The most successful EA podcast of all time: Sam Harris and Will MacAskill (2020)

by Aaron Gertler5 min read3rd Jul 202120 comments

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Context

My job is about helping people get involved in effective altruism, so I pay attention to how this happens.

I'm not sure I've ever seen any piece of content not named "Doing Good Better" get as much positive as Sam Harris's two podcast episodes with Will MacAskill.

Impact

Both episodes seem to have caused a spike in GWWC memberships, and the second may have boosted EA engagement more generally. Some notes on that:

  • GWWC estimates that over 600 people have taken the pledge in part because of the episodes (with another ~600 signing up for Try Giving). To break this down:
    • ~800 people who finished the sign-up survey mentioned a podcast as one way they found GWWC (the average person chose 1.8 sources).
    • Of the 123 people who said which podcast it was, 107 said Sam Harris (87%).
    • Extrapolating a similar rate to the ~700 who didn't say which podcast gives another ~600 referrals on top of the original 107.
    • The "podcast" option was only added to the form in October 2020, before the second episode but after the first; another ~500 people who filled it out before then mentioned Sam somewhere.
      • I'd guess that most of these were coming from the first episode with Will, though he may have mentioned his giving in other episodes, and GWWC by extension.
  • An extremely engaged community builder told me in February 2021: "I feel like most new EAs I've met in the last year came in through Sam Harris."
  • My subjective impression in the weeks after the second episode came out was that most of the ambient "positive EA chatter" I heard on Twitter (people tweeting out random EA endorsements who normally talked about other things) included mentions of the podcast.

Why was this so impactful?

Some factors I think were important:

Sam set an example.

  • One of the most persuasive ways to promote something is to do it yourself.
  • One of Sam's explicit goals on the podcast is to get listeners to make ethical decisions, and I'd imagine that many listeners seek him out for ethical advice. This isn't as much the case for podcasters like Tim Ferriss or Joe Rogan, or other sources of publicity (TED, op-eds, etc.)
    • From the transcript below: "The question that underlies all of this, really, is: How can we live a morally beautiful life? That is more and more what I care about,  and what the young Will MacAskill is certainly doing."

Sam made a rare endorsement.

  • Sam took several minutes to explain why he thinks giving is important, and gives GWWC a strong recommendation. This is a rare thing for him to do; most of his guests aren't selling anything (save maybe a book), and he doesn't advertise on his podcast.
  • Comparatively, Tim Ferriss (another major podcaster who had Will as a guest) has ~5 minutes of long-form advertising on every episode, and generally recommends lots of things every time a guest comes on. On the writeup of Will's episode, GWWC was the 23rd item on a bullet list of "selected links".
    • Tim's podcast referred 8 people to GWWC. This is actually a solid number, given that the "where you heard about us" question wasn't added until more than a year after that episode came out. But I think the true impact of the episode was still much lower than that of the Sam episodes, despite Tim's larger audience.

The conversation is really good.

  • I listened to the second episode soon after it came out, before I knew anything about its impact, and was almost immediately struck by how good Will's pitch was. It was clear he'd built up a huge amount of experience in the 5+ years since Doing Good Better came out, and it helped to have a friendly interviewer who was quite familiar with EA's basic ideas.
  • Some things I liked about the conversation:
    • The expansive definition of EA (given by Sam):
      • "This does connect to deeper and broader questions like 'How should we think about doing good in the world in general?', 'What would it mean to do as much good as possible?', and 'How do those questions connect to questions around what sort of person I should be, or what it means to live a truly good life?'"
      • It seems really good to be clear that EA isn't just about "doing good for others", but also "living a truly good life" for one's own sake.
    • The connection of EA to topical questions
      • Sam brings up the question at one point of whether people living on the streets in San Francisco could be said to be as badly-off as the world's poorest people in other countries. Will gives a "yes, and" response to this — not just dismissing the idea that U.S. homelessness could matter as an issue, but acknowledging that it is important while noting that it probably isn't tractable (without using those exact words).
      • It's also nice that Will takes the chance to share his "current favorite climate change charity", which shakes off a few more out-of-date stereotypes about EA as a movement.
    • The "lesson"-based structure of the conversation
      • My understanding (though I could be wrong) is that this discussion was set up to be broken into a series of mini-lessons for users of the Waking Up app. The conversation feels that way — lots of different topics, but with clear transitions between them.

Transcript

I published the transcript separately so the post wouldn't be too long. I highly recommend reading or listening to absorb what makes this content so good.

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20 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:24 AM
New Comment

Thanks for the write up!

I'd also mention 'fit with audience' as an even bigger factor.

Sam's audience are people who are into big technical intellectual topics like philosophy, physics, consciousness; and also their impact on society. They're also up for considering weird or unpopular ideas. And the demographics also seem pretty similar to EA. So it's hard to imagine a following with a better potential fit.

I can imagine Lex Fridman ('s audience) being similarly engaged. Would be great if we could get him to interview someone like Will, Toby, Bostrom etc.

Looks like this already happened, in March 2020: https://lexfridman.com/william-macaskill/

Dunno how I missed that! Still, I bet he'd also be really interested in conversations with the FHI crew.

His average viewership seems to have 5xed since then, too.

Viewership as in YouTube viewers? Where are you getting that stat from?

Yeah, just looking at the view counts of a bunch of his YouTube videos in that time. That seems to be his primary platform, so I'd guess its an OK representation of his total listenership

Toby or Anders, then :P

Although he mentions at the start that he'd be interested in doing further episodes with Bostrom.

