Benjamin Todd on what the effective altruism community most needs (80k team chat #4)

We’re a bit less constrained by kind of generally interested, talented people, and a bit more constrained by either people who have very particular skills that are needed, such as AI technical safety, or grantmaker skill sets — the kinds of things we list on our priority problems.

Benjamin Todd

In the last ’80k team chat’ with Ben Todd and Arden Koehler, we discussed what effective altruism is and isn’t, and how to argue for it. In this episode we turn now to what the effective altruism community most needs.

According to Ben, we can think of the effective altruism movement as having gone through several stages, categorised by what kind of resource has been most able to unlock more progress on important issues (i.e. by what’s the ‘bottleneck’). Plausibly, these stages are common for other social movements as well.

  • Needing money: In the first stage, when effective altruism was just getting going, more money (to do things like pay staff and put on events) was the main bottleneck to making progress.
  • Needing talent: In the second stage, we especially needed more talented people being willing to work on whatever seemed most pressing.
  • Needing specific skills and capacity: In the third stage, which Ben thinks we’re in now, the main bottlenecks are organizational capacity, infrastructure, and management to help train people up, as well as specialist skills that people can put to work now.

What’s next? Perhaps needing coordination — the ability to make sure people keep working efficiently and effectively together as the community grows.

The 2020 Effective Altruism Survey just opened. If you’re involved with the effective altruism community, or sympathetic to its ideas, it’s a great thing to fill out.

Ben and I also cover the career implications of those stages, as well as the ability to save money and the possibility that someone else would do your job in your absence.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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#87 – Russ Roberts on whether it's more effective to help strangers, or people you know

So if you said to me, “You should devote the rest of your life to getting better at being the father of your children.”… I have an idea of how to do that. I may not succeed at it, I may struggle at it, I’m sure it’s imperfect. But if you said to me, “You know, I think Americans should get along better with Russians, Chinese and Swedes.” I don’t know how to start with that.

Russ Roberts

If you want to make the world a better place, would it be better to help your niece with her SATs, or try to join the State Department to lower the risk that the US and China go to war?

People involved in 80,000 Hours or the effective altruism community would be comfortable recommending the latter. This week’s guest — Russ Roberts, host of the long-running podcast EconTalk, and author of a forthcoming book on decision-making under uncertainty and the limited ability of data to help — worries that might be a mistake.

I’ve been a big fan of Russ’ show EconTalk for 12 years — in fact I have a list of my top 100 recommended episodes — so I invited him to talk about his concerns with how the effective altruism community tries to improve the world.

These include:

  • Being too focused on the measurable
  • Being too confident we’ve figured out ‘the best thing’
  • Being too credulous about the results of social science or medical experiments
  • Undermining people’s altruism by encouraging them to focus on strangers, who it’s naturally harder to care for
  • Thinking it’s possible to predictably help strangers, who you don’t understand well enough to know what will truly help
  • Adding levels of wellbeing across people when this is inappropriate
  • Encouraging people to pursue careers they won’t enjoy

These worries are partly informed by Russ’ ‘classical liberal’ worldview, which involves a preference for free market solutions to problems, and nervousness about the big plans that sometimes come out of consequentialist thinking.

While we do disagree on a range of things — such as whether it’s possible to add up wellbeing across different people, and whether it’s more effective to help strangers than people you know — I make the case that some of these worries are founded on common misunderstandings about effective altruism, or at least misunderstandings of what we believe here at 80,000 Hours.

We primarily care about making the world a better place over thousands or even millions of years — and we wouldn’t dream of claiming that we could accurately measure the effects of our actions on that timescale.

I’m more skeptical of medicine and empirical social science than most people, though not quite as skeptical as Russ (check out this quiz I made where you can guess which academic findings will replicate, and which won’t).

And while I do think that people should occasionally take jobs they dislike in order to have a social impact, those situations seem pretty few and far between.

But Russ and I disagree about how much we really disagree. In addition to all the above we also discuss:

  • How to decide whether to have kids
  • Was the case for deworming children oversold?
  • Whether it would be better for countries around the world to be better coordinated

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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How much does a single vote matter?

Could one vote — your vote — swing an entire election? Most of us abandoned this seeming fantasy not too long after we learned how elections work.

But the chances are higher than you might think. If you’re in a competitive district in a competitive election, the odds that your vote will flip a national election often fall between 1 in 1 million and 1 in 10 million.

That’s a very small probability, but it’s big compared to your chances of winning the lottery, and it’s big relative to the enormous impact governments can have on the world.

