12 September, 2014

Think before you read..

Here is a piece of advice that I often give my research students:

Augment thinking with reading, rather than reading with thinking.. 

The idea here is that research has to be fundamentally driven by meaningful questions that we personally care about and that we are curious about and that we have understood from first principles; rather than something that is induced by what others are saying. As researchers, we should be exploring questions that we can relate to, rather than whatever is "hot" in the marketplace (because by the time we finish the thesis, the hot would have become cold anyway).

I think the above applies equally as a life skill, rather than just a research skill.

Our thinking is fundamentally driven by who we are as a person -- our desires, our hopes, our delusions, our fears, etc. The more we think the more we understand the depths of who we are. Augmenting our thinking with reading helps us relate who we are with the rest of the world. We can apply ourselves passionately to some larger thought shaping the world.

But generally, I see that we are taught to read first and think next. Our thinking is mostly an augmentation to what we read. There are all kinds of intellectual posturing games that people play based on what we read, rather than what we think.

It is strange that we define an "intellectual" as someone who reads a lot. Well, an intellectual is someone who thinks a lot. I've seen intellectual activity like conceptualizing, argument building, strategizing, empathizing, etc. coming from even illiterate people who don't even know how to read. And I've also seen copious dearth of intellectual activity coming from research labs and "think tanks" who revel in just citing stuff or quoting people or in sporting a permanently disinterested expression like, "Oh you won't understand me anyway, why bother arguing with you.." rather than building a sound argument.

When I state the above, I've heard people conclude that I'm advocating not reading at all. Really? Far from it. Rather than advocating against reading, I'm advocating for thinking. It is our thinking that defines who we are and shapes our destiny, and our reading augments and strengthens us in this process.

My advisor used to give an analogy, which I'll paraphrase here. Reading a lot is like putting a lot of zeros in a sequence. If they are augmenting thinking, which is a '1' then they will collectively form a big number -- 1 followed by a lot of zeros. On the other hand, if the thinking follows the reading, then it would just be a lot of zeros followed by 1 -- a much smaller number.

It is also easy to detect from one's writing, whether the author puts thinking first or reading first. Someone who puts thinking first would write in an "abstractive" fashion. This means that the writing strives to bring out the essence of some idea that the author wishes to convey.

On the other hand, someone who puts reading before thinking tends to write in a "transcriptive" fashion. Such writing aims to report something from somewhere that the author found interesting. The writing itself would be in the form of a transcription of whatever the author had read, rather than trying to make a point about something.