How to Find Sources in an Unreliable World

I spent a long time stalling on this post because I was framing the problem as “how to choose a book (or paper. Whatever)?”. The point of my project is to be able to get to correct models even from bad starting places, and part of the reason for that goal is that assessing a work often requires the same skills/knowledge you were hoping to get from said work. You can’t identify a good book in a field until you’ve read several. But improving your starting place does save time, so I should talk about how to choose a starting place.

One difficulty is that this process is heavily adversarial. A lot of people want you to believe a particular thing, and a larger set don’t care what you believe as long as you find your truth via their amazon affiliate link (full disclosure: I use amazon affiliate links on this blog). The latter group fills me with anger and sadness; at least the people trying to convert you believe in something (maybe even the thing they’re trying to convince you of). The link farmers are just polluting the commons.

With those difficulties in mind, here are some heuristics for finding good starting places.

  • Search “best book TOPIC” on google
    • Most of what you find will be useless listicles. If you want to save time, ignore everything on a dedicated recommendation site that isn’t five books.
    • If you want to evaluate a list, look for a list author with deep models on both the problem they are trying to address, and why each book in particular helps educate on that problem.  Examples:
    • A bad list will typically have a topic rather than a question they are trying to answer, and will talk about why books they recommend are generically good, rather than how they address a particular issue. Quoting consumer reviews is an extremely bad sign and I’ve never seen it done without being content farming.
  • Search for your topic on Google Scholar
    • Look at highly cited papers. Even if they’re wrong, they’re probably important for understanding what else you read.
    • Look at what they cite or are cited by
    • Especially keep an eye out for review articles
  • Search for web forums on your topic (easy mode: just check reddit). Sometimes these will have intro guides with recommendations, sometimes they will have where-to-start posts, and sometimes you can ask them directly for recommendations. Examples:
  • Search Amazon for books on your topic. Check related books as well.
  • Ask your followers on social media. Better, announce what you are going to read and wait for people to tell you why you are wrong (appreciate it, Ian). Admittedly there’s a lot of prep work that goes into having friends/a following that makes this work, but it has a lot of other benefits so if it sounds fun to you I do recommend it. Example:
  • Ask an expert. If you already know an expert, great. If you don’t, this won’t necessarily save you any time, because you have to search for and assess the quality of the expert.
  • Follow interesting people on social media and squirrel away their recommendations as they make them, whether they’re relevant to your current projects or not.

Emotional Blocks as Obstacles to Learning

My goal was to come up with a system for reading a book. I eventually identified that as the wrong goal, but came up with a pretty great system for doing the much better goal of “how do I answer a question?” But developing that was not the hardest or most time consuming part of my research over the last 3 months (plus additional time working on covid). I feel weird talking about it, but the truth is, a lot of that time was spent overcoming emotional issues around learning. 

For example, I think I’ve discussed before (but could not find a link on) how I kind of have two modes when reading: too credulous, looking for reasons a work could be true, and too antagonistic, looking for reasons to not only disagree, but dismiss entirely. 

I introspected on this, and eventually figured out that at a deep level I felt I needed to believe books, that I was being bad if I disagreed with them. So of course I developed tools to prove my disagreements, which led to the bifurcation- either I was giving in to the original impulse or its counter, without the option of responsiveness.

This same block on challenging authority was behind my urge to start from a book rather than a question. I not only believed I needed to trust in an authority (as deemed by the publishing-industrial-complex) to give me answers, I needed to let them set the questions. 

A natural question here is “why are you so sure this emotional work helped this specific task?”  My evidence is how the needs-to-be-retitled-epistemic-spot-check project has evolved- I started out having books thrown at me and reading them with the goal of forming a yes-no verdict. I’ve now progressed to starting with a question (such as “What can the 1973  Oil Crisis tell us about supply shocks?”) that serves a specific purpose and finding work that advances it. In that post I derived a model from disparate pieces of information I sought out to answer specific questions. No books, no teachers, just me. I also have pretty extensive notes of the work I was doing and how it tracked to specific improvements, although they’re intensely personal and I will not be sharing them.

It’s not totally solved yet. I really wanted to read a book on the oil crisis, for exactly the reasons they’re a bad solution to the problem. I wanted someone to give me the answer. But I can at least see the desire for what it is, recognize that it’s not a desire to learn, and react appropriately.

