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Rationalism for New EAs

by Zach Stein-Perlman1 min read18th Oct 20214 comments

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I organize a college EA group. As has become common for college EA groups, we run an "introductory fellowship" to introduce people to EA. This year, I'm making changes from the standard syllabus; among other changes, I want to add 1–2 hours of reading and 1 hour of discussion (and a few hours of optional-reading-if-you-want-more) on rationalism. What readings should I include? That is, what rationalist content would be most interesting and valuable to undergraduates who are interested in EA and have no experience with rationalism — and what content would make the potential aspiring rationalists among them realize that they want to learn more?

I have ideas, but I'll share them later, I think. I'm not very confident that this is a good idea, but I think it's at least a worthwhile experiment.

Recommendations for rationalist content directly relevant to EA are good too, but I'm really asking for rationalism content in its own right. I already use some miscellaneous rationalism(-ish) content because it's excellent for EA:

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I think a good option would be to do something like a reading group on Scout Mindset as that's distilled in a way that teaches a generalizable core rationality skill that is especially relevant to EA (e.g. bias in arguments about cause evaluation, for example).

My hot take is that you might want to be careful about how much of Less Wrong you throw at people right away. Less Wrong is a very particular place with a particular culture, and not everyone meshes with it at first or ever, so since this is meant to be introductory you might do well to start with stuff explicitly designed for a general audience that's more accessible and has a less unique culture you also have to learn about.

Note that I'm not saying there's anything wrong with LW's culture, but it also seems to be a fact that it's weird in a way that repulses a decent number of people, so it might be best to frame things such that direct interaction with LW comes later after you establish some credibility for core rationality insights via sources that people can interact with without visiting LW.

Interesting.

My hot take is that you might want to be careful about how much of Less Wrong you throw at people right away.

I hadn't thought about it this way before and don't have a great model of how new people might respond to LW. Would the same apply to SSC, or is Scott Alexander less "weird in a way that repulses a decent number of people"? (I'll strongly consider putting more emphasis on Scout Mindset-ish stuff regardless, and would appreciate suggestions for more readings "that teach[] a generalizable core rationality skill.")

5G Gordon Worley III3moI think SSC is less off putting for a wider audience because it's less weird. It still repulses its fair share of folks, but in my estimation there's less false negatives there: the people repulsed are the people least likely to click with rationalist ideas, whereas I know folks who are fans of SSC who bounce off LW for cultural reasons that have nothing to do with the core ideas.

It's more than 2 hours of reading, but Steven Pinker's Rationality has been an awful pleasant and thorough read for me, especially in a, "Yeah but how do we make all this stuff work for taking care of humans?" context. As the book review on here said recently, there's nothing you haven't already seen if you're on LessWrong, but it covers everything important in his signature charming style.