Keiran’s intro [00:00:00]
Keiran Harris: Welcome to 80k After Hours. I’m Keiran Harris — producer of the show, and former White House chef in the Nixon administration.
This is the first of three episodes we’re using to launch this new podcast.
We decided to start off with a behind-the-scenes look at the original 80,000 Hours podcast.
The host of that show, Rob Wiblin, and I are interviewed by Kearney Capuano and Aaron Bergman for their new podcast All Good — a show by the Georgetown University Effective Altruism group.
We get into:
- The history and philosophy of The 80,000 Hours Podcast
- The nuts and bolts of how we make the show
- The pros and cons of podcasting vs other media
- Our position in the effective altruism community
- And much more
I expect this will be fun for fans of The 80,000 Hours Podcast — and a weird place to start for people who’ve never heard of us!
Just a note that it may seem bizarre that Kearney is there at the beginning, then suddenly disappears for a while, then reappears, then disappears again.
What happened here is that she could only join us for the first hour or so of the recording, and — to give you some early behind-the-scenes info — we usually rearrange sections of our episodes so that what we feel are the most important or most engaging parts go earlier.
OK, here’s Kearney and Aaron interviewing me and Rob.
The history of The 80,000 Hours Podcast [00:01:14]
Kearney Capuano: Rob, could you give us some background on 80,000 Hours and how you guys started the show?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. 80,000 Hours, for people who don’t know, is this nonprofit research and outreach group that’s been around since 2011. We try to help people have more social impact with their career, and find ways to help more people in a bigger way through their work.
Rob Wiblin: We’ve had the website and the career guide up for quite a long time, but four years ago we started a podcast. And it was actually born primarily out of laziness on my part, because we’d started to look into quite specific global problems. We spent a while early on with the organization trying to figure out what kind of issues in the world we think are most problematic, and where people might be able to have an enormous impact by trying to solve them. And we settled on a typical cluster of five or 10 things that we think about, and then we were starting to look more and more deeply into them.
Rob Wiblin: Basically, the only way that we could learn the most relevant stuff was to go and speak to people who are actually at the coalface — people who are at the cutting edge of trying to solve these problems — and get advice from them on what our readers should do if they want to pursue a career in this field. And I found myself in this situation where I was constantly interviewing people and then having to do this very laborious process of boiling down what they’d said into an article — which is just a lot of work. And I was like, “Can’t I just not write these articles? Instead, I’ll just interview the people — like I’m already doing — and then we can just put the MP3s up.” And basically, out of my procrastination around writing articles, we just started slipping into doing interviews instead and putting them out, and we’ve run from there.
Kearney Capuano: That’s awesome. As a podcast listener, thank you very much for that. Maybe Keiran could talk about how the show has evolved over time?
Keiran Harris: Yeah. So one thing is that at the beginning, Rob was just working on this by himself, and then about 14 episodes in, I joined.
Keiran Harris: Ben Todd, who’s the CEO of 80,000 Hours, asked me if I wanted to start working with Rob, because Rob needed some help with the podcast. And I had no experience doing that — I was just working on some copy editing stuff and stuff around the website. But I thought, “That sounds cool.” So very quickly we started working together, and then it became very much this two-person organization within the organization, and we started just really thinking about it pretty carefully.
Keiran Harris: I think one big change is just that it’s gotten a lot more professional since those early days. Initially, it was very much as Rob said: he’s sitting down, he’s chatting with people, just turning on the digital recorder and getting as much information as he can. But if you go back through our old blog posts, for example, they’re very bare bones in the early days. And nowadays, we have these very polished transcripts, and inline links, and we have huge collaborations with the guests now. I think that’s probably a big change.
Keiran Harris: In terms of Rob’s hosting, I think he’s gotten worlds better since those early days, which makes sense. I make fun of him a lot, but I think he is an exceptional host nowadays. And I think part of that is just becoming much more comfortable with the medium and much more himself, which is a note that I would give him down the years. Off mic, Rob is very charismatic and I’m a big fan. But I think in those early days, he was maybe a bit more stilted, and it was a bit more serious. Whereas if you listen to episodes now, they are often pretty funny and light. And just much more of Rob’s personality comes through, and I think that’s been a big change for the better.
Rob’s bad habits as an interviewer [00:04:36]
Aaron Bergman: Oh, that’s awesome. So you talked a little bit about some ways that Rob grew as an interviewer. Do you think he has any bad habits as an interviewer that you’d like to call out?
Keiran Harris: Oh yes, sure he does. Where to begin? [Rob laughs] One fairly pragmatic thing is that Rob has a tendency to ask a lot of compound questions. These are two questions rolled into one. So it’ll be like, “What were the results of that study, and what do you want to work on next?” It’s this huge question where the guest is necessarily going to talk for a long time. And one of the biggest things we try and do with the podcast is make sure that they’re conversations — so we try not to have the guests speak for more than a couple minutes at a time. And when Rob asks those compound questions, it makes it very difficult.
Keiran Harris: And another thing is less important, but one thing Rob does is he always laughs maniacally at the most serious topics. So the darker we get into the show — and I’m sure I’m sure our listeners will have noticed this — he can’t help himself but laugh. And occasionally, you can tell the guests are a little bit off-put by that. It would be great to change that, but it seems like that would be very hard for him to change.
Rob Wiblin: Yesterday, we were recording an episode on collapse and recovery. So it’s like, “What if 99.9% of people died, would humanity come back?” So people can enjoy my maniacal laughter at all kinds of horrific things that we’re discussing.
Aaron Bergman: A little bit of comedic relief. I bet some listeners appreciate it though, taking a little bit of the edge off.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah, I think Keiran’s exactly right — in the early episodes, you can hear that I was quite anxious. I think a mistake that I was making was I was trying to put on airs of being a radio host. I’d be like, “Here we are with this person,” and I’ve got to be extremely formal and say everything in the exact right way. That is just very hard, and it’s also not as much fun to listen to. So getting looser, and just trying to make it more exactly like how you would speak in normal conversation has definitely been an improvement.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, I think that’s really good advice for us, because we’ve noticed that. At least on our first episode, when we were trying to record, we were basically trying to sound like a radio host. And then when we’d take a break from actually recording, we’d just have a normal conversation, and it would sound so much better.
Kearney Capuano: That’s where our best content was, just our side conversation.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah.
Common advice for guests [00:06:47]
Kearney Capuano: So Keiran, that’s some of your advice for Rob, but we were curious about what common advice you have for guests that come on the show?
Keiran Harris: Yeah, sure. So it’s related to what I was just saying about Rob: a common thing for guests who come on our show — particularly when they’re academics or if they’ve written books or they have lectures on these topics — is that they have a tendency to speak in monologues. It’s very natural when they know this topic so well. So my biggest note is always, “We’re really trying to make this be a conversation, so every couple of minutes, try and give Rob a chance to say something.” Even if it’s just him going, “Oh, that’s interesting,” we found that it makes the episode much more engaging.
Keiran Harris: And this is a real struggle, especially doing remote interviews. In person, you have these cues. Even if you’re using video — which we recommend using for remote interviews — it’s still not as easy to read cues not being live. And so it’s easy for guests to feel like they should just keep talking. Because if Rob’s just staring at the screen, going, “Mm hmm, mm hmm,” then they’re just like, “Well, I guess I haven’t said enough.” So that’s maybe the main thing.
Keiran Harris: And the other thing is that, because of the nature of our show, we really do just want to present the best version of guests’ views. And so I really try to emphasize, “Look, we just want you to be relaxed. We can cut anything out you like at all.” We send guests the transcript after the episodes, and if they want to re-record sections, that’s totally fine. And basically, we want this to be so relaxed and the opposite of, I don’t know, doing a high-stakes newspaper thing, where maybe they’re going to say something out of context and it’s going to be used. We never, ever use anything that the guests wouldn’t want us to use.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. And it definitely puts me at ease, for example, knowing that — even as the official host of this podcast — knowing that we can cut stuff.
Philosophy of The 80,000 Hours Podcast [00:08:26]
Aaron Bergman: So do you guys have a general philosophy of The 80,000 Hours Podcast? And if so, what is it?
Rob Wiblin: So initially, as I described, the primary philosophy of the show was laziness and me trying to get as much content out there with as little effort as possible. But as we’ve done more and more, I have developed stronger views and stronger tastes, and a sense of “What’s a gap that we’re filling that needs to be filled?”
Rob Wiblin: The core aspect of that is, I perceive with interviews in general, folks think that the serious thing to do is to get someone and then have a slightly adversarial thing — where you can reveal the weaknesses in their argument, or you can reveal that they’re bad in some way that people didn’t realize. That’s viewed as “serious journalism” or “serious coverage” — whereas we do something that’s quite different, and I’ll explain why I think that it’s potentially underrated.
Rob Wiblin: We think of these interviews as collaborations with the guest. So they actually get to look at all the questions ahead of time if they want, and potentially cut out any that they don’t like. And after we’ve finished recording, we send them a transcript if they want to look at it, and they can cut out anything that they don’t like. So in that sense, it’s a very softball interview. But I don’t think that that is a problem at all, because we’re trying to find people who we think are really worth listening to, who have interesting opinions — a worldview that’s different from other people, that is instructive. Where the important work is getting them to fully explain themselves — getting them to communicate to us so that we can start to see the world through their eyes, and see the problem that they’re working on through their eyes.
Rob Wiblin: And that takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of openness and followup questions, and people willing to be sincere, and to not feel threatened, and be willing to get into all kinds of details in a really honest, intellectual discussion. So even though we’re not holding anyone’s feet to the fire, I think you can potentially learn a lot more from these interviews — at least with the right guest — than an interview where you’re trying to pull out something from someone that they’re not actually excited to say.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. It’s a really interesting question about the degree to which an interview should be adversarial versus collaborative. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I would imagine having that opportunity offered to you — both to prepare beforehand and then take things out after — probably makes things more intellectually honest during the conversation, because you don’t have to err on the side of safety. Do you think that makes you as the interviewer more relaxed as well? So not only is the guest more relaxed, but you as well can not err on the side of safety as much? Does that make sense?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah. It’s a huge benefit and a huge relief to know that Keiran can cut out anything too stupid that I say. I regularly make dad jokes on the show — sometimes they land and sometimes they don’t, but Keiran pulls out the ones that turn out to be lame in retrospect.
Keiran Harris: That is really my main job as an editor, to make sure no lame jokes get in.
Rob Wiblin: It’s an essential part of the editing process. But yeah, more seriously, I guess we live in a time when people — and maybe this has always been the case — are very cagey, because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing. They’re worried about something blowing up on social media. Even folks who are working in not very controversial areas have learned, at least because of the way that we talk about that kind of risk, to reveal as little as possible — to think about exactly how you’re going to phrase things ahead of time, to check things with your media person.
Rob Wiblin: And potentially that makes sense. But by allowing people to just cut things out afterwards with the benefit of hindsight, it does mean that they don’t have to be cagey at the time. They can say their thing and then see afterwards — maybe it’s actually fine to put out; maybe it’s not going to be a problem. And they don’t have to be doing two things at once in their head — both trying to figure out how to communicate their actual views, and also thinking, “How is this going to be used against me at some point in the future?”
Rob Wiblin: I’ve been a guest on various shows, and on the ones where I know that I am not going to be able to review it and potentially cut stuff out, it’s more anxiety inducing. And you have to always be doing this double-track thinking of, “How could I phrase this wrong in a way that’s going to offend someone somewhere and then cause them to give me grief?”
Keiran Harris: Yeah, and it’s very unlikely you’re going to get that balance right. You’re always going to lean too conservative — because there’s just an asymmetry there, where it’s just like if you get this wrong, it could just be a disaster; you get it right, and the interview is 15% better.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. Another super interesting point from that is that you’re prescreening people for who’s interesting and useful to talk to, rather than taking people who are already famous and trying to juice out the correct ideas through an adversarial interview. I’ve never even thought about that before, but you need to filter people at some point in the system; you can’t just interview everybody about everything. So I guess the more normal, standard point of view is to take somebody that’s really well known or well regarded or famous, and grill them. And the other point of view is to pre-select people from the population, and be a little bit less adversarial. Do you agree that’s a correct framing about what you guys are doing?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think because the whole goal is to deeply, deeply understand someone’s unique perspective — what they’re adding to the intellectual conversation — that’s going to work a lot better if they do have an interesting worldview to share that isn’t stupid. And so yeah, it is somewhat important to prescreen. But fortunately, there’s so many interesting people out there who have something interesting to say, and they just need the opportunity and safe space to communicate it.
Rob Wiblin: So this approach — where people can prescreen questions and cut out anything afterwards — it sounds like it would be a bit ridiculous if you did it with a politician. The standard thing of journalism would be, “No, you’ve got to hold this elected representative’s feet to the fire.” I think there’s a lot to that. Obviously, for people who are very powerful, there is a good reason to also ask them hardball questions or be adversarial sometimes.
