The importance, tractability, neglected framework: while working on important, tractable issues makes sense, what does neglectedness tell us?
The common response I hear in the community is that there exist diminishing marginal returns on working on an issue; however, I believe this explanation alone does not capture the full story. (And neither do a lot of EA organizations.)
Here, I explain what I believe to be a better catchphrase to explain the importance of neglectedness: contingency.
A focus on neglectedness has multiple upsides that all deviate but are related:
- (1) 80/20: There are diminishing marginal returns on the n-th person working on an issue because all of the “low-hanging fruits” – e.g. easy research, development, and implementation of solutions to a cause area – will be taken early. This is the common argument for neglectedness, as it is understood – the 80/20 rule.
- (2) Initial Momentum: The “founders” of a cause area take the time to set up the infrastructure for a new cause area – such as talent searching & recruiting; institution-building; securing funding; marketing; and building the worldview, values, and norms of a space. Helping to get the “ball rolling” – e.g. for neglected research fields within the AI alignment or biosecurity space – feels extraordinarily impactful, and distinct from pure diminishing marginal return from direct progress.
- (3) Meta-Level Reminder: Neglectedness serves as an acknowledgement that the most tractable thing to do may not be in the most “popular fields” or the ones that come directly to mind, serving as an epistemic reminder to be more open-minded and venture out further for the most effective solutions.
These arguments are important to differentiate. Unfortunately, pure diminishing returns tends to be visualized as an extension of direct tractability (1) by newcomers.
However, especially for longtermists, (2) and (3) are significant reasons for working on neglected fields; working on extremely neglected issues should thus be viewed as having a cascading, systemic impact. Bringing a field to prominence and looking for new fields to start entrepreneurial projects in is extremely important. Longtermists usually find neglected fields to establish systems – build new infrastructure, bring in funding, bring together stakeholders, and gradually establish a proper research field with its own literature and institutions – in a cascading butterfly effect where more people, talent, and ideas get brought in.
Community-builders: how do we capture this, in a quick phrase? How do we replace "diminishing marginal returns" with something better?
The better argument in favor of neglectedness
Furthermore, diminishing marginal returns on a cause area tends to hold true, but has its exceptions. For example, what if you're able to leverage resources in a larger cause area? One may be able to climb to a powerful position & redirect resources from a popular cause area, helping to push them toward more tractable ways of working on the cause area.
This is generally a special exception, but speaks to how "what can the marginal person do?" is too economic theory-esque, doesn't directly relate to actionability, and isn't generalizable.
Therefore, in explaining EA to newcomers, I've found the need to rephrase and connect "neglectedness" into "contingency."
Having a contingent impact is just a better explanation for the importance of neglectedness: in the absence of your intervention, how would have things have played out?
- If the same, you likely didn't make that big of an impact.
- If differently, you did.
Newton & Leipzig invented calculus at around the same time, so the invention of calculus may not have been contingent & was bound to happen anyways. However, certain events & movements likely were, especially key historic elections, formational institution-building, Cold War-era nuclear policy, and (hopefully) longtermist AI alignment efforts.
To tie it all together definitionally, very contingent efforts can be found in interventions that are neglected in the status quo.
We can then rephrase looking for neglected sub-areas of popular cause areas into looking at which points of leverage you can apply the most contingent impact, which generalizes the point more cleanly.
Edit Update: The contingency part was inspired by What We Owe the Future's significance, persistency, contingency framework. At the time of this article's posting, however, I didn't read the appendix ofWhat We Owe the Future where Will MacAskill suggests renaming neglectedness to leverage. I suppose we were both thinking similarly!
Even if this effect is captured in the overall "diminishing marginal returns" argument in economics, it feels important enough to differentiate as as separate reason.