Each four years the US federal government allocates $17,500,000,000,000, so a 1 in 10 million chance of changing the outcome of a US national election gives you some degree of influence over $1.75 million, on average.

That means the expected impact of voting — the probability of changing an election’s result multiplied by the impact if you do — might, depending on your personal circumstances, be very high.

This could, in itself, be a good argument for voting.

Fortunately there is a significant amount of academic research on the importance of elections and how likely one vote is to change the outcome, so I’ve pulled it together to estimate the average value of one vote for the right person.

The answer, as you might expect, depends a great deal on the circumstances of any given election,

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#86 – Hilary Greaves on Pascal's mugging, strong longtermism, and whether existing can be good for us

If you think that being born with a good life is better for the people in question then not being born, then it’s really hard not to be led to something like a totalist population axiology, where in particular you’re going to think that if the future would be good in the absence of extinction, then premature human extinction is an astronomically bad thing.

Hilary Greaves

Had World War 1 never happened, you might never have existed.

It’s very unlikely that the exact chain of events that led to your conception would have happened if the war hadn’t — so perhaps you wouldn’t have been born.

Would that mean that it’s better for you that World War 1 happened (regardless of whether it was better for the world overall)?

On the one hand, if you’re living a pretty good life, you might think the answer is yes – you get to live rather than not.

On the other hand, it sounds strange to say that it’s better for you to be alive, because if you’d never existed there’d be no you to be worse off. But if you wouldn’t be worse off if you hadn’t existed, can you be better off because you do?

In this episode, philosophy professor Hilary Greaves – Director of Oxford University’s Global Priorities Institute – helps untangle this puzzle for us and walks me and Rob through the space of possible answers. She argues that philosophers have been too quick to conclude what she calls existence non-comparativism – i.e, that it can’t be better for someone to exist vs. not.

Where we come down on this issue matters. If people are not made better off by existing and having good lives, you might conclude that bringing more people into existence isn’t better for them, and thus, perhaps, that it’s not better at all.

This would imply that bringing about a world in which more people live happy lives might not actually be a good thing (if the people wouldn’t otherwise have existed) — which would affect how we try to make the world a better place.

Those wanting to have children in order to give them the pleasure of a good life would in some sense be mistaken. And if humanity stopped bothering to have kids and just gradually died out we would have no particular reason to be concerned.

Furthermore it might mean we should deprioritise issues that primarily affect future generations, like climate change or the risk of humanity accidentally wiping itself out.

This is our second episode with Professor Greaves. The first one was a big hit, so we thought we’d come back and dive into even more complex ethical issues.

We also discuss:

  • The case for different types of ‘strong longtermism’ — the idea that we ought morally to try to make the very long run future go as well as possible
  • What it means for us to be ‘clueless’ about the consequences of our actions
  • Moral uncertainty — what we should do when we don’t know which moral theory is correct
  • Whether we should take a bet on a really small probability of a really great outcome
  • The field of global priorities research at the Global Priorities Institute and beyond

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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Benjamin Todd on the core of effective altruism and how to argue for it (80k team chat #3)

Say you come along and are like, “Well, I did this estimate and I found that there’s this amazing global priority that no one else is working on and it’s like 100 times better than what everyone else is doing.” So then the question is, should you just trust that, or should you figure that you’ve probably made a mistake somewhere? And because your calculation has said there’s this thing that’s amazing compared to what everyone else is doing, most likely you’ve made an error in the direction of it being better than it actually is.

Ben Todd

Today’s episode is the latest conversation between Arden Koehler, and our CEO, Ben Todd.

Ben’s been thinking a lot about effective altruism recently, including what it really is, how it’s framed, and how people misunderstand it.

We recently released an article on misconceptions about effective altruism – based on Will MacAskill’s recent paper The Definition of Effective Altruism – and this episode can act as a companion piece.

Arden and Ben cover a bunch of topics related to effective altruism:

  • How it isn’t just about donating money to fight poverty
  • Whether it includes a moral obligation to give
  • The rigorous argument for its importance
  • Objections to that argument
  • How to talk about effective altruism for people who aren’t already familiar with it

Given that we’re in the same office, it’s relatively easy to record conversations between two 80k team members — so if you enjoy these types of bonus episodes, let us know at [email protected], and we might make them a more regular feature.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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Notes on good judgement and how to develop it

Judgement, which I roughly define as ‘the ability to weigh complex information and reach calibrated conclusions’, is clearly a valuable skill.

