What book(s) would you want a gifted teenager to come across?

post by alexrjl · 2019-08-05T13:39:09.324Z · EA · GW · 1 comment

This is a question post.


    James Smith
    Aidan O'Gara
    Nathan Young
    Nathan Young
1 comment

As part of my role as a teacher in a sixth-form college for gifted students, I have the option of requesting books be bought for the library. I do also talk about EA with interested students, but am primarily interested here in books that people feel might inspire students who haven't otherwise engaged with effective altruism. As well as obtaining recommended books for my own school's library, I am exploring the possibility of donating highly recommended books to the libraries of other very high performing sixth forms, several of which I already have connections with, and several others I could easily make.

The school already has copies of the 80,000 hours career guide, The Life You Can Save, and Superintelligence, though I am still interested in comments (positive or not) on these. The more details you can add about why you've recommended (or not) a book, the better.


answer by ClaireZabel · 2019-08-05T21:18:52.887Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Cool project. I went to maybe-similar type of school and I think if I had encountered certain books earlier, it would have had a really good effect on me. The book categories I think I would most have benefitted from when I was that age:

  • Books about how the world very broadly works. A lot of history felt very detail-oriented and archival, but did less to give me a broad sense of how things had changed over time, what kinds of changes are possible, and what drives them. Top rec in that category: Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction. Other recs: The Better Angels of Our Nature, Sapiens, Moral Mazes (I've never actually read the whole thing, just quotes),
  • Books about rationality, especially how it can cause important things to go awry, how that has happened historically and might be happening now. Reading these was especially relief-inducing because I already had concerns along those lines that I didn't see people articulate, and finally reading them was a hugely comforting experience. Top recs: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Rationality: From AI to Zombies (probably these were the most positively transformative books I've read, but Eliezer books are polarizing and some might have parts that people think are inappropriate for minors, and I can't remember which), Thinking Fast and Slow. Other recs: Inadequate Equilibria,
  • Some other misc recs I'm not going to explain: Permutation City, Animal Liberation, Command and Control, Seeing like a State, Deep Work, Nonviolent Communication

comment by tessa · 2019-08-07T18:20:13.476Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'd second Thinking, Fast and Slow.

I took a general primer on human biases ("Psychology of Critical Thinking") at a local university in high school, which overall had an enormously beneficial effect on my thinking.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is the most comprehensive popular book I've read which covers that territory, and wins points for describing in detail the experiments that Kahneman and Tversky used to reach their various conclusions. My understanding is that most of Kahneman and Tversky's results have held up, but not everything the book discusses has replicated well- many of the results it describes on priming are questionable.

Might be worth complementing with some of Ben Goldacre's books (e.g. Bad Science or I Think You'll Find It's A Bit More Complicated Than That) for very object-level critiques of research (and especially research reporting in the press and the UK government) or Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto for descriptions of how to systematically avoid human errors when doing complicated tasks.

comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2019-11-14T17:23:10.998Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Worth noting that Thinking Fast and Slows has some issues in the replication crisis (mainly around priming). Eg. this article here. https://jasoncollins.blog/2016/06/29/re-reading-kahnemans-thinking-fast-and-slow/

comment by EmeryCooper (MarkCooper) · 2019-08-07T21:53:08.195Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I just want to flag up that The Better Angels of Our Nature, whilst a great book, contains quite a few graphic descriptions of torture, which even as an adult I found somewhat disturbing. I don't necessarily think teenage-me would have been affected any worse, but you might still not want to put it in a school library.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-08-08T00:03:03.828Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

+1 to Sapiens, parts of Moral Mazes, Deep Work, and Seeing like a State.

answer by RyanCarey · 2019-08-05T18:43:42.456Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman

comment by Denise_Melchin · 2019-08-06T16:12:58.920Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't recommend this book, especially not to gifted women. Feynman is very sexist.

Replies from: tessa, alexrjl
comment by tessa · 2019-08-07T18:06:06.843Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it might still be worth sharing with caveats.

I got a lot out of reading Feynman as a 14-year-old girl. In particular, I was spending much of my time on creative projects (making props for theatre shows, drawing comics, etc.) even though I grudgingly felt like I'd need to work towards a STEM career to be more useful. His stories about painting and picking up random library books and learning languages (another hobby of mine at the time) made STEM careers seem much more compatible with the kinds of thinking I enjoyed.

That said, I have much more mixed feelings upon re-reading the book as an adult. Stories that seemed like harmless good fun now read as incredibly inconsiderate.

For example, Feynman describes playing a prank on a waitress at a local restaurant by putting her tip under an inverted full glass of water. When she goes to collect her tip, she spills the water. He shows her how she could have avoided the spill by slipping a sheet of paper under the glass and carefully sliding it to the edge of the table. The next time he goes to the restaurant, he inverts an empty glass, and is amused to watch the waitress very carefully and slowly slip paper underneath. I don't find this funny, especially since he describes how busy and rushed the waitresses are, but he clearly did.

