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Teachable Rationality Skills

52 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 May 2011 09:57PM

Recent brainstorming sessions at SIAI (with participants including Anna, Carl, Jasen, Divia, Will, Amy Willey, and Andrew Critch) have started to produce lists of rationality skills that we could potentially try to teach (at Rationality Boot Camp, at Less Wrong meetups, or similar venues).  We've also been trying to break those skills down to the 5-second level (step 2) and come up with ideas for exercises that might teach them (step 3) although we haven't actually composed those exercises yet (step 4, where the actual work takes place).

The bulk of this post will mainly go into the comments, which I'll try to keep to the following format:  A top-level comment is a major or minor skill to teach; upvote this comment if you think this skill should get priority in teaching.  Sub-level comments describe 5-second subskills that go into this skill, and then third-level comments are ideas for exercises which could potentially train that 5-second skill.  If anyone actually went to the work of composing a specific exercise people could run through, that would go to the fourth-level of commenting, I guess.  For some major practicable arts with a known standard learning format like "Improv" or "Acting", I'll put the exercise at the top and guesses at which skills it might teach below.  (And any plain old replies can go at any level.)

I probably won't be able to get to all of what we brainstormed today, so here's a PNG of the Freemind map that I generated during our session.

The 5-Second Level

112 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 May 2011 04:51AM

To develop methods of teaching rationality skills, you need to learn to focus on mental events that occur in 5 seconds or less.  Most of what you want to teach is directly on this level; the rest consists of chaining together skills on this level.

As our first example, let's take the vital rationalist skill, "Be specific."

Even with people who've had moderate amounts of exposure to Less Wrong, a fair amount of my helping them think effectively often consists of my saying, "Can you give me a specific example of that?" or "Can you be more concrete?"

A couple of formative childhood readings that taught me to be specific:

"What is meant by the word red?"
"It's a color."
"What's a color?"
"Why, it's a quality things have."
"What's a quality?"
"Say, what are you trying to do, anyway?"

You have pushed him into the clouds.  If, on the other hand, we habitually go down the abstraction ladder to lower levels of abstraction when we are asked the meaning of a word, we are less likely to get lost in verbal mazes; we will tend to "have our feet on the ground" and know what we are talking about.  This habit displays itself in an answer such as this:

"What is meant by the word red?"
"Well, the next time you see some cars stopped at an intersection, look at the traffic light facing them.  Also, you might go to the fire department and see how their trucks are painted."

-- S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action


"Beware, demon!" he intoned hollowly.  "I am not without defenses."
"Oh yeah?  Name three."

-- Robert Asprin, Another Fine Myth

And now, no sooner does someone tell me that they want to "facilitate communications between managers and employees" than I say, "Can you give me a concrete example of how you would do that?"  Hayakawa taught me to distinguish the concrete and the abstract; and from that small passage in Asprin, I picked up the dreadful personal habit of calling people's bluffs, often using the specific phrase, "Name three."

But the real subject of today's lesson is how to see skills like this on the 5-second level.  And now that we have a specific example in hand, we can proceed to try to zoom in on the level of cognitive events that happen in 5 seconds or less.

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