This is also reflected very clearly in EA Survey data. 

Here's the breakdown of which specific podcasts people cited in EAS 2020, for where they first heard about EA.

You can also get a sense of the magnitude of Sam Harris' podcast compared to other things like Doing Good Better from looking at the total number of mentions across response categories. (Respondents were asked to first indicate where they first heard about EA from a list of broad categories like 'Book', 'Podcast', and then asked to provide further details (e.g. what book or podcast) in an open comment. Only 60% of respondents to the first question gave further details so the numbers are commensurately lower.)

Taking these numbers at face value, Sam Harris seems to represent more than twice the recruitment effect of Doing Good Better, and slightly higher than half as much as Peter Singer.

One good reason  not to take these numbers at face value is that they will be influenced by how recently these factors were recruiting people. We see consistent signs of attrition across cohorts, so a factor which recruits people in 2020 will have a lot more of those people left in the sample than a factor which recruited a lot of people in 2015 (of whom probably >60% have dropped out by 2020).

Nice post. I would also add that Sam's podcast with Toby Ord discussed many EA-related concepts including the GWWC pledge. I signed up directly as a result of that podcast and I would expect that there may have been a similar spike as seen after the Will MacAskill episodes. 

I felt that I absorbed something helpful from this conversation that I hope will make me better at introducing EA ideas. Is there a list of other examples of especially effective EA communication that would-be evangelists could learn from? I'm especially interested in conversations in which someone experienced with EA ideas discusses them with someone newer, as I feel that this stage can be especially tricky and important. 

For example, here are two other conversations that come to mind that I felt I absorbed something helpful from with respect to introducing EA ideas: 

  • The recent 80k interview with Bob Wright, in particular from 2:47-12:52. Specifically, I was impressed with how Rob managed to give a fairly broad and well-balanced sketch of EA without getting sidetracked by Wright's somewhat off-center questions. Overall this was one of my less favorite 80k episodes, but I think these 10 minutes are worth listening to for those interested in communicating about EA. 
  • Ben Todd and Arden Koehler discussing the core idea of EA. A little more meta in the sense that Ben and Arden are both experienced with EA, but many parts of this still seem relevant in this regard. 

If a list like this doesn't exist, I want to make it exist - open to suggestions on the best way to do that. (E.g. should I post this as a question or top-level post?)

"My understanding (though I could be wrong) is that this discussion was set up to be broken into a series of mini-lessons for users of the Waking Up app." <- I can confirm this is correct.

The first episode came out August 2016. This is highly speculative, but could the Trump 2016 successful campaign have played a role in the impact of this episode? 

I wouldn't suggest this, however this first episode influenced me heavily with donations and enthusiasm for EA. I had decided prior to listening, I ought to donate more of my wealth to charity and was pretty firm on the idea. This was likely due to a couple of reasons, but Trump's popularity was definitely one of them. The strong nationalism and disregard for decency (in my opinion) conflicted with my moral views. Maybe I wasn't that unique and a lot of people with similar globalised moral inclinations were "triggered" or encouraged by this environment to reflect more on their beliefs.

I found the episode via googling something along the lines of "effective charities" (November/December, 2016), and it would have been one of the top links (on first few pages). I'm not sure if I had ever listened to a Sam Harris podcast before, but would have recognised the name as someone I respected from my early adult "anti-religion" phase.

Sorry if that is self-indulgent over sharing, but it might just be relevant that the first episode came out at a fairly convenient time? 

I do think that the possible factors in the article, as well as "fit with audience" mentioned by Ben Todd and others are stronger factors.

That's an interesting theory, but if there was an effect, I don't see it in the data we have on the growth of Giving What We Can. (The slope goes a bit higher around the 2016 election, but that happens every holiday season, because there's a lot more charitable giving then.)

That fits with what we're seeing at Effective Altruism New Zealand. The Sam Harris/Will MacAskill podcast is still a common referral source for new donors, and for people requesting copies of Doing Good Better via our book giveaway. So +1 piece of supporting anecdata

Yep, in my new EA Fellowship group, one participant also mentioned that podcast as basic inspiration to join EA. Proof by anecdote.

Thanks for this recommendation! It caused me to listen to this episode, which I otherwise probably wouldn't have done. 

I agree with Ben that the outsize impact of this episode may largely be due to the amenability of Sam's audience to EA ideas, but I also thought this was a fantastic conversation which does a great job introducing EA in a positive, balanced, and accurate way.  I do feel I absorbed something from listening to Will here that will hopefully make me better at introducing EA ideas. I may also start recommending this episode as an introduction to EA for some people, though I don't think it will be my main go-to for most people.

I'm also glad to have listened to this conversation merely out of appreciation for its role in bringing so many people to the movement. :)

Hi Aaron,

Sorry about being nit-picky. I had to read the following statement 4-5 times, until I realized that there is a "pause" before the word "drive", and then I understood what you were saying. Maybe you can add a "comma" for other readers like me. Feel free to ignore.

"I'm not sure I've ever seen any piece of content not named "Doing Good Better" drive as much positive engagement as Sam Harris's two podcast episodes with Will MacAskill — especially the second one."

Awesome episode! I really enjoyed listening to it when it came out and was excited for Sam's large audiences across Waking Up and Making Sense to learn about EA in this way.

[+][comment deleted]4mo 1