Rob Wiblin: But I think actually, a lot of the time — even if you were interviewing someone as powerful as Joe Biden — this approach might do better, because he’s just not going to do an interview if he thinks that it’s going to be too difficult. He’s just going to be cagey, or give evasive answers and not answer anything. But if you took this approach, then at least you might be able to get out what he is willing to say about the Joe Biden worldview and what his priorities are — because he won’t feel threatened, because he knows that he or his media people can just cut out any gaffes that he includes otherwise.
Rob Wiblin: To some extent, the idea that we’ve got to pull out the truth from people underestimates the degree to which — at least if people are trained — they can evade questions and just divert things off into other stuff. And that it’s all just a game where journalists are trying to suck something out of someone that they’re not willing to say, and they are trained to make sure that the interview goes fine, despite the fact that they’re not answering the questions. Who is really gaining anything relative to a thing, where we acknowledge that they’re not going to be willing to talk about X? And so let’s at least get them to talk about Y, which they do maybe have something interesting that they’re willing to communicate.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, that’s definitely super interesting. And then people regularly complain that politicians are really stilted, just use the same sort of jargon over and over again. And it definitely makes sense as to why.
How The 80,000 Hours Podcast stands out [00:15:13]
Aaron Bergman: So this is one area that I think makes the 80K show stand out from other media, and even other podcasts. Do you think there’s any other advantages that the show brings, that makes it stand out from the crowd? With respect to other podcasts, and also just other general forms of media?
Keiran Harris: Yeah, one very obvious thing is that we are a part of this effective altruism community; that makes us stand out. If we’re talking about podcasts, this is very unusual to be having a show that actually is, in a not-so-hidden way, actually really cares about concretely doing good in the world. And not even just doing good, but actually caring that the content of an episode can be applied to the real world.
Keiran Harris: So even if you were focused on some industry that we didn’t think was particularly important, you’ll still find people generally just talking about things that are interesting, more so than actually doing things. Whereas our focus is that we ultimately want people to be able to use a lot of this information to go out there and make the world a better place. And some of it is indirectly: sometimes it’s just keeping people engaged in these ideas, and staying part of the effective altruism community, or being introduced. But a lot of the time, we have very specific episodes, like, “Here is an episode all about how you can go and be a machine learning engineer.” That is just there for you. And we’ve had a lot of people who’ve changed their careers directly just from listening to the podcast, and that’s a big deal for us.
Aaron Bergman: Wow, that’s awesome. How do you guys think that the desire to really improve the world and change people’s careers affects how you produce the show?
Rob Wiblin: I guess the great majority of content that people read online, or podcasts that are produced — including most news — is basically there for entertainment. And that’s totally understandable — it’s the reason that I consume most content, because it’s like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I enjoy learning stuff about the world: it feels semi-productive, and it’s just entertaining to feel like you’re keeping up with what’s going on.
Rob Wiblin: And though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, it does mean that very often, at the end of, say, a Planet Money episode about this or that topic, they’re not super inclined to close the deal and say, “And what does this imply about what someone ought to do about something specifically? What kind of job does this imply is more impactful?” Or “What kinds of research topics are most pressing within this particular area?” It’s basically a thing that’s completely absent, because people are not reading The New York Times in order to make actual decisions, almost ever. They’re reading it just because they get a good feeling knowing that the thing that’s important to know about — what’s going on in the world in general — even though it basically never changes anything that they do.
Rob Wiblin: I would say it’s partly just the business model: the business model of news is advertising or people subscribing. You’d probably shrink your audience by trying to have a focus on what a specific person should do. Because then, potentially only a tiny number of people are actually able to act on any specific piece of advice about some specific policy area, or some specific industry that’s doing something good or bad. So it’s a terrible business decision.
Rob Wiblin: We have this incredible luxury, because we’re able to be funded through philanthropy as a nonprofit to produce this content. We can then actually do a bit at the end of the show, where we think for half an hour about what does this mean? Specifically, what’s to be done? Even knowing that the audience for that might be six people, we can still pay the bills, despite the fact that some people might tune out at that point. But it means that that section is quite different, or the mentality sometimes, when we’re like, “Okay, and what specifically should 80,000 Hours recommend to its readers in order to allow them to have more impact?” It’s different, more pragmatic, more practical-minded than most documentaries or most podcasts.
Keiran Harris: We should say though, as Rob’s said there, it’s only this final section that is usually quite directed — and that the overwhelming majority of our listeners are still listening for entertainment. And we take that very seriously, and we try to keep things entertaining. But it is just the fact that we’re quite happy to have this small section of the audience who might actually go and do something concrete with that episode. And the added benefit of, sometimes, people who think they’re just listening for entertainment will realize after a couple of years that they’ve listened to every episode and now their worldview has changed. And when they have a chance to think about their career more carefully, they’ll think, “Wait a minute. Maybe that AI stuff is something I should work on” — in a way that they wouldn’t have if they didn’t have the show.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, as a listener, I’m trying to reflect on my motivations for listening. And to be honest, I really think that the minute when I decide to listen to an 80,000 Hours episode, it is for entertainment, by and large. But I think there’s something to be said for the interaction between entertainment and actionable advice. At least for me and I suspect other people, things tend to be more intrinsically interesting and just motivating to listen to when it’s something that — even if there’s no direct action item that you can take part in in the next five or 10 minutes or the next week even — you know that you’re going to be able to incorporate into your life in a meaningful sense. It might be more entertaining, and that might manifest itself as a stronger desire to listen and a stronger entertainment value.
Keiran Harris: Yeah, I like the idea that whenever someone sits down to listen to an 80,000 Hours Podcast episode, it’s like you’re buying a ticket to the raffle: that maybe this new cause that you’ve never heard of might be the thing you want to work on one day. So it’s probably not, but if you’ve never thought about, let’s say, voting reform, but now you’re going to sit there and listen to this episode on it. Maybe by the end of 90 minutes, you’re going to go, “Wait a minute, that sounds exactly like the kind of thing I would want to work on.” And then you’ll end up going and pursuing it. It’s one of the things that we try and do. One of the most commonly requested things for the show is that we address these new cause areas, and I think that’s part of it.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, great. That’s awesome. How strongly do you guys have a theory of change about how the show is going to improve the world?
Rob Wiblin: So there’s a specific concrete approach, and then there’s also this more general thing, which is hard to measure but might be more important. So one part is just that people listen to the show, and then they go and get a different job, or they change their plans, change what they’re going to study, start going to conferences — because they’re interested in this topic. I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head, but it’s a nontrivial number of people who have done that, often in concert with something else — they’ve also read the 80,000 Hours website or they’ve engaged with the effective altruism community more broadly — and, in aggregate, that’s caused them to want to do something quite different than what they were doing before.
Rob Wiblin: But my guess is — and it’s hard to substantiate this, but I think it’s a reasonable guess — that having tens of thousands of people be exposed for many, many hours to the general way that we approach problems, and think about prioritization, and think about decision making is having a broader cultural effect. Because it changes what they think about in their work in general, it changes how they think about politics to some degree, it changes how they talk to other people. And then it just starts to get into the water a little bit more — to take ideas that I think are particularly important and make them significantly more mainstream, and make them significantly more understood — so people don’t just get the one-sentence version where they’re like, “That sounds stupid.” But actually, there’s a reasonable number of people out there who can repeat them somewhat faithfully and help society as a whole to get to grips with the problems that we think are the most pressing.
Keiran Harris: I think the best way of introducing effective altruism is to introduce it as this research question of, “How do you do the most good?” And I think that our podcast is actually a great example of that, where we’re very clearly not saying, “Here is the thing that we want everyone to do” — the fact that we are having all these different episodes on so many different cause areas is a sign that we have this humility of, “Well, we actually don’t quite know what the best thing to work on is, and we could change our mind at any moment.” And having that attitude to anything is hopefully infectious, where maybe someone’s going to have a chance to work on a cause that we have never dealt with on the show. But if they hear us consistently thinking about problems in this certain way, they can apply that to really anything, any kind of problem.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, I think it’s infected my brain in a good way. And that’s really interesting about the two: the more specific then the more general theory of change. It’s really hard for me to think through which one of those dominates, or stands out. I think it seems quite plausible that both are super important, in fact.
Aaron Bergman: I consider myself one of these folks, but I know there’s a lot of people who really, really enjoy The 80,000 Hours Podcast and consider themselves fans. What do you think it is about the show that draws them in?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. We don’t want to be too full of ourselves, because it’s true we have some fans who are extremely into the show, but obviously in the scheme of things, it’s a tiny number. So we’ve managed to select out perhaps a couple of hundred people in the entire world who are extremely keen on the thing that we’re doing. Maybe one way that we differ from other shows that I think can make people enthusiastic is that I try to be actively informal in a way. So I make stupid jokes, I laugh at stuff, I deliberately try to get people out of a formal script. And I think it just leads to much more candidness much more quickly. I swear, as well.
Rob Wiblin: Whenever you’re trying to put on airs and be someone other than yourself, I think it’s just death. It’s the worst possible thing that you can do as a show host, because people can sense that inauthenticity. They can sense that you’re trying to impress them with the way that you’re talking. And as informal as you can make something, I think that leads to much more interesting answers from the guests, because hopefully, it will be a different format than what they’re used to, and it will cause them to say things that they haven’t said in the past.
Keiran Harris: And to pat both of us on the back a little bit, probably the biggest note that I’ve given over the years is for Rob to just be himself. And I think he’s done really well to just basically lean into that. Because, as Rob just said, I think it’s the best move for the show, and also it’s just more fun for Rob. It’s just less anxiety inducing to be like, “I have to be this different person, and what would this character Rob say?” — he can just be like, “Well, what would I say?” Yeah, I think it’s been really good for the show.
What we try to avoid [00:24:50]
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, awesome. So we’ve talked a lot about what the 80,000 Hours show does well. Before moving on to maybe what it doesn’t do so well, what do you guys try to avoid? What do you think would reduce the quality of the podcast, that you actively try to guard against?
Rob Wiblin: Over time, we’ve developed a bunch of red flags — either learned through experience or by reasoning things out — that this is not potentially going to be a super promising episode. Anything that’s super topical is a little bit suspicious. We would ideally want most of the episodes to be interesting in one, two, three, maybe even five years. There’s a bit of a social phenomenon where people want to talk about whatever other people happen to be talking about in any given minute. So through a somewhat random process, something becomes topical or trending, and then there’s this incredible suction towards everyone in the media talking about some topic right now — even though there’s other more pressing things going on and there’s no particular reason why this thing has gotten highlighted.
Rob Wiblin: We — and I guess a lot of other podcasts, because of the timelines involved — are able to avoid that topicality most of the time. I guess an exception was COVID, where we did do a bunch of fast turnaround episodes. In our defense, that was maybe the biggest news story of our life, so we make an exception once in a while. Despite the fact that we’re getting deeply into people’s worldviews, it’s not primarily a show about people or about people’s reactions to things, how they felt about something when it happened.
Rob Wiblin: The main reason not to do that is… Okay, imagine that you’re doing science journalism for The New York Times. Most people don’t understand biology very deeply, so if you’re talking to a biologist and you want to reach a broad audience in order to have a large advertising base and make enough money to pay the bills, then the thing that most people can understand is how the scientist felt when they made the discovery. And so even in interviews that naturally might be extremely technical, they tend to become quite personal because of the need for many people to take an interest in something that’s actually going to turn a profit.
Rob Wiblin: We tend to lean away from that and have something more of an engineering mindset. Some people don’t like that. It’s definitely a piece of feedback that we get, that people might like to get to know the guests a bit more on a personal level, or hear more about how I feel about things, or what struggles I’ve had in my life. And we do do some of that — it’s definitely not a complete no — but I feel like a more important gap that we can fill is actually being more technical and remaining focused on the practical, pragmatic question of how to solve problems, and what people have accomplished at an engineering level.
Rob Wiblin: Do you want to continue, Keiran?
Keiran Harris: Yeah, sure. One thing that we try to do is to not duplicate. We do this by prepping very carefully — we do way more prep than the average show does. We’ll typically have sometimes five to 10 pages of questions that we don’t end up using. And we really will try and ask guests things that they haven’t talked about before. If they’re talking about a book, we’ll try and put a lecture at the start of the episode, or we will direct people to something they’ve already done.
Keiran Harris: It’s a big reason why we go so long — three, four, five, sometimes more hours in. Because if somebody has their schtick — where people just go on every single podcast and they do exactly the same 60 minutes — if they’re used to that 60-minute schtick, and we’re like, “We’re just going to talk to you for three hours,” then in that third hour, they’re going to have to talk about new stuff. They don’t really have a choice. An essential thing that I think about as a producer of the show is that we want to make sure that our episodes are delivering content that you can’t get elsewhere.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, that’s awesome.
Rob Wiblin: Another category of guests that we think isn’t that promising is politicians, who are just so trained in being cagey that I don’t think we would be able to get a candid interview out of almost any elected representative most of the time, or they would be a very unusual exception.
