Uncommon Sense Seminar
Uncommon Sense is a free critical thinking summer program for rising highschool freshmen to rising college freshmen hosted in California.
Nominations are due on May 30th at 11:59 PM Pacific Time.
The application deadline has been extended to June 4th at 11:59 PM Pacific Time.
What is Uncommon Sense?
Uncommon Sense is an all-expenses-paid, critical thinking program held in Pescadero, California in partnership with Stanford Effective Altruism. Twenty students aged 14-18 will be selected from across the country to be flown in to participate in this program from July 31st to August 6th at Venture Retreat Center. Students will not pay for food, housing, or transportation to participate. This program is sponsored by a philanthropic grant to increase the number of students that do extraordinary work in their future careers.
Students will listen to and converse with speakers from Stanford, OpenAI, and Carnegie Mellon University. Participants will get to explore concepts at the heart of disciplines such as machine learning, game theory, and statistics, and will begin to see the profound ways that these concepts connect to the world. Evolution regulates living organisms and the spread of ideas; Bayes theorem can be used to predict whether or not you have COVID, but it might also explain the cause of depression; activation energy can tell you when a chemical reaction will occur and when a social movement will start. And all of these tie into the decisions we make every single day.
Everyone, from students to world leaders, makes countless decisions each day such as:
- Should you be taking vitamin D to prevent COVID (one study shows it significantly reduced COVID-19 hospitalizations but another study shows it doesn’t help patients who are already hospitalized)?
- What career will make you happiest and have the best impact on the world (a doctor typically only saves far fewer lives than a quantitative trader donating 1% of their income)?
- How should the US tackle climate change (a plastic bag ban may actually increase emissions, though it would decrease litter)?
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.
In order to increase the number of students that do highly meaningful and remarkable work, we seek to help our students develop rigorous and independent worldviews that they can use to effect positive change on a large scale in their careers.
This summer, participants will learn how to build models of complex systems, compete to forecast answers to important geopolitical questions, create Bayesian priors to make predictions, examine and mitigate their cognitive biases, and develop better understandings of the world. Our program is 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, and be able to make more informed choices to achieve their goals and shape the world around them.
To apply for Uncommon Sense, students must first request a teacher nomination. Please ask the teacher you know best to nominate you. However, if you are homeschooled, or have other extenuating circumstances, please contact us. Teachers may not nominate more than ten students. Nominations are due at May 30th 11:59 PM Pacific Time.
Once nominated, students must apply by our extended deadline, June 4th at 11:59 PM Pacific Time. We will request interviews from promising applicants over the following week. We aim to release decisions before June 30th.
About the program
What specifically do you teach?
The strategies we teach fall into two broad categories:
- Instrumental Rationality: the skills you need to achieve your goals. What do you value for its own sake? What are the goals you want to achieve above all else, the goals your other actions are stepping-stones towards? These terminal goals could be happiness, improving the world, becoming famous, or 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.
- 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 the study of complex systems. We teach epistemic rationality by offering interesting and complex ideas for students to discuss, debate, and form beliefs about. We also equip participants with useful ideas that help to think clearly about uncertainty and complex systems.
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
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)
Is transportation included?
Yes. Students will not pay for their flights and additional transportation.
Who are the instructors?
We are a team of Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon students with experience in computer science, economics, machine learning, and public policy. We have combined our knowledge and experiences with select ideas from cognitive science, economics, psychology, philosophy, computer science, and forecasting, game theory, statistics, and many other fields. While these various disciplines may all seem disparate, they all provide useful tools that help instill what it means to think critically. At Stanford, we regularly run programs to teach these concepts to peers; through this we have developed our curriculum with the guidance of those who have run workshops, summer camps, and seminars aimed at teaching critical thinking techniques to professionals, students at top universities, and high school students.
But at the end of the day, we don’t claim to be more rational or correct than anyone else. But we do think we have some ideas that others might find useful. We have adapted ideas from organizations like The Center for Applied Rationality (no affiliation), for example. We regularly try new teaching methods and are constantly and iterating, learning, and improving. It seems that the students in our previous programs agree—as does the preliminary data we’ve been collecting about the efficacy of our program (although our sample size is small and we can’t implement a RCT). We encourage students to be skeptical of all that we say, and call us out when we may be wrong.
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 during the program look like?
Students start each day with 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 the U.S. will reach herd immunity with COVID.
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 the safety of GMOs.
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.
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 that is by empowering high school students to tackle the world's most pressing problems.
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 each other 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.
How are you taking COVID precautions?
We take COVID-19 very seriously. All instructors and guests who attend in-person will be vaccinated, while other speakers will be virtual to limit risks of transmission. Most participants will need to be vaccinated, and regular testing will be done during the program. We will provide N-95s to all participants for their air travel, and will offer masks throughout the program. Non-vaccinated students will not share rooms with each other, and will be asked to social distance throughout the program. All participants will track their COVID risk in the weeks leading up to the program.
Who will be vaccinated?
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. All people over the age of 16 must be vaccinated if it is safe for them to do so. Those who are unvaccinated will be staying in their own cabins.
What precautions will be taken after students arrive at the program?
Aside from vaccinations, rapid tests will be required every other day, including 3 days before the program begins. Free p100 masks will be provided. Temperature checks will be performed daily.
As a teacher, what kind of students should I nominate?
We expect that students who possess at least a few of the traits and inclinations below will be great fits for Uncommon Sense.
- Having agency: when faced with a challenge, does the student invent 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 the precise reasons behind their decisions?
- A tendency to optimize for important goals: when the student wants 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: does this student 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 and exploring?
- Interest in rationality and cognition: has this student demonstrated a desire 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: does this student 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.
As a student, what if I don’t have anyone to nominate me?
If you do not know anyone suitable to nominate you (ie if you are homeschooled), please email firstname.lastname@example.org explaining your situation.
As a teacher, 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, please email us at email@example.com.
Why is a teacher nomination required before I can apply?
Our program is only suitable for a unique kind of student. 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 poetic 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). This would not work for 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, these can vary widely between schools, and again might reflect access to tutors and other resources more than inherent ability. Additionally, grades also don’t encompass the traits we are looking for too well.
However, instructors already have a holistic view of their students, so we trust their judgment 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 encourages 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 right now.
Have more questions?
If you have any questions not addressed above, you may email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.