Let’s Rename Ourselves The “Metacognitive Movement”

Associations, Definitions, Prosody

The name “rationality movement,” or “rationalism,” has several problems. It sounds self-congratulatory. It’s the name of a 17th-century anti-empirical movement. It’s defined as “the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic,” which seems to oppose intuition, tradition, and emotion, whereas we’re open to those sources of information.

Sometimes, people try to use names like “aspiring rationalist,” “rationalish,” or “LessWrong community.” None are great. “LessWrong” community doesn’t explain much to outsiders. “Aspiring rationalist” comes with the baggage of the word “rationalist.” And “rationalish” fails to speak in the positive.

“Metacognition” is defined as “thinking about thinking.” That’s exactly what we do. It’s untainted by history or politics, and intuitively seems more attractive and accessible to outsiders. It has a more humble vibe. And it’s as, if not more popular than the word “rationality” on Google Trends.

One review article defines metacognition as a combination of knowledge and regulation. Knowledge is about oneself as a learner, factors affecting performance, strategies for meta-cognition, and use cases for those strategies. Regulation is about self-monitoring one’s own thinking, including planning, self-awareness, and evaluation.

Mapping “rationality” words to “metacognition” words shows that metacognition is mostly either the same length, or shorter.

“Rationality” word”Metacognition” wordEffect of switch on prosody
RationalistMeta-thinkerSame length.
Less aggressive, more academic.
Could be good or bad.
Rationalism, RationalityMetacognition,
Same length or shorter.
Uses a common word (“think”).
Rationalist MovementMetacognitive Movement,
Meta-Thinking Movement
Longer or same length.
Creates alliteration.

One further factor is that “rationalists” can be shortened to “rats,” which is nifty, though occasionally used/​confused as an insult. I don’t have an equivalently cute shortening for “meta-thinkers.” Maybe “cogs?”

Building Links To Scientific Literature

Metacognition has an evidence base, including findings that metacognition can be trained, causes performance improvements, and is independent of IQ. One review article (below) also links metacognition to “cumulative culture,” which seems to be a term for “cultural transmission of knowledge,” i.e. The Secret of Our Success.

I’ve linked below to a range of popular books, textbooks, and scientific review articles on metacognition. Among the popular books, some of them are foundational to our movement (Thinking, Fast and Slow, Antifragile, The Elephant In The Brain), while others are new and might be valuable. There is a note about how to get the scientific review articles without institutional access.

This lets us interface more easily with literature and professionals working on our interests. Being able to import and export useful concepts from the academic literature has always been one of the motors of this movement.

One potential disadvantage of using the term “metacognitive movement” is that it might be too specific. After all, most people don’t associate “metacognition” with our community’s interest in economics, X-risk, politics, statistics, and computation. On the other hand, “rationalism” doesn’t do an obviously better job of pointing to those issues. And on the positive side, this lets us understand what we’re doing as an intersection between metacognition and a variety of other academic disciplines, which helps explain why it’s a productive area for original insights.

But It’s Already Our Name!

We’ve already been using the “rationality” or “rationalist” movement for a while. It has brand name recognition. At this point, probably far more of the people we talk to associate “rationalist movement” as pointing to us as opposed to an antiquated 17th-century philosophical movement.

Paul Graham thinks that companies should be more open to changing their name, especially if someone else owns the .com URL. All the one-word .com URLs related to “rational” and “metacognition” are taken. More generally, if what we’re trying to do is set ourselves apart from other movements and academic trends—an argument I’ll dig into below—it might be better to name ourselves after an obscure movement and tendentious term, rather than a popular academic field.

Also, “rationalist” movement is only one of our names. We also use LessWrong, “rationalish,” “skeptics,” and probably others, not to mention the slew of institutional names associated with effective altruism.

But if “metacognitive movement” is a better name, then we should consider adopting it. If we can’t solve that coordination problem, then I’m worried about our ability to solve the more important ones.

“Metacognition” Might Be Too Specific Or Too General

Our community and movement isn’t just about adopting academic metacognitive techniques used to teach grade schoolers. It’s a particular approach to primarily adult metacognition. We focus on statistics, X-risk, politics, moral frameworks, and scientific skepticism and interpretation, partly because we think these are important general meta-cognitive considerations. We also are a niche community that attracts a certain type of mind, from a certain type of social, cultural, and economic background.

If we want to preserve the particularity of our movement, as well we might want to resist a name-change that connects us with an academic literature that is both broader and narrower than our own concerns. If that were desirable, we could get more specific with terms like “X-risk-related metacognition,” “Yudkowskian metacognition,” or “Bay Area metacognition.” But those are longer, and might be unattractive names for other reasons.

