Lately I've been thinking about how useful further historical work might be from an EA perspective.

One input to thinking about this is how useful such work has already been. I believe that research can have diffuse impacts, but here I'm particularly interested in a narrower thing: pieces of ~historical research that have been directly action-guiding for you or other EA actors.

Examples of answers that would be interesting to me:

  • [Series of EA blog posts that are somewhat historical] changed my mind about how important F might be, so I spent more time thinking about F.
  • [Academic history book] informed my belief that Z will happen, which in turn is why I work on A.
  • I'm not sure, but I think that X's work on blah was a contributing piece to OpenPhil's decision to Y.
  • I've never heard of a piece of historical research directly guiding any funding or strategic decisions.

I'm also interested in broader things if they come up, like 'I think this article is very high quality and important' or 'I think that this sub-field has had a pretty positive but very diffuse impact'.

New Answer
Ask Related Question
New Comment

2 Answers sorted by


1. Civillizational collapse seems to me a straightforward answer (and a sort of neglected field in History).

2. Maybe I didn't understand the question properly, or it's just that "historical work" is vague and ambiguous... Would you say Acemoglu's Why nations fail is historical research? Or Melissa Dell's paper on Peruvian Mita?
Since our judgments often derive from past data, then in a trivial sense you could call it all "historical work" that is "action-guiding". But when it uses, e.g., GDP data, we usually call it "Economics"... and it's not just because social sciences are messy: e.g., Harari begins Sapiens by saying something like "Physics is the history of the Universe".
One possible way to precisify "historical research" is to limit its reference to something like "research on facts that ocurred more than 25 (or 50? or 10?) years ago using methodologies deployed by historians". In this case, i think the point of the question would be less "is studying history useful for EA?" and more "is what historians do useful for EAs?"

I especially like your points on 2 Ramiro, and the distinction between studying history/what historians do. I'm interested in both of these things, and also agree that 'studying history' is vague and ambiguous.

I'm still confused about what contentful things I'm trying to think about, and so I'm using a kind of empty label, 'history', to point at the cloud of stuff I think might be relevant. My hope was that people would interpret 'history' differently, and I'd get a range of answers that might help me think about what I do and don't mean - and that I might... (read more)

7Oscar Buck 6mo
(Edit: I wrote this and then realized you are a historian. Leaving it because maybe other people want to know one way of relating history to other fields). Some thoughts about distinguishing historical research from other research and why it might be valuable. First, history is exceptionally method agnostic, compared to other fields. Non-specialists (journalists, bankers, English professors) have made major historical contributions. This isn't because the methods used are always basic or non-scientific, but because such a wide variety have proved useful for historians. Historians usually can't go back and gather more information from their subjects, so their methods have to be flexible and change based on the time and place, and trying to define the 'historical method' is a pretty nebulous task. It's something sort of like, 'what evidence exists about this subject&period&place, and what can I trust it to describe accurately?', and then you choose whatever tools from other disciplines make sense to answer the question. This is a pretty Bayesian-friendly mindset compared to other fields. Second, other disciplines usually begin with an 'object' that they can then apply interpretive methods to, or an object which they can conduct tests on in order to test a theory. Historians, instead, mostly construct historical objects. Most historical questions start as "what was going on with X?" or "why do these other historians disagree about what happened during X?" "How do we periodize this series of events?" and the answers will be "England was developing a working class" or "military records and civilian correspondence tell very different stories about the Civil War" or "there seem to be six distinct stages of US party politics." Sometimes two historical objects are so closely entangled that it's hard to study just one (how can you understand the Haitian Revolution without knowing what was going on in France?), and it's probably good that historians can tell other researche
3rosehadshar6mo
I think this is a really good summary of what historians might do, thanks Oscar. One contextual point is that I think 1 and 2 are something like 'central examples of useful things historians might do', rather than something like 'the main things current historians actually do'. In particular, my outdated impression from when I studied history is that a lot of historical work is very zoomed in source work that may not involve much integration or summarisation. Some of this work is necessary groundwork for 1 and 2; some of it I think comes from specialisation pressures within the field and doesn't produce much value.

Here is a long answer I wrote a while ago. Not sure how action guiding they were but I am glad the work I mentioned was done.

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/uH4kGL4LgQdCgMpDP/can-we-influence-the-values-of-our-descendants?commentId=Wey6Q2KBELrK3n5BW

The relevant part:

Do you have any ideas about how to make progress on [studying the cultural legacy of intentional movements]?

There is a large corpus of historical analysis studying social movements like the suffragettes or the slavery abolitionists. My bet is that there would be large value in summarizing their learnings and taking an "eagle's-eye view" to look for interesting patterns in this movements. How long did it take since the movement was conceived until it spread? How did the main ideas originate? Can we build "infection models" of cultural ideas, making retrospective predictions of eg how many people supported LGBTQ+ rights each year? My outsider perspective is that there is very few people / teams working on the intersection of qualitative analysis and history of social movement, so I expect plenty of low hanging fruit there.

Within the community there has already been some work on summarizing historical movements. For example, Nuño Sempere talked about the Spanish Enlightment and General Semantics here, Holden Karnofski summarized ALL HISTORY here and Alex Hill and I wrote about the history of women's rights and animal rights here. I would like to see more work on this vein, and more actual historians participating in the community.

Snodin and Kinniment's research on succesful technological fields is also relevant, as an example of the kind of history-flavored, "eagle's-eye view" research I think the EA community can excel at.

Regarding specific movements I would personally be interested in studying more closely: animal rights, feminism, the abolition of slavery, the Enlightment, the Scientific revolution, nazism, major religions and Russell's rationalism are easy examples of cultural movements that became widely successful at some point and will be good to look at from an "eagle's-eye view" perspective. Finding failed social movements to study is harder, though identifying a collection of them would be a great project for an early career researcher.

For example, Nuño Sempere talked about the Spanish Enlightment and General Semantics here, Holden Karnofski summarized ALL HISTORY here and Alex Hill and I wrote about the history of women's rights and animal rights here.

I included some missing links... Did I get it right?

2Jaime Sevilla6mo
Yes, thanks! Somehow the copy paste didnt carry over the links