Rejecting the Null Hypothesis

When I used to teach junior high Algebra, the students would always ask me “when am I ever going to use this?” After being asked this many times, I started to do some research. And you know what the answer is?


As this story in The Atlantic points out, less than 15% of workers use anything more advanced than basic algebra.

At the school I where I was teaching, less than 40% of the boys graduated for high school, and for many of them math was one of the main obstacles. So was trying to teach them math just putting up a barrier that didn’t need to be there?

I’m going to leave that question there for now and ask a related question related to my recent attempts to understand the nature and importance of community. Is there any point to trying to understanding philosophical questions related to community?

Three Kinds of Learning

Let me provide a bit of a framework for how I think about this question. I think there are three main kinds of learning:

  1. Genetic (e.g., traits transmitted by DNA)
  2. Cultural (e.g., language, morality)
  3. Formal (e.g., school subjects, job training, philosophy)

Genetic learning happens over long time periods (i.e., via natural selection) and we can’t do too much about it. Cultural learning happens mostly by observation. We don’t really need to teach kids how to talk, for example. We are genetically predisposed to learn certain things, and so we pick those things up just by observing the world around us and picking up on feedback (mostly subconsciously).

However, we aren’t really going to just pick up something like Algebra. We have to write it down, practice it, and exert conscious effort. Our brain designed to do this, but our conscious learning capacity isn’t really as robust as our subconscious learning in the sense that it can’t process as much information.

In trying to understand communities and relationships, I am trying to take something that most people do subconsciously (based on cultural learning), and subject it to rational analysis. Ultimately, I want to create a theory of community that can provide a framework for making decisions. So, in theory, if I develop an improved formal understanding of relationships I can improve how I engage with the world, and hopefully, pass something on to my daughter that can help her as well.

The Null Hypothesis

There is a delightful book called The Case Against Education, by Bryan Caplan, that argues education is mostly a waste of money. What we learn in school doesn’t really help us in our jobs, the argument goes, it’s just a way to rank people by intelligence and conscientiousness. As a result, spending more on education won’t really help society because if we provide more education to the poor, the rich will always find ways to spend more on their own kids to stay among the elite. So education spending is more like military buildup, than it is say, like infrastructure spending.

Here is an overview of some research showing that teaching one thing (in this case, chess and music) doesn’t really help people learn anything else. But almost every math teacher I know (and law school teacher) thinks that a big part of their job is to impart some kind of general cognitive skills that are going to help across a wide variety of life circumstances. But as suggested by Caplan, I think we need to consider the possibility that aside from specific job training, education doesn’t really help.

Interestingly, one of Caplan’s other books, called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, argues that in general, parents shouldn’t worry so much about whether they are doing parenting right. Most of what we pass to our kids is genetic (and cultural, based on genetic predisposition to learn culture) so we should just chill out and enjoy the time we have with some wonderful little people. In any case, the idea that our efforts are not going to have any impact is known as the Null Hypothesis, and it is worth taking seriously.

Doctrine and Philosophy

But all of my philosophizing about community is kind of the opposite of just chilling out and letting genetic destiny take its course. I have this idea that if I can just find the Truth, I can find happiness and pass it on to my kids.

You probably know someone who thinks that formal learning about doctrine or philosophy is the key to becoming nearer to god (or to becoming happy, or what have you). Those of you who are might have been surprised at some point to learn that not everyone makes a big deal about it. A lot of people just go about their lives and make big decisions based on cultural instincts without agonizing about whether they have the right formal framework. And they aren’t necessarily wrong.

It is worth at least stopping to consider whether having a formal understanding of any particular Truth is necessary for being happy. What if learning Doctrine does not really bring one closer to God? What if it is more important to follow your instincts (i.e., listen to the Spirit)?

Regardless of whether you are religious (or philosophical, or political), I think it is good to identify those things that you think most people ought to know or believe. Then just consider the Null Hypothesis for a moment. Consider for a moment that knowing your particular Truth isn’t really going to change anyone. What if, instead of the truth making us better, “better” people are just more likely to accept the “Truth”?

The Impact of Tribal Doctrine

There are some obvious differences between the question of whether we need to learn how to complete the square and whether it is important to know the Truth about God and the Universe. My point isn’t to argue that the Null Hypothesis is true for any particular kind of knowledge (although I am pretty sure that it is true for advanced algebra, for most people).

In fact, the reason I keep reading and writing about community is that I think some additional formal understanding about how communities work can have a big impact. But what will the impact look like? For me, I keep coming back to the question of whether anything I learn is going to change how my daughter lives her life. And my answer is that I think it will.

In a way, you can call me a Zionist. I have a vision of the Promised Land, and I want to be able to paint a picture in my daughter’s mind of what she ought to be striving toward. I am reminded of a version of the LDS Hymn that Mercedes recently showed me, by a group called the Lower Lights. Take a listen, it’s really cool:

I love the chorus:

Of course, a beautiful song doesn’t really prove anything, but I do think that having some explicit ideas about what we want our relationships and communities to look like is going to be more important for my daughter than knowing how to do algebra. The ideas I am developing are my vision of Zion.



Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters

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