High school students and epistemic rationality

by VipulNaik3 min read15th Mar 201413 comments


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In a recent post, I considered the feasibility and desirability of exposing high school students to the ideas of effective altruism. In this post, I consider the value of exposing them to the idea of epistemic rationality. Epistemic rationality refers to rationality in thinking about stuff. This is related to but distinct from instrumental rationality, which is rationality in one's actual decisions and actions in the pursuit of life goals. For more on the distinction, see here, here, and here.

Epistemic rationality is championed at LessWrong and by the organizations affiliated with LessWrong (including CFAR and MIRI). It's also potentially of broader interest than effective altruism, although in my mind, the two idea clusters are closely intertwined.

As with my effective altruism post, I consider two questions:

  1. Are people in high school ready to understand the ideas of epistemic rationality?
  2. Are there benefits from exposing people to epistemic rationality ideas when they are still in high school?

1. Are people in high school ready to understand the ideas of epistemic rationality?

The answer to this question largely depends on what people you're referring to, and what ideas you are referring to. The ideas involved range from the sort that anybody who plans to go to college should be able to understand, to ones that require a good grounding in probability theory, economics, calculus, or other subjects. An abstract understanding of basic cognitive biases, such as correlation versus causation, confirmation bias, the fundamental attribution error, or the illusion of transparency, is at the easy end. Something like the litany of Tarski is probably somewhere in the middle. A proper understanding of conditional probabilities and Bayes' theorem is at the hard end. It's possible to convey such understanding without the technical mathematics, but that arguably requires even more skill on the part of both the teacher and the learner. There's also a significant gap between just having an abstract understanding of a cognitive bias and actually applying it when thinking about specific problems. The factors that predict whether a person will actually apply their epistemic rationality to specific situations is unclear. In particular, it's not necessarily true that more intelligent people will apply their abstractly acquired rationality to thinking about problems, at least once the basic intelligence threshold needed to understand the bias is crossed.

As I mentioned in my post What we learned about Less Wrong from Cognito Mentoring advising, there seem to be more quite a few high school students lurking around the site. Of the ones who corresponded with Cognito Mentoring, many wrote emails of fairly high quality, demonstrating fairly good epistemic rationality skills in their analysis of t heir own lives and the world at large. This is some evidence in favor of high school students being capable of mastering the basics of epistemic rationality.

High school students are also entering a phase of their lives where they have to start being instrumentally rational with respect to long-term goals. They may not yet have fully formed their habits of instrumental rationality. Thus, at least some of them may be attracted to epistemic rationality with the explicit goal of trying to become more instrumentally rational. My guess is that people in high school are somewhat more likely to view epistemic rationality as a tool to actually making better life decisions (instrumental rationality) than those first exposed to epistemic rationality ideas as adults. The latter are already somewhat locked in to choices that they may not wish to question, and may be more reluctant to start down a path that would make them question their past choices.

As with effective altruism, one challenge is to package epistemic rationality attractively to people. Including rationality in school curricula is one approach. Rationalist fiction such as Eliezer Yudkowsky's Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is another approach.

2. Are there benefits from exposing people to epistemic rationality ideas when they are still in high school?

I'll assume here (without justification) that some basic knowledge of epistemic rationality ideas is helpful in personal decision-making and academic study. There is debate about the level to which this is true, much of which can be found on LessWrong (for starters, see here, here, here, here, and here).

As mentioned above, high school students are just starting to explore questions about making long-term choices. They don't have ingrained habits on that front. Therefore, they may be more willing to shape their instrumental rationality using what they learn in epistemic rationality. To be concrete, they may be willing to apply the lessons they learn from epistemic rationality to choices related to college, careers, subjects to study and major in, extracurricular activities, etc.

On the other hand, it could be argued that high school students are too young and inexperienced to truly benefit from epistemic rationality. They haven't been sobered by real-world experience enough to start taking their decision-making seriously. On this view, adults who have been burned by bad decisions in the past, or who have seen others being burned that way, are more likely to use all the tools at their disposal (including lessons from epistemic rationality) to make good decisions.

While there is some truth to both views, I'm personally inclined to give more weight to the former. Further, even to the extent that the latter is true, knowing the ideas in advance seems benign. Perhaps people start applying rationality only when they are older and more experienced. But knowing the ideas while still in high school might allow them to apply the ideas as soon as they become applicable (later in life) rather than having to hunt around for them at that later stage.

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Talking with some high school students would be a good way to test this hypothesis. Do you know of any high schools near you that have an atheist or skeptic club? An organization like that might be a useful way to get into a high school in the first place, since it wouldn't be during school hours, and there's less risk of getting in trouble with the school for offending people if it's an atheist club anyway. (I imagine religion would be the biggest point of contention, if you were coming as a guest speaker and trying to teach ideas from this site. It could probably be avoided if necessary, though.)

If you can't find actual high school students to talk to, attending meetings of a student club at a community college, or a university that's not very exclusive, might be the next best thing. I imagine it would be easier to find a contact person for a college club than a high school one, since they post more information online, and some allow non-students to be regular members. Coming in September would make it easier to tell who the freshmen are (since they're the closest to high schoolers).

For either type of school, I'd imagine you'd probably be coming as a guest speaker if you wanted to see how attempting to teach rationality works, or observing discussions where biases tend to come into play if you want to see how much they already know (which you could still do as a guest speaker, you'd just have to be leading the discussion).

Have you seen polymathwanabe's posts about his (Muggle Studies class)[http://lesswrong.com/lw/jr3/how_to_teach_to_magical_thinkers/]? I don't know how old the "students" are, but I know a lot of high schoolers are still into Harry Potter. This is at least a case of trying to teach rationality to the general public, and he seems to be having a hard time.

I actually wonder if teenagers take ideas, or at least some ideas, more seriously than they would as adults. They're not good at updating on new evidence, because they don't know that they need to. But, they might be more likely to devote a lot of energy and resources to things that seem important to them at the time, because your current problems and ambitions seem more important when you don't have as much to compare them to. Being under the control of parents, and having more fear of social stigma than adults, could prevent them from actually doing anything all that drastic most of the time. (This idea is mostly coming from my own experience of starting to take ideas seriously in the middle of high school, though.)

Thanks, there are helpful ideas and give some useful leads. I'll explore them more and get back to you.

It's also important to note that K-12 education tends to infantilize people in general (and restrain their imagination of what's possible and what isn't). Many (though not all) 16-18 year old homeschooled students can have incredible levels of maturity and self-awareness.