High school students and effective altruism

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Less Wrong. Tangentially related information wiki page: effective altruism learning resources.

The cluster of ideas underlying effective altruism is an important part of my worldview, and I believe it would be valuable for many people to be broadly familiar with these ideas. As I mentioned in an earlier LessWrong post, I was pleasantly surprised that many advisees for Cognito Mentoring (including some who are still in high school) were familiar with and interested in effective altruism. Further, our page on effective altruism learning resources has been one of our more viewed pages in recent times, with people spending about eight minutes on average on the page according to Google Analytics.

In this post, I consider the two questions:

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

1. Are people in high school ready to understand the ideas of effective altruism?

I think that the typical LessWrong reader would have been able to grasp key ideas of effective altruism (such as room for more funding and earning to give) back in ninth or tenth grade from the existing standard expositions. Roughly, I expect that people who are 2 or more standard deviations above the mean in IQ can understand the ideas when they begin high school, and those who are 1.5 standard deviations above the mean in IQ can understand the ideas by the time they end high school. Certainly, some aspects of the discussion, such as the one charity argument, benefit from knowledge of calculus. Both the one charity argument and the closely related concept of room for more funding are linked with the idea of marginalism in economics. But it’s not a dealbreaker: people can understand the argument better with calculus or economics, but they can understand it reasonably well even without. And it might also work in reverse: seeing these applications before studying the formal mathematics or economics may make people more interested in mastering the mathematics or economics.

Of course, just because people can understand effective altruist ideas if they really want to, doesn’t mean they will do so. It may be necessary to simplify the explanations and improve the exposition so as to make it more attractive to younger people. An alternative route would be to sneak the explanations into things young people are already engaging with. This could be an academic curriculum or a story. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is arguably an example of the latter, though it is focused more on rationality than on effective altruism.

However, I’m highly uncertain of my guesstimates, partly because I’m not very actively in touch with a representative cross-section of typical, or even of intellectually gifted, high school students. The subset of people I know is generally mediated by several levels of selection bias. I’m therefore quite eager to hear thoughts, particularly from people who are themselves high school students or have tried to discuss effective altruist ideas with high school students.

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

Effective altruism as it was originally conceived has been highly focused on the question of where to donate money for the most impact (this is the focus of organizations such as GiveWell and Giving What We Can). This makes it of less direct relevance to people still in high school, because they don’t have much disposable income. But there are arguably other benefits. Some examples:

  • In recent times, there has been more discussion in the effective altruist community about smart career choice. This seems to have begun with discussion of earning to give80,000 Hours has played an important role in shaping the conversation on altruistic career choice. Since people start thinking about careers while in high school, effective altruism is potentially relevant. (This page compiles some links to discussions of altruistic career choice — we’ll be adding more to that as we learn more).
  • Lifestyle choices and habits can have an effect on the world both directly (for instance, being vegetarian, or recycling) and indirectly (good habits promote better earning or higher savings that can then be redirected to altruistic causes, or people can become more productive and generate more social value through their jobs). For the lifestyle choices that have a direct effect, it’s never too early to start.  For instance, if being vegetarian is the right thing, one might as well switch as a teenager. For the indirect effects, starting earlier gives one more lead time to develop skills and habits. If frugal living habits and greater stamina at work promote earning to give, then these habits may be better to set while still a teenager than when one is 25. The Effective Altruists Facebook page includes discussions of many questions of this sort in addition to discussions about where to donate.
  • A number of people in high school and college are attracted to activities that ostensibly generate social value. Learning effective altruist ideas may make students more skeptical of many such activities and approach the decision of whether to participate in them more critically. For instance, a stalwart of effective altruism may not see much point (from the social value perspective) in going on a school-sponsored trip to lay bricks for a schoolhouse in Africa. The person may still engage in it as a fun activity, but will not have illusions about it being an activity of high social value. Similarly, people may be more skeptical of the social value of activities that involve volunteering in one’s community for tasks where they are easily replaceable by others.
  • The effective altruist movement could itself benefit from a greater diversity of people contributing and participating. High school students may have insights that adults overlook.

Did I miss other points? Counterpoints? Do you have relevant experience that can shed light on the discussion? I’m eager to hear thoughts.

Some ideas in the post were based on discussion with my Cognito Mentoring collaborator Jonah Sinick.

UPDATE: The post provoked some discussion in a thread on the Effective Altruists Facebook group.

What attracts people to learning things that they consider neither interesting nor important?

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Less Wrong. Related information wiki page: managing your time.

