epistemic status: I am fairly confident that the overall point is underrated right now, but am writing quickly and think it's reasonably likely the comments will identify a factual error somewhere in the post. 

Risk seems unusually elevated right now of a serious nuclear incident, as a result of Russia badly losing the war in Ukraine. Various markets put the risk at about 5-10%, and various forecasters seem to estimate something similar. The general consensus is that Russia, if they used a nuclear weapon, would probably deploy a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine, probably in a way with a small number of direct casualties but profoundly destabilizing effects. 

A lot of effective altruists have made plans to leave major cities if Russia uses a nuclear weapon, at least until it becomes clear whether the situation is destabilizing. I think if that happens we'll be in a scary situation, but based on how we as a community collectively reacted to Covid, I predict an overreaction -- that is, I predict that if there's a nuclear use in Ukraine, EAs will incur more costs in avoiding the risk of dying in a nuclear war than the actual expected costs of dying in a nuclear war, more costs than necessary to reduce the risks of dying in a nuclear war, and more costs than we'll endorse in hindsight.

With respect to Covid, I am pretty sure the EA community and related communities incurred more costs in avoiding the risk of dying of Covid than was warranted. In my own social circles, I don't know anyone who died of Covid, but I know of a healthy person in their 20s or 30s who died of failing to seek medical attention because they were scared of Covid. A lot of people incurred hits to their productivity and happiness that were quite large. 

This is especially true for people doing EA work they consider directly important: being 10% less impactful at an EA direct work job has a cost measured in many human or animal or future-digital-mind lives, and I think few people explicitly calculated how that cost measured up against the benefit of reduced risk of Covid. 

If Russia uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, here is what I expect to happen: a lot of people will be terrified (correctly assessing this as a significant change in the equilibrium around nuclear weapon use which makes a further nuclear exchange much more likely.) Many people will flee major cities in the US and Europe. They will spend a lot of money, take a large productivity hit from being somewhere with worse living conditions and worse internet, and spend a ton of their time obsessively monitoring the nuclear situation. A bunch of very talented ops people will work incredibly hard to get reliable fast internet in remote parts of Northern California or northern  Britain. There won't be much EAs not already in nuclear policy and national security can do, but there'll be a lot of discussion and a lot of people trying to get up to speed on the situation/feeling a lot of need to know what's going on constantly.  The stuff we do is important, and much less of it will get done. It will take a long time for it to become obvious if the situation is stable, but eventually people will mostly go back to cities (possibly leaving again if there are further destabilizing events). 

The recent Samotsvety forecast estimates that a person staying in London will lose 3-100 hours to nuclear risk in expectation (edit: which goes up by a factor of 6 in the case of actual tactical nuke use in Ukraine.) I think it is really easy for that person to waste more than 3-100 hours by being panicked, and possible to waste more than 20 - 600 hours on extreme response measures. And that's the life-hour costs of never fleeing; you also have the option of fleeing at a later point if there are further worrying developments, and it's probably a mistake to only model 'flee as soon as there's tactical nuke use' against 'stay no matter what' and not against 'flee slightly later'. 

Some degree of costs incurred is quite reasonable. I think that during the Cuban Missile Crisis we were quite close to nuclear war, and probably reasonable people at the time would have (in addition to trying to prevent such a war) tried to leave major cities. I think it might make sense for people whose work is already remote, and who have a non-major-city place to stay, to leave. I think that the fact EAs are weird, and take our beliefs more seriously than most people, and take concrete actions based on expected-value arguments, is a strength. Certainly at some threshold of risk I'll leave with my family. But my overall expectation is that we'll end up causing more disruptions than are justified, at substantial expense to other work which is also about securing a good human future. 

Some specific bad tradeoffs that seem easy to avoid: 

  • going to a very remote area dramatically reduces the risk of being hit in a nuclear exchange, but makes it incredibly inconvenient to work normally/collaborate with others/etc. DC, New York, and San Francisco are among the highest-likelihood-of-being-hit-in-a-full-nuclear-exchange cities in the US, and London obviously the highest in the UK, but if you go from those cities to nearby populous cities you probably get most of the benefit and incur lower costs in productivity/etc. In my opinion Americans who don't live in those cities and don't live next to a base from which we launch our own nukes shouldn't bother leaving (I don't know enough about continental Europe to have opinions there.) For San Franciscans, going to Santa Rosa is probably nearly as good as going to the middle of the mountains, or going to Eugene, and it's much less costly. 
  • we can avoid socially pressuring people towards acting more strongly than they endorse: if you don't care about this, I think you should feel licensed to not care about it and go about your life normally. 
  • if people do want to leave, I think they should keep in mind the productivity costs of 1) bad internet 2) isolation, and strongly prioritize going somewhere non-isolated with good internet access. 
  • keep in mind that while expected value sometimes implies reacting strongly to things with only a small chance of being really bad, you have to actually do the expected value calculations -- and your wellbeing, productivity, and impact on the world should be an input. 
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I think "it's easy to overreact on a personal level" is an important lesson from covid, but much more important is "it's easy to underreact on a policy level". I.e. given the level of foresight that EAs had about covid, I think we had a disappointingly small influence on mitigating it, in part because people focused too much on making sure they didn't get it themselves.

In this case, I've seen a bunch of people posting about how they're likely to leave major cities soon, and basically zero discussion of whether there are things people can do to make nuclear war overall less likely and/or systematically help a lot of other people. I don't think it's bad to be trying to ensure your personal survival as a key priority, and I don't want to discourage people from seriously analysing the risks from that perspective, but I do want to note that the overall effect is a bit odd, and may indicate some kind of community-level blind spot.