In our simple analysis of which skills make people most employable, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics across the US economy, ‘judgement and decision making’ came out top (though meant in a broader sense than we do).

My guess is that good judgement is even more important when aiming to have a positive impact.

Why good judgement is so valuable when aiming to have an impact

One reason is lack of feedback. We can never be fully certain which issues are most pressing, or which interventions are most effective. Even in an area like global health – where we have relatively good data on what works – there has been huge debate over the cost effectiveness of even a straightforward intervention like deworming. Deciding whether to focus on deworming requires judgement.

This lack of feedback becomes even more pressing when we come to efforts to reduce existential risks or help the long-term future, and efforts which take a more ‘hits based’ approach to impact. An existential risk can only happen once, so there’s a limit to how much data we can ever have about what reduces them, and we must mainly rely on judgement.

Reducing existential risks and some of the other areas we focus on are also new fields of research,

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Benjamin Todd on varieties of longtermism and things 80,000 Hours might be getting wrong (80k team chat #2)

An example of something that could make a time really pivotal is if we discover a new technology, such as something that could create a new bioweapon. That moment right as we’re about to discover that, that would be a really pivotal time because maybe the details of how that technology is handled could make a big difference to whether there’s an existential risk or some other shift to the future.

Ben Todd

Today’s bonus episode is a conversation between Arden Koehler, and our CEO, Ben Todd.

Ben’s been doing a bunch of research recently, and we thought it’d be interesting to hear about how he’s currently thinking about a couple of different topics – including different types of longtermism, and things 80,000 Hours might be getting wrong.

You can get it by subscribing to the 80,000 Hours Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. Learn more about the show here.

This is very off-the-cut compared to our regular episodes, and just 54 minutes long.

In the first half, Arden and Ben talk about varieties of longtermism:

  • Patient longtermism
  • Broad urgent longtermism
  • Targeted urgent longtermism focused on existential risks
  • Targeted urgent longtermism focused on other trajectory changes
  • And their distinctive implications for people trying to do good with their careers.

In the second half, they move on to:

  • How to trade-off transferable versus specialist career capital
  • How much weight to put on personal fit
  • Whether we might be highlighting the wrong problems and career paths.

Given that we’re in the same office, it’s relatively easy to record conversations between two 80k team members — so if you enjoy these types of bonus episodes, let us know at [email protected], and we might make them a more regular feature.

Our annual user survey is also now open for submissions.

Once a year for two weeks we ask all of you, our podcast listeners, article readers, advice receivers, and so on, so let us know how we’ve helped or hurt you.

Your responses to the survey will be carefully read as part of our upcoming annual review, and we’ll use them to help decide what 80,000 Hours should do differently next year.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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Five philosophies of career success

People have many different beliefs about what drives career success. These different beliefs lead to different philosophies of career advice, which have different implications for how to choose a career.

Here I outline what I take to be five common philosophies of career success, some rough thoughts on which is correct, what they imply, and why most of them differ from mainstream careers advice.

Five philosophies

Here’s a short overview of each one, made extreme to clearly illustrate the differences:

1. Find your unique career match

There’s a narrow range of careers that match you really well, and which will let you be happy and productive, while most won’t be a good fit.

Your aim should be to try to understand your unique profile of strengths and find the job that best matches them.

I’d say this is the philosophy of most ‘standard’ career advice. If you speak to a career advisor, they will typically be unwilling to say that some paths are generally ‘better’ than another, but instead maintain that it’s all about finding the right match.

Most career books spend plenty of time getting you to reflect on your interests and personality, and then encourage you to look for careers that match them. Career tests work in part on the same principle.

I’d also put the advice to ‘follow your passion’ in this category.

2. Work hard

In his 2016 book Peak,

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    Research questions that could have a big social impact, organised by discipline

    People frequently ask us what high-impact research in different disciplines might look like. This might be because they’re already working in a field and want to shift their research in a more impactful direction. Or maybe they’re thinking of pursuing an academic research career and they aren’t sure which discipline is right for them.

    In any case, below you will find a list of disciplines and a handful of research questions and project ideas for each one. They are meant to be illustrative, in order to help people who are working or considering working in these disciplines get a sense of what some attempts to approach them from a longtermist perspective might look like. They also represent projects that we think would be useful to pursue from a longtermist perspective.

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    #85 – Mark Lynas on climate change, societal collapse & nuclear energy

    The only argument against [nuclear energy] is a political one, that people won’t accept it, or people won’t want it. I don’t think there are any engineering or physics challenges that can’t be fairly easily addressed, and that includes the cost.

