Epistemic spot checks started as a process in which I investigate a few of a book’s claims to see if it is trustworthy before continuing to read it. This had a number of problems, such as emphasizing a trust/don’t trust binary over model building, and emphasizing provability over importance. I’m in the middle of revamping ESCs to become something better. This post is both a ~ESC of a particular book and a reflection on the process of doing ESCs and what I have and should improve(d).

As is my new custom, I took my notes in Roam, a workflowy/wiki hybrid. Roam is so magic that my raw notes are better formatted there than I could ever hope to make them in a linear document like this, so I’m just going to share my conclusions here, and if you’re interested in the process, follow the links to Roam. Notes are formatted as follows:

  • The target source gets its own page
  • On this page I list some details about the book and claims it makes. If the claim is citing another source, I may include a link to the source.
  • If I investigate a claim or have an opinion so strong it doesn’t seem worth verifying (“Parenting is hard”), I’ll mark it with a credence slider. The meaning of each credence will eventually be explained here, although I’m still working out the system.
    • Then I’ll hand-type a number for the credence in a bullet point, because sliders are changeable even by people who otherwise have only read privileges.
  • You can see my notes on the source for a claim by clicking on the source in the claim
  • You may see a number to the side of a claim. That means it’s been cited by another page. It is likely a synthesis page, where I have drawn a conclusion from a variety of sources.

This post’s topic is Unconditional Parenting (Alfie Kohn) (affiliate link), which has the thesis that even positive reinforcement is treating your kid like a dog and hinders their emotional and moral development.

Unconditional Parenting failed its spot check pretty hard. Of three citations I actually researched (as opposed to agreed with without investigation, such as “Parenting is hard”), two barely mentioned the thing they were cited for as an evidence-free aside, and one reported exactly what UP claimed but was too small and subdivided to prove anything. 

Nonetheless, I thought UP might have good ideas kept reading it. One of the things Epistemic Spot Checks were designed to detect was “science washing”- the process of taking the thing you already believe and hunting for things to cite that could plausibly support it to make your process look more rigorous. And they do pretty well at that. The problem is that science washing doesn’t prove an idea is wrong, merely that it hasn’t presented a particular form of proof. It could still be true or useful- in fact when I dug into a series of self-help books, rigor didn’t seem to have any correlation with how useful they were. And with something like child-rearing, where I dismiss almost all studies as “too small, too limited”, saying everything needs rigorous peer-reviewed backing is the same as refusing to learn. So I continued with Unconditional Parenting to absorb its models, with the understanding that I would be evaluating its models for myself.

Unconditional Parenting is a principle based book, and its principles are:

  • It is not enough for you to love your children; they must feel loved unconditionally. 
  • Any punishment or conditionality of rewards endangers that feeling of being loved unconditionally.
  • Children should be respected as autonomous beings.
  • Obedience is often a sign of insecurity.
  • The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.

These seem like plausible principles to me, especially the first and last ones. They are, however, costly principles to implement. And I’m not even talking about things where you absolutely have to override their autonomy like vaccines. I’m talking about when your two children’s autonomies lead them in opposite directions at the beach, or you will lose your job if you don’t keep them on a certain schedule in the morning and their intrinsic desire is to watch the water drip from the faucet for 10 minutes. 

What I would really have liked is for this book to spend less time on its principles and bullshit scientific citations, and more time going through concrete real world examples where multiple principles are competing. Kohn explicitly declines to do this, saying specifics are too hard and scripts embody the rigid, unresponsive parenting he’s railing against, but I think that’s a cop out. Teaching principles in isolation is easy and pointless: the meaningful part is what you do when they’re difficult and in conflict with other things you value.

So overall, Unconditional Parenting:

  • Should be evaluated as one dude’s opinion, not the outcome of a scientific process
  • Is a useful set of opinions that I find plausible and intend to apply with modifications to my potential kids.
  • Failed to do the hard work of demonstrating implementation of its principles.
  • Is a very light read once you ignore all the science-washing.



As always, tremendous thanks to my Patreon patrons for their support.



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6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:11 PM

Note: I found the Roam document much more effortful to read than your usual writeups, causing me to basically bounce off of this review. Not sure what the correct tradeoffs are for you, but I sadly ended up getting much less value out of this spot-check than previous ones because of that.

I usually find the concrete claim-checks most useful, and since I didn't know how to engage with the Roam document, this review was basically you just summarizing a high-level judgement in a domain I am not that interested in, but where I think I would have found a concrete walkthrough of some of the claims and how you think they were wrong quite useful.

