researching your topic and citing the relevant literature are pre-requisites for some activities like academic publishing, which can get more people to take you seriously because you've put forth the effort to pass a basic test of quality: peer-review. Really smart and accomplished people have too much to read already, and most of them are unlikely to read what you've written if you haven't even bothered to pass peer review.

And, the more smart people take you seriously and read your stuff, the more brain power you can call upon in solving the problems you care about.

 

6. You'll avoid the tendency to over-trust bearers of good info.

Especially when approaching a subject for the first time, you might read something so bloody intelligent that your mind can't help but cast a halo around its author and accept whatever he or she said. But continuing with your scholarship, and reading lots of people who agree and disagree with that author, can help you see him or her as part of a large enterprise that has been struggling on certain problems for a long time, and may expose you to data that disproves claims made by the original author that impressed you.

 

Conclusion

Nobody on Less Wrong should be fooled by the fact that I listed more benefits than costs for scholarship. That doesn't mean scholarship is always a good idea. Often, it's not a good idea.

But having a list of costs and benefits can help you decide whether scholarship is worthwhile for a particular project - or, how much scholarship is worthwhile.

Now, what did I miss?

Comments (106)

Comment author: Vladimir_M 22 March 2011 04:04:26AM *  12 points [-]

Now, what did I miss?

Clearly, as you hinted by noting that studying certain subjects can actually make you dumber, the key problem is how to evaluate the soundness and reliability of the existing literature in a given area as an non-expert. I raised this topic many times on LW, including in a recent top-level article, but there doesn't seem to be much interest in it here -- even though the issue is, in my opinion, of crucial importance, not least because all the arguments about the value and importance of scholarship that you list also hinge on it.

Comment author: anonym 22 March 2011 05:20:37AM 10 points [-]

Why do you say there doesn't seem to be much interest? Your post has 48 karma and 244 comments. That doesn't seem like "not much interest" to me.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 22 March 2011 10:55:26PM 3 points [-]

I wasn't referring specifically to my article, but noting that the topic generally doesn't get the attention that, in my opinion, it deserves. (And even when it comes to the article itself, most of the comments were in subthreads that quickly drifted off the main topic or went into meta-discussions of whether the choice of issues discussed in the article is improper, though of course there were a few very good on-topic comments, as usual.)

Comment author: [deleted] 22 March 2011 04:24:31AM 1 point [-]

FWIW, I've been following your thoughts on this topic with great interest.

Comment author: lukeprog 22 March 2011 04:12:32AM *  0 points [-]

Oh yes, I liked that post.

Linked.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 22 March 2011 04:22:45AM 2 points [-]

Thanks for linking, but just to make sure I don't give a wrong impression, I didn't mean to complain specifically about you not linking to it -- I wanted to express the opinion that the topic is neglected on LW in general, considering its importance.

Comment author: lukeprog 22 March 2011 04:24:31AM 1 point [-]

Well, it's important to me, anyway. Do you have further thoughts on the problem? Other discussion or front-page posts you could write on the topic?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 22 March 2011 04:55:38AM 2 points [-]

I have some other ideas that I hope to write up when I find some time. I was considering maybe even opening some of these topics in this thread, but unfortunately I'm too busy for any significant discussion tonight.

Comment author: MBlume 23 March 2011 11:53:22PM *  5 points [-]

I've spent quite a bit of money on scholarship: on gas for trips to a university library so I can download papers from behind the paywall,[...]

This is, of course, obviously and objectively evil (or about as close as it's possible to get). Any LWers care to start a Scholars Bay?

(or at least some private IRC channel where LWers with paywall keys can share them with those without)

Comment author: gwern 24 March 2011 02:43:29AM 4 points [-]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Resource_Exchange is an existing forum for pretty much this as long as you edit Wikipedia a little. I've used it in the past effectually, on both ends.

(Wikipedia gets so much traffic that it would be very useful for LessWrongers to try to spread the academic citations we've found most useful through relevant WP articles.)

Comment author: Perplexed 24 March 2011 12:20:16AM 1 point [-]

This is, of course, obviously and objectively evil.

I agree, but many do not.

Rather ironic. A book about ethics and super-intelligence.

Comment author: MBlume 24 March 2011 12:24:05AM 0 points [-]

Interesting. I realize this is a common requirement and is often assumed, but did that call specifically exclude papers which had already been submitted to a free repository?

Comment author: Oligopsony 25 March 2011 07:12:01PM 0 points [-]

There's a very good version of exactly this existing over the domain "stuff a lefty academic would find interesting." Which is rather bizarre category, on the face of it - Derrida and Andre Gunder Frank have nothing in common in terms of methodology or subject matter, united entirely in terms of peoplespace - but peoplespace (in this case I'm guessing "grad students who don't want books cutting into the ramen budget") is how informal networks operate, so.

(The two best free legal resources for Ye Olde Classics of Social Thoughte, marxists.org and the Library of Economics and Liberty, are ideologically flavored as well. You can take this as a sign that the social sciences are woefully riven by bias or just accept that the questions are ideological by their very nature.)

Comment author: [deleted] 24 March 2011 12:07:58AM 0 points [-]

Scribd used to be a very nice Scholars Bay, but it seems to have gone legit.

Comment author: lukeprog 24 March 2011 12:24:03AM 5 points [-]

I've posted some advice on How to Get Academic Papers for Free.

