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mdcaton comments on Guessing the Teacher's Password - Less Wrong

62 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 August 2007 03:40AM

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Comment author: mdcaton 11 August 2011 05:04:53PM *  4 points [-]

Although this is an old article I came to it from the Theory of Knowledge article (link below). I'm commenting because this crystallizes my objections to a repeated theme at LW: that irrationality comes from unquestioned cached thoughts, and that modern education systems exacerbate this tendency. In other words, I'm questioning whether password-guessing and memorization in education are actually avoidable, even at the highest levels of optimization, and whether this isn't in fact the result of the expansion of knowledge and the limits of human cognition.

I'm not even going to argue whether those are true statements and whether they are bad. But my own background has raised questions about what the solution might be. My idealistic assumptions about how people should learn used to track the predominant ones on LW much more closely. I'm currently in a technical graduate program for a profession that is different from most other types of graduate programs because in this field, the first few years are spent memorizing huge reams of information and taking multiple choice tests (have a guess as to what I'm studying?) My fellow students and I would genuinely love to really understand from a critical perspective all the information that is getting shoveled into our brains. But doing that, rather than memorizing lists of word correspondences, takes time that we just don't have. Therefore in reality our tests are really just exercises in figuring out which bar to press so we get the food pellet. (I like that analogy better than "guessing passwords".) And perhaps most scandalous, once we're "in the system", we students recognize the need for it to be this way even though it's frustrating.

Scandal! Unethical? Stupid? Cynical, at least? Maybe yes to all. But the pragmatic reality is that there's a trade-off. There's such a massive amount of material that no human who ever lived would be able to critically digest it all unless the training lasted far longer than it does, and while the system is certainly not optimized, the body of knowledge itself is so rife with detail not predictable from first principles that until the limits on cognition fundamentally change, this will continue to be the case.

So, regarding the strategy students can adopt, the two ends of the spectrum are: 1) You can just memorize details long enough to regurgitate them in the lever-pressing experiments, and understand nothing critically; or 2) You can insist on trying to critically understand everything, and you will certainly fall behind and fail. You. Yes, you, reading this, because you're human, and this applies to all humans. ("Not me! I'm special! I still care about my fellow man, the human spirit, etc." Sorry, can you tell I've had this conversation before?)

Unfortunately, given the pace the material is presented and tested, you'll end up much closer to #1 than #2. Even if you disagree with my assessment that a body of knowledge can be such that large amounts of memorization are necessary, this still raises the omnipresent problem of how to maximize whatever it is you want to maximize while surrounded by irrational humans (who are running the schools, and who believe that memorization is necessary). If you want to do the thing you're being trained for, you need the piece of paper. To get that paper, you have to pass the tests. To pass the tests you need to just memorize and not think. I guess I could just declare the whole enterprise unethical and forget about this profession and move out in the woods somewhere. So if you can tell me how to maximize career satisfaction and income out in a nice forest away from everyone instead of memorizing reams of B.S., I'm all ears. Seriously.

As knowledge accumulates, this problem is only going to get worse, and extend to more fields. Certainly education has not yet been optimized but all fields are not math and physics, and there's enough unpredictable detail in the world that as knowledge accumulates, so will the memorization required to learn that knowledge. And if we can't always use critical thinking at every step - which we can't - then password-guessing is better than nothing.

Post I came in from: http://lesswrong.com/lw/70d/theory_of_knowledge_rationality_outreach/

Comment author: lessdazed 11 August 2011 05:52:10PM 3 points [-]

In the school system, it's all about verbal behavior, whether written on paper or spoken aloud. Verbal behavior gets you a gold star or a failing grade. Part of unlearning this bad habit is becoming consciously aware of the difference between an explanation and a password.

In other words, I'm questioning whether password-guessing and memorization in education are actually avoidable, even at the highest levels of optimization

So, regarding the strategy students can adopt, the two ends of the spectrum are...I guess I could just declare the whole enterprise unethical and forget about this profession and move out in the woods somewhere.

This seems like shifting the goalposts. How the system should be and what to do given that it is what it is are different questions. The OP addresses the first and you criticize it as if it addresses the latter.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 August 2011 05:55:20PM 4 points [-]

that irrationality comes from unquestioned cached thoughts, and that modern education systems exacerbate this tendency.

I don't think LW claims that's the only place irrationality comes from. There's the various biases, an inability to update, akrasia, and so on...

I'm currently in a technical graduate program for a profession that is different from most other types of graduate programs because in this field, the first few years are spent memorizing huge reams of information and taking multiple choice tests (have a guess as to what I'm studying?)

Actuarial science, I imagine. My second guess is pharmacy, but that seems less technical than actuarial science.

And perhaps most scandalous, once we're "in the system", we students recognize the need for it to be this way even though it's frustrating.

Can you explain specifically "the need for it to be this way"? Would a person learning these things via SRS or a comparable long-term memorization system not wipe the floor with the crammers in real life? If someone who actually knows the material isn't at an advantage, then why do you need to know these things in the first place.

I ask because I'm leaning toward "recognizing in hindsight the reason behind the structure of the system" is a bias in its own right, though I can't say its been analyzed anywhere, and I don't have enough evidence to definitively say one way or another.

I'm a math grad student, and I also have a larger-than-feasibly-possible, unwieldy mess of information I need to learn, but I don't get the mercy of a multiple-choice exam.

