Linch's Shortform

by Linch19th Sep 2019166 comments
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Red teaming papers as an EA training exercise?

I think a plausibly good training exercise for EAs wanting to be better at empirical/conceptual research is to deep dive into seminal papers/blog posts and attempt to identify all the empirical and conceptual errors in past work, especially writings by either a) other respected EAs or b) other stuff that we otherwise think of as especially important. 

I'm not sure how knowledgeable you have to be to do this well, but I suspect it's approachable for smart people who finish high school, and certainly by the time they finish undergrad^ with  a decent science or social science degree.

I think this is good career building for various reasons:

  • you can develop a healthy skepticism of the existing EA orthodoxy
    • I mean skepticism that's grounded in specific beliefs about why things ought to be different, rather than just vague "weirdness heuristics" or feeling like the goals of EA conflict with other tribal goals.
      • (I personally  have not found high-level critiques of EA, and I have read many, to be particularly interesting or insightful, but this is just a personal take).
  • you actually deeply understand at least one topic well enough
... (read more)

One additional risk: if done poorly, harsh criticism of someone else's blog post from several years ago could be pretty unpleasant and make the EA community seem less friendly.

I'm actually super excited about this idea though - let's set some courtesy norms around contacting the author privately before red-teaming their paper and then get going!

7Linch4moI think I agree this is a concern. But just so we're on the same page here, what's your threat model? Are you more worried about 1. The EA community feeling less pleasant and friendly to existing established EAs, so we'll have more retention issues with people disengaging? 2. The EA community feeling less pleasant and friendly to newcomers, so we have more issues with recruitment and people getting excited to join novel projects? 3. Criticism makes being open about your work less pleasant, and open Red Teaming about EA projects makes EA move even further in the direction of being less open than we used to be. See also Responsible Transparency Consumption []. 4. Something else?
5Khorton4moIt's actually a bit of numbers 1-3; I'm imagining decreased engagement generally, especially sharing ideas transparently.
6Linch4moThanks for the excitement! I agree that contacting someone ahead of time might be good (so at least someone doesn't learn about their project being red teamed until social media blows up), but I feel like it might not mitigate most of the potential unpleasantness/harshness. Like I don't see a good cultural way to both incentivize Red Teaming and allow a face-saving way to refuse to let your papers be Red Teamed. Like if Red Teaming is opt-in by default, I'd worry a lot about this not taking off the ground, while if Red Teaming is opt-out by default I'd just find it very suss for anybody to refuse (speaking for myself, I can't imagine ever refusing Red Teaming even if I would rather it not happen).
7JJ Hepburn4mo1. Easy steps could be to add a "red team" tag on the forum and point to this post to encourage people to do this. 2. I have at times given advice to early career EA's mostly in AI Safety similar to this. When people have trouble coming up with something they might want to write about on the forum, I encourage them to look for the things they don't think are true. Most people are passively reading the forum anyway but actively looking for something the reader doesn't think is true or is unconvinced by can be a good starting point for a post. It may be that they end up convinced of the point but can still write a post making is clearer and adding the arguments they found. 1. Having said this, most peoples first reaction is a terrified look. Encouraging someone's first post to be a criticism is understandably scary. 3. It may be hard to get both the benefit to the participants and to the orgs. Anyone not intimidated by this might already have enough experience and career capital. To give juniors the experience you might have to make it more comfortable school work where the paper is written but only read by one other person. This makes it harder to capture the career capital. 4. I'd expect this to be unlikely for someone to do individually and of their own accord. At the very least best to do this in small groups to create social accountability and commitment pressures. While also defusing the intimidation. Alternately part of an existing program like an EA Fellowship. Even better as it's own program, with all the overhead that comes with that.
5Max_Daniel4moI would be very excited about someone experimenting with this and writing up the results. (And would be happy to provide EAIF funding for this if I thought the details of the experiment were good and the person a good fit for doing this.) If I had had more time, I would have done this for the EA In-Depth Fellowship seminars I designed and piloted recently. I would be particularly interested in doing this for cases where there is some amount of easily transmissible 'ground truth' people can use as feedback signal. E.g. * You first let people red-team deworming papers and then give them some more nuanced 'Worm Wars' stuff []. (Where ideally you want people to figure out "okay, despite paper X making that claim we shouldn't believe that deworming helps with short/mid-term education outcomes, but despite all the skepticism by epidemiologists here is why it's still a great philanthropic bet overall" - or whatever we think the appropriate conclusion is.) * You first let people red-team particular claims about the effects on hen welfare from battery cages vs. cage-free environments and then you show them Ajeya's report [] . * You first let people red-team particular claims about the impacts of the Justinian plague and then you show them this paper []. * You first let people red-team particular claims about "X is power-law distributed" and then you show them Clauset et al., Power-law distributions in empirical data []. (Collecting a list of such examples would be another thing I'd be potentially interested to fund.)
4Linch4moHmm I feel more uneasy about the truthiness grounds of considering some of these examples as "ground truth" (except maybe the Clauset et al example, not sure). I'd rather either a) train people to Red Team existing EA orthodoxy stuff and let their own internal senses + mentor guidance decide whether the red teaming is credible or b) for basic scientific literacy stuff where you do want clear ground truths, let them challenge stuff that's closer to obvious junk (Why We Sleep, some climate science stuff, maybe some covid papers, maybe pull up examples from Calling Bullshit [] , which I have not read).
4Max_Daniel4moThat seems fair. To be clear, I think "ground truth" isn't the exact framing I'd want to use, and overall I think the best version of such an exercise would encourage some degree of skepticism about the alleged 'better' answer as well. Assuming it's framed well, I think there are both upsides and downsides to using examples that are closer to EA vs. clearer-cut. I'm uncertain on what seemed better overall if I could only do one of them. Another advantage of my suggestion in my view is that it relies less on mentors. I'm concerned that having mentors that are less epistemically savvy than the best participants can detract a lot from the optimal value that exercise might provide, and that it would be super hard to ensure adequate mentor quality for some audiences I'd want to use this exercise for. Even if you're less concerned about this, relying on any kind of plausible mentor seems like less scaleable than a version that only relies on access to published material.