Another natural question is “why does this happen?” There’s two answers to that- why did I specifically form that belief, and why did those circumstances have the power to make me form that belief. I have some guesses for the former; my failed state middle school where I was dependent on the goodwill of teachers for my physical safety is a top contender, although the “best” schools arguably use a more subtle stick to inculcate this attitude even more strongly. 

For the latter, I have a very rough theory, dependent on the types of knowledge I described here. Very crudely, I believe trauma instills scientific-type knowledge that is factually false but locally adaptive. False beliefs need more protection to be maintained than true beliefs, so the belief both calcifies, making it unresponsive to new information, and lays a bunch of emotional landmines around itself to punish you for getting too close to it. This cascades into punishing you for learning at all, because you might learn something that corrects your false-but-useful model.

How did I escape these traps? I have some guesses for that, but I can only confidently identify the things I did immediately before breakthroughs. I’ve been building these skills for 10 years, so there’s a lot of background knowledge and skill feeding into that success I don’t have conscious access to. I think instructions for only the immediate predecessors of break throughs could be useless to outright harmful. So my next project is figuring out more about this process, and hopefully finding generalizable techniques for improvement. 

Part of finding techniques that work on people other than me is talking to other people. If you’re interested in ways of contributing to or just using the knowledge, here are some options:

  1. Already done this work? Tell me more. You can comment here, e-mail elizabeth@ this-domain.com, or use this anonymous form.
  2. Want to hear ideas and try them out yourself, ideally reporting back to me? Sign up for this google group.
  3. Want to devote several months of your life to working with me on this intensely? A number of things would have to go right for that work out, but if they all did, I think the potential is enormous. Email me at elizabeth @ this-domain

 

EDIT 7/15: Greetings again, Hacker News readers. This piece is the penultimate post in a long saga. If it strikes a chord with you, I’d encourage you check it out from the beginning, and check in in a few days for climax and epilogue. You can also follow me via RSS, via email by clicking the Follow button at the bottom right of the page, or on Twitter.  Also while this post wasn’t on Patreon, many of mine are, and support is greatly appreciated. You can also Talk To Me For An Hour, although we’ll see how that stands up to the influx of new readers.

 

Types of Knowledge

This is a system for sorting types of knowledge. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

First, there is knowledge you could regurgitate on a test. In any sane world this wouldn’t be called knowledge, but the school system sure looks enthusiastic about it, so I had to mention it. Examples:

  • Reciting the symptoms of childbed fever on command 
  • Reciting Newton’s first law of motion
  • Reciting a list of medications’ scientific and brand names
  • Reciting historical growth rate of the stock market
  • Reciting that acceleration due to gravity on Earth is 9.807 m/s²

 

Second, there is engineering knowledge- something you can repeat and get reasonably consistent results. It also lets you hill climb to local improvements. Examples:

  • Knowing how to wash your hands to prevent childbed fever and doing so
  • Driving without crashing
  • Making bread from a memorized recipe.
  • What are the average benefits and side effects from this antidepressant?
  • Knowing how much a mask will limit covid’s spread
  • Investing in index funds
  • Knowing that if you shoot a cannon ball of a certain weight at a certain speed, it will go X far.
  • Knowing people are nicer to me when I say “please” and “thank you”

 

Third, there is scientific knowledge. This is knowledge that lets you generate predictions for how a new thing will work, or how an old thing will work in a new environment, without any empirical knowledge.

Examples: 

  • Understanding germ theory of disease so you can take procedures that prevent gangrene and apply them to childbed fever.
  • Knowing the science of baking so you can create novel edible creations on your first try.
  • Knowing enough about engines and batteries to invent hybrid cars.
  • Actually understanding why any of those antidepressants works, in a mechanistic way, such that you can predict who they will and won’t work for.
  • A model of how covid is spread through aerosols, and how that is affected by properties of covid and the environment.
  • Having a model of economic change that allows you to make money off the stock market in excess of its growth rate, or know when to pull out of stocks and into crypto.
  • A model of gravity that lets you shoot a rocket into orbit on the first try.
  • A deep understanding of why certain people’s “please”s and “thank you”s get better results than others.

 

Engineering knowledge is a lot cheaper to get and maintain than scientific knowledge, and most of the time it works out. Maybe I pay more than I needed to for a car repair; I’ll live (although for some people the difference is very significant). You need scientific knowledge to do new things, which either means you’re trying something genuinely new, or you’re trying to maintain an existing system in a new environment.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our environment was changing pretty rapidly before a highly contagious, somewhat deadly virus was released on the entire world, and while that had made things simpler in certain ways (such as my daily wardrobe), it has ultimately made it harder to maintain existing systems. This requires scientific knowledge to fix; engineering won’t cut it.