A priori, it seems to me that one should engage in activities only if they satisfy at least one of these two conditions:

  • They are interesting: People receive direct hedonic value in the process of doing them.
  • They are important: People acquire relevant knowledge and skills that help them with other activities (some of that help could be through signaling).

But investigation we did in connection with our research at Cognito Mentoring led my collaborator Jonah and me to notice that a fair number of people seem attracted to learning things for the sake of learning, although they neither have an internal belief that learning the subject is important, nor a deep interest in learning that specific topic. Some of them then get frustrated that they’re unable to make progress on their self-set learning goals, and this may harm their self-esteem (and put them off learning more important things later). Others may experience success that encourages them to learn more things, some of which may be interesting or important. Our page on managing your time generally advises against participating in and focusing on such activities, or at minimum critically considering whether the activities are sufficiently important to justify engaging in them even if one doesn’t find them interesting.

However, Jonah and I may be missing important perspectives. I’ve heard claims that engaging in activities that are neither interesting nor important has intrinsic value — it helps build character, makes one grow as a person, or it just might turn out to be important.

This school of thinking is reflected in diverse quarters. Tiger Mom Amy Chua famously forced her daughters to learn musical instruments to build their character, even though at least one of her daughters found it a terrible experience, and there was no reason to believe that the activity itself is important. The belief that one should try and learn new things is also widespread (albeit in a very different sort of way) in the rationalistic self-help community.

What’s going on? Some possible explanations:

  1. A mentality of trying and learning new things, including things that seem neither interesting nor important prima facie, might be crucial for learning new life habits and productivity hacks (see here and here for analysis by Dan Keys of CFAR that provides evidence in favor of this view).
  2. Some people are very high in the openness to experience dimension. The very fact of trying out new things generates value for them, even if the activities do not interest them much at the object level.
  3. Some of the “learning new things” is done in a social context, and the value is derived from the social context rather than the activity itself. However, the learning activity provides better structure to the social context.
  4. Some people who don’t have specific long-term goals don’t have a huge number of important things to do — at any rate, not enough to fill up all their time.
  5. Some people are motivated more by a sense of short-term accomplishment at things that look hard than by the hedonic value of doing things in real time, so they gravitate towards activities that can best indicate short-term accomplishment to themselves or others.

What do you think?

“Children’s stuff” gets less independent reviews and coverage relative to its userbase size

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Quora

As part of research that my collaborator Jonah Sinick and I have been doing for Cognito Mentoring, we’ve repeatedly noticed that products aimed at children rarely get high-quality independent reviews. This isn’t just bad in and of itself; it also means that these products can’t get Wikipedia pages of their own because they don’t pass Wikipedia’s notability test.
Why might that be? Possible explanations:

  • The children who use the products themselves aren’t old enough or mature enough to write first-person reviews.
  • Publications are targeted at adults, so children’s stuff isn’t that interesting to them.
  • Any other explanations?

Here are some of the resources we looked at (many are listed on our Online mathematics learning resources page; others are listed elsewhere on Cognito)

It’s also noteworthy that almost none of the best books aimed at young people have Wikipedia pages, although it’s common for Wikipedia to have pages on books aimed at adults. For instance, Arthur Engel’s Problem-Solving Strategies is a widely used book for contest mathematics, but neither the book nor the author makes it to Wikipedia.
Even resources that do receive some press coverage generally receive very little. For instance, the Wikipedia page about College Confidential scarcely does justice to College Confidential’s stature as a go-to resource for information about college admissions.

What attracts smart and curious young people to physics? Should this be encouraged?

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Less Wrong. Tangentially related content on the information wiki: physics learning benefits and mathematics learning benefits.

Many of the high school students who sought advice from Cognito Mentoring were interested in mathematics, computer science, and physics. This both makes sense and is valuable. Mathematics has many benefits: it underpins a lot of quantitative analysis, and helps us understand the world. Computer science is also quite important for obvious reasons: programming in particular is directly and indirectly useful, and a deeper understanding of algorithms and the theory of computation can help with algorithms.

Physics, however, is a little different. There are some benefits of learning physics. In particular, classical mechanics is often people’s first exposure to using mathematical structure in a nontrivial way to understand and model situations pertaining to the real world. Nonetheless, unlike mathematics or computer science, the benefits of physics for people who are not in science or engineering careers are fairly low. I find myself using high school-level mathematical intuition on a regular basis (for instance, understanding the growth trajectories of various things, or interpreting graphs), and I find myself using basic programming-like intuition quite often. But I rarely find myself using my physics intuition in the real world. Moreover, I think physics quickly hits diminishing returns in terms of teaching people about mathematical modeling: I’d say that the returns from physics beyond classical mechanics, DC circuits, and basic thermodynamics are near-zero. For instance, I’d say it’s more beneficial to learn microeconomics rather than electromagnetism, even though the latter is often considered more prestigious by smart people. Similarly, I think that behavioral economics is more valuable than quantum mechanics.