Rob Wiblin: Another one is people in positions of power within organizations where they have a lot of stakeholders that they have to keep happy. Those people, just for practical reasons, are not in a position to do a candid three-hour-long interview, because they’re not going to feel safe, despite the fact they can remove stuff. Anything interesting probably would have to be cut out in the production process, because anything too edgy that they haven’t said before is going to risk getting them fired. So with those people, you take down their name and you think, “We’ll get them when they resign,” or, “We’ll get them when they retire.” Because people can be a lot more interesting at 66, once they’re not trying to get hired anymore, than they were when they were leading some part of the WHO, or whatever else.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. So on the opposite side, do you have any thoughts about interviewing people who you know really well? Friends or close colleagues, things like that?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, we’ve had some very positive successes there, and some other ones where it’s been challenging. By and large, the times when I’ve done standard interviews about a specific external topic that I do proper background research on, and I know the guest relatively well, I think it just turns out — people love to hear friends bantering back and forth and having a good time and laughing, and even making in-jokes, or things like that. It’s interesting from a psychological perspective why it’s so enjoyable to listen to a conversation like that, but I think it is the case. And yeah, the episodes with people I know well have often been audience favorites. It’s possible that the guests are even more relaxed because they trust me or there’s a social understanding there.
Rob Wiblin: The cases where talking with friends can potentially not work quite as well is if you just go in planning to have a conversation in general about something and you haven’t prepped that much, then it can quickly become a bit in-group-y — where people are going to find it a little bit hard to follow. Or it becomes a little bit more slightly aimless, like normal conversation — you just start slipping into how you might talk ordinarily, which is perhaps just not quite interesting enough to hold people’s attention. So I think you need to have an important topic that the person, the friend you’re talking to, is an expert in. That will often produce really excellent results, but just chatting about nothing in particular, not so much.
Keiran Harris: Another thing that you want to avoid — and this is particularly a problem if you’re interviewing friends — is jargon. We really try to avoid it as much as we can in episodes, not always successfully. If you have someone that you’re really close with and you just have a way of speaking off mic, you will just naturally just start to talk using these terms that no one knows what they mean outside of your small subgroup, and I kinda hate that. So you’re trying to have this balance where it’s very fun, it’s very accessible, and you can tell the people like each other — but at the same time, you really want to be bringing everyone alongside that journey of the conversation.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, that definitely rings true for me. I’ve been consuming EA and rationalist-ish content for a while. But now that I’m starting a new group and Kearney’s pretty new to EA, it’s funny to be reminded of how many words and phrases are pretty jargon-y. Everybody says “failure mode” all the time, there’s lots of “norms.” It’s always funny to be reminded of how much I fall into the usual EA speak.
Topics we’d like to cover more [00:31:23]
Aaron Bergman: So moving on, what topics do you think the 80,000 Hours show ought to cover more?
Keiran Harris: For me personally — both because I think it’s important and also based on the feedback we’ve gotten — I would love to cover more mental health topics, which we’ve tried to do this year. I recorded an episode with my colleague, Howie, which we released earlier this year, and it was phenomenally successful. It’s our most popular episode ever, based on user feedback and listening time. Based on our user survey, I was pretty sure that that was going to be a hit.
Keiran Harris: And the response to that makes me think that there’s this need for this content, and we are in a position to be able to take that on. So I would personally like to be able to do more of that, even though it is very non-standard, and Rob was saying earlier that we normally don’t talk about personal experiences much. I think we can lean into that a little bit more. And we have started asking guests at the end of episodes, actually — we’ve had a few good examples where we’ve asked guests how a certain moment in their life was to deal with emotionally, and if they have mental health tips and things like that.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, yeah. No, that was a fantastic episode. Yeah, I had to listen to it in chunks. Usually I’m able to — I’m a big podcaster; I’ll listen to things all in one chunk — but yeah, that one I had to chunk up a little bit. That was a fantastic, fantastic episode.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. I think it’s just great to be able to normalize that, to be able to just very casually talk amongst 80,000 Hours staff — where we do have this position in the community, where I think generally we’re pretty well respected — and to just be like, “Everyone at 80,000 Hours has either dealt with this themselves or loves people who have, and are very sympathetic to this.” And to try and promote this norm of, “That is okay and we’re here to support you” — I think it’s very important.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. It’s great.
Keiran Harris: One more thing to add is that sometimes we have these gaps and we fully intend to fill them and just for practical reasons they fall down. So one example is, we haven’t done an episode on s-risks, on risks of astronomical suffering. It would be very reasonable for people to look at our library and say, “Why haven’t you done this yet?” But we do want to do that — it’s just a matter of finding the right guests. So we’ve been in conversations with people trying to find someone who is happy to come on, and basically those people are saying, “Actually, we would like to do that in maybe a year when our research agenda is more advanced.” So it can sometimes look from the outside that we don’t care about a topic, when actually there are just practical things about recording podcasts that get in the way.
Aaron Bergman: Cool. Yeah. I’m looking forward to that episode on s-risks. Rob, do you have any thoughts on topics that you wish you had covered more?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Well, I guess there’s still lots of time, so there’s some things that I regret that we haven’t done yet, but maybe we will in the future. So I tend to be, as an economist, someone who has had training to be relatively positive about markets and perhaps sometimes a bit skeptical or a bit cynical about government interventions. I wish we’d found more guests who could make arguments that I think are persuasive and are likely to persuade the audience that markets are inappropriate in this particular area, or people perhaps from heterodox economic schools who can present perhaps a more socialist angle on things. I think realistically, the reason is that because of the views that I have, I don’t find those arguments super persuasive, so it can be a little bit hard to find a guest who I think, “Yeah, this person’s going to persuade me a lot.”
Rob Wiblin: We recently had an example where someone who has a lot of political opinions that I wouldn’t naturally agree with — Mushtaq Khan — we did a long interview with him. He has a more interventionist perspective than I would typically have, but I found him very compelling and very interesting. So hopefully we can do more of those in the future.
Rob Wiblin: Another thing we’ve never gotten to is doing a debate, where I significantly disagree with the guest and then we kind of structure it such that we’re going to try to get to the bottom of some issue where we don’t see eye to eye. Or an alternative structure might be that I host two different guests who have different perspectives, and then I try to mediate between them and reach some sort of agreement. I guess I’m a little bit scared of that format — I think there’s a degree of cowardice on my part, perhaps that it can be socially awkward to figure out how to navigate a situation where, in front of a large audience, you’re disagreeing with the person you’re talking to. And how hard do you push? But it’s probably a skill that I should try to develop a little bit better.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. I would encourage it. I mean, especially when both parties would have the chance to tweak things afterwards. I think that the synthesis of people not being on their guard and also just the sort of ethos in the EA community of being really kind of okay with disagreement and not taking personal offense — that sort of intellectual disagreement could be really productive. I think Julia Galef on Rationally Speaking has had a few debate-type episodes, and I think some of them have worked better than others, but by and large they’ve been pretty productive. So I would be interested to hear an 80,000 Hours hosted debate. That’s super interesting.
Aaron Bergman: So when you guys do push back on something a speaker says, what is your approach to that?
Rob Wiblin: We have found that if the guest argues A, then I argue not A, and ask them “What’s your response to that?”, very often their response is to say the same thing again. And it’s surprising — pretty quickly you just start repeating your different things. So the approach that I’ve settled on — which some people might think is good and some people might not think is good — is just that I’ll respond and then I’ll let them reply, and then I leave it to the audience. I don’t have to get the last word and say, “I’m not persuaded by that.” We trust the audience to have their brains seriously engaged during the interview and to decide for themselves whether they find what the guest is saying to be persuasive.
Rob Wiblin: I think that over time, if people continue to listen, they get a general sense of my worldview and what stuff I’m likely to agree with and not agree with. So I’m not hiding my views in particular. But arguing back and forth can often take you in loops and waste time, where it’s more interesting to find out what other things does this person — who’s hopefully been pretty highly selected — what do they think.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. That’s interesting. It seems to me it works pretty well.
Rob Wiblin: One way that it can potentially fall down is that just because I haven’t said at the end that I’m not persuaded and I disagree, people can sometimes walk away thinking that I do agree with something that the guest has said. And I’m a bit unsure what to do about that. Because I think if I said at the end of a discussion of some particular topic, “I still disagree,” then you feel like you have to allow the guest to respond to that, and get the last word on the topic — otherwise it’s quite rude — and that then leads them to basically go around in a loop and reiterate the things that they’ve already said. I guess I’m more willing to save the time and maybe just leave it ambiguous what my personal beliefs on any particular topic are. Hopefully people get the impression over time that just because I’m not actively disagreeing doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree.
Critiques of the show [00:37:53]
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. So on the other side, do you think there are any topics that maybe you’ve covered a bit too much?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. People might suspect that because of our problem priorities, we would’ve covered artificial intelligence to a greatly disproportionate extent. But if people look at the list of episodes, it’s actually maybe surprising that we haven’t covered it more. So I think we’re okay on that front.
Rob Wiblin: Actually we’ve possibly done too much on pandemics and biosecurity. The thing was, we were already very interested in that before the COVID pandemic, so we had more detailed content on how to use your career to end pandemics than probably was available anywhere else on the internet by far. We had that before COVID, and then there was this extra impetus to produce a whole lot more on that topic.
Rob Wiblin: We’re maybe starting to reach saturation — where it’s a little bit hard to find really new and important things to say on that topic. To produce more episodes about pandemic control, we have to start getting to new things that people are doing right now that were not available to talk about two years ago, which I guess is a large area at this point. But another consideration weighing against doing too much of that is that there’s now much more coverage of that in mainstream media, so less of a gap to fill.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. Sure. Keiran, do you have any thoughts on that?
Keiran Harris: One thing is just that Rob and I take this fairly seriously. So at the beginning of each “bout” (basically quarters) at 80,000 Hours, we sit down and we think about which topics we want to discuss, and we carefully structure how we want the year to go. If we’ve been able to notice a trend, or we have gaps, or we’ve been doing too much of a certain episode, we do try to address that. I think we’re in a good position to not suddenly wake up one day and be like, “Wait a minute. Were 80% of our episodes in the last year on AI?” Hopefully we can avoid mistakes like that.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: Probably the most common concern would be that a majority of our episodes come from a longtermist perspective. We have much less coverage of near-term, more provable interventions than the effective altruism community as a whole is interested in. I think it’s defensible because that is the 80,000 Hours’ perspective: we think that longtermism to some degree is true, and that it’s extremely important. And it would kind of be a betrayal of our own beliefs and our own views about how people can really have more impact to not make that clear on the podcast, and produce information that is useful to allow people to have more impact from within that worldview. But if you think it’s wrong, then it would mean that we’re potentially wasting a lot of impact by focusing so much on that area.
Keiran Harris: Although we should say that we have gone out of our way to have several episodes on global health and development this year, because we did realize that that was a gap. So even though personally that’s not the thing that Rob and I would work on directly with our careers, we do recognize that it’s important to have at least some coverage there, so we have tried to fill that gap.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. That’s a really interesting point about how to balance what you just genuinely believe is true with other considerations. From my perspective, I found out about effective altruism through GiveWell — the very traditional malaria relief or malaria prevention side of things. Do you think there is much value to having podcasts on topics that have a wider, less niche appeal in order to draw people in? Is that disingenuous in any way?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I think that’s a potentially important consideration in favor of covering a wide diversity of topics: it can bring in more listeners who have a wider range of initial interests, and then cause them to encounter other ideas and other problems and learn about those as well, and potentially broaden their horizons on what things they’d be open to working on.
Rob Wiblin: If we just focused very narrowly on the handful of things that we thought were likely to be highest impact, then I think the show would become quite repetitive. We wouldn’t perhaps be as intellectually flexible, or as open to grappling with reality as it’s actually playing out in the real world. We try to strike a balance between what we would prioritize if it was just our views only, and then what we would do if it was representative of the EA community as a whole — we try to go somewhere in between. And I think that’s working reasonably well. It means that there’s something on the show for most people, if not everyone.
Keiran Harris: And if we just focused on a half dozen topics that we thought were most important, we’d also in large part lose the secondary thing that we have, where we’re trying to teach people basically to think in this effective altruist way. Where if you listen to an episode about AI, it’s not as clear whether these lessons generalize to other problems in the world. But if you listen to our episode with Tristan Harris on worrying about social media, or if you listen to Jennifer Doleac on criminal justice reform, you’ll listen to us go through these very different problems with this effective altruist lens. I think you do have this benefit where you basically come onboard with this high-level thing, which seems more important — because obviously we could be wrong about these half dozen causes that we’re currently prioritizing.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. Totally. This is maybe slightly unrelated — maybe this is another one of my hot takes — but I think in the EA community, there could be some more work on communicating. This is one topic that I heard on your podcast with Holden Karnofsky: if you start out on the global health and wellbeing side, and you just take the ideas very seriously, in fact you do wind up thinking that working on s-risks or AI alignment is the most important thing.
