Drafting a syllabus

Science has learned much about rationality over the last 50 years, and practically none of this knowledge is part of a standard high school or college curriculum. So we have begun to imagine what a standard course on rationality might look like. This is the type of course that would be taught in high school, n continuing education classes, or as a course for a business certification.

There are three units that we wish to cover. First, we need to teach the concepts of rationality. What is rationality? What is knowledge? What is a theory? Second, we need to teach the methods of inference. That is, we need to describe deduction, induction and abduction in simple, intuitive terms, so that students understand the technical methods that a more or less ideal reasoner might employ. Third, we want to teach students about the ways that humans will predictably deviate from the ideal. The goal is to give students more self knowledge, and to give them an intuition for expecting various types of error.

The following is less a syllabus, and more a list of topics and objectives. Our goal will be to flesh out this list, and create a full set of course materials.

Unit 1: Concepts


The objective of the Concepts unit is to teach students important distinctions between concepts of thought. This unit could also be called the philosophy of rationality. This unit also provides a high level view of the course itself by introducing the concepts of inference and cognitive bias.

  1. An Overview of Rationality
  2. Theory and Prediction — what is a theory?
  3. Knowledge and Belief — distinguishing epistemic belief and from other meanings of the word belief.
  4. The Rational, the Irrational, and the Non-rational
  5. Rationality and Value — intrinsic values, instrumental values, emotions, and reason.
  6. Deduction, Induction and Abduction
  7. Rationality versus Intelligence
  8. A conceptual introduction to cognitive biases — what they are and how to apply your knowledge of them
  9. Rationalization — reasoning forward versus reasoning backward
  10. Arguments as signalling
  11. The cost of rationality

Unit 2: Inference


To understand reasoning, we need more than a checklist of list of potential errors. We also need to know what ideal reasoning looks like. The goal of this unit is to provide students with an intuition for what proper reasoning ought to look like, and to a basic mathematical formulation.

  1. Deduction — axioms, assumptions, and logical consistency
  2. Syllogisms
  3. Probability — why certainty is superfluous
  4. Randomness — known versus unknown, epistemic versus ontological
  5. Induction — the dice game
  6. Bayes’ Theorem
  7. Bayesian reasoning — priors, likelihood and posterior probabilities
  8. Medical Diagnostics Example
  9. p-Values and p-Hacking
  10. Science and Rationality — science as semi-conscious, epistemic rationality

Unit 3: Cognitive Bias


To be a critical thinker, one must anticipate thinking errors in advance. By the end of this unit, students should be able to recognize cognitive biases in their own thinking.

This unit should also teach the practical skill of critiquing articles about science experiments and studies in social science.

It is also important to draw students’ attention to the fact that, in principle, these biases can be corrected for — if they could not be corrected, we would not know that the biases even existed.

  1. The origins of cognitive bias
  2. Cognitive Dissonance, Rationalization and the Backfire Effect
  3. Countermeasure: Reasoning by Analogy
  4. Confirmation Bias and Search Termination
  5. Innumeracy
  6. Availability Heuristic, Availability Cascade
  7. Risk Aversion
  8. Sunk Cost Fallacy, Gambler’s Fallacy, Post Purchase Rationalization
  9. Fundamental Attribution Error
  10. Regression to the Mean, Base Rate Neglect
  11. Conjunction Fallacy, Subadditivity Effect, Calibration
  12. Planning Fallacy
  13. Mere Exposure Effect, Halo Effect
  14. Naive Realism, Just-world Hypothesis
  15. False Memories, Peak-End Rule, Hindsight Bias
  16. The Forer Effect, Pareidolia
  17. Ben Franklin Effect, Not Invented Here, Cognitive Dissonance