The book also includes some stories about how he'd pick up women at bars in somewhat manipulative ways, but that didn't faze me as a teenager (I think I chalked it up to ambient sexist and adversarial relationship norms, which aren't unique to Feynman's writing) and still bothers me less than the above story.

Replies from: Denise_Melchin
comment by Denise_Melchin · 2019-08-07T19:26:04.278Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think sharing with caveats can make sense. But I don’t think it’s a good idea for a teacher to recommend this book without clarifying that they do not endorse the views by the author.

My vague memory of me reading it at 16 is that I found a lot of the stories interesting, but was also put off by his attitude.

comment by alexrjl · 2019-08-06T18:01:08.312Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for mentioning this. I've recommended it in the past based on having enjoyed it as a teenager, though not with any sort of EA intention, but won't be doing so again to students of any gender.

comment by RyanCarey · 2019-08-05T18:46:06.184Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Feynman is one of the great public intellectuals, and I loved this book. A gripping and hilarious read that teaches you a lot about the kind of clear thinking that is required to solve real-world problems. It could change a gifted kid's perspective for sure.

Replies from: alexrjl
comment by alexrjl · 2019-08-05T20:43:41.476Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This was a favourite of mine as a teen (and many others judging by the upvotes), though I'm now re-evaluating based on the comment above, as I haven't read it since. There are multiple copies of this, as well as QED, Six Easy Pieces, and Six Not-So-Easy Pieces already in the library, all of which are very popular, and frequently recommended by me (I teach maths and physics). I'm not sure I'd consider any of them a strong nudge towards being more likely to end up as an EA though.

answer by RyanCarey · 2019-08-05T18:43:22.447Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit

answer by JP Addison (jpaddison) · 2019-08-06T17:25:31.187Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My level of moral ambition was seriously raised by reading these two books at a time when I was just getting exposed to EA:

Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar

Famine, Affluence and Morality by Peter Singer

comment by alexrjl · 2019-08-06T18:10:14.027Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

These were exactly the sort of thing I was looking for, thank you!

comment by Linch · 2019-08-07T07:02:31.681Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Strongly seconded. Both had a large effect on me, especially Famine, Affluence and Morality when I was a teenager.

Replies from: jpaddison
comment by JP Addison (jpaddison) · 2019-08-07T14:22:02.693Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(Also you gave me Strangers Drowning as I recall)

Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2019-08-12T04:52:11.793Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

One of the most impactful purchases I've ever made! :P

answer by RyanCarey · 2019-08-05T18:43:58.811Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Autobiography by John Stuart Mill

comment by RyanCarey · 2019-08-05T18:47:45.158Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The most famous historical utilitarian, Mill, grew up as a child-prodigy with intense tutoring in university-level subjects by his father James Mill. I found it to be a moving story, and gifted teenagers might be able to relate to some of the troubles that Mill experienced some 160 years ago.

answer by Ben_Harack · 2019-08-30T17:58:35.197Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Factfulness by Hans Rosling is currently my go-to recommendation for the most important single book I could hand to a generic person.

Why do I hold it in such high regard? I think that it does a good job of teaching us both about the world and about ourselves at the same time. It helps the reader achieve better knowledge and better ability to think clearly (and come to accurate beliefs about the world). It's also very hopeful despite its tendency to tackle head-on some of the darker aspects of our world.

comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2019-11-14T22:55:09.864Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The other day was my mother's birthday and, not knowing what to buy her, I suddenly remembered this thread and comment, and decided to get her a copy of Rosling's excellent book, which had conveniently just been translated into Spanish.

True, my mother is not a teenager (I'm not that young), but as you point out the book makes a great gift for anyone.

answer by Linch · 2019-08-07T07:30:21.161Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card really spoke to me as a kid, though hopefully your students are better socialized! :P

answer by technicalities · 2019-08-07T08:32:23.013Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think I would have benefitted from Hanson's 'Elephant in the Brain', since I was intensely frustrated by (what I saw as) pervasive, inexplicable, wilfully bad choices, and this frustration affected my politics and ethics.

