I used a recent Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) of Rethink Priorities to ask a series of questions about research in general (not limited to Rethink Priorities).
I’m posting these here severally to make them more visible. I’m not personally looking for more answers at this point, but if you think that readers would benefit from another perspective, I’d be delighted if you could add it.
I don’t know what I mean by “field,” but probably something smaller than “biology” and bigger than “how to use Pipedrive.” If you need to get up to speed on such a field for research that you’re doing, how do you approach it? Do you read textbooks (if so, linearly or more creatively?) or pay grad students to answer your questions? Does your approach vary depending on whether it’s a subfield of your field of expertise or something completely new?
I can answer [this], as I’ve been doing it for Wild Animal Welfare since I was hired in September. WAW is a new and small field, so it is relatively easy to learn the field, but there’s still so much! I started by going backwards (into the Welfare Biology movement of the 80s and 90s) and forwards (into the WAW EA orgs we know today) from Brain Tomasik, consulting the primary literature over various specific matters of fact. A great thing about WAW being such a young field (and so concentrated in EA) is that I can reach out to basically anyone who’s published on it and have a real conversation. It’s a big shortcut!
I should note that my background is in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology, so someone else might need a lot more background in those basics if they were to learn WAW.
I just do a lot of literature review. I tend to search for the big papers and meta-analyses, skim lot’s of them and try to make a map of what the key questions are and what the answers proposed by different authors are for each question (noting citations for each answer). This helps to distill the field I think and serves as something relatively easy to reference. Generally there’s a lot of restructuring that needs to happen as you learn more about a topic area and see that some questions you used were ill-posed or some papers answer somewhat different questions. In short this gets messy, but it seems like a good way to start and sometimes it works quite well for me.
I don’t know if I have a great, well-chosen, or transferable method here, so I think people should pay more attention to my colleagues’ answers than mine. But FWIW, I tend to do a mixture of:
- reading Wikipedia articles
- reading journal article abstracts
- reading a small set of journal articles more thoroughly
- listening to podcasts
- listening to audiobooks
- watching videos (e.g., a Yale lecture series on game theory)
- talking to people who are already at least sort-of in my network (usually more to get a sounding board or “generalist feedback,” rather than to leverage specific expertise of theirs)
I’ve also occasionally used free online courses, e.g. the Udacity Intro to AI course. (See also What are some good online courses relevant to EA?)
Whether I take many notes depends on whether I’m just learning about a field because I think it might be useful in some way in future for me to know about that field, or because I have at least a vague idea of a project I might work on within that field (e.g., “how bad would various possible types of nuclear wars be, from a longtermist perspective?”). In the latter case, I’ll take a lot of notes as I go in Roam, beginning to structure things into relevant sub-questions, things to learn more about, etc.
Since leaving university, I haven’t really made much use of textbooks, flashcards, or reaching out to experts who aren’t already in my network. It’s not really that I actively chose to not make much use of these things (it’s just that I never actively chose to make much use of these things), and think it’s plausible that I should make more use of these things. I’ll very likely talk to a bunch of experts for my current or upcoming research projects.
I’m a big fan of textbooks and schedule time to read a couple of textbook chapters each week. LessWrong’s best textbooks on every subject thread is pretty good for finding them. I usually make Anki flashcards to help me remember the key facts, but I’ve recently started experimenting with Roam Research to take notes which I’m also enjoying so my “learning flow” is in flux at the moment.
I can’t emphasize enough the value of just talking to existing experts. For me at least, it’s by far the most efficient way to get up-to-speed quickly. For that reason, I really value having a large network of diverse people I can contact with questions. I put a fair amount of effort into cultivating such a network.
(If one of the answers is yours, you can post it below, and I’ll delete it here.)