What are things everyone here should (maybe) read?

post by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-18T18:34:42.415Z · EA · GW · 46 comments

This is a question post.

When new people joined the Research Scholars Programme recently, someone asked me what I thought all of them should read.

I think the only serious answer to this question is: There may not be a single such thing. People's circumstances just vary too much. And if there was something it would be good for everyone to read, it would be unclear if I could tell.

Nevertheless, I found this prompt surprisingly useful. I'm sharing my half-serious answer below. If I spent another hour on this, it would probably add things, and might remove others.

I would be interested in other people's answers to this question - even (and maybe especially) if they're similarly half-serious or off-the-cuff. To be clear, I'm not hoping to generate a "definite" reading list or anything like that, and I would be pretty worried if people took responses too seriously. However, I do think it might surface some interesting leads for some readers including myself.

I suspect that the appropriate reaction to my answer is like 80% "this tells me something about Max", 15% "maybe some things in here are actually useful for me to read, but maybe not", and 5% "this tells me something about the world". I suspect it does fairly poorly at "being a well-prioritized and comprehensive reading list anyone should use as-is".

Answers

answer by Ben Garfinkel · 2021-05-18T21:52:21.419Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

A slightly boring answer: I think most people should at least partly read something that overviews common theories and frameworks in normative ethics (and the arguments for and against them) and something that overviews core concepts and principles in economics (e.g. the idea of expected utility, the idea of an externality, supply/demand, the basics of economic growth, the basics of public choice).

In my view, normative ethics and economics together make up a really large portion of the intellectual foundation that EA is built on.

One good book that overviews normative ethics is Shelly Kagan's Normative Ethics, although I haven't read it since college (and I think it has only a tiny amount of coverage of population ethics and animal ethics). One thing I like about it is it focuses on laying out the space of possible ethical views in a sensible way, rather than tracing the history of the field. If I remember correctly, names like Aristotle, Kant, etc. never show up. It's also written in a very conversational style.

One good introductory economics textbook is Tyler Cowen's and Alex Tabarrok's Modern Principles of Economics. I don't know how it stacks up to other intro textbooks, since it's the only one that I've read more than a little of, but it's very readable, has very little math, and emphasizes key concepts and principles. Reading just the foundational chapters in an intro textbook, then the chapters whose topics sound important, can probably get most people a decent portion of the value of reading a full textbook.

comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-18T22:29:27.439Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I remember that reading up on normative ethics was one of the first things I focused on after I had encountered EA. I'm sure it was useful in many ways. For some reason, however, I feel surprisingly lukewarm about recommending that people read about normative ethics. 

It could be because my view these days is roughly: "Once you realize that consequentialism is great as a 'criterion of rightness' but doesn't work as 'decision procedure' for boundedly rational agents, a lot of the themes from deontology, virtue ethics, moral particularism, and moral pluralism become relevant again - through a backdoor as it were. It is therefore kind of misleading to think of consequentialism vs. deontology vs. virtue ethics as alternative theories, which however is the way normative ethics is typically presented in the analytic tradition."

Replies from: bmg
comment by Ben Garfinkel (bmg) · 2021-05-18T23:03:29.559Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Fortunately, if I remember correctly, something like the distinction between the true criterion of rightness and the best practical decision procedure actually is a major theme in the Kagan book. (Although I think the distinction probably often is underemphasized.)

It is therefore kind of misleading to think of consequentialism vs. deontology vs. virtue ethics as alternative theories, which however is the way normative ethics is typically presented in the analytic tradition.

I agree there is something to this concern. But I still wouldn't go so far as to say that it's misleading to think of them as alternative theories. I do think they count as conceptually distinct (even if the boundaries are sometimes a bit muddy), and I think they do sometimes have different implications for how you should in fact make moral decisions.

Beyond the deontology/consequentialism debate, I think there are also relevant questions around demandingness (how strong are our moral obligations, if any?), on the nature of well-being (e.g. hedonistic vs. preference-based vs. objective list theories), on the set of things that count as morally relevant consequences (e.g. do things beyond well-being matter? should we care more about totals or averages?), and so on.

