Prof Tetlock on predicting catastrophes, why keep your politics secret, and when experts know more than you

Prof Philip Tetlock is a social science legend. Over forty years he has researched whose forecasts we can trust, whose we can’t and why – and developed methods that allow all of us to be better at predicting the future.

After the Iraq WMDs fiasco, the US intelligence services hired him to figure out how to ensure they’d never screw up that badly again. The result of that work – Superforecasting – was a media sensation in 2015.

It described Tetlock’s Good Judgement Project, which found forecasting methods so accurate they beat everyone else in open competition, including thousands of people in the intelligence services with access to classified information.

Today he’s working to develop the best forecasting process ever by combining the best of human and machine intelligence in the Hybrid Forecasting Competition, which you can start participating in now to sharpen your own judgement.

In this interview we describe his key findings and then push to the edge of what’s known about how to foresee the unforeseeable:

  • Should people who want to be right just adopt the views of experts rather than apply their own judgement?
  • Why are Berkeley undergrads worse forecasters than dart-throwing chimps?
  • Should I keep my political views secret, so it will be easier to change them later?
  • How can listeners contribute to his latest cutting-edge research?
  • What do we know about our accuracy at predicting low-probability high-impact disasters?

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Why you should consider applying for grad school right now

Application deadlines for US PhD programs are coming up over the next month. We think many of our readers who are considering grad school at some point in the next few years should apply this year.

We’re writing this informal list of pros and cons now because a number of people we’ve coached recently have been more reluctant to apply for grad school than we think they should have been.

Why should they take the option seriously?

  • You have to plan far ahead of time. If you apply now you will only begin the program late next year. Even if you don’t feel ready to start a PhD today, you should consider whether you will be in a year’s time. If you aren’t sure, applying keeps that option open. We’ve spoken to many people considering grad school but thought they would work for a few years before returning, only to have their situation change and grad school seem like a much better option. Early in your career, your mind can change more often than you expect.
  • An increasing number of the paths we recommend, especially in research and policy, are much easier to pursue with a PhD. For example, if you want to work on improving our ability to control pandemics, the best options appear to be research (most likely in academia but perhaps also in the private sector), or policy reform (in think tanks, government agencies, congressional, or elsewhere). Some of the best roles are only open to people with PhDs.

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Going undercover to expose animal cruelty, get rabbit cages banned and reduce meat consumption

What if you knew that ducks were being killed with pitchforks? Rabbits dumped alive into containers? Or pigs being strangled with forklifts? Would you be willing to go undercover to expose the crime?

That’s a real question that confronts volunteers at Animal Equality (AE). In this episode we speak to Sharon Nunez and Jose Valle, who founded AE in 2006 and then grew it into a multi-million dollar international animal rights organisation. They’ve been chosen as one of the most effective animal protection orgs in the world by Animal Charity Evaluators for the last 3 consecutive years.

In addition to undercover investigations AE has also designed a 3D virtual-reality farm experience called iAnimal360. People get to experience being trapped in a cage – in a room designed to kill then – and can’t just look away. How big an impact is this having on users?

In this interview I’m joined by my colleague Natalie Cargill – Sharon Nuñez and Jose Valle also tackle:

  • How do they track their goals and metrics week to week?
  • How much does an undercover investigation cost?
  • Why don’t people donate more to factory farmed animals, given that they’re the vast majority of animals harmed directly by humans?
  • How risky is it to attempt to build a career in animal advocacy?
  • What led to a change in their focus from bullfighting in Spain to animal farming?
  • How does working with governments or corporate campaigns compare with early strategies like creating new vegans/vegetarians?

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What are the most important talent gaps in the effective altruism community?

What are the highest-impact opportunities in the effective altruism community right now? We surveyed leaders at 17 key organisations to learn more about what skills they need and how they would trade-off receiving donations against hiring good staff. It’s a more extensive and up-to-date version of the survey we did last year.

Below is a summary of the key numbers, a link to a presentation with all the results, a discussion of what these numbers mean, and at the bottom an appendix on how the survey was conducted and analysed.