Aaron Bergman: So maybe there’s something to be said for really emphasizing how there’s a serious intellectual continuity between saying, “We should prevent people from dying from malaria” and winding up saying, “Let’s work on AI alignment risk,” for example. Do you agree with that, or do you think maybe that’s misguided?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, that’s my view, which is why I’ve moved towards focusing on the longtermist stuff. The unifying theme is trying to do as much good as possible, and then being willing to quantify the impact that you’re having — and then being very open to a very wide range of different problems, or different methods of having impact, or different ways that you can get an edge over other people.
Rob Wiblin: And yeah, it would be a failure on our part if people thought that there was some radical break between GiveWell and longtermism. It’s not really a disagreement about ends, by and large. It’s just a disagreement about means — about which means are most likely to have an impact. Of course, given the magnitude of the question of “How can you have the most impact?”, it is no surprise that people do come down all over the place on that. It’s not an easy one to answer.
Keiran Harris: The nice thing is that the introduction of that idea — that we should care about welfare impartially — is pretty appealing to people. You just say, “We don’t prioritize lives based on where people live, or anything about them individually.” And people are like, “Yep, that’s definitely true.” And then we in the longtermist community say, “Well, we also don’t privilege people based on when they live.” And that obviously sounds weird, but it is on this same track. So yeah, I feel like it is nice to have this continuity.
Aaron Bergman: Awesome. Do you think there are any other criticisms of the show that are legitimate, that you’d like to comment on or give voice to?
Keiran Harris: One of them is that it’s too long — which, as we’ve talked about, we have reasons for that.
Keiran Harris: And the other thing is that Rob speaks too fast — 30% of our negative feedback is just “Rob speaks too fast. You’ve got to slow him down. You’ve got to get him classes so he can speak less quickly.”
Keiran Harris: But a more serious one is that we’re too elitist. That’s maybe the most serious criticism of the show. We are presenting these kind of intense topics sometimes. And if people are listening to them and feel like… well, maybe they can’t even follow the episodes — which would be totally reasonable — but also they feel very much like, “I can’t go and work on AI alignment research. So then do I still have value in this community?” And I think that’s a real issue, and it’s something that we should take seriously.
Keiran Harris: But there is obviously this balance: we do genuinely think that these topics are so important, and we do think that we have to get this alignment problem right, and there are people in this audience that can go and work on that. This is part of why we cover so many different topics — we want to be creating these episodes where that person who can go and work on AI alignment research in the next year, or in the next five years, that person needs to get that episode. But also we don’t want to do that at the cost of having everyone else be totally demoralized, because there are so many other different, important problems in the world.
Keiran Harris: We basically want to have this thriving, big community — it’s why I take seriously the idea that we should really be trying to promote these memes where you can be a really great effective altruist or a great longtermist without having this intense job. I think Holden talked about this in his episode, where it’s the idea that just by being interested in these topics and talking about them with your friends, already you’re doing a great job. You shouldn’t feel bad about not contributing in this way, because maybe that person’s going to go and either do work themselves or maybe they’ll go and talk to someone else who’s going to do this sort of work. And even if they don’t — even if we think that AI alignment research is more pressing than working on animal welfare, say — it doesn’t mean that animal welfare work isn’t important. That’s still super important, more important than almost anything that anyone’s doing in the world. It’s just there are things that are even more important.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s an interesting flip side of the fact that we’re actually action-oriented and trying to think about what ought someone do in the audience or in general. It’s the case with most documentaries, or most content that you’d find in newspapers or on television, that the people featured a lot of the time are very impressive and perhaps more expert in some area than most of the people in the viewing audience are about anything in particular. But people I guess don’t find that intimidating, because they’re not closing with the bit about, “And here’s how you can be like this person or how you should be like that person.”
Rob Wiblin: It’s quite a difficult spot to be in, because we both want to be focused on actually having impact and encouraging people to actually think about what they can really do. At the same time, in general, you want to be interviewing people who are doing something that’s kind of successful, at least in some way, or who have some impressive knowledge that they have that other people might not have. And that’s necessarily somewhat intimidating to folks to compare where they’re at and where someone being interviewed is at.
Rob Wiblin: I don’t think there’s a super simple resolution to that. Keiran’s in favor of people changing their mentality, so that they’re not thinking all the time, “How do I compare to this particular person?” I don’t generally do that, or I don’t have a lot of that insecurity about comparing myself to exactly how well other folks are doing. I think people just vary a lot on how much they’re inclined to think that way and how difficult it is for them to stop.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. Just going off of this topic and stepping away from the podcast for a bit. Maybe this is a little bit self-defensive or self-promotional, but here we are at Georgetown University, which is not an Ivy League school. Until literally a couple weeks ago there was no EA community. So one thought I’ve had in general is that maybe there has been a little bit of a disproportionate focus on literally the top-ranked universities in the world as a locus for effective altruism. Do you think that’s a legitimate area that EA could improve in? Or, I’m definitely open to the idea that maybe the most influential, powerful people in the world are going to be coming from Harvard and Oxford, and so EA should just focus on those schools.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Well, I guess I don’t make decisions about that in general, we’re making the show, and people can subscribe to it anywhere, and we advertise pretty broadly. So we’re not super targeted on Ivy League schools or anything. But more broadly, I guess it is true that effective altruism has gotten more traction at more elite schools. And some people have kind of doubled down on that and thought, “Well, the Cambridge group is doing really, really well, so we should focus a lot of energy on making the Cambridge student group continue to really thrive.”
Rob Wiblin: It’s just a difficult tradeoff. If you focus on those elite schools, potentially the people there have already been filtered for having a lot of promising qualities that might allow them to be very influential in the future. And then people are right to point out that they get a particular privilege from having gotten through the door in the first place — from having gotten admitted — that provides extra privileges, extra advantages that might allow them to be more powerful or richer or whatever else in the future. Potentially that does provide an additional reason to focus on their views.
Rob Wiblin: To some extent it would be negligent to think if the US is organized in a very unfair way — such that students who went to particular colleges just have much more influence over policy — to not then think, “We need to make sure that their views are not terrible.” Even from the point of view of, “We need to persuade them perhaps to overturn this unfair system in which most people don’t have much hope of entering politics.”
Rob Wiblin: On the other hand, the Ivy League schools only have a tiny number of students relative to the number of students in the US as a whole. So by focusing just on that group — even if they’re somewhat more promising or even if they’re somewhat more technically talented — you’re missing out on a great majority of talent out there. I didn’t go to a particularly elite school. I think the majority of staff at 80,000 Hours never went to an equivalently Ivy League–level prestigious school. And that’s reflective of the fact that even if someone who went to Harvard is very promising in their ability to have an impact or their probability of being interested in effective altruistic ideas, just the base rate says that even if students at universities in general are a tenth as promising or a hundredth as promising — still the majority of people are going to be coming from all of those other schools. So that definitely shouldn’t be forgotten.
Rob Wiblin: If I was going to defend the decision, I might say that effective altruism is tiny. The great majority of people — even in groups that you might think would’ve heard of effective altruism or have some understanding of the ideas — have never heard of it basically at all. And the number of staff involved in promoting the ideas is actually incredibly small, such that they’re reasonably flat out just making sure that the student groups at 12 or 30 universities are going well — let alone being able to scale up groups that are working well at hundreds. So it’s not surprising perhaps that they’re focused at schools where the traction was initially pretty high. Fingers crossed over time they’ll figure out a recipe that’s scalable to a much larger group of people.
Keiran Harris: In thinking about the things we can do to mitigate this a little bit, I think it pushes us in the direction of actually trying to talk a little bit more about this mental health stuff. Because let’s say you take someone like Howie actually, who went to Yale and has this incredibly impressive CV. Just on paper, he looks very scary, very intimidating — very much like, “Well, you can never do what he does.” And then you hear his story and suddenly it’s like, “Actually yes, he is in this privileged position in some ways, and yes, he’s super impressive in these other ways” — but you have these huge advantages over Howie probably, where you don’t have to deal with all of this other stuff.
Keiran Harris: It’s actually this thing where people are maybe a little bit too obsessed over where someone went to school, where it’s like, “That’s the important thing. That’s the thing that people really value.” And yeah, but there are all these other ways in which you can have these edges. Just trying to demystify some of these people, where rather than being like, “This person is working on this really important research and they went to X school and they’re kind of scary” to being like, “Well, no, they’re actually just people too.”
Keiran Harris: And so presenting stories of people like us — I mean, Rob went to… I think you would say maybe ANU is more impressive than Melbourne. I don’t know if that’s true. But anyway, I also went to non-impressive schools, but here we are. People think Rob and I are doing good work. And I think this is part of the value of the podcast, is trying to just be like, Rob and I and our guests — we’re just kind of regular people. We’re not like scary robots.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Obviously people have a huge bias in how impressive they perceive guests to be, because the guests have an awful lot of advantages: we cut out anything stupid that they say, and when they “um” and “ah” and get something wrong, it’s not a problem at all. They sound incredibly fluent because it’s been edited to a substantial degree. We’re also playing on the ideal home turf for them, because we choose the topic on which they are particularly excellent, and we also often will interview them naturally at a time when they’re doing particularly well, because we’re thinking, “Who’s really on it at the moment? And what stuff can we learn from them?”
Keiran Harris: Yeah. That’s one thing to point out actually: a lot of our guests who don’t have a lot of experience are super nervous when they come on the show. And part of that is because they feel intimidated by our previous guests. So someone in the future is going to be intimidated by them, but they’re intimidated by everyone else. One of the drawbacks to presenting someone’s best view is people generally sound very smart on our show, including Rob. Rob sounds way smarter on our show than he does in real life. And that’s just the nature of the show. That’s the nature of the editing.
Aaron Bergman: Rob, do you want to defend yourself and say that you’re even smarter in real life?
Rob Wiblin: Absolutely not. Another factor I haven’t even mentioned yet is people will often think a particular guest — Mushtaq, for example — “He’s just so on it with his ability to explain economic concepts and how much he’s thought about institutional economics and how politics works and so on. I could never compare to that.” Of course, keep in mind, Mushtaq is 60 and he’s been doing this for 35 years. So he’s really at the peak of his career. And you wouldn’t expect that anyone who was 20 or 25 or even 30 would have that level of expertise in any particular thing. So it can be quite an unfair comparison.
Rob Wiblin: Another thing is Mushtaq is probably bad at a whole bunch of stuff. He probably has a whole bunch of weaknesses that are not getting highlighted in this format. Areas in his life where someone else could be way better. Maybe he’s — I don’t mean to single out Mushtaq, I have no idea — but maybe Mushtaq is very disorganized and he desperately needs someone who is able to be a fantastic executive assistant, or someone who’s able to manage the organization or manage people in a way that he’s not suited to do, because he’s too much of an academic and too in his head.
Rob Wiblin: So you shouldn’t be imagining in each case, “How do I compare with this guest on their area of greatest strength?”, but rather thinking, “Can I develop any aptitude that’s useful to some high level?” I think the odds of that are much higher — close to 100% for most listeners.
Keiran Harris: There’s a very important meme to me — which Rob touched on earlier — that I think the most important thing is that good is done in the universe. I think we have this tendency in effective altruism to feel like we need to be contributing ourselves. It’s very important that we’re the ones who are actually actively contributing and that everyone is sort of aware of that.
Keiran Harris: I feel like if we could get this meme out there and transition to the point of “The thing I really want is for the best person to get that job.” Then you apply for a job and you don’t get it, and assuming that you think that the people running that organization are competent, then you’re like, “Well, a better person got that job.” That’s actually good for the universe intellectually. Obviously this is very difficult, and I’m very sympathetic to challenges for people who can’t get these sort of jobs, but it is possible to just have this reframing where it’s like, “Actually, I don’t need my name on that paper, or I don’t need that job, or I don’t need to have the job where I can donate millions of dollars. I’m just very keen on the world going really well.” I think it’s both healthier and more satisfying for you individually and just better for the community.
The post-production process [00:56:16]
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a really, really great point. Rob, do you want to talk about what kind of things start out in the interview, but then don’t wind up in the final cut?
Rob Wiblin: Oh, wow. I think you should definitely ask Keiran for that. Basically, the situation we have now is I record the interviews, and then I hand it to Keiran and he fixes up all of the mistakes that I’ve made, and I barely have to think about it — which is fantastic as a host. Keiran would be very difficult to replace with so many years of experience, knowing exactly how to do that.
Aaron Bergman: Okay. Keiran, do you want to take this question?
Keiran Harris: Yeah, I really appreciate that you’re trying to use Rob’s advice of asking one question to one of us and one to the other, but this one happened to be very specific to me. So it varies hugely depending on the episode. Sometimes we have episodes that just need virtually no editing. So one example was our episode with Cal Newport recently — he’s such a polished speaker that I made almost no cuts. It was crazy, but the whole episode was basically just what the conversation was. We only had him for two hours, and that’s basically what you hear. And in some cases, like we say, we’re very open to doing multiple recordings. Sometimes we can record for 10, 12, 14 hours or something, and it’ll end up being a two-hour episode.