It’s also not clear that learning physics beyond the basics suggested above (classical mechanics, thermodynamics, DC circuits) passes a cost-benefit analysis for people in the vast majority of science-based and engineering-based careers. Even the extent to which they crucially rely on these basics is questionable, given that most people don’t learn the basics well and still manage to go on to do decent jobs. I’d like to hear any opinions on this. On a related note, I recently asked on Quora the question In what ways is knowledge of Newtonian classical mechanics helpful to people pursuing biomedical research? and there were a few interesting answers.

So my question: what attracts smart and curious young people to physics? Are the smartest people too attracted by physics, relative to its real-world applicability? Does the intellectual stimulation provided by physics justify the attraction? Is there some sort of mood affiliation going on here, where the smartest people are pulled to physics to distinguish themselves from the crowd, insofar as physics is more difficult and repels the crowd? To the extent that people overvalue physics, does it make sense to push them at the margin away from physics and in the direction of computer science or economics or some other subject? Or should their interest in physics be encouraged?

Thoughts on your personal experience, as well as thoughts on the general points about the usefulness and attractiveness of learning physics, would be appreciated.

PS: In a video, Eric Mazur describes research related to the Force Concept Inventory: people often learn how to solve complicated mechanics problems by pattern-matching but fail to demonstrate clear understanding of Newton’s Third Law. Similarly, people can predict potential differences and current flows in complicated circuits using Kirchhoff’s laws, yet fail to predict that if you short a circuit, all the current will flow through the short. (The latter failure of prediction occurred in an end-of-course examination co-taught by Mazur to Harvard University first-year students, many of whom were planning to go on to medical school.

PS2: My collaborator Jonah Sinick’s Quora post (no login needed to view) titled Is math privileged for gifted children is somewhat related.

Rely on self-learning, not school

By Jonah Sinick
I learned most of what I know on my own, outside of school. This is also true of the most intellectually impressive people who I know.School is rarely well optimized for learning, especially for gifted people. This is what one should expect:

  • The curriculum is a hodge-podge of subjects grouped together by historical accident, that wasn’t developed with a view toward teaching the most useful skills.
  • The materials used in public schools are often determined by fashion (c.f. the “ “math wars”) by political figures who are motivated by ideological agendas and ignore evidence that contradicts their views.
  • Public schools narrowly optimize for improving standardized test scores (to the exclusion of learning) because their reputations and funding are dependent on getting good scores.
  • Public schools’ teacher’s unions prevent poor teachers from being fired.
  • Teaching is a relatively low status job that doesn’t attract many intellectually talented people. (This is true both at public schools and at private schools.)
  • Gifted children are a small minority and not a major focus of schools.

These are things that are immutable, so prospects for substantially improving your child’s education through advocacy aren’t great.

When you learn on your own, you have the freedom to learn

  • The most important subjects
  • From the best materials
  • At your own pace

For gifted children who don’t have unusually good teachers and are self-motivated, school can’t compete with this. There are prospects for dramatically improving education for gifted children – they just don’t come from school.

The magnitude of the benefits hinge on finding the most important subjects to learn and the best resources to learn from. It’s not obvious what these are. Cognito Mentoring has been researching these things (which is one reason why I compiled a list of links to math resource forum threads) for example).

What do you think? Have I missed important points?

Is math privileged for gifted children?

By Jonah Sinick

Cross-posted from the Davidson Institute Gifted Issues Discussion Forum and Quora

In Underconfidence in gifted girls I suggested psychology, philosophy, economics and evolutionary biology as candidate subjects for gifted children to learn. I’d add history of science. Thomas Percy wrote:

As a practicing researcher in one of the areas you mentioned in point a, I actually don’t think a child should focus too much in them. I think social science is still relatively subjective and requires experience even a PG child would not necessarily have an easier time acquiring beyond their age. Time is better spent in mastering a more foundational subject. Math and etymology are both fine use of time.I think that learning math is very important for gifted children, as I argued in Gifted children could learn math much earlier. See also Cognito Mentoring’s page on mathematics learning benefits.I’d like to address the question of whether gifted children don’t have enough life experience to be ready for the other subjects that I mention, relative to their readiness for math. I’ve worked primarily with gifted young people of ages 10 and higher, so my remarks are primarily of relevance to that age group, though they may be relevant to exceptionally gifted children who are younger than that as well.

