Sources and Methods #36: Thomas Nichols

Thomas Nichols 101:

Nichols' website

Nichols on Twitter

Nichols on Facebook


Show notes:

4:30 - It’s an ironic paradox - there’s more information in the world than there’s ever been, but people are less informed.

 4:46 - The hallmarks of expertise are not just the traditional markers that people often think of and they often reject by the way. When you say ‘expert’ people think ‘someone with credentials’ and then you get into all kinds of arguments about whether credentials really matter, whether smart people don’t need them, whether there are dumb people who have degrees on the wall, that’s just part of it.

I argue in the book that expertise is a complex of things: credentials, experience, longevity in the field, peer-review or affirmation by other people (and I don’t just mean academically). If you’re a master electrician, that’s determined by other electricians who decide to bestow that on you after examining you and watching you. As well as talent. It’s those things taken together that makes an expert, which is really more of an art rather a science. It’s the weighted outcome of all of those things together.

7:04 - We’ve had Know Nothing parties in the past. But what’s different about this time is how much it’s driven by narcissism. In previous eras I think you’d find some of this rift was between town and gown, educated and less educated, knowers and lay people - this was driven by class differences, regional differences. What’s striking to me now is it seems to be spread across classes, regions, genders, races, and at the root of it all is this notion that “I’m smart.” I’m smart enough to know that I’m smarter than my doctor.

And this is different than previous eras in American history.

 10:32 - [Students] think of libraries as book warehouses. They don’t think of them as institutions full of professionals there to help them. And what they really don’t understand is that the books that are in a library are there because people who understand books and publishing have made a decision about what books should and should not be there. Whereas younger folks would argue that gatekeepers are just there to get in your way, they represent the establishment, they are part of the ‘publishing-knowledge-complex’ or something and that going on the Internet is a more liberating and freeing thing. That’s like saying that instead of getting your medications from a pharmacy, with a professional pharmacist, you should just walk down the street and talk to any unlicensed herbalist who happens to be sitting around.

 Reference librarians in particular are my heroes.

 17:09 - We’re going to get a very steep pyramid of knowledge. I think we’re seeing it already. We’ll get a small number of people at the top of the information heap who know how things work and how to make things work. And they will be disproportionately rewarded for it because those skills are rare. Beneath that are people are people who haven’t taken the time to figure out how things work, whether it’s technology or diplomacy or public policy or how a road gets paved… the more people who opt out of that, the more and more rewarded a small elite will be for knowing that stuff. And I think that’s already happening, and it leads to a great deal of resentment between laypeople and experts who then become well rewarded elites.

 I tell people that this is not happening because elitists are keeping you down. It’s happening by default. When people say ‘it’s too complicated’ well the people who are involved, who take the time to learn these things, are well rewarded and compensated socially and materially for knowing things.

 19:29 - When I teach classes on the Cold War, I always make my students watch a movie from about 40 years ago called Three Days of the Condor. And an intelligence spook says, “why do we have so much power” and the answer is “because when things go wrong, people are not going to want us to ask their permission. There’s just going to want us to get it for them.” I always found that a really chilling kind of expression of that kind of technocracy. And in the end, for all the complaining about elites and experts, people will expect, that when they turn on their tap, clean water comes out. That when they want to fill up their cars, gasoline comes out. That the Internet works. That the mail gets delivered. That packages can be sent.

 This notion that ‘we’re just going to tear it all down and who needs elites’ - people rely on all this stuff every day. And I worry about experts simply turning to each other and saying ‘probably better not to ask anymore, probably better not to engage the public anymore, let’s just do the things we know need to be done.’ I think that’s far more of a danger, because I think we’re already in that situation, than rule by the mob because populism isn’t sustainable. It tends to be a temper tantrum that comes and goes as we’ve seen in American history. There are no really successful, sustained populist movements. While populism is good for venting anger, it’s really bad for the mail. I worry about both of those outcomes, because both are the separation of experts from lay people, where they simply stop talking to each other about how to create good public policy.

 22:26 - This is why I argue at the end of the book for the need for experts to re-engage the public. Because it’s not fun. It’s not fun to engage with the public because you can’t tell them what they want to hear.

 Dr. Nichols article: “The Death of Expertise” in the Federalist.

 26:58 (On how to work on expertise daily) - Read a newspaper. A reputable national newspaper. And just read it. Start there. I think if people would go back to doing that, it would make us a different country. Find a source you disagree with and read that. Regularly read one newspaper or journal that you don’t agree with.

