TLDR;

We want to help answer your questions about EA!. ‘Dumb’ questions or questions that you would usually be embarrassed to ask are especially encouraged.

You can ask questions using the forum question feature with the EA Librarian tag, using this form or via the discussion channel in certain fellowship groups.

Feel encouraged to ask questions without reading the rest of this post!

Background

The community health team at CEA is excited to launch the EA Librarian on the EA forum. This is part of the team’s work on community epistemic health.

One way in which the EA movement could fall short of its potential is if epistemic norms degrade significantly within the community. It’s hard to get a sense of exactly how large an issue this but there is at least some evidence to suggest that this may be happening already (e.g. deferral problems previously identified by the EA leaders’ forum).

CEA’s work in this area is quite exploratory and we are looking to pilot programmes like this one in an effort to retain and improve the epistemic norms of the EA community. The team expects to try out different projects and iterate over time. If you have ideas or feedback, please have a low bar for sending them through! (You can reach Nicole, the community health team manager, at nicole[dot]ross[at]centreforeffectivealtruism.org)

I’d like to thank Nicole Ross, Will Saunter and Hannah Erlebach for providing feedback on earlier drafts of this post, all errors are my own.

Overview

As the name suggests, the EA librarian will act as a librarian for the EA community. Users can submit questions related to EA via the forum, privately using this form and our team of librarians will do their best to research and answer your questions, pointing you towards existing resources where useful. We think that this will not only be useful for people new to EA but also for more experienced community members. This is the second iteration of this programme after running a similar service on slack for a remote fellowship.

We think that this service might add value in the following ways, and are excited to experiment to see if this seems correct:

  1. Increase awareness of existing resources in the EA community.

    • The EA community (and other related groups) have produced a large amount of high-quality literature. EAs exploring unfamiliar areas can often save a substantial amount of time by asking people broadly familiar with EA literature relative to an independent investigation.
  2. Celebrate and reinforce a norm of investigating confusions (particularly asking ‘dumb’ questions).

    • My impression is that the perceived bar to asking questions online for new members is much higher than the bar ‘should’ be.

    • Feedback from the previous iteration of the programme suggested that, new members can be overly concerned about wasting other people’s time and reputational costs of asking basic questions.

    • I also think that asking questions is one of the quickest ways to advance your understanding of EA concepts so lowering the bar or nudging people to ask questions could be very valuable.

  3. Provide clear demonstrations of working through questions using good reasoning processes to help users investigate similar questions independently in the future.

    • One way in which people develop their reasoning is through conversation with others. Various staff members at EA organisations have mentioned that conversations with people with good judgment were helpful in improving their own judgment.

    • I think that outside of a handful of organisations, it can be difficult to find a high concentration of people with good judgment, who can explain their reasoning processes well enough for others to understand and imitate them.

    • We hope that this service will mimic some of the important features of these conversations for improving the users’ epistemics and increases accessibility to this resource. This is one of the more speculative goals of the project.

How to use the EA Librarians

  1. You can submit questions for librarians to answer using the question feature of the forum with the EA librarian tag or privately via this form. If you are participating in an in-depth or intro fellowship there may be a dedicated channel for you in your slack workspace.

    • If you would like us to support your fellowship/seminar programme/discussion group please email me using my email address below.
  2. The librarians will research and answer your question and respond in the comments, via email or on slack.

Librarians will aim to make use of high-quality existing resources, illustrate their thought processes/models clearly and exhibit a high degree of reasoning transparency. The exact makeup of the pool of Librarians is in flux but it will generally contain EA researchers, community builders and other experienced community members and we are able to scale up Librarians with demand pretty easily.

We will aim to publish a thread every 2 weeks with questions and answers that we thought were particularly interesting or useful (to either the community or the question asker). We hope that this will encourage more people to make use of the service.

Who is this service for?

If you are reading (or listening) to this post you are very welcome to use the service. We’d love to see your questions!

We want people to have a very low bar for asking questions. I think that some potential librarian users will be overly worried about wasting the time of our librarians or asking dumb questions. To be clear, it is not possible to waste our time. If you have a question or are confused by some topic and think that a Librarian might be able to help you I strongly encourage you to submit your question.

There are a few groups that we think that this service may be most beneficial for.

  • People, who are very new to EA, maybe you recently attended an intro talk or read a book introducing EA.

  • People who have some knowledge of EA but haven’t really engaged with the EA community. Maybe you have recently completed an intro or in-depth fellowship.

