Reading group guide for EA groups


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Risto_Uuk

Hi, 

I'm Risto Uuk and I run EA Estonia. We started organizing reading groups last semester. We tried to find relevant guides for that, but weren't able to find anything comprehensive in the EA community. Because of the need, we started to create a guide ourselves. It's a draft and would benefit from all kinds of comments. Here's the link to Google Docs: http://bit.ly/2p9kLgj. Everybody is welcome to make suggestions. Thank you for your time in advance!

What is a reading group?

Reading groups range from a few friends who meet regularly to talk about particular books that they have all read, often sharing a few bottles of wine to ease the discussion along, to more formal meetings, perhaps led by an academic, which explore literature in a more structured manner, rather like a seminar.

Many reading group members find their reading becomes more rewarding, more focused, and that exchange of ideas with others can provide a whole new slant on a book. Readers in a rut will be introduced to books they would never have thought of reading, thanks to the recommendations of other group members.

What are the goals of a reading group?

The goals of effective altruism groups generally are to find and foster the development of people who are highly dedicated to, have a sophisticated understanding of, and have skills relevant to ‘doing the most good’, and to integrate these people into the broader effective altruism community.

Along these general lines, there can be a variety of different goals for a reading group such as to have intellectual entertainment, improve philosophical or scientific understanding, and inspire actionable steps in readers' lives to make the world a better place.

How to set up a reading group?

The easiest way is to start is with friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. EA groups often already have done this to a lower or higher degree and therefore have a list of people to invite to these events. That is a better option, because these people are probably already interested in effective altruism. But by attracting people you don’t know, you are likely to be introduced to books, authors, and ideas that are new to you as well reach new people to promote EA to.

How many members should a group have?

The average reading group has 6 to 10 members. This allows for a really good discussion, from several different points of view, and should allow for everyone to be able to make a contribution. Also the size won’t inhibit shyer members.

Where to meet and when?

Some groups meet in local bookshops, in each other’s homes, village halls, pubs, or university rooms. It has to be a venue that will be comfortable, accessible and relaxing for all members. If it is in people’s homes, make sure there is enough room to accommodate everyone, and that everyone takes a turn with the hosting where possible, so that no one person has to cope with the catering and clearing up afterwards. Getting everyone together for an initial meeting is always difficult, but try and gauge what time of day, and day of the week suits the majority. Use that time for the first meeting, and then when you have that initial gathering you can discuss future dates and times.

Organizing the first and next meetings

  • How often do you want to meet? Monthly? Biweekly? Weekly?
  • What time of day do people want to meet?
  • What will your venue be?
  • How long will you meet for? On average groups meet for an hour to an hour and a half.
  • Do you want to have refreshments?
  • Who will lead the discussion? It’s often good to get members to take turns in doing this.
  • What kind of group will you be? Philosophy? Science? Books or articles?
  • Think about the books you would like to read in advance and if possible ask members what they’d be most interested in to read.

Try to make the first meeting really relaxing and informal. You could use the ice breaker questions below, to get discussion flowing. It might be an idea to ask people to bring along their all time favorite book, or a book that they really can’t get into to start of the conversation.

“Ice breakers” for the first meeting

  • What do you do for work or school?
  • What are your general research and learning interests?
  • How did you first hear about effective altruism?
  • What effective altruism books have you read and what did you think of them?

Leading discussions

There should be a moderator who leads discussions. He/she should be well-prepared with notes, open-ended questions, comments, etc. He/she can focus on definitions/concepts, arguments, evidence, examples, and main claims. He/she may also summarize what has been said and make conclusions based on that.

The moderator should moderate enough but not too much. If he/she dominates too much, then others get to share their ideas less and probably feel less motivated to continue having discussions. If the moderator doesn't participate enough, the discussion might get too broad and lose focus or turn into an unproductive one.

How to read philosophy?

  1. Approach the text with an open mind – philosophy at its best is a fair-minded and fearless search for truth. Avoid making a judgment before you fully/fairly understand ideas and arguments. Try to maintain a neutral attitude, presuming that the author is neither right nor wrong. When you make a judgment, ask yourself what reasons you have for that judgment.
  2. Read actively and critically – philosophical reading is intense, it cannot be rushed, it must be slow and deliberate. When you read philosophy, you are usually trying to follow the arguments closely. Ask yourself what key terms and passages mean, how the argument is structured, what the central thesis is, where the premises are, how key ideas are related, whether the main conclusion conflicts and compares with other propositions or philosophical writings. The whole point is to discover whether various claims are worthy of acceptance. 
  3. Identify the conclusion first, then premises – first find the main conclusion, then search for the premises that support that. There may be several arguments.
  4. Outline, paraphrase, or summarize the argument – you can test your grasp of the argument by outlining, paraphrasing, or summarizing it.
  5. Evaluate the argument and formulate a tentative judgment – understanding is the first step, the second step is to make an informed judgment. The judgment is your evaluation of the argument – whether the conclusion follows from the premises and whether the premises are true.