Thanks; that is useful to know. I'm going to add a note asking other people if they have the same experience because that will make a big difference to me going forward.

habryka, if you're inclined to invest more time in this: did you have the same experience with https://acesounderglass.com/2019/10/24/epistemic-spot-check-the-fate-of-rome-round-2/ (which I just now realize never went up on LW)? Trying to narrow down if it's the book or the format.

My experience was similar to Habryka's. I followed the "too small and subdivided" link to find more details on what exactly the book claimed about the research and how the research looked to you. I didn't see more details on the page where I landed, and couldn't tell where to navigate from there, so I gave up on that and didn't bother clicking any other links from the article. I think I had a similar experience the last time you relied on Roam links. So I've been getting more out of your epistemic spot checks when they've included the content in the post.

This is very helpful, thank you.

I found it somewhat more useful, but that's mostly because I am more interested in high-level thoughts in that domain. I found the first epistemic spot-check of the fate of rome more useful than the second one, largely due to the format differences, but also found the first one harder to engage with due to the distributions being actually somewhat hard to grapple with, compared to the way you had handled it previously. 

tl;dr - the scientific(-ish) literature on parenting that I have read and my personal experience support some of the core principles of Unconditional Parenting.

"And with something like child-rearing, where I dismiss almost all studies as “too small, too limited”"

While I understand the sentiment, however even the limited studies can provide useful information for filtering out interventsions and techniques that are less likely to provide a positive outcome. Before my first child was born I did a lot of reading on child psychology and on what impact could various different child raising methods have. Everyone has an opinion on child-rearing and there are hundreds of recommendations on what to do and what not to do. So before I decided to write anything on my list of approaches to try when raising a human I asked the following questions:

a) is there a theorethical framework in place on how or why approach X delivers the intended positive outcome? Is there something from psychology, evolutionary biology, brain biochemistry etc that could in theory support the claim that approach X has effect Y on the child.

b) are there studies that find an actual effect? Sure, most studies in this regard are limited but 5 limited studies finding a positive effect means I will rank approach X higher than approach Y that does not have any studies backing it up.

And while I have not heard about this "unconditional parenting" before it seems that my search for best strategies to grow a human have lead to similar core principles (albeit the reasoning might be somewhat different):

  • Conditionality of rewards and punishments is bad.

Toddlers lack a proper understanding of cause and effect. They dont really understand complicated or second order interactions - punishment for jumping on the bed after being told not to is being removed from the bed and not being allowed back for some time. The punishment cannot be loss of dessert or taking away some toys etc, that is just too long of a path to understand. With age you can introduce more complicated chains but even for older children the punishment needs to be as imminent and as related to the negative action as possible.

As for rewards they need to happen before the action that you are trying to buy. "I am going to give you this delicious snack and then you'll let me take your temperature, okay?" It might seem like a very small difference from taking the temperature first and then giving the promised snack but it is an important difference.

In general you want to keep punishments and rewards to a minimum. Otherwise you will experience hyperinflation and the value of punishments and rewards becomes meaningless. However you can establish routines that are always true and so the punishment/reward fuse together with the action. (You can never eat your meals without a bib. Not giving you food is not a punishment for not wearing a bib nor is giving you food not a conditional reward for wearing a bib - wearing a bib and eating is just the same action, just how the world works)

  • Children should be respected as autonomous beings.

Children are autonomous beings, there is no question about that. It is indeed often costly to follow this principle but that is partly due to not taking it into account when making plans. Also you can often hide the fact that you are limiting their autonomy. In your beach example you can make it a game and grab one and chase the other. Also it is important to put yourself in their shoes - how would you react if someone told you "no more Netflix today, you have had enough", why should children react any better to it? Wouldnt it be better if someone told you "stop watching Netflix, let's do this super fun activity instead (and the activity is actually fun)"? Don't ask of children what you don't ask from yourself/other adults - it is often not possible to do but it certainly should be much more common than it usually is.

  • The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.

Absolutely agree. You can start practicing this from a very early age when they first show signs of understanding choice and starting to communicate more clearly (1-1.5 years). Having more control over their own lives is important. This also gives crucial decisionmaking experience and creates a habit of making decisions. You can also use an illusion of choice to get your way which is a win-win for everybody (do you want to wear these pants or these pants? (not leaving the house pantsless is not given as an option). Do you want me to dry you up or mommy? (continuing your 30 minute shower and running up our water bill is not given as option). As they get older you do have to become more subtle in creating an illusion of free will, which is still possible. Just don't go overboard.

The above is not meant as a definitively best approach to raising humans. Just something that I filtered out from all the subject matter that I read and which so far seems to be working perfectly in an ongoing experimental setting. Will update with results in 60-70 years.

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