But it's high-risk, since it's easy to misread as justifying adolescent superiority (having 'seen through' society).

comment by technicalities · 2019-08-07T15:10:23.810Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Actually I think Feynman has the same risk. (Consider his motto: "disregard others" ! All very well, if you're him.)


comment by alexrjl · 2019-08-07T13:05:20.947Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the considered recommendation. It looks interesting but the potential pitfall you note is certainly a problem with some students (being good at maths doesn't make you generally intelligent, but it can often make you believe you are)! I'll probably buy a personal copy and evaluate having read it.

answer by James Smith · 2020-07-14T19:32:39.038Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The Precipice by Toby Ord would be high up on my list. It is accessible and covers a lot of ground, illustrating a diversity of possible career paths and study areas that are relevant to existential risk.

answer by Aidan O'Gara · 2019-08-05T19:56:53.185Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Freakonomics, Steven Dubner and Steven Levitt - Very fun, cool little stories about economics, not super educational but drives an interest

Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan - The best intro I've read to standard economic ideas, fun and easy to read

Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo - A deep dive on how some anti-poverty interventions are radically more effective than others, and how details matter a lot. Pretty dry and you'll forget most of the content, but the best case for evidence-based altruism I've read

Justice, Michael Sandel - Great intro to moral philosophy, covers all the major schools of thoughts with tons of fun anecdotes and thought experiments

comment by Linch · 2019-08-07T07:08:46.325Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Re Poor Economics:

I still remember the experiments in (I think) India where they demonstrated that even for people living in extreme poverty, where most of marginal spending goes to food, increased income frequently resulted in people buying better-tasting calories, not just more calories. A+.

answer by KathrynMecrow · 2019-08-05T16:59:55.934Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi there!

Thank you for the work you are doing. <https://docs.google.com/document/d/14exkkaeJWOyAKX6o-tf-mfV8SJAwEhG-QFDbUrVnOH8/edit#heading=h.49c95vu7wotf> This is an Educator Reading List, David from SHIC shared with me a while ago. We (Giving Games) are currently doing some fun programs with schools, "Charity Elections." There's an explanation info-graphic I made here <https://www.facebook.com/TheGivingGamesProject/photos/a.2267613603500146/2312199802374859/?type=3&theater>. Thanks, Kathryn

comment by KathrynMecrow · 2019-08-05T17:01:16.677Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

P.s. TLYCS are relaunching TLYCS end of 2019. They will have free books/ audibles avaliable. I am sure I can hook you guys up ;) (kathryn.mecrow@thelifeyoucansave.org).

Replies from: alexrjl
comment by alexrjl · 2019-08-05T20:44:11.274Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you! I'll be in touch.

answer by Louis_Dixon (bdixon) · 2019-08-10T16:03:57.258Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think gifted teenagers should be aware of the subjectivity and complexity of history and narratives. So my choices are geared around challenging existing narratives. I've also made an effort to choose some female authors.

1. Howard Zinn - A People’s History of the United States

An absolute blast of revisionist history, critiquing the American Dream from a range of angles. It is contentious, but that's the point - to provoke a debate.

What struck me as I began to study history was how nationalist fervor--inculcated from childhood on by pledges of allegiance, national anthems, flags waving and rhetoric blowing--permeated the educational systems of all countries, including our own. I wonder now how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own. Then we could never drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or napalm on Vietnam, or wage war anywhere, because wars, especially in our time, are always wars against children, indeed our children. Howard Zinn, A People's History

2. The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing

I've heard several people in EA dismissing fiction. This is ridiculous. Fiction has a lot to teach us about our own thought processes, the lives of others, and the cultures we live in. TGN is feminist and anti-war, and especially considering Lessing's non-standard educational background, the prose is utterly brilliant.

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: 'You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

3. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

Hopefully this is on every school reading list on Earth, but just in case not, then I'll back it here. I cry every time I read Atticus' speeches.

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
answer by RyanCarey · 2019-08-05T18:44:14.386Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Permutation city by Greg Egan

comment by richard_ngo · 2019-08-07T22:34:05.725Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think I enjoyed Diaspora more, and it seems a little more relevant to far-future considerations. What about Permutation City in particular did you like?

answer by Linch · 2019-08-07T07:29:06.208Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver (of 538 fame) is the best and most readable introduction to Bayesian statistics and Bayesian reasoning that I'm aware of.

answer by Jamie_Harris · 2019-08-06T22:14:23.252Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'd recommend The End of Animal Farming for anyone interested in animal advocacy. Here's my short review. httpss://butcantheysuffer.wordpress.com/2018/12/13/book-review-jacy-reese-2018-the-end-of-animal-farming-beacon-press-boston-ma/

Personally I found Animal Liberation by Peter Singer very inspiring as a teenager (changed me from a passive vegetarian to someone determined to make a change for animals through some form of advocacy) but I haven't looked back at it in years.

answer by RyanCarey · 2019-08-05T18:44:48.009Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Stories of Your Life: and Others by Ted Chiang

comment by Linch · 2019-08-07T07:03:27.238Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I thought Chiang was unusually high in literary merit, but what do you think is the relevance to EA?

