Should I read original books? (#26)
In decision-making, it’s better to go to the source and obtain unfiltered information. This notion appears relevant in learning. Naval Ravikant gave this advice: “Read the original scientific books in a field.”
I used to assume the discoverer of a theory knows it best: If I have a question about relativity, I’d consider myself lucky if I could ask Einstein. But following him, I might believe that black holes cannot exist. Einstein proved that using his general theory of relativity in 1939. A few months later, Oppenheimer and Snyder proved the opposite, using, unsurprisingly, Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
Unlike decision-making, sources don’t matter in the growth of knowledge. People can understand and explain theories better than their predecessors.
This isn’t saying Naval’s advice is wrong when we consider his rationale:
There are actually things you can read, especially early on, that will program your brain a certain way, and then later things that you read, you will decide whether those things are true or false based on the earlier things.
So, it is important that you read foundational things. And foundational things, I would say, are the original books in a given field that are very scientific in their nature.
I think what he wanted to stress was more about “foundational” rather than “original”.
Indeed, we understand better when we can connect new learnings to prior knowledge.
But seeking to build knowledge on a secure foundation is not necessary.
This is like aiming to construct an axiomatized deductive system in science, like Euclidean geometry, so we can start from axioms and build the entire edifice securely. But a foundation is secure until it’s challenged by future better theories.
We can build knowledge on any source, as long as we keep questioning and seeking better explanations. As Karl Popper wrote in Objective Knowledge, “Our starting-point is common sense, and that our great instrument for progress is criticism.”
Reading better books is still practically preferred, but for efficiency, not security.
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