on intellectual rabbit holes and little back-alleys

Gwern writes:

My Mistakes: Mu:

It’s worth noting that the IQ wars are a rabbit hole you can easily dive down. The literature is vast, spans all sorts of groups, all sorts of designs, from test validities to sampling to statistical regression vs causal inference to forms of bias; every point is hotly debated, the ways in which studies can be validly critiqued are an education in how to read papers and look for how they are weak or make jumps or some of the data just looks wrong, and you’ll learn every technical requirement and premise and methodological limitation because the opponents of that particular result will be sure to bring them up if it’ll at all help their case.

In this respect, it’s a lot like the feuds in biblical criticism over issues like whether Jesus existed, or the long philosophical debate over the existence of God. There too is an incredible amount of material to cover, by some really smart people (what did geeks do before science and modernity? well, for the most part, they seem to have done theology; consider how much time and effort Isaac Newton reportedly spent on alchemy and his own Biblical studies, or the sheer brainpower that must’ve been spent over the centuries in rabbinical studies). You could learn a lot about the ancient world or the incredibly complex chain of transmission of the Bible’s constituents in their endless varieties and how they are put together into a single canonical modern text, or the other countless issues of textual criticism. An awful lot, indeed. One could, and people as smart or smarter than you have, lose one’s life in exploring little back-alleys and details..

Indeed, one could. And to do so would seem foolish if one saw one’s investigation merely as an isolated, individual project. However, what is is interrelated — so it seems. And so knowledge must be interrelated. Therefore, no grasping at the truth, no seeking to know what is, is without worth. From such attempts, made by oneself or by others, there is always something to be learned — if only that this type of investigation is not illuminating, perhaps because it is predicated on a poor model of the world, perhaps because the tools needed for the investigation, conceptual or otherwise, have yet to be developed.

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