Kearney Capuano: Oh my gosh.
Keiran Harris: And a nice compliment is that I feel like people don’t know when it’s been a real nightmare to edit — we’ve never gotten any feedback like, “Obviously that was from multiple sessions, and this was jumping around all the time.” Yeah, it just really depends on the guests. And we’re very open to having people who don’t have a lot of experience. It just means that you have this option of getting really brilliant people who have these incredible ideas, but they’ve never done any podcasts before, because that’s just not their kind of thing. But that will mean that there is a lot to be edited out.
Keiran Harris: So we have these multiple stages. We have a terrific audio engineer, Ben Cordell, who does the first stage for me now. I used to have to do this stuff in the early days, but Ben does it for me now, where it’s just taking out all of the filler words and the false starts. Often, people will start a sentence and they go, “Wait a minute. Let me start that again.” Or it’ll just be random jumbled words. And so we take all of that out to just basically clean up the audio.
Keiran Harris: Then it’s sent to me, and I make the editorial cuts, which is a series of things. Sometimes, questions just don’t go anywhere — so we’ll ask a question, the guests will just say something like, “I don’t really have a good answer for that,” or they’ll give an answer that’s kind of a non-answer, where they probably should’ve passed, but they didn’t because you kind of feel obligated to say things. Sometimes, we have full sections that didn’t quite work, so I’ll do a lot of rearranging sometimes. We really try and make sure that the most engaging section comes at the start. So actually, sometimes the section that you hear at the start of an episode happened three hours in, and that was the best bit. And so as long as we haven’t created these contingencies, where people keep saying, “Well, as we were talking about earlier…” —
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, that’s another piece of advice that Keiran will have. I can hear him feeling unhappy on the other end of the line when we’re recording and we’ve created a dependency, where we’ve referred back to something in the past — as we’re doing right now — which is then going to make his editing job enormously harder, potentially, if we want to rearrange.
Kearney Capuano: So Keiran, you’re doing all of that behind-the-scenes work? That’s all you, or do you have a broader team that’s helping you with all this?
Keiran Harris: Yeah. I lead the team. Basically, as Rob said, we’re a four-person team. We have Rob as the host, I’m the producer and the editor, then we have Ben Cordell (who’s on audio engineering), and then we have Katy Moore — she basically does all the work with the transcripts. That used to be Sofia Davis-Fogel — people have probably heard her name a lot. So basically, I’m managing those two, and between the four of us, we’re taking care of all this.
Kearney Capuano: Wow. That’s awesome.
Advantages to podcasting over other media [00:59:48]
Aaron Bergman: Cool. Okay, now backing up a little bit, Rob, I heard you talk on both the 80K show and other shows about how you really like podcasting as a medium. I’ll just say, as a listener, same here. That’s probably the main way that I consume information. I’ve listened to probably most of The 80,000 Hours Podcast and I feel like I’ve learned so much. Could you just talk a little bit about whether you think podcasting is a good medium, and if so, what sort of advantages it has over articles and blogs, and stuff like that?
Rob Wiblin: So none of these thoughts are original, but they just jump out — a lot of the benefits that you get from podcasting. I suppose because it’s so much cheaper to create, there are just a lot of shows now, which some people kind of gripe about. It’s like, “Oh, everyone has a podcast now. Isn’t everyone wildly narcissistic and crazy to think that anyone wants to listen to them?” But it’s a little bit now like blogging kind of was in the 2000s, where actually, it turned out that lots of people knew a little bit about something or other — or at least they wanted to express their thoughts on things.
Rob Wiblin: And often, there’s an audience — even if it’s only 100 people who are interested in this very niche topic, where you can go into a lot of detail and actually access some of the knowledge that would otherwise never be published, because it’s too difficult to do it. That’s one benefit that podcasts have, which is that you can have a show about something very specific — like a specific industry in a specific city — and even if there’s a small audience, it can be worth producing for that group.
Rob Wiblin: Also just the fact that there’s no length limit allows you to go into detail in a way that mainstream media never would. You would never get a TV show that’s four hours of me interviewing someone about different theories of consciousness. It would never make the cut, nor really would it on radio or anywhere else that I can think of. But there is just a significant audience out there that is hungry for more depth than they were getting from the kinds of shows that are available on TV, or radio, or elsewhere. Or even really blog posts, which unless someone is willing to put in an awful lot of effort, are not going to go into as much detail as a really long-form interview might.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. I think that’s a great point, especially about the length, which I know you’ve talked about before. I know the 80,000 Hours show is much longer than other podcasts tend to be. Could you just lay out the case for why you think podcasts, in general, should be longer than they generally are?
Rob Wiblin: The first thing is what I was saying before: that there’s this niche for this particular format. This is what you should listen to if you want to actually know a ton about this topic, rather than just get the superficial story again. There’s also this economic case that I’ve written up, which is basically that if you’re going to interview someone at all, if you’re going to do a good job, you have to put in a bunch of time preparing — like reading their book or getting to understand their general shtick, their general worldview — in order to be able to ask good questions.
Rob Wiblin: That upfront cost, and the cost of getting them to have their microphone set up, and getting them to actually book a time — that’s kind of the same, whether you interview them for 20 minutes or interview them for four hours. There is some incremental variable cost in interviewing people for longer — it takes up a bit more time on their part. Keiran has to do a whole lot more editing as well. But nonetheless, you get a lot of economies of scale, basically, by interviewing fewer people at much greater length.
Rob Wiblin: We often find that the best content comes in the third or fourth hour of an interview. Because at least from my point of view, that’s when you’ve gotten past them just describing the basics of their book — which someone could hear on another show if they wanted to, because they’re probably doing the rounds, appearing on lots of other programs. That’s when you get into truly fresh material, where they’ve said one thing and I’ve responded, and they’ve said another thing and I’ve responded — we actually get down to considerations that are a lot deeper than you would typically find in any other conversation.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. One of my pet peeves is I’ll notice when somebody, like an author, is making the rounds on a podcast — like somebody just wrote a book and they’ll show up on every single show in the technocratic, political, EA kinds of sub-podcasts. And one thing I really appreciate about the 80,000 Hours show is that you guys definitely do have some authors, but it doesn’t tend to just be the people who just wrote a book or something. So I feel like that’s probably an overrated consideration: literally authors just making the rounds, but probably saying the same thing over and over.
Rob Wiblin: It’s such an overrated consideration that I think people will actually just go out and write books, basically, so they can get on a whole lot of shows to talk about the book.
Aaron Bergman: Oh, wow.
Rob Wiblin: They already know the ideas, but people won’t have them on until they’ve blessed them with a book. Yeah. Our idea is, “Well, we’ll let them do all of those other shows, and then we’ll listen to it, and then we’ll interview them later.” And we can kind of react to everything that they’ve produced when they were doing the rounds, so to speak.
Keiran Harris: The other thing we often do is we’ll take a talk that someone’s given already, and we’ll put that at the beginning of that episode — just to give the audience a refresher on the things that they would’ve said — but then we get to keep the whole three hours to get into novel material.
Aaron Bergman: Right.
Drawbacks to podcasting [01:04:30]
Kearney Capuano: That makes sense. So we touched on some of the great things about podcasting. I was just curious about what you guys thought about the drawbacks to podcasting?
Rob Wiblin: Well, the flip side of being able to go into lots of detail is that you can suffer from verbal diarrhea, I suppose. There’s not a lot of pressure to make sure that you’re asking absolutely the best question, potentially, at least in a long-form interview. I think that’s a turn off for some people. We do get some folks email in who say, “I would love to listen to it if you could make it a lot tighter. Could you make the show half an hour rather than four hours?”
Kearney Capuano: Yeah.
Aaron Bergman: Don’t do it.
Rob Wiblin: “Maybe you should read the key points on the website. Maybe that’s the right product for you.” Other benefits are that potentially people build quite a strong connection with the host, with the guests. They feel like they’re really getting to know them because you’re able to convey so much more subtlety, so much more personality through the medium. I guess a dark side of that is that, potentially, people can start to find you too compelling. And I think we see that with some interview shows, where some of the most famous hosts are taken perhaps a little bit too seriously. Or people get deeply, personally invested in them and then start to really care about what they think.
Rob Wiblin: And the thing is, I’m not actually an expert on almost any of the things that are getting covered. I’m not actually really a super expert in any particular topic. And I’m always offering my amateur opinions, I think because people find them entertaining, and it keeps the show high energy, potentially. But people should bring a healthy dose of skepticism to what people are saying on podcasts, because it is so easy to say stuff and obviously there’s no citations.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. For the topics that we discuss, if you’re talking about relative to other mediums that we could use — like if Rob and I were off writing a book or something — we’re talking about topics where it can be really helpful to have data, to have visualizations, to have graphs and figures, and to be able to actually walk people through these really complicated topics.
Keiran Harris: Sometimes we do run into this situation where the topic’s fascinating, we love it, and the fact that we’ve really engaged in it in preparation means that, basically, we can follow. But then we share it with people for the first time, and they’re like, “I just couldn’t follow that at all.” It totally makes sense if you’re totally new to this topic. There are some topics that it’s very hard to explain properly just in audio.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah.
Our position in the effective altruism community [01:06:32]
Kearney Capuano: To preface, for the millionth time, as someone who’s quite new to EA, I have kind of been growing up through The 80,000 Hours Podcast. That’s where I’m consuming a lot of my EA information. So I was just curious if you ever worry about being quite literally the voice of EA, and what people hear about EA?
Rob Wiblin: Basically, yeah. It’s something that we’ve explicitly talked about, that we don’t want to be the case for various different reasons. It’s not exclusively an issue for the podcast; it’s also an issue for 80,000 Hours as a whole. 80,000 Hours’ mission, our approach, is not to represent the views of the effective altruism community — we’re not going out surveying everyone who identifies as an effective altruist, and seeing what they think and then bringing that together. It’s the opinions of people who work at 80,000 Hours, and nothing more and nothing less.
Rob Wiblin: But there was a period a couple of years ago, where we were producing significantly more content for people to consume — things that people would be interested in reading and listening to — than most other groups were. So it was just the practical case that people — especially if they were engaging maybe superficially, if you’re the kind of person who’s kind of interested in effective altruism, and sometimes clicks on links on Twitter — basically you would naturally come to think that 80,000 Hours just represents the views of everyone who’s involved.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s a difficult one. I mean, we can explicitly disclaim that that’s not the case, but I don’t think that that’s going to move the needle very much. It’s one reason why we’ve definitely never renamed the show The Effective Altruism podcast, even though we cover a whole lot of effective altruism–themed topics. I think the solution — and the solution that is beginning to happen — is just that other organizations are producing more content.
Rob Wiblin: So the Effective Altruism Forum has more and more interesting stuff to read on it. That helps to counterbalance our opinions, because there are just a huge range of views on what are the top priorities and how things ought to be fixed. There’s other podcasts starting up, like you guys, and there’s also Hear This Idea. I’m just seeing more competing content — I feel like we’ve got to stay on top of our game because people have other things to consume in the effective altruism content space these days. So hopefully that will, over time, reduce the sense that 80,000 Hours is synonymous with effective altruism — which, dear listeners, it is not.
Keiran Harris: It is a tricky balance though, because we do have this position in this community where people do listen to us. So if we create content, it will actually get some reach. An example is that we just created this secondary feed called Effective Altruism: An Introduction a few months ago. And that came with this criticism, where by calling it “Effective Altruism: An Introduction,” it seems like you’re kind of representing the community.
Keiran Harris: Then the 10 episodes we picked became somewhat controversial because they weren’t designed to actually accurately represent the community — it was more just 80,000 Hours’ way to introduce this. We were thinking of it as being this high-level feed, where it was about how you think about these ideas. But the fact that we didn’t have episodes on, for example, animal welfare or global development seemed to be a problem, because those are very popular causes in the movement. And we are trying to address that. We’re going to do a second thing, Effective Altruism: 10 Global Problems. That’s going to probably be less controversial.
Keiran Harris: It is a thing, where once we put that up, it does get a lot of listens — so it seems like we’re kind of leaving value on the table if we’re too hesitant about being associated with effective altruism. At the same time, all of Rob’s concerns are true. Yeah, it’s a tricky thing.
Aaron Bergman: In your defense, I’m trying to think, maybe by listening to The 80,000 Hours Podcast, people actually are getting a fair representation of what could reasonably be called the effective altruist perspective, rather than if they just consumed any other amount of medium for the same time. I suppose there’s no excellent way to make sure that somebody’s getting an absolutely unbiased, completely point-of-view–neutral perspective. But also maybe I just agree with 80K too much.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. We’re definitely not representative in some ways. So I think half of donations among people who identify as effective altruists is going towards global development, but I would say global development’s only about 10% of the episodes. That’s maybe a case where there’s the most glaring difference between what the community as a whole is interested in, and what we focus on. Many people know that 80,000 Hours leans towards a longtermist perspective, so we tend to be interested in new technologies, regulation of new technologies, ways things could go wrong, how we could steer culture in the right direction in the long term.
