Suggestion: EAs should post more summaries and collections

by MichaelA4 min read9th Mar 20207 comments

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Tl;dr I recommend more EAs post summaries of useful ideas and collections of quotes, sources, definitions, terms, etc. Collections in particular can be fairly easy to make when you’re learning about or researching a topic anyway. And both summaries and collections can make the road easier for those who follow.

The problem

Effective altruism is still pretty new, as are several of its allied communities (e.g., the rationality community), and as are many of the topics and concepts of interest to EAs. It seems to me, and I believe to many others, that this leads to the following situations cropping up surprisingly often:

  • an interesting/useful idea or topic is discussed, but mostly just in person, or in fragmented ways in various places; there’s no good central write-up, summary, or way to find sources on the topic
  • an interesting/useful term or concept is discussed but never clearly defined, or is used/defined in various somewhat different ways
  • there are various different terms introduced or used for seemingly quite similar or at least related things, without the sources noting the other seemingly related terms

Essentially, a lot of things of interest to EAs, and a lot of work by EAs, seems to not yet be neatly consolidated and easily searchable. This makes it harder to learn from and build on the work of others. It may also lead to:

  • some avoidable wheel-reinvention
  • a confusing proliferation of multiple terms for the same concept
  • a confusing proliferation of multiple concepts/definitions for the same term

So summarise!

One solution to this is for people who are learning about or researching something anyway to:

  • Make a link post to a summary of the thing, if a decent summary exists but isn’t already on the EA Forum or LessWrong
  • Write a summary of the thing themselves, if no decent summary exists at all, or one exists but doesn’t quite capture how EAs want to use that thing

I think that solution is great (as does the forum’s moderation team). And I’ve been doing some of that summarising myself.

For example, a bunch of great stuff had already been written on differential progress/intellectual progress/technological development, information hazards, and moral uncertainty. But a lot of those writings were long and academic, or took a certain prior familiarity with the topic as assumed.

When learning about those topics out of general interest, or in hopes of writing things that built on existing work, I discovered the lack (in my view) of central, accessible summaries on them. So I figured I should try to fill those gaps. I saw this as adding value simply by collecting together, in an accessible way, all the most important points (at least regarding the concepts themselves, not always all of their implications).

And I’ve found similar summary posts by other EAs really helpful myself, and would be keen to see more EAs writing summaries like that. You could set out purposely to do that, or just learn about things and wait until you happen to stumble upon an interesting topic for which no decent summary exists.

(See also “research debt” and “research distillation”.)

So collect!

But writing summaries can take a decent amount of effort and time, and can be challenging. So a quite low effort, easy alternative I’ve started doing is posting “collections” of:

  1. Quotes
    • E.g., the long reflection seems an important idea, but discussions of it that are visible on the internet seemed quite rare. So I collected all of the relevant quotes I could find, and a handful of other somewhat relevant sources or concepts.
      • My hope was that this would bring the idea to more people’s attention, give people a better understanding of it, and make it easier for people to build on the idea.
      • Secondarily, I thought it might help highlight just how little work seemed to have been done on the idea (at least based on what was visible on the internet), and thus prompt people to just get cracking on it, because they really may have a decent chance of coming up with some valuable, new insights.
      • (I’m using past tense because Toby Ord’s book may have changed matters somewhat, which is exciting.)
  2. Sources on a topic
    • E.g., when researching information hazards, downside risks, the unilateralist’s curse, civilizational collapse, and differential progress etc. for various posts I was writing, I was making notes of all the relevant sources I found, just to help myself out. And then I realised that I’d noted a decent number of relevant sources, and hadn’t found such a list in my travels, so I posted those collections.
    • (I don’t think I’d bother posting collections for topics about less obscure topics, such as existential and global catastrophic risks, because in those cases it might be easier for people to just find a recent paper/post and go through its sources.)
  3. Definitions
    • E.g., I was writing a post that mentioned global catastrophic risks, and realised I wasn’t really sure what the definition for that was. When I looked into that, I found there were several, different definitions floating about. So I collected all the definitions I found.
  4. Terms
    • E.g., I was writing some posts about probabilities, and realised there were a variety of different terms/descriptions that seemed to relate to a relatively similar concept of how “trustworthy” or “grounded” a given probability is. So I collected all such terms/descriptions which I’d found.
  5. Resources in a particular medium (videos, in my case; podcasts, in the case of a prior list)

In each case, making and posting the collection took between almost no time and not much time, because I was already learning about the topic and collecting things for my own sake anyway.

I've also seen other EAs usefully collect:

I’d be keen to see more EAs posting such collections. It seems to me that, as with summaries, such collections should make it easier for people to learn of, learn about, and build on interesting ideas and topics.

Ideally, I’d hope that other people would comment to add to the collections, so that they can serve better as go-to lists for whatever they’re about. This makes the collections more valuable to future readers, as well as to the person who originally made the collection. To encourage this, I’ve always noted in my collections something like “I intend to add to this list over time. If you know of other relevant work, please mention it in a comment” - and indeed, a few kind souls have usefully done so.

As above, but with extra exclamation marks!

So (I gently suggest, to those who feel this would suit them) go forth and get summarising! Build paths as you go about your travels!

And get collecting! Leave a trail of breadcrumbs where you walked, and signposts to interesting regions you haven’t had time to visit yourself!

And then hopefully those coming after you can travel these paths and visit these regions more easily. And hopefully they can race ahead, or to the side, or lay further paths and breadcrumbs and signposts. And hopefully this can all add up to a relatively low-effort way to help our community do good a little better.

P.S.

It also seems to me that summarising and collecting might be able to serve as one small version of something like a “Task Y”: i.e., something which has “some or all of the following properties:

  • Task Y is something that can be performed usefully by people who are not currently able to choose their career path entirely based on EA concerns*.
  • Task Y is clearly effective, and doesn't become much less effective the more people who are doing it.
  • The positive effects of Task Y are obvious to the person doing the task.”

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