Knowledge is Worth Paying For

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.