We also report on two additional surveys about the key bottlenecks in the community, and the amount of donations expected to these organisations.

Key figures

Willingness to pay to bring forward hires

We asked how organisations would have to be compensated in donations for their last ‘junior hire’ or ‘senior hire’ to disappear and not do valuable work for a 3 year period:

Most needed skills

  • Decisions on who to hire most often turned on Good overall judgement about probabilities, what to do and what matters, General mental ability and Fit with the team (over and above being into EA).

Funding vs talent constraints

  • On a 0-4 scale EA organisations viewed themselves as 2.5 ‘talent constrained’ and 1.2 ‘funding constrained’, suggesting hiring remains the more significant limiting factor, though funding still does limit some.

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We can use science to end poverty faster. But how much do governments listen to it?

In both rich and poor countries, government policy is often based on no evidence at all and many programs don’t work. This has particularly harsh effects on the global poor – in some countries governments only spend $100 on each citizen a year so they can’t afford to waste a single dollar.

Enter MIT’s Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Since 2003 they’ve conducted experiments to figure out what policies actually help recipients, and then try to get them implemented by governments and non-profits.

Claire Walsh leads J-PAL’s Government Partnership Initiative, which works to evaluate policies and programs in collaboration with developing world governments, scale policies that have been shown to work, and generally promote a culture of evidence-based policymaking.

We discussed (her views only, not J-PAL’s):

  • How can they get evidence backed policies adopted? Do politicians in the developing world even care whether their programs actually work? Is the norm evidence-based policy, or policy-based evidence?
  • Is evidence-based policy an evidence-based strategy itself?
  • Which policies does she think would have a particularly large impact on human welfare relative to their cost?
  • How did she come to lead one of J-PAL’s departments at 29?
  • How do you evaluate the effectiveness of energy and environment programs (Walsh’s area of expertise), and what are the standout approaches in that area?
  • 80,000 Hours has warned people about the downsides of starting your career in a non-profit. Walsh started her career in a non-profit and has thrived,

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Dr Cameron fought Ebola for the White House. Now she works to stop something even worse.

“When you’re in the middle of a crisis and you have to ask for money, you’re already too late.”

That’s Dr. Beth Cameron, and she’s someone who should know. Beth runs Global Biological Policy and Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

She has years of experience preparing for and fighting the diseases of our nightmares, on the White House Ebola Taskforce, in the National Security Council staff, and as the senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs.

Unfortunately, the nations of the world aren’t prepared for a crisis – and like children crowded into daycare, there’s a real danger that something nasty will come along and make us all sick at once.

During previous pandemics, countries have dragged their feet over who will pay to contain them, or struggled to move people and supplies to where they needed to be. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think that the same wouldn’t happen again today. And at the same time, advances in biotechnology may make it possible for terrorists to bring back smallpox – or create something even worse.

In this interview we look at the current state of play in disease control, what needs to change, and how you can work towards a job where you can help make those changes yourself. Topics covered include:

  • The best strategies for containing pandemics.

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Our 20 most popular pieces of research

I recently wanted to see what content we’ve written in the past are still popular with readers. Our most visited pages are articles in our career guide, or tools like our career quiz, problem quiz and career decision tool, around which the site is designed. And of course anything that was released recently tends to attract a lot of readers. So let’s look at the others.

These are the pieces we’ve written that i) were most visited over the last three months, and ii) were written more than six months ago, iii) not a tool or part of our career guide. Enjoy!

  1. What are the 10 most harmful jobs?*
  2. Problem profile: Why Bill Gates and others are concerned about AI, and what to do about it

  3. To find work you love, don’t (always) follow your passion*

  4. Career review: Why an economics PhD might be the best graduate program

  5. Career review: If you want to change the world for the better, should you work in a think tank?

  6. Artificial Intelligence safety syllabus

  7. Which skills make you most employable?*

  8. Problem profile: Why helping to end factory farming could be the most important thing you could do

  9. Is global health the most pressing problem to work on?

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Speeding up social science 10-fold, how to do research that’s actually useful, & why plenty of startups cause harm

What is the best, state-of-the-art therapy for depression? Do most meat eaters think it’s wrong to hurt animals? How likely do Americans think climate change is to cause human extinction? How do we make academics more intellectually honest, so we can actually trust their findings? How can we speed up social science research 10-fold? Do most startups improve the world, or make it worse? Why is research in top journals less reliable?