How to evaluate the impact of a reading group?

Use a feedback form after every session, after some sessions, or after reading an entire book. For example, these questions could be asked:

  • How much did you learn?
  • How much did the discussion change your beliefs?
  • Did the discussion generate ideas to implement in your life?
  • What do you expect from the next discussions? What should the moderator have done better?
  • How much did you enjoy your time?

In general, the impact can be evaluated according to how much participants enjoyed the discussions, how much they learned, and how much it influenced their beliefs and life.

What are the best practices for taking and using notes?

Laptop, tablet, smartphone, and printed paper can all be used for notes during the discussion, but each has its benefits and downsides. Laptop is larger and may disturb eye contact as well as increase the chance of multitasking, while a smartphone is smaller and better for communicating but makes it difficult to take notes during the discussion. What works then is to take notes in a notebook and transfer them to a computer later. Printed paper seems least convenient.

Guidelines for being benevolent and charitable in discussions

  • Be nice.
  • Don't interrupt.
  • Don't present objections as flat dismissals (leave open the possibility that there's a response).
  • Don't be incredulous (not willing to believe).
  • Don't roll your eyes, make faces, laugh at a participant, etc, especially to others on the side.
  • Don't start side conversations parallel to the main discussion.
  • Acknowledge your interlocutor's insights.
  • Object to theses, don't object to people.
  • You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way."
  • You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  • You should mention anything you have learned from your target. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
  • Objections are fine, but it's also always OK to be constructive, building on a speaker's project or strengthening their position. Even objections can often be cast in a constructive way.
  • Even when an objection is destructive with respect to a position, it often helps to find a positive insight suggested by the objection. If you find yourself thinking that the project is worthless and there is nothing to be learned from it, think twice before asking your question.
  • It's OK to question the presuppositions of a project or an area, but discussions in which these questions dominate can be unhelpful.
  • You don't need to keep pressing the same objection (individually or collectively) until the speaker says uncle.
  • Remember that philosophy isn't a zero-sum game.
  • Don't dominate the discussion (partial exception for the speaker here!).
  • Try not to let your question (or your answer) run on forever.
  • Acknowledge points made by previous questioners.
  • It's OK to ask a question that you think may be unsophisticated or uninformed.

Sample discussion guide for Doing Good Better

Introduction and chapter 1:

Quotes:

  • “Randomized controlled trials are the gold-standard method of testing ideas in other sciences, and for decades pharmaceutical companies have used them to test new drugs. In fact, because it’s so important not to sell people ineffective or harmful drugs, it’s illegal to market a drug that hasn’t gone through extensive randomized controlled trials. But before Kremer suggested it, the idea had never been applied to the development world.”
  • “Effective altruism is about asking, “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. It takes a scientific approach to doing good. Just as science consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s true, and a commitment to believe the truth whatever that turns out to be, effective altruism consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s best for the world, and a commitment to do what’s best, whatever that turns out to be.”
  • “As I use the term, altruism simply means improving the lives of others. Many people believe that altruism should denote sacrifice, but if you can do good while maintaining a comfortable life for yourself, that’s a bonus, and I’m very happy to call that altruism. The second part is effectiveness, by which I mean doing the most good with whatever resources you have. Importantly, effective altruism is not just about making a difference, or doing some amount of good. It’s about trying to make the most difference you can.”

Questions:

  • Why do we depend on intuitions so much when choosing charities? How can abstract and counter-intuitive charities be made emotionally appealing?
  • Should philanthropy be self-sacrificing and is true altruism such that the person being altruistic doesn't get any benefits and suffers due to helping?
  • What do you think how rich are you in the world?: https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i. What implications does it have?