So, regarding the strategy students can adopt, the two ends of the spectrum are: 1) You can just memorize details long enough to regurgitate them in the lever-pressing experiments, and understand nothing critically; or 2) You can insist on trying to critically understand everything, and you will certainly fall behind and fail.

False dichotomy.

If you want to do the thing you're being trained for, you need the piece of paper. To get that paper, you have to pass the tests. To pass the tests you need to just memorize and not think.

Step two to three is lacking in justification.

I guess I could just declare the whole enterprise unethical and forget about this profession and move out in the woods somewhere. So if you can tell me how to maximize career satisfaction and income out in a nice forest away from everyone instead of memorizing reams of B.S., I'm all ears. Seriously.

What? If you truly feel the profession is unethical (and why you would feel this way is not quite clear), pivot into another profession. It's not like everyone has to be a physicist or a construction worker. There are plenty of professions in the world (though perhaps not as many jobs as there used to be, I suppose).

As knowledge accumulates, this problem is only going to get worse, and extend to more fields.

That's why we have SRS, nootropics, expert systems and (ultimately, someday) FAI.

Certainly education has not yet been optimized but all fields are not math and physics, and there's enough unpredictable detail in the world that as knowledge accumulates, so will the memorization required to learn that knowledge.

Heh! Math has plenty of "unpredictable detail." Heh.

And if we can't always use critical thinking at every step - which we can't - then password-guessing is better than nothing.

There's a difference between password-guessing and memorization that I think you've ignored in this... well, for lack of a better word, rant. There's nothing wrong with memorizing facts; there's everything wrong with memorizing the answers to questions.

For instance, at some point a pharmacist needs to memorize that, say, grapefruit juice is contraindicated for some kinds of high blood pressure medicine (or was it cholesterol medicine? I don't know, I'm not a pharmacist.) If we ask them, "What do I need to know about high blood pressure medicine?", the answer "Don't take it with grapefruit juice," isn't a fake answer.

What would be a fake answer is if we were taking a different class of HBP medicine that didn't interact with grapefruit juice, but the pharmacist said "Don't take it with grapefruit juice," anyway on the principle that grapefruit juice interacts with some HBP medicines.

That's probably unclear, but I'm sure someone else will clarify the situation better.

Comment author: lessdazed 11 August 2011 05:59:07PM 2 points [-]

I don't think LW claims that's the only place irrationality comes from. There's the various biases, an inability to update, akrasia, and so on...

Analogously,

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Chapter 1, first line

Comment author: wedrifid 11 August 2011 08:28:38PM 3 points [-]

So, regarding the strategy students can adopt, the two ends of the spectrum are: 1) You can just memorize details long enough to regurgitate them in the lever-pressing experiments, and understand nothing critically; or 2) You can insist on trying to critically understand everything, and you will certainly fall behind and fail.

False dichotomy.

Nothing described as "two ends of the spectrum" is ever a false dichotomy. Or a true dichotomy, for that matter.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 August 2011 08:42:35PM 0 points [-]

While they do sometimes treat this as two ends of a spectrum, their ultimate conclusion

To pass the tests you need to just memorize and not think.

Relies on the earlier (perhaps unstated, or implicitly stated) premise that 1) and 2) are mutually exclusive.

Comment author: wedrifid 11 August 2011 10:02:19PM 2 points [-]

If you believe that the passage in question is a false dichotomy then you either do not understand what a dichotomy is or you parsed the quoted text incorrectly. The two ends of the spectrum are mutually exclusive (and look somewhat extreme) but for them to be dichotomous the entire rest of the spectrum - all the moderate parts - must be excluded.

Even if the text is somehow wrong or stupid it is not a false dichotomy.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 August 2011 10:26:58PM *  1 point [-]

Would you rather I called it a fake spectrum?

EDIT: I really don't understand the issue. In order to apply excluded middle to reach the conclusion, they have to both hold that the two ends of the spectrum are dichotomous, and that the rest of the spectrum either doesn't exist, or is inconsequential. So it's a spectrum in a name only, which as far as I can see is as good as a false dichotomy.

Comment author: wedrifid 11 August 2011 10:44:02PM 1 point [-]

Would you rather I called it a fake spectrum?

That is one of many things you could say that isn't just strictly and trivially false.

But it isn't my preferences you are satisfying. I don't mind if you say wrong things, I'm just going to reply with a correction if you do. (So 'rather?' is a strange question!)

Comment author: [deleted] 11 August 2011 10:50:07PM 2 points [-]

Let me rephrase, then. "Is there anything you would correct in characterizing the aforementioned as a fake spectrum?"

Honestly, if I have to write so strictly, it's almost too much effort.

Comment author: wedrifid 11 August 2011 11:04:11PM *  1 point [-]

I thought the answer 'no' would have come across, even while I distanced myself from the personal connotations.

Comment author: JGWeissman 11 August 2011 05:55:32PM 3 points [-]

An alternative to having students of a field incrementally memorize its information for regurgitation on tests only to forget most of it after the test, would be to store the information in a well organized database and teach students how to search the database for information relevant to the current problem they face.

I don't know how a student in the field could achieve this change.

However, there are fields, such as software engineering, where you can work that way if you want, and make lots of money without getting licenses or degrees from established institutions.

(It is encouraged to read old posts, and comment on them when you have something to say.)