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EA database/reading list: Why it might be useful

I recently posted on the EA Facebook group asking if there existed any (1) comprehensive, (2) crowd-sourced / semi-crowd-sourced and (3) well updated databases cataloguing blog posts, articles and general media sources related to different EA issues.

Seeing as no one who saw the post suggested anything that fits the above description, I thought I might take a stab at the idea. This post is potentially the first in a series to explore and chronicle the emergence of this idea.

 

Why might this be worthwhile?

But first, in the interests of not creating a database for the sake of creating one, and also because it might be good to hold off on proposing solutions, I wanted to brainstorm in what ways such a thing might be useful. 

In particular my inner skeptic wants to know how much better this would be to what we have now (e.g. just googling "effective altruism + keyword"). It's not obvious to me prima facie that an imposed database would be significantly better than the informal systems we have now, and I loath to create a useless shell of a project that dies a death of disuse.

Here are the reasons I ended up with:

A. Enhancing knowledge

1. EA 201 intermediate study - There exist several excellent introductions to EA, including the EA handbook and Ben Kuhn's great reading list, but after a brief primer on EA topics there doesn't seem to be a second step for people to take to expand their understanding of EA issues. There are some structures that try to address this (e.g. the EA newsletter?), but none come to mind that allow for easy, focused and intentional study of different subject areas. I'm worried that people who do not have the time or patience to peruse the EA forum / blogosphere themselves will become disengaged with this idea, and stop engaging with it. Helping people bridge the gap between "newbie" and "fanatic" seems like a useful thing.

2. Fill in knowledge gaps within the community - Similar to the first point, without some systematic way to approach studying different EA topics, I think individual EAs will start falling prey to known unknowns and (worse) unknown unknowns. This seems really bad in terms of helping people optimize for donations. If I do not understand a cause area well enough or even known it exists, it's likely to be a blind spot in my giving patterns. For instance, before stumbling across Brian Tomasik's blog it never occurred to be to even think about wild animal suffering as a thing that existed, and I am sure I have other blind spots I haven't interrogated yet. Having a way to fill in community knowledge gaps that doesn't purely rely on serendipity seems useful too.

B. Coordinating conversations

3. Reduce repeat discussions - There are merits to having the same kinds of discussions again several times (perhaps they allow the people having those discussions to reach a deeper understanding of the issues being discussed), but those benefits don't seem to accrue to observers. In particular, it would be nice to point interested people to conversations that have occurred already - I'm reminded of the practice within some feminist blogs to point newbies to FAQs that answer basic questions about feminist issues so that the conversation can proceed to new ground. Hopefully this won't shut down conversations but will make the quality of discourse better.

4. Identify gaps in EA literature - This might be more difficult to achieve, but ideally it'd be really nice to have a way to know when we are missing solid articles on a particular subject.  This would require a sufficient comprehensiveness in a database such that the absence of literature in that database was a reliable indicator of a general absence in literature and not poor record-keeping within the database itself. If we could have a database that is pretty well crowd-sourced, maybe we could capture some of these benefits.

5. Make EA debates clearer to follow - Two possible advantages: (1) Allows for more systematic understanding of EA debates, and (2) Puts clashing voices in more direct conversation with each other. (1) After falling down the clickhole of EA blog posts I sometimes find myself just agreeing with whichever side of the debate I read about last. I'd like to stop doing that, and start understanding better why the debate exists, etc. A good database can make informal literature reviews easier. (2) It seems plausible that different voices on the same issue haven't been introduced to each other, and this database could be a way to do that. But I can't think of any examples of where this exists, so maybe this is not a real benefit I can co-opt.

C. Resource for other EA activities

6. Better offline discussions in EA groups - I was talking to some folks at a Boston EA meetup, who suggested that it'd be nice to have more specific in person discussions about EA topics (e.g. population ethics), and that a good way to facilitate this might be to hold "blog reading groups", where people come in and discuss topics after having read a list of relevant resources. A solid EA database could help make these kinds of conversations happen, and I'm sure other groups could find other uses for such an idea.

7. Fodder for targeted links EAs can share with friends - I occasionally find myself talking to a friend and realizing they should really be introduced with one part of the EA blogosphere. It'd be nice if after having those thoughts I could go to one place and find a thing for them to look at. Maybe this is a problem other people face that could be solved.

