[ Question ]

What posts you are planning on writing?

by vaidehi_agarwalla, JamesFaville1 min read24th Jul 201992 comments


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James Faville and I think that it would be valuable for people to get feedback on posts they are planning on writing, in particular in getting an idea of what others would be most excited to read.

We think this will accomplish a few things:

1. Encourage people to publish the posts

2. Help them prioritize between post ideas based on community feedback

3. Get directed to useful readings/resources

4. (For everyone) Get a sense of what the community is working on

Edit: If you'd like community feedback on a post, there is an EA Editing and Review facebook group.

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24 Answers

"Examples of good EA hiring practices":

A list of good things I've seen various EA orgs do in their hiring processes (in the process of applying to at least seven of them). Meant as inspiration for other organizations; I'd hope that it would get lots of additional material from commenters who have also applied for EA jobs.

"The EA Doldrums: Drifting for no good reason"

A piece exploring why it took me so long to go from "leader of moderately successful student group" to "actually applying for jobs in EA", and speculating that there may be a lot of other people who aren't aware of how qualified they actually are for direct work (with reference to at least one more anecdotal example of someone who was in the "doldrums" for a while). Includes thoughts on what kinds of prompting might actually get people in these positions to take EA jobs seriously.

(in no particular order)

1. The application of social movement theory to EA group building

a. The tensions between a member-organising movement (grassroots) and a centrally organised (top down) movement (early draft)

b. historical case studies of movement building to learn from (brainstorming - environmental movement)

2. Ideas to improve the presence of EA in developing countries and non-EA Hubs (editing stage)

3. Climate Change and EA

a. A research agenda for EA and climate change (early draft)

b. How to make room for climate change research in the EA movement (editing stage)

4. Career Change Resources in the EA Community Research project (research stage)

"Health and happiness: some open research topics"

This has been 90% complete for >6 months but finishing it has never seemed the top priority. The draft summary is below, and I can share the drafts with interested people, e.g. those looking for a thesis topic.


While studying health economics and working on the 2019 Global Happiness and Wellbeing Policy Report, I accumulated a list of research gaps within these fields. Most are related to the use of subjective wellbeing (SWB) as the measure of utility in the evaluation of health interventions and the quantification of the burden of disease, but many are relevant to cause prioritisation more generally.

This series of posts outlines some of these topics, and discusses ways they could be tackled. Some of them could potentially be addressed by non-profits, but the majority are probably a better fit for academia. In particular, many would be suitable for undergraduate or master's theses in health economics, public health, psychology and maybe straight economics – and some could easily fill up an entire PhD, or even constitute a new research programme.

The topics are divided into three broad themes, each of which receives its own post.

Part 1: Theory

The first part focuses on three fundamental issues that must be addressed before the quality-adjusted life-year (QALY) and the disability-adjusted life-year (DALY) can be derived from SWB measures, which would effectively create a wellbeing-adjusted life-year (WELBY).

Topic 1: Reweighting the QALY and DALY using SWB

Topic 2: Anchoring SWB measures to the QALY/DALY scale

Topic 3: Valuing states 'worse than dead’

Part 2: Application

Assuming the technical and theoretical hurdles can be overcome, this section considers four potential applications of a WELBY-style metric.

Topic 4: Re-estimating the global burden of disease based on SWB

Topic 5: Re-estimating disease control priorities based on SWB

Topic 6: Estimating SWB-based cost-effectiveness thresholds

Topic 7: Comparing human and animal wellbeing

Parts 1 and 2 include a brief assessment of each topic in terms of importance, tractability and neglectedness. I'm pretty sceptical of the ITN framework, especially as applied to solutions rather than problems, and I haven't tried to give numerical scores to each criterion, but I found it useful for highlighting caveats. Overall, I'm fairly confident that these topics are neglected, but I'm not making any great claims about their tractability, importance or overall priority relative to other areas of global health/development, let alone compared to issues in other cause areas. It would take much more time than I have at the moment to make that kind of judgement.

Part 3: Challenges

The final section highlights some additional questions that require answering before the case for a wellbeing approach can be considered proven. These are not discussed in as much detail and no ITN assessment is provided (the Roman numerals reinforce their distinction from the main topics addressed in Parts 1 and 2).

(i) Don’t QALYs and DALYs have to be derived from preferences?

(ii) In any case, shouldn’t we focus on improving preference-based methods?

(iii) Should the priority be reforming the QALY rather than the DALY?

(iv) Are answers to SWB questions really interpersonally comparable?

(v) Which SWB self-report measure is best?

(vi) Whose wellbeing is actually measured by self-reported SWB scales?

(vii) Whose wellbeing should be measured?

(viii) How feasible is it to obtain the required data?