Comment author: btrettel 24 March 2011 02:22:39AM 0 points [-]

Great advice Luke.

I have a suggestion for those who don't want to abuse university resources. Some universities give donors to the library access to journals. I'll be graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, soon and I'm fully addicted to journals in basically every subject, so I intend to take advantage of their Friends of The Libraries Borrowers Program. This, unfortunately, is not free, but it's well worth the money to me.

This program would also give me access to the library's Interlibrary Loan services, which I've found to be incredibly useful for obscure papers and books.

Comment author: lukeprog 24 March 2011 02:42:48AM 0 points [-]

I did that with my local UCLA library, but it didn't give me electronic access to papers off-campus, nor access to interlibrary loan. But I'm moving to the Bay Area and I hear the San Francisco library system is better about that.

Comment author: taryneast 22 March 2011 01:44:22PM 5 points [-]

Opportunity cost

Scholarship takes time - time that could also be spent on actually doing something instead of just reading about it.

Note that I love scholarship... but I also find it an excellent form of procrastination. You can use the excuse of "I should read up a bit more about this" to put off the hard work of actually shipping something worthwhile. Thus scholarship can become a form of analysis paralysis.

Comment author: lukeprog 22 March 2011 02:52:39PM 0 points [-]

Good. Added.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 March 2011 02:04:20PM 5 points [-]

What evidence is there that some fields of study make their followers dumber?

That section of the post sounds a bit like a mind-killer shout-out.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 22 March 2011 11:41:33PM *  10 points [-]

If the respectable academic consensus in some field is remote from reality, the prominent authors in it will normally still be strongly selected for intelligence and skills in writing and arguing. As prominent academic authors, they will also be very high-status individuals. It follows that by studying some such field, you are exposing yourself to well-written and masterfully crafted arguments for delusional views espoused by intelligent high-status people. Unless you approach the subject with a hostile stance, it can be very hard to avoid falling for them.

This is especially problematic in fields whose subject matter is ideologically charged. Studying those often means submitting oneself to highly effective ideological propaganda, which can be very hard to resist.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 March 2011 12:01:20AM 10 points [-]

That you carefully avoid naming names is itself a symptom of the problem, as well as contributing to it (I'm not in any way blaming you - you have to protect yourself). You self-censor, along with a lot of other sensible and reasonable people, with the result that the propaganda goes unanswered. Of course a lot of people are not shy about attacking the propaganda, but they either already were or else become low-status, which has the perverse effect of strengthening the propaganda.

It's really very inconvenient for me that you never name names, which leaves the discussion at an abstract and therefore not entirely useful level. Additionally it's not very convincing, because you don't give the material, specific evidence that your claims are true (again, entirely understandable and blameless). It's a bit like discussing the conflict between the creationists and the Darwinists without ever saying that that's what you're talking about, let alone saying which side is right and why. (It is safe to mention the Darwinists versus the creationists, because the right side, the Darwinists, are high status.)

Comment author: lukeprog 22 March 2011 02:17:30PM *  1 point [-]

Two minutes with a postmodern philosopher. :)

</snark>

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 March 2011 04:16:08PM *  14 points [-]

Your phrasing (twice in the essay and now in that comment) is pretty much indistinguishable from proud declaration of ignorance as social signaling. Invoking straw postmodernists is neither big nor clever.

Contrary to many rationalists' views, postmodernism is not composed entirely of bullshit - it is a useful critical method to keep on hand when talking about mushy social and artistic things, like almost all of what humans do that might be called "culture". Humans are incredibly full of shit, and postmodernism and critical theory can be somewhat useful in cutting through it and calling them on it.

However, as the product of humans, it is itself horribly susceptible to bullshit in turn, particularly when overapplied to actual reality. It's also really, really badly lacking in rigor, and pretty much crashes and burns on Vladimir M's tests. So that's a reason not to bother with it unless you're interested in it for its own sake, as I am. I suspect you need to have worked out a usable amount of it yourself to get use out of it.

Nevertheless, it is about something and useful. I'd say that any effective writer of fiction needs a working knowledge of postmodernist techniques, whether they call it that or not.

Starting point for the curious: it works pretty heavily on Bayes structure - Bayesian epistemology being the way to resolve the dilemma of things that are both subjective and objective: how to say communicable things about things that are a matter of opinion, like art and feelings. Very few postmodernists can count above twenty without using their fingers, so a few people have noticed it in passing but the rigorous work pretty much hasn't been done; but if you know what postmodernism is for and you know how Bayesian epistemology works, the Bayes structure is pretty obvious. (This is my cue to try to infect my postmodernist academic friends with Bayes.)

I find postmodernism useful in my years-long interest in record collecting and popular music. Useful (to the reader) popular music criticism requires understanding the horrendous forces of bullshit involved in its production. If you want to see what postmodernism would look like as the basis for engineering, '80s pop music in the UK would be a good example, culminating in "The Manual" by the KLF: a step by step procedure on how to have a number-one record.

I wouldn't say people should go out of their way to learn it, but I wouldn't mark it something to avoid. My problem is I've spent far too long as a music critic, so the stuff is actually interesting and useful to me. This is, arguably, a fate to avoid.

I need to write up something on the subject. One day.

Edit: I've pointed friends at this comment to rip it to shreds and belabour me about the head with wherever I'm being not even wrong, which I probably am in a few places - I come to it as an autodidact because I found it useful, not as someone who trained up in it properly.

