All posts by Vipul Naik

Moving on from Cognito Mentoring

Back in December 2013, Jonah Sinick and I launched Cognito Mentoring, an advising service for intellectually curious students. Our goal was to improve the quality of learning, productivity, and life choices of the student population at large, and we chose to focus on intellectually curious students because of their greater potential as well as our greater ability to relate with that population. We began by offering free personalized advising. Jonah announced the launch in a LessWrong post, hoping to attract the attention of LessWrong’s intellectually curious readership.

Since then, we feel we’ve done a fair amount, with a lot of help from LessWrong. We’ve published a few dozen blog posts and have an information wiki. Slightly under a hundred people contacted us asking us for advice (many from LessWrong), and we had substantive interactions with over 50 of them. As our reviews from students and parents suggest, we’ve made a good impression and have had a positive impact on many of the people we’ve advised. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and grateful for the support and constructive criticism we’ve received on LessWrong.

However, what we’ve learned in the last few months has led us to the conclusion that Cognito Mentoring is not ripe for being a full-time work opportunity for the two of us.

For the last few months, we’ve eschewed regular jobs and instead done contract work that provides us the flexibility to work on Cognito Mentoring, eating into our savings somewhat to cover the cost of living differences. This is a temporary arrangement and is not sustainable. We therefore intend to scale back our work on Cognito Mentoring to “maintenance mode” so that people can continue to benefit from the resources we’ve already collected, with minimal additional effort on our part, freeing us up to take regular jobs with more demanding time requirements.

We might revive Cognito Mentoring as a part-time or full-time endeavor in the future if there are significant changes to our beliefs about the traction, impact, and long-run financial viability of Cognito Mentoring. Part of the purpose of “maintenance mode” will be to leave open the possibility of such a revival if the idea does indeed have potential.

In this post, I discuss some of the factors that led us to change our view, the conditions under which we might revive Cognito Mentoring, and more details about how “maintenance mode” for Cognito Mentoring will look.

Reason #1: Downward update on social value

We do think that the work we’ve done on Cognito Mentoring so far has generated social value, and the continued presence of the website will add more value over time. However, our view has shifted in the direction of lower marginal social value from working on Cognito Mentoring full-time, relative to simply keeping the website live and doing occasional work to improve it. Specifically:

  • It’s quite possible that the lowest-hanging fruit with respect to the advisees who would be most receptive to our advice has already been plucked. We received the bulk of our advisees through LessWrong within the month after our initial posting. Other places where we’ve posted about our service have led to fewer advisees (more here).
  • Of our website content, only a small fraction of the content gets significant traction (see our list of popular pages), so honing and promoting our best content might be a better strategy for improving social value than trying to create a comprehensive resource. This can be done while in maintenance mode, and does not require full-time effort on our part.

What might lead us to change our minds: If we continue to be contacted by large numbers of potentially high-impact people, or we get evidence that the advising we’ve already done has had significantly greater impact than we think it did, we’ll update our social value upward.

Reason #2: Downward update on long-run financial viability

We have enough cash to go on for a few more months. But for Cognito Mentoring to be something that we work full time on, we need an eventual steady source of income from it. Around mid-March 2014, we came to the realization that charging advisees is not a viable revenue source, as Jonah described at the end of his post about how Cognito Mentoring can do the most good (see also this comment by Luke Muehlhauser and Jonah’s response to it below the comment). At that point, we decided to focus more on our informational content and on looking for philanthropic funding.

Our effort at looking into philanthropic funding did give us a few leads, and some of them could plausibly result in us getting small grants. However, none of the leads we got pointed to potential steady long-term income sources. In other words, we don’t think philanthropic funding is a viable long-term revenue model for Cognito Mentoring.

Our (anticipated) difficulty in getting philanthropic funding arises from two somewhat different reasons.

  1. What we’re doing is somewhat new and does not fit the standard mold of educational grants. Educational foundations tend to give grants for fairly specific activities, and what we’re doing does not seem to fit those.
  2. We haven’t demonstrated significant traction or impact yet (even though we’ve had a reasonable amount of per capita impact, the total number of people we’ve influenced so far is relatively small). This circles back to Reason #1: funders’ reluctance to fund us may in part stem from their belief that we won’t have much social value, given our lack of traction so far. Insofar as funders’ judgment carries some information value, this should also strengthen Reason #1.

What might lead us to change our minds: If we are contacted by a funder who is willing to bankroll us for over a year and also offer a convincing reason for why he/she thinks bankrolling us is a good idea (so that we’re convinced that our funding can be sustained beyond a year) we’ll change our minds.

Reason #3: Acquisition of knowledge and skills

One of the reasons we’ve been able to have an impact through Cognito Mentoring so far is that both Jonah and I have knowledge of many diverse topics related to the questions that our advisees have posed to us. But our knowledge is still woefully inadequate in a number of areas. In particular, many advisees have asked us questions in the realms of technology, entrepreneurship, and the job environment, and while we have pointed them to resources on these, firsthand experience, or close secondhand experience, would help us more effectively guide advisees. We intend to take jobs related to computer technology (in fields such as programming or data science), and these jobs might be at startups or put us in close contact with startups. This will better position us to return to mentoring later if we choose to resume it part-time or full-time.

Knowledge and skills we acquire working in the technology sector could also help us design better interfaces or websites that can more directly address the needs of our audience. So far, we’ve thought of ourselves as content-oriented people, so we’ve used standard off-the-shelf software such as WordPress (for our main website and blog) and MediaWiki (for our information wiki). Part of the reason is that we wanted to focus on content creation rather than interface design, but part of the reason we’ve stuck to these is that we didn’t think we could design interfaces. Once we’ve acquired more programming and design experience, we might be more open to the idea of designing interfaces and software that can meet particular needs of our target audience.We might design an interface that helps people study more effectively, make better life decisions, or share reviews of courses and colleges, in a manner similar to softwares or websites such as Anki or Beeminder or Goodreads. There might also be potential for a more effective online resource that teaches programming than those in existence (e.g. Codecademy). It’s not clear right now whether there exists a useful opportunity of this sort that we are particularly well-suited to, but with more coding experience, we’ll at least be able to implement an idea of this sort if we decide it has promise.

Reason #4: Letting it brew in the background can give us a better idea of the potential

If we continue to gradually add content to the wiki, and continue to get links and traffic to it from other sources, it’s likely that the traffic will grow slowly and steadily. The extent of organic growth will help us figure out how much promise Cognito Mentoring has. If our wiki gets to the point of steadily receiving thousands of pageviews a day, we will reconsider reviving Cognito Mentoring as a part-time or full-time endeavor. If, on the other hand, traffic remains at approximately the current level (about a hundred pageviews a day, once we exclude spikes arising from links from LessWrong and Marginal Revolution) then the idea is probably not worth revisiting, and we’ll leave it in maintenance mode.

In addition, by maintaining contact with the people we’ve advised, we can get more insight into the sort of impact we’ve had, whether it is significant over the long term, and how it can be improved. This again can tell us whether our impact is sufficiently large as to make Cognito Mentoring worth reviving.