  • Study of Exceptional Talent has found that many more children qualify based on the math section of the SAT than on the verbal section of the SAT. This suggests that gifted children can, on average, excel more in math than in subjects that require verbal reasoning. (On a recent thread it was suggested that the modern SAT’s verbal section isn’t a good measure of verbal reasoning, but many more people qualified for Study of Exceptional Talent before 1995 as well.) It’s been hypothesized that this is because high performance in math can come either from strong verbal reasoning or from strong abstract pattern recognition (of the type that the Raven’s matrices test measures).
  • The case for learning the other subjects that I mention is stronger for verbally gifted children than for gifted children whose strengths are nonverbal.
  • Because math is a subject that’s taught in K-8 school whereas the other subjects that I mentioned aren’t, one would expect gifted children to learn more math independently of whether they’re more developmentally ready for it. It can be argued that the reason that math is taught in schools when the other subjects aren’t is because children are more developmentally ready for math. But there are other possible explanations for this, such as the practical importance of arithmetic. In any case, one would have causality in both directions even if it were true.
  • Similarly, the fact that there are more math enrichment activities (largely in the form of contests) available for gifted children makes them more likely to excel in math than in the other subjects. My understanding is that math contest culture originated at least in part from the Cold War, when the Soviet Union worked to train children in preparation for quantitative occupations in research and development to feed into the Soviet Union’s military power.
  • It may be that life experience enables one to understand economics more deeply. But it’s equally true that learning economics early could prepare one to learn more from one’s early life experiences, on account of seeing relevant economic concepts in them.
  • I think that for children, improving reading and writing skills is more important than learning the subjects that I mentioned. But one can pick up reading and writing skills through them.

Nontechnical, nonfiction books aimed at adults that have few prerequisites such as:

may be well-suited to gifted children with broad curiosity who are reading at the adult level.

Quora as a great but underused resource for high school students

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Quora

I love Quora: there’s a large amount of valuable content there. High school students, who are just getting onto the Internet and beginning to explore the world of ideas, can learn a lot from Quora. But, despite Quora’s continued growth, many of the people who contacted us at Cognito Mentoring for advice simply hadn’t actively considered joining or using Quora for information. A few of them got more interested in Quora after we pointed them to Quora questions and answers relevant to their specific questions, and they then went on to explore the site to discover more. But it needed prompting from us before they decided to give Quora a try.

On a related note, we’ve got very few people visiting the Cognito Mentoring website through Quora, suggesting that people in high school and early college (who form the bulk of our advisees) aren’t using Quora as much as they can.

In addition to being a great place to learn stuff, I (as well as my collaborator Jonah) also think Quora can be an excellent place for people to start practicing the art of written communication and online interaction in low-stakes but still real-world contexts (as opposed to doing school homework). Even though I had extensive writing experience before joining Quora, I’ve learned about writing and interaction through my Quora participation. The gains for high school students just starting out in the world could be much greater.

In the Less Wrong post What we learned about Less Wrong from Cognito Mentoring advising, I noted that Cognito Mentoring got most of its advisees through Less Wrong, and many of them hadn’t used Quora. Some people in the Less Wrong comments suggested that the requirement on Quora that people sign up before they can fully explore the site is a major barrier to people, particularly young people, joining the site. What do you think? Are there ways of making people in high school more aware of Quora? Helping them overcome the laziness or reluctance to sign up in order to browse the site? Suggestions are welcome.

Academia as a career option, its social value, and alternatives

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Less Wrong. Related to the information wiki pages academia as a career optionsocial value of academia, and alternatives to academia.

Many of the high school and college students who contacted us at Cognito Mentoring were looking for advice were considering going into academia. The main draw to them was the desire to learn specific subjects and explore ideas in greater depth. As a result, we’ve been investigating academia as a career option and also considering what alternatives there may be to academia that fulfill the same needs but provide better pay and/or generate more social value. The love of ideas and epistemic exploration is shared by many of the people at Less Wrong, including those who are not in academia. So I’m hoping that people will share their own perspectives in the comments. That’ll help us as well as the many LessWrong lurkers interested in academia.

I’m eager to hear about what considerations you used when weighing academia against other career options, and how you came to your decision. Incidentally, there are a number of great answers to the Quora question Why did you leave academia?, but there’s probably many thoughts people have here that aren’t reflected in the Quora answers. I’ve also written up a detailed review of academia as a career option on the info wiki for Cognito Mentoring here (long read), and I’d also love feedback on the validity of the points I make there.