Comment author: PhilSandifer 23 March 2011 12:06:24AM 7 points [-]

I'd delight in telling you you're wrong, but you're mostly not.

I would say that I don't think that postmodernism is lacking in rigor. Certainly, having been on both ends of peer review in the humanities, it does not seem to me that the process lets through a lot of flamingly inaccurate crap, beyond the sort of expected problems you get in the margins of well-studied ground. Frankly, in my own research, I'd have an easier time sailing a howler about the history of video games past peer review than I would a howler about the applications of Derrida.

I'm also not sure it does as badly as you say on Vladimir M's heuristics. Looking quickly, for my own field, there's still a ton of low-hanging fruit. Yeah, the major canonical works of literature assigned to undergraduates are pretty well-covered in the literature, but if you're working in popular culture of any era, you have basically no excuse for running out of things to say. The ideology test is a little trickier, since there are areas of literary criticism - feminist, queer, and racial studies, most obviously - that are explicitly ideological. But, of course, we have to be careful with ideology as a warning sign, because arguably at this point climate science and biology are ideologically poisoned. Ideology takes place heavily outside of the academy, and I'm loathe to say that just because something has become a political hot potato the academics of it are prima facia problematic.

But I think that postmodernism, broadly speaking, also hedges well against ideological bias. The thing that it is most easy to completely miss about postmodernism is that it is, by and large, a study of epistemologies. Yes, postmodernist literary criticism makes massive use of Freudian psychoanalysis despite the complete discrediting of Freudianism as an empirical practice. But we don't psychoanalyze real people. We psychoanalyze fictional people. The question is not "does there exist a real person with an Oedipus complex," it's "is the Oedipus complex a sufficiently well-known concept that it would be either included in a work of fiction by an author or read into a work of fiction by a reader?" In other words, since we're generally dealing with man-made structures, the question is less "Is foo true" and more "Is foo part of what is talked about and thought about regarding this subject?"

This helps a lot with the ideological bias issue, because it means that postmodernism can actually be ideologically neutral on the political issues it seemingly invests in. This is something I tell my students whenever one of them gets fussy about the fact that I assign literature with gay people in it. You don't actually have to accept the premise "homosexuality is not a valid basis for discrimination" in order to understand how gay writers articulate their own experience in literature.

Now, in practice, of course, literary scholars are generally liberals who are supportive of gay rights, feminism, and further work towards racial and economic equality. But then again, the ideological bias in the academy extends far beyond humanities departments - it's increasingly hard for an American climate scientist to be a Republican too. At the end of the day, this is somewhat irreducible - after all, reality probably does, in the long run, lend more support to some political viewpoints than others.

In any case, I tend to think that postmodernism is something that just about everybody should be broadly familiar with. I think there are some serious problems with how we teach it, and some serious problems with how it's attacked (Alan Sokal should never, ever be referenced by anyone who is trying to make a serious point about humanities scholarship. His "research" on postmodernism makes his hoax article look like sound scholarship by comparison), but the basic elevator summary of postmodernism is "It's the process of learning to account for epistemological differences when dealing with communications." Which is something that is probably useful if, you know, you ever intend to talk to someone you disagree with in your life.

Also, can I just say that the Stanford Encyclopedia entry you linked to is absolutely terribly written? Clue for writers explaining concepts that use algebraic or pseudo-algebraic notation - it's really nice if you bother to define what S and T mean before you start throwing them around.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 March 2011 03:05:13AM *  7 points [-]

But I think that postmodernism, broadly speaking, also hedges well against ideological bias.

Actually, one of my major objections to the modern intellectual currents that are commonly called "postmodernist" is their bias -- part ideological, part fashion-induced -- in choosing which authors to consider as classics and standard sources of citations and inspiration. We keep seeing an endless stream of discussions using concepts from Marx, Freud, and others whose work has long been shown to be largely bunk (even if later authors have salvaged some of these concepts by reinterpretation), while on the other hand, there are many authors who have made important points about issues that postmodernists are directly concerned with, but I can hardly imagine them getting cited and discussed.

To take an example I find very interesting, one topic that has long fascinated me is political and ideological language and its meanings that reach beyond what's being plainly said, and even beyond any conscious deceit and manipulation. (The link with the Overcoming Bias signaling leitmotifs is pretty clear here, and obviously the topic is of direct concern for all sorts of social and critical theorists -- it's falls squarely under the concept of "epistemological differences when dealing with communications.") Yet when it comest to the best writings on the subject I've seen, they're completely off the radar for postmodern academics, either because of ideological differences or otherwise because dropping their names won't earn any prestige points.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 March 2011 12:04:44AM *  7 points [-]

In my opinion, the main danger of reading things like postmodernism is that one might get infected by the smug attitude of superiority that looks upon rigorous, precise, down-to-earth rational thinking as blinkered and nerdy, without having anything better to offer instead.

Now of course, there are subjects that nobody yet knows how to approach with rigorous and precise thinking, and all attempts to do so regularly end up in blinkered and nerdy discussions without much connection to reality. In these subjects, a more fuzzy approach is indeed the only viable alternative. The trouble is, those humanists who, as you say, can barely count without using their fingers tend to greatly overestimate the extent of these subjects, and their self-satisfied and smug attitude can be very infections for a lot of people.

