EA Handbook 3.0: What content should I include?

by Aaron Gertler4 min read30th Sep 201921 comments


EA Forum (Meta)EA EducationCommunity

Hello, EA Forum!

I’m working on a new version of the Effective Altruism Handbook. The project is still in its initial stages, and this is the first of what I hope will be several updates as the book passes through different stages in its development.

While the underlying structure hasn’t yet been finalized, it seems likely that the new handbook will be quite different from the previous version. Notably, rather than trying to summarize EA through a series of full articles, it will (probably) contain excerpts from a much wider set of articles, taking a mix-and-match approach to summarizing key ideas.

I hope that this will make the handbook more flexible and easier to update as new ideas — and better takes on old ideas — emerge. (Currently, I plan to first publish this content as a series of Forum articles, and later compile them into a single document; I expect discussion and feedback from Forum users to substantially improve the material.)

This also means that I’m conducting a massive search for EA content, so that I can find the best explanations, quotes, and so on for every idea in the book.

My question for you: What should be in the new handbook?

What the handbook is for

My primary goal for the handbook is that it will be a good introduction to a variety of EA concepts. Someone who has no background knowledge whatsoever could, in theory, start at the beginning and read straight through, while someone who has some background could skip to whatever seems new.

(Realistically, there will be a lot of content, and most people will read it in sections, follow links away from the main text to get more detail on what most interests them, etc.)

Sample use cases:

  • Someone wants to introduce EA to a friend who asks them about their strange charity hobby. They send them the first section of the handbook, which details the most basic/fundamental concepts and (perhaps more importantly) why “effective altruism” exists as a concept at all.
  • An employee from a global development NGO is going to EA Global. They don’t know much about other cause areas, but they want to understand the conversations that will be happening around them. They prepare for the weekend by reading the handbook.
  • An excitable undergraduate finds their university’s EA group at an activities fair. They’re blown away by the initial presentation, and say: “I want to know all about this — what should I do?” The group’s president recommends starting with the handbook.

I don't at all expect that I’ll be able to produce the most compelling available introduction to every major EA concept at once — or even to any single concept.

However, I hope that blending together a lot of good content from various sources, and adding a few of my own explanations to bridge gaps, will allow me to give readers a more cohesive experience than they’d have exploring EA’s vast archives on their own. I’ll also be responsible for making sure the handbook’s content stays up-to-date in a way that most archival material does not.

What to send me

In priority order, I’m looking for answers to the following sub-questions:

  • What do you think just about everyone getting into EA ought to read?
  • What should just about everyone interested in (EA subtopic) be reading?
  • What obscure, out-of-the-way content maybe shouldn’t be read by everyone, but should still be cited in the handbook somewhere because it is very useful to a specific kind of person new to EA?

This should be in the form of links to existing content. There’s a faint possibility that I might commission original content if there’s a tricky gap I need to fill, but I think that existing content plus a bit of my own scaffolding will account for the vast majority of the book.

Some specific types of content that would be useful:

  • Introducing effective altruism:
    • What are the core ideas?
    • What makes EA different from other ideas/fields/intellectual movements?
  • Motivation:
    • Why might you want to follow the core ideas of EA? Why is it important to help others (as much as possible)?
    • What are some good things that have happened because of EA?
    • What are good things people did outside of EA that exemplify EA ideals?
  • Cause selection:
    • How do we figure out which problems to work on?
    • How do we figure out which interventions to work on within a problem?
  • Helping people (near term):
    • If you want to help people in the present day, what should you be doing, and why? (This isn’t just global health, but also causes like “prison reform”)
  • Helping people (long term):
    • If you want to help people over the long term, what should you be doing, and why? (This isn’t just AI, but any cause that seems to fit into “longtermism”)
  • Helping animals:
    • If you want to help animals (in the near term or the long term), what should you be doing, and why?
  • Other causes:
    • What are some other ways to help that don’t fit into the above categories?
  • Living EA values:
    • What are some ways that people act on the core ideas of EA?
    • What are some ways that people work together in communities to act on the core ideas of EA?
  • Answering questions:
    • What are some common criticisms of EA? How valid/important are they?
    • What are some common misconceptions about EA? What’s the truth?

You can leave your answers as a comment, or PM me if you’d prefer not to share your suggestions/reasoning in public.

Notes on making suggestions

Please don’t worry about making “obvious” suggestions. Even if you’re sure I know about an article, it still helps me to know (a) that you like it, and (b) which parts of it you found most valuable (again, I expect that I’ll mostly be using excerpts).

Please don’t worry about making “weak” suggestions. Even if I don’t like something very much after I read it, I’ll still appreciate the suggestion! And even if an article isn’t great as a whole, it may contain a single perfect gem-like sentence that more than justifies the time I spent to read it.

I value both substance and style. The handbook’s tone will be fairly professional, but I also want to show off the variety of styles and outlooks that characterize effective altruism. If you know an article that’s really fun to read, even if it isn’t the best take on any particular concept, I’d like to know about it.

I’m open to a wide variety of sources. In theory, anything that can be cited is fair game, including videos, books, and even social media posts — because I’m using excerpts, the source in question doesn’t necessarily even have to be EA-centric. However, the more unusual a source is, the higher the bar will be for its inclusion; if it’s a Tweet, it had better be a really dang good Tweet.

There isn’t yet a firm timeline for when the book will be released. If you have other questions about the project, you are welcome to ask, though I may not be able to give very specific answers yet.

Thanks in advance for your suggestions!