    Mark Lynas

    A golf-ball sized lump of uranium can deliver more than enough power to cover all your lifetime energy use. To get the same energy from coal, you’d need 3,200 tonnes of the stuff — a mass equivalent to 800 adult elephants, which would go on to produce more than 11,000 tonnes of CO2. That’s about 11,000 tonnes more than the uranium.

    Many people aren’t comfortable with the danger posed by nuclear power. But given the climatic stakes, it’s worth asking: Just how much more dangerous is it compared to fossil fuels?

    According to today’s guest, Mark Lynas — author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (winner of the prestigious Royal Society Prizes for Science Books) and Nuclear 2.0. — it’s actually much, much safer.

    Climatologists James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha calculated that the use of nuclear power between 1971 and 2009 avoided the premature deaths of 1.84 million people by preventing air pollution from burning coal.

    What about radiation or nuclear disasters? According to Our World In Data, in generating a given amount of electricity, nuclear, wind, and solar all cause about the same number of deaths — and it’s a tiny number.

    So what’s going on? Why isn’t everyone demanding a massive scale-up of nuclear energy to save lives and stop climate change? Mark and many other activists believe that unchecked climate change will result in the collapse of human civilization, so the stakes could not be higher.

    Mark says that many environmentalists — including him — simply grew up with anti-nuclear attitudes all around them (possibly stemming from a widespread conflation of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy) and haven’t thought to question them.

    But he thinks that once you believe in a climate emergency, you have to rethink your opposition to nuclear energy.

    At 80,000 Hours we haven’t analysed the merits and flaws of the case for nuclear energy — especially compared to wind and solar paired with gas, hydro, or battery power to handle intermittency — but Mark is convinced.

    He says it comes down to physics: Nuclear power is just so much denser.

    We need to find an energy source that provides carbon-free power to ~10 billion people, and we need to do it while humanity is doubling or tripling its energy demand (or more).

    How do you do that without destroying the world’s ecology? Mark thinks that nuclear is the only way:

    “Coal is a brilliant way to run industry and to generate power, apart from a few million dead every year from particulate pollution, and small things like that.

    But uranium is something like a million times more energy dense than hydrocarbons, so you can power whole countries with a few tons of the stuff, and the material flows and the waste flows are simply trivial in comparison, and raise no significant environmental challenges — or, indeed, engineering challenges.

    It’s just doable, and it isn’t doable with any other approach that you can imagine.

    Renewables are not energy dense, so you have to cover immense areas of land to capture enough solar power through photovoltaic technology to even go a small distance towards addressing our current energy consumption with solar. And wind likewise.”

    How much land? In Nuclear 2.0 Mark says that if you wanted to reach the ambitious Greenpeace scenario for 2030 of wind power generating 22 percent of global electricity and solar power generating 17 percent, wind farms would cover about 1 million square kilometers. That’s about as much as Texas and New Mexico combined. Solar power plants would cover another ~50,000 square kilometers.

    For Mark, the only argument against nuclear power is a political one — that people won’t want or accept it.

    He says that he knows people in all kinds of mainstream environmental groups — such as Greenpeace — who agree that nuclear must be a vital part of any plan to solve climate change. But, because they think they’ll be ostracized if they speak up, they keep their mouths shut.

    Mark thinks this willingness to indulge beliefs that contradict scientific evidence stands in the way of actually addressing climate change, and so he’s aiming to build a movement of folks who are out and proud about their support for nuclear energy.

    This is just one topic of many in today’s interview. Arden, Rob, and Mark also discuss:

    • At what degrees of warming does societal collapse become likely
    • Whether climate change could lead to human extinction
    • What environmentalists are getting wrong about climate change
    • Why political and grassroots activism is important for fighting climate change
    • The most worrying climatic feedback loops
    • And much more

    Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

    Producer: Keiran Harris.
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
    Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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    The case for building expertise to work on US AI policy, and how to do it

    At 80,000 Hours we think a significant number of people should build expertise to work on United States (US) policy relevant to the long-term effects of the development and use of artificial intelligence (AI).

    In this article we go into more detail on this claim, as well as discussing arguments in favor and against. We also briefly outline which specific career paths to aim for and discuss which sorts of people we think might suit these roles best.

    This article is based on multiple conversations with three senior US Government officials, three federal employees working on science and technology issues, three congressional staffers, and several other people who have served as advisors to government from within academia and non-profits. We also spoke with several research scientists at top AI labs and in academia, as well as relevant experts from foundations and nonprofits.

