Predicting rain doesn’t count. Building arks does. – Warren Buffett
As we come to the end of the year many of us look back, asking what we’ve done over the days that have been and gone. Did we do the right things, the right way? Is there a different way, a better way we could have chosen? And how can we tell whether one way or the other is better or worse?
Learning how to carry out research and reading critically is a skill – a craft that has to be developed with care over time. It’s easy to pick up a book and accept the ideas in there uncritically. When you realise that there’s always more to the picture, however, you start to slow down, which means you learn less and end up with more questions.
For example, I picked up Derren Brown’s Happy from a pile off the floor. It starts with the idea that things happen around you but you can choose how you react to them. In the past I’d have accepted that statement but now I’m not that sure. Say someone insults you – you can choose to ignore it, to be the bigger person and that’s up to you. But actually, why should you have to deny your feelings? Isn’t the person who says something to you that’s insulting to blame for making you feel the way you do?
And what is a feeling anyway? Is there a difference between the chemical signals that trigger a flight or fight response and other signals that trigger hurt or discontent? In order to assess the message of the book, which goes on to talk about stoic philosophy, you find yourself diverted into semiotics, neurobiology and chemistry to really understand whether you have control over the way you feel or not. This is the subject of Disney’s film Inside Out which Yuval Noah Harari, in his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, points out suggests that humans are essentially large robots controlled from a control centre staffed by chemists that inject a mix of chemicals to get us to do what they want us to do.
It’s very hard to really get a handle on anything. It’s perhaps easier to give up and trust in easy answers, go with faith in anything that seems right, whether it’s a god or the latest airport non-fiction bestseller. True learning takes longer, and perhaps never comes at all.
Hippocrates is famous for the aphorism “vita brevis, ars longa”, which means “life is short, art is long”. The full version, from the Greek is “life is short, the art is long, occasion sudden, experience dangerous, judgement difficult.” Studying anything takes time. In the last six or so months I’ve looked at 200 or so papers, highlighted around 31, taken notes on a few, dissected others and tried to model ideas.
What you realise very quickly is that this is a hard thing to do. Looking through the vast quantities of published research that’s available these days is a challenge. You don’t have the time to learn everything or analyse everything. Getting a handle on any of these ideas and its relationship with other ideas requires you to first create a system where you can hold and work with ideas. A machine, if you will, that processes ideas and produces something useful.
This is not a new problem. Early modern scientists were grappling with these issues in the seventeenth century. How do you take notes on a field, identify the key heads, topics and themes and build your own understanding? How have approaches to this problem changed over time? We’ve gone from a world where people once thought they could “know” what was going on to one where we accept that we know something for a while until something else comes along. What we know is often only true in a certain context under a set of constraints. There are challenges of time and space. We live life and collect data one second at a time but we make sense of it through the creation of patterns, building relationships between pieces of data we’ve collected at different times.
The skills needed to do this are considerable and not taught enough. That’s possibly because there’s too much to do and not enough time to learn it all. We may need to come to terms with the possibility that we will not solve the problems that concern us, that perhaps it will take more than one lifetime. That’s what the scientists of the past have done, worked away at an area of interest in the hope that what they find will make sense in their lifetimes but, if not, that it will be built on in the future.
Suggestions for how to get these skills are going to take more than a single post. There are a few books that deal with the topic but I don’t know how good they really are at helping one get better at doing research. Maybe it’s something I need to explore a little more.