If you want to be on the cutting edge scientifically, you need to plan on a graduate degree. Find people doing the sort of research you are interested in and ask them for advice. Better yet, try to get a job in their lab. You'll have to get very specialized and the biggest discoveries will probably be using a different approach than whatever approach you're attempting. But hey, that's life, its honorable to give it a shot.

If you're more interested in the business, legal, or public policy, and/or education issues, then the hard science education probably isn't so important.

Bottom line: I suggest you say much more about the careers that interest you.

A Rational Education

by wedrifid 4 min read23rd Jun 2010149 comments


Within the next month I will be enrolling in an(other) undergraduate university course. This being the case I must make a selection of both course and major. While I could make such decisions on impulsive unconscious preference satisfaction and guesswork on what subjects happen to provide the most value I could also take the opportunity to address the decision more rationally and objectively. There are some relevant questions to ask that I know LessWrong readers can help me answer.

  1. Which subjects and courses can make the best contribution to Epistemic Rationality?
  2. Which subjects and courses provide the most Instrumental Rationality benefits?
  3. Given all available information about the universe and what inferences can be drawn about my preferences and abilities what course structure should I choose?
  4. Which course do you just happen to like?

1. Which subjects and courses can make the best contribution to Epistemic Rationality?

I happen to care about Epistemic Rationality for its own sake. Both for me personally and in those whom I encounter. It is Fun! This means that I like both to add new information to my Map and to develop skills that enhance my general ability to build and improve upon that map.

Not all knowledge is created equal. While whole posts could be dedicated to what things are the most important to know. I don't want to learn gigabytes of statistics on sport performances. I prefer, and may be tempted to argue that it is fundamentally better, to learn concepts than facts and in particular concepts that are the most related to fundamental reality. This includes physics and the most applicable types of mathematics (eg. probability theory).

For some types of knowledge that are worth learning university is not a desirable place to learn them. Philosophy is Fun. But the philosophy I would learn at university is too influenced by traditional knowledge and paying rent to impressive figures. The optimal  behavior when studying or researching philosophy is not to Dissolve the Question. It is to convey that the question is deep and contentious, affiliate with one 'side' and do battle within an obsolete and suboptimal way of Carving Reality. My frank opinion is that many philosophers need to spend more time programming, creating simulated realities, or at least doing mathematics before they can hope to make a useful contribution to thought. (I'm voicing a potentially controversial position here that I know some would agree with but for which I am also inviting debate.)

There are some subjects that are better served for improving thinking itself as well as merely learning existing thoughts. I'll list some that spring to mind but I suspect some of them may be red herrings and there are others you may be able to suggest that I just haven't considered.

2. Which subjects and courses provide the most Instrumental Rationality benefits?

Fun is great, so is having accurate maps. But there are practical considerations too. You can't have fun if you starve and fun may not last too long if you are unable to contribute directly or financially to the efforts that ensure the future of humanity. Again there are two considerations:

  • What learning facilitates making Instrumentally Rational choices (either in the abstract or practical sense)? The previously mentioned courses are relevant and subjects like game theory naturally spring to mind.
  • What learning actually facilitates achieving something useful or otherwise fulfilling one's CEV? In many cases this will be entirely different to the subjects I have mentioned.

3. Given all available information about the universe and what inferences can be drawn about my preferences and abilities what course structure should I choose?

This is an invitation to Other-Optimize me. Please give me advice. Remember that giving advice is a signal of high status and as such is often an enjoyable experience to engage in. This is also a rare opportunity - you may be patronizing and I will not even respond in kind or with a curt dismissal. You can even be smug and condescending if that is what it takes for me to extract your insights!

Now, I should note that my decision to do another undergraduate degree is in no way based on a belief that it is just what I need to do to gain success. I already have more than enough education behind me (I have previously studied IT, AI and teaching).

  • My source of income is something that I do independently and is not something that university attendance will unduly interfere with (especially since I can take a laptop to lectures).
  • Working entirely independently does not satisfy the human need to be engaged in cooperative endeavor. In the long term this can interfere with both work performance, provoke Akrasia and diminish satisfaction. I do not particularly like working in an office. Studying (and probably tutoring) is ideal.
  • Doing something that you are really, really good at that also gives social recognition is psychologically beneficial. Sitting exams is a more efficient way for me to satisfy the need for recognition than attempting to win at office politics.
  • "Full Time" study is not at all "full time" for me. It is more like a part time hobby.

(Call bullshit on that if you think I am rationalizing or believe there are better alternatives to give me what you infer from here or elsewhere that I want.)

Now, assuming that I am going to be studying an undergraduate course, which course maximizes the expected benefit?

Something I am considering is a double major Bachelor of Science(pharmacology, mathematical statistics). Recent conversations that I have participated in here give an indication as to my existing interest in pharmacology. I have some plans in mind that would contribute to furthering human knowledge on non-patented pharmaceutical substances. In particular life-extension drugs and nootropics. This is an area that I believe is drastically overlooked, to the extent of being species wide negligence. Consider this to be a significant goal that I want my studying to contribute to.

The most effective contribution I can make there will likely involve leveraging financial resources that I earn elsewhere but I mostly have financial considerations covered. I also want to ensure I know what is going on and know what needs to be done at a detailed level. That means learning pharmacology. But it also means learning statistics of some sort. What statistics should I learn? Should I focus on improving my understanding of Bayesian statistics or should I immerse myself in some more ad-hoc frequentest tools that can be used to look impressive?

4. Which course do you just happen to like?

What other subjects are relevant to the sort of concepts we like discussing here? Perhaps something from sociology or psych? I have breadth subjects I need to fill, which gives me the chance to look at some topics in somewhat more depth than just a post (but sometimes possibly less depth than a whole post sequence!) I'm also rather curious which subjects like-minded people just wish they had a chance to study. If you were trapped in the SGC in a groundhog day time loop which topics would you want to learn?