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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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The return to coding bootcamps may not remain so high forever

We have been positive about learning to code as a way to gain useful skills for earning to give or doing directly valuable work, and promoted software engineering as a career path.

We are not the only ones who have noticed that this is a pretty great opportunity. From the LinkedIn blog:

Technical talent is in high demand. As of publishing this post, a LinkedIn job search for “Software Engineers” in the US reveals more than 100,000 open jobs. Adding a couple more tech-related roles (“User Designer,” “Data Scientist”) increases the total to more than 200,000 job openings. Job seekers looking to meet job requirements can enroll in a Master’s degree program, but that comes with a 2-year opportunity cost. Now, a shorter path is emerging: fully immersive coding bootcamps.

Coding bootcamps typically last 6-12 weeks and require participants to show up to a class in person. Bootcamps are a relatively new model, but they’re a growing trend that could help close the skills gap. Tapping into the Economic Graph, we compiled aggregated data on over 150 bootcamp programs and more than 25,000 LinkedIn members who have indicated they are attending or have attended bootcamps to identify emerging trends.

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Will effective altruism destroy the arts? No.

158300A recent article on the Washington Post expressed concern that the growth of effective altruism could seriously reduce funding for the arts. It even mentions that the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation recently decided to focus 100% on funding the arts and culture, in part because “philanthropy, directly or indirectly influenced by the effective altruist approach, is increasingly focused on problems perceived as more pressing”.

This was astonishing to me.

Here’s why effective altruism is not going to destroy the arts.

1) Only a couple of percent of American philanthropy is influenced by effective altruism, and it’s not taking funding from the arts.

Explicitly “effective altruist” giving is well under $100m per year, only 0.03% of the total Americans give to charity each year.

If we look more broadly to giving that has an effective altruist style, even if it doesn’t explicitly use the label, the Gates Foundation is the largest proponent. But the Gates Foundation spends about $4bn per year, only 1% of the total Americans give to charity each year.

It seems hard to claim that more than a couple of percent of American philanthropy is even remotely influenced by effective altruism. One study found that only 3% of American donors give based on the relative performance of the nonprofits they donate to. Only 4% of total American giving even goes to international causes,

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Is wealth inequality so extreme that it’s OK to be a ruthless trader?

U.S._Distribution_of_Wealth,_2007Wealth inequality globally is incredibly high. Perversely, this can be an argument in favour of working in finance.

Many people are concerned that ‘earning to give’ in the financial industry is overall harmful for the world, even if you give away most of your income to outstanding charities.

To figure out if this is true, we have been researching the size of the harms, and benefits, caused by finance. (Though please note 80,000 Hours is not just about earning to give and in fact we think it’s the best path for only a small share of our readers.)

One of the concerns we’ve investigated is that certain parts of quantitative finance are a socially-useless competition between traders that only changes who gets some amount of income, not that someone gets it. I think this is the case, but the incredible amount of inequality in the world makes this argument against working in finance fairly weak.

If you are working in ‘low-latency arbitrage’, make a random clever trade on a stock exchange and beat some other trader to a profit by 1 millisecond, whose pocket is this money coming from? A poor African farmer? No, they have no wealth to take. A middle class American family? It’s possible, but most of their wealth, if they have any, is probably in their house or bank account.

We don’t have perfect figures here, but looking at reasonable estimates,

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Effective altruists love systemic change

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Effective altruists are out working every day to fix society’s systemic problems. It’s time to definitely rebut the claim that we don’t care about systemic change.

Yesterday we put to rest the idea that 80,000 Hours, and effective altruists more generally, are only enthusiastic about ‘earning to give’. While some people should earn to give, we expect the right share is under 20%, and think that ‘earning to give’ is now more popular among the people who follow our advice than it ideally would be.

Today I want to put to rest another common misunderstanding about effective altruism and 80,000 Hours: that we are against systemic change.1

Despite being the most widespread critique of effective altruism, the idea is bizarre on its face. We are pragmatists at heart, and always looking for any ways to more effectively make the world a better place.

Why couldn’t pursuing broad-scale legal, cultural or political changes be the most effective approach to making the world a better place? The answer is simply that they could!

So there is nothing in principle about the idea of maximising the social impact of your work that rules out, or even discourages, seeking systemic change.