What “maintenance mode” entails

  1. We’ll continue to have contact information available, but will scale back on personalized advising: People are welcome to contact us with questions and suggestions about content, but we will not generally offer detailed personalized responses or do research specific to individuals who contact us. We’ll attempt to point people to relevant content we’ve already written, or to other resources we’re already aware of that can address their concerns.
  2. The information wiki will remain live, and we will continue to make occasional improvements, but we won’t have a time schedule of when particular improvements have to be implemented by.
  3. Existing blog posts will remain, but we probably won’t be making many new blog posts. New blog posts will happen only if one of us has an idea that really seems worth sharing and for which the Cognito Mentoring blog is an ideal forum.
  4. We’ll continue our administrative roles in the communities of existing Cognito Mentoring advisees
  5. We’ll continue periodically reviewing the progress of people we’ve advised so far: This will help us get a better sense of how valuable our work has been, and can be useful should we choose to revive Cognito Mentoring.
  6. We’ll continue to correspond with advisees we have so far (time permitting), though we’ll give more priority to advisees who continue to maintain contact of their own accord and those whose activities seem to have higher impact potential.
  7. We’ll try to get our best content linked from other sources, such as about.com: Sources like about.com are targeted at the general population. We can try to get linked to from there as an additional resource for the more intellectually curious population that’s outside the core focus of about.com.
  8. We’ll link more extensively to other sources that people can use: For instance, we can more emphatically point to 80,000 Hours for people who are interested in career advising in relation to effective altruist pursuits. We can point to about.com and College Confidential for more general information about mainstream institutions. We already make a number of recommendations on our website, but as we stop working actively, it becomes all the more important that people who come to us are appropriately redirected to other sources that can help them.

Conclusion and summary (TL;DR)

We (qua Cognito Mentoring) are grateful to LessWrong for being welcoming of our posts, offering constructive criticism, and providing us with some advisees we’ve enjoyed working with. We think that the work we’ve done has value, but don’t think that there’s enough marginal value from full-time work on Cognito Mentoring. We think we can do more good for ourselves and the world by switching Cognito Mentoring to maintenance mode and freeing our time currently spent on Cognito Mentoring for other pursuits. The material that we have already produced will continue to remain in the public domain and we hope that people will benefit from it. We may revisit our “maintenance mode” decision if new evidence changes our view regarding traction, impact, and long-run financial viability.

Human capital or signaling? No, it’s about doing the Right Thing and acquiring karma

There’s a huge debate among economists of education on whether the positive relationship between educational attainment and income is due to human capital, signaling, or ability bias. But what do the students themselves believe? Bryan Caplan has argued that students’ actions (for instance, their not sitting in for free on classes and their rejoicing at class cancellation) suggest a belief in the signaling model of education. At the same time, he notes that students may not fully believe the signaling model, and that shifting in the direction of that belief might improve individual educational attainment.

Still, something seems wrong about the view that most people believe in the signaling model of education. While their actions are consistent with that view, I don’t think they frame it quite that way. I don’t think they usually think of it as “education is useless, but I’ll go through it anyway because that allows me to signal to potential employers that I have the necessary intelligence and personality traits to succeed on the job.” Instead, I believe that people’s model of school education is linked to the idea of karma: they do what the System wants them to do, because that’s their duty and the Right Thing to do. Many of them also expect that if they do the Right Thing, and fulfill their duties well, then the System shall reward them with financial security and a rewarding life. Others may take a more fateful stance, saying that it’s not up to them to judge what the System has in store for them, but they still need to do the Right Thing.

The case of the devout Christian

Consider a reasonably devout Christian who goes to church regularly. For such a person, going to church, and living a life in accordance with (his understanding of) Christian ethics is part of what he’s supposed to do. God will take care of him as long as he does his job well. In the long run, God will reward good behavior and doing the Right Thing, but it’s not for him to question God’s actions.

Such a person might look bemused if you asked him, “Are you a practicing Christian because you believe in the prudential value of Christian teachings (the “human capital” theory) or because you want to give God the impression that you are worthy of being rewarded (the “signaling” theory”)?” Why? Partly, because the person attributes omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence to God, so that the very idea of having a conceptual distinction between what’s right and how to impress God seems wrong. Yes, he does expect that God will take care of him and reward him for his goodness (the “signaling” theory). Yes, he also believes that the Christian teachings are prudent (the “human capital” theory). But to him, these are not separate theories but just parts of the general belief in doing right and letting God take care of the rest.

Surely not all Christians are like this. Some might be extreme signalers: they may be deliberately trying to optimize for (what they believe to be) God’s favor and maximizing the probability of making the cut to Heaven. Others might believe truly in the prudence of God’s teachings and think that any rewards that flow are because the advice makes sense at the worldly level (in terms of the non-divine consequences of actions) rather than because God is impressed by the signals they’re sending him through those actions. There are also a number of devout Christians I personally know who, regardless of their views on the matter, would be happy to entertain, examine, and discuss such hypotheses without feeling bemused. Still, I suspect the majority of Christians don’t separate the issue, and many might even be offended at second-guessing God.

Note: I selected Christianity and a male sex just for ease of description; similar ideas apply to other religions and the female sex. Also note that in theory, some religious sects emphasize free will and others emphasize determinism more, but it’s not clear to me how much effect this has on people’s mental models on the ground.

The schoolhouse as church: why human capital and signaling sound ridiculous

Just as many people believe in following God’s path and letting Him take care of the rewards, many people believe that by doing the Right Thing educationally (being a Good Student and jumping through the appropriate hoops through correctly applied sincere effort) they’re doing their bit for the System. These people might be bemused at the cynicism involved in separating out “human capital” and “signaling” theories of education.

Again, not everybody is like this. Some people are extreme signalers: they openly claim that school builds no useful skills, but grades are necessary to impress future employers, mates, and society at large. Some are human capital extremists: they openly claim that the main purpose is to acquire a strong foundation of knowledge, and they continue to do so even when the incentive from the perspective of grades is low. Some are consumption extremists: they believe in learning because it’s fun and intellectually stimulating. And some strategically combine these approaches. Yet, none of these categories describe most people.

I’ve had students who worked considerably harder on courses than the bare minimum effort needed to get an A. This is despite the fact that they aren’t deeply interested in the subject, don’t believe it will be useful in later life, and aren’t likely to remember it for too long anyway. I think that the karma explanation fits best: people develop an image of themselves as Good Students who do their duty and fulfill their role in the system. They strive hard to fulfill that image, often going somewhat overboard beyond the bare minimum needed for signaling purposes, while still not trying to learn in ways that optimize for human capital acquisition. There are of course many other people who claim to aspire to the label of Good Student because it’s the Right Thing, and consider it a failing of virtue that they don’t currently qualify as Good Students. Of course, that’s what they say, and social desirability bias might play a role in individuals’ statements,  but the very fact that people consider such views socially desirable indicates the strong societal belief in being a Good Student and doing one’s academic duty.

If you presented the signaling hypothesis to self-identified Good Students they’d probably be insulted. It’s like telling a devout Christian that he’s in it only to curry favor with God. At the same time, the human capital hypothesis might also seem ridiculous to them in light of their actual actions and experiences: they know they don’t remember or understand the material too well. Thinking of it as doing their bit for the System because it’s the Right Thing to do seems both noble and realistic.

