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Edwin

Advice The Ten-Book Rule to Think Smarter

Edwin

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Most of the time, ten well-chosen books are enough to find out what experts think about any question you might have.


At this point, I can see doctors, lawyers, and people with PhDs cringing at how low I've set the bar for being an expert. But let me break down that rule above:

The books must be good choices. Even if you read ten random books on a subject, they won't all agree on what the experts know. Even a hundred bad books won't make a difference. I'll explain what I mean by "good books" below, but this is an important note.
Just because you understand what experts agree on doesn't make you an expert. It is much easier to understand knowledge than to make it. It's also easier than successfully applying what you know in different areas. My point isn't that you could become a heart surgeon by reading ten books, but that you could learn what most experts think is the best way to do a coronary bypass.

There must be agreement among experts on the question (or at least a few dominant viewpoints). Experts can't agree on an answer, so you can't get a consensus from them. In the same way, if the question hasn't been answered because the fields don't show questions that way, you might not get an answer.
A good question is one that makes sense. Most of the time, people at the top of a field can come up with questions that a beginner wouldn't even think to ask. To even be able to ask reasonable questions about string theory or Continental philosophy, you usually need to know a lot more. But you can definitely find answers to "why is the sky blue?" and "what is existentialism?" in ten books. A question is reasonable when a regular person could easily come up with it and it already has a good answer.
When it comes to casual interest, ten books is a big number. It's a lot more than reading an article on Wikipedia or an essay. The books in question are not popular science books that are fun and easy to read. Even at a normal rate of one book per week, this would take about three months.

Ten books is a lot less than what it takes to know a lot about anything. But if you want to answer a reasonable question (one that fits the above criteria), you can probably just do the work and get a good answer.

Why don't more people do this if, as I say, it's not that hard to understand what experts agree on?

How to Choose Good Books

When people use this method to do research, the first problem they run into is that they choose the wrong books.

There are three types of books that make it harder to understand what experts think, and unfortunately, they're also the ones that tend to be popular:

Ideas that are "new" in books Even in so-called cutting-edge fields, most ideas are old. If a book has a lot of "novelties," that means it has a lot of things that haven't been widely proven.
Books with ideas that are "useful" Pragmatism is a good trait, but it often changes the results of research. Don't mix up the questions, "What's the right way to think about this?" and "What can I do about it?"
Books with ideas that "change the world" If a non-orthodox book makes it clear that it is a paradigm shift, it will be harder to understand the orthodox view.
This doesn't mean that the books listed above aren't worth reading; it just means that they aren't among the "ten" books you need to read to understand an expert consensus. Reading ten self-help books, ten books about the "new science of X," or even a controversial best-seller that shows why all the experts are wrong may be fun and interesting, but it will take you a long time to get the general picture that experts have about a topic.

What other books should you read?

I would suggest the following three kinds of books, in this order:

books that are up-to-date. Textbooks are some of the best books to read because they are written by experts to show what they all agree on. Even authors with strong opinions on both sides of an issue usually give a balanced picture in the textbooks they write.
Books written by scholars Monographs tend to be more focused than textbooks, so you may not get a general overview of the field, but you'll often get closer to the answer you're looking for. If there aren't any good monographs on the topic you want to study, review articles are often a good substitute.
Canonical texts are those that everyone in the field agrees are correct. I don't usually start here because, as a beginner, it can be hard to figure out what these texts are and what they mean without more background. But when a certain work is often mentioned in textbooks or monographs, I try to learn more about it.
My point with the above rule is that if you asked a good question like, "How should I invest in the stock market?" "What's the best way to treat anxiety?" or "How do batteries work?" By reading those books, you'd get a good idea of what experts think.

Why should I care what experts think?
Why should we care about what everyone else thinks? Shouldn't we care about the truth, even if that means ignoring the opinions of a bunch of ivory-tower academics? I think there are good reasons why it's still helpful to know what the majority of experts think, even if it's not the "truth":

"Expertise in X" is pretty close to "people who know a lot about X" in healthy intellectual fields. Learning what most experts think is a good way to estimate the answer to the question, "If I knew as much as an expert, what opinions would I probably have?" You can get close to this estimate by using the "ten-book rule."
Most conversations are based on a shared point of view. So, you can't fully understand a non-mainstream view unless you know what it tries to reject. So, even if you have a strong feeling that experts of a certain kind have the wrong mental model, you still need to learn the ideas and language of the consensus to understand the other options.
Knowing the "truth" is hard, but it is possible to find out what experts agree on. Without getting too deep into epistemology, it is well known that it is hard to get good information about the world. In the real world, each field has its own standards of evidence and ways of doing things. On the other hand, finding out what experts tend to think is easy and doesn't have the same problems.
Putting together more research projects
In line with what I said in my last post, I think there are two main ways to learn more about the world: from the ground up or for a specific purpose. Both are true, but once you know the basics, the amount of information you need to know explodes, so it helps to ask more specific questions.

There are some problems with doing your own research. As was said above, one of the main reasons people don't reach the expert consensus after ten books isn't that their goal is impossible. The reason is that they chose the wrong books. In the same way, doing research online often takes you further away from reality because fake sources and "alternative" stories drown out any reasonable explanation.

I tend to think, though, that these problems have less to do with critical thinking and more to do with being motivated to think a certain way. If you really want to know what experts think about a subject and are willing to read at least ten serious books about it, I'd bet you'd be right most of the time. All you have to do is put in some work and want to know the answer.
 
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