(ix) Are more objective measures of SWB viable yet?

Part 3 also concludes the series by considering the general pros and cons of working on outcome metrics.

A sequence on moral anti-realism and its implications

I published the first post "What is moral realism?" last year and have about five half-finished drafts stored somewhere, but then I got sidetracked massively. Tentative titles were:

1. What is moral realism? [published]

2. Against irreducible normativity

3. Is there a wager for moral realism?

4. Metaethical fanaticism (dialogue about the strange implications of an infinite "moral realism wager")

5. [Untitled – something about "People aren't born consequentialists; people live their lives in different modes; vocations are not just discovered but also chosen"]

6. Introspection-based moral realism

7. Why I'm a moral anti-realist (sequence summary)

8. Anti-realism is not nihilistic

9. Anti-realism: What changes?

  • Less bullet biting?
  • Treating peer disagreements about values differently
  • Moral uncertainty vs. moral underdetermination

I might find some time later this year to finish more of the posts, but I'm not sure I still want to do the entire sequence. I considered just skipping to posts 7. - 9. because that used to be my original plan, but then the project somehow took on a much larger scale. I'd be curious to what degree there's interest on the following topics:

(a) What are the arguments against (various angles of) moral realism?

(b) What is it that people are even doing when they do moral philosophy?

(c) What do anti-realists think they're doing; why do they care?

(d) Implications for moral reasoning if anti-realism is correct

I included links to my working drafts to help understand the projects better, but please keep in mind that they contain statements that I will change my mind on after further research or contemplation. Also, they are not very tidy.

Year-by-year analysis of corporate campaigns (~50% done, draft)

This is basically an appendix to my cost-effectiveness estimate of corporate cage-free and broiler campaigns. Will contain graphs that will show how many animals were affected by campaigns each year, how cost-effectiveness has changed, and why we shouldn’t overreact to the analysis.

Numbers of animals slaughtered (~40% done, draft)

A collection of estimates of how many animals are kept in captivity for various purposes. E.g., meat, fur, wool, experiments, zoos, fish stocking, silk, etc.

Numbers of wild animals affected by humans in various ways (~30% done, draft)

Another collection of estimates. E.g. how many wild fish we catch, how many animals are killed by domestic cats, how many birds die after colliding with man-made objects, etc.

Surveys about veg*ism in the U.S. (not started)

I previously examined surveys about veganism and vegetarianism in the U.S. here. Results were conflicting. Now I want to conduct my own surveys to try to figure out what’s happening. This SSC post provides a hypothesis about why 2-6% of people claim to be vegetarians in surveys but then >60% of them report eating meat on at least one of two days for which they were asked to fill a dietary recall survey. I want to test it by seeing how many people will claim that they eat a breatharian diet (eat no solids at all). I think that ~3% of people will claim that they do it because they answer questions without reading, or purposefully answer incorrectly, or misunderstand the question. This would explain why surveys that simply ask people “Are you a vegan?” find such unreasonably high percentages. I also want to test other survey designs in a similar way and then make a better survey on the subject.

Trends of vegetarianism and veganism in the UK (not started)

Similar to what I wrote for the U.S. (link) but for the UK. I want to see if there will be similar patterns.

I have two drafts saved with only a few links or a couple of paragraphs written:

1. How do we respond to criticism of EA on the forum?

Several commentators on the forum have recently casually expressed theories of how effective altruists respond to criticism of EA on the forum. Some have expressed skepticism of the idea that EAs can respond positively to criticism of EA. I aim to look at several notable comments and posts on the forum over at least the past several months to see how criticism is practically received on the forum.

My tentative theory, without having properly researched this, is that EAs are generally too eager to read and upvote any nicely written criticism by an intelligent person that sounds non-threatening enough. Criticism of this sort, while often praised, is often not deeply engaged with. On the rare occasion that criticism seems threatening enough to EA, there's deeper engagement with the actual arguments, rather than responses mostly trying to signal-boosting the criticism. There's also one instance of a threatening criticism on a particularly political topic that attracted significantly lower quality comments in my opinion.

The posts I've casually collected so far are:

Benjamin Hoffman's Drowning Children are Rare

Jeff Kaufman's There's Lots More To Do

beth's Three Biases That Made Me Believe in AI Risk

Fods12' Effective Altruism is an Ideology, not (just) a Question

EAs for Inclusion's Making discussions in EA groups inclusive

Jessica Taylor's The AI Timelines Scam (maybe?)

Jessica Taylor's The Act of Charity

Benjamin Hoffman's Effective Altruism is Self-recommending

Alexander Guzey's William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better"

Chris Smith's The Optimizer's Curse & Wrong-Way Reductions

Milan Griffes' Cash prizes for the best arguments against psychedelics being an EA cause area (maybe?)