If you’re interested in these questions, this interview is for you.

A scientist, entrepreneur, writer and mathematician, Spencer Greenberg is constantly working to create tools to speed up and improve research and critical thinking. These include:

  • Rapid public opinion surveys – which he has used to learn public opinion on animal consciousness, farm animal welfare, the impact of developing world charities and the likelihood of extinction by various different means;
  • Tools to enable social science research to be run en masse very cheaply by anyone;
  • ClearerThinking.org, a highly popular site for improving people’s judgement and decision-making;
  • Ways to transform data analysis methods to ensure that papers only show true findings;
  • Ways to decide which research projects are actually worth pursuing.

In this episode of the show, Spencer discusses all of these and more. If you don’t feel like listening, that just shows that you have poor judgement and need to benefit from his wisdom even more!

Enjoy:

If you subscribe to our podcast,

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Podcast: You want to do as much good as possible and have billions of dollars. What do you do?

What if you were in a position to give away billions of dollars to improve the world? What would you do with it? This is the problem facing Program Officers at the Open Philanthropy Project – people like Dr Nick Beckstead.

Following a PhD in philosophy, Nick works to figure out where money can do the most good. He’s been involved in major grants in a wide range of areas, including ending factory farming through technological innovation, safeguarding the world from advances in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, and spreading rational compassion.

This episode is a tour through some of the toughest questions ‘effective altruists’ face when figuring out how to best improve the world, including:

  • Should we mostly try to help people currently alive, or future generations? Nick studied this question for years in his PhD thesis, On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future. (The first 31 minutes is a snappier version of my conversation with Toby Ord.)
  • Is clean meat (aka in vitro meat) technologically feasible any time soon, or should we be looking for plant-based alternatives?
  • To stop malaria is it more cost-effective to use technology to eliminate mosquitos than to distribute bed nets?
  • What are the greatest risks to human civilisation continuing?
  • Should people who want to improve the future work for changes that will be very useful in a specific scenario,

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New problem profile: Improving institutional decision-making

A few weeks ago we released a new problem profile focussed on improving decision-making in major societal institutions:

When powerful people make dumb choices it hurts us all. Here’s how to fix it.

In 2003, the United States chose to invade Iraq. Most now agree this decision was deeply flawed, costing trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.

Exactly what went wrong here is a contested and controversial issue. At best, the decision-making process severely lacked rigour, and at worst, it was heavily biased.

The government justified the invasion thanks to the intelligence community’s claim that it was “highly probable” that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) – but this statement was ambiguous. Policymakers took that to indicate near-100% certainty, and made decisions accordingly.1 But “highly probable” could easily also be interpreted as 80% certainty, or 70% – carrying very different practical implications. Those involved didn’t really think through the relevant probabilities, or consider how likely the estimates were to be wrong, or the implications if they were.

Others have suggested that the US had already decided to invade Iraq, and that this decision influenced intelligence collection – not the other way around. This a particularly extreme example of what’s known as motivated reasoning – a tendency to reason in ways that support whatever conclusion one wants to be true.

The call to invade hinged on the subjective impressions of a few key people – subjective impressions that later turned out to be wrong,

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New career review: Policy-oriented civil service (with a UK focus)

We have a new career review focussed on government jobs developing policy, with a focus on the UK:

Working in the government you can have a big impact on pressing global problems. Here’s how to get started.