Chapter 2:

Quotes:

  • “There were so many, and they kept coming. Patients were taped with a 1, 2, or 3 on their foreheads: 1 meant treat now, 2 meant treat within twenty-four hours, and 3 meant irretrievable. The 3s were moved to the small hill by the roadside opposite the emergency room and left to die in as much comfort as could be mustered for them. They were covered with blankets to stay warm and given water and whatever morphine we had. The 1s were carried by stretcher to the emergency room or to the entrance area around it. The 2s were placed in groups behind the 1s. ... With so many casualties coming in, Orbinski knew he could not save everyone, and that meant he had to make tough choices: whom did he save, and whom did he leave to die?”
  • “The idea behind the QALY is that there are two ways you can give a health benefit to someone. First, you can “save someone’s life. (I use quotes here because “saving” a life, of course, only ever means extending someone’s life.) The second way to benefit someone is to improve the quality of their life during the time they are alive. Migraines don’t kill people, but, as someone who occasionally suffers from them, I know that life is better without them.”
  • “The difficulty of comparing different sorts of altruistic activity is therefore ultimately due to a lack of knowledge about what will happen as a result of that activity, or a lack of knowledge about how different activities translate into improvements to people’s lives. It’s not that different sorts of benefits are in principle incomparable.”

Questions:

  • Would anyone disagree that we need to set priorities when trying to do good? Why does it have to be stated? Isn’t it very obvious?
  • How good of a measure is QALY? What are the pros and cons? What other measures could be used?
  • Are some causes in principle incomparable? Can we quantify everything? What about happiness, for example?

Chapter 3:

Quotes:

  • Foreign aid skeptics: “The other tragedy of the world’s poor . . . is the tragedy in which the West spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get six-dollar bed nets to poor families. The West spent $2.3 trillion and had still not managed to get three dollars to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths.”
  • “In the context of helping others, the difference between a good use of money and a great use of money is huge. We shouldn’t just ask: Is this program a good use of money? We need to ask: Is this program the best use of money?”
  • “In the health-care graph, the best program is estimated to be five hundred times more effective than the worst program (which, remember, is still a good program). Even if the highest estimates were too optimistic by a factor of fifty, it would still be vitally important to focus on the best programs rather than merely good ones.”

Questions:

  • Why are foreign aid skeptics wrong? Do they make any good points?
  • Effective altruists pursue maximization in doing good. Are there any dangers in that? Should they be satisficers instead?
  • Should all people donate to the most effective charities? Is there any danger in that? What about those charities that have potential but are just starting out?

Chapter 4:

Quotes:

  • “This “water and diamonds” paradox shows the importance of what economists call thinking at the margin: assessing the value of an additional thing—what is known in economics as its marginal utility—rather than thinking about the average value of that thing.”
  • “If the international response to natural disasters was rational, we would expect a greater amount of funding to be provided to larger disasters and to disasters that occur in poorer countries, which are less able to cope. But that’s not what happens. Funding seems to be allocated in proportion with how evocative and widely publicized the disaster is, rather than on the basis of its scale and severity.”
  • “If you aim to become a doctor in a rich country, you’re adding only your labor to the already very large pool of doctors who are working in that country. That means that becoming a doctor probably does less good than you’d intuitively think. The same consideration explains why doctors have a much bigger impact if they work in poor countries than in rich ones.”

Questions:

  • How to quantify the impact of a job? How to quantify the impact of medical doctors?
  • If we consider diminishing returns and neglectedness, then how good causes are health and education? What is the contribution an individual can make in these areas?
  • Are you persuaded that the impact of a medical doctor in developed world isn’t very large and isn’t usually a good career to pursue? Can careers be compared at all based on their social impact?

Chapter 5:

Quotes:

  • “Nine high-quality studies have been done on the program, assessing the progress of one thousand juveniles overall. The Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit institute that rigorously assesses the evidence behind health and social programs, looked at these studies and found that two of them had no significant effect, while the remaining seven showed increased rates of criminality among juveniles.”
  • “... by becoming a doctor, you aren’t simply adding one extra doctor to the supply of doctors. The number of spots at medical school is fairly rigid, so if you decide not to go to medical school, someone else will take your place and become a doctor in your stead. Thus, by becoming a doctor, you’re really just changing who works as a doctor, not adding to the overall amount of talent out there.”
  • “Earning to give means exactly what it sounds like: rather than trying to maximize the direct impact you have with your job, you instead try to increase your earnings so you can donate more, improving people’s lives through your giving rather than your day-to-day work. Most people don’t consider this option when choosing a career that “makes a difference.” But time and money are normally interchangeable—money can pay for people’s time, and your time can be used to earn money—so there’s no reason to assume the best careers are only those that benefit people directly through the work itself. If we’re serious about doing good, earning to give is a path we should consider.”

