Trade you a cookie for a charitable donation?

Sorry to have been incommunicado the last few day, team.  I was quite busy this weekend with a delightful little project that blog readers who don’t know me in real life will hear about Christmas Day, and my family’s annual holiday cookie party.

Ok, so maybe my cookies are a little unorthodox

This past Sunday was Gaudete Sunday (which I believe is the imperative form of Rejoice!), and I certainly did, both while spending time with family and friends and when, on the train ride back, I discovered a new chapter of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality had been posted.  (And there will be another new chapter on Friday, so I’m all on tenterhooks).

The long wait for new chapters left me feeling this aggrieved

And with the new chapter came a special announcement: the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR)–the group that ran the wacky bootcamp I went to this summer–is holding their first ever fundraiser.  From now til the end of January, all your contributions will be matched by a slate of donors.  I think CFAR’s mission may be of interest to readers of this blog; their goal is to teach you how (and when) to actually change your mind.  I did a lot of reading in that link in the run up to and immediately after my conversion.

Right now, CFAR has a couple projects in the works.  They’re still running workshops like the one I attended (and doing randomized controlled surveys of the admits vs the not admits).  CFAR is also working with some Berkeley professors to help design an undergrad course on rationality and decision-making that will debut this term.

But if I had to summarize their goal really briefly, I would say that they’re upgrading your intuitions.  Ideally, we’d take in new evidence and update our beliefs as naturally as we see; it would be a passive sense.   Well, we kind of do that now, but we fall prey to a lot more bad mental heuristics than we do optical illusions.  CFAR is trying to expand Kahnemaneque research on mental biases and are applying what we already know to help you spot a question that you (and all humans) tend to screw up, so you can compensate.

Accurate beliefs are DELICIOUS

Having false beliefs about the world is awful; it’s like taking action while sleepwalking.  Even with the best of intentions, you’re liable to harm yourself and those around you, because you’re out of sync with reality.  And that’s why I recommend that, whether you choose to donate to CFAR or not, you make a contribution to one of Givewell’s recommended charities this season (particularly urgent given the shortfall in malaria interventions).  Givewell is all about empiricism, making sure that the charities they screen are promoting an intervention we know to be effective and implementing it efficiently.  And CFAR pretty much wants to raise up a nation of Givewell-types.

And just in case you’re concerned that casting such a gimlet eye on how we think and act is unweaving the rainbow and sucking all the beauty out of life, I offer the following cookie in rebuttal.

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals”

 

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • nerd

    Imperative plural!(!)

    • R.C.

      Exactly. You beat me to it.

      Except that I was going to translate it: “Rejoice, ya’ll!”

  • Pingback: Trade you a cookie for a charitable donation? | cathlick.com

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    I’ve got to ask – does the CFAS view ‘spreading atheism’ as one of their implicit or explicit goals? I know their about page talks about their commitment to rationality, but frankly the French Revolution had people who couldn’t shut up about rationality and reason too. Likewise nowadays, many of the people who can’t be quiet about rationality and reason seem allergic to it (rather like people who talk at length about how much they love science.)

    I mean, Yudkowsky’s on their list as a curriculum consultant. I’m not really being impressed by his writings in general, and he’s an atheist with a pretty obnoxious approach to the subject of religion. I admire the sheer volume of his writing, but when I see he’s involved deeply with a project about spreading rationality, that doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence about it.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying these are stupid people. But given what I’ve seen when I’ve checked out lesswrong (which seems to be the main nexus of this group), the idea that this is a group that’s going to do great things for showing people how to be more rational seems rather unlikely, unless their approach is vastly different from what goes on at lesswrong and they’ve filtered themselves in big ways. As to the idea of actually committing *money* towards their project, it just seems that there are better ways to spend one’s funds, whether or not the overriding desire was to spread rationality.

    Though I admit, I’d kind of like to see Leah give a testimonial on their page. ‘I read a lot of their links about rationality and knowing when to change one’s mind – and eventually I switched from atheism to Catholicism. Thanks, CFAR!’ If nothing else, it’d be funny.

    • deiseach

      Yes, that bit would be funny :-)

      However, I’d suggest if someone finds they can’t agree with their aims or their means of going about sponsoring rationality, then don’t donate to them. Give to some other good cause.

      I don’t think that, even if they do slant towards atheism, that it need be a bad sign for the rest of their project. We could all of us use a little more rationality and need the tools for such; take the good and leave the bad (it’s a spoils of Egypt situation). As ever, YMMV.

      • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

        I’m just trying to draw attention to who is running the show with this project, and wondering how they advance their ’cause’. The list of the people involved doesn’t fill me with confidence. Now, their stated aims sound great – but ‘stated aims that sound great’ are cheap to come by, and ‘promoting rationality’ is something everyone from the Intelligent Design movement to the Communist party says they’re all in favor of.

        At first, I was just skeptical of this site due to their who’s who list of show-runners. But checking the wiki, it’s even worse – they treat belief in God and adherence to a religion as not just wrong, but trivially and obviously wrong (and of course, with ‘our universe is created by intelligent beings’ rationalized away to not be, you know, belief in God/gods), and make this part of their wiki. Not to mention what seems to be shifting between ‘here are some tools to use when trying to be rational’ and ‘rational people should believe X’.

        Maybe there’s value in here that can be divorced from all this, but I can’t help but suspect that any benefits are going to be outweighed. If promoting rationality is important, there seems to be better approaches out there.

      • grok87
        • deiseach

          Thanks for the link. Interesting thesis.

  • Alan

    This seems a bit harsh and I’m not sure rooted in any rational finding itself:

    “Having false beliefs about the world is awful; it’s like taking action while sleepwalking. Even with the best of intentions, you’re liable to harm yourself and those around you, because you’re out of sync with reality.”

    Our cognitive biases exist for reasons and some of them may actually be helpful in driving decisions that improve decisions for ourselves and those around us. What is your basis for insisting that having false beliefs is awful and liable to cause harm – after all, given the set of beliefs you have taken on conflict with those of the vast majority of the world do you honestly believe that everyone is living in such ‘awful’ states of being (or that you are, as your beliefs are just as likely to be false as theirs)? Since the vast majority, or probably more accurately all, people have held false beliefs for all of human history does the resulting reality really scream one that is awful with a tendency to harm itself and others?

    • Val

      Indeed. Having false beliefs about the nature of morality evidently serves as an effective behavioral guide for some people.

      Though, of course, one always has to choose which harm one admits to.

    • http://sylvietheolog.wordpress.com Sylvie D. Rousseau

      False beliefs about the world are like sleepwalking.
      I like very much your cookie parable, Leah. If I read the lion cookie correctly, the lion appears to be devouring an antelope or some other prey. Yes, reality is harsh and the natural balance of things must not be tampered with, on pain of being like a skeleton with bowels, with no lungs and heart to feed the brain hidden in the skull, so the brain must not work very well. (Reminds me of Saint Paul complaining about some whose God is their belly.)
      Here is an anecdote to illustrate this farther: while looking for a children’s book to provide practice for beginners in French, I stumbled upon a school book with readings and grammar explanation that would have been useful, except the story I read was bafflingly stupid: cats were exceptionally “nice” because they didn’t eat mice. Such a conceit can occasionally be entertaining, for example Tiger in An American Tail has to be vegetarian to be a real protector for his little friends, but the story is action-packed precisely because the other cats are normal. But in this book, and there were other strong hints as well, it only smelled like political correctness.

      • ACN

        “for example Tiger in An American Tail has to be vegetarian”

        This always bothered me.

        I mean, come on, cats are obligate carnivores! Vegetarianism = Death. :)

        • http://sylvietheolog.wordpress.com Sylvie D. Rousseau

          Agreed. As omnivores we should have a balanced diet including some meat or fish. Speaking of fish, I don’t like much fish, but one I like is cod. And cod is endangered by the proliferation of seals caused by the interdiction or unreasonable limitation on seal hunting. One of the glorious feats of environmentalcases.

  • jenesaispas

    Nice! I like your cookies, very original.

  • Darren

    Good for you in continuing to uphold the virtue of being able to change one’s mind!

    I suspect (most of) your compatriots on this channel will be less enthusiastic in viewing such a faculty as virtue.

    • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

      I suspect (most of) your compatriots on this channel will be less enthusiastic in viewing such a faculty as virtue.

      The fact is, just about everyone cheers things like ‘the ability to change one’s mind’. There’s no shortage of absolute zealots who will state their commitment to rationality and open-mindedness.

      That’s the problem: there’s a gulf between ‘stated commitment’ and ‘what is actually the case in practice’. In fact, I think that gulf is in play among the Lesswrong gang.

      • Darren

        Crude;

        ”The fact is, just about everyone cheers things like ‘the ability to change one’s mind’. There’s no shortage of absolute zealots who will state their commitment to rationality and open-mindedness.
        That’s the problem: there’s a gulf between ‘stated commitment’ and ‘what is actually the case in practice’. In fact, I think that gulf is in play among the Lesswrong gang.”

        Agreement. People’s admiration for one’s willingness to change one’s mind is too often predicated on that change being towards a preferred view. The general population of New Atheists do not appear to be much better in this than the general population of Theists (myself, sadly, included).

