Theory of Knowledge (rationality outreach)

Public schools (and ar­guably pri­vate schools as well; I wouldn’t know) teach stu­dents what to think, not how to think.

On LessWrong, this in­sight is so triv­ial not to bear re­peat­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, I think many peo­ple have adopted it as an im­mutable fact about the world that will be cor­rected post-Sin­gu­lar­ity, rather than a to­tally un­ac­cept­able state of af­fairs which we should be do­ing some­thing about now. The con­sen­sus seems to be that a class teach­ing the ba­sic prin­ci­ples of think­ing would be a huge step to­wards rais­ing the san­ity wa­ter­line, but that it will never hap­pen. Well, my school has one. It’s called The­ory of Knowl­edge, and it’s offered at 2,307 schools wor­ld­wide as part of the IB Di­ploma Pro­gram.

The IB Di­ploma, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized high school pro­gram. It re­quires stu­dents to pass tests in 6 sub­ject ar­eas, jump through a num­ber of other hoops, and take an ad­di­tional class called The­ory of Knowl­edge.

For the record, I’m not con­vinced the IB Di­ploma Pro­gram is a good thing. It doesn’t re­ally solve any of the prob­lems with pub­lic schools, it shares the frus­trat­ing fo­cus on stan­dard­ized test­ing and pass­word-guess­ing in­stead of real learn­ing, etc. But I think The­ory of Knowl­edge is a huge op­por­tu­nity to spread the ideas of ra­tio­nal­ity.

What kinds of peo­ple sign up for the IB Di­ploma? It is con­sid­ered more rigor­ous than A-lev­els in Bri­tain, and dra­mat­i­cally more rigor­ous than stan­dard classes in the United States (I would con­sider it ap­prox­i­mately equal to tak­ing 5 or 6 AP classes a year). Most kids en­gaged in this pro­gram are in­tel­li­gent, mo­ti­vated and in­ter­ested in the world around them. They seem, (through my in­for­mal sur­vey method of talk­ing to lots of them) to have a higher click fac­tor than av­er­age.

The prob­lem is that cur­rently, The­ory of Knowl­edge is a waste of time. There isn’t much in the way of stan­dards for a cur­ricu­lum, and in the en­tire last semester we cov­ered less con­tent than I learn from any given top-level LessWrong post. We de­bated the na­ture of truth for 4 months; most peo­ple do not come up with in­ter­est­ing an­swers to this on their own ini­ti­a­tive, so the con­ver­sa­tion went in cir­cles around “There’s no such thing as truth!” “Now, that’s just stupid.” the whole time. When I men­tion LessWrong to my friends, I gen­er­ally ex­plain it as “What ToK would be like, if ToK was ac­tu­ally good.”

At my school, we reg­u­larly have speak­ers come in and dis­cuss var­i­ous top­ics dur­ing ToK, mostly be­cause the reg­u­lar in­struc­tor doesn’t have any idea what to say. The only qual­ifi­ca­tions seem to be a pulse and some knowl­edge of English (we’ve had pre­sen­ters who aren’t fluent). If LessWrong posters wanted to call up the IB school near­est you and offer to pre­sent on ra­tio­nal­ity, I’m al­most cer­tain peo­ple would agree. This seems like a good op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice speak­ing/​pre­sent­ing in a low-stakes situ­a­tion, and a great way to ex­pose smart, mo­ti­vated kids to ra­tio­nal­ity.

I think a good pre­sen­ta­tion would fo­cus on the mean­ing of ev­i­dence, what we mean by “ra­tio­nal­ity”, and mak­ing be­liefs pay rent, all top­ics we’ve touched on with­out say­ing any­thing mean­ingful. We’ve also dis­cussed Pop­per’s falsifi­ca­tion­ism, and about half your au­di­ence will already be fa­mil­iar with Bayes’ the­o­rem through statis­tics classes but not as a model of in­duc­tive rea­son­ing in gen­eral.

If you’d be in­ter­ested in this but don’t know where to start in terms of prepar­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion, Liron’s pre­sen­ta­tion “You Are A Brain” seems like a good place to start. De­sign­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion along these lines might also be a good ac­tivity for a meetup group.