Suggestion: EAs should post more summaries and collections

Tl;dr I recom­mend more EAs post sum­maries of use­ful ideas and col­lec­tions of quotes, sources, defi­ni­tions, terms, etc. Col­lec­tions in par­tic­u­lar can be fairly easy to make when you’re learn­ing about or re­search­ing a topic any­way. And both sum­maries and col­lec­tions can make the road eas­ier for those who fol­low.

The problem

Effec­tive al­tru­ism is still pretty new, as are sev­eral of its al­lied com­mu­ni­ties (e.g., the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity), and as are many of the top­ics and con­cepts of in­ter­est to EAs. It seems to me, and I be­lieve to many oth­ers, that this leads to the fol­low­ing situ­a­tions crop­ping up sur­pris­ingly of­ten:

  • an in­ter­est­ing/​use­ful idea or topic is dis­cussed, but mostly just in per­son, or in frag­mented ways in var­i­ous places; there’s no good cen­tral write-up, sum­mary, or way to find sources on the topic

  • an in­ter­est­ing/​use­ful term or con­cept is dis­cussed but never clearly defined, or is used/​defined in var­i­ous some­what differ­ent ways

  • there are var­i­ous differ­ent terms in­tro­duced or used for seem­ingly quite similar or at least re­lated things, with­out the sources not­ing the other seem­ingly re­lated terms

Essen­tially, a lot of things of in­ter­est to EAs, and a lot of work by EAs, seems to not yet be neatly con­soli­dated and eas­ily search­able. This makes it harder to learn from and build on the work of oth­ers. It may also lead to:

  • some avoid­able wheel-reinvention

  • a con­fus­ing pro­lifer­a­tion of mul­ti­ple terms for the same concept

  • a con­fus­ing pro­lifer­a­tion of mul­ti­ple con­cepts/​defi­ni­tions for the same term

So sum­marise!

One solu­tion to this is for peo­ple who are learn­ing about or re­search­ing some­thing any­way to:

  • Make a link post to a sum­mary of the thing, if a de­cent sum­mary ex­ists but isn’t already on the EA Fo­rum or LessWrong

  • Write a sum­mary of the thing them­selves, if no de­cent sum­mary ex­ists at all, or one ex­ists but doesn’t quite cap­ture how EAs want to use that thing

I think that solu­tion is great (as does the fo­rum’s mod­er­a­tion team). And I’ve been do­ing some of that sum­maris­ing my­self.

For ex­am­ple, a bunch of great stuff had already been writ­ten on differ­en­tial progress/​in­tel­lec­tual progress/​tech­nolog­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, in­for­ma­tion haz­ards, and moral un­cer­tainty. But a lot of those writ­ings were long and aca­demic, or took a cer­tain prior fa­mil­iar­ity with the topic as as­sumed.

When learn­ing about those top­ics out of gen­eral in­ter­est, or in hopes of writ­ing things that built on ex­ist­ing work, I dis­cov­ered the lack (in my view) of cen­tral, ac­cessible sum­maries on them. So I figured I should try to fill those gaps. I saw this as adding value sim­ply by col­lect­ing to­gether, in an ac­cessible way, all the most im­por­tant points (at least re­gard­ing the con­cepts them­selves, not always all of their im­pli­ca­tions).

And I’ve found similar sum­mary posts by other EAs re­ally helpful my­self, and would be keen to see more EAs writ­ing sum­maries like that. You could set out pur­posely to do that, or just learn about things and wait un­til you hap­pen to stum­ble upon an in­ter­est­ing topic for which no de­cent sum­mary ex­ists.

(See also “re­search debt” and “re­search dis­til­la­tion”.)

So col­lect!

But writ­ing sum­maries can take a de­cent amount of effort and time, and can be challeng­ing. So a quite low effort, easy al­ter­na­tive I’ve started do­ing is post­ing “col­lec­tions” of:

  1. Quotes

    • E.g., the long re­flec­tion seems an im­por­tant idea, but dis­cus­sions of it that are visi­ble on the in­ter­net seemed quite rare. So I col­lected all of the rele­vant quotes I could find, and a hand­ful of other some­what rele­vant sources or con­cepts.

      • My hope was that this would bring the idea to more peo­ple’s at­ten­tion, give peo­ple a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of it, and make it eas­ier for peo­ple to build on the idea.

