Next week for The 80,000 Hours Podcast I'm interviewing Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) on the topic of what the effective altruism community gets wrong/right about nuclear weapons & security.

What should I ask him?

Note he said this in a recent episode of his show:

By the way we have a second problem that arises which I think the book 'Wizards of Armageddon' helps explain: this is why our field can't get any money.

Because it's extremely hard to explain to people who are not already deep in this field how these deterrence concepts work because they don't get it.

I mean, if you look at any of the work that the EA community does on nuclear risk... It's as misguided as the Strategic Air Command's original, you know, approach to nuclear weapons.

And you would need an entire RAND-size outreach effort... I mean some people have tried to do this. If you look at Peter Scoblic — who I think is fundamentally a member of that community — he wrote a really nice piece responding to some of the not-great effective altruism assessments of nuclear risk in Ukraine.

So I don't want to criticise the entire community.

But I experienced this at a cocktail party. Once I start talking about nuclear weapons and deterrence if they don't do this stuff full time the popular ideas they have about it...

Well first off they might be super bored.

But if they're willing to listen the popular ideas they have about it are so misguided that it becomes impossible to make enough progress in a reasonable time. And that's death when you're asking someone to write you a big cheque. That's much harder than "Hi I want to buy some mosquito nets to reduce malaria deaths".

That's really straightforward. But this... this is really complex.

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On deterrence:

  • In the context of massive nuclear attacks, why isn't the danger of nuclear winter widely seen as making nuclear retaliation redundant (as Ellsberg suggested on another 80K podcast episode)?
  • The US threatens to retaliate (with nukes) against anyone who nukes certain US allies--how credible is this threat, and why?
    • Part of how the US tries to make this threat more credible is by sharing nukes with some of its allies. How does this sharing work? Does the US share nukes in such a way that, in a crisis, a non-nuclear host country could easily seize and launch a nuke?
  • Why has the US relied on mutually assured destruction instead of minimal deterrence?
  • What are some ways in which recent developments in cybersecurity and machine learning interact with nuclear deterrence?
  • Why have the US and the USSR/Russia invested so much in making lots of land-based nuclear missiles? (If they were mainly trying to ensure their nuclear weapons would survive a first strike, wouldn't it have been better to put that money toward making even more nuclear-armed submarines?)

Other questions on nuclear politics:

  • Why did it take decades after the first nuclear weapons for countries to sign nuclear nonproliferation and arms control agreements?

On verification of compliance with arms control agreements:

  • The US uses satellites to check whether Russia is following nuclear arms control agreements--as far as is publicly known, just how good are US spy satellites? What about commercial satellites?
  • The UN's nuclear watchdog extensively monitors a bunch of nuclear power facilities, to make sure they're not using uranium to make nukes. One might think it'd be helpful to also do these things at uranium mines, but they usually don't do this--why not?
  • How good do you think current systems are at detecting secret nuclear facilities?

On what else to check out:

  • In addition to your own blog and podcast as well as this podcast, what are some of your favorite blogs or podcasts on nuclear security or international security?

(Edited to add a few.)

(I don't know that there's much of an EA consensus on nuclear weapons issues--and if there is, I don't know what the consensus is--so these aren't quite questions about what EA gets right/wrong on this.)

(I don't know that there's much of an EA consensus on nuclear weapons issues--and if there is, I don't know what the consensus is--so these aren't quite questions about what EA gets right/wrong on this.)

I think something that is not at all obvious from the outside is that in my estimate, at any given time, there is usually <2 FTE EA researchers who are thinking seriously about nuclear risk strategy from a longtermist angle (not counting advocacy, very junior trainee SERI/CERI researchers, people trying to get into policy position, scattershot work by grantmakers opportunistically evaluating nuclear grants, neartermist work, etc).

I'd be curious for him to elaborate more on "the EA community does on nuclear risk... It's as misguided as the Strategic Air Command's original, you know, approach to nuclear weapons" -- what are the specific mistakes EA is making here and what would a not-misguided approach look like?

For whatever reason, this post quotes Lewis' podcasts comments but not his forum comment expanding on it:

Well, this isn’t how I wanted to start my engagement with the EA community. 

I wouldn’t call the efforts of the EA community amateurish; if I said it or implied it, I am wrong. I am actually really happy you exist.

Other things I actually think:

  1. The EA community is an important innovation in philanthropy similar to the rise of analytics in sports.  The reference to mosquito nets was not intended to be mocking.  On the contrary, I sincerely understand why someone would prefer to give based on data instead of superstition.  My community finds this uncomfortable for the same reason that dinosaurs don’t like asteroids.
  2. A lot of the work I see from the EA community on nuclear issues does leave me cold, but is that an EA problem or a nuclear wonk problem?  I think it’s classic GIGO– garbage in, garbage out. Who is responsible for the garbage inputs? For the most part, that would be us.  We have to provide much better data relevant to the questions of those looking to approach these problems analytically.
  3. The idea that people’s eyes glaze over when I talk at co
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What are the most promising strategies for reducing the risks posed by nuclear weapons / reducing the risk of nuclear war? What kinds of evidence or other arguments are available for finding effective strategies in this space?

Also agree with one of the other comments: would be interesting to hear some further elaboration on what EA gets wrong, or is in danger of getting wrong, in the nuclear space.

What are the most promising strategies for reducing the risks posed by nuclear weapons / reducing the risk of nuclear war?

To cast one vote....    Wait patiently for the moment when our society is ready to face this threat, and have a plan for what we can contribute when that happens.

Off the top of my head, an example of such a plan might be to assemble a group of retired American and Russian diplomats and generals etc and task them with the challenge of working out a process of disarmament.   We aren't ready for such a plan now, but it would... (read more)

Well, you could start by asking him to dial back the ego chest puffing.  

Next, you could ask him to share the evidence that any amount of activism and expert analysis will ever liberate us from the nuclear threat.  

You might ask him to comment on the claim (mine) that nothing meaningful is likely to happen on nuclear weapons until after the next detonation, because human beings are not very good at learning in the abstract.

You could ask him what role nuclear weapons activists should be preparing to play after the next detonation, when conscious raising is no longer necessary.

You could ask him to reflect on the source of nuclear weapons and all other technological threats, an ever accelerating knowledge explosion.

You could ask him to help us identify thinkers who understand and can articulate from a position of cultural authority that focusing on particular technological threats one by one by one is a loser's game, because the knowledge explosion will generate new threats faster than we can address the existing threats.    Evidence:  Seventy years later, no meaningful progress on nuclear weapons.

You could ask him whether, in his opinion, does it make sense to give humanity ever more, ever larger powers, at an ever accelerating rate, given that, as a culture, we've almost totally lost interest in the existential threat presented by 1940's technology?

Why have the US and the USSR/Russia invested so much in making lots of land-based nuclear missiles?

That's a great question, thanks.   As you probably know, Secretary of Defense William Perry (Clinton administration) suggested getting rid of the land based missiles.  It's the land based missiles which force the decision making on to a single person, the President, under extremely short time frames.