I finally left Cambridge for NYC today. It was bittersweet – by the time I got home, I realized I was starting to miss Boston and the intellectualism of being in a college town. On second thought, that sounds a little pretentious, but in all honesty, I have been talking about philosophy to graduate students/professors for the past few days so who’s to blame?
This was my first year competing in MIT INSPIRE, but in contrast with CPW, it was definitely a different environment to be around primarily juniors and sophomores. The competition was a pretty interesting look into the humanities (or HASS) side of MIT culture.
At the closing ceremony, I discovered that I had won first place in the philosophy category for my project on legitimizing liberal paternalism. The initial idea actually began as an extra credit assignment for my AP Macroeconomics class (s/o to Ms. McRoy-Mendell, aka Mama Duck!) where I had to read and review Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.
Apart from Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (a Nobel Laureate in Economics), the book remains one of the most impactful books of late. I do have to thank the latter selection to Sandor Lehoczky from the Jane Street Women in STEM program for the recommendation, especially with its mind-blowing introduction to heuristics.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the literature, heuristics are basically shortcuts your mind takes when trying to come up with decisions in complex circumstances. Some of the more common ones include anchoring (relying too heavily on the first information given about a situation), escalation of commitment (sunk cost fallacy), availability (judging probability by the ease of examples).
Heuristics aren’t always in play, but when they are they are usually unconscious and can result in irrationality even among the most rational of individuals. Sandor talked a lot about recognizing heuristics at play, and we had a fun time playing a fermi questions guessing game while trying to disseminate our use of heuristics.
Nudge basically talks about how situations can be constructed where heuristics are actually activated intentionally in order to influence individuals to choose one situation over another. One of the bigger constraints is preventing this from becoming a totalitarian government, or at least resembling one.
That’s where liberal paternalism comes in. The concept combines the libertarian principles of free will and agency for individuals with the nuances of paternalism – specifically, weak/impure/welfare paternalism. Rather than forcing individuals into choices for their own good, institutions can influence the environment around an individual to coerce them towards choices; the individuals still have the ability to choose not to follow what’s best for them.
Anyway, here were the paper and poster that I presented at the competition (dubbed a “National Humanities Conference” by none other than the spicy memelord herself Lily Chin).
I was pretty excited after today, especially when Professor Hare invited me to take his course in Fall 2018. I can’t remember the name of the class, but the fact that there’s interest in philosophy at MIT is kind of incredible.
One of the things that definitely struck me while I was at the competition was the difference in mindset that people often have about the humanities (HASS) and STEM. We try to categorize people, things, ideas into one of two categories. My friends at Stanford have their own terms – fuzzies vs. techies – and it’s always bothered me how much of our society seems to tend towards this idea.
In reality, most things exist in harmony, and that goes for the humanities and STEM as well. Most of the projects utilized some form of quantitative analysis alongside the more humanities-based approach of logical reasoning (but in a sense, even logic is implemented in both HASS and STEM fields).
I think philosophy has always interested me primarily because of how applicable it is to areas like math and computer science, where logical reasoning and problem solving are so important to applications. Ever since the boost for STEM began, we haven’t seem a similar increase in appreciation for journalism, literature, or the humanities as a whole, but I think as “soft” as the fields may seem to STEM majors, they still hold a lot of importance.
In other news, I’m flying off to Lexington, KY tomorrow. I’m a little salty that I booked a 5-day trip for what was supposed to be a 2-day hackathon, but I suppose we all make mistakes (plus this was actually ironically the cheapest option for MLH).
It’s my first time in KY, but I haven’t exactly familiarized myself with the area yet, so I’m just hoping there’s ride share available. I should really get my license soon, but I blame it on NYC for delaying my driving exam.