The Perils of the Autodiddact [Trenchant Edges]

How to avoid guaranteed failure; Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 41 seconds. Contains 1537 words

Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the newsletter about digging the deep end of the cultural ocean where the giant squids and fish that look like HR Giger designed them live.

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On the Virtues and Vices of Learning For Yourself

I believe in self-directed learning.

It’s the foundation of this newsletter and how I live my life more generally.

When younger, I thought it was how everyone learned. But that’s not really true. I’ve long since realized the value of teachers and the depth of teaching as a skill.

Much of my childhood was distorted around the problems of being a naturally curious and motivated self-directed learner in an education system built from Prussian military training seen through the eyes of robber baron funded industrial production to produce reliable workers.

In short, they’re designed to push people to learn the curriculum when they don’t want to. To at least give everyone a minimum competence.

We can haggle over the historic details of this system, which has layers of reform attempts plastered onto it, but the core is focused on making sure nobody really gets left behind. Even if they don’t want to be dragged along.

That kind of thing has left me somewhat scarred for life around authority and expertise.

Which made unpacking the degree to which my problems with other people’s claims to expertise or authority were my trauma or actual issues tricky.

We’ve talked a bit about the problem of expertise here and there but now we’ve got to go deeper with it.

How do you know someone has expertise? Well, ultimately there’s only one way: You must be at least as expert and check their facts, chain of reasoning, and how well they apply the theories in play.

For most people, you can do that for maybe one or two domains before you run out of time and resources to learn.

A person like me who’s made self-directed learning the priority of their life can pick up familiarity with many domains and expertise in a few.

My main expertise is propaganda. And I’d like to add business, rhetoric, economics, history, and/or journalism to it.

The solo practitioner of any skill that doesn’t have immediate feedback has many challenges but the most dangerous is overestimation. That’s the difference between professionals and cranks. Even contrarian professionals exist in a community of discourse where relative differences in skill and understanding become clearer.

And that lack of community of discourse is the greatest danger to the Autodidact.

All ideas, to be useful, need an edge to sharpen them on. Some edges are built in. Want to become an expert stock trader? Place your bet, see if you win or lose. Check back in 5 or 10 or 50 years to see if you bet well.

Other people are a great edge as well because you can see how their mess of experience and understand take to your thinking.

And this is why the solitary nature of an autodidact’s learning is so dangerous.

Upstream errors in understanding compound. If you learn the basics wrong, all you’ll do is generate more bad thinking long term unless you dig yourself out of it.

One of my favorite articles of all time is Sabine Hossenfelder’s article on what she learned consulting for autodidact physicists. She explains that self-taught physicists have never really learned to think like physicists, but have thrown themselves against the analogies and approximations used by science communicators to attempt to convey roughly what the mathematics and relationships underpinning physics actually means.

In the occult world, we call the kind of training physicists receive at university an initiation. A boundary-crossing you’re lead through by experts in that ritual.

You learn to test your understanding against consensus accepted norms derived from rigorous mathematics and experimentation.

Without such an initiation, a student doesn’t have an edge to work against other than their own imagination and whatever they happen to come across.

Now, an experienced autodidact can find lots of ways to replicate a version of this. Say, googling course reading lists and syllabi and attempting to approximate gathering the knowledge within. Then you bang different ideas together until they make sense.

Doing this may well create the same kind of initiation that physicists (or any other profession) do, but it’s going to be a lot less reliable than just going through formal education. It could also take a lot longer, especially if the autodidact diverges weirdly in an unproductive way.

The upside to this kind of experimentation is you might find insights missed by the professions. This is more common in fields with more ambiguous feedback loops.

I started to really understand this when going through undergrad for psychology. The field of psychology is skewed hard by the need for clinical psychologists to get paid, which means involving insurance agencies. Insurance agencies only want to pay for things they have to, so they adopt models of evaluation from their more established and reliable partner, medicine.

The result of decades of this interaction combined with most early psychologists being medical doctors already has created a field where deviations from the norm in an individual’s Psyche are treated as though they’re diseases.

And, uh, while that’s great for insurers it doesn’t work so well for actually treating mental health.

Now, this view has its own host of problems. Most importantly, it doesn’t immediately imply a counter-theory that would do a better job.

The best alternative I know of is slowly being developed from the neurodivergent movement, where people who’d been previously atomized from a community slowly started comparing notes and realizing they’re all functioning differently in similar ways and making space for that.

Now, not all mental disorders are ADHD or Autism. But, likewise, neither ADHD nor Autism are diseases.

The good news about this is that communities of discourse are usually able to self-correct if structured to and many of the points that drove me away from my goal to become a clinical psychologist are being addressed within the profession.

But the tension between attempts at reform and an Old Guard trying to maintain their current system creates a fertile ground for conspiracies.

“Science Advances One Funeral At A time”

Oh, was this all building to something?

Yeah. So, ideas don’t all catch on instantly. Many take decades or centuries to really develop into their *ahem* final forms.

That leaves a lot of time for people to get bitter and paranoid.

And if you also live in a time with unparalleled access to broadcast technology. Say, for example, some kind of tube for you, and you get something much more toxic.

One of my goals with this newsletter is to provide a gateway away from the kind of toxic contrarianism that leads to sincere paranoid ideation.

Believing the opposite of whatever you distrust is a foolish and naive game and one that can be easily manipulated.

First, this is bad because nobody says the exact opposite of the truth all the time. The sweet spot for mixing truth and lies for believability is somewhere in the 50-70% range.

So you have to actually parse what they’re saying and look for other sources to try and piece together what actually happened.

Second, once you start believing your own paranoid ideation, you’re kinda screwed. All kinds of mental and neurological systems are in place to confirm your existing beliefs and biases. And once you’re looking for evidence for them consistently it’s almost impossible to get out unless something shakes you out of the feedback loop. Which is rare.

This is where the really toxic conspiracism starts.

Confidence in one’s ability to recognize the truth, always dubious, becomes lethal once you’ve started interpreting the world with hostile metaphysics.

After my repeated facebook bannings, it’d be extremely easy to take this as a personal affront against my freedom of speech and start blaming the liberal Marxists who run Facebook for their crimes.

I’ve repeatedly joked about declaring myself a member of the Intellectual Dark Web for having my DANGEROUS IDEAS censored. But almost all of those guys fall into this trap, though they’re not all autodidacts.

But getting slapped because facebook’s algorithms don’t understand nuance or context and FB is trying to avoid regulation by over-censoring isn’t any kind of personal attack.

It’s just a risk of doing business on their platform when what you have to say is directly against their financial interests.

Anyway, I can point to examples of this without end if anyone wants to hear them. Once you recognize someone boxing them into a paranoid worldview it’s easy to spot and prevalent.

What I’d like to see is people being much more resistant to naive paranoia which is currently driving so many awful trends in politics right now.


  1. How do you know what you know?

  2. Hahahaha, tricked you into inventing epistemology.

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