And it requires a lot of scientific knowledge at that- far more than I have time to generate. I could trust other people’s answers, but credentials and authority have never looked more useless, and identifying people I trust on any given subject is almost as time consuming as generating the answers myself.  And I don’t know what to do about that.

 

What to write down when you’re reading to learn

One of the hardest questions I’ve had to answer as part of the project formerly known as epistemic spot checks is: “how do I know what to write down?”

This will be kind of meandering, so here’s the take home. 

For shallow research:

  • Determine/discover what you care about before you start reading.
  • Write down anything relevant to that care.

For deep research:

  • Write down anything you find interesting.
  • Write down anything important to the work’s key argument.
  • Write down anything that’s taking up mental RAM, whether it seems related or interesting or not. If you find you’re doing this a lot, consider you might have a secret goal you don’t know about.
  • The less 1:1 the correspondence between your notes and the author’s words the better. Copy/pasting requires little to no engagement, alternate theories for the explanations spread over an entire chapter require a lot.

 

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

Writing down a thing you’ve read (/heard/etc) improves your memory and understanding, at the cost of disrupting the flow of reading. Having written a thing down makes that one thing easier to rediscover, at the cost of making every other thing you have or will ever write down a little harder to find. Oh, and doing the math on this tradeoff while you’re reading is both really costly and requires knowing the future. 

I would like to give you a simple checklist for determining when to save a piece of information. Unfortunately I never developed one. There are obvious things like “is this interesting to me (for any reason)?” and “is this key to the author’s argument?”, but those never got rid of the nagging feeling that I was losing information I might find useful someday, and specifically that I was doing shallow research (which implies taking the author’s word for things) and not deep (which implies making my own models). 

The single most helpful thing in figuring out what to write down was noticing when my reading was slowing down, which typically meant either there was a particular fact that needed to be moved from short to long term storage, or that I needed to think about something. Things in these categories need to be written down and thought about regardless of their actual importance, because their perceived importance is eating up resources, and 30 seconds writing something down to regain those resources is a good trade even if I never use that information again. If I have one piece of advice, it’s “learn to recognize the subtle drag of something requiring your attention.”

An obvious question is “how do I do that though?”. I’m a mediocre person to answer this question because I didn’t set out to learn the skill, I just noticed I was doing it. But for things in this general class, the best thing I have found to do is get yourself in a state where you are very certain you have no drag (by doing a total brain dump), do some research, and pay attention to when drag develops. 

But of course it’s much better if my sense of “this is important, record it” corresponds with what is actually important. The real question here is “Important to what?” When I was doing book-based reviews, the answer at best was “the book’s thesis”, which as previously discussed gives the author a huge amount of power to control the narrative. But this became almost trivial when I switched the frame to answering a specific set of questions. As long as I had a very clear goal in mind, my subconscious would do most of the work. 

This isn’t a total solution though, because of the vast swath of territory labeled “getting oriented with what I don’t know”. For example right now I want to ask some specific questions about the Great Depression and what it can tell us about the upcoming economic crisis, but I don’t feel I know enough. It is very hard to get oriented with patchwork papers: you typically need books with cohesive narratives, and then to find other ways to undo the authors’ framing. Like a lot of things, this is solved by going meta. “I want to learn enough about the Great Depression that I have a framework to ask questions about parallels to the current crisis” was enough to let me evaluate different “Top Books about the Great Depression” lists and identify the one whose author was most in line with my goals (it was the one on fivebooks, which seems to be the case much more often than chance).

I mentioned “losing flow” as a cost of note taking in my opening, but I’m not actually convinced that’s a cost. Breaking flow also means breaking the author’s hold on you and thinking for yourself. I’ve noticed a pretty linear correlation between “how much does this break flow?” and “how much does this make me think for myself and draw novel conclusions?”. Copy/pasting an event that took place on a date doesn’t break flow but doesn’t inspire much thought. Writing down your questions about information that seems to be missing, or alternate interpretations of facts, takes a lot longer.

Which brings me to another point: for deep reading, copy pasting is almost always Doing It Wrong. Even simple paraphrasing requires more engagement than copy/pasting. Don’t cargo cult this though: there’s only so many ways to say simple facts, and grammar exercises don’t actually teach you anything about the subject.

So there is my very unsatisfying list of how to know what to write down when you’re reading to learn. I hope it helps.

Where to Start Research?