I strongly agree with your comment, but I want to point out in defense of this trend that nuclear weapons policy seems to be unusually insulated from public input and unusually likely to be highly sensitive/not good to discuss in public.

I'm not just talking about preventing nuclear war, though, but also mitigations in the case where it happens. If there's something you can do to reduce risk for yourself, there's probably also something you can do to reduce risk for a thousand or ten thousand other people.

Good point, I didn't think of that.

I strongly agree with the general point that overreaction can be very costly, and I agree that EAs overreacted to Covid, particularly after it was already clear that the overall infection fatality rate of Covid was under 1%,  and roughly 0.02% in young adults.

However, I think it's important to analyze things on a case-by-case basis, and to simply think clearly about the risk we face. Personally, I felt that it was important to react to Covid in January-March 2020 because we didn't understand the nature of the threat yet,  and from my perspective, there was a decent chance that it could end up being a global disaster. I don't think the actions I took in that time—mainly stocking up on more food—were that costly, or irrational. After March 2020,  the main actions I took were wearing a mask when I went out and avoiding certain social events. This too, was not very costly.

I think nuclear war is a fundamentally different type of risk than Covid, especially when we're comparing the ex-ante risks of nuclear war versus the ex-post consequences of Covid. In my estimation, nuclear war could kill up to billions of people via very severe disruptions to supply chains. Even at the height of the panic, the most pessimistic credible forecasts for Covid were nowhere near that severe. 

In addition, an all-out nuclear war is different from Covid because of how quickly the situation can evolve.  With nuclear war, we may live through some version of the following narrative: At one point in time, the world was mostly normal. Mere hours later, the world was in total ruin, with tens of millions of people being killed by giant explosions. By contrast, Covid took place over months.

Given this, I personally think it makes sense to leave SF/NYC/wherever if we get a very clear and unambiguous signal that a large amount of the world may be utterly destroyed in a matter of hours.

To be clear, I will also leave SF in the event of a strong signal that we're on the brink of nuclear war -- such as US officials saying they believe Russia is preparing for a first launch, or the US using a nuclear weapon ourselves in response to Russian use, or strategic rather than tactical Russian use (for example against Kyiv), or Russia declaring war on NATO or declaring intent to use nuclear weapons outside Russian territory. 

I mostly expect overreaction in cases of a weaker signal such as a Russian "test" on territory Russia claims as Russian, or tactical use, or Russia inducing a meltdown at a nuclear power plant -- all of which would be scary, destabilizing, precedent-setting events that dramatically raise the odds of a nuclear war, but which I wouldn't call a "clear and unambiguous signal that a large amount of the world may be utterly destroyed in a matter of hours". 

I think it's worth noting that that I'd expect you would gain a significant relative advantage if you get out of cities before other people, such that acting later would be a lot less effective at furthering your survival & rebuilding goals.

I expect the bulk of the risk of an all out nuclear war to happen in the couple of weeks after the first nuclear use. If I'm right, then the way to avoid the failure mode you're identifying is returning in a few weeks if no new nuclear weapons have been used, or similar.

Hmm, what mechanism are you imagining for advantage from getting out of cities before other people? You could have already booked an airbnb/rented a house/etc before the rush, but that's an argument for booking the airbnb/renting the house, not for living in it. 

Beating the traffic perhaps; getting stuck in your car trying to leave SF is worse than sheltering in your SF basement.

I assume the mechanism for beating the crowd is "have an earlier trigger, like 'Russia does a test nuke'" rather than the stronger signals you described.

I am somewhat surprised that a tactical nuke use by Russia isn't sufficient. A naive fermi I did on Samotsvety's numbers suggest at that point an hour in SF at that point costs you about 2 hours in-expectation, so something about our fermis must be very different, since that seems very likely worth leaving for. 

Plausible cruxes: 


I strongly do not expect full nuclear exchange in immediate response to Russia tac nuke use; the situation that seems plausible to me would involve conventional retaliation against Russian forces in Ukraine, Syria, etc., followed by Russia responding to that.  So I think leaving at a further point still means leaving well ahead of a full exchange. 

I think my work is much more valuable in worlds without a full nuclear exchange; iirc you are pretty doomy on current trajectories, so maybe you actually think your work is more valuable in worlds with a full nuclear exchange, or at least of comparable value?

I think I'm twice as productive at home, for reasons relating to childcare, disruption associated with fleeing, personal traits, my home being well set up to meet my needs, diet, etc.

I think my work is much more valuable in worlds without a full nuclear exchange; iirc you are pretty doomy on current trajectories, so maybe you actually think your work is more valuable in worlds with a full nuclear exchange, or at least of comparable value?

Oh, hmm, this might be a big difference. I think my work might be 10x more valuable in worlds with nuclear exchange (since I think the world becomes a lot more malleable as a result of such a crisis, seems like there is a big opportunity to change humanity's relation to existential risk, I have a broad generalist skillset, and if there are fewer people around but I survive, seems like I should have a higher prior that I can influence humanity's future).

I am currently just using a 1x multiplier in my estimates, but I think a 3-5x would more accurately capture my beliefs.

I strongly do not expect full nuclear exchange in immediate response to Russia tac nuke use; the situation that seems plausible to me would involve conventional retaliation against Russian forces in Ukraine, Syria, etc., followed by Russia responding to that.  So I think leaving at a further point still means leaving well ahead of a full exchange. 