The impressive success of this approach

At the individual level, this works! Regardless of the relative roles of human capital, signaling, and ability bias, people who go through higher levels of education and get better grades tend to earn better and get more high-status jobs than others. People who transform themselves from being bad students to good students often see rewards both academically and in later life in the form of better jobs. This could again be human capital, signaling, or ability bias. The ability bias explanation is plausible because it requires a lot of ability to turn from a bad student into a good student, about the same as it does to be a good student from the get-go or perhaps even more because transforming oneself is a difficult task.

Can one do better?

Doing what the System commands can be reasonably satisfying, and even rewarding. But for many people, and particularly for the people who do the most impressive things, it’s not necessarily the optimal path. This is because the System isn’t designed to maximize every individual’s success or life satisfaction, or even to optimize things for society as a whole. It’s based on a series of adjustments driven by squabbling between competing interests. It could be a lot worse, but a motivated person could do better.

Also note that being a Good Student is fundamentally different from being a Good Worker. A worker, whether directly serving customers or reporting to a boss, is producing stuff that other people value. So, at least in principle, being a better worker translates to more gains for the customers. This means that a Good Worker is contributing to the System in a literal sense, and by doing a better job, directly adds more value. But this sort of reasoning doesn’t apply to Good Students, because the actions of students qua students aren’t producing direct value. Their value is largely their consumption value to the students themselves and their instrumental value to the students’ current and later life choices.

Many of the qualities that define a Good Student are qualities that are desirable in other contexts as well. In particular, good study habits are valuable not just in school but in any form of research that relies on intellectual comprehension and synthesis (this may be an example of the human capital gains from education, except that I don’t think most students acquire good study habits). So, one thing to learn from the Good Student model is good study habits. General traits of conscientiousness, hardwork, and willingness to work beyond the bare minimum needed for signaling purposes are also valuable to learn and practice.

But the Good Student model breaks down when it comes to acquiring perspective about how to prioritize between different subjects, and how to actually learn and do things of direct value. A common example is perfectionism. The Good Student may spend hours practicing calculus to get a perfect score in the test, far beyond what’s necessary to get an A in the class or an AP BC 5, and yet not acquire a conceptual understanding of calculus or learn calculus in a way that would stick. Such a student has acquired a lot of karma, but has failed from both the human capital perspective (in not acquiring durable human capital) and the signaling perspective (in spending more effort than is needed for the signal). In an ideal world, material would be taught in a way that one can score highly on tests if and only if it serves useful human capital or signaling functions, but this is often not the case.

Thus, I believe it makes sense to critically examine the activities one is pursuing as a student, and ask: “does this serve a useful purpose for me?” The purpose could be human capital. signaling, pure consumption, or something else (such as networking). Consider the following four extreme answers a student may give to why a particular high school or college matters:

  • Pure signaling: A follow-up might be: “how much effort would I need to put in to get a good return on investment as far as the signaling benefits go?” And then one has to stop at that level, rather than overshoot or undershoot.
  • Pure human capital: A follow-up might be: “how do I learn to maximize the long-term human capital acquired and retained?” In this world, test performance matters only as feedback rather than as the ultimate goal of one’s actions. Rather than trying to practice for hours on end to get a perfect score on a test, more effort will go into learning in ways that increase the probability of long-term retention in ways that are likely to prove useful later on. (As mentioned above, in an ideal world, these goals would converge).
  • Pure consumption: A follow-up might be: “how much effort should I put in in order to get the maximum enjoyment and stimulation (or other forms of consumptive experience), without feeling stressed or burdened by the material?”
  • Pure networking: A follow-up might be: “how do I optimize my course experience to maximize the extent to which I’m able to network with fellow students and instructors?”

One might also believe that some combination of these explanations applies. For instance, a mixed human capital-cum-signaling explanation might recommend that one study all topics well enough to get an A, and then concentrate on acquiring a durable understanding of the few subtopics that one believes are needed for long-term knowledge and skills. For instance, a mastery of fractions matters a lot more than a mastery of quadratic equations, so a student preparing for a middle school or high school algebra course might choose to learn both at a basic level but get a really deep understanding of fractions. Similarly, in calculus, having a clear idea of what a function and derivative means matters a lot more than knowing how to differentiate trigonometric functions, so a student may superficially understand all aspects (to get the signaling benefits of a good grade) but dig deep into the concept of functions and the conceptual definition of derivatives (to acquire useful human capital). By thinking clearly about this, one may realize that perfecting one’s ability to differentiate complicated trigonometric function expressions or integrate complicated rational functions may not be valuable from either a human capital perspective or a signaling perspective for students not intending to go into a mathematically intensive discipline.

Ultimately, the changes wrought by consciously thinking about these issues are not too dramatic. Even though the System is suboptimal, it’s locally optimal in small ways and one is constrained in one’s actions in any case. But the changes can nevertheless add up to lead one to be more strategic and less stressed, do better on all fronts (human capital, signaling, and consumption), and discover opportunities one might otherwise have missed.

The value of the online hive mind

The phrase “wisdom of crowds” was made popular in James Surowiecki’s eponymous book. The idea of aggregating a diverse range of opinions has been proposed in different forms, ranging from polling to prediction markets. Empirically, prediction markets perform somewhat better than crude polling, but just the act of aggregation itself improves significantly over not aggregating. Even crude aggregation mechanisms can be beneficial.

Aggregation over larger numbers of people can be beneficial even if most people aren’t experts. However, it’s important to note that aggregation is beneficial only if enough people have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the subject, and those who don’t know anything are either unbiased or their biases cancel out(see The Myth of the Rational Voter for more). Aggregation with a certain level of filtering to sieve out the signal from the noise can overcome the problem of ignorance or even bias, as long as there is enough signal on the whole (i.e., enough people in absolute terms who know what they’re talking about).

When you’re stuck with a question, whether personal, professional, or academic, it is often effective to turn to the hive mind for suggestions. Not that the hive mind can, or should, make your decisions for you. But it can offer valuable input that would otherwise take you a lot of time to collect.

In the past, few people had access to the wisdom of the hive mind when it came to their own questions. Now, however, we have the Internet, and Internet research is a powerful way that people can access the hive mind for far more specific questions than they could have dreamed of before. There are many different types of onilne hive mind you could access:

  1. The Google/Internet hive mind: Search what the Internet as a whole has to say, using Google as your discovery tool. There’s a lot of wisdom out there. The advantage is that you can access a huge corpus of knowledge. The disadvantage is that you cannot ask your own questions and the knowledge isn’t arranged in a question-and-answer format.
  2. The Wikipedia hive mind: Avail of an “encyclopedia” that’s been written through the collaborative efforts of hundreds of thousands of people, and is regularly updated, to fill in the gaps in your knowledge and make an informed decision.
  3. The Quora/LessWrong/StackExchange/Reddit/discussion forum/blogosphere hive mind: Avail of stuff that’s explicitly designed for intellectual consumption, including stuff in the question-answer format. Also, ask your own questions and get answers (though not necessarily quickly).
  4. The Facebook(/Twitter?) hive mind: Ask quick questions and get quick answers from a select group of friends.

Of these, (1) and (2) don’t rely much on your existing network of friends or followers. As long as your research skills are good, you can turn up the same material regardless of how good your friends and followers are at research. (3) involves a mix of research skills and the quality and size of your network of friends and followers. (4) is very heavily focused on the set of friends and followers you’ve accumulated.

