LW Melbourne: Report on Public Rationality Lecture

by [anonymous]6 min read17th Aug 20132 comments


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In the past couple of months, Melbourne LW has been working to expand our activities and community, as well generally promoting rationality. A huge shout out goes to BraydenM who is responsible for spearheading these efforts. So far we have opened up some of our meetups to new-comers, held a winter solstice dinner party, held a COZE event, created a Meetup.com group for Melbourne LW, presented at other Meetup.com groups, distributed copies of HPMoR, conducted a rationality-vox pop, and presented a public lecture on LW content

The public lecture was my project, and here is my report.


Initial Planning

In early July, we held a planning session for expanding the community and promoting rationality. Holding public rationality lectures was deemed a possibility worth trying.


Being students in our early twenties, we judged the most receptive market would be our peers. We considered who we should target: (1) High IQ, heavily academic students with technical backgrounds in maths/science/philosophy of the sort who might join LW, or (2) everyone else as well. Having visions of a world where everyone was more rational, I opted for the latter.

I was ambitious at this point and wanted to run a series of six lectures progressing through core sequences content. Wiser heads suggested we run a single, stand-alone lecture to get data. Since I still hoped to run a whole series, the first lecture had to be given at the beginning of new semester (start of August here).



(slides: open in PP to view presenter's notes)

To meet the deadline, I developed the lecture material unaided and without much planning or revision. Speed came at the price of quality. 

The lecture could have focused on either of a) cognitive biases or b) core sequences content such as simple truth, probabilistic reasoning, beliefs paying rent, and evidence.

Reasons in favour of and against:

Cognitive Biases
+ I have a prior that biases would be more appealing and get better attendance

- requires more research to present on

- teaching people about biases can be dangerous

Core LW Material

+ I know the content well, easy to prepare material on

+ provides motivation for overcoming biases

- more abstract, philosophical, and less interesting to most


Overwhelmingly, I decided to focus on core sequence material because of the ability to prepare lecture material quickly without reading/rereading material. It may have been better to relax the deadline and lose the time constraint, but it is also I likely that I would have not completed the project if had taken longer.

Delivering the lecture, I realised that by opting to have a lecture suitable for everyone, I was caught trying to please both groups (1) and (2) above. One demands more depth, complexity, and theoretical justification, and the other needs more basic content explained even slower. It's like trying to teach high school and primary school kids together. 'Obvious in hindsight' and all that.

Assuming we have an option, targeting (1) would be better. They have the ability to understand and appreciate the material, and are more likely to be receptive. Needless to say, we haven't exhausted the pool of high IQ, mathy-sciency people. 

In this lecture I tabooed the word 'rationality'. To the average student at an Australian university it does not mean at all what it means to us (and I don't see why they'd be special). The rationality vox pop we conducted demonstrated this and I'll report soon what we learnt from it, namely, how typical students perceive 'rationality'.



Running an event for students on campus is easy for student clubs. With LW members on club committees, the lecture was hosted by the University of Melbourne Sceptics Society and the Rationalist Association of Monash at their respective campuses. Both clubs provided assistance in promoting and running the events.



We advertised the lecture through the university clubs’ facebook groups, meetup.com, flyers, and posters around campus. The cost of printing the posters was not trivial, but judging from feedback, they did not increase attendance.

Attendance and Reception

I was surprised by the number of people who expressed enthusiasm for the lecture topic, I had assumed belief and evidence seemed like completely mundane and boring topics to most people. Disappointingly, that did not translate into attendance. About 15-20 people attended each of the lectures, including members of the hosting clubs's committees and personal friends. A few friends requested a recording of the lecture.

Feedback was positive. We issued feedback forms at the end of each lecture. On a 1-5 scale of unlikely to likely, the mean response for both attending a similar event and for recommending a similar event to a friend was 4. Comments offered criticisms, recommendations, and thanks.

Conversations with attendees afterwards showed that they had understood and taken on board the idea of probabilistic reasoning. I assign a greater than 50% chance that if nothing else, the explicit idea that belief comes on sliding scale of certainty and gets pushed up and down by evidence will stick with people.


Lessons Learnt

While I never made an explicit estimate of how long this project would take, it exceeded my expectations. Planning fallacy strikes again. I also assumed I would get more assistance than I did. There were no replies to my request for assistance making a poster in either the LW Melbourne or LW global facebook group.


Crucially, I learnt that I should have finalised the content before commencing advertising. Once I'd committed to talking about certain topics I felt constrained to include them. Afterwards the point was made to me that it may have been better to violate the advertising than give a sub-optimal lecture, and in hindsight I'm inclined to agree.

The personal experience gained in presenting a lengthy lecture to a public audience was valuable. Notable lessons were to spread content out over more slides rather than concentrating it, and to generate the exact wording on the spot, rather than rehearsing a script. I relied heavily on a script the first time I gave the lecture (and duly received criticism). For the second I used only the slides as a prompt, resulting in more pauses, but a far more natural presenation. Having tried both extremes, it seems that the classic 'prompts on palm cards' is ideal.



Reviewing the whole process of producing this rationality lecture, I feel rather irrational. I started with a 'what' and not a 'why'. I started off with a plan I wanted to implement and an assumption that this plan was the best way to achieve my goal, rather than with the goal itself. The sequence of bad judgements and decisions followed from there: 

1) conclude without any real reasoning that delivering a lecture series this semester on campus is the best way to promote rationality

2) giving a series of lectures this semester requires starting soon, imposing a short deadline

3) to meet the deadline I have to work fast

4) to work fast, I have to stick to only delivering I content already know very well

5) to work fast there is no time to work with others, get feedback, and/or revise the material.


My decisions were further biased by the fact that that having a reason to work quickly meant I had an excuse to not work with others, to do things all my way, and to avoid the unpleasant experience of receiving criticism and having to alter my work. 

Tsuyoku naritai!

As much as I regret the lack of planning that went into this project, I am glad that I didn't fall into the opposite trap: trying to plan so exhaustively that I never got out there and did something. At some stage (later than I did), we need to satisfice. Despite being imperfect, this lecture had value and did good.

Thankfully, I was directed to Swimmer963’s post. Her approach is the right one, and I plan to discuss the project of increasing the sanity waterline with all others who are keen before taking further action.


RobbBB's suggestion of starting a new website as a hub for HPMoR fans seems seriously worthy of consideration, and I'd be very willing to put time and effort into making it happen awesomely.


2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:39 AM
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Excellent work, Reuven, and good work on identifying the failure modes to avoid for next time.

It is absolutely more important to go out and try something, even at the expense of an imperfect lecture, and it was correct to treat this as an experiment. Because you expect to learn the most from the first event, and you went out planned and delivered three presentations in only 5 weeks, you now have significant evidence and experience which will help make whatever happens next more targeted and likely to succeed.

And in case you were too modest to share the lecture itself, the video recording can be found here: http://youtu.be/RumkLgp3Ug0

This is brilliant, and congrtulations for going out and doing something. I'm also planning to give a rationality themed talk soon, and seeing your slides has been most helpful.