 

Some concluding thoughts (before phase 2)

Based on the above reasons I am inclined to think something along the lines of my initial suggestion might potentially be able to offer enough benefits to the community to be worth pursuing. But I'm also aware that now that I've sunk some time into brainstorming reasons in support of such an idea I'm more inclined to agree with myself.

So before sinking more time into this, I'm interested to know whether there are things that my mind hasn't thought of yet. In particular, I'd be very interested to know, in this order: (a) if any of my proposed benefits above seem off, (b) if there already exist ways that create the above benefits, (c) if there are better ways to create the above benefits, and (d) if you can think of any ways other communities have solved for the above benefits / anything else useful for the creation of such a thing.

I know I said I'd hold off on proposing solutions, but some ideas on things that look like this database idea proposed by others on Facebook include: something like an open-source, wiki-style, public annotated bibliography (Jay Quigley), reading lists / databases compiled by EAs who have relevant experience - such as current and former employees of EA orgs (Jacob Funnell), something like the pareto bookshelf - a list of recommended reads by those who applied for the pareto fellowship (James Aung), something that looks like Aaron Gertler's list of articles but more organized/comprehensive/selectively compiled. Other ideas are to replicate something that looks like LW's sequences, maybe delegate to people working in different EA fields the task of compiling reading lists on those specific issues and then consolidate those reading lists to a specific page, etc.

If people tend to think this is a thing worth having, I'm also aware I might not be the best person to try and create such a thing, since the EA community seems to have an ample supply of computer science-y people and I am not one of those people (my comparative advantages right now lie in the domain of having a fair bit of time on my hands and being willing to do the grunt work of reading/compiling good articles). If someone likes this idea and would like to co-opt it, I would be very happy to pass the torch on. But if (a) no one more suitable than me wants to do it and (b) it still seems like this would be a nice thing to have, I'm willing to have a go at it.

 

Thoughts are very welcome!

Comments (18)

Comment author: ClaireZabel 27 July 2016 06:04:43PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: ClaireZabel 27 July 2016 06:07:53PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: angelinahli 27 July 2016 10:32:25PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for the links! I wasn't aware the EAHub wikia library existed (http://wiki.effectivealtruismhub.com/index.php?title=Library) but it looks like what I'm thinking of should go here. I'll get to work collating links soon.

Comment author: ClaireZabel 27 July 2016 06:00:52PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: othercenterism 27 July 2016 06:30:27AM 2 points [-]

If there's a easy and good framework for crowdsourcing these, I'd definitely help with providing articles since I read quite a bit and love collecting stuff like this (I've collected around 700 EA relatable quotes over ~15 months).

Comment author: angelinahli 27 July 2016 10:36:30PM 0 points [-]

That's very kind of you - would you mind if I drew on this document for some of the links? I wasn't aware of EA Hub's library before but just stumbled across it, and it looks like the perfect platform to do this kind of thing in. I'll work on it when I have time over the next month or so - please feel free to contribute also! http://wiki.effectivealtruismhub.com/index.php?title=Library

Comment author: othercenterism 31 July 2016 05:29:00PM 0 points [-]

I don't mind at all about using material from the quote compilation document, if that's what you're referring to.

The EA Wiki is quite large and confusing for me, so I hope that can work out. Another thing to draw ideas from could be something called the "List of Positive EA Media and Press", which sadly became inactive early on.

Comment author: RyanCarey 27 July 2016 07:21:21PM *  1 point [-]

By the way, if you click "More on Effective Altruism" at the top of the right hand sidebar, you get Introduction to Effective Altruism, which is similar to the EA Handbook

Comment author: angelinahli 27 July 2016 10:33:06PM 0 points [-]

Got it, thank you! I'll add it to a list of things to add.

Comment author: Peterslattery  (EA Profile) 27 July 2016 01:22:37AM 1 point [-]

I approve of this idea. In terms of how to do it: How about updating the EA wiki based on all of the sources? You could do it alone and with volunteers. Additionally, what about making the wiki more publicly known by using SEO and other techniques?

I also think we should have a stack exchange for EA so, if you agree, you could work on helping that to happen.