On the Sunday after Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, Tony Blair rang Alan Milburn to tell him he was going to be a minister in the Department of Health. Blair said: ‘We haven’t got a health policy. Your job is to get us one.’1

Milburn ‘was hungry for ideas’1 and met with a civil servant: Graham Winyard, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer. According to Winyard, this meeting was where the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) was born.1 NICE helps the National Health Service decide which treatments are evidence-based and cost-effective.

Although its approach is controversial,2 NICE is seen internationally as a role model for how to make evidence-based decisions about health spending.3 The editor of the British Medical Journal described it as ‘conquering the world’ and thought it might ‘prove to be one of Britain’s greatest cultural exports’.4

What if you could have this kind of impact?

There are civil servants working on some of the world’s most urgent problems, from how to prevent nuclear proliferation to encouraging economic growth in the developing world. Like Winyard, they often have opportunities to play a central role in solving these problems.

In this profile we cover why it’s possible to have a significant impact as a civil servant,

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The space colonisation and nanotech focussed Silicon Valley community of the 70s and 80s

One tricky thing about lengthy podcasts is that you cover a dozen issues, but when you give the episode a title you only get to tell people about one. With Christine Peterson’s interview I went with a computer security angle, which turned out to not be that viral a topic. But people who listened to the episode kept telling me how much they loved it. So I’m going to try publishing the interview in pieces, each focussed on a single theme we covered.

Christine Peterson co-founded the Foresight Institute in the 90s. In the lightly edited transcript below we talk about a community she was part of in her youth, whose idealistic ambition bears some similarity to effective altruism today. We also cover a controversy from that time about whether nanotechnology would change the world or was impossible. Finally we think about what lessons we can learn from that whole era.

If you subscribe to our podcast, you can listen at leisure on your phone, speed up the conversation if you like, and get notified about future episodes. You can do so by searching ‘80,000 Hours’ wherever you get your podcasts (RSS, SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher).

The community that dreamed of space settlement and atomic factories

Robert Wiblin: Tell us a bit about how you ended up where you are today.

Christine Peterson: Wow. When I was growing up,

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Our computers are fundamentally insecure. Here’s why that could lead to global catastrophe.

Take a trip to Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s, when going to space sounded like a good way to get around environmental limits, people started cryogenically freezing themselves, and nanotechnology looked like it might revolutionise industry – or turn us all into grey goo.

In this episode of the 80,000 Hours Podcast Christine Peterson takes us back to her youth in the Bay Area, the ideas she encountered there, and what the dreamers she met did as they grew up. We also discuss how she came up with the term ‘open source software’ (and how she had to get someone else to propose it).

Today Christine helps runs the Foresight Institute, which fills a gap left by for-profit technology companies – predicting how new revolutionary technologies could go wrong, and ensuring we steer clear of the downsides.

We dive into:

  • Can technology ‘move fast and break things’ without eventually breaking the world? Would it be better for technology to advance more quickly, or more slowly?
  • Whether the poor security of computer systems poses a catastrophic risk for the world.
  • Could all our essential services be taken down at once? And if so, what can be done about it? Christine makes a radical proposal for solving the problem.
  • Will AIs designed for wide-scale automated hacking make computers more or less secure?
  • Would it be good to radically extend human lifespan?

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Ending factory farming as soon as possible

Every year tens of billions of animals are raised in terrible conditions in factory farms before being killed for human consumption. Despite the enormous scale of suffering this causes, the issue is largely neglected, with only about $50 million dollars spent each year tackling the problem globally.

Over the last two years Lewis Bollard – Project Officer for Farm Animal Welfare at the Open Philanthropy Project – has conducted extensive research into the best ways to eliminate animal suffering in farms as soon as possible.

This has resulted in $30 million in grants, making the Open Philanthropy Project one of the largest funders in the area.

