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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The Schwarzman Scholarship: An exciting opportunity to learn more about China and get a Masters in Global Affairs

Co-authored with Helen Toner.

In general, living in a foreign country – for example, by studying there – is a great way to learn about the country, its language, people, and culture.

There’s one country in particular we think it would be very valuable for some of our readers to become knowledgable about: China. It’s the world’s largest country by population, and gets closer every year to being the largest global economy too. On the international stage, China is the probably world’s second most influential country. Its influence in economic, geopolitical, and cultural terms looks set to continue to grow throughout the course of the 21st century.

All of this means that China is likely to play a larger and larger role in all kinds of areas, including topics we care a great deal about, like factory farming, pandemic preparedness, preserving international peace and cooperation, and AI research. Being familiar with China is likely to provide unique and high-value opportunities to people working in those areas. What’s more, there aren’t yet many westerners with deep (or even passing) familiarity with China, which suggests that now is an especially valuable time to be learning more.

If you’d like to become knowledgable about China, there is a promising new way to do that: the Schwarzman Scholarship program.

Modelled on the Rhodes Scholarship, the Schwarzman Scholarship is targeted at high achieving students from around the world with an interest in leadership,

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Most people report believing it’s incredibly cheap to save lives in the developing world

One way that people can have a social impact with their career is to donate money to effective charities. We mention this path in our career guide, suggesting that people donate to evidence-backed charities such as the Against Malaria Foundation, which is estimated by GiveWell to save the lives of children in the developing world for around $7,500.

Alyssa Vance told me that many people may see this as highly ineffective relatively to their optimistic expectations about how much it costs to improve the lives of people in people. I thought the reverse would be true – folks would be skeptical that charities in the developing world were effective at all. Fortunately Amazon Mechanical Turk makes it straightforward to survey public opinion at a low cost, so there was no need for us to sit around speculating. I suggested a survey on this question to someone in the effective altruism community with a lot of experience using Mechanical Turk – Spencer Greenberg of Clearer Thinking – and he went ahead and conducted one in just a few hours.

You can work through the survey people took yourself here and we’ve put the data and some details about the method in a footnote. The results clearly vindicated Alyssa:

It turns out that most Americans believe a child can be prevented from dying of preventable diseases for very little –

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How accurately does anyone know the global distribution of income?

World income distributionHow much should you believe the numbers in figures like this?

People in the effective altruism community often refer to the global income distribution to make various points:

  • The richest people in the world are many times richer than the poor.
  • People earning professional salaries in countries like the US are usually in the top 5% of global earnings and fairly often in the top 1%. This gives them a disproportionate ability to improve the world.
  • Many people in the world live in serious absolute poverty, surviving on as little as one hundredth the income of the upper-middle class in the US.

Measuring the global income distribution is very difficult and experts who attempt to do so end up with different results. However, these core points are supported by every attempt to measure the global income distribution that we’ve seen so far.

The rest of this post will discuss the global income distribution data we’ve referred to, the uncertainty inherent in that data, and why we believe our bottom lines hold up anyway.

Will MacAskill had a striking illustration of global individual income distribution in his book Doing Good Better, that has ended up in many other articles online, including our own career guide:
 
 

 
The data in this graph was put together back in 2012 using an approach suggested by Branko Milanovic,

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5 reasons not to go into education

First published June 2015. Updated February 2017.

When we first speak to people interested in doing good with their careers, they often say they want to get involved in education in the US or the UK. This could mean donating to a school, doing education policy work, or becoming a teacher.

However, we haven’t prioritised careers in education at 80,000 Hours. We don’t dispute that education is a highly important problem – a more educated population could enable us to solve many other global challenges, as well as yield major economic benefits. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to be very easy to solve or neglected (important elements of our problem framework). So, it looks harder to have a large impact in education compared to many other areas. In the rest of this post, we’ll give five reasons why.

The following isn’t the result of in-depth research; it’s just meant to explain why we’ve deprioritised education so far. Our views could easily change. Note that in this post we’re not discussing education in the developing world.