Replies from: Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-18T23:15:21.716Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I think these are good points. I also suspect that many deontologists and virtue ethicists would be extremely annoyed at my claim that they aren't alternative theories to consequentialism. 

(Though I also suspect that many are somewhat annoyed at the typical way the distinctions between these types of theories are described by philosophers in a broadly consequentialist tradition. My limited experience debating with committed Kantians suggests that disagreements seem much more fundamental than "I think the right action is the one with the best consequences, and you think there are additional determinants of rightness beyond axiology", or anything like that.)

answer by Misha_Yagudin · 2021-05-19T11:16:11.328Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

While it's hard to disagree that people should be familiar with the basics of economics, statistics, &c. I am not excited by the spirit of the question and the references to 101 materials.

First, I expect research scholars (and forum readers) to have quite a bit of shared knowledge about topics useful for EA. But more importantly, such advice doesn't make use of distributed coordination [1] and doesn't expand our aggregated knowledge. So I would be much more excited for general recommendations with "randomness," which decorrelated the individual decisions.

For example: read a bunch about a few historical periods of your interest. No hurry with that; maybe, don't solely read about the West; maybe, read something by anthropologists or econ historians. Doing so will expand the group's intuitions about social movement, technological development, causes of war/conflict, power &c.

[1] A similar problem arises with a naive interpretation of 80K career advice (before stronger emphasis on personal fit): people would concentrate on the explicitly outlined paths without accounting for others doing the same.

comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-19T11:28:12.092Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I mostly agree with this, but fwiw to me this all seems consistent with what I said about "how to orient" toward the question & answers as well as with the content of many of my answers. Curious if you have a different impression?

Replies from: Misha_Yagudin
comment by Misha_Yagudin · 2021-05-19T12:18:27.050Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I think that the wording of the forum questions is reasonable. The problem is that I expect that your nuance will get lost in the two layers of communication: commenters recommending intros into X or even specific books; readers adding titles to their Goodreads.

I think this is kinda fine for wellbeing/adulting bits of your advice, which I liked.

Replies from: Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-20T09:16:15.474Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(I think "nuance will get lost in communication" is a very reasonable concern, and one I plausibly didn't pay enough attention to before posting this question. I liked your original comment as well as this clarification, and don't know why someone apparently downvoted them. I would be sad if I got fewer comments like this.)

answer by Linch · 2021-05-18T21:50:34.897Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe the top X posts on the EA Forum? Also maybe adjacent things like Top 10 blog posts read by EAs overall,  Top 10 posts on LessWrong, top 5 books, top 5 academic papers etc?

I think reading things already read by many EAs, in addition to being intrinsically useful (presumably the fact that many other EAs read a post is evidence towards it being actually good) is also advantageous for coordination as an intellectual community. For new writing, if you find it safe to assume that (at least for non-introductory posts), 99% of your audience is familiar with Y concept, then you can make more progress compared to worlds where you can only assume that 70% of your audience is familiar with Y. 

(Obviously there is also value in having diversity in thought and knowledge among EAs, but that's less relevant to this question).

answer by Jsevillamol · 2021-05-19T08:12:37.946Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would recommend everyone to read the book How to solve it, by Polya.

It covers basic techniques for solving a problem, from "solve a simpler problem" to "decompose the problem into subproblems". Its examples are high school trigonometric exercises, but the techniques apply much more widely.

I claim that if you understand the lessons in this book (which, granted, takes a lot of practice you will need to get elsewhere) you get 60% of the benefit of having coursed a math major.

answer by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-18T18:39:58.550Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[I have split my answer loosely across 'themes' to strike a balance between spamming answers and allowing more fine-grained voting/discussion.]