Comment author: PhilSandifer 23 March 2011 01:07:23AM 5 points [-]

To be perfectly honest, I know far more people in hard sciences who look down on postmodernist scholars as wooly nonsense-peddlers than I do postmodernists who reject the sciences or rationalism. This is, admittedly, anecdotal evidence, but I can honestly say that I have never seen a piece of anti-science writing out of the humanities half as perniciously irresponsible as Alan Sokal's "work." Certainly nothing that is as reflexively cited in discussions. To be honest, I find an exasperating tendency among math/science people to simply stop their reading on postmodernism with the Sokal Affair and decide they've got the matter nailed, despite the fact that almost nobody bothers to mention that Social Text isn't a peer-reviewed journal, and thus Sokal accomplished something about as hard as publishing a fraudulent piece in a local paper for a semi-major city.

So I'm inclined to be skeptical about which side of that debate is more prone to being infected with bad thinking. The biggest problem postmodernists usually have with math, science, and other more rational fields is that those are not their field, and they're not experts in them. Sit one of them down with some Feynman lectures, though, and they'll generally be fine, because they're generally speaking really smart people who just aren't specialized in that stuff. But the thing is, most of them know that they don't understand what goes on past freshman year in any math or science courses. Puzzlingly, science people seem to freely assume they understand graduate humanities work with alarming regularity. Of course, this failing on their part in no way invalidates their field - any more than the fact that someone who majored in English hasn't taken many math courses invalidates their work. :)

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 March 2011 02:30:42AM 7 points [-]

Oh, I certainly don't think that the average hard scientist's view and knowledge of humanities are much better. However, when you order academic fields by rigor and exactness, with pure mathematics on one end and humanities on the other, then as a very general rule, in order to avoid writing nonsense in your own field, you must not have misconceptions about fields that are more exact than yours, whereas knowledge of less exact fields is normally not important for scholarly work.

Thus, for example, a physicist can be completely ignorant about philosophy and humanities and nevertheless consistently produce top-quality physics, whereas a philosopher or a cultural critic who is completely ignorant of natural sciences will inevitably end up writing nonsense at least occasionally. So while both of them may have an equally distorted and ignorant view of each other's field, the latter's work will likely suffer far more as a consequence.

Regarding the Sokal affair, I agree that it's usually overblown far beyond its real significance (and physicists should also be more humble in light of the more recent Bogdanoff affair). However, I think your minimization of it is also exaggerated. Regardless of whether a journal is peer-reviewed, editors should be held responsible for what they decide to publish. I don't think the editors of Social Text would have been so eager to publish Sokal's essay if it hadn't pandered so consistently to their ideology.

Comment author: PhilSandifer 23 March 2011 03:04:24AM 1 point [-]

Well, I'm not entirely convinced the phrase "order academic fields by rigor and exactness" is a completely meaningful one. It implies a level of direct comparability that I'm not confident exists. I certainly agree that humanities makes for very bad science, but then, so does basket weaving. The flip side is that science has not developed a particularly useful vocabulary for dealing with nuance, ambiguity, or irony.

I'm also not sure a philosopher/cultural critic without significant scientific training is bound to write nonsense, so long as they actually stick to their field of expertise. Now, it may well be true that humanities sorts are more prone to straying from their actual areas of expertise - certainly a study demonstrating that would not surprise me. But I think that one can write for a very, very long time about sexual politics in Victorian literature without ever running into a situation where lack of knowledge of science beyond a high school level is going to be a problem. It's certainly difficult to imagine it resulting in nonsense production that goes beyond a stray sentence here or there.

And yes, the Sokal Affair clearly reflects badly on the editors of Social Text. But that's why I compared it to getting nonsense published in a newspaper - which has been proven possible from the local level up to major international papers. I also would not describe Social Text as "eager" to publish Sokal's essay. They rejected it initially, and only dusted it off because it was directly relevant to a special issue they were publishing and, probably more importantly for a paper journal, it was very short. But more to the point, Social Text is not a scholarly journal. I wasn't in the field at the time of the Sokal Affair, so any sense I have of its reputation is second hand, but if an un-peer reviewed journal was being treated as equivalent to PMLA or Critical Inquiry or something, that, much more than the Sokal Affair, is damning evidence against the humanities.

I should note that I am also more hostile towards Sokal for his completely and irredeemably awful book Fashionable Nonsense than I am for the Sokal Affair. He, at least, does not overstate the significance of his own hoax. Whereas Fashionable Nonsense is a sufficiently wretched book that I would generally advise people that their time would be better spent reading up on the intricacies of crystal energy healing.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 March 2011 03:25:21AM *  9 points [-]

But I think that one can write for a very, very long time about sexual politics in Victorian literature without ever running into a situation where lack of knowledge of science beyond a high school level is going to be a problem. It's certainly difficult to imagine it resulting in nonsense production that goes beyond a stray sentence here or there.

I strongly disagree here. To write meaningfully about sexual politics, you must have a model of sexual and other related aspects of human thought and behavior, and modern science has a whole lot to say about that. (Of course, the relevant science is still very incomplete and far from settled, but that makes it even more important to be knowledgeable about it, in order to separate solid insight from speculation.) If you lack that knowledge, your model is likely to be wrong in at least some ways that could be corrected by familiarizing yourself with the relevant science, and this is likely to show in your writing. Moreover, there is a whole lot of spurious pseudo-insight in this area (Freudianism and its offshoots being the most notorious example), and if you're not familiar with science beyond a high school level, you may well end up swallowing a lot of such nonsense believing it to be solid insight and incorporating it into your work.