Our conversation covers almost every approach being taken, which ones work, how individuals can best contribute through their careers, as well as:

  • How young people can set themselves up to contribute to scientific research into meat alternatives
  • How genetic manipulation of chickens has caused them to suffer much more than their ancestors, but could also be used to make them better off
  • Why Lewis is skeptical of vegan advocacy
  • Open Phil’s grants to improve animal welfare in China, India and South America
  • Why Lewis thinks insect farming would be worse than the status quo, and whether we should look for ‘humane’ insecticides
  • Why Lewis doubts that much can be done to tackle factory farming through legal advocacy or electoral politics
  • Which species of farm animals is best to focus on first
  • Whether fish and crustaceans are conscious,

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Is it time for a new scientific revolution? Julia Galef on how to make humans smarter, why Twitter isn’t all bad, and where effective altruism is going wrong

The scientific revolution in the 16th century was one of the biggest societal shifts in human history, driven by the discovery of new and better methods of figuring out who was right and who was wrong.

Julia Galef – a well-known writer and researcher focused on improving human judgment, especially about high stakes questions – believes that if we could develop new techniques to resolve disagreements, predict the future and make sound decisions together, we could again dramatically improve the world. We brought her in to talk about her ideas.

Julia has hosted the Rationally Speaking podcast since 2010, co-founded the Center for Applied Rationality in 2012, and is currently working for the Open Philanthropy Project on an investigation of expert disagreements.

This interview complements a new detailed review of whether and how to follow Julia’s career path

We ended up speaking about a wide range of topics, including:

  • Her research on how people can have productive intellectual disagreements.
  • Why she once planned on becoming an urban designer.
  • Why she doubts people are more rational than 200 years ago.
  • What the effective altruism community is doing wrong.
  • What makes her a fan of Twitter (while I think it’s dystopian).
  • Whether more people should write books.
  • Whether it’s a good idea to run a podcast, and how she grew her audience.
  • Why saying you don’t believe X often won’t convince people you don’t.

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How Alex GB earned millions for charity within years by working in quant trading

Quantitative financial trading is one of the highest paying parts of the world’s highest paying industry. 25 to 30 year olds with outstanding maths skills can earn millions a year in an obscure set of ‘quant trading’ firms, where they program computers with predefined algorithms to trade very quickly and effectively.

This makes it an attractive workplace for people who want to ‘earn to give’, and we know several people who are able to donate over a million dollars a year to effective charities by working in quant trading. Who are these people? What is the job like? And is there a risk that their trading work directly harms the world?

To learn about all this I spoke at length with Alexander Gordon-Brown, who has worked as a quant trader in London for the last three and a half years and donated hundreds of thousands of pounds. We covered:

  • What quant traders do and how much they earn;
  • Whether their work is beneficial or harmful for the world;
  • How to figure out if you’re a good fit for quant trading, and if so how to break into the industry;
  • Whether Alex enjoys the work and finds it motivating, as well as what alternatives careers he considered;
  • What variety of positions are on offer in quant trading, and what the culture is like in the various firms;
  • How he decides where to donate, and whether he has persuaded his colleagues to join him in becoming major philanthropists.

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Podcast: We aren’t that worried about the next pandemic. Here’s why we should be – and specifically what we can do to stop it.

What natural disaster is most likely to kill more than 10 million human beings in the next 20 years?

Terrorism? Famine? An asteroid?

Actually it’s probably a pandemic: a deadly new disease that spreads out of control. We’ve recently seen the risks with Ebola and swine flu, but they pale in comparison to the Spanish flu which killed 3% of the world’s population in 1918 to 1920. If a pandemic of that scale happened again today, 200 million would die.

Looking back further, the Black Death killed 30 to 60% of Europe’s population, which would today be two to four billion globally.

The world is woefully unprepared to deal with new diseases. Many countries have weak or non-existent health services. Diseases can spread worldwide in days due to air travel. And international efforts to limit the spread of new diseases are slow, if they happen at all.

Even more worryingly, scientific advances are making it easier to create diseases much worse than anything nature could throw at us – whether by accident or deliberately.

In this in-depth interview I speak to Howie Lempel, who spent years studying pandemic preparedness for the Open Philanthropy Project. We spend the first 20 minutes covering his work as a foundation grant-maker, then discuss how bad the pandemic problem is, why it’s probably getting worse, and what can be done about it. In the second half of the interview we go through what you personally could study and where you could work to tackle one of the worst threats facing humanity.