By setting ourselves apart from mainstream education-focused research on metacognition, we create a sort of intellectual island effect. This promotes a more unique evolution of our own ideas (though I wonder if it more often promotes insular dwarfish or gigantism).

Maybe instead of “rats,” we should be giant island snails.

However, I also suspect that many people in this community see themselves as interested in thinking about thinking in a more general sense. Many of us might actually be able to benefit greatly from the basic metacognitive training that the standard academic literature focuses on. Some might see a name that links us to a more mainstream academic and social world as attractive.

Crux: “Rationalism” Is An Activist Term

Many in this community are focused not just on developing their personal metacognitive skills, but on an activist agenda that includes X-risk mitigation and social/​political issues. “Rationalism” could be a useful name for this agenda precisely because of its signaling and status implications, the whiff of superiority that some people see in it. Maybe the name is meant to suggest, “these are urgent issues, and if you’re not working on them, you’re not being rational.

The reticence we feel in some cases about calling ourselves “rationalist” might reflect a genuine discomfort with the same. But maybe terms like “aspiring rationalist” and “rationalish” are better understood as a tactical move in certain situations, a way of making ourselves small when need be.

It helps define an outward-facing activist movement, rather than an inward-facing cultural community. Poetically, it sounds more aggressive. “Rational” inner-rhymes with “slash,” and sounds more energetic than the academic-sounding “metacognitive.” If the issues are as serious as we tend to think they are, and if the name is doing work to convince people of that, then more power to it. If I had to give one reason why this name change should fail, this would be it.

Could “Metacognitive Movement” be better than “Rationalist Movement” as an activist term?

First, renaming things doesn’t always change their associations much. That’s a bad thing if the name change is to escape a bad reputation. But it’s good if you’re trying to preserve a reputation, as we would be here. Renaming ourselves might help us export ideas to the mainstream, not just be taken over by it. Since the idea of promoting metacognition is pretty popular both inside and outside academia, mainstreaming these ideas could usefully push the Overton window on ideas like EA and X-risk and free up some weirdness points.

List Of Metacognition Literature

Popular Books

Goodreads and Amazon both have plenty of books on metacognition. Some are familiar to this community, while others aren’t discussed much.

Textbooks (in order of publication year)

  • Cognition, Metacognition, and Culture in STEM Education: Learning, Teaching and Assessment (2017): “We explore theoretical background and cutting-edge research about how various forms of cognitive and metacognitive instruction may enhance learning and thinking in STEM classrooms from K-12 to university and in different cultures and countries.” $17, eBook

  • Improving Reading Comprehension through Metacognitive Reading Strategies Instruction (2016): “This book addresses the need to help all students, including English learners, improve their ability to read with understanding so that they can succeed not just in their language and literacy classes, but also in their subject area classrooms.” $46 eBook, $75-$100 paper book

  • Metacognition, 1st edition (Dunlosky and Metcalfe, 2009): “Metacognition is the first textbook to focus on people′s extraordinary ability to evaluate and control their cognitive processes. This comprehensive text covers both theoretical and empirical metacognitive research in educational, developmental, cognitive and applied psychology.” ~$60 (eBook, paper book)

  • Applied Metacognition (2002): “This study overviews the relationship between theories in metacognition and their real-world applications. In addition to a theoretical overview, chapters cover metacognition in three areas: education, everyday life memory and in diverse populations.” $21 on Amazon

  • Emotional Disorders and Metacognition: Innovative Cognitive Therapy (2002): “The clinical experience of cognitive therapies is adding to the understanding of emotional disorders. Based on clinical experience and evidence, this groundbreaking book represents a development of cognitive therapy through the concept of metacognition.” $90, paperback

  • Metacognition in Learning and Instruction (Hartman, 2001): “Contributions by leading experts and others to understanding the crucial role of metacognition in relation to broad areas of education make this collection a uniquely stimulating book. It encompasses metacognition in both the neglected area of teaching and the more well-established area of learning.” $120 eBook, $160 paper book

  • Metacognition (Metcalfe and Shimamura, 1996, MIT press): “Metacognition offers an up-to-date compendium of major scientific issues involved in metacognition. The twelve original contributions provide a concise statement of theoretical and empirical research on self-reflective processes or knowing about what we know.” ~$35 (soft cover)

Selected scientific review articles (ordered by year)

Note: www.sci-hub.se is a wonderful, convenient pirate website for the academic literature your tax dollars paid to produce and publish. None of the links below directly link to sci-hub, but if you paste the URLs of the closed-access articles into the sci-hub.se search bar, you should be able to download them.