Rationality as a social movement

Haven’t you heard, rationality is the new cool social movement? It’s not about being selfish or unemotional; we already have words for those things. Rationality is the non-trivial human art of reasoning and acting effectively to achieve goals. It’s especially cool to be rational in the pursuit of altruistic goals like saving people’s lives, and rationality in one’s personal life can help free up tangible and emotional resources to do that.

Happily, interest in rationality has been building in communities like the Singularity Institute, LessWrong, GiveWell, 80,000 Hours, and now CFAR, and I hope this trend continues.

The idea is simple: very often, we need accurate beliefs to inform our decisions. Think of medicine. Sometimes we actually have to think things through and understand how they really work in order to effect them in a positive way. This can be true both in our personal lives, and when it comes to helping the world at large. In fact, effective altruism is the application of rationality that interests me the most.

But unfortunately, in the past people have commonly associated rationality with Hollywood caricatures like Mr. Spock and sociopaths like homo economicus, who by design do not exemplify such goals.

So we’re not going to do that anymore.

In spring 2012, Nisan Stiennon (Stanford) and I ran a weekly seminar in the Berkeley math department called the Math, Productivity, Happiness & Decision-making seminar, where we discussed applications of rational and even mathematical thought to our fuzzier, every-day-life sort of goals. It was very well attended! Before that, in anticipation of the seminar, in summer 2011 I was invited to teach at a workshop on “rationality and social effectiveness” sponsored by SingInst. The workshop was a hit, and was one of many confluent events leading to the formation of the Center for Applied Rationality. CFAR ran four more workshops in 2012: three for adults, and one for high-school students, all of which I helped teach.

One of our core objectives is to take rational thought out of armchairs and into action, including actions we need to help us learn where our thoughts were wrong. For now, let me summarize my own view on normative rationality as I did for the MPHD seminar:

Most of us want to be happierget things donehelp other peoplehave a sense of purpose, and achieve other such deeply human goals. In this seminar, we hope to take advantage of our analytic minds — our comparative advantage as mathematical thinkers — to address these goals. Some of our guiding principles are:
  • Improving on purpose:  Life skills like time-management, emotional stability, motivation, and communication will affect all of our goals for the rest of our lives, so they’re probably worth improving on purpose instead of by random walk.
  • Learning from science:  Fields like psychology, neuroscience, education, and economics can tell us a lot about what a good strategy looks like and how to implement one on an organic human brain.
  • Reasoning under uncertainty:  Hating uncertainty won’t make it go away. We still have to make decisions constantly, so refining our mental and emotional probabilistic reasoning skills is likely to be worth a non-zero allocation of time and awareness. The skill of belief updating — noticing and internalizing evidence — is especially worth upgrading from decent to awesome, and heuristics from probability, statistics, and artificial intelligence can help us quantify what me mean by that.
  • Working together:  We can learn more about life if we work together than on our own. For that it helps to have a common language to understand each other, and to consciously formulate our beliefs and values in a way that can be communicated and analyzed.