Knowledge is Worth Paying For


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lukeprog

Have you ever asked a store manager if you can use their bathroom and been told that you must order something first? Even if it's obviously worth $1 to not wet your pants, you feel a bit resentful about having to buy the Arizona iced tea. You're so used to using other stores' bathrooms for free that you actually considered not paying.

Wikipedia, Google Books, and the Pirate Bay have trained many people to expect that knowledge should always be zero-cost. I used to feel that way, too. I would try half a dozen techniques to get some set of highly compressed knowledge (a textbook or review article) for free, and if that failed, my brain felt a bit indignant, and I would move on to something else.

One of the most important lessons I ever learned about the neglected virtue of scholarship is this: Sometimes, knowledge is worth paying for.

How much do you value your time, and how much do you value understanding a certain thing? After reading lots of research and many book excerpts, I learned that Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis (2010) was the best overview available on how the brain encodes value and makes decisions. But I couldn't find it for free. I had a hunch that coming to understand the subject without reading the best overview available would take at least a dozen extra hours. The Kindle price for Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis was only $55. Easy choice: I bought it.

(As it turns out, Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis is one of the best books I've ever purchased, and much better than the next best thing — Handbook of Reward and Decision Making — so purchasing the book probably saved me several dozen hours.)

Anyone who has made it through The Sequences understands the value of knowledge. And the absurdly high value of The Sequences is not so much in their novel content as in their idea selection. You could have figured out most of what's in The Sequences yourself by reading lots of cognitive science and the best of physics and philosophy, but that would have required many years and highly developed rationality skills.

But, having some indication of their value, would you have paid to read The Sequences, if that was the only way? I hope you can see that would have been a good choice.

If you want to be a scholar, learn how to get knowledge for free. But if you can't find a high-value source of knowledge for free, don't give up just because you've been trained to expect that knowledge should be free. Remember that knowledge is worth paying for.

Let me finish with three tips for efficient knowledge purchasing.

 

Get Thee to a Library

There is no efficient way for an individual scholar to pay for access to journal article databases like JSTOR, ScienceDirect, Springer, or Wiley. But, you can go to the library of a major research university, sit down in their computer lab, and download hundreds of papers from behind paywalls onto your flash drive (or upload them to your Dropbox account).

In L.A., I kept a list of the papers I needed to download in Google docs and drove 40 minutes each way to the UCLA library once every two weeks. That costs time and money (for gas), but it was much cheaper than buying individual subscriptions to all those databases.

I also paid $100/yr for a non-student UCLA library card so I could check out books from the university, which had a much better selection of academic books (and a better interlibrary loan system) than the L.A. public library system.

 

$10 Textbook Rentals

Often, I need to read a few chapters from a very expensive textbook or academic book, but I can't find those chapters available anywhere online. Usually, recently released textbooks aren't available at my local libraries, either.

However, I have discovered a way to rent textbooks through the mail for only $15 each. (This is another secret of efficient scholarship: Get in the habit of feeling good about paying for efficiently compressed knowledge when you need to.)

Here's how it works. Textbook rental website Chegg.com has a 21-day 'any reason' return policy. Rent a book, read the sections you need to read (or photograph them for yourself) right away when it arrives, then return it. You end up paying only shipping and sales tax, which on a $120 book ends up costing between $10 and $15.

I've done this several times now, and it has worked every time:

  1. Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics (OUP, 2011)
    Amazon price: $150.77
    Total Chegg cost after refund: $14.99
  2. Oxford Handbook of Causation (OUP, 2010)
    Amazon price: #117.33
    Total Chegg cost after refund: $9.99
  3. Intimate Relationships (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010)
    Amazon price: $66.15
    Total Chegg cost after refund: $9.99
  4. Psychology and the Challenges of Life (Wiley, 2009)
    Amazon price: $114.69
    Total Chegg cost after refund: $9.99
  5. Oxford Handbook of Social Neuroscience (OUP, 2011) 
    Amazon price: $217.39
    Total Chegg cost after refund: $9.99

 

Buy Ebooks

When it comes to expensive academic books, ebooks are usually much cheaper than physical books. I usually find the lowest prices at Amazon Kindle or Google ebookstore, so those are my two default sources. Of course, you don't need a mobile device to read books purchased from either store.

A sampling of my recent ebook purchases:

  1. Rethinking Intuition (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999)
    Google ebookstore: $37.09
    Hardcopy on Amazon: $119
  2. Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence (CUP, 2011)
    Kindle: $48
    Hardcopy on Amazon: $68.49
  3. Enhancing Human Capacities (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)
    Kindle: $49.49
    Hardcopy on Amazon: $74.73
  4. Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment (CUP, 2002)
    Kindle: $37.12
    Hardcopy on Amazon: $46.52

Of course, sometimes a book is worth buying even if it's not available online, at a local library, via Chegg.com, or as an ebook. I recently bought Rationality and the Reflective Mind (2010) as a good ol' fashioned hunk of paper.

 

Conclusion

Lots of people ask me how my articles can be so scholarly. One reason is that I've learned how to do scholarship efficiently. Another reason is that I've learned that knowledge is worth paying for.