High school students and epistemic rationality

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 here, here, 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 cau­sa­tion, con­fir­ma­tion bias, the fun­da­men­tal at­tri­bu­tion er­ror, or the illu­sion 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 here, here, here, here, 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.