Polymaths, freedom of information, and copyright – why we need copyright reform to more effectively increase the number of polymaths

Emil Kirkegaard, board member of Pirate Party Denmark

Introduction

Polymaths are people with a deep knowledge of multiple academic fields, and often various other interests as well, especially artistic, but sometimes even things like tropical exploring. Here I will focus on acquiring deep knowledge about academic fields, and why copyright reform is necessary to increase the number of polymaths in the world.

Learning method
What is the fastest way to learn about some field of study? There are a few methods of learning, 1) listening to speeches/lectures/podcasts and the like, 2) reading, 3) figuring out things oneself. The last method will not work well for any established academic field. It takes too long to work out all the things other people have already worked out, if indeed it can be done at all. Many experiments are not possible to do oneself. But it can work out well for a very recent field, or some field of study that isn’t in development at all, or some field where it is very easy to work it things oneself (gather and analyze data). Using data mining from the internet is a very easy way to find out many things without having to spend money. However, usually it is faster to find someone else who has already done it. But surely programming ability is a very valuable skill to have for polymaths.

For most fields, however, this leaves either listening in some form, or reading. I have recently discussed these at greater length, so I will just summarize my findings here. Reading is by far the best choice. Not only can one read faster than one can listen, the written language is also of greater complexity, which allows for more information acquired per word, hence per time. Listening to live lectures is probably the most common way of learning by listening. It is the standard at universities. Usually these lectures last too long for one to concentrate throughout them, and if one misses something, it is not possible to go back and get it repeated. It is also not possible to skip ahead if one has already learned whatever it is the that speaker is talking about. Listening to recorded (= non-live) speech is better in both of these ways, but it is still much slower than reading. Khan Academy is probably the best way to learn things like math and physics by listening to recorded, short-length lectures. It also has built-in tests with instant feedback, and a helpful community. See also the book Salman Khan recently wrote about it.

If one seriously wants to be a polymath, one will need to learn at speeds much, much faster than the speeds that people usually learn at, even very clever people (≥2 sd above the mean). This means lots, and lots of self-study, self-directed learning, mostly in the form of reading, but not limited to reading. There are probably some things that are faster and easier to learn by having them explained in speech. Having a knowledgeable tutor surely helps in helping one make a good choice of what to read. When I started studying philosophy, I spent hundreds of hours on internet discussions forums, and from them, I acquired quite a few friends who were knowledgeable about philosophy. They helped me choose good books/texts to read to increase the speed of my learning.

Finally, there is one more way of listening that I didn’t mention, it is the one-to-one tutor-based learning. It is very fast compared to regular classroom learning, usually resulting in a 2 standard deviation improvement. But this method is unavailable for almost everybody, and so not worth discussing. Individual tutoring can be written or verbal or some mix, so it doesn’t fall under precisely one category of those mentioned before.

How to start learning about a new field

So, suppose one wants to learn something about a given field of study. Where to begin? Obviously, the best place to begin almost any study is the internet, especially Wikipedia. When one has read the article about the field on Wikipedia, one can then proceed to read the various articles referred in that article, or jump right into some of the sources listed. However, it is better to get ahold of a good textbook and learn from that. After all, textbooks are exactly the kind of book that is written to introduce one to a field of study. It would be very odd indeed if some other kind of book was better at introducing people to a field. That would mean that textbook authors had utterly and completely failed in their mission. I hammer this point through, because for some people, perhaps including some polymath aspirants, this fact is not obvious. Especially with philosophy, people have some strange idea that the best way to begin is reading huge, incomprehensible works (say, Being and Time), or just ‘start from the beginning’ with the pre-Socratics. See my post here. But it applies equally well to other fields. The best way to start learning physics is not to read Newton’s Principia.

Now, since polymaths need to learn a lot, and the preferred method of learning is reading, it follows that they need to read a lot. However, this can be an economic problem: Information is still costly to acquire. Polymaths are often dedicated to learning and spend their entire day learning (I spend >10 hours most days). So this means that having a job is not a viable solution. There isn’t enough time available. Thanks to the internet, there is now a wealth of information freely available. However, not all the information is freely available, and this presents a problem for would-be polymaths and already established polymaths who want to expand to another field of study. One could buy the material oneself, but this can quickly get expensive. One could lend the material from a library, but this requires that one reads paper books, which is not optimal, and also one cannot keep them around for future reference.

