Transmissionism

TJL #126

Transmissionism is the idea that we absorb knowledge by reading sentences.

Picture the following scene:

Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish GeneThinking, Fast and SlowGuns, Germs, and Steel; etc. Have you ever had a book like this—one you’d read—come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly. Often things go well at first. I’ll feel I can sketch the basic claims, paint the surface; but when someone asks a basic probing question, the edifice instantly collapses. Sometimes it’s a memory issue: I simply can’t recall the relevant details. But just as often, as I grasp about, I’ll realize I had never really understood the idea in question, though I’d certainly thought I understood when I read the book. Indeed, I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment.

We read a big and difficult book, and once we are quizzed on it we actually realize how little we actually know about what we thought we knew. How terrible!

We must engage with the material

It is not enough that we passively consume material. To deeply understand it we must actively engage with it. Then, at some point, we have engaged so much with it that we can do it unconsciously, like typing out all these words or getting dressed in the morning.

When you think about it Transmissionism makes zero sense

Consider this caricature of Transmissionism:

“The author describes an idea in words on the page; the reader reads the words; then the reader understands the idea. When the reader reaches the last page, they’ve finished the book.”

When you really think about it, it starts to make less and less sense by the minute, doesn’t it?

You can’t learn how to ride a bike by reading a book

I don’t think that you can really learn how to ride a bike by reading a book about it. I’d even be willing to put money on this bet. You can read the best books on how bikes work and how physics work but I guarantee you, the moment you step on that bike you will topple over. Would reading one more book help? Probably not.

What would help? Safety wheels, coaching, someone telling you how to adjust and what to do when you don’t really know what to do. What could be our metaphorical training wheels for when we are trying to absorb new information?

Sounds to me more like a fundamental problem of communication anyway…

I have this pristine idea that I want to convey, let’s call that A.

What comes out of my mouth is not A, but A with noise B, in other words, A + B

Now, the person that I’m talking to does not hear A + B but he also has his own views and perception of the world which we can call C, so in total he sees A + B + C while I was trying to convey A.

Taking this even one step further, what are the odds that this person will figure out A tomorrow, or the next week, or the next month?

(From Why Books Don’t work by Andy Matuschak)