What Aren’t They Thinking?

Eliezer Yudkowsky in September:

Have I ever remarked on how completely ridiculous it is to ask high school students to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives and give them nearly no support in doing so? Support like, say, spending a day apiece watching twenty different jobs and then another week at their top three choices, with salary charts and projections and probabilities of graduating that subject given their test scores? The more so considering this is a central allocation question for the entire economy?

Katja Grace two days ago:

I’ve been meaning to remark how surprised I am that not even the students themselves seem interested in researching such things, or to even think of it. Similarly for their families. It’s not expensive to phone a few people who are doing your dreamed of career. … Even if you are entering college without knowing what you want to do later, it would probably make sense to at least contact some current students doing your proposed degree … I did neither of these things, I’m not sure why.

This sort of observation really gets my attention, much like seeing little correlation between medicine and health. Such things seriously call into question very standard stories on why we do what do. We say we go to docs to get well, but why if those who go more aren’t more well? We say we study to get better jobs, but why if we won’t bother to study what jobs we should want to get?

My mind is still pondering how best to explain this. A few ideas come to mind, but none are that satisfactory yet. But what most strikes me is at the meta level – few of my academic colleagues seem nearly as bothered by such things as I. So many academics, including economists, study medicine and schooling, and yet they hardly even mention such obvious dramatic puzzles, much less devote themselves to resolving them.

Yes, most academics are careerists, and yes current academic fashions are not on such topics, so I don’t expect academics to devote much precious career efforts to such things. But even academics have some free time, and some innate curiosity. And most have a better than average view of our best data and theories, a vantage point from which such puzzles come into sharper relief. It is almost as if their minds actively turn their mind’s eye away from such to-me striking views.

Note: this meta-observation is yet another example, as it also questions basic stories on why academics do what they do.

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