  • Something that has more of a "humanities" flavor and/or helps you understand that perspective rather than triggering "this is just crazy/empty/???" reactions. Maybe some people can get this from Wittgenstein, or from Rorty (e.g. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity), or from Deirdre McCloskey (e.g. this paper [might be paywalled] or this one) ...
  • I also kind of think everyone should read at least one biography, in particular of people who have become scientifically, intellectually, culturally, or politically influential. (Robert Caro's The Power Broker on Robert Moses might be a particularly interesting one but it's also very long ...)
  • This one is a bit whacky, but I think there are some important points in Carl Schmitt's The Concept of the Political, specifically how he tries to define 'the political' by saying “the specific political distinction … is that between friend and enemy.” But yeah then he also says a few terrible things.
    • This from the SEP probably gives you a rough idea of what to expect: "Schmitt is often considered to be one of the most important critics of liberalism, parliamentary democracy, and liberal cosmopolitanism. But the value and significance of Schmitt’s work is subject to controversy, mainly due to his intellectual support for and active involvement with National Socialism."
comment by David_Moss · 2021-05-19T08:14:24.265Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that reading some political realist literature (like Schmitt) could be valuable to a lot of EAs who have an interest in politics. This article gives a useful overview of the tradition.

Replies from: Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-19T08:56:19.524Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! Your link doesn't work for me - seems like there's an EA Forum part before the SciHub one, but if I use just the SciHub part it won't work either. 

Replies from: David_Moss
comment by David_Moss · 2021-05-19T09:06:53.491Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sorry about that, not sure why because the link works for me. But the article is Galston's [Realism in Political Theory](https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1474885110374001).

comment by SamiM · 2021-05-18T19:22:53.501Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I might want to add Martha Nussbaum to this list. She is quite systemic and analytical while also engaging with a wide variety of philosophers (e.g. Aristotle, Marx, Mackinnon). Maybe Sex and Social Justice or Frontiers of Justice. (although I  haven't read the latter yet).

Replies from: Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-18T22:33:34.902Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! I suspect I might enjoy Martha Nussbaum, but Sex and Social Justice never made it from my reading list into my actual bookshelf.

comment by matthew.vandermerwe · 2021-05-20T10:34:14.195Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I also kind of think everyone should read at least one biography, in particular of people who have become scientifically, intellectually, culturally, or politically influential.

Some biographies I've enjoyed in this vein:

  • Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers
  • The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes
  • Karl Marx: a Nineteenth-Century Life
Replies from: annaleptikon
comment by annaleptikon · 2021-07-15T09:50:26.888Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Came here by searching for Frank Ramsey on the forum. I considered writing a post about the same biography you mentioned for the forum. It's very humbling to see how much he already thought of, which we now call EA. 

A related work I can recommend is "Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science"

Replies from: Stefan_Schubert, matthew.vandermerwe
comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2021-07-16T14:19:03.043Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. Can you say a bit more about what aspects of EA Ramsey had thought of, in your view? His views on discounting and probability?

comment by matthew.vandermerwe · 2021-07-18T12:02:02.629Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I considered writing a post about the same biography you mentioned for the forum.

I would love to read such a post! 

It's very humbling to see how much he already thought of, which we now call EA. 

Agreed — I think the Ramsey/Keynes-era Apostles would make an interesting case study of a 'proto-EA' community. 

comment by Linch · 2021-05-18T19:58:46.467Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Do you have a preference between biographies vs autobiographies? Like intuitively biographies are better because they're more objective/they aren't trying hard to "sell something" but personally I've found autobiographies more interesting/information-dense. If I were to come up with potential legible reasons for this intuition (note that this is coming up with reasons after-the-fact, rather than because I carefully analyzed the merits and downsides of each before reading):

  • Autobiographies tend to be shorter
  • Getting the first-person view gives me a better sense of how someone thinks (or at least how they think they think).
  • Biographies (at least recent ones) might be heavily skewed towards modern sensibilities and ways of analysis, autobiographies feel more raw and gives me a better glimpse of different worldviews (though at the risk of higher probability of misunderstanding)
  • Autobiographies make me feel more ambitious
Replies from: Max_Daniel, Linch, Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-18T22:32:21.184Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the only autobiography I ever read is Emma Goldman's Living My Life. It was at a time not too long ago when I had felt particularly fed up with the EA community, and so was motivated by a peculiar kind of escapism. It did its job, but I feel like leaves me in a poor position to compare biographies to autobiographies more generally. :)

comment by Linch · 2021-05-18T20:07:06.956Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Incidentally, I've recently read John Stuart Mill's  autobiography, and I'm currently (slowly) going through Wu Lien-Teh's Plague Fighter. Next I plan to read either From Third World to First or Double Helix.

comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-20T09:13:24.723Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Btw, I'm not sure if "autobiographies tend to be shorter" is right? Even if it's correct on average, there certainly are some biographies that are fairly short.

