Quick context: Epistemic spot checks started as a process in which I did quick investigations a few of a book’s early claims to see if it was trustworthy before continuing to read it, in order to avoid wasting time on books that would teach me wrong things. Epistemic spot checks worked well enough for catching obvious flaws (*cou*Carol Dweck*ugh*), but have a number of problems. They emphasize a trust/don’t trust binary over model building, and provability over importance. They don’t handle “severely flawed but deeply insightful” well at all. So I started trying to create something better.
Below are some scattered ideas I’m playing with that relate to this project. They’re by no means fully baked, but it seemed like it might be helpful to share them. This kind of assumes you’ve been following my journey with epistemic spot checks at least a little. If you haven’t that’s fine, a more polished version of these ideas will come out eventually.
A parable in Three Books.
I’m currently attempting to write up an investigation of Children and Childhood in Roman Italy (Beryl Rawson) (affiliate link) (Roam notes). This is very slow going, because ChCiRI doesn’t seem to have a thesis. At least, I haven’t found one, and I’ve read almost half of the content. It’s just a bunch of facts. Often not even syntheses, just “Here is one particular statue and some things about it.” I recognize that this is important work, even the kind of work I’d use to verify another book’s claims. But as a focal source, it’s deadly boring to take notes on and very hard to write anything interesting about. What am I supposed to say? “Yes, that 11 year old did do well (without winning) in a poetry competition and it was mentioned on his funeral altar, good job reporting that.” I want to label this sin “weed based publishing” (as in, “lost in the weeds”, although the fact that I have to explain that is a terrible sign for it as a name).
One particular bad sign for Children and Childhood in Roman Italy was that I found myself copying multiple sentences at once into my notes. Direct quoting can sometimes mean “there’s only so many ways to arrange these words and the author did a perfectly good job so why bother”, but when it’s frequent, and long, it often means “I can’t summarize or distill what the author is saying”, which can mean the author is being vague, eliding over important points, or letting implications do work that should be made explicit. This was easier to notice when I was taking notes in Roam (a workflowy/wiki hybrid) because Roam pushes me to make my bullet points as self-contained as possible (so when you refer them in isolation nothing is lost), so it became obvious and unpleasant when I couldn’t split a paragraph into self contained assertions. Obviously real life is context-dependent and you shouldn’t try to make things more self-contained than they are, but I’m comfortable saying frequent long quotes are a bad sign about a book.
On the other side you have The Unbound Prometheus (David S. Landes) (affiliate link) (Roam notes), which made several big, interesting, important, systemic claims (e.g., “Britain had a legal system more favorable to industrialization than continental Europe’s”, “Europe had a more favorable climate for science than Islamic regions”), none of which it provided support for (in the sections I read- a friend tells me he gets more specific later). I tried to investigate these myself and ended up even more confused- scholars can’t even agree on whether Britain’s patent protections were strong or weak. I want to label this sin “making me make your case for you”.
A Goldilocks book is The Fate of Rome (Kyle Harper) (affiliate link) (Roam notes). Fate of Rome’s thesis is that the peak of the Roman empire corresponds with unusually favorable weather conditions in the mediteranean. It backs this up with claims about climate archeology, e.g., ice core data (claim 1, 2). This prompted natural and rewarding follow up questions like “What is ice core capable of proving?” and “What does it actually show?”. My note taking system in Roam was superb at enabling investigations of questions like these (my answer).
Based on claims creation, Against the Grain (James Scott) (affiliate link) (Roam notes) is even better. It has both interesting high level models (“settlement and states are different thing that came very far apart”, “states are entangled with grains in particular”) and very specific claims to back them up (“X was permanently settled in year Y but didn’t develop statehood hallmarks A, B, and C until year Z”). It is very easy to see how that claim supports that model, and the claim is about as easy to investigate as it can be. It is still quite possible that the claim is wrong or more controversial than the author is admitting, but it’s something I’ll be able to determine in a reasonable amount of time. As opposed to Unbound Prometheus, where I still worry there’s a trove of data somewhere that answers all of the questions conclusively and I just failed to find it.
[Against the Grain was started as part of the Forecasting project, which is currently being reworked. I can’t research its claims because that would ruin our ability to use it for the next round, should we choose to do so, so evaluation is on hold.]
If you asked me to rate these books purely on ease-of-reading, the ordering (starting with the easiest) would be:
- Children and Childhood in Roman Italy
Which is also very nearly the order they were published in (Against the Grain came out six weeks before Fate of Rome; the others are separated by decades). It’s possible that the two modern books were no better epistemically but felt so because they were easier to read. It’s also possible it’s a coincidence, or that epistemics have gotten better in the last 50 years.
Model Based Reading
As is kind of implied in the parable above, one shift in Epistemic Spot Checks is a new emphasis on extracting and evaluating the author’s models, which includes an emphasis on finding load bearing facts. I feel dumb for not emphasizing this sooner, but better late than never. I think the real trick here is not identifying that knowing a book’s models are good, but creating techniques for how to do that.
How do we Know This?
The other concept I’m playing with is that “what we know” is inextricable from “how we know it”. This is dangerously close to logical positivism, which I disagree with my limited understanding of. And yet it’s really improved my thinking when doing historical research.
This is a pretty strong reversal for me. I remember strongly wanting to just be told what we knew in my science classes in college, not the experiments that revealed it. I’m now pretty sure that’s scientism, not science.
How’s it Going with Roam?
When I first started taking notes with Roam (note spelling), I was pretty high on it. Two months later, I’m predictably loving it less than I did (it no longer drives me to do real life chores), but still find it indispensable. The big discovery is that the delight it brings me is somewhat book dependent- it’s great for Against the Grain or The Fate of Rome, but didn’t help nearly so much with Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, because it was most very on-the-ground facts that didn’t benefit from my verification system and long paragraphs that couldn’t be disambiguated.
I was running into a ton of problems with Roam’s search not handling non-sequential words, but they seem to have fixed that. Search is still not ideal, but it’s at least usable
Roam is pretty slow. It’s currently a race between their performance improvements and my increasing hoard of #Claims.