Why it’s a bad idea to break the rules, even if it’s for a good cause

…social norms have to be evaluated on the basis of their outcomes, like everything else. And that might prompt people to think that they should break norms and rules fairly frequently. But we wanted to push against that…

Stefan Schubert

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How honest should we be? How helpful? How friendly? If our society claims to value honesty, for instance, but in reality accepts an awful lot of lying – should we go along with those lax standards? Or, should we attempt to set a new norm for ourselves?

Dr Stefan Schubert, a researcher at the Social Behaviour and Ethics Lab at Oxford University, has been modelling this in the context of the effective altruism community. He thinks people trying to improve the world should hold themselves to very high standards of integrity, because their minor sins can impose major costs on the thousands of others who share their goals.

In addition, when a norm is uniquely important to our situation, we should be willing to question society and come up with something different and hopefully better.

But in other cases, we can be better off sticking with whatever our culture expects, both to save time, avoid making mistakes, and ensure others can predict our behaviour.

In this interview Stefan offers a range of views on the projects and culture that make up ‘effective altruism’ – including where it’s going right and where it’s going wrong.

Stefan did his PhD in formal epistemology, before moving on to a postdoc in political rationality at the London School of Economics, while working on advocacy projects to improve truthfulness among politicians. At the time the interview was recorded Stefan was a researcher at the Centre for Effective Altruism in Oxford.

We also discuss:

  • Should we trust our own judgement more than others’?
  • How hard is it to improve political discourse?
  • What should we make of well-respected academics writing articles that seem to be completely misinformed?
  • How is effective altruism (EA) changing? What might it be doing wrong?
  • How has Stefan’s view of EA changed?
  • Should EA get more involved in politics, or steer clear of it? Would it be a bad idea for a talented graduate to get involved in party politics?
  • How much should we cooperate with those with whom we have disagreements?
  • What good reasons are there to be inconsiderate?
  • Should effective altruism potentially focused on a more narrow range of problems?

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A machine learning alignment researcher on how to become a machine learning alignment researcher

The reason why I would recommend people get a machine learning PhD, if they’re in a position to do so, is that this is where we are currently the most talent constrained. So, at DeepMind, and for the technical AI safety team, we’d love to hire more people who have a machine learning PhD or equivalent experience, and just get them to work on AI safety.

Jan Leike

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Want to help steer the 21st century’s most transformative technology? First complete an undergrad degree in computer science and mathematics. Prioritize harder courses over easier ones. Publish at least one paper before you apply for a PhD. Find a supervisor who’ll have a lot of time for you. Go to the top conferences and meet your future colleagues. And finally, get yourself hired.

That’s Dr Jan Leike’s advice on how to join him as a Research Scientist at DeepMind, the world’s leading AI team.

Jan is also a Research Associate at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, and his research aims to make machine learning robustly beneficial. His current focus is getting AI systems to learn good objective functions in cases where we can’t easily specify the outcome we actually want.

How might you know you’re a good fit for this kind of research?

Jan says to check whether you get obsessed with puzzles and problems, and find yourself mulling over questions that nobody knows the answer to. To do research in a team you also have to be good at clearly and concisely explaining your new ideas to other people.

We also discuss:

  • Where do Jan’s views differ from those expressed by Dario Amodei in episode 3?
  • Why is AGI alignment one of the world’s most pressing problems?
  • Common misconceptions about artificial intelligence
  • What are some of the specific things DeepMind is researching?
  • The ways in which today’s AI systems can fail
  • What are the best techniques available today for teaching an AI the right objective function?
  • What’s it like to have some of the world’s greatest minds as coworkers?
  • Who should do empirical research and who should do theoretical research
  • What’s the DeepMind application process like?
  • The importance of researchers being comfortable with the unknown.

The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

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Yes, a career in commercial law has earning potential. We still don’t recommend it.

Going into law isn’t going out of style. Law ranks among the top five career options for students1 and is one of the most popular degree courses at undergraduate level.2What explains its persistent appeal? While people go into law for a number of reasons,3 many are motivated to make a difference through public interest and pro bono work.4

Law is also one of the highest paying professions, however, so working directly on social justice issues isn’t the only way you can do good as a lawyer. If you enjoy commercial work and can secure a place at a high-paying firm, you can also have an impact by donating some of your earnings to charity. We call this earning to give.

If you target your donations to highly effective charities, this could be just as high-impact as public interest law. Newly qualified lawyers at top-ranked firms can expect to earn upwards of £70,000. Donating 10% of this take-home pay5 would be enough to save somebody’s life by buying anti-malaria bednets.6 If you are one of the approximately 5% who makes partner, you could earn over £1m each year – enough to fund a whole team of researchers, advocates or non-profit entrepreneurs.