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Podcast: How to train for a job developing AI at OpenAI or DeepMind

Just two years ago OpenAI didn’t exist. It’s now among the most elite groups of machine learning researchers. They’re trying to make an AI that’s smarter than humans and have $1b at their disposal.

Even stranger for a Silicon Valley start-up, it’s not a business, but rather a non-profit founded by Elon Musk and Sam Altman among others, to ensure the benefits of AI are distributed broadly to all of society.

I did a long interview with one of its first machine learning researchers, Dr Dario Amodei, to learn about:

  • OpenAI’s latest plans and research progress.
  • His paper Concrete Problems in AI Safety, which outlines five specific ways machine learning algorithms can act in dangerous ways their designers don’t intend – something OpenAI has to work to avoid.
  • How listeners can best go about pursuing a career in machine learning and AI development themselves.

We suggest subscribing, so you can listen at leisure on your phone, speed up the conversation if you like, and get notified about future episodes. You can subscribe by searching ‘80,000 Hours’ wherever you get your podcasts (RSS, SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher).

The audio, summary, extra resources and full transcript are below.

Overview of the discussion

1m33s – What OpenAI is doing, Dario’s research and why AI is so important
15m50s –

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Which professions are paid too much given their value to society?

Many jobs have spillover effects on the rest of society. For instance, the value of new treatments discovered by biomedical researchers is far greater than what they or their employers get paid, so they have positive spillovers. Other jobs have negative spillovers, such as those that generate pollution.

A forthcoming paper, by economists at UPenn and Yale, reports a survey of the economic literature on these spillover benefits for the 11 highest-earning professions.

There’s very little literature, so all these estimates are very, very uncertain, and should be not be taken literally. But it’s interesting reading – it represents a survey of what economists think they know about this topic, and it’s surprisingly little.

Here are the bottom lines – see more detail on the estimates below. (Note that we already discussed an older version of this paper, but the estimates have been updated since then.)

We calculated mean income for 2005 in an earlier article. We increased income by 30% to account for nominal wage growth since then.

The paper uses the expressions spillover and ‘externality’. An ‘externality’ is a technical term for a ‘cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.’ The authors of the paper call it an ‘externality’ when someone who buys a service does (or does not) benefit after taking account of the cost of purchasing it. This is a nonstandard usage,

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Podcast: Prof David Spiegelhalter on risk, statistics and improving the public understanding of science

My colleague Jess Whittlestone and I spoke with Prof David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge.

Prof Spiegelhalter tries to help people prioritise and respond to the many hazards we face, like getting cancer or dying in a car crash. To make the vagaries of life more intuitive he has had to invent concepts like the microlife, or a 30-minute change in life expectancy. He’s regularly in the UK media explaining the numbers that appear in the news, trying to assist both ordinary people and politicians to make sensible decisions based in the best evidence available.

We wanted to learn whether he thought a lifetime of work communicating science had actually had much impact on the world, and what advice he might have for people planning their careers today.

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or by searching 80,000 Hours wherever you get your podcasts. Links and a transcript are below.

“…What do we hear in the news? We hear about Ebola, we hear about terrorism, we hear about the latest threat that might be in what we eat and the way we travel, and we get very concerned about this, whether it’s a plane crash or whatever. Because that’s what’s in the news, that’s what is available to us. That’s what’s so prominent, but of course, so many of these risks are actually very small indeed…

What I am proud of is being part of a general community that’s very strong in Britain, to do with public engagement in science, which I’m just a small part of that because it covers material on the radio, stuff on television, stuff in some newspapers, and in various agencies. For example, in Statistics Authority, which is just trying to take a much more critical attitude to the way that numbers and evidence are used in society. I think it works. In Britain, we’re rather good compared with most people about, I don’t know, we don’t have these massive fears of vaccinations and nuclear power, of even GMOs. I think this is a sign that we in this country have developed quite a good public engagement with science community.”

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