Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

To Learn Critical Thinking, Study Critical Thinking

26 gwern 07 July 2012 11:50PM

Critical thinking courses may increase students’ rationality, especially if they do argument mapping.

The following excerpts are from “Does philosophy improve critical thinking skills?”, Ortiz 2007.

1 Excerpts

This thesis makes a first attempt to subject the assumption that studying [Anglo-American analytic] philosophy improves critical thinking skills to rigorous investigation.

…Thus the second task, in Chapter 3, is to articulate and critically examine the standard arguments that are raised in support of the assumption (or rather, would be raised if philosophers were in the habit of providing support for the assumption). These arguments are found to be too weak to establish the truth of the assumption. The failure of the standard arguments leaves open the question of whether the assumption is in fact true. The thesis argues at this point that, since the assumption is making an empirical assertion, it should be investigated using standard empirical techniques as developed in the social sciences. In Chapter 4, I conduct an informal review of the empirical literature. The review finds that evidence from the existing empirical literature is inconclusive. Chapter 5 presents the empirical core of the thesis. I use the technique of meta-analysis to integrate data from a large number of empirical studies. This meta-analysis gives us the best yet fix on the extent to which critical thinking skills improve over a semester of studying philosophy, general university study, and studying critical thinking. The meta-analysis results indicate that students do improve while studying philosophy, and apparently more so than general university students, though we cannot be very confident that this difference is not just the result of random variation. More importantly, studying philosophy is less effective than studying critical thinking, regardless of whether one is being taught in a philosophy department or in some other department. Finally, studying philosophy is much less effective than studying critical thinking using techniques known to be particularly effective such as LAMP.

continue reading »

St. Petersburg Mugging Implies You Have Bounded Utility

11 TimFreeman 07 June 2011 03:06PM

This post describes an infinite gamble that, under some reasonable assumptions, will motivate people who act to maximize an unbounded utility function to send me all their money. In other words, if you understand this post and it doesn't motivate you to send me all your money, then you have a bounded utility function, or perhaps even upon reflection you are not choosing your actions to maximize expected utility, or perhaps you found a flaw in this post.

continue reading »

How are critical thinking skills acquired? Five perspectives

9 matt 22 October 2010 02:29AM

Link to sourcehttp://timvangelder.com/2010/10/20/how-are-critical-thinking-skills-acquired-five-perspectives/
Previous LW discussion of argument mappingArgument Maps Improve Critical ThinkingDebate tools: an experience report

How are critical thinking skills acquired? Five perspectivesTim van Gelder discusses acquisition of critical thinking skills, suggesting several theories of skill acquisition that don't work, and one with which he and hundreds of his students have had significant success.

In our work in the Reason Project at the University of Melbourne we refined the Practice perspective into what we called the Quality (or Deliberate) Practice Hypothesis.   This was based on the foundational work of Ericsson and others who have shown that skill acquisition in general depends on extensive quality practice.  We conjectured that this would also be true of critical thinking; i.e. critical thinking skills would be (best) acquired by doing lots and lots of good-quality practice on a wide range of real (or realistic) critical thinking problems.   To improve the quality of practice we developed a training program based around the use of argument mapping, resulting in what has been called the LAMP (Lots of Argument Mapping) approach.   In a series of rigorous (or rather, as-rigorous-as-possible-under-the-circumstances) studies involving pre-, post- and follow-up testing using a variety of tests, and setting our results in the context of a meta-analysis of hundreds of other studies of critical thinking gains, we were able to establish that critical thinking skills gains could be dramatically accelerated, with students reliably improving 7-8 times faster, over one semester, than they would otherwise have done just as university students.   (For some of the detail on the Quality Practice hypothesis and our studies, see this paper, and this chapter.)

LW has been introduced to argument mapping before

Fire and Motion

4 rwallace 29 April 2009 04:06PM

Related to: Extreme Rationality: It's Not That Great

On the recent topics of "rationality is all very well but how do we translate understanding into winning?" and "isn't akrasia the most common limiting factor?", one of the best (non-recent) articles on practical rationality that I've come across is:

http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000339.html

Interestingly, it uses a different kind of martial art as a metaphor. I conjecture it to be the sort of metaphor that just works well for humans.

(Most of Spolsky's posts are good reading even if you're not a programmer. I'm not in the New York real estate market but I still enjoyed his posts on that topic. He's just that good a writer.)

Mandatory Secret Identities

28 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 April 2009 06:10PM

Previously in seriesWhining-Based Communities

"But there is a reason why many of my students have achieved great things; and by that I do not mean high rank in the Bayesian Conspiracy.  I expected much of them, and they came to expect much of themselves." —Jeffreyssai

Among the failure modes of martial arts dojos, I suspect, is that a sufficiently dedicated martial arts student, will dream of...

