Tuesday, August 11, 2009

knowledge and metaknowledge

By the first year or two of college I had already forgotten all of the details of things I learned in high school and was left with only a shell of relationships between the details and concepts and methods of reasoning (which conveniently is most of what math, my major, is). Yet despite the fact I would have done just as badly on pre-tests on those subjects I had already learned as the less prepared of my peers, I felt that I had a huge advantage just by having a ghostlike shell of logic buried in my memory.

When I was working on Wall Street doing research with zero guidance for the first time I couldn't remember any of the statistical techniques I'd learned in five semesters of statistics and econometrics in college (Side note: frankly, all the talk about Wall Street hiring the "best and brightest" is total BS. Only rarely do you come across a mathematical genius on wall street who just happens to hate academia and love money. I was thoroughly on my own.) But simply having a vague recollection that some technique does in fact exist was enough to find it and learn it and use it on my own.

Especially in the age of google, knowing that something exists is much more important than knowing the details of that thing. One of the most useful classes I took in college was an introduction to experiments in social science. It was just an informal lecture, no theory involved, nothing in depth at all, but as a result I feel much more fluent in the field of experimental economics than, say, microeconomic theory, which I've taken MANY theory-based classes in. I could easily come up with an experimental/behavioral research question and know where to look to make progress on it, yet I have no earthly idea what modern general equilibrium theorists are working on.

Before information was so accessible, it was very important to have all relevant information on instant recall. Now that scientific careers are so much more specialized, not only is it impossible to remember everything you need to know, it's completely unnecessary when simply knowing that "dynamic price discrimination" is a keyphrase I can google to figure out how to maximize profits in my new airline.

To some extent, the educational system is very behind the times in this sense. There SHOULD be more overview classes where you just learn what is going on and skip the details. On the other hand, knowing what is out there is useless if you're not capable of looking it up and learning it on your own. School needs to make you very good at logic and math and self-teaching, and the best ways of doing that all require delving into details. Practice makes perfect and you practice on specific examples. Then worry about building up familiarity.

I think I just talked myself into putting effort into figuring out a better way of "glancing" at lots of information for my fields of interest (since overview classes don't really exist).