In this profile, we explore the pros and cons of law for earning to give. We focus on high-end commercial law – where the money is – and hope to discuss public interest law in a separate review. It’s based on the legal training and experience of the primary author of this profile, Natalie Cargill, as well as conversations with lawyers from a range of practice areas. We’ve also drawn on academic literature, surveys by the Law Society, and publicly-available salary data.

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A new recommended career path for effective altruists: China specialist

Last summer, China unveiled a plan to become the world leader in artificial intelligence, aiming to create a $150 billion industry by 2030.

“We must take initiative to firmly grasp this new stage of development for artificial intelligence and create a new competitive edge,” the country’s State Council said. The move symbolised the technological thrust of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” promoted by President Xi Jinping.

And it’s not just AI. China is becoming increasingly important in the solution of other global problems prioritised by the effective altruism community, including biosecurity, factory farming and nuclear security. But few in the community know much about the country, and coordination between Chinese and Western organisations seems like it could be improved a great deal.

This suggests that a high-impact career path could be to develop expertise in the intersection between China, effective altruism and pressing global issues. Once you’ve attained this expertise, you can use it to carry out research into global priorities or AI strategy; work in governments setting relevant areas of China-West policy, advise Western groups on how to work together with their Chinese counterparts, and other projects that we’ll sketch below…

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The non-profit that figured out how to massively cut suicide rates in Sri Lanka, and their plan to do the same around the world

…the suicide rate in Sri Lanka has dropped significantly. So, from 57 deaths per 100,000 population in ’95, it has dropped now to 17. This is a 70% reduction. So, it’s a very significant success, in fact the greatest decrease in suicide rate ever seen.

Dr Leah Utyasheva

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How people kill themselves varies enormously depending on what means are most easily available. In the United States, half of suicides are by firearm. In Hong Kong, where most people live in high rise buildings, half of suicides are by jumping from a height. And in some countries in Asia and Africa with large poor agricultural communities, the main method is drinking pesticide.

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of this issue before. And yet, of the 800,000 people who kill themselves globally each year – a staggering 20% die of pesticide self-poisoning.

The approach is shockingly lethal. When Europeans attempt to overdose on pills, the fatality rate is less than 1%. But for those with easy access to toxic pesticides the fatality rate is 40% to 70%.

Given that research suggests most people who try to kill themselves with pesticides reflect on the decision for less than 30 minutes – and that less than 10% of those who make an unsuccessful attempt will go on to try again – access to such sudden and lethal means of suicide is an enormous problem. And not only for the direct victims, but the partners and children they leave behind as well.

Fortunately researchers like Dr Leah Utyasheva have figured out a very cheap way to massively reduce pesticide suicide rates.

In 2016, Leah co-founded the first organisation focused on this problem – The Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention – which recently received an incubation grant from GiveWell. She’s a human rights expert and law reform specialist, and has participated in drafting legal aid, human rights, gender equality, and anti-discrimination legislation in various countries across Europe and Canada.

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The world’s most intellectual foundation is hiring. Holden Karnofsky, founder of GiveWell, on how philanthropy can have maximum impact by taking big risks.

…there’s this popular observation that once you become a philanthropist, you never again tell a bad joke… everyone wants to be on your good side. And I think that can be a very toxic environment…

Holden Karnofsky

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The Green Revolution averted mass famine during the 20th century. The contraceptive pill gave women unprecedented freedom in planning their own lives. Both are widely recognised as scientific breakthroughs that transformed the world. But few know that those breakthroughs only happened when they did because of two donors willing to take risky bets on new ideas.

Today’s guest, Holden Karnofsky, has been looking for philanthropy’s biggest success stories because he’s Executive Director of the Open Philanthropy Project, which gives away over $100 million per year – and he’s hungry for big wins.

As he learned, in the 1940s, poverty reduction overseas was not a big priority for many. But the Rockefeller Foundation decided to fund agricultural scientists to breed much better crops for the developing world – thereby massively increasing their food production.

Similarly in the 1950s, society was a long way from demanding effective birth control. Activist Margaret Sanger had the idea for the pill, and endocrinologist Gregory Pincus the research team – but they couldn’t proceed without a $40,000 research check from biologist and women’s rights activist Katherine McCormick.

In both cases, it was philanthropists rather than governments that led the way.

The reason, according to Holden, is that while governments have enormous resources, they’re constrained by only being able to fund reasonably sure bets. Philanthropists can transform the world by filling the gaps government leaves – but to seize that opportunity they have to hire the best researchers, think long-term and be willing to fail most of the time.

Holden knows more about this type of giving than almost anyone. As founder of GiveWell and then the Open Philanthropy Project, he has been working feverishly since 2007 to find outstanding giving opportunities. This practical experience has made him one of the most influential figures in the development of the school of thought that has come to be known as effective altruism.