To be clear, I also strongly expect a more gradual escalation, but I do think the MAD doctrine and in-general the "first-strike wins" (in the absence of immediate retaliation) nature of nuclear conflict makes it pretty hard for me to be confident in this. Like, I think governments have tried pretty hard to maintain a strict taboo against any offensive use of nuclear weapons, and have backed that taboo with nuclear escalation, and while I do think that more likely than not still means things will escalate gradually, I still feel like I can't go below 1-5% that a much more quick and drastic escalation occurs. 

I mostly expect overreaction in cases of a weaker signal such as a Russian "test" on territory Russia claims as Russian, or tactical use

I disagree. I will probably evacuate San Francisco for a few weeks if Russia uses a tactical nuke in Ukraine. That said, I agree that there are many other events that may cause EAs to overreact, and it might be worth clearly delineating what counts as a red line, and what doesn't, ahead of time.

Another important consideration that is not often mentioned (here and in our forecast) is how much more/less impact you expect to have after a full-out Russia-NATO nuclear war that destroys London.

I think there's a good chance this basic point is right, but I'm not sure your takeaway from the Samotsvety forecast is correct? I think the 3-100 hours lost in expectation is based on the current information about risk. The Samotsvety forecast is that conditional on a nuclear weapon being used in Ukraine, there is a ~2% chance of London being nuked. I think the mean estimate for expected hours of life loss if one stays in London in that case is ~2000.  That's a substantial number of lost hours,  and I can see it being rational to get to a safer location if those are the stakes. 

You're right, my post doesn't make clear enough the difference between current risk and risk conditional on nuclear use in Ukraine. 

Trying to figure out expected hours lost in the latter case seems to depend a ton on which of their forecasts you look at. My instinctive reaction was that 2000 is way too high, as they're at 16% on Russia using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine so it can only increase risk by a factor of 6 or so if it happens, but they state it'd raise risk by a factor of 10 or so if it happened.  I'm going to use the factor of 6 because I don't understand how they got 10 and it reads like it might just be an order of magnitude estimate. 

Using their 'forecasters' aggregate', where the mean is 13, the hours lost conditional on use in Ukraine is still less than 100 hours. Using their 'full range',  where the mean is 150, the hours lost conditional on use in Ukraine is 1000. That suggests it's quite important to figure out which of those aggregating methods make more sense, as I suspect the costs of fleeing are generally higher than 100 but less than 1000 hours. (Though fleeing in the least costly way could reduce the costs of fleeing enough to be less than 100 hours and thus worth it even in the lower case.)

Hmm interesting, I got 2000 by just setting rusiaUsesNuclearWeaponsInUkraine to 1 in the squiggle model. Looking at it further, the mean moves around between runs if I just use 1000 samples. Updating to 1000000, it seems to converge on 1700. 

I agree that this is a place where forecast aggregation adds a lot of challenges. 

This is also tricky because I don't think it lets you compare to the option I'd actually advocate for, which is something like "flee at a slightly later point" - the US has good intel on Russia, and it seems likely that US officials will know if Russia appears to be headed towards nuclear war. If you have to compare "flee the instant a tactical nuke is used in Ukraine" or "stay no matter what", "stay no matter what" doesn't look good, but what you want to compare is "flee the instant a tactical nuke is used in Ukraine" to "flee at some subsequent sign of danger" -- that is, the real question is how many life-hours you get by fleeing early that you don't get by fleeing late (either because we don't get any warning, or because by then many people are panicking and fleeing).

seems likely that US officials will know if Russia appears to be headed towards nuclear war

Why would you think that they would transmit this information honestly, rather than managing the crowd and try to have people not panic?

There are a bunch of preparations the US military would want to take in the face of elevated odds of nuclear war (bombers in the air, ships looking for submarines, changes of force concentration) and I don't believe they will sacrifice making those preparations for crowd management reasons. I agree it's possible they'll say something noncommittal or false while visibly changing force deployments to DEFCON 2 or whatever, though this is not what they did during the Cold War and it would be pretty obvious.

(not sure how to interpret this)

I'd expect it to be harder to tell that Russia is heading towards nuclear war than that they are planning an invasion. 

That makes sense to me, I agree that's a good relevant comparison. 


Thanks for writing this! Do you have a particular sign of danger in mind? I don't feel that I would know what else to look for as a leave trigger.

My impression is that US intelligence has been very impressive with regard to Russia's military plans to date. US officials confidently called the war in Ukraine by December and knew the details of the planned Russian offensive. They're saying now that they think Putin is not imminently planning to use a tactical nuke. If they're wrong and Putin uses a tactical nuke next week, that'd be a big update they also won't predict further nuclear escalation correctly, but my model is that before the use of a tactical nuke, we'll get US officials saying "we're worried Russia plans to use a tactical nuke". If I'm right about that, then I further predict they'll be giving pretty accurate assessments of whether Russia is going to escalate from there. 

That suggests a threshold to leave of [ tactical nuke use in Ukraine, if it surprises US officials] or [after tactical nuke use in Ukraine and a warning from US officials that Putin seems inclined to escalate further after tactical nuke use], which would be a 10x or more further update on risk in my view.

Though I should say that I think tac nuke use in Ukraine is also a reasonable trigger to leave, depending on your personal situation, productivity, ease of leaving, where you're going, etc - I really just want people to be sure they are doing the EV calculations and not treating risk-minimization as the sudden controlling priority.

How far in advance would you expect US officials to warn the public of the possibility of nukes? (i.e. how much time would we have between such a warning and needing to have left already?)

I don't know, but I think likely days not weeks. Tactical nuke use will be a good test ground for this - do we get advance warning from US officials about that? How much advance warning?

