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.

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