Why the EA Forum?

byMaxdalton7mo7th Nov 20183 comments

28


Effective altruism is about figuring out how to do the most good, and then doing it. We want the EA Forum to be the online hub for figuring out how to do good.

Figuring out how to do good is important. Singer’s drowning child argument has redirected tens of millions of dollars towards effective charities. Bostrom’s work on existential risk has created a thriving field of people working to brighten the future of humanity. There are probably other important ideas that we haven’t found yet, and the Forum is designed to help us find them.

In order to figure out how to do good as a community, we need to coordinate and share ideas. Effective altruism needs a central hub for discussion, and a place where people can learn about all the movement’s best ideas, old and new. We want to make the EA Forum the hub for both of those things.

We think that everyone in the community can contribute to this project, and we encourage you to do so by posting, cross-posting, and commenting.

Why intellectual progress matters

Figuring out how to do good is important. We still don’t understand many important facts about the world, so to change the world we need to discover new things and gain more accurate beliefs. This allows us to do more in the future.

Indeed, the community is founded upon ideas and analysis, which are themselves examples of intellectual process -- and often very recent examples. The Drowning Child argument is less than 50 years old. GiveWell's analysis of the effectiveness of global health charities began roughly a decade ago. Many of EA’s core ideas have developed within the last few years; it’s highly probable that some of the ideas we’ll think of as “core” ten years from now have yet to be proposed.

Our intellectual progress matters because it can significantly increase the amount of good we do as a community. Realizing that we should care about a wide range of beings (humans in other countries, animals in factory farms, people in the future), seems like it increases our effectiveness by an order of magnitude or more. And improving our empirical understanding is likely to lead to similarly vast gains. So although intellectual progress is difficult, it yields significant benefits.

Making progress as a community

Much intellectual progress is done as part of a community: even when an individual has an important new insight, it tends to take many people to bring the idea to maturity. Academic science is perhaps the most obvious example of this.

Intellectual progress is not just something done by professional philosophers. It’s something that everyone in the community can contribute to.

Just as you might donate some of your income without working full-time for a charity, you can contribute intellectually without becoming a full-time researcher. For example, you could aggregate data on the number of invertebrates in the world, tweak GiveWell’s cost-effectiveness model, or analyze the history of an interesting social movement. And you can also help by writing up explanations or summaries of others’ work. Whilst you do so, you’ll be sharpening your thinking, understanding others’ ideas better, and learning about important topics.

This is why open forums have historically been places where key ideas behind effective altruism have been hammered out -- for instance, Felicifia, LessWrong, SL4, and many on the EA Forum itself.

To make intellectual progress, the community needs the right infrastructure, amongst other things:

  1. A place to share ideas (e.g. journals)
  2. A way of getting feedback on intellectual work (e.g. discussion groups, online forums)
  3. An easy way to search for existing work (e.g. literature reviews)
  4. Shared norms of discussion, and standards for work (e.g. karma voting)
  5. Common knowledge of core ideas, so that ideas can be built upon rather than constantly rediscovered (e.g. textbooks)
  6. A place for contributors to find important open questions in the field (e.g. research agendas)

The EA Forum intends to provide this infrastructure, and so become the central place where EAs make intellectual progress online.

The Forum is a place where anyone can share ideas (1) and get feedback on them (2). If most content is posted on the Forum, then its search function will be an easy way to find previous work (3). It will have shared norms of discussion (4), specifically those detailed in the moderation guidelines. In the next few months, and in consultation with the community, we aim to produce a core series of posts outlining the common knowledge that we can build on as a community (5). Listing open research questions (6) is an important problem that we are likely to work on in the next year.

Update (5/3/19): As a result of our leadership transition, we've deprioritized the creation of the core series of posts mentioned in point #5, and we can't commit to a release date.

So we think that we will make more progress as a community if we discuss ideas on the Forum. It’s a place to share rough notes and get feedback, a place to finally explain the concept that keeps coming up in conversation, and a place to cross-post and discuss the most interesting and important content that you find.

How can you contribute?

Write

Here are some reasons for posting to the EA Forum:

  • Learning
    • Writing posts is a great way to come up with important new ideas, as well as to practice your writing.
    • Getting feedback from other users can help you improve your thinking, and notice the errors you’re making.
  • Sharing
    • Writing a post for the Forum is an efficient way to explain an idea: you can do it once, then refer people to the post, rather than explaining anew each time. And you can explain it better than you would on the fly.
    • If you’ve written the idea up, others can also link to your explanation, which saves them time.
    • You can explain your ideas to someone who’s new to the community, or someone on the other side of the world, who you’ve never met.
    • When you write, you share not just your ideas, but your thinking patterns - others can learn from these, and can use that knowledge to coordinate more easily with you.
  • Self-promoting
    • Writing is good way to make a name for yourself. Many researchers in the community got started by writing a blog, and it’s something that you can show to prospective employers.

Of course, there are also reasons that you should think carefully before posting on the Forum:

  • There might be other more useful things for you to do.
  • You might find it difficult to deal with criticism of your ideas.
  • Spreading ideas can cause harm: be careful to avoid unproductive discord, and try to check your reasoning so that you don’t accidentally mislead people (community members will also let you know if they are worried about this).

Comment

Commenting is useful for many of the reasons above. In particular:

  • Commenting allows you to share your expertise.
  • It also allows you to engage more deeply with others’ work and understand it better.
  • It is an important way to reinforce useful norms of discussion.

Cross-Post

The Forum is a place to discuss all content related to effective altruism. Cross-posting an interesting post from elsewhere can help share the post’s ideas, and also creates a space for moderated discussion about the post with other community members.

Learn more about the Forum’s features, and how to use them, on our about page.

28