  • People who do not have regular contact with other EAs. You may be at a high school/university/workplace without an EA group and don’t interact with other EAs on a weekly basis.

  • People going through a period of intense learning or growth. Maybe you are trying to figure out what you should do with your career, are thinking about pivoting your research into an area related to EA, or are participating in an EA fellowship/seminar programme.

What kinds of questions are we looking for?

We are most excited about answering questions that might accelerate you on your path to impact or resolve a confusion that you have.

Questions that you may want to ask

You can ask any questions related to EA, please err on the side of asking too many questions. We particularly encourage you to ask questions about topics that you are confused by or feel like ‘dumb questions’.

  • What actually is utility? I understand that utilitarians want to increase the amount of utility in the world but it’s not very clear in my head conceptually, I feel like I have a much clearer picture of what it means to act virtuously.

  • If I wanted to get a good overview of the current state of AI alignment research, where should I look?

  • I went through GiveWell’s cost-effectiveness analysis and it looks like deworming should be more promising than their favourite charity (Malaria Consortium). What am I missing?

  • What are the strongest arguments against working on existential risk from a neartermist perspective? I find it unintuitive to care about the existence of people in the far future but it seems like pandemics (and other x-risks) will affect a lot of people alive today and in the near future.

  • Is there anyone in EA using their graphic design skills to do good? If you don’t know them directly do you have any advice for going about finding them?

I don’t want users to anchor too strongly to these examples. I just want to illustrate some of the types of questions that we might receive.

Questions you may not want to ask

Whilst we have selected our Librarians to (between them) have a good knowledge of the EA movement, coverage of major cause areas and good judgement, their knowledge and reasoning is of course imperfect. Our Librarians may not be well equipped to answer very complex questions or questions requiring a significant amount of expertise in a narrow domain.

That said, they may well know someone else who can provide useful information that they could connect you to so I’d err on the side of asking your question.

How is this different to the forum question feature?

I think that the EA librarian service aims to solve a similar problem in a slightly different way. I think that the question feature on the forum is great, questions on the forum can be answered by any forum user with an account and my impression is that most questions receive at least some attention from forum users.

I think that the librarian service optimises for slightly different outcomes:

  1. Librarians will put a substantial amount of effort into explaining their reasoning processes; they want to illustrate their models so that the question’s asker can build similar models when tackling future questions.

  2. Librarians’ answers will often direct people to existing resources, including content that is not on the forum to increase resource awareness for the user.

  3. I think that the Librarians are particularly good at doing the above, they have generally been around EA for a significant amount of time, have thought deeply about a range of EA material and are very enthusiastic about answering a wide variety of questions.

We hope that this service will also increase the total number of questions asked on the forum.

Conclusion

EA is interested in many topics, promotes surprising and sometimes counterintuitive conclusions, and dedicates a significant amount of resources to research. Getting a good overview of EA thought areas, learning how to reason about them and finding good resources is pretty challenging. I personally have greatly benefited from finding experienced EAs with a good knowledge of EA resources to answer my questions.

My sense is that most of the people who benefit from this have in some way lucked into an environment that facilitates question asking and answering e.g. if you have been part of a particularly great university group, happen to have well-informed friends who encourage you to ask questions or work at an EA organisation like Open Philanthropy/CEA/80k. I hope that this service will increase access to this resource. I hope you use this resource

Feedback

If you would like to provide feedback or have a question about the service you would like to ask privately please contact me at caleb[dot]parikh[at]centreforeffectivealtruism.org. I’m particularly keen to find ways to encourage people to use the service to answer ‘dumb’ questions that they would otherwise be embarrassed to ask so feedback on lowering the bar for question-asking is particularly useful.

107

16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:15 PM
New Comment

This sounds super exciting, looking forward to reading the posts! 

I want to higlight the following bits of the post: 

We particularly encourage you to ask questions about topics that you are confused by or feel like ‘dumb questions’.

and

it is not possible to waste our time.

This sounds like a really useful thing to make!

Do you think there would be value in using the latest language models to do semantic search over this set of (F)AQs, so people can easily see if a question similar to theirs has already been answered? I ask because I'm thinking of doing this for AI Safety questions, in which case it probably wouldn't be far out of my way to do it for librarian questions as well.