    We have hired Niel Bowerman as our in-house specialist on AI policy careers. If you are a US citizen interested in pursuing a career in AI public policy, please let us know and Niel may be able to work with you to help you enter this career path.

    Still in her 20s, Terah Lyons has risen to the top of the artificial intelligence (AI) policy world.

    Less than two years after finishing her Harvard undergraduate, she was working in the Obama White House, writing a report laying out the administration’s policies on AI.

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    How to use your career to help reduce existential risk

    In The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity our trustee Toby Ord argued that reducing existential risks — the chances of e.g. catastrophic global pandemics, run-away climate change, or unaligned artificial intelligence — should be a top global priority.

    But what does this mean in practical terms? How can you actually use your career to reduce existential risks?

    We think there are many different ways to help tackle these issues, and so various lines of work could be both very helpful and potentially a good fit for many readers.

    In short, the process we recommend for finding the best ways to help is:

    1. Think about which particular risks you want to focus on mitigating — ‘direct’ existential risks like particularly severe pandemics, or ‘indirect’ existential risks (so-called ‘risk factors’), like global political instability or lack of cooperation between major powers. (More below)
    2. Come up with ideas for careers that address these issues — we think careers in research, government & policy, and nonprofits seem especially promising. (More below)
    3. Identify next steps to entering into those careers, compare them, and get started. (More below)

    In the rest of this article, we give more detail on how to follow each of these steps.

    1. Choose which issues to focus on.

    Broadly speaking, you have three options for reducing existential risks:

    • Directly working to reduce the world’s largest and most neglected existential risks
    • Directly working to reduce the largest and most neglected ‘risk factors’

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    #84 – Shruti Rajagopalan on what India did to stop COVID-19 and how well it worked

    The US can afford to say, “Hey, we’ll shelter in place for five months. We’re going to impose these orders and the people who’ve lost their jobs — in restaurants and salons — we’re going to give you a stimulus package for small businesses”… Developing countries don’t have that option.

    Shruti Rajagopalan

    When COVID-19 hit the US, everyone was told that hand sanitizer needed to be saved for healthcare professionals and to just wash their hands instead. But in India, many homes lack reliable piped water, so they had to do the opposite: distribute hand sanitizer as widely as possible.

    American advocates for banning single-use plastic straws might be outraged at the widespread adoption of single-use hand sanitizer sachets in India. But the US and India are very different places, and it might be the only way out when you’re facing a pandemic without running water.

    According to today’s guest, Shruti Rajagopalan, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, context is key to policy. Back in April this prompted Shruti to propose a suite of policy responses designed for India specifically.

    Unfortunately she also thinks it’s surprisingly hard to know what one should and shouldn’t imitate from overseas.

    For instance, some places in India installed shared handwashing stations in bus stops and train stations, which is something no developed country would recommend. But in India, you can’t necessarily wash your hands at home — so shared faucets might be the lesser of two evils. (Though note scientists now regard hand hygiene as less central to controlling COVID-19.)

    Stay-at-home orders present a more serious example. Developing countries find themselves in a serious bind that rich countries do not.

    With nearly no slack in healthcare capacity, India lacks equipment to treat even a small number of COVID-19 patients. That suggests strict controls on movement and economic activity might be necessary to control the pandemic.

    But many people in India and elsewhere can’t afford to shelter in place for weeks, let alone months. And governments in poor countries may not have the resources to send everyone money for months — even where they have the infrastructure to do so fast enough.

    India did ultimately impose strict lockdowns, lasting almost 70 days, but the human toll has been larger than in rich countries, with a vast number of migratory workers stranded far from home with limited if any income support.

    There were no trains or buses, and the government made no provision to deal with the situation. Unable to afford rent where they were, many people had to walk hundreds of kilometers to reach home, often carrying their kids and life’s belongings.

    But in other ways the context of developing countries is more promising. In the US many people melted down when asked to wear facemasks. But in South Asia, people just wore them.

    Shruti isn’t sure if that’s because of existing challenges with high pollution, past experiences with pandemics, or because intergenerational living makes the wellbeing of the elderly more salient, but the end result is that masks weren’t politicised the way they were in the US.

    In addition, despite the suffering caused by India’s policy response to COVID-19, public support for the measures and the government remains high — and India’s population is much younger and so less affected by the virus.

    In this episode, Howie and Shruti explore the unique policy challenges facing India in its battle with COVID-19, what they’ve tried to do, and how it has performed.