Comment author: PhilSandifer 23 March 2011 08:12:06PM 3 points [-]

I would agree if one is writing about Victorian sexual politics straight-up, however I was careful to specify the sexual politics of Victorian literature. For which Freudianism, notoriously wrong as it is, is highly relevant because it was enormously popular for a chunk of the time period, and did directly influence writers (more particularly in the early 20th century than the late 19th, but still). Certainly it had much more influence than post-Victorian science that the authors could not possibly have been aware of.

Which seems to me one of the hedges that postmodernism usefully offers. The decision to approach Victorian literary sexual politics in terms of the thinking of the time and to treat it as a phenomenon of that culture is, to my mind, quintessentially postmodernist.

Comment author: prase 22 March 2011 05:48:29PM 3 points [-]

I need to write up something on the subject. One day.

Please do it soon. It isn't the first time I read here about actual usefulness of postmodernism (unfortunately don't remember who has argued for that before), but the claim was never demonstrated or discussed in a greater detail.

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 March 2011 06:09:02PM *  -1 points [-]

It was probably me ;-) I've pointed friends at the above comment to rip it to shreds and belabour me about the head with wherever I'm being not even wrong, which I probably am in a few places - I come to this stuff as an autodidact on it because I found it useful, not as someone who trained up in it properly.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 March 2011 02:19:55PM 4 points [-]

Followed by another. Seriously. Politics is the mind-killer. Back away from the edge.

Comment author: synkarius 22 March 2011 04:17:45PM 3 points [-]

I have studied two of the items on his list extensively: theology and literary theory. And I agree that they are worse than worthless.

Here's your evidence: what significant problems have these fields ever solved?

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 March 2011 04:22:42PM -1 points [-]
Comment author: synkarius 22 March 2011 04:35:48PM 0 points [-]

Not to belittle KLF's achievements, but is that really the best example you can come up with?

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 March 2011 04:43:36PM *  1 point [-]

I doubt I'd call popular culture an important problem. (And I was, fairly clearly I thought, talking about pretty much the entire decade, not just two guys at the end of it.) Except possibly as a threat. It is one that involves moderate quantities of money sloshing back and forth. But, more importantly, undue influence. Most recently, it got its hooks into things that actually affect the rest of the world. I submit that understanding how an industry that small can punch so ridiculously far above its economic weight may be useful. (Not that PM/crit is fully up to that task yet, and I'm greatly disappointed by that, but it's the right direction.)

As my comment notes, it's not something to bother with unless you're interested already, but Luke's invocations of straw postmodernists do come across as declaring ignorance as social signaling rather than as saying something that helpfully places these fields in their contexts.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 22 March 2011 05:48:31PM *  1 point [-]

I would grant that postmodernism is probably

  • a dangerous subject of study for someone who is not already good at rationality, and
  • not worth our time to study in depth.

But how likely do you really think it is that postmodernism is a stupid-making subject of study even for someone with rationality training?

Comment author: Nornagest 22 March 2011 07:26:36PM *  3 points [-]

Postmodernism isn't even a subject, really; more of a theme. That's a nitpick, though; any of the fields usually cited as postmodernist (critical theory's the first one to come to mind) would have worked in that context.

But to answer your question, what I've read of folks like Derrida is frustrating and unproductive, but most of the parts that seem to function as basilisks to the uninoculated parse as not even wrong. On that other hand, that might not reflect everyone's experience; there are a lot of branches of cultural criticism inheriting from postmodern philosophy, and it's quite likely that some of them will end up being flattering to our higher-level instrumental values. That could lead to a couple of different failure modes, which I probably don't need to belabor.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 22 March 2011 08:15:02PM *  3 points [-]

To answer your question, though, what I've read of folks like Derrida is frustrating and unproductive, but most of the parts that seem to function as basilisks to the uninoculated parse as not even wrong.

That certainly agrees with my intuition. In fairness, I've also had the experience of (1) reading something in a postmodern text that looks obviously wrong or not even wrong, (2) reading some more texts that gave me a better idea of how postmodernists use their words, and then (3) revisiting the original text and seeing that it actually had something worthwhile to say. Nonetheless, I'm far from convinced that reading postmodern texts is the most cost-effective way to get these insights.

On that other hand, that might not reflect everyone's experience; there are a lot of branches of cultural criticism inheriting from postmodern philosophy, and it's quite likely that some of them will end up being flattering to our higher-level instrumental values. That could lead to a couple of different failure modes, which I probably don't need to belabor.

I'm not sure that I understand. Are you saying that we might give too much respect to postmodernists because they use postmodern reasoning to support ends that we also support?

If so, I actually think that that is a reason to study postmodernism more closely.

Suppose that you had almost no familiarity with postmodernism, but you were good at epistemic rationality. Then you hear someone utter some postmodern jargon, followed by, "And that is why religious dogma is not a secure foundation for morality." You might think to yourself, "I couldn't quite parse all that jargon, but the conclusion was right, so maybe these postmodernists are on to something." On the basis of this second-hand exposure, you go and read some postmodernist texts, working slowly and carefully, trying to understand this potentially-useful method. Instead, you find that you still can't parse the jargon. If postmodernism is really that bad, first-hand exposure will leave you with less respect than you had after second-hand exposure. Its incomprehensibility will be a greater strike against it.

