[this is not well edited]
Ok, so I’ve been reflecting on what I’m doing while I’m doing it. Here is one way I make discoveries and generate content. This requires access to to a university network, so you can download paywalled papers via google scholar, scopus, or your favorite literature navigation tool.
First, no easy task, have a thing you’re trying to figure out. Everything I’m describing in this post is iterative. It’s a spiral, with lots of backtracking. You don’t need to know what it is; you’re gesturing at it you’re trying to figure it out, you’re especially trying to nail down the exact thing or collection of things you want.
Nailing down one thing, let alone a collection of things, where you don’t quite know what you’re looking for, or what’s real, or where to look, is really hard. You’re attempting to keep track, in real time, of a shifting collection of mental moves, ideas, expectancies, possibilities, inchoate hypotheses and theories, and so forth. And doing that, in real time, often interacts in challenging ways with the thing you’re trying to figure out in the first place. Often, you’re not even trying to figure out something phenomenologically in the first place, per se. You’re *trying to solve a problem,* e.g. a personal bottleneck or a life situation issue, and you’re exploring a phenomenological route to doing so. That is, the problem you’re trying to solve doesn’t necessarily do much to constrain your theoretical or phenomenological investigation. You just have a faint inkling that this is the route to go, looking around in your head as opposed to (so far) trying to make a specific change in the external world.
Anyway, all the above is hard. So you outsource and iteratively bootstrap. You gesture at a thing, you try to come up with words to describe that thing. They can definitely be “common” words, but you try to figure out what they call it or call similar stuff in the literature. If you’re exploring stuff around goals, you don’t just type “goals” into google. You get the Huffington Post. You don’t even type in semi-technical stuff like “implementation intentions,” because that got into the media, so there’s too much noise (and it’s kind of a misleading, not-that-great construct, anyway, in my opinion). So, instead, you type in “goal pursuit,” “goal disengagement,” “prospective memory,” and so forth. You look for the technical concepts and words researchers are using in their research. It takes time to build up knowledge of the right words to use. Again, this is a spiral, with lots of backtracking.
What you do, is you mix those technical words, that get you in the ballpark, with additional words that try to nail down the actual thing you’re looking for. (I don’t know, say, “intention,” and “phenomenology,” in this example.) These additional words don’t have to be technical; you don’t know the technical words, yet, because this is a new thing you’re investigating.
Additionally, you dream up distinctions. “Choose,” isn’t going to get your anywhere, but, “choose, decision, deliberation, decide, choice,” googled for all at once might get you somewhere. What’s happening here is you’re potentially bringing up philosophy or research where people have realized distinctions are actually important and are actually trying to untangle a phenomenon.
Some stuff comes up, and then you start skimming madly to figure out what the technical terms are. Stuff will usually use common terms with technical terms mixed in, and you’ll start picking up additional language and ideas to search for.
I typically do these searches in google, google scholar, google books, and amazon. I keep track of all potentially useful papers, urls, and searches I’ve made in one long, semi-chronological text document, that’s backed up. Any more structure, and you’re less likely to do it. I build up a bajillion tabs while I’m doing this. And, when my computer runs out of ram is when, I start siphoning stuff off into this text file.
Now, I have some leads, and some papers (and books) that weren’t behind a paywall. Skimming the introductions of the papers, they start indicating additional references and how they fit together. So now, I’m also going through reference lists, looking at titles or keeping in mind the context in which papers were referred to in the introductory citations.
Now, I go into a tool like scopus, where I can go backwards or forwards through the literature. What that means is you can quickly get list of what papers where cited in a paper, and you can quickly get a list of the majority of papers in the future that have cited that paper so far. You can also just look at raw citation counts and sort by that. Sometimes this is an indicator of quality, and sometimes not.
By this point, you are possibly starting to recognize names of scientists and philosophers coming up over and over again in the area that you’re drilling down into. You’ll also recognizing names of researchers who just haven’t been useful, over and over again, even though their stuff seems like it should be useful.