Is the hive mind actually helpful? To a large extent, this depends on how much the people involved know and/or have interesting things to say about the questions you pose to them. The narrower and more specialized your domain of inquiry, the more likely it is that the hive mind will not be any use. And for the Facebook hive mind (type (4) in my list), you need to have friends who have knowledge of the subject, check Facebook regularly, and are willing to comment. I now turn to my own experience.

What have I used the hive mind for?

The Google and Wikipedia hive minds are the ones I’ve used the longest, and they’re both indispensable to my process of discovery and research for the vast majority of subjects I try to learn about.

I’ve used the Quora hive mind since I joined the site in June 2011, though my level of use has varied considerably.

For other things that I’ve been interested in, either professionally or as a hobby, I’ve found the Facebook hive mind useful. This was not the case when I joined Facebook. It really started happening around late December 2012 and early January 2013, by which time I had accumulated a sufficiently large collection of Facebook friends who were (together) sufficiently widely knowledgeable and spent sufficient amount of time in total on Facebook. By “sufficient” here I mean “sufficient to make sure that enough of my posts attracted valuable comment feedback that I thought posting passed a cost-benefit analysis.” I’ve posted about a varied range of topics ranging from mathematics teaching to education in general to technological progress and social and political issues, and often learn a lot from the comments that I would probably either not have discovered by myself or have taken a much longer time to discover.

However, these general-purpose hive minds are often not of much use for specific technical topics. I’ve also benefited from access to hive minds associated with more niche communities, some of them on Facebook or Quora, and others on their own websites or blogs. Back when I was working on my Ph.D. in group theory, the Facebook hive mind and Quora hive mind were little use for my research: less than a dozen of my friends knew enough group theory, and those who did didn’t check Facebook often enough. For the most part, I had to figure things out by myself, ask my advisor, or handpick individuals who would be likely to know. But I did have access to one hive mind, namely MathOverflow, that I used productively to ask many questions, one of which turned out to fill in an important gap in my thesis.

How good are people at using these resources, and what advice is being offered to them?

Let’s look at the four types of hive minds mentioned and how far people are from making use of them:

  1. The Google/Internet hive mind: There is a fair amount of research as well as commentary on how people use search engines for school work and other research. For instance, here’s a slideshare presentation from October 2010 (by these people) describing how people’s web research skills fall short and how they can be fixed. I’m not very confident of the quality of the advice offered, and also of its continued validity: much of it was written before some of the recent improvements in Google Search such as Google Instant and the knowledge graph (see this timeline of Google Search), and a lot of the advice doesn’t jive with my personal experience. But at any rate it’s a somewhat well-understood problem where people are actually trying to advise others on how to do it well rather than debating whether to do it at all.
  2. The Wikipedia hive mind: Effective use of Wikipedia has received a fair amount of attention. Wikipedia has its own page on Wikipedia research skills, including some cautionary notes about the particular issues with citing and using Wikipedia because of its role as an often-unvetted tertiary sources. There are also other articles and videos on the subject.
  3. The Quora/LessWrong/StackExchange/Reddit/discussion forum/blogosphere hive mind: These are relatively new, and “best practices” for these haven’t percolated to the people who write advice on study habits or general research skills. A biger problem is that a lot of people haven’t even heard of relevant websites like Quora, LessWrong, Stack Exchange, or the appropriate niche communities for them. So there’s some clear low-hanging fruit just in making them aware of the appropriate resources. That said, there are a few articles on effective use of Quora in particular, but these are largely in niche websites or the technology press rather than in stuff aimed at the general public. As described here, my experience with Cognito Mentoring advisees suggests that recommending to people to join Quora is one of the low-hanging fruit in terms of value we have been able to provide advisees.
  4. The Facebook(/Twitter?) hive mind: The problem here might be most severe, even though a fairly large number of people use Facebook and a reasonable number of people use Twitter. A fair number of people use Facebook as a hive mind for personal problems (such as opinions on a restaurant) but it’s not used for academic or research-related questions as much as it could be. Moreover, its use in this respect is generally not encouraged and not considered high-status. I’ll talk more about this in a subsequent post.

I’m curious to learn about the personal experiences of LessWrong users on tapping into the online hive minds of various sorts, including categories that I’ve missed. In addition, views on how effectively most other people tap into the various online hive minds would also be much appreciated.

Some pre-emptive remarks

Pre-empting some criticisms I expect:

  • I don’t mean to imply that the only or even the primary purpose of websites such as Facebook is to answer one’s questions. Clearly, there are many other ways people derive value from the websites. This post is focused on the hive mind component of the value, and does not assert that that is or should be the most important reason for people to use Facebook.
  • The privacy issues surrounding websites such as Facebook and Quora are taken quite seriously by a number of people. I’m not trying to evaluate here whether the benefits of using these website exceeds the (perceived) privacy costs of doing so. I’m simply discussing one item that (I think) would go on the benefits side of the ledger.

PS: Chris Hendrix comments on Facebook:

It seems to me that there’s a logic of how to develop your various hivemind levels here. If you attempt to simply start with a FB group as your wisdom of the crowds you may not have enough knowledge to be able to determine whether or not your crowd selection is systematically biased in ways that don’t correlate with finding truth. Instead I think there’s a logic to building up each level of hivemind usage from the previous. From Google searches you will often be directed to Wikipedia. Wikipedia can then direct you to effective discussion sites (you hear about a discussion site, you check wikipedia to see if there are any criticisms of obvious failure modes). Finally, once you’ve found effective discussion sites, you’ve been learning what are useful and what are non-useful contributions. Since these sites will include a number of effective contributors you can pick and choose among this group to find people you can make into good facebook friends.

I think done well, this can be a supplement (or perhaps even an alternative) to professional and academic networking for answering complex and non-obvious questions (the less complex and obvious ones are simply answered at the Google or Wikipedia levels normally).

Cross-posted on LessWrong here and on Quora here

The failed simulation effect and its implications for the optimization of extracurricular activities

Cal Newport’s book How To Become a Straight-A Student The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less (that I blogged about recently) discusses a concept that Newport calls the failed simulation effect. Newport:

The Failed-Simulation-Effect Hypothesis If you cannot mentally simulate the steps taken by a student to reach an accomplishment, you will experience a feeling of profound impressiveness.

Newport, Cal (2010-07-20). How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) (p. 182). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Newport gives the following example in his book:

Playing in a rock band doesn’t generate the Failed-Simulation Effect. You can easily simulate the steps required for that accomplishment: buy an instrument, take lessons, practice, brood, and so on. There’s no mystery. By contrast, publishing a bestselling book at the age of sixteen defies simulation. “How does a teenager get a book deal?” you ask in wonderment. This failure to simulate generates a sense of awed respect: “He must be something special.”

Newport, Cal (2010-07-20). How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) (pp. 182-183). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

On the basis of this insight, Newport’s bottom line for people looking for accomplishments in the high school extracurricular realm is:

Pursue accomplishments that are hard to explain, not hard to do.

