The Source of Knowledge

By Nat Eliason in Learning

“Don’t trust everything you learn on the Internet.”

That was one of my dad’s favorite pieces of advice when I was growing up. Internet 2.0 was new and already starting to fill with misinformation. I think it’s good advice, but it can be improved. I would make it three words shorter.

“Don’t trust everything you learn.”

Whose information can we trust? How do we know what information is trustworthy, and what information isn’t? 20 years ago this wasn’t a huge problem, or at least it was but we couldn’t do as much about it. We had an information shortage. If you wanted in-depth knowledge on a subject you needed to find an expert, read original research (and good luck getting it), read a book, or study it in school. None of these are bad options, but they were expensive and difficult to get to. There was a period where if you wondered “huh, what happens if I don’t get enough Vitamin D?” you couldn’t simply Google it. Hell we probably never thought about Vitamin D.

Now we’re in the opposite situation. We have too much information, and a lot of that information is at least partial nonsense. The number of blogs, podcasts, internet periodicals, and magazines far outweigh the number of nonfiction books, reliable experts, research papers, and rigorous coursework we have access to.

Worse, we have an ease of use problem. We’re lazy. We’ve been spoiled by TV news. We want our information in little 45 second clips. An article on PubMed is scary. A Cosmo article on 5 foods to get slim in 5 days is easy. Good information isn’t just hard to find, it’s intimidating. Finding it and absorbing it is a skill we have to cultivate.

The Obvious Outs

I don’t think there’s a hard and fast list of reliable sources, so instead I’m going to start with the clearly unreliable ones.

Television as a source of news and information is obviously out. Watching MSNBC/CNN/FOX isn’t a way to be an informed citizen, it’s a way to be entertained without feeling as guilty as we would if we watched Family Guy. The only real exception with TV is documentaries, or multi-part series documentaries, like Planet Earth.

I’ll suggest that any recurring news source is out as well. Health is not a field changing so quickly as to warrant a monthly 100+ page magazine, and I’m sure this month’s 12 steps to a toned butt isn’t going to be that different from last month’s.

Most blogs are out too. There are a few out there that are excellent sources of well-vetted information, but those are almost always from primary sources (i.e. Andrew Chen on Startup Marketing, or Dr. Rhonda Patrick on Fitness). The Internet is, unfortunately, full of blogspam.

None of this is to insult consumption. Consumption is perfectly fine. This is only to say that treating a source of entertainment as a source of reliable information is dangerous. The two rarely go together. Assuming we’re getting good information simply because it’s a popular medium is faulty logic.

What About Peers, School, and Parents?

For at least 6 years, our only major source of information is our parents. They’re deciding what we’re eating, wearing, how much we’re moving, so we have to pray that they had the foresight to recognize they know nothing about these things and need to do a ton of research. Being alive doesn’t mean we’re qualified to advise others on how to live.

Eventually we enter Kindergarten and gain more sources of knowledge. We’re getting advice and knowledge from school as well as home, but is it any better? Parents don’t need to pass a test to raise a kid. Teachers at least need to be qualified to get a job. Let’s assume they’re a bit more reliable, despite books like Lies My Teacher Told Me. I said a “bit more reliable,” not perfect.

The problem with school is the other students. I alluded to this earlier, but any type of “life” advice suffers from Parkinson’s “Law of Triviality.” It says:

“There may be members of the committee who might fail to distinguish between asbestos and galvanized iron, but every man there knows about coffee – what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought – and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter, and they will end by asking the Secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting”

Or put another way, we will feel disproportionately more passionate about, and more qualified to give advice on, things that we’re familiar with (like being alive), regardless of how well we actually understand them. If we don’t think critically about the person we’re receiving advice from, then we get barraged with misinformation overload.

A gym teacher is not the best source of information on how to run better. A history teacher is not the best source of knowledge for history. A science teacher is not the best source of knowledge for science. 20+ years ago they were all we had, but we don’t live in that world anymore.

Likewise, unless your parents or friends have Ph.Ds in Human Physiology you shouldn’t be taking their advice on nutrition, sleep, exercise, etc. They’re only regurgitating their interpretations of information they read or heard elsewhere, and you have no idea if that source was a Johns Hopkins research article or the latest issue of Women’s Health. If you’ve ever played the game “telephone” you know how much gets lost in the process of passing something along.