    They also cover:

    • What an economist can bring to the table when studying pandemics
    • The mystery of India’s surprisingly low mortality rate
    • India’s strict lockdown, and the public’s reaction
    • Policies that should be implemented today
    • What makes a good constitution
    • Emergent Ventures

    Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

    Producer: Keiran Harris.
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
    Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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    Why I’ve come to think global priorities research is more important than I thought

    We’ve rated global priorities research (GPR) as one of our top priority areas for some time, but over the last couple of years I’ve come to see it as even more promising.

    The field of GPR is about rigorously investigating what the most important global problems are, how we should compare them, and what kinds of interventions best address them. For example, how to compare the relative importance of tackling global health vs. existential risks.

    It also considers questions such as how much weight to put on longtermism, or whether we should give now or later.

    I’d be keen to see more investment in the field, both in absolute terms and relative to the portfolio of effort within the effective altruism community.

    Here are some reasons why. Each reason is weak by itself, but taken together they’ve caused me to shift my views.

    Positive recent progress

    I think the Global Priorities Institute has made good progress, which makes me optimistic about further work.

    One form of work is putting existing ideas about global priorities on a firmer intellectual footing, of which I think Hilary Greaves and Will MacAskill’s strong longtermism paper is a great example. This kind of work is useful because it encourages the ideas to be taken seriously within academia, and also helps to uncover new flaws in them.

    Another form of work is aimed at directly changing the priorities of the effective altruism community or other altruists.

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    Misconceptions about effective altruism

    Effective altruism is widely misunderstood, even among its supporters.

    A recent paper – The Definition of Effective Altruism by Will MacAskill – lists some of the most common misconceptions. It’s aimed at academic philosophers, but works as a general summary.

    In short, effective altruism is commonly viewed as being about the moral obligation to donate as much money as possible to evidence-backed global poverty charities, or other measurable ways of making a short-term impact.

    In fact, effective altruism is not about any specific way of doing good.

    Rather, the core is idea is that some ways of contributing to the common good are far more effective than typical. In other words, ‘best’ is far better than ‘pretty good’, and that seeking out the best will let you have far more impact. (If I were writing a business book, I would say it’s the ’80/20 principle’ applied to doing good.)

    Insofar as people interested in effective altruism do in practice focus on specific ways of doing good, donating to global health charities is just one. As explained below, a majority focus on different issues, such as seeking to help future generations by reducing global catastrophic risks, or reducing animal suffering by ending factory farming.

    Moreover, they often do this by working on high-risk high-return projects rather than evidence-backed ones, and through research, policy-change and entrepreneurship rather than donations.

    What unites people interested in effective altruism is they pose the question – how can I best contribute with the time and money I’m willing to give?

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    The emerging school of patient longtermism

    One of the parts of effective altruism I’ve found most intellectually interesting recently is ‘patient longtermism’.

    This is a school of thinking that takes longtermism seriously, but combines that with the idea that we’re not facing an unusually urgent threat to the future, or another urgent opportunity to have a long-term impact. (We may still be facing threats to the future, but the idea is that they’re not more pressing today than the threats we’ll face down the line.)

    Broadly, patient longtermists argue that instead of focusing on reducing specific existential risks or working on AI alignment and so on today, we should expect that the crucial moment for longtermists to act lies in the future, and our main task today should be to prepare for that time.

    It’s not a new idea –- Benjamin Franklin was arguably a patient longtermist, and Robin Hanson was writing about it by 2011 — but there has been some interesting recent research.

    Three of the most prominent arguments relevant to patient longtermism recently have been made by three researchers in Oxford, who have now all been featured on our podcast (though these guests don’t all necessarily endorse patient longtermism overall):

    1. The argument that we’re not living at the most influential time ever (aka, the rejection of the ‘hinge of history hypothesis’) by Will MacAskill, written here and discussed on our podcast.
    2. The argument that we should focus on saving &

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    Ideas for high-impact careers beyond our priority paths

    Below we list some more career options beyond our priority paths that seem promising to us for positively influencing the long-term future.

    Some of these are likely to be written up as priority paths in the future, or wrapped into existing ones, but we haven’t written full profiles for them yet—for example policy careers outside AI and biosecurity policy that seem promising from a longtermist perspective.

    Others, like information security, we think might be as promising for many people as our priority paths, but because we haven’t investigated them much we’re still unsure.

    Still others seem like they’ll typically be less impactful than our priority paths for people who can succeed equally in either, but still seem high-impact to us and like they could be top options for a substantial number of people, depending on personal fit—for example research management.