My impression is that Newport is broadly correct as far as college admissions advice goes: activities that are hard to simulate seem more impressive, and therefore improve one’s chances at admission (ceteris paribus). But impressing admissions committees isn’t the only goal in life. In this post, I explore the question: how aligned is this advice to the other things that matter, namely, direct personal value (in the form of consumption and human capital) and social value?

Understanding the question

I’m interested in exploring how closely the following are related for a given accomplishment (with the exception of (1) and (2), the rest measure the value created in some respected; see also this page):

  1. Hardness: The amount of skill, effort, or character strength needed.
  2. Impressiveness (primarily in the context of signaling quality to colleges): The degree to which people (particularly college admissions officers) are impressed.
  3. Human capital: The useful knowledge and skills acquired in the context of the accomplishment.
  4. Social value: The benefit to the world from one’s accomplishment. Note that social value could be direct or indirect, mediated through later accomplishments that rely on the human capital and networking gains from the activity.
  5. Consumption: The fun or excitement of the accomplishment.
  6. Networking: Getting connected to people in the course of accomplishing.

Newport’s insight is that hardness and impressiveness aren’t as closely correlated as we might want to believe. But how closely is impressiveness related to the items (3)-(6)? That’s what we want to explore here. But first, a bit about how hardness relates to the remaining items. For brevity, we will not discuss (5) and (6) further in the post. Instead, we will concentrate our energies on how (1) and (2) relate with (3) and (4).

Where do hardness and impressiveness differ?

Hardness and impressiveness aren’t completely uncorrelated. A few moments of introspection should reveal that that’s the case: if impressive things were easy to do, many people would be doing them, and they would cease to be impressive. But Newport’s central insight is that hardness and impressiveness aren’t as correlated as they seem on the surface. There are things that are quite hard to do but don’t seem impressive because they are mainstream and follow a standard path. There are other things that seem more impressive than their actual hardness warrants.

Consider a 2 X 2 matrix

  Not impressive Impressive
Not hard Not hard, not impressive (e.g., watching TV) Impressive but not hard (somewhat innovative activities, the sort that Newport wants to encourage more of)
Hard Hard but not impressive (e.g., reaching ranked third in high school academics, learning a difficult musical instrument) Hard and impressive (e.g., becoming a really really good music player, getting a medal in a national math or sports contest)

Note that the “hard but not impressive” characterization is relative. Being ranked third in high school academics is impressive. But it’s a lot less impressive to elite colleges (the colleges that Newport’s audience wants to get  into) relative to the amount of effort it takes to achieve. Similarly, learning a difficult musical instrument is somewhat impressive, but not as impressive as it is hard.

We restrict attention in this post to hard activities that people seriously consider doing, rather than random hard stuff people may do for dares or bets (like staying up for 100 hours at a stretch).

Newport wants to shift people from the “not impressive” column to the “impressive” column, and notes that there are plenty of activities in the top right quadrant.

What qualitative attributes characterize activities in the top right quadrant, and their very opposite, namely, activities in the bottom left quadrant? Some observations (based on Newport):

  1. Standard versus nonstandard: Activities that a lot of people are already doing don’t seem that impressive, even if they are hard. And some relatively hard activities are a standard part of people’s academic and extracurricular experience. Learning AP BC calculus and writing a rudimentary mobile app may be of roughly equal hardness. But a lot of people are doing the former since it is part of the standard path. Learning how to play the violin may be about as hard as doing research in a marine biology lab. But the former is a relatively standard extracurricular activity that many people do because it’s what they are supposed to do, or because their parents force them to do it.
  2. Outward-facing: Things that seem like they serve larger numbers of people seem impressive. Mastering one’s learning of a subject is less impressive than doing something that reaches out to many people. But this could have more to do with the “Convincing people” point I make below.
  3. Convincing people: Activities that involve changing other people’s minds seem prima facie more impressive. Learning the violin doesn’t require convincing anybody of anything. You just sit down and learn (or take lessons). Getting somebody to publish your book, on the other hand, requires convincing a publisher that your book is worth publishing. And getting people to buy the book requires convincing buyers that the book is worth buying. Creating an online community or successful marketing/lobbying for a nonprofit both have the flavor of convincing people. It makes sense that having convinced people is a convenient indicator of having done something impressive. In a sense, the evaluation of impressiveness has been outsourced to the other people already convinced.
  4. Discrete original projects: I’m not too sure of this, but people do seem to be somewhat biased in favor of discrete, distinctive projects with clearly identified names or a distinctiveness of identity. “I created a popular website with 1000 pages of information about topic X” sounds more impressive than “I wrote 1000 Quora answers about X” even if it’s the case that the latter activity generates more pageviews in the long run.

Hardness, impressiveness, and human capital

Now that we’ve identified some general points of divergence between hardness and impressiveness, we can consider the question: how do hardness and impressiveness differ in terms of the extent to which they correlate with human capital acquisition (i.e., the acquisition of knowledge and skills that have long-term utility)? As before, we restrict attention to hard activities that people seriously consider doing, rather than random hard stuff people may do for dares or bets (like staying up for 100 hours at a stretch). Let’s look at the four potential sources of divergence and compare based on those:

  1. Standard versus nonstandard: The “hard but not impressive” cluster comprises the more standard activities, whereas the “not hard but impressive” cluster comprises more nonstandard activities. So, this consideration boils down the question to: do standard activities produce more human capital than nonstandard activities? My answer is (very guardedly) mildly in favor of standard activities. Although much of school learning is wasteful, the standard subjects still have the benefit of several years of curriculum development that provides a certain bare minimum of quality. Nonstandard stuff exhibits higher variance. I suspect that the typical nonstandard activity is worse for building human capital than the typical standard activity. But I also think there’s more scope for doing really well on the human capital end by picking a really good nonstandard activity. Another consideration in favor of nonstandard is that there’s a large supply of people who can do the standard stuff, so that the marginal value of adding another person with standard skills is high, whereas the nonstandard stuff could involve building rare, specialized skills.
  2. Outward-facing: My guess is that at the high school level, the most high-value activities (from the human capital perspective) tend to involve learning about the world (not limited to what’s in school syllabi) rather than creating products. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it does point in the direction of impressive activities being less valuable from the human capital perspective than hard activities.
  3. Convincing people: This argues in favor of impressiveness. The skill of convincing people is an important one, and the act of convincing people also requires one to do a better job overall with presentation and background knowledge. This is good preparation for later life, where one needs to often suggest new things and convince people of them.
  4. Discrete original projects: Impressiveness favors discrete original projects. I think this is an argument in favor of impressiveness being better at building human capital, but a very weak one. People acquire valuable skills in the process of creating their own original projects that they wouldn’t when contributing to existing projects (for instance, creating your own website means you have to learn about website creation and getting traffic). On the other hand, participating in existing projects makes it easier to calibrate your learning, get feedback, and improve.

Hardness, impressiveness, and (direct) social value

How do the “impressive but not hard” activities compare with the “hard but not impressive” activities in terms of the
direct value they produce for society? We’ll do a point-by-point comparison similar to that for human capital, but first, a little digression.

Although many hard activities are not valuable, it is almost always the case that valuable activities are at least somewhat hard. The logic is similar to the logic for hard and impressive activities described earlier in the post. Namely, if valuable activities were easy to do, they would already have been done to the extent where they either became hard at the margin or lost value at the margin.

