We should make academic knowledge easier

post by mickofemsworth · 2019-01-27T16:52:53.504Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · EA · GW · 6 comments

This is a link post for https://scepticalacademic.blogspot.com/2019/01/we-should-try-to-make-academic.html

The link above is to an essay that argues that:

If academic knowledge were simpler to understand and use, more people would understand more, misleading misunderstandings should be less prevalent, the education industry would be cheaper and more efficient, and humanity would make faster and better progress. I am convinced this is an idea with enormous potential, but it does not seem to be on anyone's agenda, and there are very strong vested interests opposing it.....

This is very relevant to the effective altruism community for three interlinked reasons. Whatever our aims - helping people to become happier, healthier, wiser or whatever - simplifying knowledge will make progress faster, it will make conclusions and their rationale clearer, and it will save an awful lot time.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Khorton · 2019-01-27T18:12:35.640Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Slight downvote because I don't think this is what EAs should focus on. The claim that we could make academic knowledge 50% simpler isn't well-evidenced in the article, and the area seems quite intractable for reasons explained in the article.

comment by mickofemsworth · 2019-01-28T09:35:14.311Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Fair comment. The 50% business was just a hypothetical thought experiment to illustrate a possibility, not a figure with any evidence behind it! But I do think that the problem of knowledge getting more and more complicated is a serious problem and will become more so in the future. If people can't see what's going on, fake news will thrive.

comment by aarongertler · 2019-01-29T01:24:44.615Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

For causes that are especially complicated and difficult, like "knowledge simplification", I recommend this technique to avoid getting lost in the weeds:

  • Find examples of projects in this field that you think were highly effective, and see if you can think of ways to create similar projects that would also be effective. For example, if you think that StackOverflow simplified programming knowledge and helped more people become good programmers, producing a lot of value for every dollar that went into it:
    • Is there some other field that needs its own StackOverflow, but doesn't have one? (Nothing immediately comes to mind for me.)
    • Is there some way in which more people can be made to learn about, and use, StackOverflow-like projects? (It seems like people very frequently find StackOverflow and its ilk when they search for answers, but... maybe?)
    • How much should we value more people getting access to this kind of project? How would we track whether the thing we thought was valuable (e.g. "more good programmers exist") was actually happening, and caused by our project?
    • How many other people have tried something like this? What was their success rate? Can we avoid the most common reasons that these projects fail? (Most StackOverflow and Wikipedia-like projects never get anywhere, especially those focused on hard things like "simplifying knowledge" rather than easy things like "writing summaries of TV episodes for your favorite fandom's wiki".)

Unless the above exercise gives you something useful, you should strongly consider the idea that another cause is more worthwhile.

There are exceptions to this (for example, fields like AI safety are novel and focused on future problems, so we wouldn't expect to see past projects we knew had been highly effective). But in the case of "knowledge simplification", I see a vast graveyard of doomed projects, with a view bright spots that were successful by chance and/or so successful that they've dominated their niche and no further work should be done (as far as I know, we don't need any more StackOverflows for programming, or any more Wikipedias for general knowledge).

comment by mickofemsworth · 2019-01-29T20:46:17.088Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for your comment. I intend the idea as a principle to be taken into account when designing cognitive frameworks, not as a specific project. Many (not all) ideas are unnecessarily complicated so there are lots of advantages of simplifying them, or tackling problems via an alternative route. But to the best of my knowledge this is not something that anyone has looked at systematically. I don't know much about stack overflow but will look into it.

comment by riceissa · 2019-01-31T04:53:42.020Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I am having trouble interpreting statements like "it does not seem to be on anyone's agenda" and "not something that anyone has looked at systematically". Can you say more about where you have looked and what you have rejected? (From the title of the post I expected to see mentions of Arbital, Distill, research debt, the many explanatory pieces published on LessWrong and the EA Forum, work by Michael Nielsen, and Metacademy, to name some projects that I have seen mentioned and discussed by effective altruists.)

comment by mickofemsworth · 2019-02-09T13:28:30.644Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks, I will check your suggestions, none of which I know about. (I am new to effective altruism.) I did do a general google search a few years ago which did not turn up much.