This is just a thought I had today listening to the most recent episode with Ben Garfinkel. There are times when listening to 80,000 Hours episodes when I wonder what an expert on 'the other side of the argument' would say to a particular point made. Hosts like Rob Wiblin and Howie Lempel do a good job in challenging guests in this way, but it's not quite the same as having two experts on opposite sides of an argument respond to each other in real time with a moderator.

An example of such a debate was a recent episode on The Future of Life Institute podcast where Stuart Russell and Steven Pinker discussed the dangers of AI. Personally I think there could have been a better choice than Steven Pinker who isn't really an AI expert, but it was interesting to hear Stuart and Steven respond to each other. Whilst neither changed the other's mind, which is rare in debates, I think it's useful for listeners to hear both sides of an argument. Also, such podcast discussions seem more efficient than posting online back and forth like Stuart Russell and Yann LeCun did a while back on AI and Will MacAskill and Toby Ord did on how influential the present might be, granted this method of communication does give each party some time to carefully form their response.

There are quite a few ongoing debates in EA circles and I think it would be interesting to hear some podcast debates on them. What do you think?

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Thanks for this Jack! We'd definitely like to experiment with this.

I'm personally very keen on Will's 'Anti-Debates' idea, which I think takes care of some of the concerns.

I'd be excited to hear suggestions for the dream guests + topics for a pilot version.

Nice to hear from you Keiran. That idea is interesting. For me the “figure out what the truth is” aspect is the most important thing. I don’t necessarily think there has to be a “winner” of the debate, I just want two experts to be able to hash out their differences and hopefully in doing so get closer to the truth. Maybe the anti-debate format is conducive to that.

In terms of a wishlist of topics see below for some ideas. This thread has a lot of good ideas. I'm not massively concerned about who is involved as long as they are experts or well-versed in what they're talking about.

  • Stuart Russell "vs" someone on whether AI is a significant x-risk that we should focus on or not
  • Will MacAskill "vs" Toby Ord on 'hinginess' of the present/probability of x-risk this century/broad or targeted approaches to long-termism
  • Someone (maybe Toby Ord) "vs" someone (maybe Simon Knutsson) on whether we should focus on suffering more than on happiness, or should be treating these the same
  • Hauke Hillebrandt "vs" someone on economic growth vs randomista development
  • Maybe a debate on population ethics (e.g. total view vs not total view)
  • Maybe a debate on the validity of long-termism. I'm not actually sure who a prominent critic of long-termism is but such a debate would be very interesting

In short, any debate that is ongoing in EA circles, that has credible voices on either side and that has important implications for what we should do.

By the way I enjoy listening to the Unbelievable? podcast in which the host Justin Brierley often hosts debates between atheists and christians. He moderates pretty well, even though he is a christian it is not clear at all from his moderating which side he is on! You may (or may not) find it useful to check out a debate from that podcast. In normal times they actually get the guests in the same room and video the debate so it's available as both an audio and visual podcast.

That almost perfectly matches my own wish list!

Thanks for the ideas Jack, really appreciate it.

Glad to hear it!

I'm happy to hear that you are keen on the anti-debates idea! I suggested it to the EA Global organizers a few years ago, but it seems they weren't very interested. (Incidentally, the idea isn't Will's, or mine; it dates back at least to this debate between David Chalmers and Guido Tononi from 2016.)

A possible variant is to randomize whether the debate will or will not be reversed, and challenge the audience to guess whether the debaters are arguing for their own positions or their opponents', disclosing the answer only at the end of the episode. (In some cases, or for some members of the audience, the answer will be obvious from background information about the debaters, but it's unclear how often this will be the case.)

EDIT: I now see that I misunderstood what was meant by an 'anti-debate': not a debate where each person defends the opposite side, but rather a debate that is collaborative rather than competitive. I personally would be interested in anti-debates in either of those senses.

Another way to accomplish something similar would be to post the podcasts to the EA Forum and have this be the official place for people to comment on them.

I like that idea. I think it would be great if we could do both!

Overall I think this sounds really cool. There are a few things I would be cautious of though. One thing I would worry about is artificially creating a sense of two distinct "sides" on an issue, when there is likely much more complexity and many more perspectives than is being presented in the debate. I think there's a recognition when only one person is being interviewed that there are many other perspectives on the issue, however, when it's a debate people seem to feel that the perspectives presented encompass the whole space.

The tendency towards side-taking also worries me. The two-party system is a classic example of this, which pushes people towards political coalitions, instead of thinking about each policy or situation independently. Some listeners may be pushed to thinking "I'm on X's side" which could have negative group polarization effects while also not necessarily promoting a holistic understanding of the issue at hand.

It could also promote a tendency towards "yes/no" questions, which I think aren't too useful for the kinds of questions we're interested in which have very complex cost/benefit tradeoffs.

However, if the debates were chaired carefully and the host tries to interject nuance, find common ground, play devil's advocate, etc., then maybe these worries could be alleviated, while also helping people to understand how different beliefs compare and relate to each other.

Fair points, although I do think it could work with skilled moderation. Generally from my experience EAs aren't that prone to picking sides and being dogmatic, but I do think debates would have to be handled with care. In any case it may be worth giving it a go to see.

I would love to see events or podcasts for good-faith debates on important topics (even those that fall outside of the top EA causes) from any EA-aligned people or organisations.

I think it could help us engage productively with audiences we don't usually engage with, and is a great demonstrating our values/methods to a broader audience and engaging with people we don't usually engage with.

As an example, EA Philadelphia hosted an animal welfare debate on Abolitionism vs Welfarism a few months ago (which you can view here), which went really well and was one of our highest attended events.

Thanks, I agree!

I like the idea of having people with different opinions discuss their disagreements, but I don't think they should be marketed as debates. That term doesn't have positive connotations, and seems to imply that there will be a winner/loser. Even if there is no official winner/loser, it puts the audience and the participants in a zero-sum mentality.

I think something more like an adversarial collaboration would be healthier, and I like that term more because it's not as loaded, and it's more up front about what we actually want the participants to do.

I actually completely agree. I'm sort of against there being a winner and loser because that might imply that the winner's side of the argument is now objectively better and should be adopted by EAs. I doubt anything will be 'settled' by a podcast episode, but it should hopefully identify points of contention and help us get closer to the truth

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