1. It’s harder to help people in the US or UK

Everyone in the US or UK is rich by global standards: the poorest 5% of Americans are richer than the richest 5% of Indians (and that’s adjusted for the difference in purchasing power, see an explanation and the full data).

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The effective altruism guide to donating this giving season

People in the effective altruism community aim to use evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to best promote the wellbeing of all. To find the highest-impact charities this giving season, they’ve done tens of thousands of hours of research and published over 50,000 words of analysis this month. We read it all, and summed up the main recommendations by area.

But which of the 9 problem areas listed should you personally give to? We’ve got you covered here too. This tool asks you six questions and adjusts the ranking based on your beliefs:2

Quiz: Which problem should you give to? →

In the full post, you can find (i) how we came up with the list, (ii) more advice on how to narrow down the list, (iii) more information on each charity.

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80,000 Hours has a funding gap

Over the past three years, we’ve grown almost 36-fold, more than tripling each year. This is measured in terms of our key metric – the number of impact-adjusted significant plan changes each month. At the same time, our budget has only increased 27% per year.

Given this success, we think it’s time to take 80,000 Hours to the next level of funding.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be preparing our full annual review and fundraising documents, but here’s a preview.

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Overall, the 2017 target is to triple, measured in terms of impact-adjusted significant plan changes per month (which will mean over 3,000 over the year). We’ll do this by continuing to improve the advice, and starting to scale up marketing, with the aim of becoming the default source of career advice for talented, socially-motivated graduates.

Concretely, here’s some priorities we could pursue:

  • Dramatically improve the career reviews and problem profiles, so we have in-depth profiles of all the best options. This will help our existing users make better changes, and bring in more traffic.
  • Upgrading – develop mentors and specialist content for the most high-potential users, such as those who want to work on AI risk, policy, EA orgs and so on. We now have a large base of engaged users (1300+ through the workshop, 80,000+ on newsletter), so there’s a lot of follow-up we could do to get more valuable plan changes from them.

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How much is one vote worth?

Just 537 votes in Florida would have been enough to change the outcome of the 2000 election from George Bush to Al Gore – a margin of 0.009% (recount pictured above). And that wasn’t even the closest-won state that year: in New Mexico the margin was a mere 366 votes.

People say it’s your civic duty to vote, but it also seems like it’s very unlikely your vote will make a difference.

Who is right? Is voting really valuable, or a waste of time?

We looked into the research on this, especially regarding the US Presidential election. The answer, surprisingly, is that the single hour you spend voting for the President and Congress can be the most important thing you do with an hour each four years – and we expect similar numbers for other kinds of elections outside the USA. It also looks like there are effective techniques you can use to ‘get out the vote’, if you want to do more than just vote yourself.

The impact of your vote largely depends on 2 things, which we’ll investigate in turn:

  • The chances of your vote changing the election outcome.
  • How much better for the world as a whole one candidate is, compared to another.

At first blush it might seem that the chances of your single vote changing the election outcome are zero. But while the chances are low, they could be around 1 in 10 million if you live in a swing state.

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Should you work at GiveWell? Reflections from a recent employee.

The following are some reflections on what it’s like to work at GiveWell written by one of our readers. We’re posting their thoughts because we’ve written about GiveWell as a high-impact career in the past, and are keen to share more information about it. The opinions below, however, may not reflect our views.

I worked at GiveWell from August 2014 to May 2016. This piece is a reflection on my time there, on things I think GiveWell does well as an employer, on things I think it could do better, and why I decided to leave.

I envision two functions for this piece: (1) as an exercise to help me process my time at GiveWell, and (2) as a resource for people considering working at GiveWell. When I was considering taking a job at GiveWell, I found Nick Beckstead’s reflection on his internship at GiveWell to be very helpful. Outside of Nick’s piece, there isn’t very much substantive information available about working at GiveWell. Many people consider employment at GiveWell; I hope some of those people find this reflection to be useful.