PayPal co-founder Max Levchin credits this insight to co-founder Peter Thiel (see here). Levchin recounts that, back when PayPal was in its infancy, he was enamored by the idea of using elliptic curve cryptography to speed up some aspects of PayPal’s secure transactions. Elliptic curve cryptography uses some pretty cool math and offers interesting implementation challenges. But it turned out that the speedup offered wasn’t really helpful with the things that PayPal needed to do. Levchin learned from Thiel that hardness isn’t the source of value. On the other hand, things that are valuable are almost always bound to be hard, because if they were easy, they’d have already been accomplished. Indeed, Levchin’s new company, named Hard Valuable Fun, builds on this insight.

As before, we restrict attention to hard activities that people seriously consider doing, rather than random hard stuff people may do for dares or bets (like staying up for 100 hours at a stretch). Now, let’s compare hard and impressive activities in terms of their social value:

  1. Standard versus nonstandard: The “hard but not impressive” cluster comprises the more standard activities, whereas the “not hard but impressive” cluster comprises more nonstandard activities. So, this consideration boils down the question to: do standard activities produce more direct social value than nonstandard activities? I think the general answer is a resounding no. Standard activities are largely focused on building human capital or signaling quality (to colleges and others), rather than on the creation of direct social value. This is true even for standard extracurriculars, such as learning musical instruments. Even the standard extracurriculars billed as socially useful, such as volunteer work by US students in Columbia, often produce negligible social value (see Jonah’s post on volunteering for a more in-depth discussion). Note that the indirect social value created through human capital acquisition might still be huge for some activities that build human capital, but that is not what we’re trying to assess in this part of the post. Nonstandard activities exhibit higher variance, but could at least in principle be chosen for higher social value. Another consideration in favor of nonstandard is that there’s a large supply of people who can do the standard stuff, so that the marginal value of getting something nonstandard accomplished may be higher on account of more low-hanging fruit.
  2. Outward-facing: Impressive activities tend to be outward-facing. And creating direct social value generally requires being at least somewhat outward-facing. So, this consideration points in favor of impressiveness over hardness.
  3. Convincing people: This argues in favor of impressiveness. Creating positive change usually requires convincing people at some level. This could be direct suasion, or it could be attracting people to visit one’s website or buy one’s book or use one’s products in some other capacity.
  4. Discrete original projects: Impressiveness favors discrete original projects. I think this is an argument in favor of impressiveness being better at creating direct social value, but a very weak one, and there are many counterexamples. Creating your own website may seem more impressive than just writing a bunch of Quora answers, but the latter may get read a lot more.

Below, I summarize what I’ve said about hardness, impressiveness, human capital, and direct social value:

Consideration Human capital consideration points in favor of hardness or impressiveness? Direct social value consideration points in favor of hardness or impressiveness?
Standard versus nonstandard Hardness (but weak) Impressiveness (but weak)
Outward-facing Hardness (but weak) Impressiveness
Convincing people Impressiveness Impressiveness
Discrete original projects Impressiveness (but very weak)

Impressiveness (but very weak)

Overall, it seems that a shift towards impressiveness would perform better in terms of direct social value and slightly worse in terms of human capital. But the variation between different choices of activities overwhelms the general comparison of hardness and impressiveness. In other words, there are probably a lot of activities within the impressive category (at varying levels of hardness) that perform well on the human capital and direct social value dimensions. One just needs to be know to look for them.

Any thoughts on the above would be appreciated.

PS: I’m planning to do another post (or posts) on how people in high school and early college, or others in a similar age group, can select side projects and execute them well.

Cross-posted at LessWrong and Quora

A summary and broad points of agreement and disagreement with Cal Newport’s book on high school extracurriculars

Cal Newport (personal website, Wikipedia page) is a moderately well-known author of four books as well as a computer science researcher. I have read two of his four books: How To Become a Straight-A Student The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less and How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out). I’m particularly interested in his book on becoming a high school superstar. My interest arises as part of trying to figure out how people can better use their extracurricular activities to have more fun, learn more, and create more value for the world. As Jonah recently pointed out, choosing high school extracurricular activities could in principle have huge social value in addition to the private benefits. And as far as I know, Cal Newport is the only person who has given systematic advice on high school extracurriculars to a broad audience. He’s been referenced many times on Less Wrong.

In this post, I’ll briefly discuss his suggestions in the latter book and some of my broad philosophical disagreements. I’m eager to know about the experiences of people who’ve tried to implement Newport’s advice (particularly that pertaining to extracurriculars, but also any of his other advice). First impressions of people who click through the links and read about Newport right now would also be appreciated. I intend to write on some of these issues in more detail in the coming days, though those later posts of mine will not be focused solely on what Newport has to say.

You might also be interested in the comments on this Facebook post of mine discussing Newport’s ideas.

A quick summary of Newport’s views

Newport’s book advises high school students to pick an extracurricular activity and shine at it to the level that it impresses admissions officers (and others). He offers a three-step plan for highschoolers:

  1. The Law of Underscheduling: Pack your schedule with free time. Use this free time to explore: In particular, avoid getting being involved in too many activities, whether academic or extracurricular. Use your free time to read and learn about a wide range of stuff.
  2. The Law of Focus: Master one serious interest. Don’t waste time on unrelated activities: Newport cites the superstar effect and the Matthew effect to bolster his case for focusing on one activity after you’ve explored a reasonable amount.
  3. The Law of Innovation: Pursue accomplishments that are hard to explain, not hard to do: Newport talked of a “failed-simulation effect” where things seem impressive if the people who hear about them can’t easily imagine a standard path to them. He then offers some more guidelines both on how to innovate and on how to make one’s innovation seem impressive.

Newport is targeting high school students who want to get into their dream college. He’s trying to get them to stop doing boring, depressing activities and instead do fun, creative, and useful stuff that both improves their short-run life (by making them more relaxed and less stressed) and impresses admissions officers.

Broad areas of agreement

  1. I think Newport is right to suggest that it doesn’t make sense to devote too much energy to boring schoolwork or extracurriculars that one is doing just because one is “supposed” to do them. I think he’s right that his approach is both less stressful and less wasteful of human resources and effort. And it is more likely, in expectation, to build human capital and produce direct value for society.
  2. Newport is correct to emphasize the link between free time and being able to explore stuff, and his advice on how to explore can be quite helpful to high school students.
  3. Newport’s ideas for how to focus on a particular interest, and how to rack up accomplishments in a particular area, seem broadly sound.
  4. When it comes to figuring out what impresses college admissions officers, Newport seems like he knows what he’s talking about, although some of his examples make less sense than he thinks they do.