2. Will I be accepted in EA if I'm not prodigiously successful professionally?

The EA community contains a tremendous amount of extremely talented and accomplished people. I worry that unless I also achieve a lot of professional success, other EAs won't particularly respect me, like me, or particularly want to interact with me. While some of this is definitely related to my own issues about social acceptance, I think there's a decent chance that many other people also feel this way. My aim is to explore my feelings and what about EA makes me feel this way, and encourage others to express how they feel about their place in the community as well. At a meta-level, I hope to at least explore how a different, more feelings focused article might fit in this forum. I don't want to give any specific solutions, imply that this is a problem of any particular magnitude, or even imply that this is necessarily a problem on net for EA.

1. "Survey of arguments for focusing on suffering reduction"
-I'm particularly interested in arguments from and for the nonexistence of positive mental states.

2."The case for studying abroad at Oxford"
-Argue, based on personal experience, that students across the world who are interested in EA should seriously consider studying abroad at Oxford and provide advice on how to make the most of that experience.

3."The case for recruiting for AI safety research in Brazil"
-Lay out the reasons for thinking Brazil is a low hanging fruit for recruiting in AI safety research

"List of public donation logs":

A list of people who have made their donations public. Meant as inspiration for people who might consider doing the same, or information for people who want more perspective on causes they might consider supporting.

I'm going to list my answers separately for easier upvoting/commentary.

"Effective Altruism 2050: The Grand Story", which explores how people might think about EA in the future, and especially how "credit" might be allocated for whatever we've accomplished.

The thesis of the piece is that most of our current concerns about which kinds of work are high-status or not may fade away over time, to be replaced by a general sense that everyone who did EA-adjacent things was part of the same "story", trying to do their best under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

"EAs within non-EA charities"

A post to explore the following and put a lot more detailed thought, based on my own professional experience of trying to do this for a few months or so, into how it could work...

I work in a large charity in the UK and although I think the work we do is important, it doesn't fit into the highly valuable cause areas commonly accepted by the EA community.

Still, there are lots of reasons that someone like me might continue to work in a less effective job. For example:

  • It's a good employer in your area and you need to stay living around there for caring/family reasons
  • You're building up your skills in an early or new career position
  • You've worked there for ages and only recently discovered EA principles

So skipping part the "go work on a more effective cause" answer, what can people who support EA ideas do in a non-EA charity?

I think there might be crossover with the kind of recommendations you might give to someone work in government, especially when you consider how bound up a lot of UK charities are with public work (Alzheimers Society, Citizens Advice, Church of England, Trussell Trust)

Apart from that I would have thought you could bring over EA principles and play a sort of activist role to make a positive impact when it comes to:

  • prioritising research and product development
  • raising awareness of good impact based decision making within the organisation
  • encouraging a more enlightened view of career development within the organisation
  • sharing and collaborating more generously with the wider social sector
  • in the case of large organisations, doing more to shape the market in terms of what funders aim for when they award grants or commission work

That's all I've got for now but I've actually been able to put some of this into effect, in a fairly modest way, where I work. I wondered if this seems like an interesting topic to explore in more detail?

In particular, assuming that there are people who will stay in a non-EA role but still have some capacity and interest in doing a bit more good by using EA principles, what are the methods/tools/guidelines they can use?

PSA: the EA Editing and Review facebook group is intended for this use-case. It has 650 members; feedback on posted drafts is generally good.

"My EA Origin Story":

An attempt to answer the question "why did I become part of the EA movement" in excruciating detail. Would examine every factor I can think of, from the circumstances of my birth to movies I liked as a teenager to the specific set of classes I took in my freshman year of college.

The goal: Get other people to think about what really got them into EA -- not just what happened right before the transition, but all the factors that led to their being ready to accept the ideas. I'd hope to see other people write similar stories (maybe in less detail) after reading mine.

"Possible Edge Cases in Dietary Effects on Animal Welfare"

When I do consume meat, it's 'humanely raised' (grass-fed etc. etc.) or wild-caught. I think the state of the art on the ethics and evidence around these food sources (vs. plausible substitutes) is muddy, and I want to publish my thoughts so someone can help me see things more clearly.

1. Framing issues with the unilateralist's curse.

I'd like to expand this shortform comment into a more detailed post with slightly better examples, some tentative conclusions, and a clear takeaway for what types of future research would be desirable.

