Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

Knowing Stuff [How to Learn a New Subject]

A question I’ve been asked a lot, and never really sat down to answer, is how I go about learning new things.

Before going there, I want to tackle the whole “smart” matter. I think that, firstly, “smart” — or “knowing lots of stuff” — has more to do with the amount of time you’re willing to spend grappling with difficult concepts than anything else. If you aren’t almost compulsively interested in knowing about some subject matter, then you aren’t going to know much about it. You’ll spend lots of time on things that do interest you, and therefore know a lot more about them. Pretty easy there.

Intelligence certainly plays a part but I really don’t like that kind of deterministic explanation. Although there’s a measurable component to specific kinds of abstract intelligence, I also think that many people underestimate what they could learn if they just applied themselves. For whatever reasons learning stuff for the sake of learning stuff isn’t a huge priority for people, but that’s all getting into discussions for another time.

The other issue relates to meta-cognition (how you think about how you think) and that’s off in another zone of its own. Let if suffice to say that there needs to be a degree of introspection and self-awareness going into any learning process, because knowledge isn’t about rote memorization and regurgitation of facts. You have to be able to think, and most importantly of all, to step away from the details of the problem to more generalized and universal principles. These are not traits always valued in higher education, thus explaining the “dumb PhD” phenomenon.

The framework of knowledge matters as much as the contents.

All I can tell you is that a. I get a warm glowy feeling of satisfaction when I read topics of science and philosophy and b. that drives me to read a whole lot of things in those subject areas which c. leads to a self-sustaining feedback loop.

The rest of this article outlines the rough steps I go through in learning about things that interest me and give me the warm glowy feeling of satisfaction. I’ll warn you up front, I treat my autodidactery seriously, so if you’ve got a ScienceTM allergy or a real smug contempt for Knowing Stuff, you’ll want to skip this one.

Get your feet wet: Wikipedia

Wikipedia1, for all its faults, may well be the most-referenced source in the history of citing sources of data. It pops up every single time people disagree on a subject, ranking only behind Hitler as the most-referenced item in an internet argument.

1. I use the HTTPS “secure” Wiki because, well, I just like encrypting things.

I can get lost on Wikipedia for hours at a time. It’s like walking into a Borges story, with links leading to more links and then more links after that. After 20 minutes I don’t even remember what I was looking for in the first place.

What about those faults, then? The details come down to nerd-drama far beyond the scope of this post, or anything I can bring myself to care about in any detail, but put simply, since anybody can edit the thing, vandalism is common both in the form of trolling and people trying to Orwell in a sanitized version of events.

To counter this, Wikipedia uses a decent-sized army of volunteer civil-servants to curate the articles, doing minor fact-checking and correcting edits and such. That sounds fine and for the most part it works Well Enough. But, as happens any time a group of people try to decide on rules and regulations, you wind up with lots of bureaucratese and legalism, and inevitably the Group Culture becomes the arbiter of truth.

That makes me cagey. Groupthink is lame and conformity runs against the whole spirit of science-minded learning. To understand a subject, you need to expose yourself to the raw ideas — which, more often than not, will involve lots of bickering, criticisms, and criticisms of criticisms — not what a group of nerds have decided is and is not relevant.

These shouldn’t be taken as game-ending criticisms, mind you, and for one good reason. Wikipedia should only ever be the start of the trip, not the end. For that purpose, it’s a goldmine. I still remember the ancient days of the pre-Google internet, when you could stumble on all manner of underground dungeons overflowing with secret wisdoms. Problem was, you had to work long and hard to find that stuff, and you’d just as likely forget it because you didn’t write down the 400-character string of a URL.

Wikipedia dumps a whole lot of concise, potentially inaccurate but generally referenced, knowledge on just about any subject you can imagine, and it’s all right there for your perusal. Use the Wiki to get a rough sketch of your subject, and then as a lead to the real meat.

Written for Laymen: Good Nonfiction

I’m what you could call a bibliophile. I read all the time. I rarely have fewer than three books checked out of the library, and there’s a good chance I’ll have bought some of those titles before I’ve read them completely. I’ve got more unread books on my shelves than I could read in a year (seriously: according to Goodreads I’ve put back roughly 90 books in this year 2011).

There are worse problems to have, I guess.

When it comes to learning things, sitting down with a good science writer won’t lead you wrong. Nonfiction books, presuming you stick to good — which is to say, authoritative and non-kooky — science writing, are a goldmine of both understanding and further research.

Good science writing speaks to you on a level that makes the complex sound simple. This isn’t always possible with the Really Hard material, but when you have Richard Feynman explaining quantum electrodynamics, you can feel like you begin to understand it. Authors well-versed in their subject matter can almost always give you a survey of the field that you’d never be able to assemble on your own by mining Pubmed or Google.