    Finally some—like becoming a public intellectual—clearly have the potential for a lot of impact, but we can’t recommend them widely because they don’t have the capacity to absorb a large number of people, are particularly risky, or both.

    Who is best suited to pursue these paths? Of course the answer is different for each one, but in general pursuing a career where less research has been done on how to have a large impact within it—especially if few of your colleagues will share your perspective on how to think about impact—may require you to think especially critically and creatively about how you can do an unusual amount of good in that career.

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    Global issues beyond 80,000 Hours’ current priorities

    Here we list over 30 global issues beyond the ones we usually prioritize most highly in our work that you might consider focusing your career on tackling.

    Although we spend the majority of our time at 80,000 Hours on our highest priority problem areas, and we recommend working on them to many of our readers, these are just the most promising issues among those we’ve spent time investigating. There are many other global issues that we haven’t properly investigated, and which might be very promising for more people to work on.

    In fact, we think working on some of the issues listed below could be as high-impact for some people as working on our priority problem areas — though we haven’t looked into them enough to be confident.

    See our full article on different global problems for more explanation of our prioritization and advice on choosing an area to focus on. (The full article will also be kept updated as we learn more, whereas this blog post won’t be.)

    Potential highest priorities

    The following are some global issues that seem like they might be especially pressing from the perspective of improving the long-term future. We think these have a chance of being as pressing for people to work on as our priority problems, but we haven’t investigated them enough to know.

    Great power conflict

    A large violent conflict between major powers such as the US,

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    #83 – Jennifer Doleac on ways to prevent crime other than police and prisons

    …they randomly determined when officers would take the training… so it’s a really nice natural experiment. And they found that this one-day training program pretty dramatically reduced both complaints and use of force.

    Jennifer Doleac

    The killing of George Floyd has prompted a great deal of debate over whether the US should shrink its police departments. The research literature suggests that the presence of police officers does reduce crime, though they’re not cheap, and as is increasingly recognised, impose substantial harms on the populations they are meant to be protecting, especially communities of colour.

    So maybe we ought to shift our focus to unconventional but effective approaches to crime prevention — approaches that would shrink the need for police or prisons and the human toll they bring with them.

    Today’s guest, Jennifer Doleac — Associate Professor of Economics at Texas A&M University, and Director of the Justice Tech Lab — is an expert on empirical research into policing, law and incarceration. In this extensive interview, she highlights three alternative ways to effectively prevent crime: better street lighting, cognitive behavioral therapy, and lead abatement.

    One of Jennifer’s papers used the switch into and out of daylight saving time as a ‘natural experiment’ to measure the effect of light levels on crime. One day the sun sets at 5pm; the next day it sets at 6pm. When that evening hour is dark instead of light, robberies during it roughly double.

    The idea here is that if you try to rob someone in broad daylight, they might see you coming, and witnesses might later be able to identify you. You’re just more likely to get caught.

    You might think: “Well, people will just commit crime in the morning instead”. But it looks like criminals aren’t early risers, and that doesn’t happen.

    (Incidentally, a different experiment used the discontinuity in daylight savings time to quantify racial bias in police traffic stops.)

    While we can’t keep the sun out all day, just installing more streetlights might be one of the easiest ways to cut crime, without having to hassle or punish anyone.

    On her unusually rigorous podcast Probable Causation, Jennifer interviewed Aaron Chalfin, who studied what happened when very bright streetlights were randomly added to some public housing complexes but not others. His team found the lights reduced outside night-time crime by a massive 36%, even after taking account of possible displacement to other locations.

    The second approach is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in which you’re taught to slow down your decision-making and think through your assumptions before acting.

    One randomised controlled trial looked at schools and juvenile detention facilities in Chicago, and compared kids randomly assigned to receive CBT with those who weren’t. They found the CBT course reduced rearrest rates by a third, and lowered the likelihood of a child returning to a juvenile detention facility by 20%.

    Jennifer says the program isn’t that expensive, and its benefits are massive. Everyone would probably benefit from being able to talk through their problems and figure out why they make the decisions they do, but it might be especially helpful for people who’ve grown up with the trauma of violence in their lives.

    A somewhat similar study of one-day ‘procedural justice’ training sessions for police officers in Chicago found they reduced civilian complaints against police by 10%.

    Finally, Jennifer thinks that reducing lead levels might be the best buy of all in crime prevention.

    There is really compelling evidence that lead not only increases crime, but also dramatically reduces educational outcomes.