Rob Wiblin: We don’t exclusively cover those things; we also want to cover other topics that listeners are potentially interested in. As you were suggesting, we want to demonstrate how people with an effective altruist mindset think across a range of different problem areas, because it’s not only about the specific information — say, about projects in animal welfare or projects in development — it’s also about showing people how ought they think through new problems in their own career, in order to figure out how to have more impact. And that’s potentially very cross-cutting.
Is there an optimism bias in the effective altruism world? [01:11:10]
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, that’s really interesting. You mentioned global development as something that you guys cover less than is represented in the EA community. My personal perspective is I’m quite passionate about animal welfare. You guys have had Bruce Friedrich on, and I know you’ve covered the topic. But it does seem like, not only 80,000 Hours, but also effective altruism in general — maybe people who take the ideas very seriously tend to be a little bit more longtermist, maybe give more weight to AI and existential risk, and things like that.
Aaron Bergman: And so I’m just wondering — moving on a little bit from the pure podcasting side — do you think that there’s a little bit of an optimism bias in effective altruism? Where nobody wants to think about really negative topics, like animal suffering? Or do you think that maybe I have the wrong perspective here?
Keiran Harris: So there’s a couple things going on here. One is that I do think, typically, the effective altruism community is made up of very cheerful people, and we do focus on this longtermism stuff. But within longtermism, you can be very worried about suffering, as I am personally, and I know Rob is as well. A lot of us really do care about animal welfare and we have several episodes on that. It is just that this is a matter of the core of effective altruism, where you can’t focus on everything equally. And so the fact that we don’t focus as much on one cause doesn’t mean that we don’t care about it. I mean, both Rob and I are just absolutely horrified by the horrors of factory farming, viscerally. It is something that really bothers me in a way that few other things do.
Keiran Harris: But if I sit down and just actually think about these ideas — for me, it’s difficult to make the case that it is of comparable importance to AI, in my opinion. And then Rob has fairly similar views. And so the question is, in making The 80,000 Hours Podcast, should we follow what we think is best? Should we focus on these problems that we personally think are the most important? Or do we try to lean back and say, “Well, this is a more accurate representation of the entire community”? We try and do a little bit of both, but I’m not sure if that answered your question very well.
Aaron Bergman: No, no, no. I think it really did. It seems totally plausible to me that there could be some sort of bias initially, but in the end, it might just be the right answer to focus on x-risks and AI stuff. I also have very conflicting intuitions, and when I think things through, I’m persuaded by longtermism. So I definitely sympathize with your whole answer.
Keiran Harris: One thing I was going to say is that just focusing on longtermism isn’t inherently positive. More so than I think maybe anyone else at 80,000 Hours, I really care about or am interested in mitigating s-risks — so these are these risks of astronomical suffering. It’s often framed as, “Well, there are these longtermists, and there’s other people who care about s-risks.” And it’s like, “Well, no. If you care about s-risks, you are a longtermist.” This is over very long time periods. And so you can be entirely motivated by suffering, and still be a dyed-in-the-wool longtermist. These things go together, potentially.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. No, I was not doing that perspective justice. I’d definitely like to hear what you think are some promising interventions right now in the s-risk space. Should we just be focusing on research to see how tractable things are? Do you think there’s anything more concrete that we can do to reduce the risk of s-risks?
Keiran Harris: Basically, kind of a nice coincidence is that the best work to reduce the chance of s-risks is also just fantastic work on mitigating AI risk generally — it is just so tied up. I have been fairly involved with people who are working on this most, and they do have this really interesting work. But as yet, there’s not this big divergence where it’s like, “Well, I have to make this decision whether or not to focus on the more classic AI risk mitigation and these s-risks.” Basically it’s like, AI goes well, and we just don’t have to worry about S-risks. So you can have these two communities who might have very different value systems, but who can just actually coordinate. The thing I’m most excited about coming out from folks working on this is this focus on coordination, and they take it very seriously. Yeah, I think that’s fantastic.
Aaron Bergman: Great.
Rob Wiblin: Just backing up, let’s pause and think through this question of, “Is there an optimism bias in effective altruism?” In general, it doesn’t seem like there’s an optimism bias among human beings. If anything, it seems like people tend to be biased towards remembering bad things that happened to them, and being annoyed by that, and then worrying about things that could go wrong in future. This would be going against the stream, I think, if effective altruists had a different thing, and were generally focused on only thinking about ways that things could go well.
Rob Wiblin: And if you look at the stuff that the effective altruism community is worried about, it’s true that factory farming isn’t the number one intervention in terms of people’s efforts or donations. But we talk more about terrible suffering on factory farms, or terrible suffering in the wilderness, than basically almost any other group other than communities that are specifically focused on animal rights and animal welfare.
Rob Wiblin: Even within longtermism — where perhaps people are a bit more optimistic about how well the future will go — the main focus for the last 20 years has been ways that we could go extinct, and the ways that things could go horribly. And there’s many people who think there’s more than a 10% chance that this century, all of us are going to be destroyed and everything we care about will be ruined — which, actually, that’s a very common view among the general public. So it actually isn’t that different than the background rate, but it doesn’t seem to suggest that there’s a kind of Panglossian bias among people involved in ineffective altruism.
Rob Wiblin: On the poverty side, I think most people focused on that are probably optimistic that, in the fullness of time — over hundreds of years, or possibly even over the next few decades — we can largely eliminate extreme poverty, or we’ll get a long way towards massively improving the wellbeing of people in countries that are currently very poor. But if you look at the evidence, there’s pretty good reasons to think that. Yeah. I don’t see that much reason to think that the community is biased towards naive optimism.
Keiran Harris: I think that’s a really good point. I was just going to say, let’s say you take people who work on extreme pandemics or preventing nuclear war, and they’re thinking through these scenarios. These are very grim scenarios. This isn’t like, they’re waking up with a sunny disposition and a song in their heart, just thinking, “Oh, nuclear war. Oh, what an incredible thing to work on.” No, this is just also incredible suffering, and it’s just in these different avenues.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. Just thinking out loud, I was trying to figure out what I was getting at when I wrote this. And I think maybe it’s something like descriptive pessimism, just to be super annoyingly philosophical about it, but —
Rob Wiblin: Go for it.
Aaron Bergman: — normative optimism bias. So people can say, “Oh, we have these very bad problems. They’re really serious. Right now, there’s a high risk of extinction.” And things like that. But then I do think there might be a sense that nobody wants to say, “Actually, it would be good if we didn’t last that much longer” or anything like that. Do you have any comment on this normative descriptive distinction in terms of optimism and pessimism?
Rob Wiblin: The possibility that the future will be negative has been discussed a lot. It’s interesting when you survey the general public on things: not only do they think that a catastrophe is quite likely, but many people — when they’re talking about this at the pub or indeed are surveyed on this by someone who phones them to ask their opinions — often are very pessimistic. They say, “Who knows whether it would be bad if humanity went extinct?” And it’s a bit hard to know whether that is just someone saying something interesting, or whether that’s a real opinion.
Rob Wiblin: But in effective altruism as well, at places like the Future of Humanity Institute, people have thought a lot about what are the prospects for things going well, what are the prospects for ways that you could end up with a lot of suffering locked in for a long period of time? I think most of the people who’ve thought about this a lot tend to lean towards thinking that there’s going to be more good stuff in the future in expectation than bad stuff, mostly because there’s strong incentives to create that.
Rob Wiblin: If you are going out into space, and making use of all the energy in stars and things like that, it’s not obvious what strong motivation people have to create suffering, or to create other harmful things. But it’s clear why someone would be motivated to go and run instances of themselves having a great time. So there’s broad considerations like that, broad worldview issues that cause people to say, “Even though it’s potentially quite a risky gamble, there’s good reasons to think that the future is going to have a predominance of positive stuff.”
Kearney Capuano: Yeah. Just on that note, Keiran, I’ll throw this one at you: do you think that the world is net positive? And how confident are you in that?
Keiran Harris: Yeah, sure. That relates to what I was going to say, actually. I think a common view is to look around the world and see so much suffering and go, “Well, this seems pretty terrible” — and certainly historically — and be appalled at all this historical injustice and suffering that’s gone on to this point, and think, “Well, things just aren’t great, so if we just all died in our sleep painlessly tonight, how bad would it be?” And I think you can basically have that view and still work on the things that 80,000 Hours recommends, because you can accept the view that’s like, “Up to this point, the world has been net negative.” I’m not saying that it is or not — I’m very uncertain about that — but you can have that view and still be like, “Well, that doesn’t mean that things aren’t going to get way better as we develop technology.”
Keiran Harris: Actually, I’d be interested to know what the median view of EA is here, but I’m not at all confident that even the world today is net positive. I’m just very like, “I don’t know.”
Rob Wiblin: Nor am I.
Keiran Harris: But I would just say that I’m very optimistic that we can get to a point where it will be. And then once you get to that point, it’s not like that just ends, where we’re a bit net positive — the prospect we have in store is that things could get incredibly positive. Once we get things right, things can go very right. That’s the kind of thing that motivates a lot of people in EA.
Kearney Capuano: Okay. So we don’t know now, but we could be net positive. I’m actually curious, what do you think, Aaron? Can I throw that one at you?
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, sure. Thank you, Kearney. In terms of humans, I’m uncertain, but I feel like when you throw in wild animals and factory farming, it’s almost certain that right now, the world is a bad place. I find it very hard to believe that any sort of normal experience outweighs the billions of animals that we’re torturing. I’m pretty persuaded that wild animals are probably having a pretty bad time also. Yeah, that’s what it seems like to me. What about you, Kearney?
Kearney Capuano: I think I’m just wired oddly optimistically, and I’ve always just been someone that’s like, “There’s more good than bad, more good than bad.” But that also just could be the privilege that I’ve been born into. After learning more about the EA community at large, I guess I’d have to agree with you in that it is more bad than good right now. However, I’m completely aligned with Keiran in that I think, in our coming generation, we could switch it towards being a little more good than bad. I’m optimistic about that. But Rob, I don’t think we got your full answer on that.
Rob Wiblin: I think I’ve explicitly said on the show that I really don’t have a great sense of whether there’s more good than bad in the world currently. Basically for the reasons you gave: with humans, it’s unclear, and then with factory farmed animals, it seems negative, and then with wild animals, probably also negative. I would say it’s a bit more uncertain than you’re saying, because it’s just so hard to weight these different experiences against one another. And it’s also very hard to know how much to weight a chicken’s experience, as against a cow’s experience, as against a person’s experience. Maybe there’s some way that you could make things look positive, if you chose the right numbers. I would also guess that because wild animals probably don’t have a good time, there’s been more suffering than pleasure up to the present time over the last four billion years.
Rob Wiblin: But at least the trends over the last few hundred years seem to be pretty positive. We’ve learned more how to use technology to make life better for us. We’ve more often used that — at least for humans — to make our lives better, than we’ve used it to harm others, just for the obvious reason that it’s expensive and annoying to use your energy and your money to harm other people. And it doesn’t really get you anything in particular. Whereas spending your money in order to benefit you has the obvious benefit that people enjoy experiencing pleasure.
Rob Wiblin: And there’s potentially good reasons to think that, as technology continues to improve, we will find more and more ways to benefit ourselves — and even get rid of the remaining cases, like factory farming, where we feel like it’s cheaper to benefit ourselves by harming others. You would hope that over the course of possibly even decades — but if not decades, then centuries — that there’ll no longer be that incentive to harm animals in order to produce meat more cheaply.
Rob Wiblin: The people who want to claim that the future is negative in expectation — or at least contains a lot of negativity — turn towards situations where it turns out that if you want to do lots of calculations, or you want to do lots of analysis of some problem in the future on a computer, the optimal way to do that involves suffering in some way. And I guess Black Mirror has examples, at least intermediate technological examples, where that’s the case in some of their episodes.
Rob Wiblin: Another one is that they might think that in the future, conflict is going to be very important — conflict between different groups — and they’ll use violence, and threats, and torture, and moral threats in order to get their way. Those are interesting lines of argument that we probably don’t have time to cover here, but I think they’re probably not enough to outweigh the reasons to expect things to be good.
Unifying theme of Rob’s career [01:23:56]
Kearney Capuano: Yeah. I definitely agree with you. Switching gears a bit, we’re curious, Rob, if there’s any unifying theme or ideology behind your work, besides just EA. Is there something in your background or educational background that’s tied everything together?
Rob Wiblin: I think of myself primarily as someone who thinks like an economist and reasons through problems like an economist, thinking about tradeoffs and how you maximize benefits given the resources that you have. I think, to some extent, the reason that economics is more boring than effective altruism is that economists don’t tend to take philosophy super seriously. Very often they just apply it to practical problems, where you can get jobs — most people who study economics ultimately want to work at a bank or a consulting firm or something like that, rather than think about the most fundamental problems that humanity faces.
