Is it possible to learn more and more and know less and less? It depends on what and how you learn.
We live in a wonderful era of lifelong learning and easy access to the world’s knowledge. As a result, more and more of what we learn, we learn on our own, outside of the guidance of formal education.
In many ways, this is a good thing. Speaking for myself, I have always been an advocate of learning and personal growth. As a free-range grazer in the noosphere, I’m an active consumer of information about topics that interest me: with main courses comprising about 75-100 nonfiction books a year, and constant snacking on magazine articles, blogs, and videos. Much like you, I have a voracious appetite for new learning, and the world’s table is spread with abundance and variety.
This is especially true in psychology and the social sciences, where it seems every day brings a fascinating new study about how we think and make decisions. Writers like Malcom Gladwell and Daniel Pink know how to turn their research into palatable packages that go down easily because of their artful combination of solid research, sweetened with compelling stories and vivid detail.
Unfortunately, without using some good judgment and discipline, it’s too easy to stuff ourselves with empty calories of fluff and trick ourselves into thinking that we’re acquiring a real education. We need less sugar and more salt—it may be bad for you in an actual physical diet, but most of us don’t take enough of it when we read stuff that interests us.
Because we have so much choice in what we read, we tend to read material that is easy to grasp and that we already agree with, so it’s possible that instead of learning more, we may be merely embedding false information into our minds even more firmly. In those cases, it’s possible to read more and more and know less and less about something.
You can try to fight this tendency by being choosy about what you consume. Books carry the equivalent of nutrition labels in the form of the author’s qualifications, index, bibliography and notes; look those over to get a sense of what you’re about to stick into your brain. When listening to speakers, if they say “studies show”, without showing the studies, be very skeptical.
These precautions should help, but if you stop there you may be even more susceptible to error. In sports, the introduction of better protective equipment sometimes leads to worse injuries because it can make athletes more reckless. The same may be true in your reading. It’s possible that the fact that you’ve been rigorous in choosing what to read may make you less skeptical of its claims while reading it. After all, if a Nobel winner said it, or it’s in the Harvard Business Review, who are you to doubt it?
There are two good reasons to keep the salt handy even when reading a book from a “trusted” source. First, there is excellent documentation that expert opinion can be extremely unreliable.
Second, most of the studies that they cite in the footnotes are probably wrong, or even if reliable are cherry-picked to support the author’s conclusions. I realize that it’s ironic that I cite a paper to support the assertion that most published research papers are false, but John P.A. Ioannidis’ essay “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” makes for very interesting and disconcerting reading. (And it was written before the recent scandals involving falsification of research data.)
Unfortunately, the “findings” least likely to be true are the most likely to catch and stick in our attention. We’ve all had the experience of reading something in the paper like, “Scientists show rutabaga lowers risk of knuckle cancer.” Here’s just one reason why you should not immediately rush out to the produce aisle: Maybe nineteen other research teams studied the link between rutabagas and knuckle cancer and found no correlation—they would not have bothered to try to publish their “negative” results. Even if they did publish their results, which study do you think the reporter would use to generate an article people would read? And, if you read articles on both sides of the issue, which would be more likely to stick in your mind when you went to the store?
To make the problem even worse, even if you read absolute proof that the information you read was false, you are much more likely to remember the vivid claim than the solid but boring refutation.
Guidelines for a healthy knowledge diet
Doubt first; look for contradictory information. Your default position should be doubt and skepticism, not immediate acceptance. At the risk of pushing the metaphor too far, chew thoroughly before swallowing.When you read something that rings true, it may be easy to bring examples to mind that support it, but you should also try to think of counterexamples. We all suffer from confirmation bias, which blinds us to contradictory information.
Go deeper. The footnotes aren’t just for decoration. You can’t verify everything you read, but you can find the original source in the footnotes and read it yourself to see what it says.
Learn just a tiny little bit of statistics. At least enough to understand how much weight you should put on reported results. At a minimum, you should understand sample sizes, correlation and effect sizes. (If this sentence made your eyes glaze over, read this.)
Fire bullets not cannonballs. This advice comes from Great by Choice, by Collins and Hansen. What it means is that you should not bet the farm on something new and untried by making big or irreversible changes to your business strategies or processes. Experiment, measure the results, and make adjustments as necessary. When you’re sure, then you can fire the cannonball.
Don’t be so damned sure of yourself all the time. As we’ve seen, it’s possible that the more educated you are, the more wrong you are likely to be. Be open-minded and willing to listen to others. Certainty shuts down learning.
 I purposely used a silly example to avoid another phenomenon: if something sticks in our minds when we read it, we tend to believe it even after it has been proven to be false.