Not only that, but you get a nice concise collection of notes and references at the end of the book. As with the Wiki, the fun begins with the references. I always wind up scratching down, at minimum, two or three new authors to check out or papers to go investigate out of every book I read. Sometimes, it’s many more.

The Garden of Forking Paths: Peer-Reviewed Articles & Reputable Journals

The constant branching-out happens with the Wiki and with science writing. You assemble the roughest sketch of What Happens and then set out to fill in more and more details. You’ll notice a cross-reference that looks interesting, and that will have more links still, and those will link to others. The web branches out and grows exponentially. At that point, the ever-growing tree ‘o links can become positively overwhelming.

Still there will be times when you want to know more, whether to follow up on the subject or check out a point that may have been vague in the text, and the only way to do that is to head straight to the primary sources. As great as Wiki articles and science writing are, they’re still considered “second hand” sources a step or two removed from the real guts of the subject.

Eventually, as you read more and information accretes around the kernel of ideas in your head, a pattern will start to shape up. The pieces start to fit together and fall into place, and a Big Idea takes shape.

Be warned: You can very quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. There will always be more to read, but in many subjects this tapers off to ever-smaller increments of knowledge which have little relevance to your original interest. I say this not just to save you time, but also so you don’t get the wrong idea.

If you think Wikipedia is bad, trawling the research databases will ruin you. Whereas Wikipedia can take you from psychological trauma to 19th century locomotives in 4.23 steps, digging into bodies of research literature takes you right down into some level of Hell that Dante never imagined where sinners browse through infinite cross-references.

I’ve lost whole days in Pubmed. Google Scholar and the arXiv aren’t much better.

If you aren’t a skilled Lich-Lord comfortable in the dungeons of the science-clergy, you don’t have to go that far. Sometimes you just want to see what a paper said in its own words, or find a researcher who’s interested in the topic at hand, or maybe grab a few links that can lead you to follow-up reading.

Just be aware that Usefulness tends to decrease inversely with Detail. Once you’ve assembled a good-enough picture of the Big Idea, further research tends to add marginally less return on investment.

What to Avoid

I almost wrote “avoid blogs”, but that’s not what I want to say. It would be hypocritical on one level, as I take pains to be (mostly) on the level with what I write, and I can say the same about at least some of my colleagues. Really it’s not hard to find well-informed bloggers in most any field, so saying “avoid blogs” isn’t fair at all.

But you do need to be aware of potential pitfalls. While mainstream media and science journalism surely have their share of fear-mongering, conclusion-jumping, and outright errors, there is at least a structure in place for fact-checking and error-correction.

Blogs have no quality control. Literally anyone can write anything about anything if they’re willing to sign up for a Blogger or WordPress account, and the democratization of blogging platforms kicks the QC back to you. If you’re fine with that, cool. If you can discriminate the good info from the bad, cool. Most people can’t, and that’s no condemnation. Stick me in a field in which I know little or nothing and I’ll fall for the shiny bait too. In taking your first steps into new knowledge, you don’t know enough to know what you don’t know (you know?)

And that’s before we even get into the Filter Bubble effect. Sadly, modern “informed” Westerners are as likely to get caught up in their own confirmation biases as they are to seek out anything novel or threatening to the existing world-view.

That danger doesn’t limit itself to blogs, however. We’ve all seen the conspiracy nutters who construct a whole thesis dissertation of news articles, research papers, and blogs carefully crafted to support their lunacy. What you never see, if you buy into that sort of thing — 9/11 truthers, Big Pharma Gonna Get You, that crowd — is what’s left out of the analysis.

(Also, as you can see in Eli Pariser’s TED talk there, the technology companies we’re increasingly reliant on for news and information go out of their way to encourage our insulated worldviews. All the more reason to be a discriminating consumer of facts.)

Filter Bubble Bad.

Don’t discount the effects of A Little Knowledge, either. You might think that a few Google searches, a few Wiki articles, and years of forum-experience give you an in-depth knowledge of a subject matter, leading you to proclaim yourself Forum Critic #1 — and causing you to dispute, discredit, or dismiss information that really is valid because your perspective lies to you. Humans are very bad at self-estimation, and consequently very good at believing we’re smarter than we are.

Teal Deer

The more I’ve learned over the years — not just about exercise science but in math and psychology and philosophy and everything else — the more I realize that Knowing Stuff is a process rather than a goal.

Get cocky, forget that you cannot ever know anything but a small slice of reality (not even touching on the epistemological issues of what qualifies as “known”), and you will be humbled.

All the ideas I laid out above really come down to the same thing: read a lot and read widely. Subjects only become difficult and impenetrable when you try to take in everything at once, and when you have no background in which to frame the new ideas. Read with an open mind and a critical eye and you solve both problems.

Sketch out the basic ideas first, whether that’s reading the Wiki entry or picking up a good book or two, and then start filling in the blanks with the Forking Paths method.

I can’t promise you’ll be an expert in anything and everything, but you’ll know a lot more than you did.