Your expected life hours lost become Remaining life hours * P(nuke in your location | nuke in Ukraine), if Ukraine is hit and you choose to stay in your location afterwards.   While the multiplier does depend on P(nuke in Ukraine), P(nuke in your location | nuke in Ukraine) is still more important since your location is what determines whether it swings you over the decision threshold or not.

In this framework, before the tac nuke use in Ukraine, your expected life hours lost was remaining life hours*P(nuke in your location | nuke in Ukraine) * P (nuke in Ukraine), so your subsequent expected life hours last should change by a factor of 1/P(nuke in ukraine), or about six. 

Though I think straightforwardly applying that framework is wrong, because it assumes that if you don't flee as soon as there's nuke use in Ukraine, you don't flee at all even at subsequent stages of escalation; instead, you want P(nuke in your location| nuke in Ukraine and no later signs of danger which prompt you to flee). To figure out your actual expected costs from not fleeing as soon as there's tactical nuke use in Ukraine, you need  to have an estimate of how likely it is that there'd be some warning after the tactical nuke use before a nuclear war started. 

Yes, it does rely on that simplified assumption.  I think I'm unlikely to get more than 1 additional bit of information via further warnings after a nuke in Ukraine (if that), so staying doesn't seem worth the risk, but if you think you get legible warning signs >84% of the time (or whatever 1 - p(nuke in Ukraine) is) then it seems worth waiting.

ETA: to clarify, my general position is that while I'm open to the possibility that there'll be further signals which convey more bits of information about which world you're in than the initial "nuke in Ukraine" signal, I expect those extra bits won't do me much good because in most of those worlds events will move fast enough that I won't be able to usefully respond.  If you have a lot of weight on "escalation, if any, will be slow", then your calculation will look different.

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I totally agree that:

  1. it's important to strike a balance, and some people in the EA community clearly overreacted to COVID
  2. the immediate risk right now is low, I don't plan to leave or make imminent preparations for leaving, and I think people probably shouldn't unless it's very easy for them
  3. the total risk of Ukraine-originating nuclear war is not that high; in the week before the invasion I said 3% (including 2023 and future years if the war was still happening then), and that seems roughly right

However, my model is that any use of nuclear weapons "in anger" is a Big Red Line. It's become almost unthinkable through eight decades of tradition, through dozens of high-tension periods, regional wars and international crises. I don't think the public will really distinguish between "tactical" use and "strategic" use. The exact yields of Russian "tactical" devices seem to be secret, but I don't think it'd be much less powerful than Hiroshima, and given Ukraine's geography it'd almost certainly hit civilian homes somewhere. Because of that, my p(nukes used in Ukraine) is pretty low (maybe 6%?), but p(SF gets nuked|nukes used in Ukraine) is fairly high (maybe 25%); there would be intense escalation pressure on both sides.

Comment from General Hyten, former head of STRATCOM:

"In 2017, then-Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten took exception to the idea that tactical nuclear weapons are really in a different category than strategic nuclear weapons. Hyten, who was at that point overseeing U.S. nuclear weapons as the chief of U.S. Strategic Command, described how the United States could respond if another country used them.

“It’s not a tactical effect, and if somebody employs what is a nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapon, the United States will respond strategically, not tactically, because they have now crossed a line, a line that has not been crossed since 1945,” Hyten said."


"Mr. Biden also challenged Russian nuclear doctrine, warning that the use of a lower-yield tactical weapon could quickly spiral out of control into global destruction.

"I don't think there is any such a thing as the ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon," Mr. Biden said."


With respect to Covid, I am pretty sure the EA community and related communities incurred more costs in avoiding the risk of dying of Covid than was warranted.

I think this pretty true for the San Francisco-based and rationalist strands of the community. But in New York/London/Oxford, people were more balanced - being cautious for an initial several months, then reverting back to normal at a similar time to the rest of society.

As someone who helped raise the alarm about Covid (and is trying to do so for this one as well), I have wondered if my actions were actually harmful. I posted an update on Facebook in I think May 2020 something to the effect that more harm may come from EAs losing productivity than from the actual disease. I consider myself a pretty good updater for these situations but a lot of people are subject to information cascades. I do think some people remained, frankly, way too fucking neurotic about this longer than was reasonable. I wish more people grokked the coordination cost of imposing more friction along their collaboration surface area. As an example, there was a post I think last autumn that was like "what is EAG doing about Covid?" and I considered that annoying and felt sorry for EAG people.

One argument in favor of your viewpoint is that if global nuclear war happens, there's really not much EA work left to do in the aftermath besides help a few people around you if you survived. That might be comparable to global health and development relief? Maybe global poverty people who live in these cities and think they have alpha on what lifesaving efforts they could somehow participate in in a way that more than offsets the expected disvalue of leaving and is more expected value than their current charity work should leave.

On the other hand, there's so much social pressure to be sanguine as well. Very few people left the cities when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened IIRC. Nukes are a different beast than Covid. In some ways it's easier to prepare and some ways it's harder.

I wish people could update and decide fast in any direction. The ability to really admit WW3 could happen before it hits rather than bury one's head in the sand, and also the ability to set-and-forget a policy regarding the threat that maintains productivity. I am inclined towards 'everyone should have their panic period early and get it out of their system'.

Part of the issue may be that there are status incentives that come into play to talk a whole bunch and cogitate about the current thing while it's happening. I know that I need to stay away from social media right now.

There is a significant probability of WW3 happening over this century, so I don't think it's virtuous to skip over the prepping work that most people have neglected and now is the Schelling time to at least buy some potassium iodide pills in case the U.S. and China go to war over Taiwan in the next decade. Though it may be next to impossible to reach adequacy.

FWIW I am pretty confident the Samotsvety forecast or others like that are consistently understating risks due to outside view reasoning biases or what Thiel calls indefinite thinking.