When I began what I called the knowledge bootstrapping project, my ultimate goal was “Learn how to learn a subject from scratch, without deference to credentialed authorities”. That was too large and unpredictable for a single grant, so when I applied to LTFF, my stated goal was “learn how to study a single book”, on the theory that books are the natural subcomponents of learning (discounting papers because they’re too small). This turned out to have a flawed assumption baked into it.

As will be described in a forthcoming post, the method I eventually landed upon involves starting with a question, not a book. If I start with a book and investigate the questions it brings up (you know, like I’ve been doing for the last 3-6 years), the book is controlling which questions get brought up. That’s a lot of power to give to something I have explicitly decided not to trust yet. 

Examples:

  • When reading The Unbound Prometheus, I took the book’s word that a lower European birth rate would prove Europeans were more rational than Asians and focused on determining whether Europe’s birth rates were in fact lower (answer: it’s complicated), when on reflection it’s not at all clear to me that lower birth rates are evidence of rationality.
  • “Do humans have exactly 4 hours of work per day in them?” is not actually a very useful question. What I really wanted to know is “when can I stop beating myself up for not working?“, and the answer to the former doesn’t really help me with the latter. Even if humans on average have 4 hours, that doesn’t mean I do, and of course it varies by circumstances and type of work… and even “when can I stop beating myself up?” has some pretty problematic assumptions built into it, such as “beating myself up will produce more work, which is good.” The real question is something like “how can I approach my day to get the most out of it?”, and the research I did on verifying a paper on average daily work capacity didn’t inform the real question one way or the other.

 

What would have been better is if I’d started with the actual question I wanted to answer, and then looked for books that had information bearing on that question (including indirectly, including very indirectly). This is what I’ve started doing.

This can look very different depending on what type of research I’m doing. When I started doing covid research, I generated a long list of  fairly shallow questions.  Most of these questions were designed to inform specific choices, like “when should I wear what kind of mask?” and “how paranoid should I be about people without current symptoms?”, but some of them were broader and designed to inform multiple more specific questions, such as “what is the basic science of coronavirus?”. These broader, more basic questions helped me judge the information I used to inform the more specific, actionable questions (e.g., I saw a claim that covid lasted forever in your body the same way HIV does, which I could immediately dismiss because I knew HIV inserted itself your DNA and coronaviruses never enter the nucleus).

 


 

I used to read a lot of nonfiction for leisure. Then I started doing epistemic spot checks– taking selected claims from a book and investigating them for truth value, to assess the book’s overall credibility- and stopped being able to read nonfiction without doing that, unless it was one of a very short list of authors who’d made it onto my trust list. I couldn’t take the risk that I was reading something false and would absorb it as if it were true (or true but unrepresentative, and absorb it as representative). My time spent reading nonfiction went way down.

About 9 months ago I started taking really rigorous notes when I read nonfiction. The gap in quality of learning between rigorous notes and my previous mediocre notes was about the same as the gap between doing an epistemic spot check and not. My time spent reading nonfiction went way up (in part because I was studying the process of doing so), but my volume of words read dropped precipitously.

And then three months ago I shifted from my unit of inquiry being “a book”, to being “a question”. I’m sure you can guess where this is going- I read fewer words, but gained more understanding per word, and especially more core (as opposed to shell or test) understanding. 

The first two shifts happened naturally, and while I missed reading nonfiction for fun and with less effort, I didn’t feel any pull towards the old way after I discovered the new way. Giving up book-centered reading has been hard. Especially after five weeks of frantic covid research, all I wanted to do was to be sat down and told what questions were important, and perhaps be walked through some plausible answers. I labeled this a desire to learn, but when I compared it to question-centered research, it became clear that’s not what it was. Or maybe it was a desire to go through the act of learning something, but it was not a desire to answer a question I had and was not prioritized by the importance of a question. It was best classified as leisure in the form of learning, not resolving a curiosity I had.  And if I wanted leisure, better to consume something easier and less likely to lead me astray, so I started reading more fiction, and the rare non-fiction of a type that did not risk polluting my pool of data. And honestly I’m not sure that’s so safe: humans are built to extract lessons from fiction too.

Put another way: I goal factored (figured out what I actually wanted from) reading a nonfiction book, and the goal was almost never best served by using a nonfiction book as a starting point. Investigating a question I cared about was almost always better for learning (even if it did eventually cash out in reading a book), and fiction was almost always better for leisure, in part because it was less tiring, and thus left more energy for question-centered learning when that was what I wanted.