We’ve recorded this episode now because the Open Philanthropy Project is hiring for a large number of positions, which we think would allow the right person to have a very large positive influence on the world. They’re looking for a large number of entry lever researchers to train up, 3 specialist researchers into potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence, as well as a Director of Operations, Operations Associate and General Counsel.

But the conversation goes well beyond specifics about these jobs. We also discuss:

  • How did they pick the problems they focus on, and how will they change over time?
  • What would Holden do differently if he were starting Open Phil again today?
  • What can we learn from the history of philanthropy?
  • What makes a good Program Officer.
  • The importance of not letting hype get ahead of the science in an emerging field.
  • The importance of honest feedback for philanthropists, and the difficulty getting it.
  • How do they decide what’s above the bar to fund, and when it’s better to hold onto the money?
  • How philanthropic funding can most influence politics.
  • What Holden would say to a new billionaire who wanted to give away most of their wealth.
  • Why Open Phil is building a research field around the safe development of artificial intelligence
  • Why they invested in OpenAI.
  • Academia’s faulty approach to answering practical questions.
  • What kind of people do and don’t thrive in Open Phil’s culture.
  • What potential utopias do people most want, according to opinion polls?

Keiran Harris helped produce today’s episode.

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Bruce Friedrich makes the case that inventing outstanding meat replacements is the most effective way to help animals

Well, you can perfectly replicate it. You can do better. … If you are going to go the conventional meat-making way, you are constrained by the biology of the animal. If you want to use plant-based meat … you can do taste tests and find things that people like even more…

Bruce Friedrich

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Before the US Civil War, it was easier for the North to morally oppose slavery. Why? Because unlike the South they weren’t profiting much from its existence. The fight for abolition was partly won because many no longer saw themselves as having a selfish stake in its continuation.

Bruce Friedrich, executive director of The Good Food Institute (GFI), thinks the same may be true in the fight against speciesism. 98% of people currently eat meat. But if eating meat stops being part of most people’s daily lives — it should be a lot easier to convince them that farming practices are just as cruel as they look, and that the suffering of these animals really matters.

That’s why GFI is “working with scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs” to create plant-based meat, dairy and eggs as well as clean meat alternatives to animal products. In 2016, Animal Charity Evaluators named GFI one of its recommended charities.

In this interview I’m joined by my colleague Natalie Cargill, and we ask Bruce about:

  • What’s the best meat replacement product out there right now?
  • How effective is meat substitute research for people who want to reduce animal suffering as much as possible?
  • When will we get our hands on clean meat? And why does Bruce call it clean meat, rather than in vitro meat or cultured meat?
  • What are the challenges of producing something structurally identical to meat?
  • Can clean meat be healthier than conventional meat?
  • Do plant-based alternatives have a better shot at success than clean meat?
  • Is there a concern that, even if the product is perfect, people still won’t eat it? Why might that happen?
  • What’s it like being a vegan in a family made up largely of hunters and meat-eaters?
  • What kind of pushback should be expected from the meat industry?

Keiran Harris helped produce today’s episode.

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.

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“It’s my job to worry about any way nukes could get used”

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Now we have more countries with nuclear weapons, we have major potential flashpoints. We also, even though we are not in the Cold War … you do have the possibility of some sort of miscalculation or accident…

Samantha Pitts-Kiefer

Rogue elements within a state’s security forces enrich dozens of kilograms of uranium. It’s then assembled into a crude nuclear bomb. The bomb is transported on a civilian aircraft to Washington D.C, and loaded onto a delivery truck. The truck is driven by an American citizen midway between the White House and the Capitol Building. The driver casually steps out of the vehicle, and detonates the weapon. There are more than 80,000 instant deaths. There are also at least 100,000 seriously wounded, with nowhere left to treat them.

It’s likely that one of those immediately killed would be Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, who works only one block away from the White House.

Samantha serves as Senior Director of The Global Nuclear Policy Program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and warns that the chances of a nuclear terrorist attack are alarmingly high. Terrorist groups have expressed a desire for nuclear weapons, and the material required to build those weapons is scattered throughout the world at a diverse range of sites – some of which lack the necessary security.

When you combine the massive death toll with the accompanying social panic and economic disruption – a nuclear 9/11 would be unthinkably bad. And yet, Samantha reminds us, we must confront the possibility.