Comment author: Nornagest 22 March 2011 08:36:32PM *  5 points [-]

Are you saying that we might give too much respect to postmodernists because they use postmodern reasoning to support ends that we also support?

More or less, although I'd cast it in terms of giving too much respect to incoherent arguments rather than to postmodernism. It's an arguments-as-soldiers thing; if we find ourselves nodding along with an argument that leads to a conclusion we like, and the internals of the argument are later shown to have been nonsense, we look at minimum very silly. Worse, we might along the way have internalized some related nonsense.

On the other hand, we should also be careful not to demonize particular postmodern thinkers or conclusions on account of coming out of the postmodern movement, for the same reasons -- a test that many on the empirical side of the Two Cultures divide have failed, unfortunately. Themes and methods characteristic of the movement are, of course, still fair game.

Your secondary-exposure method seems solid in principle, but I'd also say that that's a good time to revisit the concerns about cost-effectiveness that you raised earlier; it's a heavyweight method, and I doubt that the certainty it gives you is likely to be worth the time spent on gaining it. Even a prerequisite as basic as learning the vocabulary of, say, deconstructionism is a daunting task, at least comparable in complexity to reading the Sequences.

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 March 2011 07:55:02PM *  2 points [-]

there are a lot of branches of cultural criticism inheriting from postmodern philosophy, and it's quite likely that some of them will end up being flattering to our higher-level instrumental values.

This is how I got into it. I had just started getting seriously into thinking about popular music (and unpopular popular music) and the horrifying quantities of bullshit surrounding it, and found Mythologies by Roland Barthes at the local second-hand bookshop, and went "HOLY CRAP THIS NAILS IT." Bits were opaque and bits were stupid, but enough made what I'd already been thinking make more sense that I got quite a lot out of it. (It's generally regarded as a classic, and IMO it's a great book, and Barthes is really pretty easy to read as critical theorists go, but I have no idea if this is a good introduction to anything whatsoever, so am not recommending it to anyone as such. But it was the right book for the right person at the right time.) Possibly the main failure mode was helping encourage me to think listening to records was much more important than it actually was.

(Oh, and Paul Morley in NME. Yes, that Paul Morley.)

tl;dr: It's better if you've got an actual use for it. In this regard, it's like the broader field of philosophy.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 March 2011 08:17:36PM 1 point [-]

I read Barthes a couple of decades ago and I remember liking him, though at the moment the only thing I vaguely remember is an analysis of the strip tease. I've carried with me one of his insights ever since - the notion that the act of stripping is highly erotic but full nakedness markedly less so.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 23 March 2011 03:57:20AM 0 points [-]

Some fields are based on anti-epistemology. If you're no careful it can contamination your reasoning.

Comment author: Perplexed 22 March 2011 03:46:09AM *  8 points [-]

Now, what did I miss?

One trouble with scholarship is that you risk shifting the discussion from how good your ideas are, to how good your scholarship is. An anecdote backing this opinion:

You wrote:

Suppose you were about to argue, with Jeremy Bentham, that all intentional human action aims at pleasure. Doing some research on the neuroscience of intentional action would help you avoid that mistake. As it turns out, it's just not true that all intentional human action aims at pleasure. Pleasure is only one goal among many.

Why did you insert that clause "with Jeremy Bentham"? It adds nothing to your point, but it does show off your scholarship. And what is wrong with that? Well, (and here is the anecdote), when I read that I immediately thought to myself "I'll bet what Bentham meant by 'pleasure' is not the same as what the neuroscience researchers meant by 'pleasure'". And I became motivated to find out by researching Bentham. Which is completely irrelevant to the point you were trying to make!

In other words, if you are not careful, scholarship can become a shiny distraction.

Comment author: lukeprog 23 March 2011 08:07:17PM *  9 points [-]

For the record, here are some of my thoughts explaining why I focus on so much scholarship, in no particular order.

First, research is something I'm good at. I've spent a lot of time doing it, and I can do it fairly efficiently. I've developed heuristics for determining very quickly whether something is likely to be useful to my project or not. I know how to figure out which terms are used to describe the concepts of a field that is new to me, and bring myself up to speed very quickly by finding survey articles and review articles and Handbook chapters and so on. Also, I have a pretty strong work ethic and some limited mastery over procrastination - both of which are required for long "literature slogs." So research is a comparative advantage of mine as compared to, say, making cutting-edge advances in AI or decision theory or statistics or neuroscience.

Second, I know that I almost always prefer well-researched writing to poorly-researched writing. I prefer when people name-drop the people or concepts or articles relevant to the topic they are discussing, whether or not they were partially motivated to do so by a desire for prestige. Why? Because then if I don't understand something, I can google those names and concepts and articles and answer my own questions without having to bother the original author. Lots of times, the author doesn't have time to respond, or else he or she can't remember where they got that original idea, or what the name of that fascinating discovery was, and so on. And then it takes a really long time to track it down. Because I always prefer names and concept names and article references in articles I read, I try to provide such things in articles that I write.

Also, it saves me time. Including names and concepts and articles related to the article saves me from having to answer the same question from 20 people about "What's the name of the study that demonstrated X?" I can say instead, "Check the footnote" or "Google 'Bentham'."