...becoming a teacher and having their own martial arts dojo someday.

To see what's wrong with this, imagine going to a class on literary criticism, falling in love with it, and dreaming of someday becoming a famous literary critic just like your professor, but never actually writing anything.  Writers tend to look down on literary critics' understanding of the art form itself, for just this reason.  (Orson Scott Card uses the analogy of a wine critic who listens to a wine-taster saying "This wine has a great bouquet", and goes off to tell their students "You've got to make sure your wine has a great bouquet".  When the student asks, "How?  Does it have anything to do with grapes?" the critic replies disdainfully, "That's for grape-growers!  I teach wine.")

Similarly, I propose, no student of rationality should study with the purpose of becoming a rationality instructor in turn.  You do that on Sundays, or full-time after you retire.

And to place a go stone blocking this failure mode, I propose a requirement that all rationality instructors must have secret identities.  They must have a life outside the Bayesian Conspiracy, which would be worthy of respect even if they were not rationality instructors.  And to enforce this, I suggest the rule:

  Rationality_Respect1(Instructor) = min(Rationality_Respect0(Instructor), Non_Rationality_Respect0(Instructor))

That is, you can't respect someone as a rationality instructor, more than you would respect them if they were not rationality instructors.

continue reading »

Individual Rationality Is a Matter of Life and Death

24 patrissimo 21 March 2009 07:22PM

On at least two occasions - one only a year past - my life was at serious risk because I was not thinking clearly.  Both times, I was lucky (and once, the car even survived!).  As a gambler I don't like counting on luck, and I'd much rather be rational enough to avoid serious mistakes.  So when I checked the top-ranked posts here and saw Robin's Rational Me or We? arguing against rationality as a martial art I was dumbfounded.  To me, individual rationality is a matter of life and death[1].

In poker, much attention is given to the sexy art of reading your opponent, but the true veteran knows that far more important is the art of reading and controlling yourself.  It is very rare that a situation comes up where a "tell" matters, and each of my opponents is only in an occasional hand.  I and my irrationalities, however, are in every decision in every hand.  This is why self-knowledge and self-discipline are first-order concerns in poker, while opponent reading is second or perhaps even third.

And this is why Robin's post is so wrong[2].  Our minds and their irrationalities are part of every second of our lives, every moment we experience, and every decision that we make.  And contra to Robin's security metaphor, few of our decisions can be outsourced.  My two bad decisions regarding motor vehicles, for example, could not have easily been outsourced to a group rationality mechanism[3].  Only a tiny percentage of the choices I make every day can be punted to experts.

continue reading »

Rational Me or We?

117 RobinHanson 17 March 2009 01:39PM

Martial arts can be a good training to ensure your personal security, if you assume the worst about your tools and environment.  If you expect to find yourself unarmed in a dark alley, or fighting hand to hand in a war, it makes sense.  But most people do a lot better at ensuring their personal security by coordinating to live in peaceful societies and neighborhoods; they pay someone else to learn martial arts.  Similarly, while "survivalists" plan and train to stay warm, dry, and fed given worst case assumptions about the world around them, most people achieve these goals by participating in a modern economy.

The martial arts metaphor for rationality training seems popular at this website, and most discussions here about how to believe the truth seem to assume an environmental worst case: how to figure out everything for yourself given fixed info and assuming the worst about other folks.  In this context, a good rationality test is a publicly-visible personal test, applied to your personal beliefs when you are isolated from others' assistance and info.  

I'm much more interested in how we can can join together to believe truth, and it actually seems easier to design institutions which achieve this end than to design institutions to test individual isolated general tendencies to discern truth.  For example, with subsidized prediction markets, we can each specialize on the topics where we contribute best, relying on market consensus on all other topics.  We don't each need to train to identify and fix each possible kind of bias; each bias can instead have specialists who look for where that bias appears and then correct it. 

Perhaps martial-art-style rationality makes sense for isolated survivalist Einsteins forced by humanity's vast stunning cluelessness to single-handedly block the coming robot rampage.  But for those of us who respect the opinions of enough others to want to work with them to find truth, it makes more sense to design and field institutions which give each person better incentives to update a common consensus.

3 Levels of Rationality Verification

43 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 March 2009 05:19PM

Previously in seriesSchools Proliferating Without Evidence
Followup to
A Sense That More Is Possible

I strongly suspect that there is a possible art of rationality (attaining the map that reflects the territory, choosing so as to direct reality into regions high in your preference ordering) which goes beyond the skills that are standard, and beyond what any single practitioner singly knows.  I have a sense that more is possible.

The degree to which a group of people can do anything useful about this, will depend overwhelmingly on what methods we can devise to verify our many amazing good ideas.