Clearly, this is far from the only nuclear nightmare. We also discuss:

  • In the case of nuclear war, what fraction of the world’s population would die?
  • What is the biggest nuclear threat?
  • How concerned should we be about North Korea?
  • How often has the world experienced nuclear near misses?
  • How might a conflict between India and Pakistan escalate to the nuclear level?
  • How quickly must a president make a decision in the result of a suspected first strike?
  • Are global sources of nuclear material safely secured?
  • What role does cyber security have in preventing nuclear disasters?
  • How can we improve relations between nuclear armed states?
  • What do you think about the campaign for complete nuclear disarmament?
  • If you could tell the US government to do three things, what are the key priorities today?
  • Is it practical to get members of congress to pay attention to nuclear risks?
  • Could modernisation of nuclear weapons actually make the world safer?

Keiran Harris helped produce today’s episode.

If you subscribe to The 80,000 Hours 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 (include the comma).

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Ofir Reich on using data science to end poverty and the spurious action/inaction distinction

If you subscribe to The 80,000 Hours 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 (include the comma).

Ofir Reich spent 6 years doing math in the military, before spending another 2 in tech startups – but then made a sharp turn to become a data scientist focussed on helping the global poor.

At UC Berkeley’s Center for Effective Global Action he helps prevent tax evasion by identifying fake companies in India, enable Afghanistan to pay its teachers electronically, and raise yields for Ethiopian farmers by messaging them when local conditions make it ideal to apply fertiliser. Or at least that’s the hope – he’s also working on ways to test whether those interventions actually work.

Why dedicate his life to helping the global poor? …

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Our descendants will probably see us as moral monsters. What should we do about that?

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Immanuel Kant is a profoundly influential figure in modern philosophy, and was one of the earliest proponents for universal democracy and international cooperation. He also thought that women have no place in civil society, that illegitimate children should receive fewer legal protections1, and that there was a ranking in the moral worth of different races.

Throughout history we’ve consistently believed, as common sense, truly horrifying things by today’s standards. According to University of Oxford Professor Will MacAskill, it’s extremely likely that we’re in the same boat today. If we accept that we’re probably making major moral errors, how should we proceed?

If our morality is tied to common sense intuitions, we’re probably just preserving these biases and moral errors. Instead we need to develop a moral view that criticises common sense intuitions, and gives us a chance to move beyond them. And if humanity is going to spread to the stars it could be worth dedicating hundreds or thousands of years to moral reflection, lest we spread our errors far and wide.

Will is an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Oxford University, author of Doing Good Better, and one of the co-founders of the effective altruism community. In this interview we discuss a wide range of topics:

  • How would we go about a ‘long reflection’ to fix our moral errors?
  • Will’s forthcoming book on how one should reason and act if you don’t know which moral theory is correct. What are the practical implications of so-called ‘moral uncertainty’?
  • If we basically solve existential risks, what does humanity do next?
  • What are some of Will’s most unusual philosophical positions?
  • What are the best arguments for and against utilitarianism?
  • Given disagreements among philosophers, how much should we believe the findings of philosophy as a field?
  • What are some the biases we should be aware of within academia?
  • What are some of the downsides of becoming a professor?
  • What are the merits of becoming a philosopher?
  • How does the media image of EA differ to the actual goals of the community?
  • What kinds of things would you like to see the EA community do differently?
  • How much should we explore potentially controversial ideas?
  • How focused should we be on diversity?
  • What are the best arguments against effective altruism?
    Keiran Harris helped produce today’s episode.

If you subscribe to The 80,000 Hours Podcast, you can listen at leisure on your phone, speed up the conversation if you like, and find out about future episodes. You can do so by searching for ‘80,000 Hours’ in your podcasting app (include the comma).

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Michelle hopes to shape the world by shaping the ideas of intellectuals. Will global priorities research succeed?

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast: search for 80,000 Hours wherever you get your podcasts.

In the 40s and 50s neoliberalism was a fringe movement within economics. But by the 80s it had become a dominant school of thought in public policy, and achieved major policy changes across the English speaking world. How did this happen?

In part because its leaders invested heavily in training academics to study and develop their ideas. Whether you think neoliberalism was good or bad, its history demonstrates the impact building a strong intellectual base within universities can have.

Dr Michelle Hutchinson is working to get a different set of ideas a hearing in academia by setting up the Global Priorities Institute (GPI) at Oxford University. The Institute, which is currently hiring for three roles, aims to bring together outstanding philosophers and economists to research how to most improve the world. The hope is that it will spark widespread academic engagement with effective altruist thinking, which will hone the ideas and help them gradually percolate into society more broadly.

Its research agenda includes questions like:

  • How do we compare the good done by focussing on really different types of causes?
  • How does saving lives actually affect the world relative to other things we could do?
  • What are the biggest wins governments should be focussed on getting?

Before moving to GPI,

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

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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?

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

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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?

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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?

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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?

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

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“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.

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

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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,

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

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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?

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

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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?

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Ending factory farming as soon as possible

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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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