Beyond IQ

Scientific and Rational Thought and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

  • 27 Aug 2020
  • 12 Nov 2020
  • 12 sessions
  • 27 Aug 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EDT)
  • 03 Sep 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EDT)
  • 10 Sep 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EDT)
  • 17 Sep 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EDT)
  • 24 Sep 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EDT)
  • 01 Oct 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EDT)
  • 08 Oct 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EDT)
  • 15 Oct 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EDT)
  • 22 Oct 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EDT)
  • 29 Oct 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EDT)
  • 05 Nov 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EST)
  • 12 Nov 2020, 11:00 AM 12:15 PM (EST)
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Lisa Fontaine-Rainen, instructor

Thursdays, 11:00 am - 12:15 pm Eastern, for 12 weeks

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a fanfic that begins with the premise that Harry’s aunt Petunia marries an Oxford chemistry professor (rather than Vernon Dursley) and Harry is homeschooled – and has a particular talent for scientific thinking.  Thus the 1600 page fan-fiction re-envisions the Harry Potter story through the lens of a child who engages in scientific and rational thinking.  

And here’s a bit of honesty.  I don’t read fanfic.  I don’t begrudge it for those who love it – I think it’s a great way to get writing or to explore ideas, but I generally don’t read it myself.  I don’t want to see changes to stories I love.  I had to be dragged into reading this one. 

And I don’t regret it one bit.  Even if you’re like me and not into fanfic, this one’s worth it.  This one makes me think.  It lets me move through the world I love, examine it through a different lens, laugh at its quirks, love it all the more, and become a better scientist.  Not only do I hope to share it with you, I hope to bring you deeper into the thinking, exploring the story and the premise fully to help you also think rationally, like this version of Harry. 

In this course we will read the first  “book” of the work and explore the various scientific ideas introduced in the text.  We’ll talk about Harry’s approach to the world, and where it might get in his way.  Our course will weave literature and science, as they have been woven in this text.  We’ll also ask the question about the changes made from the original text – which were driven by an intent to steep the main character in scientific thought and which were not.  Thus, having at least some knowledge of the original Harry Potter texts, or at least the movies, is useful for this course. 

Some of the ideas presented in the text can be quite dark – much like the original books, but sometimes even more so.  Parents are encouraged to read chapter 1 to get a flavor for the text, and chapter 7 (starting around page 85) as it contains some of the most troubling material that we will address in this class.   Alternatively, feel free to e-mail me directly for excerpts to review, and I’m happy to discuss the content as well. 

Participants will have the opportunity to engage in a number of assignments that explore the ideas in the course.  These will be flexible and tailored to participants’ interests and abilities.  Other work will be primarily reading the book and supplementary material and participating in discussions in and out of class.  The book is available online for e-readers or to print and as podcasts, all at no cost. 

Science isn’t a set of facts, but instead a way of thinking.  Come explore the science and the magic of this world.

All times are U.S. East Coast.   

Students will have access to class recordings the day after each class.


Day 1: Why do I believe what I believe? 

Introduction to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR), and the basic concept of a controlled experiment.   Discussion – how would the wizarding world yield to science? 

Ch. 1, in class

Day 2:  Cats are complicated!  or That’s the most Ravenclaw thing I have ever heard.

Sufficient Evidence, Conservation of Energy,  Bystander Effect, conscientious objectors, intro to logarithms.

Ch. 2, 3

Day 3: It’s a Mathematical Thing or Shaking Hands with a Bad Explanation

            Fermi estimation and money conversion, arbitrage, seigniorage, how to make money by buying and selling money, fiscal prudence, fundamental attribution error, Occam’s Razer, and what is that hilarious thing Draco and Harry are doing anyway?

Ch 4, 5

Day 4: Offering an alternative explanation or Trouble Trusting Adults

Experimentation, the Planning Fallacy, anecdotal evidence, Harry and psychology, scientifically investigating which sentences a human four year old can understand, lift, Bayes’s Theorem, social roles of children and adults.

Ch 6

Day 5:  Manipulating Reality or  the Trust, but Verify

Rules of game design, psychology of reciprocation, manipulation vs. influence, social structures around privilege, politics and the French Revolution, positive or confirmation bias, what does “smart” really mean, experimental design, bystander apathy, desensitisation therapy, consequentialism.

Ch. 7, 8

Day 6: Being Aware of my Own Awareness or What Happens if you Fail?

Reproductive isolation (with a  bit of Star Trek thrown in), sentience (with more Star Trek thrown in), the concept and challenge of sorting people (with a bit of Divergent thrown in), risk and failure, the problem of being placed on a pedestal, an examination of Dumbledore and Quirrell in this version of HP

Ch 9, 10, 11, Omake File 2

Day 7: A Metaphor for Human Existence or Ignorant About a Phenomenon

The Game, Escher (for the uninitiated), doing good things, bullying and psychology, apologizing, antimatter, Gutenberg, anthropic principle, Turing machines, correlation vs causation

Ch. 12,13

Day 8: An Unusually Pessimistic Imagination or Most Dangerous Student

Limits and dividing by zero, competition, safety and transfiguration, comparing coursework between this HP and the other HP, ideas about education and learning, being a creative thinker

Ch. 14,15

Day 9: Truly Brilliant Experimental Test or A Fashion Unbecoming a Hogwarts Professor

Paradoxes, prime numbers and encryption, P and NP, formulating a hypothesis, looking smart, authority, anger as a tool

Ch. 16,17

Day 10:Vitally Important Technique or Impulse to Kindness

How to lose vs. how to fail, representative heuristic, Bayes’s Theorem, Harry’s morality, approaching new ideas, pressure of consistency, Second Law of Thermodynamics, rationalization.

Ch. 18, 19, 20

Day 11: A Priceless Opportunity

Omake file 1 and 3, general discussion, touch on anything we haven’t gotten to yet, discussion of assignments so far.

Day 12:  Oogely boogely! or Observation

Looking forward, Chapter 22 (or Book 2, chapter 1), the scientific method, N-Rays, Philip K. Dick, reality, Lake Wobegon effect, Socratic Method, Asch’s Conformity Experiment, heritability, Alfred Tarski, Eugene Gendlin, Sharing our own stuff.

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