Anyway, now you’re opening up a bajillion tabs, traveling backwards and forwards in time, along many branches. You also might be doing more general searches in scopus using boolean algebra (You do know how to do exact and exclusionary searches in google, right? So useful.) This can be both less and more useful than doing searches in something like google, because the searching is much more literal. This can be very helpful or less useful, depending on how much noise (endless reams of shitty research) is in that field.
In those bajillions of tabs (I’ve set up everything to show as many results as possible on a single page, 100 in google and 200 in scopus). I’m skimming hundreds, at times even thousands of paper titles, expanding the abstracts when it seems useful.
While I’m doing all this, I’m keeping in mind “exactly” what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, rather the cloud of phenomena I’m gesturing at. Otherwise your mind goes numb or your start going down rabbit holes. Stick to your purpose! Though, your purpose will refine and clarify, maybe, as you do this. You keep track of papers, searches, and leads in your text document, so you know where you’ve been and where you’re going. Otherwise, you just get lost.
So, what’s the POINT of all this? One in like 10,000-something researchers will have thought really hard about a particular construct. They’ll have written a really great paper or done a really great experiment to nail a particular phenomenon to the wall. It typically won’t be exactly the construct or concept or pattern-in-reality that you want. But, they’ll have put in hundreds if not thousands of hours into wrestling something from reality. Again, this is a 1-in-10,000 researcher. They *care.* And/or they’re *really smart.* And/or, something. But, they’ve done something, out in the world, with apparatus and/or team and/or single-minded intensity, that you can’t possibly compete with in your armchair. And, you’ve found two or these people, or ten, and, now, their goal wasn’t exactly your goal, but now you’re lossily, fuzzily, thousands upon thousands of hours smarter than you were, than you could possibly otherwise be.
And you get better at this; better at sorting through what’s out there, better at honing in on what you want, better at figuring out who’s just way better than other people in their field, better at discerning who *they* think is really good, and so forth.
And you get better at thinking and reasoning with the sum of human knowledge. There’s so much noise, so much crap. Years ago, I would get lost in endless, seemingly promising stuff, where it seemed reasonable and it all fit together at length. But it wasted hours, days, months, and it never really cashed out. It just wasn’t that good, too boxy, not powerful, just not that theoretically good.
But, all of that noise, it’s shot through with brilliance and gems, material created by people who spent thousands of hours or decades creating it, who cared about getting it right, getting at what’s really, truly going on. One person in 10,000, one person in 20,000. And *you* can get better and better at finding this stuff and making use of it. You can learn to tear apart a paper or a book in literally *seconds* to minutes instead of hours, getting everything you need to leapfrog to what you’re actually after.
You can weave it into your own thought processes and experiments and conjectures and ideas and forays and gesturing and playing and discussing and writing, and, well, stand on the shoulders of giants. Hundreds and thousands of hours in the lab, in the trenches, in the archives—you’ll never recapitulate what they did in full. Sometimes you can bypass it, but, more likely, you’ll need use what they’ve created to do what they did in minutes or hours instead of decades. It’s shocking how hard it is to get to the simplicity on the far side of complexity all by yourself. Once you’ve done it a couple of times, you’ll want to outsource as much as you possibly can; or at least I did. It’s so hard to get something right and then know that you’re right. And then you realize how insanely valuable the literature is, if you can only figure out what’s crap and what is brilliant, gratitude-inducing genius.
At some point in your spiraling, everyone will just be wrong. Or, no one will have done exactly what you’re after in exactly the way you’re after it. And you’ll want to put something together that’s entirely original for your entirely original purpose. And then you’ll have to reason, experiment, and write (and that’ll spark new language and ideas which you’ll inject into the process above). But, eventually you’ll have to reason, experiment, and write *a lot* to keep moving forward. But you’ll keep deftly dipping into the literature, to be able to nail down thirteen reality-patterns in a row, in the span of three weeks, that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to figure out in multiple lifetimes.