 31:29 - People no longer have the patience to read a newspaper or to read a book. They want it digested, into searchable chunks. I think that’s killing people’s ability to think.

 32:25 - Experts need to shout back at the mob. Experts need to stake that ground out again. Instead of constantly kowtowing to this populist notion that ‘we all have an opinion’ and ‘we should all be taken seriously’ I think experts need to reassert their expertise. And again, this is not going to be pleasant. This is not going to be fun.

 Experts and academics also need to be better at policing each other about the kind of work we’re doing.

 Everybody’s opinion is not equal.

 41:07 (On Getting Onto Jeopardy): You can’t really study for it. The people that went to the jeopardy test with atlases and encyclopedias, almost all of them failed. The trick to jeopardy is understanding that 90% of the time the answer to the question is buried right there in the clue. And the other is that no matter how good you are, if you can’t master that little buzzer…

 The idea that you need to be smart and study and pore over maps, those people rarely do well on Jeopardy. If people want to know what the experience is like, watch it at home while you’re standing up. A friend of mine give me that advice to prepare.

 Remember, one of the great players, was Frank Spangenberg, a NYC Transit Cop. Being an expert on jeopardy is no help.

 Book Recommendation:

I re-read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis every year.

Sources and Methods #34: Lynne Kelly

Lynne Kelly 101:

Lynne's website

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies

The Memory Code

Lynne on Twitter

33 Memory Experiments

Show notes:

2:20 - Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies was published by Cambridge University Press so it is the academic version of The Memory Code.

3:10 - I was looking at the way indigenous cultures, in particular Australian Aboriginal cultures, record information about animal behavior and I started to realize that they were storing information about a huge number of animals in memory.

8:07 - I listed ten different aspects of these memory systems that indigenous cultures used which would show up in the archaeology and in order to claim that a site such as Stonehenge is in fact a memory palace, I want at least eight, if not the whole ten, of these different aspects as indicators. There has to be public and restricted places. There must be performance spaces because all knowledge is performed in oral cultures because dance, song, and mythology are far more memorable. There must be sequenced sets of locations because that's the way all oral cultures are explored around the world. There are also handheld devices that I found: The African Lukasa, or memory board of the Luba people, the Australian Aboriginal, Churinga, which is an inscribed object that has abstract signs. I found these sort of devices everywhere so I started wanting them in the archeology, as well, and that whole pattern is what is required, not just odd little bits and pieces that I can jump to the conclusion 'Oh that must be memory!'

10:08 - In literate societies, we separate things into separate domains and we like our knowledge to remain separate, but indigenous cultures don't do that, they integrate everything and that's why I had to learn from Aboriginal cultures, and then from Native American, in particular the Pueblo people, but also looking at African and Pacific cultures and how all of these things work in an integrative way. So if you look at Australian Aboriginal songlines, Australian Aboriginal people still move out north and still move around the landscape, moving from sacred location to sacred location and at each of those locations, they would perform a ritual. Now, a ritual is a repeated event and so they would repeat a song or a dance or a story at each location. Some of the research shows that seventy percent of those songs were about practical stuff.

All cultures had the same idea of broad landscape sets of shrines and sacred places where they performed the information.

19:16 - I have yet to have anyone fault the theory. It's been received very well. There are some that are quiet about it, but the book as you will see in the front of The Memory Code is endorsed by big name archaeologists; Rosamund Cleal in England, William Lipe who's endorsed it, he was also one of my examiners, is a big name in America.

23:12 - Oral cultures do not stay static, so they will add new information/adapt all the information, depending on what's happening.

If you look at the artwork of Australia, we've got some of the oldest continuous art tradition and they are constantly touching it up, but also adding things. So right up north which is where the longest art tradition is being mapped, you get the moccasin, the fishing boats from Indonesia, getting added on top of the rock art a couple hundred years ago because they were being added into the story, into the oral tradition, into the knowledge system. So things have changed and updated, but the basic structure isn't.

25:38 - My 33 memory experiments - What I have tried to do is take each of those sorts of those devices and those sorts of information and start trying it myself.

29:47 - Indigenous stories, if you read the originals, do not have a straight linear narrative unless they are translated for Western cultures in which that's added into them.

34:23 - Here we've gone to a lot of group work and projects without this grounded information stored in. Plus, we have little kids singing and dancing and making up stories and then as they get older, they behave insensibly. That's what we're going to be working on the funding for primary and secondary here and we're setting up what's called the Orality Centre in Castlemaine, where we're going to start embedding songlines.