Questions:

  • How was the estimate made that every 1 dollar spent on Scared Straight program causes 203 dollars of cost for the society?
  • What is counterfactual thinking and how to implement it to questions about career in messy real-life conditions?
  • Are there any objections to earning to give careers?

Chapter 6:

Quotes:

  • “Maximizing expected value is generally regarded as the best strategy for making decisions when you know the value and the probabilities of each option. It’s the strategy used by economists, statisticians, poker players, risk-management experts, and pretty much anyone else who needs to regularly deal with uncertain outcomes.”
  • “Nobody in their right mind votes because they think they’re going to affect the outcome of an election. If you look over the last hundred years of, say, elections for the US House of Representatives, I think there’s been maybe one [very close] election that’s been decided by votes. . . . The reasons for voting have to be something very different: it’s fun, your wife will love you more if you do it, it makes you feel like a proud American—but never should anyone delude themselves into thinking that the vote they cast will ever decide an election. . . . Just about anything you do with your time would be more productive.” - Steven Levitt
  • “The answer lies with expected value. If you decline to buy some chicken breast, then most of the time you’ll make no difference: the supermarket will buy the same amount of chicken in the future. Sometimes, however, you will make a difference. Occasionally, the manager of the store will assess the number of chicken breasts bought by consumers and decide to decrease their intake of stock, even though they wouldn’t have done so had the number of chicken breasts bought been one higher.”

Questions:

  • What other decision theory strategies could be used in thinking about philanthropy? What are the problems with maximizing expected value?
  • How valuable do you think voting is? Do you agree with MacAskill’s evaluation?
  • Should you be a vegan or a vegetarian based on expected value?

Chapter 7:

Quotes:

  • “One popular way of evaluating a charity is to look at financial information regarding how the charity spends its money. How much does the charity spend on administration? How much is its CEO paid? What percentage of donations are put directly to the charity’s main programs? This is the approach that Charity Navigator, the oldest and most popular charity evaluator, has taken for the last fifteen years. According to Charity Navigator, “Savvy donors know that the financial health of a charity is a strong indicator of the charity’s programmatic performance.””
  • “Given the lessons of the previous chapters, however, we should already understand that this approach to evaluating a charity’s effectiveness is seriously misguided. For starters, think about the logic behind this reasoning if you apply it to personal spending. Suppose you’re deciding whether to buy a Mac or a PC. What factors would you consider? You’d probably think about the design and usability of the two computers, the hardware, the software, and the price. You certainly wouldn’t think about how much Apple and Microsoft each spend on administration, and you wouldn’t think about how much their respective CEOs are paid. Why would you? As a consumer you only care about the product you get with the money you spend; details about the financials of the companies who make the products are almost always irrelevant. If Apple spent a lot of money to attract a more talented management team, you might even consider that a good sign that their products were the best on the market!”
  • “This may have been true of the Against Malaria Foundation in 2013: GiveWell had named it its top-recommended organization in 2012, and it received a surge in donations totaling $10 million. They struggled to spend that money quickly, which suggested that additional donations to them wouldn’t have the same effectiveness as previous donations, so GiveWell didn’t recommend them in 2013. (They successfully increased their capacity in 2013, however, so GiveWell recommended them again in 2014.)”

Questions:

  • Have you donated before? What information did you gather and how did you make a decision to donate?
  • What factors do you think are most important to determine which charity to donate to?
  • If you had a hundred dollars to donate, which charity would you donate it to? Would it be a GiveWell’s recommeded charity or something else? Why?

Chapter 8:

Quotes:

  • “... those who protest sweatshops by refusing to buy goods produced in them are making the mistake, which we discussed in chapter five, of failing to consider what would happen otherwise. We assume that if people refused to buy goods from sweatshops, these factories would succumb to economic pressure and go out of business, in which case their employees would find better employment elsewhere. But that’s not true. In developing countries, sweatshop jobs are the good jobs. The alternatives are typically worse, such as backbreaking, low-paid farm labor, scavenging, or unemployment.”
  • “... if we’re thinking about buying fair-trade ourselves, we need to ask how much we’re actually benefitting people in poor countries by shelling out a few extra dollars for fair-trade versus regular coffee. The evidence suggests that the answer is “disappointingly little.””
  • “Sadly, many popular ways of reducing your greenhouse gas emissions are rather ineffective. One common recommendation is to turn off or shut down electronic devices when you’re not using them, rather than keeping them on standby. However, this achieves very little compared to other things you could do: one hot bath adds more to your carbon footprint than leaving your phone charger plugged in for a whole year; even leaving on your TV (one of the worst offenders in terms of standby energy use) for a whole year contributes less to your carbon footprint than driving a car for just two hours.”

