Jan 5, 2011
Eliezer Yudkowsky identifies scholarship as one of the Twelve Virtues of Rationality:
Study many sciences and absorb their power as your own. Each field that you consume makes you larger... It is especially important to eat math and science which impinges upon rationality: Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory. But these cannot be the only fields you study...
First, consider the evangelical atheist community to which I belong. There is a tendency for lay atheists to write "refutations" of theism without first doing a modicum of research on the current state of the arguments. This can get atheists into trouble when they go toe-to-toe with a theist who did do his homework. I'll share two examples:
The lesson I take from these and a hundred other examples is to employ the rationality virtue of scholarship. Stand on the shoulders of giants. We don't each need to cut our own path into a subject right from the point of near-total ignorance. That's silly. Just catch the bus on the road of knowledge paved by hundreds of diligent workers before you, and get off somewhere near where the road finally fades into fresh jungle. Study enough to have a view of the current state of the debate so you don't waste your time on paths that have already dead-ended, or on arguments that have already been refuted. Catch up before you speak up.
This is why, in more than 1000 posts on my own blog, I've said almost nothing that is original. Most of my posts instead summarize what other experts have said, in an effort to bring myself and my readers up to the level of the current debate on a subject before we try to make new contributions to it.
The Less Wrong community is a particularly smart and well-read bunch, but of course it doesn't always embrace the virtue of scholarship.
Consider the field of formal epistemology, an entire branch of philosophy devoted to (1) mathematically formalizing concepts related to induction, belief, choice, and action, and (2) arguing about the foundations of probability, statistics, game theory, decision theory, and algorithmic learning theory. These are central discussion topics at Less Wrong, and yet my own experience suggests that most Less Wrong readers have never heard of the entire field, let alone read any works by formal epistemologists, such as In Defense of Objective Bayesianism by Jon Williamson or Bayesian Epistemology by Luc Bovens and Stephan Hartmann.
Or, consider a recent post by Yudkowsky: Working hurts less than procrastinating, we fear the twinge of starting. The post attempts to make progress against procrastination by practicing single-subject phenomenology, rather than by first catching up with a quick summary of scientific research on procrastination. The post's approach to the problem looks inefficient to me. It's not standing on the shoulders of giants.
This post probably looks harsher than I mean it to be. After all, Less Wrong is pretty damn good at scholarship compared to most communities. But I think it could be better.
Here's my suggestion. Every time you're tempted to tackle a serious question in a subject on which you're not already an expert, ask yourself: "Whose giant shoulders can I stand on, here?"
Usually, you can answer the question by doing the following:
There are so many resources for learning available today, the virtue of scholarship has never in human history been so easy to practice.