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.