Primarily, there are two kinds of written sources that are not completely freely available yet, 1) journal articles, 2) books. Another less important source is newspaper articles.

Journals
Many polymath or stud.polymaths are university students or teachers and thus usually have access to academic journals through their university. However, often the university does not have access to all of the journals, and so if one stumbles upon an interesting paper which happens to be published in some obscure or perhaps defunct journal, it can be hard to find it. One can always try to ask the authors for the paper by email, and this often works, but again, not always. The authors may not want to help, they may be dead, or the email address mentioned out of order. This is clearly unsatisfactory for the polymath, whose curiosity is often insatiable. I know it annoys me very much whenever this happens.

Fortunately, journals are moving in the direction of open access, and the scientific community is increasingly unhappy with the way journals operate or used to operate. Usually researchers want their papers to be read, not hidden away behind a paywall. Even mainstream newspapers are writing about the issue. Countries and universities (Danish) are forcing their researchers to publish in open-access journals, or upload their papers to sites like arXiv or SSRN, where they can be freely downloaded. Internet activist Aaron Swartz also tried to liberate millions of papers recently, but was apparently unfortunately caught in the act. The absurd legal consequences of this act probably contributed to his reason to commit suicide. Still, the situation is improving quickly with respect to getting free access to the information in the journals.

If we legalized non-commercial copying of copyrighted works, then the situation would change almost instantly. Very quickly, companies like Google would make access to all academic papers ever published, at no cost at all to the user. This enormous improvement would of course not only help (stud.)polymaths, it would help anyone wanting to learn more. Most people are not university students or teachers, and so don’t have access to the academic journals. People who are unaffiliated with a university, polymaths or not, stand to win the most with such a change. A huge benefit to society at large.

Books
A lot of good information still exists only in paper book form, and books are prohibitively expensive for a non-wealthy polymath. I don’t consider myself extreme among polymaths, but I read something like >30 nonfiction books a year (reading list). Buying all of these is out of the question – much too expensive. Rare academic books can cost hundreds of dollars to buy in a paper copy. An absurd situation, and extremely unsatisfying for a polymath. It is possible to fight back, however. One can buy books and set them free. Either ebooks, crack the protection and spread them. Or paper books, scan them or have them scanned for you, and then release them.

Of course, a lot of books can be found in ebook versions for free, either legally or not. However, the situation has recently deteriorated due to the copyright industry (in this case, the book publishers) successfully shutting down several of the best illegal ebook downloading sites (specially library.nu was very good). Due to the way torrents work, they are ill-suited to handle the sharing of thousands of different books, although several sites have tried (and shut down again, perhaps due to legal pressure). Still, one can find millions of ebooks torrent, either in huge compilations of books about a given subject (e.g. this one is of interest to polymaths, or this, or this), or books in single torrents. Single book torrents are usually only for famous books. Useful at times, but not satisfactory at all.

To be sure, books that are out of copyright can often be found and downloaded legally at great sites such as Project Gutenberg. Surely, if the copyright duration was released, Gutenberg and other similar projects would immediately start working on making millions of more old books freely available. Getting books from Gutenberg and other sites like it is mostly useful for historical studies, and fields where the dating of the books matter less. E.g. in philosophy, there is still much to learn from reading Hume, or John Stuart Mill. But there isn’t that much to learn in empirical science from reading papers from the 17th century, except out of historical interest.

Google have already scanned millions of books. They are made somewhat available for free via the Google Books service, but copyright law demands (and settlements with the publishing industry) that parts of the books are left out. However, if copyright were changed tomorrow, what would happen is that Google would quickly unblock these parts of the books, making the information therein completely freely available. Google has already collaborated with various large libraries in scanning their books. When it comes to freedom of information, the internet pirates and libraries are on the same team. The internet is the world’s greatest library of culture and information. It will get much better when copyright law changes.

Summary
When copyright law changes, both books and academic papers will be free, and we will enter the true information age. The question is only a matter of time. This will benefit almost everybody, including polymaths. The losers will be the now obsolete middle-men. It will be much easier, especially for poor people and people not affiliated with a university to become polymaths, and of course for others to learn as well. At that time, only time, interest, and abilities will set the limit – not money.

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