Some background

I learned about GiveWell in Spring 2014, after reading Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality in a college ethics class and encountering related topics on the internet. By the time I took the ethics class, I knew that I did not want to go to graduate school immediately after my undergraduate, but I was very taken by academic ethics and wanted to continue serious thinking about the topic.

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Is deep work the most underappreciated skill for career success? An interview with Cal Newport.

Deep-WorkIn the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king – or so the saying goes. In his new book, Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that when it comes to deep concentration, we have become the land of the blind.

He believes that the ability to do focused work is essential for career success, but becoming increasingly rare. And the fewer people are capable of deep work, the more of an edge you should be able to get by being the exception.

We think Cal is one of the most interesting thinkers working on the issue of career strategy, so recommend you check it out. We interviewed Cal to learn more.

Quick summary of the book

Cal defines “deep work” as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”.

In his previous book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal argues it’s better to focus on gaining career capital rather than “following your passion” (we agree). Part one of Deep Work takes off where his previous book ends – he argues that deep work is essential to gaining valuable career capital. In short:

  • Deep work is increasingly valuable in the modern economy because it’s what allows you to master new intellectual skills and produce creative breakthroughs. People able to do both of these can take work that’s unlikely to be automated and reach the top of their fields,

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Maria Gutierrez on doing good through art, Costa Rica and why 80,000 Hours changed her career

This week I interviewed Maria Gutierrez to learn more about how 80,000 Hours had changed her career plans. For the last year Maria has been our freelance graphic designer, producing most of the artwork on our site today.

I sped up the recording so it is quick to listen to:

Summary of the interview

  • In 2014 Maria had a general desire to improve the world, but no idea how to put that into practice. She didn’t see any way to do useful work while using her creative skills and was frustrated by this.
  • She stumbled onto 80,000 Hours and effective altruism while browsing the internet, and its ‘honesty’ immediately resonated with her. It provided a much more concrete way to assess what would actually be useful to do than she previously had. It was the first time she had considered ‘earning to give’ as a way to do good.
  • She realised that she could do a lot of good by using her artistic skills to contribute to any organisation that does exceptional work. She decided to make her first contribution by working for us.
  • Maria decided to move back to Costa Rica to dramatically lower her cost of living, and thereby be able to donate more. This is possible because all the work she does is online for groups in the US and UK. She recommends other people think about doing the same thing, and we suggest some careers that are particularly promising for remote work.
  • We discuss how the 80,000 Hours framework can be applied to others in the creative arts, and challenge the view that such skills are not valuable.
  • Long term, Maria is weighing up earning to give as a fine artist, against doing ‘direct work’ as a designer for non-profits or for-profits that she thinks are having a large social impact.
  • This raises tricky issues about personal fit, and which sacrifice she is willing to make and which she isn’t. Maria doesn’t think she could be happy without being challenged artistically. She also thinks she would burn out doing pure marketing.
  • Finally, we discuss RISE (Red de Impacto Sustenible y Effectivo), en effective altruism inspired organistion for Costa Rica, which she intends to launch with a friend. Maria explains why she doesn’t want to take donations away from charities that work in countries poorer than Costa Rica.

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Rule-breaking in children predicts future success

A paper was recently released looking into which personality factors in childhood predict success in education and work. The study followed participants over a 40 year period and attempted to control for intelligence and socioeconomic background. Much of it is exactly what you would expect. But here are some quotes that are more surprising (emphases ours). Note of course that the result has not yet been replicated:

In general, we found significant relations for childhood IQ and SES [socioeconomic status] with educational attainment that is in line with the sociological and psychological models (see Blau & Duncan, 1967; Eccles, 2005). As there is much previous research on the validity of these predictors for educational success (e.g., Gottfredson, 2002; Gustafsson & Undheim, 1996; Kuncel et al., 2004), we will focus our discussion on student characteristics and behaviors.

Educational attainment was best predicted by defiance of parental authority, [lack of] sense of inferiority, and teacher-rated studiousness. The effects were still significant after including IQ and parental SES as predictors.