Many of our advisees as well as the LessWrong readership at large are interested in choosing careers based on the social value generated by these careers. (This is evidenced in the strong connection between the LessWrong and effective altruism communities). What are your thoughts on that front? Jonah and I have collaboratively written a page on the social value of academia. Our key point is that research academia is higher value than alternative careers only in cases where either the person has a chance of making big breakthroughs in the area, or if the area of research itself is high-value. Examples of the latter may include machine learning (we’re just starting on investigating this) and (arguably) biomedical research (we’ve collected some links on this, but haven’t investigated this in depth).

For those who are or were attracted to academia, what other career options did you consider? If you decided not to join, or chose to quit, academia, what alternative career are you now pursuing? We’ve identified a few possibilities at ouralternatives to academia page, but we’re largely shooting in the dark here. Based on anecdotal evidence from people working in venture capital, it seems like venture capital is a great place for polymath-types who are interested in researching a wide range of subjects shallowly, so it’s ideal for people who like shallow intellectual exploration rather than sticking to a single subject for an inordinate amount of time. But there are very few jobs in venture capital. On paper, jobs at consulting firms should be similar to venture capital in requiring a lot of shallow research. But we don’t have an inside view of consulting jobs — are they a good venue for intellectually curious people? Are there other job categories we missed?

All thoughts are greatly appreciated!

How my math skills improved dramatically

By Jonah Sinick

Cross-posted from Less Wrong and from the Davidson Institute Gifted Issues Forum

When I was a freshman in high school, I was a mediocre math student: I earned a D in second semester geometry and had to repeat the course. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was one of the strongest few math students in my class of ~600 students at an academic magnet high school. I went on to earn a PhD in math. Most people wouldn’t have guessed that I could have improved so much, and the shift that occurred was very surreal to me. It’s all the more striking in that the bulk of the shift occurred in a single year. I thought I’d share what strategies facilitated the change.

I became motivated to learn more

I took a course in chemistry my sophomore year, and loved it so much that I thought that I would pursue a career in the physical sciences. I knew that understanding math is essential for a career in the physical sciences, and so I became determined to learn it well. I immersed myself in math: At the start of my junior year I started learning calculus on my own. I didn’t have the “official” prerequisites for calculus, for example, I didn’t know trigonometry. But I didn’t need to learn trigonometry to get started: I just skipped over the parts of calculus books involving trigonometric functions. Because I was behind a semester, I didn’t have the “official” prerequisite for analytic geometry during my junior year, but I gained permission to sit in on a course (not for official academic credit) while taking trigonometry at the same time. I also took a course in honors physics that used a lot of algebra, and gave some hints of the relationship between physics and calculus.

I learned these subjects better simultaneously than I would have had I learned them sequentially. A lot of times students don’t spend enough time learning math per day to imprint the material in their long-term memories. They end up forgetting the techniques that they learn in short order, and have to relearn them repeatedly as a result. Learning them thoroughly the first time around would save them a lot of time later on. Because there was substantial overlap in the algebraic techniques utilized in the different subjects I was studying, my exposure to them per day was higher, so that when I learned them, they stuck in my long-term memory.

I learned from multiple expositions

This is related to the above point, but is worth highlighting on its own: I read textbooks on the subjects that I was studying aside from the assigned textbooks. Often a given textbook won’t explain all of the topics as well as possible, and when one has difficulty understanding a given textbook’s exposition of a topic, one can find a better one if one consults other references.

I learned basic techniques in the context of interesting problems

I distinctly remember hearing about how it was possible to find the graph of a rotated conic section from its defining equation. I found it amazing that it was possible to do this. Similarly, I found some of the applications of calculus to be amazing. This amazement motivated me to learn how to implement the various techniques needed, and they became more memorable when placed in the context of larger problems.

I found a friend who was also learning math in a serious way

It was really helpful to have someone who was both deeply involved and responsive, who I could consult when I got stuck, and with whom I could work through problems. This was helpful both from a motivational point of view (learning with someone else can be more fun than learning in isolation) and also from the point of view of having easier access to knowledge.

Underconfidence in gifted girls

By Jonah Sinick
The 1996 study Self-Efficacy Beliefs and Mathematical Problem-Solving of Gifted Students found thatAlthough most students were overconfident about their capabilities, gifted students had more accurate self-perceptions and gifted girls were biased toward underconfidence.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg discusses high potential women being underconfident in her book Lean In.

I’ve had many gifted female students and classmates/colleagues who have struggled with intellectual insecurity.

Parents sometimes ask me if I have any suggestions for what they might do to help.

For those of you who have daughters, does this sound familiar? If so, are there resources / strategies that you’ve found helpful for improving their self-confidence?