I definitely think now is a good time to stock up on food and water if one hasn't.

Thanks for this thoughtful reflection. I do want to register that I think I disagree there wouldn't be much EA to do post- a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia - it would be a scary hard world to live in, and one where many of our previous priorities are no longer relevant, but it's work I think we could do and could improve the trajectory of civilization by doing. 

I'd be a bit surprised if EAs were even good at surviving post-apocalypse. We've spent all this time learning how best to live in a civilization... we're not preppers, we're not experts in agriculture or building water wells or keeping raiders away from food stashes, I'm not sure how we'll communicate without the internet (but Starlink may well survive), and does ALLFED have any solutions to offer within the next year?

If there is a loss of civilization, I agree there would not be that much that EAs could do. However, I think there is a lot we could do to try to prevent the loss of civilization after nuclear war, which is part of what these posts were about. Yes, ALLFED is working on solutions that could be scaled up quickly in the case of nuclear war.

With the chance of Putin nuking Ukraine being ~7% in the next 3 months, perhaps a campaign to share ALLFED's ideas would be wise right now. Related: most recent post about ALLFED.

I think EAs are broadly too quick to class things as infohazards instead of reasoning them through, but natsec seems like a pretty well defined area where the reasons things are confidential are pretty concrete .

Some examples of information that is pretty relevant to nuclear risk and would not be discussed on this forum, even if known to some participants:

How well-placed are US spies in the Russian government and in Putin's inner circle?

How about Russian spies in the US government? Do the Russians know what the US response would be in the event of various Russian actions?

Does the US know where Russia's nuclear submarines are? Can we track their movements? Do we think we could take them out if we had to? This would require substantial undisclosed tech. If we did know this, it would be a tightly held secret; degrading Russia's second-strike capabilities (which is one effect of knowing where their subs are) might push them towards a first strike.

Relatedly, are we at all worried Russia knows where our submarines are? 

In a similar genre, does the US know how to shoot down ICBMs? With 10% accuracy? 50%? 80%? Accuracy would have to be very good to be a game changer in a full exchange with Russia. (High accuracy would require substantial undisclosed technology, and be undisclosed for some of the same reasons plus to avoid encouraging other countries to innovate on weapon delivery.)

Does either side have other potentially game-changing secret tech (maybe something cyberwarfare-based?)

People making decisions on nuclear war planning have access to the answers to all of these questions, and those answers might importantly inform their decisionmaking. 

Also,  even if the secret information that decision makers have isn't decisive there will still be a tendency for people with secret information to discount the opinions of people without access to that information.

Re: COVID, the correct course of action (unless one was psychic) was to be extremely paranoid at the start (trying for total bubbling, sterilizing outside objects, etc) because the EV was very downside-skewed—but as more information came in, to stop worrying about surfaces, start being fine with spacious outdoor gatherings, get a good mask and be comfortable doing some things inside, etc.

That is, a good EA would have been faster than the experts on taking costly preventative acts and faster than the experts on relaxing those where warranted.

Some actual EAs seemed to do this well, and others missed in one direction or the other (there was a lot of rapid group house self-sorting in March/April 2020 over this, and then a slower process afterward).

Yep, agree - I think it was warranted to be extremely cautious in February/March, and then the ideal behavior would have been to become much less cautious as more information came in. In practice, I think many people remained extremely cautious for a full year (including my family) out of some combination of inertia and exhaustion about renegotiating what had been strenuously negotiated in the first place.

Some people furthermore tried very aggressively to apply social pressure against fully vaccinated people holding events and returning to normalcy in spring of 2021, which I think was an even more clear-cut mistake given the incredibly high pre-omicron vaccine efficacy.  I am not actually sure I know anyone who I believe missed in the incautious direction, and if we'd had equal misses in both directions I'd feel a lot better about our community decisionmaking. 

I am not actually sure I know anyone who I believe missed in the incautious direction

There's a certain rationalist-adjacent meditation retreat I can think of.

Disagree. I think it is best to behave "reasonably" until proven otherwise. Things like (1) sterilizing mail and delivered groceries, or (2) trying for total bubbling when everyone you know is already being highly, highly careful, always seemed like covid theater and it disturbed me that EAs didn't realize that with common sense. It also led to some, I think, social injustices, like suppressing your housemates right to see family or see their live-out romantic partners.

Yes I want EAs to be faster than experts at taking "costly preventative acts" but... the EV cost should be well in the positive. And with EA productivity worth a lot, that is a high bar. Firstly, I think, be very sure the acts are effective, to counterweight the lack of sureness of the other variable (likelihood of harm from the problem you are trying to avoid). If you cant be sure effectiveness with data yet, check your intuition (which EAs mostly didn't do I think, I mean people mostly chose sterilizing things over HEPA filters, wtf, and mostly didn't downgrade risk of meeting with "quarantined people" as the quarantined person neared the end of their 2 weeks still showing no symptoms). 

[EDIT: RE: determining effectiveness of relocation against nuclear risk, I asked a question in comment below]

Transfer your argument that EAs should be "extremely paranoid at the start" to nuclear risk, and you get the advice that people should basically move, idk, this month? Or start renting a house now that remains empty, but is ready for them in case of rapid departure? Possibly even spend their work hours arranging any of this? These mostly seem too big for where we are now IMO (the house rental seems decentish because it could calm people's anxieties knowing they did something, and a house in the boonies is cheap). 

It sounds like you bore the brunt of some people's overly paranoid risk assessments, and I'm sorry to hear that.