Questions:

  • Are you persuaded that it’s a bad idea to protest sweatshops? What about fair-trade? What kind of evidence persuades you one way or another?
  • What do you think about ethical consumerism? What were your beliefs before reading Doing Good Better?
  • Are there any impactful options you would support? What are potentially the most effective way to help the world’s poorest, animals, or environment?

Chapter 9:

Quotes:

  • “There are a dizzying number of career paths, each with their positives and negatives. At the same time, the decision is high-stakes. Your choice of career is a choice about how to spend more than eighty thousand hours over the course of your life, which means it makes sense to invest a considerable amount of time in the decision. If you were to spend just 1 percent of your working time thinking about how to spend the other 99 percent, that would mean you’d spend eight hundred hours, or twenty working weeks, on your career decision. I doubt many people spend this much time thinking about their careers, but it might be worth it.”
  • “Finding a career that’s the right “fit” for you is crucial to finding a career, but believing you must find some preordained “passion” and then pursue jobs that match it is all wrong. … Should you pick a career by identifying your greatest interest, finding jobs that “match” that interest and pursuing them no matter what? On the basis of the evidence, the answer seems to be no.”
  • “In general, we recommend people think of three primary routes by which they can have impact on the job. The first is through the labor you provide. This can be the work you do if you are employed by an effective organization, or the research you do if you are a researcher. The second is the money you can give. The third is the influence you can have on other people. In order to work out the total impact you can have, you should look at all three of these; whereas advice that solely focuses on the charity sector only looks at the first.”

Questions:

  • How have you made career decisions in your life? Has it been different from what’s recommended in this book?
  • How important do you think personal passion is when choosing a career? But personal fit?
  • What careers have the highest expected social impact? What about career capital?

Chapter 10:

Quotes:

  • “Though foundations and social entrepreneurs often talk about trying to maximize their impact, they normally just focus on maximizing their impact within the cause or causes that they’re personally passionate about (like poverty, or education, or climate change), rather than thinking strategically about which causes they should focus on. If we’re really trying to do the most good we can, however, then we need to think carefully about cause selection. We’ll be able to help more people to a greater degree within some cause areas than we will in others, which means that, in order to have the biggest impact we can, we have to think carefully about what causes we choose to focus on.”
  • “...bear in mind that decisions about cause selection involve value judgments to an even greater degree than some of the other issues I’ve covered in this book, so the conclusions you reach might be quite different from the ones I reach. Though effective altruism aims to take a scientific approach to doing good, it’s not exactly physics: there is plenty of room for differences of opinion. This doesn’t, however, make thinking rigorously about which cause one chooses to focus on any less important.”
  • “On the framework I propose, you can compare causes by assessing them on how well they do on each of the following three dimensions: First, scale. What’s the magnitude of this problem? How much does it affect lives in the short run and long run? Second, neglectedness. How many resources are already being dedicated to tackling this problem? How well allocated are the resources that are currently being dedicated to the problem? Is there reason to expect this problem can’t be solved by markets or governments? Third, tractability. How easy is it to make progress on this problem, and how easy is it to tell if you’re making progress? Do interventions within this cause exist, and how strong is the evidence behind those interventions? Do you expect to be able to discover new promising interventions within this cause? 

Questions:

  • Do you think anyone could be motivated to pursue a cause that is most pressing even though they don’t have personal interest in that?
  • What causes do you think are most pressing? Why?
  • How can causes be compared? What are the difficulties in that?

References:

  • Oxfordshire Libraries Reading Groups Guide: https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/cms/sites/default/files/folders/documents/leisureandculture/libraries/RG_OCC_Guide_Dec2012.pdf
  • EA Groups Page: Activities Guide: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1HPqj411f9T07kPJWqKdI-_pkUNczVhoP89JcNVvQTsk/
  • Writing Philosophy: A Student’s Guide to Writing Philosophy Essays: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Philosophy-Students-Guide-Essays/dp/0195179560
  • Bloomsbury Essential Guide for Reading Groups: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bloomsbury-Essential-Guide-Reading-Groups/dp/0713675985
  • Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work that Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back: https://www.amazon.com/Doing-Good-Better-Effective-Altruism/dp/1592409660
  • David Chalmers’ guidelines for respectful, constructive, and inclusive philosophical discussion: http://consc.net/guidelines/
  • How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently: https://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/03/28/daniel-dennett-rapoport-rules-criticism/