That's sounds super cool! I expect this will work best for broader/more general questions e.g. "What do people mean by the word utility? I'm interested in Biosecurity, what are some intro resources that would be suitable for someone with little background in biology" as opposed to "I am a 3rd year undergraduate with a double major in CS and Music, I am worried that majoring in music might but off employers in the AI safety space, how should I test my assumption". I could of course be wrong about the types of questions this would be better for.

Questions so far have been more of the form of the latter than the former, I am not entirely sure why this is and we have some ideas for generating more questions like the former so I don't know what the distribution will be like in a few weeks. 

I'll make a note to get back to you on this further down the line if I think that it would be useful.

Echoing the idea that originally came from CarolineJ and vaidehi_agarwalla, having the service available on a "comment-level" seems good. 

You can ask questions using the forum question feature with the EA Librarian tag, using this form or via the discussion channel in certain fellowship groups.

These are great and have their advantages, but there seems to be different advantages to letting people submit questions as comments.  

The act of writing comments seems to have lower frictions compared to making what is effectively  creating a forum post or submitting a Google form.

Noted, this is a feature that I initially wanted to implement. Comments don't allow you to add tags and I am not sure how we would know whether someone was asking a question of our service.

I did have a brief look at working out if there was an easy way to scrape the forum but I don't have much experience with GraphQL and we and the forum team thought it was best to test a more minimal verson of the service initially.

Thanks for the reply!

Thoughts/suggestions of unknown quality (feel free to ignore):

  • You can create a new post, similar to the current "open thread", and explicitly have every comment there be an "EA librarian" question for reply. You can get this pinned and see how it goes.
  • You can do the above, but instead of creating a new thread, you can just use the current "open thread", and have people set an in text marker, e.g. "[librarian]".
  • You can get the developers to add a flag or feature to comments, to mark it as a question. I could see different ways of doing this and it doesn't seem hugely costly.  For example, they can clone the "report" function.
  • The above could work in any comment, in any post, and that seems like a huge win.

 

I did have a brief look at working out if there was an easy way to scrape the forum but I don't have much experience with GraphQL and we and the forum team thought it was best to test a more minimal verson of the service initially.

The short answer is that this isn't hard, and getting you notifications isn't hard, assuming you have a clear, codified tag or rule for what a question is. 

Basically, I know someone with a related project who can set something up for you, that notifies you by email or text message (assuming you have some clear, codified rule for what a question or tagged comment is). If you want this setup, the "lead time" would be about 2 weeks, and would cost nothing. 

 

Anyways, based on your comment, you have already thought about this and have some roadmap/plan that you are executing, and it's likely the ideas you consider include the above. That should be respected. 

All the above are quick thoughts, so just take it or leave it.

Great work!

It seems like this service could work very well with the "Open threads" comments where a lot of people introduce themselves and talk about their uncertainties. 

Perhaps a possible forum feature suggestion : prompting people in the open thread to ask the librarians a question, or have a pop-up for new users pointing them to the service. Could be interesting to run some tests and see what kinds of questions come up. 

Cool idea, we probably want to select more aggressively for newer community members as well. I'll make a note to investigate this further next week,

Yeah I think this could work well, maybe I'll pull in each new comment into our system in case the librarians have an opportunity to help out.

This sounds like a very cool & useful service, and I hope enough people take advantage of it to justify it's costs! I will certainly direct fellows to it.

Thanks for directing fellows towards the service!

We think that there is quite a lot of information to value to running this programme so the breakeven point is likely quite low in terms of justifying costs. That said I do hope that we get a lot of people using the service!

Thanks for the initiative! Do you think that this will cultivate curiosity and help address the deferral problem and help EAs to be critical around claims that they perceive to be well-established? Or is it mainly thought to help EAs navigate the vast space of knowledge within EA?

I am hopeful that it will cultivate curiosity/investigating confusion, and help address the deferral problem.

I think that it will be harder to know whether we achieve 'cultivating curiosity' than 'helping people navigate EAs knowledge space' but I am probably more excited about making progress on the former.

It seems to me that the EA Librarian will make more progress on navigating the knowledge space and learning what's already consensus. Whereas something like creating a separate entity on the forum where people are explicitly encouraged to question/examine some of the major claims and build inside views ("An EA fact-checker" or something) would more directly address the deferral problem. As for knowing whether this is achieved, perhaps create a pilot with a local group and then specifically ask them about this before and after the pilot?

Interesting idea!!

If you have additional thoughts/ideas in the space or more detail on this idea, please do reach out! nicole . ross @ centreforeffectivealtruism.org

(I'm the manager of the com health team)