To be concrete about my model, sterilizing groceries was the right call in March 2020 but not by June 2020 (when we knew it very probably didn't transmit through surfaces), and overall maximum-feasible alert was the right call in March 2020 but not by June 2020 (when we knew the IFR was low for healthy young people and that the hospitals were not going to be too overwhelmed).

"Be sure the act is effective" is not a good proxy for "take actions based on EV". In March 2020, the officials were sure (based on a bad model) that COVID wasn't airborne. We masked up all the same, not because we knew it would be effective but because the chance was large enough for the expected gain to outweigh the cost.

[[I acknowledge this is an out of scale reply, might make it a post one day soon. Thanks for reading]]

Thanks. I understand what you mean about EV. I just think problems sneak through in practice. In practice, people tend to weight things pretty badly and, especially in the middle of a mass-televised news cycle, be desperate for some control and hope things will work that won't. So I claim "reasonableness" or "certainty" for at least one of the variables is important. Else we are going to have a lot of Pascal's muggings. 

To be concrete about my model too, even in March I think plenty of weird acts were the wrong call. It's hard to explain what I meant when I said "check your intuition" but I basically mean, reason it out and extrapolate from what you know, and also heed red flags and weird vibes (like the community's behavior starting to pattern-match mental illness and groupthink).

Anyway, we should expect that many (even most) interventions suggested at the early phase of a problem are somehow out-of-step with reality. The solution is not to do all of the ones your peers are doing just in case, as you seem to suggest, but to actively question and sort out the worst.  You said we didn't know masking would be effective but we did it anyway based on EV... But, that isn't true. We did know masks were effective. So comparing EA masking to extreme-looking, always-speculative interventions does not follow. They are at different ends of the spectrum.

At risk of sounding harsh, EA is about using evidence and reason. I hope EAs don't shrug mistakes off with "we needed more data". We didn't always need more data. We needed the community to reason for itself, as it did about masks. To go "Does that make sense to me?" Then, do the "reasonable" things only.  I guess I wasn't clear, but that's what I meant when I said "be very sure the act is effective" and "act reasonably".  For acts without enough hard data, EAs could do better to check their intuition, model of the world, expected human behavior, and be more skeptical, even of copying other EAs.

Reasonableness and paranoia are by definition in conflict, so I'm disturbed that you essentially say that "paranoia" was the "right call" "(unless one was psychic)". We never dismissed trying to make predictions as being "psychic" before. Could we not have done better in March? Do you look back at the early extreme reactions and find no reason to be skeptical of them? Other people were skeptical, and then correct. The truth of what was useful  wasn't in a time-activated lockbox. Even in March 2020, it existed in the world and was, if not observable, extrapolatable. I'm reminded of this EA short story:

"Impressive," [the mirror] says with a voice cool and smooth.... “I didn’t think you could succeed with raw power alone. Some might say you didn’t.”...

 “So? I killed the Broken King. I stopped the summoning of the Old Horrors,” [the hero] challenge[s]. “What more could I have done?”

 “Now you are asking the right question,” the mirror laughs. “What more indeed? You must train yourself until the answer comes naturally as the spellforce in your veins." 


"Saved them? What could I do?" the hero frowns, and then the memories still settling in their head cohere. The mirror’s solution replays in vivid clarity...

"You should have taken the time to work it out," the mirror chastises. "You were capable of it."

Wrong is wrong. Something went wrong. It's okay to be wrong. Attempting was good. Even failing is okay. And now let's clarify that we should not repeat a tactic that went awry. We weren't skeptical and selective enough in the beginning, and it took some EAs a year longer than you'd expect to get their heads screwed on straight again about the whole thing. That's painful for everyone. But maybe it's human nature. I'm updating that it is. If you  start with extreme, paranoid behavior and your community is encouraging you to be paranoid rather than question the paranoia, I doubt most people find it easy to correct later.

  1. ^

    We knew that surgeons and other medical personnel wear masks for a reason, because we can assume their doing so for centuries has been expensive and hospital interests/board members wouldn't have kept it going if it weren't doing something worth the effort. We knew that doctors and nurses were still wearing masks during Covid: in other words, the Covid pandemic did not just randomly time itself with the global realization that masks had always been pointless. We knew that other country's citizens were wearing masks. We knew that COVID travelled through our breathing apparatus, which opens where the mask goes. Looking at the whole system, it is harder to be more sure than that. At some point you have to call your EV calculus what it is: "knowing something".

DC, New York, and San Francisco are among the highest-likelihood-of-being-hit-in-a-full-nuclear-exchange cities in the US.... For San Franciscans, going to Santa Rosa is probably nearly as good as going to the middle of the mountains, or going to Eugene, and it's much less costly. 

Can someone share their credence for why Russia would use only a few warheads against America, attacking only  a few cities? If Russia uses many warheads, most US cities that most of us would feel at ease in are a no-go. If we expect Russia to use many if they use them, it is even less worth leaving (unless you want to exit America and NATO regions).

Major question:
What is America's public-facing policy on retaliation? Do they fire number of warheads proportional to how many Russia fires at us/our allies? If so, it incentivizes Russia using fewer missiles. But I have the vibe that we have told them we would use everything at our disposal, so they don't have a reason to only target a handful of cities.