Probably, there is unconscious motivation to include more footnotes and names and concept titles because doing so will cause some people to take me seriously. We're signaling creatures, after all. Sometimes, the motivation even slips into my conscious mind and I notice it. Usually, I acknowledge that motivation, and then decide to include the extra footnote anyway. Why? Because whatever my motivation for including it, at the end of the day the consequences are good: more people can look up the ideas I'm writing about on their own without bothering me, I can find the source of that idea later if I forget, and so on. I'm a consequentialist, not a Kantian. I don't think acts are good because they come from a pure, unadulterated, unselfish will. I think acts are good when they produce good consequences.

And then of course I do research because of the other benefits listed in the original post above: I'm talking the same language as everybody else instead of pointlessly making up new terms, I'm avoiding making certain kinds of mistakes, and so on.

Thoughts?

Comment author: Perplexed 23 March 2011 11:26:58PM *  1 point [-]

Was this directed at me, particularly? I fully agree with your reasons. I am a big fan of your scholarship. Not a fan of your lists of sexy scientists, but, HEY! 'De gustibus ...' and all that. And by local standards, I almost qualify as a fan of analytic philosophy.

I don't deny teasing you about unnecessarily name-dropping Bentham, but the name dropping wasn't my point. My point was that by mentioning Bentham you tempted me to quibble in a non-productive way. I wasn't saying that you were distracted by something shiny. I was saying that, in this one particular case, your scholarship was a shiny distraction to me.

Keep up the good work, Luke. I think you set a record on speed at getting to 10,000 karma points. You received all those upvotes because people here appreciate what you are doing. Hell, you probably received 1000 karma just on this post and comments. But, if you have to have 1000 points plus a 'thank you' from Eliezer, then ... I think I probably feel sorry for your girl friend.

ETA: Whoops. Forgot which post we are on. It was your previous posting "Less Wrong Rationality and Mainstream Philosophy" which gained you 1000 points but no "thank you" from the big guy.

Comment author: lukeprog 23 March 2011 11:50:23PM *  2 points [-]

It wasn't particularly addressed to you, but I figured it was most relevant to your comment. Thanks for your clarifications and compliments.

I'm not anticipating a 'thank you' from Eliezer for my bringing genuinely useful things from mainstream philosophy to the attention of Less Wrong, no. But that won't stop me from continuing to do so. :)

For the benefit of those who don't click the 'lists of sexy scientists' link above: That was taken down quite a while ago when I had a change of opinion about the matter.

Comment author: wnoise 23 March 2011 10:10:23PM 1 point [-]

I certainly appreciate your heavily footnoted and referenced articles.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 22 March 2011 02:14:04PM 9 points [-]

For my part, I took the "with Jeremy Bentham" clause to be a concise way of saying "Incidentally, this isn't a strawman example intended to artificially support my point; this is a real example of a significant player who made this particular error."

Relatedly, if you had done that research and came back and objected to Luke that his example of Bentham was a bad example, because Bentham is not actually arguing what Luke summarizes him as arguing, I would judge that as doing research that improved the quality of the article.

And relatedly to that, if you were deciding ahead of time whether to do the research, and you estimated that reaching that conclusion was a likely outcome (which it sounds like you did), I would judge that deciding to do it was a sensible decision if you wanted to improve the quality of the article.

Now, whether improving the quality of the article is itself worth doing or not is of course a separate question, but if it isn't, then your comment is itself a shiny distraction (as is mine, and indeed most of my activity on this site, and elsewhere), and we're no longer talking about any special property of scholarship.

After all, sitting around working out solutions from first principles can also be a shiny distraction.

Comment author: Gray 22 March 2011 04:41:08PM 2 points [-]

One interesting thing I want to point out about this thread is the interesting distinction between making use of scholarship, which is what seems to be usually referred to on this site when you guys talk about scholarship as a value; and doing scholarship. Obviously, in order to make use of scholarship, the scholarship must already exist.

The way you reduce scholarship to being merely a way of impressing other people belies, I think, a misunderstanding of what scholarship is, or at least what it should be. To me, scholarship should be the best means for any given inquirer to get to the answer, as simply and easily as possible.

Of course, scholarship can be good or bad, and I like to think that doing scholarship is something that rationalists ought to do. If you're pursuing a line of inquiry, and run into a dead end, it makes absolute sense to post a sign at the beginning of that road you've already taken that says "Dead End"--and here's why.

It makes sense to cite Jeremy Bentham because he was the first one who pursued that line of inquiry. Of course, as it happens, people generally find it difficult to critique their own, established views, so it took someone else to post the "Dead End" sign for him. But citing the intellectuals is an important part of the map of scholarship that creates a common language for the rest of us to find our way, and not follow dead ends.

But I'm not speaking strictly of Academia. Wikipedia is as much a work of scholarship as the official journals, in my view. Of course, if it's bad scholarship, a bad map, it will inevitably lead people down bad paths. Lets hope that people take the time to improve it.

Comment author: lukeprog 22 March 2011 03:56:34AM *  2 points [-]

Naming Jeremy Bentham shows off scholarship? I doubt that works on Less Wrong. Everybody knows who Bentham is. I just named Bentham to give an example.

But I agree with your overall point, so I'll add it to the list! Thanks.

Comment author: Gray 22 March 2011 04:50:08PM 3 points [-]

I know who Bentham is. Anyone familiar with utilitarianism should know who Bentham is, in my opinion. That doesn't mean I know much about his thought, nor have I read any of his works.

Comment author: MartinB 22 March 2011 08:30:38AM 3 points [-]

Everybody knows who Bentham is. I just named Bentham to give an example.

