Uncommon Sense Summer Seminar

Play with cutting-edge artificial intelligence and try to figure out its impact on the world.
Challenge your ideas.
Compete in the The Economist's World in 2021 forecasting challenge.

Nomination deadline May 1st, deadline for applications is May 30th!

What is Uncommon Sense? Uncommon Sense Summer workshop is an all-expenses-paid one week workshop in California this summer offered in partnership with Stanford Effective Altruism. 20 students will be chosen from across the country to participate in this program, which is designed to teach students how to apply concepts from a myriad of fields, including cognitive science, economics, game theory, and machine learning. They will also have the opportunity to interact with speakers from Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University, OpenAI, and more.

The dates and logistics of the in-person program are still somewhat flexible because we are constantly adapting to COVID. There is a chance we will have to move the program online, but for now we think the program is more likely to be in-person than online. The tentative dates are Aug 15th-21st.

Our philosophy Everyone, from students to world leaders, makes countless decisions each day such as:

Too often, these decisions are automatic, or influenced by our cognitive biases, or dictated by social norms. Even people’s most strongly held opinions are often just a product of their environment, not something they’ve actually thought through and come to their own conclusion on ⁠— you can predict someone’s political party with, 70% accuracy based on how their parents voted. We want to fix that. Our goal is to help people determine how they think the world works and what they can do to shape it.

Students will learn to build models of complex systems, compete to forecast answers to important geopolitical questions, create Bayesian priors, examine and combat their cognitive biases, and make more accurate predictions. Classes are project-based, incorporating interactive activities such as a cold war nuclear simulation, an iterated prisoner’s dilemma tournament, creating markets (using fake currency), and much more.

Graduates of Uncommon Sense will gain the skills they need to come to their own conclusions about critical problems, make more informed choices, and better understand the levers and gears in the world around them.


About the program

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 in 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 miniscule 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 day look like?

Students start each day a morning meeting and breakfast. Then, we dive into the day’s concept. Each day focuses on adding a different tool to students’ repertoire, and weeks are grouped into monthly themes like “statistics” and “ethical frameworks.” There will be 1-2 discussions each day, 1-2 activities, and plenty of fun and social events. There will also be time to work on projects or explore a concept from the day in smaller groups. Examples of discussion topics include: Game Theory as a Dark Art, Cognitive Biases Speed-round, Intro to Forecasting, The Economics of Your Career Choice, and How to Read a Scientific Study.

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.

How are you handling COVID?

We take COVID-19 very seriously. All instructors and guests will be vaccinated. While California speakers will visit in-person, other speakers will be virtual to limit risks of transmission from flights. Many students will be vaccinated, and all will be tested regularly during the program. We will provide N-95s to all participants for their air travel and will offer masks throughout the program to anyone who is not vaccinated. Non-vaccinated students will not share rooms and will be asked to distance. All participants will track their microCOVID exposure in the weeks leading up to the program.

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.

What’s the difference between this program and the school-year program you offer?

The summer seminar is a much more intense, interactive, and rigorous program than our extracurricular offering. The summer program demands a much deeper level of intellectual engagement that includes projects, write-ups, and readings. We feel these aspects are necessary to prepare students to fully understand, utilize, and build off of the tools and concepts we teach. The summer program also fosters a community of talented students who see eachother every day for discussions, games, and collaborative projects. This kind of environment isn’t possible with a school-year program that only meets for an hour a week.

Is it really free/what's the catch?

Everything is 100% free, no strings attached! We simply want the world to be a better place, and we feel that one of the best ways to do tat is by empowering high school students to tackle the world's most pressing problems!

When will you have things finalized/what if you need to move online?

We expect to have the location finalized within by 4/17. If we need to move online, we will inform everyone as soon as possible. This will likely be no latter than July, though if something unexpected happened (eg a new rapidly-spreading strain unaffected vy vaccination status), those plans may have to change. if we move online, we will run the entire program virtually. The curriculum will be the same though adapted for the new format, and some meetings will be shorter or asynchronous to avoid Zoom fatigue.

About nominations

What if I have no one to nominate me?

If you do not know anyone suitable to nominate you (ie if you are homeschooled), please email info@bitbybitcoding.org explaining your situation.

What if I want to nominate more than 10 students?

We recognize some instructors may know an unusual number of good candidates for our program (for example if they run a class on critical thinking). If you feel confident that more than 10 of your students would be an excellent fit for Uncommon Sense, email info@bitbybitcoding.org briefly explaining your circumstances.

What kind of students should I nominate?

Things that might make students a good fit for Uncommon Sense include:

  • Having agency: when faced with a challenge, do they come up with and pursue their own solutions without being prompted or told to do so? Do they work on ambitious projects on their own?
  • Carefully thinking through their values and actions: when they make important decisions, do they know precisely why they are making them?
  • A tendency to optimize for important goals: when they want to do something, do they plan out their actions and consider many options? When shown a better way to do a difficult task, do they adopt the new method? When they decide how to use their time or resources, do they think about the alternative ways they could use these resources?
  • An affinity for truth: do they seek out ideas that challenge their opinions? If they find evidence that contradicts their opinions, do they eagerly change their mind? Do they enjoy learning end exploration?
  • Interest in rationality and cognition: do they want to improve their thinking? Do they enjoy talking about cognitive biases, or reading about psychology, economics, AI, cognitive science, philosophy, or a related subject?
  • A desire to make the world better: do they have a drive to achieve some lofty goal to improve the world? Do they care about the details of this plan and are they taking steps to achieve it?

A good applicant probably possesses at least three of these traits, though there are sure to be plenty of exceptions. These are merely guidelines.

Why do you require teacher nominations to apply?

Our program is not suitable for all students. The pace is fast, the questions are tough, and the work is demanding. We need students who thrive in tackling difficult questions, who value science and knowledge, and who actually want to learn the material we offer rather than to collect a name for their resume.

Unfortunately, trying to figure out which students will thrive in our program is a difficult task.

We could require students to write long essays and wax poetical about bayesian reasoning, but high school students are already inundated with application essays to write, and the best essays tend to only be a sign of good writing ability (and access to good education, familiarity with Standard American English rather than African American Vernacular English, etc). Not of the holistic kind of student we seek.

We could look at test scores, but these measure privilege and test-taking ability as much as they measure academic prowess or intellect. Moreover, many students haven’t taken these exams, and they don’t capture the traits we’re looking for very well.

We could look at grades, but these can vary widely between schools, and again might reflect access to tutors and other resources more than inherent ability. Plus, grades also don’t encompass the traits we are looking for too well.

Instructors already have a holistic view of their students, and we trust their judgement much more than any other metric. Applying this simple filter prevents students who aren’t a good fit from needlessly filling out the application, and might encourage students who are a good fit but feel insecure about their talents to apply. Obviously instructor nominations are not a perfect metric, but they’re the best we have at the moment.