On productive and counterproductive ways to read

I get the impression that some people read works of economics, political science, sociology, philosophy, and political theory largely through the lens of who is on their “team.” There are some people you read because they’re on your side and you want to better understand the case for your own views. There are others who are your opponents and you read them as a sort of opposition research. You read them with the goal of fighting them or refuting them.

This seems like a generally counterproductive way to engage with the world. Instead, I think it’s often best to read works with an eye towards the following:

What analytical or methodological tools does this give me for understanding the world & learning more in the future?

One reason that this question matters is that even if an author doesn’t reach the right conclusions, they may offer you useful tools for thinking about the world. Suppose you ultimately disagree with Bryan Caplan’s conclusions in The Case Against Education. Even if you’re unconvinced that the social costs of colleges and universities outweigh the benefits, reading the book will give you a clearer understanding of concepts like signaling and human capital. Those economic concepts have many applications, so learning about them is useful even if you’re not ultimately convinced by Caplan’s argument.

And those concepts aren’t the only analytical tools you’ll learn by carefully reading Caplan. He also examines a body of evidence to try to evaluate what proportion of the increased wages associated with having a college degree results from signaling and what proportion results from human capital. Even if you are unconvinced by his analysis, reading his argument may offer you helpful insights about how to think through messy empirical evidence and adjudicate between competing theoretical explanations of observed reality.

What description of the world does this offer me, and is this description true?

That said, methodological and analytical insights aren’t the only things you are looking for when you read. Books and articles make claims about the world. They describe the world around you. The description they offer could be true, or it could be false.

There are several ways to evaluate whether claims are true. One is how plausible they sound given the rest of your knowledge. But if that’s your only criteria, you’ll likely be quite resistant to changing your mind. So you should ask other questions as well. Are the arguments that are made in the text logically valid? Once you’ve determined that, you can ask whether the arguments are based on true premises. If the premises are true and the arguments are logically valid, then the arguments are sound. Often, however, a text may not give you a definitive logical argument. Instead, they may present a body of evidence. It’s worthwhile to consider the strength of that evidence. How credible are the sources the author cites? What methods do they use to gather and evaluate any empirical evidence they examine? These types of questions can help you figure out whether what you are reading is true.

Does this offer compelling reasons to change my mind on some important issue?

Sometimes our beliefs can feel like cherished friends. They’ve helped us interpret the world. They’ve guided us and shaped our actions. It can be hard to part with a belief we’ve had for a while. But none of us are infallible. We’re all wrong about at least some things. But we don’t know what we’re wrong about. So it’s worth asking whether what we’re reading should motivate us to change our mind.

Does this offer compelling reasons for me to act differently or reconceive what is normatively desirable?

Sometimes, this might happen because of a specific moral argument that the work we’re reading makes. For example, reading Michael Huemer’s Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism might convince you to stop eating meat, eggs, and dairy.

But a book might also convince you to change your actions or your normative views by helping you learn something new about how the world works. For example, reading about the economics of housing may convince you that land-use regulations increase housing prices, reduce economic mobility, and substantially reduce GDP. This is a description of the world. It need not imply any normative judgement. But learning these facts may convince you that zoning laws are undesirable or that YIMBY activism is desirable.

These aren’t the only questions to ask, but they seem like questions that are more aimed towards tracking truth than asking, “Is this author on my team?”  If we simply read to confirm our priors or do opposition research on our opponents, we miss opportunities to learn.


Nathan P. Goodman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Economics at New York University. His research interests include defense and peace economics, self-governance, public choice, institutional analysis, and Austrian economics.

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