Okay, But Surely Professionals are Trustworthy…

Not necessarily. What kind of training does your personal trainer have? Did they study physiology at a high-ranked university or did they just get an online certification? What about your doctor? Were they an A student at Johns Hopkins or a C student at… well I don’t know the names of any bad medical schools but you get the idea.

For most of history we had to rely on these frequently mediocre sources, but we don’t have to anymore. We have access to much more data. And the data we have access to is more up to date than their training.

So Who Do We Trust?

Pre-Internet, (though I’m not old enough to really remember that time) I assume the methods I’ve just bashed were our best way of getting rapid information. Since finding books and sorting through them was tedious, we relied on friends, colleagues, and teachers as our source of information. That wasn’t done out of best practice, that was done out of necessity. It was all the information we had. Now we have more. Now there’s no reason to rely on “cheap” information… we have the greatest repository of information in the world available to us. And almost all of it’s free.

In the spirit of the article though, before giving my advice, I’ll say that you probably shouldn’t trust me. There are likely better researchers out there whose methods you can dig up, but if you want a system to hold you over until then, here’s what I do:

1. I politely ignore the advice of everyone around me on almost everything unless I know they’re an expert in what they’re talking about, have been in an extremely similar situation and handled it well, or they’re a general information maven.

2. For a given topic I’ll search around to find the top 3-5 articles on it, and ideally the top 2-3 books, then read all of them. For articles, if they’re from sources like US News and the other usual culprits I’ll try to find the source that the article is based on and read that instead. Primary sources are always ideal. The more you do this, the faster you’ll get at skimming non-fiction and pulling out the essential parts.

3. Instead of taking notes on everything, I take notes on the similarities. All of the sources make these same 3 points but disagree on these other 2? Okay, so I can be pretty confident on the first 3, but need to dig-in on the last two. Note that this doesn’t mean going with the majority, but rather the similarities among the top .1%.

4. If the sources agree too much, I try to find additional ones that disagree. Sometimes that’s easy (like in anything exercise related) sometimes that’s hard (like sources arguing gluten is good for you).

5. Only from the similarities, and from considering both viewpoints on it, do I feel justified in forming an opinion.

But What About Learning?

I didn’t come up with this methodology. I adapted it from the works of Tim Ferriss and Josh Waitzkin.

Classrooms are problematic because they move at a predetermined pace and must move slow enough for the slowest person. They also provide terrible motivation because the “goal” you’re shooting for is a high grade on a test.

Also most of the traditional methods of learning don’t really make sense. You only need one exposure to mnemonics and spaced repetition to realize that the school method of language learning is horribly inefficient.

So here’s my suggestion instead:

1. Have a SMART goal. If you don’t have a specific goal for why you want to learn something, then you’ll be much less likely to stick to it and you won’t be as curious about it. Learning for the sake of learning gets boring quickly since you have no way to track your progress. Instead of “Oh I want to learn to DJ because it would be cool” say something like “I want to be able to DJ well enough to be confident playing at a house party two Fridays from now.”

2. Find some outliers and experts in the space. For language, maybe people who speak 6+ languages. Do they have books? Blogs? In this case yes, there’s a whole business around this, and their books are really good.

3. Read the books and the blogs. What are the commonalities? Though I don’t have any research to back this up, I’d argue that in many cases it makes more sense not to use textbooks… textbooks are based on a defective system of learning and are incredibly boring. You could use them as a secondary resource though. Something being unique (in one resource but not the others) doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just that you can be less sure of its effectiveness. Try the unique aspects and see how well they work for you. If they work, keep them. If they don’t, toss them.

4. Create your method. Build a baseline from what’s similar, then adapt it to fit your needs. Don’t just blindly follow one person’s system (including this one!). This makes it more motivating since it’s what you want to do, not just what someone else told you to do. Break down the goal to its composite parts, and as you learn the individual parts you’ll see yourself progressing towards that goal.

5. Start.  As you find holes in your knowledge, go find the people who have already filled them. Never re-invent the wheel.

The most important underlying concept though is that you don’t need to rely on others for your education. We probably did 20 years ago, but we simply don’t anymore, and the sooner we learn to self-educate effectively the sooner we can master whatever interests us.

Footnotes

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