Rob Wiblin: But if you’re willing to approach economics and you are willing to have not just ordinal utility — so, say, this person is better off in this case versus this other case, and we can tell that because they chose to do A rather than B. If you’re willing to have cardinal utility — just saying Rob is happier than Keiran, so that’s more beneficial, compare across people. Or that not only are we willing to say Rob’s having a better time than Keiran, but willing to say he’s having a 27% better time — so have precise numbers that you get out.
Keiran Harris: I doubt it, Rob. I doubt it.
Rob Wiblin: I doubt it as well. Keiran’s a very chill guy. He meditates all the time. If you’re willing to do that, then I think it does have quite radical implications, because you’re just going to then start thinking, “How can we maximize the amount of wellbeing in the world with a given amount of resources?” And if you’re willing to be open-minded about how to do that, then you quickly go down some really interesting lines of thinking, where it’s like, “Well, should humans be at all as they are today? Maybe we should just completely re-engineer the human experience from scratch and run people on computers, or use genetic engineering or whatever else in order to radically improve the human experience.”
Rob Wiblin: While I think of that as an absolutely core and very natural extension of economics, I think most economists would not agree.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. As a very unqualified current economics undergrad, I don’t even know if you would need to revolutionize ordinal versus cardinal thinking in order to get there. It seems like you could just have the revealed preference be between Experience 1 for 10 minutes or Experience 2 for 15 minutes, and stuff like that. Maybe I’m mixing up cardinal and ordinal versus other considerations, but it seems you could still use some of the revealed choice framework in order to better quantify how much people value different experiences and how much better they are than one another. And first, let me let you comment on that.
Rob Wiblin: There was, broadly speaking, this turn away from cardinal utility towards just ranking different experiences within a person — and not being willing to do comparisons of wellbeing across different people — in the ’30s. And I think it did make economics a lot more boring, because you were no longer able to say, “If we take money from this person and give it to this other person, they’re going to get 10 times as much utility out of it.” That kind of thing was strongly discouraged. So you didn’t have social welfare functions that would allow you to have more interesting policy implications other than just maximize people’s incomes or their choice set or whatever.
Rob Wiblin: And if you’re only doing ordinal utility, then what can you say about the case where it’s like, “Let’s create someone new, who’s going to be having a much better time”? If you’re not willing to do interpersonal comparisons of utility, then you can’t even really tell whether that’s positive, because you can only rank the different lives that that person could live based on their choices, which just naturally limits the kinds of questions that you’re going to be considering.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. Maybe you could do some sort of Rawlsian veil of ignorance, like, “If you didn’t know who you were going to be, would you rather be this person or that person?” There’s some definite conceptual issues there. You mentioned how economists don’t take philosophy as seriously as they ought to. Do you think it works in the other direction as well? Do you think philosophers ought to take economics more seriously?
Rob Wiblin: I think it’s true that philosophers in general are not very good at empirical work, or very good at knowing what is the evidence within social science. And probably they would agree with that, by and large, because it’s not their specific training. Philosophers are very specialized in a particular kind of analysis, involving abstract reasoning and improving things from different premises, and seeing where you can get from that — at least the kind of philosophy that I follow, it’s surprisingly mathematical.
Rob Wiblin: If you want to apply philosophy to the real world, which effective altruism is trying to do, then you absolutely need to start engaging with this practical social science, like economics. And if you want to study one more thing in addition to philosophy, I think economics would be a good choice, but maybe sociology or psychology or politics could also be really relevant.
Rob Wiblin: But my impression listening to philosophers sometimes, when they weigh in on practical policy questions, is that they are overconfident about their ability to read empirical research and their ability to tell what are the likely consequences of policies. So philosophers who want to wade into that probably do need to broaden their analytical toolkit beyond what they typically get in a PhD program.
Unifying theme of Keiran’s career [01:29:01]
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. Now moving on. Keiran, you’ve had quite the interesting career. You started out as a professional poker player, and then I believe you started studying psychology at the graduate level, and now are a podcast producer. That’s a super interesting career. Do you think there’s any sort of unifying strand behind those experiences?
Keiran Harris: Yeah, it’s a pretty chaotic career, but my made-up answer is inspired by my friend, AJ Jacobs, who is writing a new book all about puzzles. And I think the common strand in my career is that I’ve always been solving puzzles. So in terms of being a poker player, some people could be attracted primarily by the money or maybe by the lifestyle — they want to live in Vegas or something. But for me, I just love the puzzles. Playing an individual poker hand is an individual puzzle, and you’re like, “Okay, here’s a story that someone’s telling me. Do I believe them? Why wouldn’t it be true?” That’s how I treated it, so that’s why it was fun.
Keiran Harris: Then as for psychology — which happened after I decided that I wanted to do good with my career, although before I had found EA — I was motivated to try and come up with this whole different type of therapy. So it was this huge puzzle that I took on, trying to solve that.
Keiran Harris: And then with 80,000 Hours, generally, I think it’s very helpful to think about solving global problems as puzzles. This reframing that AJ talks about. So he’ll say things like, “Rather than pitch someone on the climate crisis — which can make you curl up in the fetal position and just not want to have to deal with it, it’s just terrifying — if you reframe that as we’re trying to solve the climate puzzle, suddenly it’s kind of motivating.” People are crazy about puzzles. You’ll actually actively want to wake up to work on that kind of thing. You’ll still get the benefits. People want to solve puzzles, even if they have no relevance — if it’s The New York Times puzzle for that day, people are obsessed with it. So if you can get people to channel that energy into these puzzles, I think it’s enormously valuable.
Keiran Harris: That’s the kind of thing I like with my job, is that I get to constantly be playing around with these different kinds of puzzles — whether it’s actually solving problems or just within the editing process — where it’s like, “Okay, I have this 10 hours of raw audio. What the hell am I going to do with this? I’ve got to somehow make it into a popular episode. Maybe it’s going to be this section’s going to go here. Maybe I’m going to cut this hour here, and we’re going to re-record that, and I’m going to move these things around.” It’s kind of like a jigsaw. And at the end, you feel like you’ve solved it if you’ve made a good episode.
Kearney Capuano: Out of pure curiosity, I’m also in the psych realm, so I was just curious about your new puzzle form of therapy. Can you just explain that a tiny bit if you’re still into that?
Keiran Harris: Oh, yeah. That is probably a bigger conversation, but basically, the background is that based on my views, I virtually never feel sustained guilt, personally. And I was like, if I could bring ideas from philosophy into a therapy situation — basically teach people the things that I learned — maybe I could at least reduce guilt in populations where it was particularly pernicious. So people who have major depression or people with eating disorders — where this idea of guilt or self-hatred is particularly bad — I felt like that would be a very new way of addressing these sort of things that I hadn’t seen done elsewhere.
Kearney Capuano: That’s really cool. Do you think you’ll ever go back to working on that?
Keiran Harris: Well, I was in this graduate program, and I was pitching these ideas. And my thesis supervisor was great, but was saying, “That’s really interesting, but no one here is going to be your supervisor for that” — was basically saying you have to do something that’s actually sort of playing the game, actually just doing what everyone does. Then maybe after you’ve been working in this field for five or 10 years, maybe you can come back to this sort of crazy stuff. And that was right around the time that I found effective altruism, and so once I had that in, and I started talking to people who were fairly high up in the EA world, it was kind of an easy decision for me to drop out.
Aaron Bergman: If any clinical psychology supervisors, professors are listening to this, here is a call to action.
Advice for other podcasters [01:32:41]
Aaron Bergman: So there’s three co-founders here at Georgetown, and two of us are really big podcasting fans. So we decided to start this podcast, and we were immediately thinking about what guests to have on. I was driving home one night, and you guys came to mind as like, “Why not learn from the best? If we’re going to start a podcast, let’s learn from other podcasters.” So what advice do you have for us and other interviewers or podcasters? Or what things have you learned over the years that you might be able to pass on?
Rob Wiblin: Something that surprised me is the extent to which it’s just terrible to be looking at text whenever you’re speaking. So often guests want to come on, and they’ve taken a whole bunch of notes, they’ve thought ahead of time about what answers they’re going to give to different questions, and then they want to have their laptop open so that they can scan down the notes as they’re doing their answers. This might sound like a bad idea, and it’s an even worse idea than that for the great majority of people. Because as soon as someone starts looking at words with their eyes, you can tell that their tone of voice changes significantly, and it starts to sound like a boring lecture or something that’s quite prepared, and I tune out as a listener.
Rob Wiblin: Overwhelmingly, once we’ve managed to convince people to have a go at answering the questions without having any text in front of their eyes, the answers are fluent, and they’re a whole lot more engaging. I guess it’s because people are actually producing the ideas, they’re bringing the ideas to mind and then turning them into words and moving them out rather than effectively reading something out from a page.
Rob Wiblin: It’s in a sense more structured. But it seems like humans as listeners, for whatever reason, we kind of enjoy this halting speech style — which when transcribed looks like garbage, but as a listener, actually works really well to keep you engaged. Because, I’m speculating, but I think it’s because listening to someone pause and say “um” and go fast and slow and be excited at particular points, that causes you to try to get in their head and to be basically mirroring the thoughts that they’re having as they’re generating the speech in a way that isn’t possible from someone reading text.
Aaron Bergman: Listeners, you’ve probably heard exactly what Rob’s talking about. I have a split screen here with my notes on one side and a Zoom screen on the other, and you guys have almost certainly heard me start reading out in a slightly different tone of voice. So moving forward, I’ll try to avoid that. Thank you for the tip.
Keiran Harris: I would say the biggest piece of advice for new podcasters is that guest selection is by far the most important thing. That sounds obvious, but I think people just don’t internalize that as much as they should. There are a lot of things you can get away with: you can have an episode that goes way too long, that has sections that don’t work. You can have technical problems, which can be bad too. But basically, if you get the guest selection wrong, it’s just unrecoverable. The episode can just be like, “Well, that’s it.” Now, you’re in damage limitation, where you can keep cutting down. And maybe people have had this experience if they tried to make podcasts: you can have these episodes that just kind of go off the rails, and now you’re like, “Well, I’ve got these three hours. Should I make it into a half hour, or is there a way to salvage it?”
Keiran Harris: Basically just spending a lot of time carefully thinking about guests, and getting outside opinions, and maybe even doing test calls is really worth it. So if, let’s say, you’re going to interview someone for two hours, it might even be worth saying, “I actually think it’d be better to do a 20-minute test call and have an hour and 40 minutes for the actual podcast,” if you only wanted to take two hours of this person’s time. And then actually be quite ruthless with saying this person is maybe either very bright but just isn’t a good communicator, or maybe they’re a great communicator, but when you talk to them, it sounds like they don’t actually have that much to say. Basically, if you get a great guest, then you can incorporate some of our other tips about making sure they’re as comfortable as possible, and giving them free rein to cut out anything they want, and you can hold their hand along to getting a great episode out of it.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Some people have the gift of the gab and some people don’t, and I don’t know if there is some deep personality thing that people also had when they were five, or is it just that some people train much more in communication than others. But there’s a very stark range, and if someone neither particularly has a talent to start with nor have they cultivated the talent of putting themselves in the mind of the audience and thinking, “What does this other person need to know in order to get to where I am?” — if they haven’t trained that, we’re not able to train them in that quickly enough to make an episode work.
Keiran Harris: Another one is that it turns out that audio quality is just very important for listener retention. Which is another one that maybe sounds obvious, but it’s weirdly hard to get right, and it’s worth spending a lot of time on it, and actually, probably just biting the bullet and investing a bit of money in it early if you’re starting a podcast. But just saying, “I’m just going to get a great microphone. I’m just going to get my setup. I’m going to reach out to people who are podcasters and get the right advice.” Because we still struggle with this — even though we take this very seriously and we have this impressive organization behind us, we’ve still gotten this wrong a bunch of times, and there are just so many things that can go wrong. So basically, just investing in the best equipment and the best software, and the best video-calling software just seems like a great decision.
Aaron Bergman: All right. Well, hopefully we’ll take a step up from my Zoom system right here, where I’m just recording on my computer audio. Actually, I did buy a $15 standalone microphone. Then I tried it out, and it was, if anything, worse than my computer. So that’s just sitting in my closet. I’m not using that right now.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s interesting to think about why audio quality is so key to whether people continue to listen to an interview or not — even holding everything else constant. I’m not sure that I know, but one thing that I suspect is just that it’s difficult to concentrate on low-quality audio because you have to be doing two things at once: trying to figure out what the person said through the static or whatever else, and then also analyzing it. It’s just so much less fun to be doing those two things at once. People get tired, and I don’t know, I feel like this when I’m listening to low-quality audio — I just get exhausted. I guess it’s possibly the brain is just overworking, because it’s not that easy to actually extract the signal from low-quality audio.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. Maybe if it’s really good quality audio, it seems to me it just sounds like real life, so you’re sort of able to forget about the medium — similar to just a really high-quality screen, like HD television or something. I think that the whole point is to forget the medium’s there, to embed yourself in it. And simulating real life is kind of why podcasting is so attractive — it sounds like some friends having a conversation.