      • Se­con­dar­ily, I thought it might help high­light just how lit­tle work seemed to have been done on the idea (at least based on what was visi­ble on the in­ter­net), and thus prompt peo­ple to just get crack­ing on it, be­cause they re­ally may have a de­cent chance of com­ing up with some valuable, new in­sights.

      • (I’m us­ing past tense be­cause Toby Ord’s book may have changed mat­ters some­what, which is ex­cit­ing.)

  2. Sources on a topic

    • E.g., when re­search­ing in­for­ma­tion haz­ards, down­side risks, the unilat­er­al­ist’s curse, civ­i­liza­tional col­lapse, and differ­en­tial progress etc. for var­i­ous posts I was writ­ing, I was mak­ing notes of all the rele­vant sources I found, just to help my­self out. And then I re­al­ised that I’d noted a de­cent num­ber of rele­vant sources, and hadn’t found such a list in my trav­els, so I posted those col­lec­tions.

    • (I don’t think I’d bother post­ing col­lec­tions for top­ics about less ob­scure top­ics, such as ex­is­ten­tial and global catas­trophic risks, be­cause in those cases it might be eas­ier for peo­ple to just find a re­cent pa­per/​post and go through its sources.)

  3. Definitions

    • E.g., I was writ­ing a post that men­tioned global catas­trophic risks, and re­al­ised I wasn’t re­ally sure what the defi­ni­tion for that was. When I looked into that, I found there were sev­eral, differ­ent defi­ni­tions float­ing about. So I col­lected all the defi­ni­tions I found.

  4. Terms

    • E.g., I was writ­ing some posts about prob­a­bil­ities, and re­al­ised there were a va­ri­ety of differ­ent terms/​de­scrip­tions that seemed to re­late to a rel­a­tively similar con­cept of how “trust­wor­thy” or “grounded” a given prob­a­bil­ity is. So I col­lected all such terms/​de­scrip­tions which I’d found.

  5. Re­sources in a par­tic­u­lar medium (videos, in my case; pod­casts, in the case of a prior list)

In each case, mak­ing and post­ing the col­lec­tion took be­tween al­most no time and not much time, be­cause I was already learn­ing about the topic and col­lect­ing things for my own sake any­way.

I’ve also seen other EAs use­fully col­lect:

I’d be keen to see more EAs post­ing such col­lec­tions. It seems to me that, as with sum­maries, such col­lec­tions should make it eas­ier for peo­ple to learn of, learn about, and build on in­ter­est­ing ideas and top­ics.

Ideally, I’d hope that other peo­ple would com­ment to add to the col­lec­tions, so that they can serve bet­ter as go-to lists for what­ever they’re about. This makes the col­lec­tions more valuable to fu­ture read­ers, as well as to the per­son who origi­nally made the col­lec­tion. To en­courage this, I’ve always noted in my col­lec­tions some­thing like “I in­tend to add to this list over time. If you know of other rele­vant work, please men­tion it in a com­ment”—and in­deed, a few kind souls have use­fully done so.

As above, but with ex­tra ex­cla­ma­tion marks!

So (I gen­tly sug­gest, to those who feel this would suit them) go forth and get sum­maris­ing! Build paths as you go about your trav­els!

And get col­lect­ing! Leave a trail of bread­crumbs where you walked, and sign­posts to in­ter­est­ing re­gions you haven’t had time to visit your­self!

And then hope­fully those com­ing af­ter you can travel these paths and visit these re­gions more eas­ily. And hope­fully they can race ahead, or to the side, or lay fur­ther paths and bread­crumbs and sign­posts. And hope­fully this can all add up to a rel­a­tively low-effort way to help our com­mu­nity do good a lit­tle bet­ter.

P.S.

It also seems to me that sum­maris­ing and col­lect­ing might be able to serve as one small ver­sion of some­thing like a “Task Y”: i.e., some­thing which has “some or all of the fol­low­ing prop­er­ties:

  • Task Y is some­thing that can be performed use­fully by peo­ple who are not cur­rently able to choose their ca­reer path en­tirely based on EA con­cerns*.

  • Task Y is clearly effec­tive, and doesn’t be­come much less effec­tive the more peo­ple who are do­ing it.

  • The pos­i­tive effects of Task Y are ob­vi­ous to the per­son do­ing the task.”