What about in practice, though? Here are some systemic changes people who identify as effective altruists are working on today:

  • Most of the recent Open Philanthropy Project research and grants, on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, macroeconomics, and international development, are all clearly focussed on huge structural changes of various kinds.
  • The OpenBorders.info website also researches and promotes the option of dramatic increases in migration from poor to rich countries.
  • A new startup called EA Policy, recommended for support by my colleagues at EA Ventures, is trialling making submissions to open policy forums held by the US government over this summer.
  • Our colleagues at the Global Priorities Project research the most important policy priorities for governments, and how they can establish better cost-benefit and decision-making processes.
  • One of GiveWell’s main goals from the beginning, perhaps it’s primary goal, has been to change the cultural norms within non-profits, and the standards by which they are judged by donors. They wanted to make it necessary for charities to be transparent with donors, and run projects that actually helped recipients. They have already significantly changed the conversation around charitable giving.
  • Giving What We Can representatives have met with people in the UK government about options for improving aid effectiveness. One of the first things I wrote when employed by Giving What We Can was about appropriate use of discounts rates by governments thinking about health services. Until recently one Giving What We Can member, who we know well, was working at the UK’s aid agency DfID.
  • Some 80,000 Hours alumni, most of whom unfortunately would rather remain anonymous, are going into politics, think-tanks, setting up a labour mobility organisations or businesses that facilitate remittance flows.
  • Several organisations focussed on existential risk (FHI, CSER and FLI jump to mind) take a big interest in government policies, especially those around the regulation of new technologies, or institutions that can improve inter-state cooperation and preclude conflict.
  • 80,000 Hours alumni and effective altruist charities work on or donate to lobbying efforts on animal welfare, such as Humane Society US-FARM, or are activists working for dramatic society-wide changes in how humans view the moral importance of non-human animals.

It looks to me like it’s more accurate to say that effective altruists <3 systemic change.

We’re not done though.

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I want to make a difference. Should I become a philosopher?

To most people, this question sounds like a joke. I think that’s the wrong reaction. (Full career profile on philosophy PhDs here)

I think research into philosophy (certainly, at least, moral philosophy, and some other areas in political philosophy, epistemology and decision theory), is potentially extremely valuable. The impact of philosophy on the world seems to me to have been vast. Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine shaped much of Christian ethics. Locke heavily influenced the American constitution. Peter Singer helped give rise to both the animal welfare movement and to the effective altruism community, and Nick Bostrom has catalyzed concern for existential risks, in particular risks from artificial intelligence. If you include aspects of the Bible (such as the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule), the writings of Budda and the writings of Confucius as philosophy, as I think you should, then most people for most of civilization have had large chunks of their lives shaped by the philosophical views of the time…

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How to start a career in technology (even if you studied art)

80,000 Hours: Oxford recently hosted a panel on tech careers, co-hosted with Codelaborate, featuring four people who did arts degrees but ended up working in tech and loving their jobs.

The panel included:

  • Matt Clifford – studied Ancient History at Cambridge before doing a degree at MIT, worked in strategy consulting but quit to start Entrepreneur First
  • Jackson Gabbard – studied English at a small college in the US but was one of the first engineers at Facebook London
  • Nabeel Qureshi – studied PPE at Oxford, worked in consultancy but now works at startup GoCardless
  • Steven Shingler – studied double bass at the Royal College of Music in London, but now works at Google as an engineer.

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Should you move to Thailand?

Chiang Mai Coffee Shop
Chiang Mai Coffee Shop. Credit: Spartantraveler.com

By moving to Thailand, you can cut your cost of living by two to six times, and probably have a higher standard of living than you would have in a big city in the US or UK. NomadList currently estimates that you can live in Chiang Mai for only £400 per month, and flights from London can be had for £500 return. There’s several other cities in Thailand, Vietnam and Eastern Europe, which offer a cost of living under £900 per month.

In the case of Chiang Mai, this includes:

  • A nice, serviced apartment on short-let.
  • Fast internet.
  • Plenty of good cafes and co-working spaces.
  • Warm weather all year.
  • No commute.
  • Big community of international remote workers.
  • Eating out every meal.
  • No visa required for 3 months.
  • Set up within a day.

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5 ways to make a big difference in any career

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At 80,000 Hours, we’re focused on finding the very best opportunities for you to do good with your career. We’re worried that sometimes this continuous focus can be demoralising. After all, it’s hard to find the best opportunities. Moreover, we’re worried that sometimes our members lose sight of the fact that you can make a big difference in any career.

We don’t mean spending your birthday volunteering at a soup kitchen, giving seniors the ‘gift’ of your art, or buying a charity wristband. We mean you can transform the lives of hundreds of other people, in any career.

So, we decided to write this note explaining how…

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