answer by jsilter · 2019-08-06T15:10:54.105Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
  • Mistakes were Made (but not by Me), Tavris and Anderson. Definitely the most easy-to-read book on self-deception and cognitive biases I've ever read. So probably a good first book for people.
  • The Righteous Mind, Haidt. Part I gives a good intro to cognitive biases, and the moral foundations are a good framework
  • Superforecasters, Tetlock.
answer by GuillaumeVrx · 2019-08-05T21:39:16.589Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Not as high brow as other suggestions: How to make friends and influence people. It's useful for the most obvious reasons and also, in my opinion, an accessible nudge towards empathy thanks to the numerous examples.

answer by MarisaJurczyk · 2019-08-10T04:53:38.593Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm surprised no one has recommended 'Doing Good Better' by MacAskill. I would say that and 'Strangers Downing' as mentioned in a previous comment were most responsible for my engagement with EA. 'Strangers Drowning' I think somewhat primed me to be EA - it made the ideas of EA seem less foreign and odd when I actually came across them. 'Doing Good Better' helped me understand the EA argument quite a bit better and was probably the thing that tipped me from being interested in EA to identifying more or less as an EA.

answer by Ramiro · 2019-08-06T14:00:02.568Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Terry Pratchett, particularly The Amazing Maurice... DFW, Infinite Jest; J. S. Foer, On eating animals; Jonathan Franzen, Freedom; Cixin Liu, Remembrance of earth's past.

My point is that by "gifted teenager" you probably mean someone intelectually gifted, but not necessarily morally aligned; moreover, teenagers (everyone, actually, but teens more than anyone else) may rebel and resist if it's too obvious that you're trying to lead them to a specific mindset. So, if that might be the case, perhaps you should consider what kind of literature would nudge this teenager into EA-thinking first, and then what kind of books could shape their thought.

answer by RyanCarey · 2019-08-05T18:43:06.560Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(upcoming) Human Compatible by Stuart Russell

comment by JP Addison (jpaddison) · 2019-11-09T01:13:01.869Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Now published

Replies from: alexrjl
comment by alexrjl · 2019-11-09T15:30:08.733Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I preordered a copy for the library and it was checked out almost instantly. :)

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-11-09T16:01:08.629Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's good.

answer by lucy.ea8 · 2019-08-05T15:57:44.674Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I recommend the book Hunger and Public Action. It has one of the best explanations on how nations change and improve the quality of life of their citizens. It discusses famine, and deaths in the statistical sense (not graphical), so please read it before giving it to kids. It also discusses how countries have done better or worse and hence has lessons on what policies are good or bad. One of the most important books to read for EA (if not kids).

comment by alexrjl · 2019-08-05T16:02:22.428Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for the detailed recommendation. I'll get a copy and read to check suitability but for 16-18 year olds (many of whom are studying Economics) it seems excellent based on your description.

Replies from: lucy.ea8
comment by lucy.ea8 · 2019-10-26T20:03:15.075Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Alex, The book Hunger and Public Action is now available online, under a CC license

Full book PDF http://fdslive.oup.com/www.oup.com/academic/pdf/openaccess/9780198283652.pdf Online https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/0198283652.001.0001/acprof-9780198283652

The entire book is interesting for me particularly interesting are the contrasts between China and India https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/0198283652.001.0001/acprof-9780198283652-chapter-11

answer by Milan_Griffes · 2019-08-08T00:00:08.788Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

The Dhammapada (especially if they're feeling overwhelmed / burned out)

How To Do Nothing (if they spend a lot of time online / on social media)

answer by RyanCarey · 2019-08-05T18:44:30.078Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel Dennett

comment by RyanCarey · 2019-08-05T18:48:53.492Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

A lot of EAs I know consider Dennett as their favourite author - he was my favourite around that age. An unconventional philosopher who covers wide ranges of topics, from evolution, to consciousness, and whose later books (like this one) are more accessible than his early stuff.

Replies from: Ramiro
comment by Ramiro · 2019-08-10T14:01:26.475Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In this line, I'd recommend "The Mind's I", a collection Dennett has edited in collaboration with Hofstadter.

answer by Nathan Young · 2019-11-14T17:29:06.085Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Stories of people with very different experiences to theirs. I think people can usually do with more empathy. Stories are a great way to open ourselves to the lives of others.

For me, I was moved by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly which is written by person with locked in syndrome (like Stephen Hawking had).

answer by Nathan Young · 2019-11-14T17:15:33.457Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Not so much an EA book, but David Deutsch's The Beginning Of Infinity is my top recommendation. It helped me understand how to avoid making some kinds of mistakes in my epistemology.

answer by Linch · 2019-08-07T07:27:34.475Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Dairy of a Madman by Lu Xun was helpful for me in cultivating a strong sense of dissatisfaction with the way things are and the implicit or explicit rules that govern social reality.

I don't know if there are any good translations though.

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comment by JP Addison (jpaddison) · 2019-08-06T19:27:10.000Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Feedback on the books you have: I liked Superintelligence, though it wasn't a big deal for me, and was lukewarm on the 80k career guide (sorry 80k).