[[EDIT: Found the source of the picture. It is from 2015 at latest, so would look (very?) different today. And  don't think of the purple triangles as first priority to be launched by Russia: "The 2,000-warhead attack [black] assumes a first strike by the Russians. The 500-warhead attack [purple] would be a retaliatory strike in the event the United States launched first, thus limiting the Russian arsenal." The black dots are more relevant in this climate. Apologies for confusion]]
Image courtesy of Rob Bensinger from fb, don't know where he got it

The black dots assumes Russia has 2000 functional missiles that they successfully launch against the US and that successfully detonate, and that the US is unable to shoot many of them down/destroy missile launch sites before launch. My understanding is, concretely, that even if all Russian missiles currently reported ready for launch are launched, there's 1500 of them not 2000, and that one would expect many to be used against non-US targets (in Ukraine and Europe). The 500 scenario (purple triangles) seems likelier to me for how many targets Russia would try to hit. 

Further, my impression of the competence of the Russian military, the readiness of their forces, the state of upkeep on their nukes and missiles, the willingness of individual commanders ordered to launch to do so, etc. is quite low. In many cases they have had an incredibly embarrassingly low success rate at firing missiles at Ukraine, which is an easier task than launching on short notice in a nuclear war. They seem to be using un-upgraded Soviet technology that is often degrading and failing, and the theft of parts for sale on the black market isn't uncommon. 

 For each nuclear missile, lots of things need to go right: the missile needs to be in good shape/ready to launch, the people ordered to launch need to do it, the missile needs to be successfully launched before anyone destroys the  launch site, the missile needs to not be  shot down, the missile needs to successfully be aimed at the target (this isn't even very hard, but there've been notable Ukraine failures) and the missile needs to actually detonate at the right time.  US capabilities to shoot down ICBMs, if such capabilities exist, would be extremely secret (we have no such public capabilities) but it seems like we almost definitely cannot shoot down or prevent the launch of submarine-launched missiles (of which there'd be perhaps a dozen). My personal median expectation is that submarine-launched missiles will likely hit and detonate and a relatively small share of non-submarine-launched missiles will hit and detonate. If Russia is also worried about this, they'll probably concentrate missiles further on critical targets.

This is decision-relevant in a couple of respects, the most important being that the fewer missiles hit and detonate, the less likely that a nuclear exchange results in a collapse of civilization/post-apocalyptic wasteland, though note that even if you assume all the purple triangles hit you don't have to go very far to be safe, and if we evacuate we'll evacuate to somewhere outside any of the purple triangles. People in major coastal cities should be more worried as they're likelier to be targeted by submarine-launched missiles which I think almost definitely 1) work 2) would be launched if ordered 3) could not be prevented from launching and 4) cannot be shot down, and people near US military bases should assume a lot of missiles would be launched at that target to make sure at least some get through. 

People elsewhere in purple triangles are at, in my assessment, 5x to 20x less risk from a combination of more uncertainty about whether their city will be targeted and much higher likelihood an attempt wouldn't work.


Thanks, I feel pretty safe at that!  That said, it almost seems too low, like "wtf why would Russia even fire then" levels of low. So I wonder if those people are imagining better anti-missile defense than USA has (it's designed for a rogue state like North Korea with ~20 missiles, NOT battle with the other major global nuclear power), or are now anchoring on 20%. But even if we arbitrarily raise it to say risk of hitting is 30%, it's pretty comforting!


I upvoted this comment and post. 

But I'm unsure these threads are the best way to get people to chill out.

Are you really sure it's appropriate to compare launch of strategic ICBMs to rockets in Ukraine? Wouldn't those ICBMs be aimed in advance, and wouldn't their operation and upkeep be done by entirely different people using much more careful protocols, laid out over a longer time period?

Oh great, thanks so much, Kelsey! I didn't know they only have 1500 ready, so I thought they'd have enough remaining to strike other nations. Definitely appreciate you bringing the human element (reluctance to follow orders) into the conversation as well.

Also, I did look into the source and the only thing I found was this very brief CBS news piece from 2015. So the map is quite outdated, and the data used was surely even older. That said, it did have a key clarification I found worth reflecting on today (as someone who knew little before now, anyway):

"The 2,000-warhead attack assumes a first strike by the Russians. The 500-warhead attack would be a retaliatory strike in the event the United States launched first, thus limiting the Russian arsenal."

So apologies for any confusion. I now see the black dots are not necessarily additional to the purple triangles, and vise versa.
Given the US won't strike first, I realize we should look at the black dots and expect Russia to empty a lot of missiles on our missile holding areas (the black dot clusters in middle-America). And, with what remains, they'd aim for other cities. Coupling that realization with your assessment (and JP's linked assessment) of how many missiles would hit, I do feel pretty safe.

That said, I wonder what [anyone reading this] thinks of Texas's risk? (Bear with me. I live here, but it's also an EA question)

Houston, TX: Houston is America's oil and gas hub, so destroying Houston might force the rest of the world to buy Russian oil(?), despite Russian bad behavior.  And this year, Houston oil companies (mostly or totally) sold their Russian stakes and said they don't want to work with Russia (so, bridges have been burned and Russia-Houston relations are likely smoldering). While we don't think of Houston as a "coastal city", might Russian submarines go to the Gulf of Mexico to ensure they hit Houston? 

That is relevant for everyone's expected value calculations because it would reduce the number of sub missiles for the West and East coasts. And...

Austin (and nearby military bases): I and other EAs live in Austin, TX, and I was thinking of inviting friends from coastal cities if  careful people start relocating. But now, I can't tell if Austin looks better than coastal cities like Santa Rosa, and I kinda wonder if we in Austin should be more willing to leave if things worsen a lot
So, if Russians prioritize Houston, might this also heighten the risk to other Texas citie(s)? 
-Austin: Texas's capital, so hitting it might worsen Houston's struggles. Billionaire hub, including the most famous one. Has an excellent research University (UT) that is also one of America's largest universities. Has satellite offices of major US companies (Google, Apple, Amazon, IBM, Oracle, Tesla, and Meta). Overall way more notable than in 2015 when the above map was made. And, yeah, some EAs live here. 
-San Antonio: US's largest joint military base. Fallout to Austin if hit.
-Fort Hood: US's third-largest single military base. Fallout to Austin if hit.