        The example you cited from Less Wrong is obnoxious. I question the value of such things. It might be useful (from an evangelical atheist viewpoint) in very limited circumstances, say in bolstering a newly deconverted atheist or in providing a final nudge to an almost-ready-to-deconvert theist, but I fear it turns off more people than it lures in and is really just a bit of New Atheist schadenfreude. This appears to be an ongoing debate over on the Atheist channel, and I have yet to come down firmly on one side or the other.

        I _can_ say that I find it to be a weak argument; Mary as a knocked-up teen hoodwinking an overly credulous Joseph is a much less damning argument than the entire Matthew / Luke nativity being a mythic prequel to fit a rather prickly Galilean holy man into the fulfillment of messianic Jewish prophecy and to provide the type of origin 1st century roman converts would expect of their man-God deities.

        But, back to the topic of Less Wrong and CFAR. I take what is useful to me and leave the rest. The sequences have been useful, and I enjoy the fiction, but stay out of the debates themselves. Just as I find Edward Feser more useful, and less annoying, when he is channeling Aquinas, I find Yudkowsky more useful (and I will throw in less annoying to be fair) when he is channeling Carl Sagan. But that is just me.

        For a (to my mind) more respectful evangelical atheist (should you want to find such a thing), Daniel Finke over at Camels with Hammers is worth a read. I liked his Top Ten Tips for Reaching out to Religious Believers .

        • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

          The example you cited from Less Wrong is obnoxious. I question the value of such things.

          One problem here is that you start talking about the ‘value’ of such things in terms of effectiveness – but that’s not the metric that’s supposed to be on offer here. It’s supposed to be ‘how to be more rational, how to know when to change your mind and how to do it’. Yud offers up mockery, disdain and frankly a whole lot of strawmanning when it comes to God and religion. (To say nothing of obfuscation. The mean belief that our universe is simulated is 25% over at LessWrong. That should really be directly translated into ‘god belief’.) Those issues aside, what happens is that the ‘rational’ and ‘how to change your mind’ stuff goes over the edge of the ship.

          But, back to the topic of Less Wrong and CFAR. I take what is useful to me and leave the rest. The sequences have been useful, and I enjoy the fiction, but stay out of the debates themselves.

          Well, if that was the advice Leah gave – “look, frankly these guys fail at their own game quite often, but you can at least find something of value here” – I wouldn’t have any issue. But that’s not what happened. Keep in mind, what I linked is, apparently, part of those ‘sequences’. It’s right from the wiki entry on ‘subsequences’.

          I liked his Top Ten Tips for Reaching out to Religious Believers .

          First off, that ‘more respectful’ aspect is pretty superficial – take a look at what he says regarding ‘gestalt shifts’. (In other words, be as mocking and insulting as you want, but only if this sort of bullying mockery gets the right result.) But that actually just brings the whole problem back into relief: it’s a top ten list for an evangelical atheist to try and win converts. The assumption, from start to finish, is ‘You know they’re wrong in advance. Any argument they give must fail. Find out where this failure lies, because the whole goal here is to show them that they’re wrong and get them to stop being theists.’

          You could take that list’s content, swap it over to ‘Top Ten Tips for Reaching Out to Atheists’, and it would end up being a candidate for placement on the ‘How and when to change your mind’ wiki as an example of people who are immunizing themselves to changing their mind.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    And just to comment on the cookies – they do look good. I can’t help but think that if I attempted something like that I’d be too serious about it and break out the stencils. I wonder if there’s an edible spraypaint-like ‘topping’ out there for decoration purposes? Probably.

  • grok87

    1) I love the lion cookie! “Accurate beliefs are delicious”
    Psalm 19
    “The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.”

    2) “their goal is to teach you how (and when) to actually change your mind. ” Today’s gospel speaks of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, being told that he and his wife will become parents in their old age:
    http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/121912.cfm

    “Then Zechariah said to the angel,
    ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’
    And the angel said to him in reply, ‘I am Gabriel, who stand before God.
    I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words,
    which will be fulfilled at their proper time.’ ”

    So perhaps, sometimes, like Zechariah, changing our minds (and hearts) involves being silent. It’s a challenging thought in these days of media saturation when we are communicating with each other almost 24/7 (or able to anyway). But it seems an appropriate thought for Advent when we are called to listen and “prepare the way of the Lord”.
    cheers,
    grok

  • http://grace-filled.net jen

    I want you as a participant in my next cookie exchange!

  • Acn

    Leah, while we’re on the topic of applied rationality and chsnging one’s mind, any thoughts about the pope’s speech today?


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