Tag Archives: high school

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.

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.

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

By Vipul Naik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quora as a great but underused resource for high school students

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Quora

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

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

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

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

How my math skills improved dramatically

By Jonah Sinick

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

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

I became motivated to learn more

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

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

I learned from multiple expositions

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

I learned basic techniques in the context of interesting problems

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

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

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