Not me.

Comment author: Emile 22 March 2011 11:00:44AM *  2 points [-]

Neither do I. I may have heard the name in my (French) high school philosophy classes, but unlike those of Locke, Hobbes, Hume or John Stuart Mill (the other philsophers of roughly that place/period I can think of), it didn't stick.

Comment author: lukeprog 22 March 2011 01:08:13PM *  5 points [-]

Thanks for piping up. I guess I'm too far down the philosophy wormhole to know which names people do and don't know. Sorry.

Comment author: Raemon 22 March 2011 02:39:44PM 2 points [-]

Me either.

Comment author: taryneast 22 March 2011 04:58:33PM *  2 points [-]

I have no idea who Jeremy Bentham is - and I'm pretty well scholared... probably just in different fields to you. :)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 March 2011 07:50:03AM 3 points [-]

"Everybody knows who Bentham is", is precisely the factor that makes association with him prestigious.

Comment author: anonym 22 March 2011 03:28:38PM 3 points [-]

I don't understand this. Everybody knows who George W. Bush is, but having a character in a dialogue speak with him wouldn't impress. Likewise for a character speaking with Newton about mechanics, and Newton is far better known than Bentham and doesn't have a generally negative reputation like Bush.

How is the " 'everybody knows' conveys prestige" supposed to work?

Comment author: Raemon 22 March 2011 04:06:35PM 3 points [-]

I wasn't sure whether Eliezer's point was that people do in fact all know who Bentham is, or that many people do NOT in fact, but saying "everyone knows who he is" is the sort of thing you say that signals scholarship.

Comment author: anonym 22 March 2011 04:37:13PM 0 points [-]

I agree that it signals scholarship, but I think the most natural reading is that the "association" Eliezer had in mind would be the original association.

Comment author: Davorak 23 March 2011 05:41:08PM 1 point [-]

The claim "everybody knows" isolates those who do not know from those that do. Knowing Bentham is an arbitrary and mostly useless method of grouping people. In other words statements like "everybody knows" helps to create meaningless divisions in groups.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 March 2011 07:23:16PM 1 point [-]

But in context he was defending himself for having mentioned Bentham, and it was an appropriate argument in that context. He had just previously been accused of showing off scholarship, and his defense (appropriate to the charge) was that it does not require scholarship to know who Bentham is. He wasn't trying to set up groups.

And I think he's right. It does not require scholarship to know who Bentham is. By scholarship he mean something specific, expressed here:

Scholarship is excellent, but it is also expensive. It takes a long time to catch up to the state of the art, even for a narrow subject.

I recently read 90% of the literature on machine ethics, a recent and small field of inquiry, and it took me about 40 hours to find all the literature, acquire it, and read (or skim) through.

It does not require reading through 90%, or even 50%, or even 10% of the literature on utilitarianism to know who Bentham is. I know who Bentham is and I haven't read more than probably a thousandth of one percent of the literature on utilitarianism.

Comment author: Davorak 23 March 2011 09:54:29PM 0 points [-]

He wasn't trying to set up groups.

I did not claim he was trying to. Nor do I think he was.

And I think he's right. It does not require scholarship to know who Bentham is. By scholarship he mean something specific, expressed here:

...

It does not require reading through 90%, or even 50%, or even 10% of the literature on utilitarianism to know who Bentham is. I know who Bentham is and I haven't read more than probably a thousandth of one percent of the literature on utilitarianism.

I did not mention scholarship in my post so I can not tell what point of mine you are responding to.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 March 2011 10:02:09PM 0 points [-]

I can not tell what point of mine you are responding to.

You were criticizing his use of "everybody knows", and your attack did not take into account the context. You just took the phrase in isolation and talked about it. I was defending his use of the phrase as having been appropriate in the context in which he used it.

Comment author: Davorak 23 March 2011 10:13:33PM *  1 point [-]

I had no intent of attack.

I was commenting on a phase in abstract sense and how it can often have certain effects and hence why some people interpret it as signally scholarship and implying prestige.

I took the phrase in isolation because I was only commenting on the phrase and not the context. Nothing was supposed to reflect directly on the person who made the original comment.

If you have a method of altering my original statement to communicate that more explicitly please share.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 March 2011 10:25:36PM 0 points [-]

If you have a method of altering my original statement to communicate that more explicitly please share.

I think you've clarified it at sufficiently at this point, so no need.

Comment author: lukeprog 22 March 2011 12:59:55PM 0 points [-]

Interesting. Well, this is news to me.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 March 2011 06:50:59PM 5 points [-]

In other words, there's both showing off by obscurity and showing off by association with well-known names.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 March 2011 07:08:12PM 1 point [-]

I can't believe people are getting so far up your nose about mentioning Jeremy Bentham.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 March 2011 07:46:07PM 4 points [-]

We're not, or at least I'm not, just abstractly debating the perils of scholarship.

Comment deleted 22 March 2011 09:51:02AM [-]
Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 22 March 2011 03:44:59AM 1 point [-]

"really know their stuff"

Comment author: lukeprog 22 March 2011 03:54:00AM 1 point [-]

Fixed, thanks.

Comment author: Vaniver 22 March 2011 04:25:15AM 1 point [-]

Also, "valueable" -> "valuable"

Comment author: lukeprog 22 March 2011 04:28:09AM 1 point [-]

Dang-nabbit!

Thanks. :)