2. A Post on Power Law distributions

Two possible posts here:

A. Power Law Distributions? It's less likely than you think.

a. Basically, lots of EAs arguing that the distribution over {charitable organizations, interventions, people, causes} is ~power law.

b. I claim that this is unlikely. The distribution over most things that matter seem to be a heavy tail distribution that's less extreme than power law.

c. outline here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/17n27ygtUloGrFGqJyOV0Q-yUdGrK5HQoEI-de8lXTy0/edit

d. Unfortunately understanding this well involves some mathematical machinery and a lot of real-world stats that's been somewhat hard for me to make progress on (happy to hand it off to somebody else!)

B. What to do if we live in a power law world

The alternative post is to argue for why if were to take the power law hypothesis about EA-relevant things seriously, we should change our actions dramatically in key ways. I think it might be helpful to start a conversation about this.

3. Thoughts on South Bay EA

I cofounded and co-organized South Bay EA, and had a pretty comprehensive write-up about what futures we should be planning for. My co-organizers and I are still debating between whether to anonymize and share the write-up to benefit future organizers.

4. EA SF tentative plan

Similarly, I've vaguely been thinking of having a public write-up about plans for EA San Francisco so it's easier to a) get feedback through external criticism and b) find collaborators/potential co-organizers online rather than entirely through my network.

Here's some stuff which I may consider writing when I have more time. The posts are currently too low on the priorities list to work on, but if anyone thinks one of these is especially interesting or valuable, I might prioritize it higher, or work on it a little when I need a break from my current main project. For the most part I'm unlikely to prioritize writing in the near future though because I suspect my opinions are going to rapidly change on a lot of these topics soon (or my view on their usefulness / importance / relevance).

1) Where Does EA take root? The characteristics of geographic regions which have unusually high numbers of effective altruists, with a eye towards guessing which areas might be fertile places to attempt more growth. (Priority 4/10, mostly because I mostly already have the data due to working on another thing, but I'm not sure to which growth is a priority)

2) Systemic Change - What does it mean in concrete terms? How would you accomplish it within an EA framework? How might you begin attempting to quantify your impact? Zooming out from the impact analysis side of things a bit to look at the power structures creating the current conditions, and understanding the "replaceabilty" issues for people who work within the system. (priority 3/10, may move up the priorities list later because I anticipate having more data and relevant experience becoming available soon, but I'm ).

3) A (as far as I know novel) thought experiment meant to complicate utilitarianism, which has produced some very divergent responses when I pose it conversation so far. The intention is to call into question what exactly it is that we suppose ought to be maximized. (priority 3/10)

4) How to turn philosophical intuitions about "happiness", "suffering", "preference", 'hedons" and other subjective phenomenological experiences into something which can be understood within a science/math framework, at least for the purposes of making moral decisions. (priority 3/10)

5) Applying information in posts (3) and (4) to make practical decisions about some moral "edge cases". Edge cases include things like: non-human life, computer algorithms, babies and fetuses, coma, dementia, severe brain damage and congenital abnormalities. (priority 3/10)

6) How are human moral and epistemic foundations formed? If you understand the "No Universally Compelling Arguments" set of concepts, this post is basically helping people apply that principle in practical terms referencing real human minds and cultures, integrating various cultural anthropology and post modernist works. (priority 2/10)

"How targeted should donation recommendations be" (sorta)

I've noticed that Givewell targets specific programs (e.g. their recommendation), ACE targets whole organisations, and among far future charities you just kinda get promising-sounding cause areas.

I'm interested in what kind of differences between cause areas lead to this, and also whether anything can be done to make more fine-grained evaluations more desirable in practice.

Thinking of writing a shallow cause profile on lobbying for country-to-country debt relief

I'm doing a lit review on the effectiveness of lobbying and on some of the relevant theoretical background that I'm planning on posting when I'm done. I feel like this is potentially very relevant but I'm not sure if people will be interested.

I am planning on writing a post summarizing the existing discussion of information cascades in EA and when doing and the different forms and possibilities to do something against it. Lastly, I discuss why the concept of the information cascade might disadvantageous. I would be interested in comments on the draft.

I'm writing a post about how our discussions of emerging technologies could apply technological determinism or social construction theory more rigorously. For example, we often talk about AI in a way that suggests that it is likely to advance towards superintelligence (technological determinism), but then assert that society has the power to shape the development of AI (social constructivism), given that superintelligence will emerge (determinism again). I think this reasoning is muddled, but I am not suggesting that we must choose either-or between determinism and constructivism.

An AMA. I honestly don't think I'm a particularly good person to write one, but I think it would be good to have more on here.

I think if you're in an EA job I'd love to see an AMA from you.

i just want to write about Do plants really feel pain? i think it might be a great topic to share here.

Importance, Tractibility and Neglectedness should not have equal weight.

TL;Dr, Neglectedness is a useful tiebreaker and gives you information about tractability but the relatively common matrix approach of scoring possible ideas on ITN and then ranking based on the sum of the scores overweights it.