E.g. I read a very short biography of Peter Kropotkin and a short biography of Hannah Arendt. And a short "dual (partial) biography" on Churchill and Orwell.

Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2021-05-20T09:33:47.457Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sure, my tendency claim is about averages (and also anecdotally grounded than because I did a full survey).


Would you recommend the short dual biography on Churchill and Orwell?

 

Replies from: Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-20T11:22:58.609Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it was OK, but nearer the bottom of biographies I've read. In hindsight I would probably rather read a biography on just Churchill (but this might just reflect what I'm more interested in, and whom I happened to already know more about).

comment by SamiM · 2021-05-18T19:13:56.406Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hey Max, there is no link to the McCloskey paper.

Replies from: Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-18T19:21:08.731Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, fixed :)

answer by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-20T09:32:18.877Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I actually found some notes with other papers I had semi-seriously (cf. OP) tagged as "everyone should read this".

I do think that (at least for me) they all met the bar of "teaching me something interesting about the world, or about how to think, that is useful even if I don't plan to become a specialist in the respective domain". They might require some domain (and maths) knowledge to appreciate, however.

They are definitely not well-prioritized, e.g. heavily skewed toward stuff I was reminded of recently.

answer by Linch · 2021-05-18T20:48:53.705Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Here's my guess:
 

At least one (and probably more like 2-3?) reasonable introductions to Bayesian statistics in practice. I got it from Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise + a Coursera course. I also hear good things about Bayesian Data Analysis by Gelman et al, various writings by Yudkowsky, and various lecture videos online. Students currently in university should also consider taking an introductory class in statistics (though supplementary work needed if it's not Bayesian, which most introductory courses are not).

Some practice is probably also useful.

I suspect the exact material doesn't matter that much here since the core lesson isn't that hard, just that the level of statistical rigor that most EAs casually absorb in the "EA memesphere", while higher than many other places, is nonetheless lower than can be gleaned from an introductory course in Bayesian statistics, and the latter is (I claim) better for the overall culture.

comment by alexrjl · 2021-05-19T08:52:07.076Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Agree with this but would note that "The Signal and the Noise" should probably be your first intro or likely isn't worth bothering with. It's a reasonable intro but I got ~nothing out of it when I read it (while already familiar with Bayesian stats).

comment by Erich_Grunewald · 2021-05-18T23:23:28.085Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

a really great book for learning practical bayesian statistics is richard mcelreath's statistical rethinking. there is also a series of lectures on youtube.

Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2021-05-19T09:50:43.109Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My roommates and I are watching his lectures right now!

comment by Jsevillamol · 2021-05-19T09:15:01.827Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What's the coursera course you coursed and do you recommend it?

Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2021-05-19T18:03:55.969Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it was this course. I don't have strong opinions on whether it's better or worse than other introductory courses.

Richard Mcelreath's lecture videos online feel more fun, but I'm also not sure if this tracks better pedagogy, especially for people exposed to Bayesian stats for the first time rather than using it as a refresher.

answer by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-18T18:38:40.959Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[I have split my answer loosely across 'themes' to strike a balance between spamming answers and allowing more fine-grained voting/discussion.]

  • Some basic economic history, a good short thing might be e.g. Luke M's posts on the Industrial Revolution. Or some Our World in Data pages/articles, or I'm sure there are also good academic review articles ...
  • Some basic statistics, though idk about a good source.
  • Some basic economics, but I probably can't give you a great list of what exactly I would think is important or what good sources are. I think this piece on Coase and externalities has the right flavor but obv doesn't cover everything.
    • Also specifically some of the basics of growth economics. Like know about some basic endogenous growth models and be able to understand, e.g., Nordhaus's "singularity paper".
  • Some basic evolutionary biology, like idk maybe The Selfish Gene works (read it >10 years ago so don't remember well).
  • Some basic economic theory + empirics on "general purpose technologies" (just look for the papers with most citations on that search term).
  • Something on broad trends in technology and/or research, like the Are ideas getting harder to find? or the bottom line of the How predictable is technological progress? paper (ignore all the maths)
    • Maybe also other 'long-term trends', e.g. Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature.
  • Some basics on international relations, but focused on "how should we think about nation states relating to each other at a very high level?" as opposed to more in-the-weeds debates. Again I don't really know of a single good intro, but maybe reading e.g. Mearsheimer's (1994), The False Promise of International Institutions gives you a good sense of some key questions even if you don't agree with its conclusions (can also look at other contributions to that volume of International Organization if you wanted different views). I would include Wendt's (1992) very influential Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics if I felt it was more on-point and better written ...
    • Maybe also Fearon (1998), Bargaining, Enforcement, and International Cooperation, but I'm not sure how accessible the point which according to me is really important is from just reading the paper is, and I suspect one can also get it from understanding basic economics.
comment by Jsevillamol · 2021-05-19T08:01:37.803Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For econ, I have found the videos on Marginal Revolution University to be a good introduction to the basic concepts for somebody with zero background on economics (specially the course on microeconomics, and to a lesser extent the course on macroeconomics).

