Center for Applied Rationality 

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Center for Applied Rationality 

CFAR offers workshops to improve people’s thinking.

Nearly every major “victory” that humanity has experienced over the past ten thousand years—from agriculture to the eradication of smallpox—has come from human intelligence.

Nearly every major problem that humanity will face over the next century—from bioengineered weapons to AI to climate change—will also be the result of human intelligence.

As our species builds up a greater foundation of knowledge and develops ever-more-powerful tools, the stakes are only going up. Compare the best and the worst that a single human could accomplish with the resources available in the year 1018 to the best and the worst that a single human could accomplish in 1918, or to the best and the worst that could be accomplished in 2008. Over the coming decades, our ability to make the world a better place is going to rise meteorically—along with our ability to make disastrous mistakes.

And yet, human intelligence itself remains demonstrably imperfect and largely mysterious. We suffer from biases that still influence us even after we know they’re there. We make mistakes that we’ve made a dozen times before. We jump to conclusions, make overconfident predictions, develop giant blindspots around ego and identity and social pressure, fail to follow through on our goals, turn opportunities for collaboration into antagonistic zero-sum games—and those are just the mistakes we notice.

Sometimes we manage to catch these mistakes before they happen—how? Some people manage to reliably avoid some of these failure modes—how? Where does good thinking come from? Good research? Good debate? Innovation? Attention to detail? Motivation? How does one draw the appropriate balance between skepticism and credulity, or deliberation and execution, or self-discipline and self-sympathy? How does one balance happiness against productivity, or the exploitation of known good strategies against the need to explore and find the next big breakthrough? What are the blindspots that cause humans—even extremely moral and capable ones—to overlook giant, glaring problems, or to respond inappropriately or ineffectively to those problems, once recognized?

CFAR exists to try to make headway in this domain—the domain of understanding how human cognition already works, in practice, such that we can then start the process of making useful changes, such that we will be better positioned to solve the problems that really matter. We are neither about pure research nor pure execution, but about applied rationality—the middle ground where the rubber hits the road, where one’s models meet reality, and where one’s ideas and plans either pay off (or they don’t). By looking in-depth at individual case studies, advances in cogsci research, and the data and insights from our thousand-plus workshop alumni, we’re slowly building a robust set of tools for truth-seeking, introspection, self-improvement, and navigating intellectual disagreement—and we’re turning that toolkit on itself with each iteration, to try to catch our own flawed assumptions and uncover our own blindspots and mistakes.

In short, actually trying to figure things out, such that we can achieve the good and avoid the bad—especially in arenas where we have to get it right on the first try.


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