06 June 2008

Herbert Simon's Travel Theorem

Anything that can be learned by a normal American adult on a trip to a foreign country (of less than one year’s duration) can be learned more quickly, cheaply, and easily by visiting the San Diego Public Library.

I have always had my doubts about Simon's Travel Theorem, based solely on my travels in the U.S., and now I doubt it even more. There are two categories of knowledge that distinguish what you learn on a visit to a place and what you learn in a book about it.

  1. Those things that cannot be described in a book. This includes sounds and smells. Theoretically, you could capture the sounds in an audio recording, but the second category explains why that might be insufficient. Smells we simply have no way to categorize. The Mediterranean, for example, smells different than the Pacific. How could one possibly understand how it smells differently without actually smelling both? I would also include sights, as pictures are inevitably only a small portion of the whole to be seen, even in one glance.
  2. The Context of Detail. Possibly the detail could be described in a book, but in prose form it would be so overwhelming that noone could really learn it. The myraid of details are what form the context for real understanding, as opposed to rote learning (The Ummayad Mosque is over a thousand years old, blah blah).

There are two caveats that possibly could support Simon's claim. First, he is focusing on the efficiency of learning, a benefit/cost calculation at the margin. Perhaps these extensions of what can be learned in a library simply aren't worth the cost of the travel. But as the Austrian economists would tell us, there is no objective benefit here, only a subjective value. So Simon cannot categorically claim it is inefficient to pay the costs of travel to learn these things. (Of course I am covering only a minority of my cost, thanks to a research grant, so as a Public Choice theorist, I cannot categorically claim that the cost/benefit calculus of this trip is positive--it is for me, given how small a share of the cost I am bearing, but we all know how distorting these subsidies are. Presumably my college "thinks" it is a net positive to pay for my travel learning.)

Second, Simon is explicitly referring to the "normal" American adult. As a college professor, I am possibly excluded from that category. But clearly not in all ways--I am normal when it comes to grocery shopping, car buying, etc. So the burden would be on Simon to demonstrate that I am not normal in travel. Also, I think it might be unfairly denigrating to normal American adults to assume that the sounds, smells, and context would not be a part of their learning.

I am a fan of Simon's work, but when I read his biography it seemed to me that he was insufferably smug about his travel theorem. I took that itself as an indication that it had weaknesses, and couldn't wholly be supported by rational argument.

Finally, I should add a third category, which is somewhat outside his theorem, but nonetheless important, and that is what you find out about yourself in travel, especially to places where you are distinctly out of place. I have noticed that the most interesting and self-confident people I know have all traveled abroad--and that is a value that can't be gained from books.

If Simon's travel theorem has some validity, and I think it has some, it is very limited in scope, to the basic facts that can easily be presented in text or photographic form.


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Anonymous said...

I suppose you could learn certain facts from a book just as well as being there (your mosque example), but absolutely there are many kinds of sensations that can never be learned from a book.

Then there is the human interaction; you can try and learn a language or even a culture from a book - but you will never learn it as fast or as intuitively compared with actually interacting with the locals.

Actually interacting with people can lead to unexpected knowledge too. How do you know how to look something up in a library if you haven't formulated the question?

On the other hand, with the cost of oil rising as fast as it has, the freedom and ease of travel that we have gotten used to in the last 30-40 years may be drawing (at least in the short term) to a close...