Broad philosophical differences

Before getting into the nuts and bolts of what I think Newport gets right and wrong, I want to talk of some broad differences between Newport (as he presents himself) and me. A few things I find somewhat jarring in Newport’s writing:

  1. Newport seems very concerned with signaling quality to colleges. This is fine: that’s what his target audience cares most about, and if getting into a good college is important, then signaling quality to college can be quite important. What I find somewhat offputting is that he often confuses the signaling with the value of the activity itself, or at any rate fails to question whether some of the things he believes to be optimal from the signaling viewpoint could be counterproductive from the perspective of value creation (either personal or social). For instance, consider his observation of the existence of the failed-simulation effect. This points in favor both of picking things that are harder for other people to “see through” (rather than things that are straightforward but hard) and also in favor of making what you did seem more undoable than it actually is. I see these as downsides of the failed-simulation effect, and sources of genuine conflict between choosing what creates the most value (personal or social) and what impresses others. Newport seems to sidestep such dilemmas.
  2. Newport doesn’t adequately address the zero-sum context in which he is giving his advice. Top colleges have a limited number of places for students. If everybody successfully implemented Newport’s advice, only a small fraction of them would be able to go to a top college. Note that I don’t think Newport views his advice as zero-sum, and even if what I wrote above is correct, his advice could still be positive-sum in that it shifts people away from competing on stressful dimensions to doing activities that offer them more fun and learning and create more value. But again, the fact that he doesn’t really address this issue head-on is a disappointment.
  3. Newport seems to oversystematize in ways that don’t feel right to me. Even though I agree with aspects of the broad direction he is pushing people in, I feel he’s seeing too many patterns that may not exist.
  4. In general, I feel that Newport doesn’t go far enough. He operates within the standard set of constraints without questioning the logic of the enterprise or giving people a better understanding of the incentives of different actors in the system. He also doesn’t provide adequate guidance on the self-calibration problem, and doesn’t adequately encourage people to figure out how to calibrate their learning better in the context of the extracurricular activity where they cannot rely on standard measures such as grades to track their progress.

I’m curious to know what readers’ main areas of disagreement with Newport are, and/or whether my listed areas of disagreement make sense to readers.

Cross-posted to LessWrong and Quora.

The value for young people of intellectual interaction with older people

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Quora

In general, young people are pretty happy taking cues from others their own age. In her book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris argues that the main environmental influence on young people is their group of similarly aged peers, rather than their parents or other adults in their life. Youngsters do seem to be influenced by celebrities, but that influence may be mediated more by the fact that their peers find the celebrity cool.

At the same time, one thing Jonah and I repeatedly noticed in our research for Cognito Mentoring is that young people are often very pleased at having substantive interactions with older people. The “older people” here aren’t necessarily people of their parents’ generation. It often means a high school student being pleased at interacting with a college student or graduate student or somebody who’s just started working. Some possible explanations:

  • Young people do like attention from adults when that attention comes through spontaneous voluntary interaction rather than in a coercive, authoritative context. Such spontaneous interaction signals to the young person that he/she is being treated on (approximately) equal footing with the adult, rather than a child to be bossed around.
  • We’ve been concentrating on smart, curious people, who often don’t find good intellectual companionship in their same-age peers. These people in particular benefit from adult attention. In particular, a very smart young person may be intellectually equal to a not-so-smart older person, and can have a productive conversation that’s stimulating to both parties.

Whether one of the above reasons holds or something else is at play, I think it’s worth considering methods to encourage more interaction between young people and older people in context that aren’t authoritative. Since one-on-one discussion is often infeasible, the best approach might be to encourage young people to participate more in forums where many adults have high-quality discussion but where the barrier to entry isn’t high. Possible examples are QuoraLess WrongStack Exchange – Free, Community-Powered Q&A, perhaps even Reddit (albeit the quality at Reddit is quite uneven). Similarly, adults who participate on these forums may benefit from keeping an eye out for promising young people and offering special encouragement to them, perhaps offering to connect one-on-one with them (though they need to make sure not to creep out the young people, who may be unused to being contacted by strangers).

Related Cognito Mentoring content: Maintaining your online presence (intended as advice for people starting out with building their online presence).

High school students and epistemic rationality

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Less Wrong

In a recent post, I considered the feasibility and desirability of exposing high school students to the ideas of effective altruism. In this post, I consider the value of exposing them to the idea of epistemic rationality. Epistemic rationality refers to rationality in thinking about stuff. This is related to but distinct from instrumental rationality, which is rationality in one’s actual decisions and actions in the pursuit of life goals. For more on the distinction, see herehere, and here.

Epistemic rationality is championed at LessWrong and by the organizations affiliated with LessWrong (including CFAR and MIRI). It’s also potentially of broader interest than effective altruism, although in my mind, the two idea clusters are closely intertwined.

As with my effective altruism post, I consider two questions:

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

1. Are people in high school ready to understand the ideas of epistemic rationality?

The answer to this question largely depends on what people you’re referring to, and what ideas you are referring to. The ideas involved range from the sort that anybody who plans to go to college should be able to understand, to ones that require a good grounding in probability theory, economics, calculus, or other subjects. An abstract understanding of basic cognitive biases, such as correlation versus causationconfirmation bias, the fundamental attribution error, or theillusion of transparency, is at the easy end. Something like the litany of Tarski is probably somewhere in the middle. A proper understanding of conditional probabilities and Bayes’ theorem is at the hard end. It’s possible to convey such understanding without the technical mathematics, but that arguably requires even more skill on the part of both the teacher and the learner. There’s also a significant gap between just having an abstract understanding of a cognitive bias and actually applying it when thinking about specific problems. The factors that predict whether a person will actually apply their epistemic rationality to specific situations is unclear. In particular, it’s not necessarily true that more intelligent people will apply their abstractly acquired rationality to thinking about problems, at least once the basic intelligence threshold needed to understand the bias is crossed.

As I mentioned in my post What we learned about Less Wrong from Cognito Mentoring advising, there seem to be more quite a few high school students lurking around the site. Of the ones who corresponded with Cognito Mentoring, many wrote emails of fairly high quality, demonstrating fairly good epistemic rationality skills in their analysis of t heir own lives and the world at large. This is some evidence in favor of high school students being capable of mastering the basics of epistemic rationality.

High school students are also entering a phase of their lives where they have to start being instrumentally rational with respect to long-term goals. They may not yet have fully formed their habits of instrumental rationality. Thus, at least some of them may be attracted to epistemic rationality with the explicit goal of trying to become more instrumentally rational. My guess is that people in high school are somewhat more likely to view epistemic rationality as a tool to actually making better life decisions (instrumental rationality) than those first exposed to epistemic rationality ideas as adults. The latter are already somewhat locked in to choices that they may not wish to question, and may be more reluctant to start down a path that would make them question their past choices.

As with effective altruism, one challenge is to package epistemic rationality attractively to people. Including rationality in school curricula is one approach. Rationalist fiction such as Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is another approach.

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

I’ll assume here (without justification) that some basic knowledge of epistemic rationality ideas is helpful in personal decision-making and academic study. There is debate about the level to which this is true, much of which can be found on LessWrong (for starters, see herehereherehere, and here).

As mentioned above, high school students are just starting to explore questions about making long-term choices. They don’t have ingrained habits on that front. Therefore, they may be more willing to shape their instrumental rationality using what they learn in epistemic rationality. To be concrete, they may be willing to apply the lessons they learn from epistemic rationality to choices related to college, careers, subjects to study and major in, extracurricular activities, etc.

On the other hand, it could be argued that high school students are too young and inexperienced to truly benefit from epistemic rationality. They haven’t been sobered by real-world experience enough to start taking their decision-making seriously. On this view, adults who have been burned by bad decisions in the past, or who have seen others being burned that way, are more likely to use all the tools at their disposal (including lessons from epistemic rationality) to make good decisions.