I suggest stratifying verification methods into 3 levels of usefulness:

  • Reputational
  • Experimental
  • Organizational

If your martial arts master occasionally fights realistic duels (ideally, real duels) against the masters of other schools, and wins or at least doesn't lose too often, then you know that the master's reputation is grounded in reality; you know that your master is not a complete poseur.  The same would go if your school regularly competed against other schools.  You'd be keepin' it real.

Some martial arts fail to compete realistically enough, and their students go down in seconds against real streetfighters.  Other martial arts schools fail to compete at all—except based on charisma and good stories—and their masters decide they have chi powers.  In this latter class we can also place the splintered schools of psychoanalysis.

So even just the basic step of trying to ground reputations in some realistic trial other than charisma and good stories, has tremendous positive effects on a whole field of endeavor.

But that doesn't yet get you a science.  A science requires that you be able to test 100 applications of method A against 100 applications of method B and run statistics on the results.  Experiments have to be replicable and replicated.  This requires standard measurements that can be run on students who've been taught using randomly-assigned alternative methods, not just realistic duels fought between masters using all of their accumulated techniques and strength.

continue reading »

Epistemic Viciousness

55 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2009 11:33PM

Previously in seriesA Sense That More Is Possible

Someone deserves a large hattip for this, but I'm having trouble remembering who; my records don't seem to show any email or OB comment which told me of this 12-page essay, "Epistemic Viciousness in the Martial Arts" by Gillian Russell.  Maybe Anna Salamon?

      We all lined up in our ties and sensible shoes (this was England) and copied him—left, right, left, right—and afterwards he told us that if we practised in the air with sufficient devotion for three years, then we would be able to use our punches to kill a bull with one blow.
      I worshipped Mr Howard (though I would sooner have died than told him that) and so, as a skinny, eleven-year-old girl, I came to believe that if I practised, I would be able to kill a bull with one blow by the time I was fourteen.
      This essay is about epistemic viciousness in the martial arts, and this story illustrates just that. Though the word ‘viciousness’ normally suggests deliberate cruelty and violence, I will be using it here with the more old-fashioned meaning, possessing of vices.

It all generalizes amazingly.  To summarize some of the key observations for how epistemic viciousness arises:

  • The art, the dojo, and the sensei are seen as sacred.  "Having red toe-nails in the dojo is like going to church in a mini-skirt and halter-top...  The students of other martial arts are talked about like they are practicing the wrong religion."
  • If your teacher takes you aside and teaches you a special move and you practice it for 20 years, you have a large emotional investment in it, and you'll want to discard any incoming evidence against the move.
  • Incoming students don't have much choice: a martial art can't be learned from a book, so they have to trust the teacher.
  • Deference to famous historical masters.  "Runners think that the contemporary staff of Runner's World know more about running than than all the ancient Greeks put together.  And it's not just running, or other physical activities, where history is kept in its place; the same is true in any well-developed area of study.  It is not considered disrespectful for a physicist to say that Isaac Newton's theories are false..."  (Sound familiar?)
  • "We martial artists struggle with a kind of poverty—data-poverty—which makes our beliefs hard to test... Unless you're unfortunate enough to be fighting a hand-to-hand war you cannot check to see how much force and exactly which angle a neck-break requires..."
continue reading »

A Sense That More Is Possible

61 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2009 01:15AM

Previously in seriesRaising the Sanity Waterline
Followup toTeaching the Unteachable

To teach people about a topic you've labeled "rationality", it helps for them to be interested in "rationality".  (There are less direct ways to teach people how to attain the map that reflects the territory, or optimize reality according to their values; but the explicit method is the course I tend to take.)

And when people explain why they're not interested in rationality, one of the most commonly proffered reasons tends to be like:  "Oh, I've known a couple of rational people and they didn't seem any happier."

Who are they thinking of?  Probably an Objectivist or some such.  Maybe someone they know who's an ordinary scientist.  Or an ordinary atheist.

That's really not a whole lot of rationality, as I have previously said.

Even if you limit yourself to people who can derive Bayes's Theorem—which is going to eliminate, what, 98% of the above personnel?—that's still not a whole lot of rationality.  I mean, it's a pretty basic theorem.

Since the beginning I've had a sense that there ought to be some discipline of cognition, some art of thinking, the studying of which would make its students visibly more competent, more formidable: the equivalent of Taking a Level in Awesome.

But when I look around me in the real world, I don't see that.  Sometimes I see a hint, an echo, of what I think should be possible, when I read the writings of folks like Robyn Dawes, Daniel Gilbert, Tooby & Cosmides.  A few very rare and very senior researchers in psychological sciences, who visibly care a lot about rationality—to the point, I suspect, of making their colleagues feel uncomfortable, because it's not cool to care that much.  I can see that they've found a rhythm, a unity that begins to pervade their arguments—

Yet even that... isn't really a whole lot of rationality either.

continue reading »

View more: Next