Sources and Methods #26: Alex Mullen


Alex Mullen 101:

Alex’s Website

Alex’s Twitter Feed

Alex's YouTube channel

The Man Who Thinks Like Sherlock Holmes - BBC Profile


Show Notes:

3:14 (On where it all started) I read the techniques (in Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein) and I was hooked enough, and thought I really want to apply these to my learning life. A lot of people try to market these techniques as a way to improve your daily life, and there are some areas where you can use the techniques to learn things like languages. But to be honest, there’s not a whole lot of benefit. In my mind, it’s not like going from no techniques to using them has a whole lot of benefit to your daily life.

4:55 - My main interest is using these techniques for learning. I read the book, started practicing. I read a book by Dominic O’brien and took it forward from there.

8:25 - In terms of learning, it really took me a long time. I started in March 2013, when I was a junior in college, and it wasn’t until towards the end of my senior year that I started to apply the techniques and failed, and gave up on it, but came back to it when med school started, there’s so much stuff to memorize for med school. So it was nearing two years of exposure to the techniques before I felt that I was using them effectively.

11:02 - What you have to do if you want to make the techniques work is make them as simple as possible. Making memory palaces, struggling to convert information into images, it feels like it’s taking extra time.

12:14 - I wouldn’t say my natural memory has improved at all, it’s not like I remember where my car keys are all the time. But I would say my visualization skill has improved. Maybe not even in the sense of visualizing them more clearly, but more comfortable dipping into visualizing something. Being comfortable visualizing, that’s a transferrable skill.

14:03 (On Memorizing a deck of cards) I memorize card pairs and put them into an image. So I have over 1,000 images - random people, objects, characters from TV shows. So what I’m doing is seeing these people and those objects interact in the locus of the memory palace.

19:02 - Review, even if you’re using memory techniques, is pretty essential.

22:15 - One of the most important things is to not try to memorize everything. I think it’s a fairly common trap people run into.

24:00 - I use Anki pretty much for everything.

30:00 - For medical school, it’s all video podcasts for the most part, and what I do is take notes with Anki. And then I keep reviewing everything inside Anki from there on out.

34:40 - (On learning Chinese) I have a very systematic approach to this (in contrast to learning Spanish). The problem for me was that it’s too different from English. The idea, generally, is you take an English word that sounds like the foreign word and that’s your image for that foreign word. The problem with Chinese is you end up having… problems dealing with tonal nuances. The nice thing of Chinese is that since everything is one syllable, there’s a fixed number of ways you can start out a word and a fixed number of ways you can end that syllable. So the way it works is I have a character assigned to each of the starts, and then a place assigned to each of the ending sounds…. That sounds like a very complicated process, and it is, and it’s taken me a decent amount of practice to get fluent at doing that. I don’t know if I would’ve been up for that before doing competitions.

39:06 - One thing doing memory sports has definitely taught me is that a lot of barriers are psychological. It’s akin to Roger Bannister running the four minute mile for the first time, and within a short time, everyone was running four minute miles.

For me, trying to break plateaus has always been about trying to identify the key skill that needs to be improved, that’s holding you back. A lot of the time for me, for really anything system based, the key skill has been going as quickly as possible from information to an image. Realizing that so many things are psychological just changes your perspective.

44:04 - Learning how to learn is not really taught in school at all. That seems like a pretty huge oversight. Just giving kids the knowledge that you can imagine things like a giant sumo breaking down a tree, if that helps you learn, go for it.

48:43 - I think competitive sports is something that helps me. For most of my life, I was doing some kind of competitive sport, mainly swimming and tennis. I think that’s one of the main things that drew me to memory sports - like it or not, it is a sport, you’re training, you’re trying to get better at something, and the attraction of physical sports is still there with memory sports. Break milestones, it feels like a mental challenge you can work towards accomplishing.

50:39 - Every day I spent a few minutes running through a constricted deck of Anki cards for memory sports. That’s a daily training routine. For memory sports, I have a weekly schedule that I try to stick to. Usually it’s not much more than 30 minutes or so. For Spanish, I’m also using Duolingo. I’m also making my way through a Memrise course. Anki practice for medicine and memory sports. Those are my daily things.


Alex Mullen’s Book:

Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

Matt’s Pick:

The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle

Alex Mullen’s Film:


Alex’s Pick:

Harass Alex about learning Kanji

Alex Mullen’s Music:

The Brainfood Playlist on Spotify