Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Distilling Great Thinkers

. Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tyler Cowen has an interesting post over at MR:

Following up on a discussion, Arnold Kling asks:

'Should we approach famous thinkers by digesting distilled versions, or should we study them in the original?'

I'm for distilling, for reasons Arnold offers, but I'm also for reading the originals. Here are a few reasons why, drawn from a number of longer sources I have read and digested:

1. Secondary sources are unreliable and they do not capture or understand many of the original insights. To remove it from the distant past, what I get from John Rawls or Robert Nozick is quite distinct from what I get from their distillers.

2. Truly great thinkers require numerous distillers. Can you read just one book on Keynes? No. So you have to read a few. Shouldn't one of these then be Keynes himself? Yes.
There are seven more reasons he throws up so if you're interested you should definitely check out the post.

There is one thing I have always wondered: Why don't great thinkers distill their own work/their own field's work? Why do we rely on lesser minds (by lesser minds I mean those that have not engaged in the theoretical work themselves) to distill complex work rather than have the great minds that come up with the theories do it themselves.

I just finished reading Stephen Hawking's book "The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe", a series of seven lectures where he essentially distills what physicists believe to be the history of the universe and breaks down some of his own work in the field (his theory of black holes for instance). It is truly fascinating and a hell of a lot easier and less time consuming than going through all of Hawking's papers, which even if I spent all of the time in the world, I wouldn't be able to understand. He does a great job of breaking down the physical universe for those of us with lesser minds. Why haven't other great thinkers taken this same approach and distilled their work for the rest of us?

Some have posited that the comparative advantage of these great thinkers is to think and write great things, not to dumb them down for the rest of us. Others have argued that they simply don't have time to distill these great thoughts. For modern great thinkers, most are working in universities and there aren't any incentives for them to make their work readable for the masses. They are incentivized to publish in academic journals/presses and the publication of distilled work doesn't mean much (if any) in terms of promotion/salary increases.

So why would/should they take the time to distill their own work? Well, the more people are familiar with your work, the greater the probability of it having a lasting effect on civilization. The more people are familiar with some of the great work in physics, biology, chemistry, etc., maybe they'd be more prone to believe that it is the truth and turn away from mystical explanations of the cosmos, evolution, etc. Maybe the ivory tower should incentivize the dissemination of scholarly work in the hopes of making it more relevant to society and comprehensible to the masses. Maybe the people that critique academia for being irrelevant will see the relevance of academic work if they were able to understand it. Maybe not, maybe they still wouldn't read it anyway and don't care about understanding academic work. But, I think we should still try.


Kindred Winecoff said...

I think about this too, but I think about it a bit differently:

Some "great thinkers" are *very* good at distilling academic work for a general audience. More specifically, some disciplines seem to be better at it than others. Economists from Cowen to Krugman have done an excellent job, I think. Even physicists (like Hawkins) and biologists (like Dawkins, pre-God Delusion) are very good at it.

But not political scientists, sociologists, or business academics. Why is that? I don't buy the incentives argument, since I think it's hard to demonstrate that the incentives facing economists are so much different from those facing political scientists.

I think it's the market: economics is generally viewed as impenetrable to the general public but nevertheless very important. If you can distill dense theories that folks couldn't grasp in college into digestible chunks, people respond to it. Political science, on the other hand, is viewed as both easily accessible (cf. Coburn's comments re: CNN as political science) and somewhat less important. Most popular political imagination is "horse-race" type punditry, which anybody can do.

Not only that, but a lot of "economics" books are half poli-sci, e.g. "Nudge", public choice stuff, and even parts of Freakonomics-style books. To the extent that econ books have "policy implications" (as most do), they could be substitutes for "real" poli-sci in the market.

That could change; I think Gelman's book shows that there's some market for political science-y stuff. How big that market is... I don't know. I keep expecting somebody -- probably Drezner -- to write the first IR blockbuster.

Alex Parets said...

I definitely agree that the incentives facing political scientists and economists are the same and that the public perceives economics to be far more difficult and outside of their grasp than political science.

But, I still think we aren't doing a very good job as political scientists in disseminating our work. And I'm not talking about writing popular books that simply apply some of the reasoning and methods we use (a la Freakonomics). I mean actually promoting and disseminating some of our important theories and findings and a lot of the relevant and important work that truly signals what the discipline does.

I think we need to start using the Alfred Marshall guide to writing: "(1) Use mathematics as shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can’t succeed in 4, burn 3. This I do often." Not in our initial submissions to journals but use this method to disseminate our work to a wider audience.

We also need to start teaching political science research in the classroom to undergrads. This is one thing that UNC does a great job when teaching the undergrad classes. But most schools don't introduce actual political science research (especially the more modern stuff) to their undergrads so they don't know what is actually being produced by the discipline. It is my hope that with all of this, hopefully political science as a discipline will not be compared to the work done by CNN.

Distilling Great Thinkers
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