    In the US and other countries, there’s been a lengthy and mysterious drop in crime rates since the mid nineties, resulting in crime rates that are now just 25-50% of what they were in 1993.

    That drop coincided with gasoline being deleaded. Before that, exhaust from cars would spread lead all over the place. While there’s no conclusive evidence that this huge drop in crime was due to kids growing up in a less polluted environment, there is compelling evidence that lead exposure does increase crime.

    While average lead levels are much lower nowadays, some places still have shockingly high levels. Famously, Flint, Michigan still has major problems with lead in its water, but it’s far from the worst.

    Jennifer believes that lead affects people’s brains in such a negative way that driving exposure down even further would be extremely cost-effective for its crime-reduction benefits alone, even setting aside broader benefits to people’s health.

    In today’s conversation, Rob and Jennifer also cover, among many other things:

    • Misconduct, hiring practices and accountability among US police
    • Procedural justice training
    • Overrated policy ideas
    • Policies to try to reduce racial discrimination
    • The effects of DNA databases
    • Diversity in economics
    • The quality of social science research

    Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

    Producer: Keiran Harris.
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
    Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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    #82 – James Forman Jr on reducing the cruelty of the US criminal legal system

    …we have created the largest prison system in the world and some of the highest barriers to re-entry and re-employment for people when they get back out… There is no area of our criminal legal system I could point to and say, “We’re good here”.

    James Forman Jr

    No democracy has ever incarcerated as many people as the United States. To get its incarceration rate down to the global average, the US would have to release 3 in 4 people in its prisons today.

    The effects on Black Americans have been especially severe — Black people make up 12% of the US population but 33% of its prison population. In the early 2000s when incarceration reached its peak, the US government estimated that 32% of Black boys would go to prison at some point in their lives, 5.5 times the figure for whites.

    Contrary to popular understanding, nonviolent drug offenses account for less than one fifth of the incarcerated population. The only way to get its incarceration rate near the global average will be to shorten prison sentences for so-called ‘violent criminals’ — a politically toxic idea. But could we change that?

    According to today’s guest, Professor James Forman Jr — a former public defender in Washington DC, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, and now a professor at Yale Law School — there are two things we have to do to make that happen.

    First, he thinks we should lose the term ‘violent offender’, and maybe even ‘violent crime’. When you say ‘violent crime’, most people immediately think of murder and rape — but they’re only a small fraction of the crimes that the law deems as violent.

    In reality, the crime that puts the most people in prison in the US is robbery. And the law says that robbery is a violent crime whether a weapon is involved or not. By moving away from the catch-all category of ‘violent criminals’ we can judge the risk posed by individual people more sensibly.

    Second, he thinks we should embrace the restorative justice movement. Instead of asking “What was the law? Who broke it? What should the punishment be”, restorative justice asks “Who was harmed? Who harmed them? And what can we as a society, including the person who committed the harm, do to try to remedy that harm?”

    Instead of being narrowly focused on how many years people should spend in prison for the purpose of retribution, it starts a different conversation.

    You might think this apparently softer approach would be unsatisfying to victims of crime. But Forman has discovered that a lot of victims of crime find that the current system doesn’t help them in any meaningful way. What they want to know above all else is: why did this happen to me?

    The best way to find that out is to actually talk to the person who harmed them, and in doing so gain a better understanding of the underlying factors behind the crime. The restorative justice approach facilitates these conversations in a way the current system doesn’t, and can include restitution, apologies, and face-to-face reconciliation.

    The city of Washington DC has demonstrated another way to reduce the number of people incarcerated for violent crimes. They recently passed a law that gives anyone sentenced to more than 15 years in prison the right to return to court after those 15 years, show a judge all of the positive ways they’ve changed, and petition for a new sentence.

    They’ve also moved aggressively in a direction of bringing in restorative justice, with a focus on juvenile courts.

    So, although the road is hard, James does see examples of jurisdictions really trying to tackle the core of the problem of mass incarceration.

    That’s just one topic of many covered in today’s episode, with much of the conversation focusing on Forman’s 2018 book Locking Up Our Own — an examination of the historical origins of contemporary criminal legal practices in the US, and his experience setting up a charter school for at-risk youth in DC.

    Rob and James also discuss:

    • The biggest problems in policing and the criminal legal system today
    • How racism shaped the US criminal legal system
    • How Black America viewed policing through the 20th century
    • How class divisions fostered a ‘tough on crime’ approach
    • Important recent successes
    • How you can have a positive impact as a public prosecutor

    Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

    Producer: Keiran Harris.
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
    Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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