Keiran Harris: Yeah, definitely. Rob mentioned this earlier. Podcasting is this really intimate medium, where people who are fans of the show have listened to Rob for hundreds of hours now — you really get to feel like you know him, and I do feel like it takes away from that a little bit if suddenly it sounds like Rob’s underwater or something. “Wait a minute. We probably wouldn’t be having a beer underwater, so now I’m suddenly not in that world anymore.”
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, yeah.
Rob Wiblin: This reminds me of this question of why is it that people find it so much easier to listen to a conversation where there’s back and forth than a lecture? This is true, even if basically, effectively the person is giving a lecture where every minute or two, I say, “Uh huh. Tell me more about that.” As a listener, I find that way easier to follow.
Rob Wiblin: My guess — again, it’s pure speculation — is just that there’s some deep, evolutionary psychology reason why our brains find the interaction between people, like listening to conversations, to be incredibly fascinating. Because we want to track social relations, or we evolved to track social relationships within our group much more than we evolved to track cost-benefit analysis of some disease surveillance system. So it’s having the social element of two people connecting, and understanding their relationship, and seeing what they’re feeling — that’s kind of the yummy part for most people’s brains. That’s the sugar that helps the information go down. But other people might have different theories.
Aaron Bergman: I’m just thinking out loud. If some sort of communication and AI expert wants to work on taking text and then turning it into a social interaction instead of just reading the text out loud, that could be a very cool program.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Well, I don’t know. You’re making me think, what if you’ve got the Microeconomics 101 class in undergrad — could you have the lecturer giving the lecture, but then there’s a person who’s kind of responding the whole time, being, “Oh, I didn’t follow that,” or “Can you make that any clearer?” I guess that’s a lot of work for that person, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was way more engaging for people in the lecture theater to be watching this interaction between two people having a conversation about microeconomics than it would be to follow one person monologuing for 50 minutes.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. And just to play along with the speculative evolutionary psychology, I think even just the difference between reading and talking — we started reading so much more recently. We’ve been talking for… I don’t want to guess on the timeline, but a really long time. We’ve been reading for kind of a long time, but only really since the 1400s or something. Before that, it was only rich people who had a few books lying around.
Aaron Bergman: So if I had to guess, I would think just listening to things is a little bit more psychologically natural. Maybe this is just my bias, because I personally find it easier to consume information that way, but maybe there’s some low-hanging fruit in terms of the ability to transmit information well. I don’t know.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Some people hate audio. I don’t know. There are audio people, and there’s people who hate audio. And it feels almost intellectually we’re bifurcating it to consuming completely different content, whether that will have any interesting consequences in the future. But yeah, I think you’re exactly right that reading is just the Johnny-come-lately, ridiculous way of transmitting information. Having a conversation is the hunter-gatherer thing that’s been around for hundreds of thousands, conceivably millions, of years. So it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s just so much less demanding to absorb information that way, because for almost all of our evolutionary history, that’s how people were learning almost everything.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. The people who are really doing God’s work are the ones reading blog posts onto podcasts. So there’s somebody who does the Slate Star Codex posts, which thank God — thank you for doing that. And some Cold Takes, the author of that reads it out loud. So I strongly encourage that. That’s my favorite thing.
Keiran Harris: That’s Holden Karnofsky’s blog, just for listeners.
Aaron Bergman: Maybe I’ll cut this out, but a few weeks ago, I was really impressed with the whole most important century thing, so I tweeted out, “This is the most persuasive piece of persuasive writing I’ve encountered” or something. But I tagged the wrong person, so now I’m really self-conscious whenever I mention it. Whoever’s the other person — one of the other head honchos at Open Phil.
Keiran Harris: Alexander.
Rob Wiblin: Alex Berger?
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I tagged Alex Berger, and he replied on Twitter, “That’s very flattering, but wrong person.” And I was like, “Oh, my God, no. I had one job, and I couldn’t even write a tweet.”
Rob Wiblin: [laughs] You’ll never work in this town again, mate.
Aaron Bergman: Yeah. So do you have any other final tips for new podcasters or interviewers?
Keiran Harris: One thing is that it could be easy and actually good to really immerse yourself in a guest’s work, and read all of their papers, and just get obsessed with it. But the thing to keep in mind is that your listeners have not done all of that research, and so what you really need to do is bring them along with your questions. So try and keep in mind the questions you had when you started looking into their work — and maybe it’s worth just writing up a doc of your initial questions to remember that. Because once you get into their work and you’re like, “I’ve read five papers they’ve done,” your interview’s going to be so different, and your audience members are just not going to be able to follow it. That’s one way an episode can fail.
Aaron Bergman: Okay. Cool, cool. Thank you.
Rob Wiblin: A mistake that I see very often with people when they’re doing their first few interviews is that they write down questions that they would really like to have answers to, which the guest is very unlikely to actually be able to answer. So they’ll be extremely ambitious questions, like, “What is the solution to economics?” A classic one would be that people working in animal rights have sometimes wanted me to ask, “Can you get them to tell us what should be the weighting of different species, and exactly how we should do interspecies comparisons?”
Rob Wiblin: And that’s exactly the kind of question that I would’ve asked in the first few interviews that I was doing. Then I quickly realized that the fact that I really want to know something doesn’t mean that the guest — even if they’re in some adjacent area — necessarily has an answer to these timeless philosophical problems. So at this point, we spend more time thinking about “What stuff does this person know?” and maybe a little bit less time thinking about “What in an ideal world would I like to ask an oracle that knew everything?”
Aaron Bergman: Yeah, okay. So I’ll try not to ask you guys what the meaning of life is, or something like that.
Rob Wiblin: Just ask us, “So what’s the nature of consciousness?”
Aaron Bergman: Actually, I think you guys cut that from the list of things I wanted to talk about, because I initially had that — I wanted to know. Fine, but you know what? Now that we’re discussing it, maybe we’ll cut this out, but would either of you guys like to comment on your current take on the nature of consciousness?
Rob Wiblin: [laughs] To be consistent with what I was saying, I feel extremely unqualified to weigh in. If you’re asking how I feel about it, I guess I know some people who feel that there is no hard question of consciousness — there’s no great mystery that we feel the way that we do, or that we feel that we feel the way that we do. They’re content with it being some illusion to do with information processing.
Rob Wiblin: I just personally don’t find that super persuasive. I do feel in my heart that there is some mystery about “Why does it feel like anything to be me?” I haven’t had time, actually, to delve into great details on the purported debunking explanations on that. But at least the stuff that I’ve read so far hasn’t made me feel the problem is any less mysterious and peculiar than I originally did.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. For me, I am fascinated with the topic, as it sounds like you are. The one thing that I could say confidently about it is that I take the Sam Harris position that really the one thing about the universe that we know is not an illusion is consciousness — in that it is like something to be me, and we don’t know what that is. It’s just baffling, it’s mysterious, it’s fascinating. I would love to have the answer to it, but the one position that is kind of incoherent to me is people saying there’s just no mystery here.
Rob Wiblin: “It’s an illusion.” An illusion of what? Of itself, the thing that it is. How could there be an illusion if you’re not experiencing it?
Keiran Harris: It could be the case that we’re in a simulation, and it is still the case that there is some being here that is conscious. It is still like something to be me, as long as you’re having that subjective experience.
Aaron Bergman: Like both of you, I definitely think there’s a mystery there, and I don’t think consciousness is an illusion, whatever that means. I actually do think that it’s a coherent position, though, to say that it’s just fake and actually we’re all p-zombies, and subjective experience just does not exist. Because I can get into this, but Keith Frankish has a position called “Illusionism,” where he really owns a position that, “No, we are not conscious.” It really is not just an illusion, in that it sort of exists in one sense but not in another — but it really just doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, I give him credit for making the case that actually that is kind of possible, even though I don’t really believe it. I don’t think we’re going to resolve this issue on air.
Rob’s Twitter [01:48:00]
Aaron Bergman: Okay. As a final question, I reached out over social media to see what questions people had for you guys, and one person wanted to know Rob’s thought process regarding what he tweets and why. It seems like you might take a little bit more of a contrarian tone on Twitter than you do on the podcast. Do you have a theory of Twitter and how you use it, or is it more just off-the-cuff? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Rob Wiblin: So one thing is that Twitter is a personal outlet rather than a professional one, so I’m uncensored and unfiltered by professionalism on there. I definitely don’t shy away from being sassy on Twitter, and potentially just making it very clear that I think a position is very misguided. I guess the criticism that people might have is that sometimes I’m weak-manning a position that I’m criticizing, and I think there’s something to that. On the other hand, I think very often I’m weak-manning a position in a sense, but I’m also making extremely salient an internal tension or a weakness in a position. Possibly, it can be responded to with all those other arguments in its favor.
Rob Wiblin: But Twitter is a medium where you have 240 characters or so, and so it is more useful for that single point — where, whatever else you could say for something, here’s a sassy remark that highlights a problem with this particular view. I think it’s admirable that many people don’t like that, because they’re like, “No, I want a more balanced view. I don’t want you to be making fun of this weakness in a position that you disagree with. It’s a cheap shot.” I think those people have a lot of integrity, and that’s great.
Rob Wiblin: I maybe just care about being funny too much, or I care about having interesting and entertaining things to say. Maybe the mentality that you want to bring to Twitter — just because of the nature of the format — is that people are not giving fair all-around views on things, by and large. You’re learning little pieces of information that you could potentially put together into a picture, but no individual tweet is going to do any issue total justice.
Rob Wiblin: I also just have this general philosophy with social media — or with things that people are opting into consuming in general — that people shouldn’t try to produce something that pleases everyone, or even that pleases a group that isn’t really the group that they feel the greatest affinity with. Because there’s like hundreds of thousands, millions of Twitter feeds out there that people could choose to consume. The great majority of people are going to have no interest whatsoever in following my Twitter and reading my tweets. I’m just writing it for the tiny minority of people who have some interest in my combination of sincerity and interest in doing good, and interest in also being funny and being sassy and sometimes being a bit unprofessional. If you’re not into that, then there’s other people who are adjacent, who are a bit more serious and have a bit more intellectual integrity with every issue that they talk about, and it’s fantastic for people to go and follow that.
Rob Wiblin: I think if I tried to adjust too much in response to feedback from people who don’t like that, then pretty quickly other people would complain that I’m not as interesting and entertaining as I used to be. So it’s just not possible to please everyone. Also, I think it would become boring because it would no longer be authentic, and I wouldn’t be enjoying myself, and I wouldn’t be expressing the person that I am — which is somewhat flawed. Sometimes, I want to take that cheap shot. Sometimes, I want to make a joke at the expense of a position that I don’t like. People should gravitate towards the stuff that they like, and just unsubscribe from stuff that they don’t.
Aaron Bergman: Awesome. Thanks for sharing. I was just talking to somebody who works at a think tank, because as I mentioned, I’m applying to the Open Phil thing — I want to try working at a think tank. And he was basically like, “Yeah, you need a master’s degree. It’s also really helpful if you have a couple thousand followers on Twitter.” That should be your second priority, basically, if you want to break into the public policy world. So I should probably get on that.
Aaron Bergman: Anyway, are there any other points you guys want to hit whatsoever? I’m totally open to anything.
Rob Wiblin: Maybe the issues that we talk about on the show are very serious and very dark, and there’s a lot of value in being very serious and scholarly and academic about it. But people also got to have fun. And that’s part of what Twitter is: sometimes you just want to share that stupid meme. I think people should absolutely embrace that part of themselves and not feel because effective altruism is a moral movement that we have to be dour and serious all the time. But I would think that.
Keiran Harris: And coming into this conversation, maybe people would have a view of Rob that he’s somewhat intimidating. I would just like to hope that this conversation has tried to expose his many flaws, and make you feel that he would be actually very approachable, and that you, too, could potentially host a successful effective altruism podcast, even if you are as flawed.
Aaron Bergman: Well, I think I’m definitely at least as flawed, so that’s very encouraging. Thank you. Anyway, this has been a blast. Keiran and Rob, thank you so much for coming on.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a pleasure. Best of luck with the show.
Keiran Harris: Thanks so much for having us.
Keiran’s outro [01:52:49]
Keiran Harris: If you want to hear more from Kearney and Aaron, you can subscribe to their new podcast All Good.
The first thing on their feed is Aaron’s recent interview as a guest on the Narratives Podcast.
During the episode, host Will Jarvis talks to Aaron about a key way he thinks people go wrong when choosing a career, how society treats children, how bureaucracy works, whether the FDA should have to approve medications, his interest in psychopharmacology, and a whole lot more.
Audio mastering and technical editing for this episode by Ben Cordell.
Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links to learn more are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.
And I produce the show.
Thanks for joining.