Uncommon Sense

A free, experimental program launched in partnership with Stanford Effective Altruism. Priority applications close February 1st at midnight PT. After that applications will be evaluated on a rolling basis.
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What, exactly, do you teach?

Great question! The things we teach fall into two broad categories:

  1. Instrumental Rationality: the skills you need to achieve your goals. What do you value for its own sake? What are the things you want to achieve above all else, the things your other actions are stepping-stones towards? These terminal goals could be happiness, improving the world, becoming famous, anything. Now ask yourself what you did this past hour. Was it the best possible action you could have taken to achieve your goals? We help you achieve your goals by giving you tools that help you become accustomed to making plans and habits that actually work and inch you in the direction you want to go.
  2. Epistemic rationality: the use of evidence and reason to form accurate beliefs about the world. Specific skills we will teach include Bayesian reasoning, statistics, epistemology, cognitive biases, forecasting, and building models of complex systems. We teach epistemic rationality by offering interesting and complex ideas for you to discuss, debate, and form beliefs about. We also equip you with useful ideas that help you think clearly about uncertainty and complex systems.

What do you mean by "beliefs"?

When we say “belief,” we mean anything you think is true about the world. Something as simple as “the sky is blue” is a belief. So is something as controversial as “GMOs are safe to eat.” Beliefs are not indisputable Truths about the world--you can be very confident in some beliefs, but you should still be willing to change your mind about them based on evidence. If I go outside and see that the sky is purple, I might change my mind about believing the sky is blue. If I read a study that says many GMOs have been linked to cancer, I might change my mind about GMOs being safe.

Many people think their beliefs are infallible. They spend most of their time trying to persuade other people of their beliefs and very little of their time seeing if other people's beliefs persuade them to change their own opinions. But most people also fiercely disagree with each other about many of their core beliefs (X political party is best, Y religion is true, Z is the most important issue facing humanity right now). So it stands to reason that many of them are simply wrong and unwilling to even entertain this possibility. Uncommon Sense is for the people who think they could be wrong about their beliefs, people who seek out contrasting viewpoints to test their beliefs, people who see changing their beliefs as an opportunity to learn rather than as a personal attack.

Who should sign up/is this stuff I already know?

If you are not already familiar with and interested in most of the following concepts, Uncommon Sense might be for you:

  • Bayesian reasoning
  • Applied game theory
  • Collaborative truth-seeking
  • Moral philosophy
  • Epistemology

Here are a few fun little puzzles that should give you a taste of the flavor of questions we focus on:

  • You are on a jury trying to decide whether or not to condemn someone for kidnapping and ransoming an innocent man. Police are certain the perpetrator was one of 30 people staying in a certain motel who match the basic demographics of the kidnapper and have weak alibis. The businessperson then picked the accused out of a lineup. You know a perpetrator gets correctly identified in a lineup about 60% of the time, and any given innocent person gets identified about 10% of the time. Based on this evidence, what are the odds that the accused is guilty? (hint)
  • You are an economics professor who forgot to go to the ATM before leaving for work, and who has only $20 in your pocket. You have a lunch meeting at a very expensive French restaurant, but you're stuck teaching classes until lunchtime and have no way to get money. Can you trick your students into giving you enough money for lunch in exchange for your $20, without lying to them in any way? (source and answer)
  • According to the paradox of voting , voting is never a rational choice for a self-interested individual to make because your vote has a minuscule chance of influencing the election but there is a significant cost to yourself to go out and vote. Yet, it’s possible that even a selfish person should go out and vote. Why might this be? (hint)

Why are you qualified to teach this?

We are a team of Stanford students with experience in computer science, economics, machine learning, and public policy. We have combined our own knowledge and experiences with select ideas from cognitive science, economics, psychology, philosophy, computer science, and forecasting, game theory, statistics, and many other fields. (These various disciplines may all seem disparate, but they all provide useful tools that help instill what it means to think critically.) We regularly run programs to teach these concepts to Stanford students, and we developed our curriculum with advice from people who have run workshops, summer camps, and seminars aimed at teaching critical thinking techniques to professionals, high schoolers, and students at top universities.

But at the end of the day, we don’t claim to be more rational or correct than anyone else. We think we have some ideas people might find useful, ideas we’ve thought about and some ideas we’ve adapted from organizations like CFAR (though we are not affiliated with them). We regularly try new teaching methods and are constantly and iterating, learning, and improving. It seems like students in our programs agree, as does preliminary data we’ve been collecting about the efficacy of our program (though our sample size is small and we can’t implement a RCT). We encourage you to be skeptical of everything we say and call us out if you think we’re wrong about something.

We’d love for you to apply and test the program out! If it’s not useful, you’re free to leave (and maybe give us some feedback!)

Why was I rejected?

We receive many wonderful applications, but unfortunately we can only accommodate a small number of students to maintain our low student-to-teacher ratio. You are encouraged to apply again next year. An application decision reflects only our guess about how good of a fit you would be for this particular program at this time, nothing more.

What does a typical meeting look like?

Students start each day with a five-minute Fermi problem warm-up. Then, we dive into the day’s concept. Each week focuses on adding a different tool to students’ repertoire, and weeks are grouped into monthly themes like “statistics” and “ethical frameworks.” Often, the week’s focus is determined by what students want to learn more about. Examples of weekly topics include: Game Theory as a Dark Art, Cognitive Biases Speedround, Intro to Forecasting, The Economics of Your Career Choice, and How to Read a Scientific Study. Meetings typically include at least ten minutes of discussions in small groups as well about twenty minutes dedicated to activities that explore a concept in-depth. Some sample discussion questions: How Do you think equality is a terminal or instrumental goal?

Activities include: a cold war nuclear simulation, stag hunts, a walk through a map of moral philosophies, a lottery with varying odds, and a chance to forecast when at least 10 million Americans will receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Why should I sign up for this?

If you love to poke, prod, and question this complicated thing called “reality” and figure out how it works, or if you have something you want to achieve (be that a better world, happiness, or something else), and if you want to join a community of people who strive to become sharper and stronger and better informed, then this is the place for you.

What if I have more questions?

We would love to hear from you! Email us at info@bitbybitcoding.org.