First, students with high rule breaking and defiance of parental authority might be more competitive in the school context and more visible in interactions in the classroom. This might lead to at least higher oral grades compared with students with lower levels of rule breaking and defiance and to more demanding and encouraging teacher behavior. Rosenbaum (2001) demonstrated that teachers used not only the students’ cognitive abilities to determine grades but also students’ noncognitive behaviors.

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10 steps to a job in politics

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Sacia B and Hugh T speak to Maria A while campaigning for the Greens in Canada.

I recently interviewed 4 people who work in government, the civil service, and political parties in the UK. Here is a synthesis of the steps they consider most useful for starting a career in politics.

Net-work to get-work. Go to as many political and think tank events as you can. Talk to people. Ask advice. Make friends.

Copy your heroes. Read biographies of people whose careers/impact you’d like to emulate. Copy what they did.

Be there. Physically spend time in the places you’d like to end up. That means visiting Parliament (you can sit and watch the Commons and Lords, and attend select committees). Have a drink at the Red Lion pub, where MPs and researchers hang out. Attend the annual Party Conference of your Party.

Enter the meme-space of the political class. Listen to the Radio 4 Today Programme every morning. (Have a break at weekends). How would you answer the interviewer’s questions? What questions would you ask? Watch Newsnight in the evening.

Apply for the Civil Service Fast Stream. It’s an amazing, underrated and potentially high-impact career. The assessment process in itself is good practice, and you’ll meet some cool people if you get through to the assessment center. If you don’t get in first time, keep trying.

Organise a meeting with your local MP.

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Just how bad is being a CEO in big tobacco?

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In 1994 the CEOs of the largest tobacco companies all testified before congress that they thought nicotine was not addictive and were widely mocked. How much were they paid relative to the damage they were doing?

Last year I wrote about the most harmful careers and had encouraging smoking at the top. But how bad is it exactly?

Two researchers recently put together some data that can help us estimate this and the numbers are pretty remarkable.

They compared the number of deaths caused by a cigarette company with the amount the CEO was paid. For this they used market share in the cigarette industry as a proxy for harm, and the WHO’s old estimate that 5.6 million people die due to cigarettes each year – now up to 6 million.

Doing some calculations, it looks to me like across the companies they could track, which collectively make up 45% of the global market, CEOs are paid $23 for each premature death resulting from the existence of their firms.

Note that there are other moral and practical reasons not to take jobs that do harm, but here we will focus just on the direct damage caused.

The authors draw a comparison to the life-saving treatments available if these CEOs wanted to make up for their harmful work by donating to charity:

If it is assumed that all of the CEOs analyzed are attempting to maximize their income in order to give to charities to save lives [25],

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Is now the time to do something about AI?

Antique_mechanical_clock

The Open Philanthropy Project recently released a review of research on when human level artificial intelligence will be achieved. The main conclusion of the report was we’re really uncertain. But the author (Luke Muehlhauser, an expert in the area) also gave his 70% confidence interval: 10-120 years.

That’s a lot of uncertainty.

And that’s really worrying. This confidence interval suggests the author puts significant probability on human-level artificial intelligence (HLAI) occurring within 20 years. A survey of the top 100 most cited AI scientists also gave a 10% chance that HLAI is created within ten years (this was the median estimate; the mean was a 10% probability in the next 20 years).

This is like being told there’s a 10% chance aliens will arrive on the earth within the next 20 years.

Making sure this transition goes well could be the most important priority for the human race in the next century. (To read more, see Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence, and this popular introduction by Wait But Why).

We issued a note about AI risk just over a year ago when Bostrom’s book was released. Since then, the field has heated up dramatically.

In January 2014, Google bought Deepmind for $400m. This triggered a wave of investment into companies focused on building human-level AI. A new AI company seems to arrive every week.

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Even if we can’t lower catastrophic risks now, we should do something now so we can do more later

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Does that fit with your schedule Mr President?

A line of argument I frequently encounter is that it is too early to do anything about ‘global catastrophic risks’ today (these are also sometimes called ‘existential risks’).

For context, see our page on assessing the biggest problems in the world, evaluation of opportunities to lower catastrophic risks and our review of becoming an AI safety researcher.