I was originally thinking Austin might be a standout city for American EAs and rationalists on ["nuclear risk" x "quality of life" x "existing EA/rationalist culture"], but now IDK. I'm at a loss as to where to rank it, and when we should consider extreme preparations or leaving compared to EAs on the coasts.

I appreciate you making this post, and agree with many of your points. One thing I'd add is that the situation of strategic nuclear warfare is unprecedented and would be extremely chaotic. In my mind this significantly raises the value of more traditional (in the sense of having worked fairly well across human history) hedges against uncertain situations. For example, while travelling to New Zealand or South America might be a good hedge against worst case scenarios of a full strategic exchange, being near friends + family or being somewhere you are a citizen might be much better than being in New Zealand in the case of massive civil unrest or less-than-expected weather disruption. 

DC, New York, and San Francisco are among the highest-likelihood-of-being-hit-in-a-full-nuclear-exchange cities in the US


What's the rationale behind New York and San Francisco?

If it's because they are major population centers, what are reasonable estimates + rationale for P(target population | nuclear war)? I would have guessed attacking military sites (and in particular nuclear-related sites) would be much more likely, and I don't think there are major military targets very close to San Francisco.

How irrational was it to be concerned about long covid pre-vaccination? That was my mistake. I presume I should've done something differently. But I don't have much medical knowledge or a strong intuition for how to analyze a study.  

I think people are kinda not concerned enough right now. I just saw an article the other day saying people who caught COVID twice have a much much higher risk of death going forward. It's not long COVID, but it's in the same category I think.

One thing that would be really useful in terms of personal planning, and maybe would be a good idea to have a top level post on, is something like:

What is P(I survive | I am in location X when a nuclear war breaks out)

for different values of X such as:

(A) a big NATO city like NYC

(B) a small town in the USA away from any nuclear targets

(C) somewhere outside the US/NATO but still in the northern hemisphere, like Mexico. (I chose Mexico because that's probably the easiest non-NATO country for Americans to get to)

(D) somewhere like Argentina or Australia, the places listed as being most likely to survive in a nuclear winter by the article here https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-022-00573-0

(E) New Zealand, pretty much where everyone says is the best place to go?

Probably E > D > C > B > A, but by how much?

As others have said, even (B) (with a suitcase full of food and water and a basement to hole up in) is probably enough to avoid getting blown up initially, the real question is what happens later. It could be that all the infrastructure just gets destroyed, there's no more food, and everyone starves to death.

Of course another thing to take into account is that if I just decide to go somewhere temporarily and there's a war, I'll be stuck somewhere that's unfamiliar, where I may not speak the local language, and where I am not a citizen. Whether that is likely to affect my future prospects is unclear.

If it turns out that we'll be fine as long as we can survive the bombs and the fallout, that's one thing. But if we'll just end up starving to death unless we're in the Southern Hemisphere, then that is another thing.

(Does the possibility of nuclear EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attacks need to be factored in? I've heard claims like 'one nuke detonated in the middle of the USA at the right altitude would destroy almost all electronics in the USA', and maybe nearby countries would also be in the radius. If true, likely it would happen in a nuclear war. And of course that would also have drastic implications for survivability afterward. I don't know how reliable this is, though.)

Another important question is "how much warning will we have?" Even a day or two's worth of warning is enough to hop on the next flight south, but certainly there are some scenarios where we won't even have that much.

Those are good questions on survival in different locations, and I haven't seen estimates of those (lots of uncertainty in response). I think the EMP from a single detonation is not quite that bad, but I would expect many EMPs in a full-scale exchange. With two days warning, most flights will already be full, and the flight capacity over a few days is much smaller than the population, so I would not count on that. But driving is more feasible if you own a car (ride share would be more problematic).

Of course that depends on whether everyone else is also evacuating. For instance do we expect that if a tactical nuke is used in Ukraine a significant amount of the US population will be trying to evacuate? As has been mentioned before there was not a significant percentage of the US population trying to evacuate even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that was probably a much higher risk and more salient situation than we face now.

was the Cuban Missile crisis higher risk than actual nukes going off? actual nukes seem to me to be more salient. 

Having read the account of B-59 in "Doomsday Machine", I think it was higher risk for odds of nuclear weapons hitting the USA.

Quick note: this post notes out some serious disagreements / issues with the paper linked in (D)

A bunch of us here at the Prague Fall Season would like to know this for F) a medium NATO capital outside the US/UK.

Overall I disagree with the general thrust of this post on the grounds that the risk of death from nuclear war (conditional on nuclear use in Ukraine) seems so much higher than from covid for the typical EA demographic, but I would like to +1 the point that people may be able to eliminate most of their risk without moving to completely the middle of nowhere.

Russia has enough active nuclear weapons to completely destroy something like 1-500,000 km^2*. The UK alone has a land area of 250,000 km^2, the US is around 10 million km^2 and NATO as a whole is 25 million. So even in a total nuclear war scenario it's likely that just going to a relatively small town will eliminate most of the risk, and there are many places like this where you can have a good work from home setup and commute to the big city occasionally.

*rough estimate, where "completely destroy" means kill most people in the area:
 - Russia has 1588 active warheads, with a total yield of ~800MT, so ~500 kilotons each
 - This tool says that a 500kt warhead can destroy around 100-250 km^2
**another way of arriving at the same conclusion is that the US has 20,000 towns, which is far higher than 1588

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