Self-Help, the Übernerd Version
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is how this generation’s most powerful scientific minds are working.
By Sanjena Sathian
Implicit assumption: The Bay Area–based group the Center for Applied Rationality will consist mostly of male computer scientists. They will wear hoodies and glasses and be cold and awkward.
Reality: The president and co-founder of the nonprofit think tank known as CFAR (“see-far”) is a woman, 32-year-old Julia Galef. I meet her at the group’s headquarters in hippie-ish Berkeley, Calif. She has a glint of Anne Hathaway looks about her and is nerdy, sure, but also warm, chatty. As Galef would say, I have erred, falling prey to what she calls the Straw Vulcan, the fallacy that rational people are unemotional people. In her words, it’s time to update.
Galef is basically a professional philosopher — or as close to one as you can get outside of academia. And apparently, there’s a market for this. Her almost four-year-old group has been gaining some traction, charging a string of impressive clients, including the Thiel Fellowship, Facebook and engineers from Google and Palantir, for marathon workshops that teach self-questioning and skepticism. The goal: Get us all to be a little “less wrong,” which happens to be the title of a blog that helped incarnate the rationality movement online.
It’s fascinating on the ground. Workshops are roughly half theory, half practice. Students try to identify hidden biases that are shaping their decisions and form new action plans around them. It sounds a little Freudian, like you can’t trust your subconscious, except that it’s not all about your father. Rather, much of it comes from behavioral psychology and probability-theory principles like Bayes’ rule (see video below for Galef’s explanation). “More power to the people who want to spread rationality,” says Clark Glymour, alumni university professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon, who’s worked on Bayesian theory. “I hope they can do it outside of Silicon Valley.”
You can see how they might be able to, given how practical some of CFAR’s questions are. Take their publicly available rationality checklist, which asks you to monitor how well you’re paying attention to the world, reacting to surprises or moments of error and adjusting. Have you, in the past day, it asks, “noticed my mind flinching away from a thought; and when I notice, I flag that area as requiring more deliberate exploration?” Have you noticed when you “stopped being curious?” Have you visualized multiple hypotheses when making a decision and tested each one?
Though Galef does plenty of public speaking and class teaching, up close, she’s more like an academic than a management guru (and she’d rather not be thought of as the latter). She speaks thoughtfully; when she says, “Let me think about that,” she does — for long, pregnant moments. She checks in on the structure of the conversation, flagging tangents when they begin, “bookmarking” moments to come back to.
Galef’s career path has been predictably intellectual. A philosophy geek in college, she took refuge in the rigors of a stats major, where things actually required evidence. Then a one-year stint at Yale’s doctoral economics program (she dropped out), after which she became a freelance science journalist in New York. There, she discovered the New York Skeptics group, a fervent bunch of atheists dedicated to debunking things like astrology, homeopathy and paranormal claims. The Skeptics were almost her people, but Galef decided that there were more urgent problems that called for rational thinking. Around that time, she got word of CFAR’s imminent emergence and bounced over to Berkeley to co-found it.
Noticeably outside CFAR’s wheelhouse are policy sorts or slower-moving bureaucracies that probably need a dose of rationality. Galef says an “initial level of analytical thinking” is required to really get CFAR; mainstreaming isn’t a priority. She’s not dismissive here and instead takes a few long minutes to explain: The fewer people you add to a group, the better they assimilate to new social norms. Influxes of new people can dilute the movement. She doesn’t want to be a watered-down self-help group. “It’s kind of like Burning Man,” she says, referring to the counterculture festival that San Franciscans are fond of complaining has gotten too big, too mainstream.
If you’d like to be one of the few, though, Galef has tips on how to raise a rationalist kid. She and her brother, Jesse, are both active in the rationalist community, and — though she carefully points out she can’t prove causation, just correlation — she identifies a few elements of her childhood. Her economist parents employed the Socratic method, and when the kids argued, Mom and Dad sometimes conferred and returned to admit they were wrong, says Jesse, who’s been a professional atheist, rationalist and futurologist. “I can’t remember us ever fighting,” he says. The best text message he says he ever got, out of the blue, from Julia: “Dude, I think I just solved utilitarianism.” (He says she didn’t, which she acknowledged later.)
Such family influences certainly helped her ace her International Baccalaureate program at her Maryland high school and, Jesse says, score a 1600 on the SAT. (Their parents pulled him aside and said, “Don’t worry, we don’t expect you to live up to that,” he adds.) Julia wasn’t exactly popular. But it turned out OK. Because in San Francisco, she reigns, the coolest kid around: “I’ve finally found a community where I’m not a nerd!”