The Neglected Virtue of Scholarship

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...

I think he’s right, and I think scholarship doesn’t get enough praise—even on Less Wrong, where it is regularly encouraged.

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:

  • In a debate with theist Bill Craig, agnostic Bart Ehrman paraphrased David Hume’s argument that we can’t demonstrate the occurrence of a miracle in the past. Craig responded with a PowerPoint slide showing Bayes’ Theorem, and explained that Ehrman was only considering prior probabilities, when of course he needed to consider the relevant conditional probabilities as well. Ehrman failed to respond to this, and looked as though he had never seen Bayes’ Theorem before. Had Ehrman practiced the virtue of scholarship on this issue, he might have noticed that much of the scholarly work on Hume’s argument in the past two decades has involved Bayes’ Theorem. He might also have discovered that the correct response to Craig’s use of Bayes’ Theorem can be found in pages 298-341 of J.H. Sobel’s Logic and Theism.

  • In another debate with Bill Craig, atheist Christopher Hitchens gave this objection: “Who designed the Designer? Don’t you run the risk… of asking ‘Well, where does that come from? And where does that come from?’ and running into an infinite regress?” But this is an elementary misunderstanding in philosophy of science. Why? Because every successful scientific explanation faces the exact same problem. It’s called the “why regress” because no matter what explanation is given of something, you can always still ask “Why?” Craig pointed this out and handily won that part of the debate. Had Hitchens had a passing understanding of science or explanation, he could have avoided looking foolish, and also spent more time on substantive objections to theism. (One can give a “Who made God?” objection to theism that has some meat, but that’s not the one Hitchens gave. Hitchens’ objection concerned an infinite regress of explanations, which is just as much a feature of science as it is of theism.)

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:

  1. Read the Wikipedia article on the subject, and glance over the references.

  2. Read the article on the subject in a field-specific encyclopedia. For example if you’re probing a philosophical concept, find the relevant essay(s) in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Often, the encyclopedia you want is at your local library or can be browsed at Google Books.

  3. Read or skim-read an entry-level university textbook on the subject.

There are so many resources for learning available today, the virtue of scholarship has never in human history been so easy to practice.