For stats I am still searching, but when I was preparing for an interview with DeepMind they recommended me PennState's online material for their stat414 and stat415 courses and they are alright.

Replies from: Jsevillamol
comment by Jsevillamol · 2021-05-19T08:07:31.412Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Also, on the topic of probability, Jane Street's guide to probability and making markets is an express introduction and refresher to the topic (more the probability part than the making markets part, though that one is interesting too)

comment by Misha_Yagudin · 2021-05-19T11:39:33.197Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Alexey Guzey wrote a convincing critique of Are ideas getting harder to find?'s methodology. It's still a draft but you can PM him about it.

Replies from: Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-19T12:07:28.524Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interesting, thank you! This post also seems somewhat related (though it's contra contra stagnation, i.e.  in broad agreement with Are ideas getting harder to find? etc.).

answer by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-18T18:37:13.311Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[I have split my answer loosely across 'themes' to strike a balance between spamming answers and allowing more fine-grained voting/discussion.]

  • Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
  • Something on the basics of cognitive-behavioral therapy that allows you to do rudimentary self-therapy and 'teach' it to others. [I think this is useful beyond the narrow use case of "treat clinical depression". It also doesn't need to be labelled as CBT, e.g. The Charisma Myth works too for some aspects.]
    • Also just some rudimentary knowledge on common mental health issues, e.g. things like this.
  • Similar for other non-epistemic things that might be big deals for people you interact with, like idk "common work-life balance challenges for parents" or "common challenges for Chinese-Western conversations" or whatever. Unfortunately I don't know of great specific sources off the top of my head.
answer by Max_Daniel · 2021-05-18T18:40:57.914Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[I have split my answer loosely across 'themes' to strike a balance between spamming answers and allowing more fine-grained voting/discussion.]

  • Maybe some basics on how deep learning works and what roughly we can currently do with it. Again, I think this may have the right flavor but probably only works for people with maths background and is quite skewed toward comparing deep learning to the brain.

I feel a bit like "after you've read all [EA(p) · GW(p)] of [EA(p) · GW(p)] this [EA(p) · GW(p)] maybe you can start reading the EA Forum". :) That's obviously not a literal recommendation, but you get the idea.

answer by Stefan_Schubert · 2021-05-20T13:32:26.823Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would focus on reading key EA content (including cause-specific content, depending on what cause they choose).

E.g. if they're longtermists, I'd say they should read Superintelligence and much of Bostrom's other output, The Precipice, various articles and blog posts on AI timelines, and so on. 

For more general EA concepts and ideas I'd refer them to Doing Good Better, the new Wiki, and/or a few online talks like Owen's "Prospecting for Gold".

Some of the other recommendations in this thread are not as directly related to EA. While I generally like them, they don't seem as key to me as those that I've listed.

answer by Arepo · 2021-05-20T13:02:15.465Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The Less Wrong 'Best Textbooks on Every Subject' thread is getting a bit long in the tooth sadly, but is still my starting point when I'm serious about learning a subject: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/xg3hXCYQPJkwHyik2/the-best-textbooks-on-every-subject

answer by annaleptikon · 2021-07-15T09:55:31.889Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There is an Effective Altruism Books List on Goodreads, suggest more books and vote on the ones that are already on it.

46 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.