This line of argument doesn’t apply so much to preventing the use of nuclear weapons, climate change, or containing disease pandemics – the potential to act on these today is about at the same level as it will be in the future.

But what about new technologies that don’t exist yet: artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, atomically precise manufacturing, and others we haven’t thought about yet? There’s a case that we should wait until they are closer to actually being developed – at that point we will have a much better idea of:

  • what form those technologies will take, if any at all;
  • what can be done to make them less risky;
  • who we need to talk to to make that happen.

Superficially this argument seems very reasonable. Each hour of work probably does get more valuable the closer you are to a ‘critical juncture in history’.

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Plan change story: from neuroscience academia to cost-effectiveness research

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Hauke did a PhD in Neuroscience and was planning to go into academia. But after reading our research, he changed his plans and applied to jobs in German politics, consulting, tech-startups and our parent organisation, the Centre for Effective Altruism. He’s now Director of Research at Giving What We Can, where he researches which charities most effectively alleviate extreme poverty.

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Lehua closed down her fundraising startup after reading our blog: plan change story

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Learning about ‘counterfactual analysis’ threw some puts on sunglasses cold water on Lehua’s startup idea.

Lehua Gray’s story is an interesting ‘significant plan change’ because she increased her social impact simply by realising what she was doing was not accomplishing anything when the true counterfactual was taken into account.

Lehua is an entrepreneur in Texas who studied environmental sciences but afterwards taught herself coding. In late 2014, along with two co-founders she had just met at the eBay Hackathon, she founded a company that offered charities an innovative fundraising platform and took a cut of the money raised. Her role in the startup was a combination of coding, UX and sales.

The team’s hope was to make the viral nature of the ‘ice-bucket challenge’ replicable. In their platform, someone would donate money to a charity, but it would only actually be delivered if, say, 3 friends who they nominated matched their donation. They might also be offered the option to do a public challenge on social media that would spread the fundraiser instead of donating the full amount, as in the ‘ice-bucket challenge’.

Over a period of 9 months they had built this platform and were improving it while some charities tested it out.

However, in the first half of 2015 Lehua started following me on Facebook and so started regularly encountering and reading new 80,000 Hours’ blog posts about how to have more social impact.

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Working at effective altruist organisations: good or bad for career capital?

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Working in effective altruism directly is a good way to build career capital in some respects, and a bad way in others. How about on balance?

Many people in our community are interested in working at “effective altruist” (EA) organisations, which I define as organisations whose leaders aim to do the most good on the basis of evidence and reason, and explicity identify as part of the effective altruism movement (see a list).

These jobs are often seen as higher-impact and more fulfilling than alternatives, but there’s a common worry: they’ll provide worse career capital, putting you in a worse position in the long-term.

I argued here that career capital might not be a strong enough consideration to outweigh the additional impact.

In this post, I’ll explore whether the career capital you get from working at EA orgs really is worse than the alternatives. I’ll outline arguments give for and against, arguing the career capital is better than is often assumed.

Arguments against working in effective altruist organisations for career capital
Less prestige

The jobs are less prestigious – few people have heard of organisations like GiveWell or the Center for Effective Altruism – and so these jobs don’t provide as impressive general-purpose credentials as working at a brand name employer like Google or McKinsey.

Less concrete career progression

The jobs don’t come with an obvious career path.

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Take the growth approach to evaluating startup non-profits, not the marginal approach

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In its first 2 years, Google made no revenue. Did this indicate it was a bad idea to invest or work there?

We spent the summer in Y Combinator, and one of the main things we learned about is how Y Combinator identifies the best startups. What we learned made me worry that many in the effective altruism community are taking the wrong approach to evaluating startup non-profits.

In summary, I’ll argue:

  1. There’s two broad approaches to assessing projects – the marginal cost-effectiveness approach and the growth approach.
  2. The community today often wrongly applies the marginal approach to fast growing startups.
  3. This means we’re supporting the wrong projects and not investing enough in growth.

At the end I’ll give some guidelines on how to use the growth approach to evaluate non-profits.

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