While there is some truth to both views, I’m personally inclined to give more weight to the former. Further, even to the extent that the latter is true, knowing the ideas in advance seems benign. Perhaps people start applying rationality only when they are older and more experienced. But knowing the ideas while still in high school might allow them to apply the ideas as soon as they become applicable (later in life) rather than having to hunt around for them at that later stage.

Biomedical research, superstars, and innovation

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Less Wrong. Related information wiki content: biomedical research as a career optionsocial value of biomedical research.

As part of my work for Cognito Mentoring reviewing biomedical research as a career option (not much at the link there right now), I came across an interview with biomedical researcher John Todd of Cambridge University published by 80,000 Hours.

The whole interview is interesting, but one part of it struck me as interesting and somewhat hard to believe:

John would prefer a good person in his lab to an extra £0.5mn in annual funding. Generally, there are enough grants, so finding good people is a bigger constraint than money.

Here’s the full context:

Our candidate does data analysis in finance, earning over $100,000 per year. They have an Economics degree for Chicago, and an Masters in Financial Engineering from University of California, LA, and reasonable programming skills. They’re planning to do an MD then PhD.

“This guy looks great. I’d love to hire him.” (when he has his MD, or even before).

“The MD and programming/statistics combo is lethal. Top of the world. There’s major demand.”

He probably wouldn’t need to do a PhD, because of the programming. After his MD, he could just apply to a lab. He should go into genomic medicine, which is what I do. Tailored therapeutics or stratified medicine will be played out for major health and economic benefits over the next 30 years. Check out Atul Butte at Stanford. He’s the perfect profile for this guy. He could be the new Butte” 

£0.5mn is about USD 830,000 according to current foreign exchange rates. In other words, John Todd, the interviewee, indicated that a sufficiently good researcher was worth that much. Now, the question was framed in terms of additionalfunding, rather than reallocation of existing funds. But assuming that the existing funding for the biomedical research lab is at least one order of magnitude greater than the amount (£0.5mn) under discussion, I don’t think it matters whether we’re talking of using additional funding or reallocating existing funds. Essentially, I read John Todd as saying that he’d be willing to pay £0.5mn to attract a “good person” to his lab (actually, as framed, it could be interpreted as even more: he’s willing to pay an ordinary salary for the person, plus forgo £0.5mn in additional funds, to hire the person). Note: I clarified with Ben Todd, the interviewer, that the additional grants were per-year rather than one-time grants, so the relevant comparison is indeed between the grant amount and annual income.

I haven’t surveyed the biomedical research community, so I’m not sure how representative John Todd’s opinion here is. Andrew McMichael offers a more guarded response, suggesting that 200,000 pounds are not as good as a great researcher, but he’s less sure at half a million pounds, and in any case, good researchers bring in their own grant money, so it’s a false dichotomy. But I’ve heard that there are other people at biomedical research labs who place even higher value on hiring good people than John Todd does. So in the absence of more detailed information, I’ll take John Todd’s view as a representative median view of a segment of biomedical research labs.

So, question: why don’t there exist high-paid positions of that sort in biomedical research for entry-level people? For comparison, one list of the top ten professors in the US lists the tenth highest paid professor as earning slightly under US$500,000. The list is probably far from complete (Douglas Knight points in the comments to Chicago having at least 5 salaries over $700K, one in the business school and four in the medical school). Glassdoor list salaries at the J. Craig Venter Institute, and the highest listed salary is for professors (about $200,000), with all other salaries near or below $100,000.

I asked a slightly more general version of the question in this blog post. I’ll briefly list below the general explanations provided there, with some comments on the applicability of those to the context of biomedical research as I understand it.

  1. Talent constraint because of cash constraint: I don’t think this applies to biomedical research. It’s not that I think they are adequately funded, but rather, they do have enough funds that there shouldn’t be a great different between how they would use additional funds and how they would reallocate existing funds.
  2. Genuine absence of talented people: I think that this does apply in the very short run — it’s hard for somebody to acquire a M.D. and experience with programming at short notice. But this raises a whole host of questions: why not advertise for such positions prominently, promising high pay, so that people can use the existence of such positions to make more long-term plans of what subjects to study while they’re still in college?
  3. Talented people would or should be willing to work for low pay: While this argument works well in the context of effective altruism (because of the altruistic orientation needed for top work), I’m not sure it works for biomedical research. I don’t see biomedical research as qualitatively different from computer programming or finance in terms of how altruistic people need to be to work productively.
  4. Workplace egalitarianism and morale: There may be friction in labs if some people get paid a lot more, particularly if other workers aren’t convinced that the people getting paid more are really working harder. This is a problem everywhere, including in the programming world. One solution that the programming world has come up with is to offer different levels of stock compensation. Another solution is acquihires: rather than paying huge salaries to star programmers, companies buy startups that have collected a large number of star programmers under their roof, and the programmers cash in on the huge amount of money reaped through the sale. Neither of these specific solutions works in the context of nonprofit, university, or government research.
  5. Irrationality of funders: Employers and their funders are reluctant to pay large amounts. Biomedical research labs are often affiliated with universities and need to use the payscales of the universities. Even those that rely on other donations may be afraid that their donors will balk if they pay huge salaries.

Of course, one possibility is that none of these explanations really matter and I’m overinterpreting offhand remarks that were not intended to be taken literally. But before jumping to that conclusion, I’d like to get a clearer sense of the dynamics at play.

The nature of the explanation could also affect the social value of going into biomedical research in the following sense: if (3), (4), or (5) are big issues, that could be an indicator that perhaps superstars aren’t valued much by their peers and funders (relative to the need to make people conform to norms of taking low pay). This suggests (though it doesn’t prove) that perhaps the workplace doesn’t offer enough flexibility for the sort of ambitious changes that superstars may bring about, so the marginal value of superstars in practice isn’t as high as it could be in principle. In other words, if your bosses don’t value your work enough in practice to pay you what they say you’re worth, maybe they won’t give you the autonomy to actually achieve that. On a related note, this GiveWell blog post hints that many experts think that bureaucracy, paperwork, and a bias in favor of older, established scientists, all get in the way of accomplishment for young, talented researchers:

  • The existing system favors researchers with strong track records, and is not good at supporting young investigators. This was the most commonly raised concern, and is mentioned in all three of our public interviews.
  • The existing system favors a particular brand of research – generally incremental testing of particular hypotheses – and is less suited to supporting research that doesn’t fit into this mold.Research that doesn’t fit into this mold may include:
    • Very high-risk research representing a small chance of a big breakthrough.
    • Research that focuses on developing improved tools and techniques (for example, better microscopy or better genome sequencing), rather than on directly investigating particular hypotheses.
    • “Translational research” aiming to improve the transition between basic scientific discoveries and clinical applications, and not focused on traditionally “academic” topics (for example, research focusing on predicting drug toxicity).
  • The existing system focuses on time-consuming, paperwork-heavy grant applications for individual investigators; more attention to differently structured grants and grant applications would be welcome. These could include mechanisms focused on providing small amounts of funding, along with feedback on ideas, quickly and with minimal paperwork, as well as mechanisms focused on supporting larger-scale projects that require collaboration between multiple investigators.

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?