Comment author: angelinahli 27 July 2016 10:44:36PM *  0 points [-]

I wasn't aware of the EA wiki library before but that seems like a good idea and I'll go do that. Thank you for suggesting it! If it becomes a comprehensive / worthy enough resource one way to make it more publicly known might be to post it as a stickied note on the facebook group / add it to this forum's other resources page. I'll look into SEO ideas also (since its a wikia page I'm sure other people will join.)

I haven't used stack exchanges much, but I'm curious to see how helpful they are. What do you envision the stack exchange being used for? My concern is that there seem to be too many places for discussion groups on EA topics already and if the stack exchange doesn't offer significantly different benefits over existing platforms I wonder if it would lead to a more fractured community/generally be net bad.

Comment author: RandomEA 27 July 2016 05:52:25AM *  0 points [-]

I think an open access academic journal focused on effective altruism could also have significant benefits including:

-increasing dialogue between the EA community and academic philosophers

-creating a formal mechanism for receiving thoughtful feedback on new ideas

-allowing readers to find the most important new contributions in one location

-incentivizing serious research on topics that are important to the movement

-signalling the openness of the community to changing its mind on key issues

It could complement a database by highlighting the most important articles within the database.

I explore the idea of a journal in greater depth in this comment: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/us/call_for_papers_for_a_special_journal_issue_on_ea/7ud

Comment author: angelinahli 27 July 2016 11:01:33PM 0 points [-]

Hi - this sounds like something the forthcoming Oxford Institute for EA might find worth taking up.

It sounds like a good idea, although I have a few concerns:

-increasing dialogue between the EA community and academic philosophers

I think there could potentially be greater benefits from EAs publishing their ideas in other journals that have wider readerships. I'd be surprised if publishability was a serious bottleneck for EA researchers right now; as far as I can tell many EAs have already been able to publish their articles elsewhere.

Perhaps if there are specific topic areas the EA community generally is supportive of (maybe obscure x-risk ideas? Wild animal suffering / the finer points of population ethics?) that are heavily under-researched but cannot be published by conventional journals, it could be worthwhile to create journals based on those topic areas. Maybe if we have a specific academic goal in mind - e.g. pushing for higher research standards in a field - creating a journal could additionally allow EAs to have more influence in pursuing that goal.

-allowing readers to find the most important new contributions in one location

Do EAs actually learn about EA mostly through academic journal articles? I'm skeptical this is the primary way that EAs find their information sources. (But maybe I'm wrong).

Additionally, I'm not an expert on the world of academic publishing but some open access journals look very fishy and I'm not sure how seriously this journal would be taken. e.g. Jeffrey Beall annually publishes a list of predatory publishers.

Comment author: RandomEA 28 July 2016 01:54:14AM 0 points [-]
  1. I think the barrier to greater publication is that there are many EAs outside the academy with publishable articles who just feel like an academic journal would be the wrong place for their article. If there was a journal dedicated specifically to effective altruism and read by many in the movement, there would probably be more EAs submitting articles.

  2. I would agree that most EAs currently learn about EA ideas in places other than journal articles, and I actually want that to continue even if a journal is started. However, I would imagine that many more people would read academic journal articles about EA if we have a single journal than in the current situation where EA articles are in many different journals.

  3. It would probably be a good idea to make it free to submit and free to read, but that does require an EA organization to pay for the costs.

  4. There does seem to be a tradeoff here: the more acceptable the journal is to the EA community, the less acceptable it will be to the academic community. For example, allowing the majority of the articles in the journal to be from nonacademics, allowing some reviewers to be nonacademics, and having an EA organization host the journal are steps that would make it more acceptable to EAs and less acceptable to academics.

Comment author: sfox100 26 July 2016 06:10:57PM 0 points [-]

I think this is an excellent idea and I have often wished for something along these lines myself

Comment author: angelinahli 27 July 2016 11:02:57PM 0 points [-]

Awesome - The EA wiki library looks like the best way to do this idea, so I'll start to work on that over the next few weeks.

Comment author: Gleb_T  (EA Profile) 01 August 2016 04:01:55AM 0 points [-]

Great idea!

As someone whose primary work in the movement focuses on outreach and movement-building, I think there should be clear indications of what level each piece is for (beginner, intermediate, advanced). Also, consider the Students for High-Impact Charity reading list.

Comment author: angelinahli 02 August 2016 12:06:05AM 0 points [-]

Excellent suggestion! I'll tinker with that idea on the wikia page. I'll also put the SHIC reading list onto my list of links to add.