Upon (brief) reflection I agree that relying on the epistemic savviness of the mentors might be too much and the best version of the training program will train a sort of keen internal sense of scientific skepticism that's not particularly reliant on social approval.  

If we have enough time I would float a version of a course that slowly goes from very obvious crap (marketing tripe, bad graphs) into things that are subtler crap (Why We Sleep, Bem ESP stuff) into weasely/motivated stuff (Hickel? Pinker? Sunstein? popular nonfiction in general?) into things that are genuinely hard judgment calls (papers/blog posts/claims accepted by current elite EA consensus). 

But maybe I'm just remaking the Calling Bullshit course but with a higher endpoint.


(I also think it's plausible/likely that my original program of just giving somebody an EA-approved paper + say 2 weeks to try their best to Red Team it will produce interesting results, even without all these training wheels). 

5MichaelA4moThis also reminds me of a recent shortform by Buck [] : (I think the full shortform and the comments below it are also worth reading.)
4Aaron Gertler1moThis is another example of a Shortform that could be an excellent top-level post (especially as it's on-theme with the motivated reasoning post that was just published). I'd love to see see this spend a week on the front page and perhaps convince some readers to try doing some red-teaming for themselves. Would you consider creating a post?
4MichaelA4moI think your cons are good things to have noted, but here are reasons why two of them might matter less than one might think: * I think the very fact that "It's possible that doing deliberate "red-teaming" would make one predisposed to spot trivial issues rather than serious ones, or falsely identify issues where there aren't any" could actually also make this useful for skill-building and testing fit; people will be forced to learn to avoid those failure modes, and "we" (the community, potential future hirers, etc.) can see how well they do so. * E.g., to do this red teaming well, they may have to learn to identify how central an error is to a paper/post's argument, to think about whether a slightly different argument could reach the same conclusion without needing the questionable premise, etc. * I have personally found that the line between "noticing errors in existing work" and "generating novel research" is pretty blurry. * A decent amount of the research I've done (especially some that is unfortunately nonpublic so far) has basically followed the following steps: 1. "This paper/post/argument seems interesting and important" 2. "Oh wait, it actually requires a premise that they haven't noted and that seems questionable" / "It ignores some other pathway by which a bad thing can happen" / "Its concepts/definitions are fuzzy or conflate things in way that may obscure something important" 3. [I write a post/doc that discusses that issue, provides some analysis in light of this additional premise being required or this other pathway being possible or whatever, and discussing what implications this has - e.g., whether some risk is actually more or less important than we thought, or what new intervention ideas this alternative risk pathway suggests might be useful]
4MichaelA4moStrong upvote for a idea that seems directly actionable and useful for addressing important problem. I'm gonna quote your shortform in full (with a link and attribution, obviously) in a comment on my post about Intervention options for improving the EA-aligned research pipeline [] . I think by default good ideas like this never really end up happening, which is sad. Do you or other people have thoughts on how to make your idea actually happen? Some quick thoughts from me: * Just highlight this idea on the Forum more often/prominently * People giving career advice or mentorship to people interested in EA-aligned research careers mention this as one way of testing fit, having an impact, etc. * I add the idea to Notes on EA-related research, writing, testing fit, learning, and the Forum [] [done!] * Heap an appropriate amount of status and attention on good instances of this having been done * That requires it to be done at least once first, of course, but can then increase the rate * E.g., Aaron Gertler could feature it in the EA Forum Digest newsletter, people could make positive comments on the post, someone can share it in a Facebook group and/or other newsletter * I know I found this sort of thing a useful and motivating signal when I started posting stuff (though not precisely this kind of stuff) * Publicly offer to provide financial prizes for good instances of this having been done * One way to do this could mirror Buck's idea for getting more good book reviews to happen (see my other comment): "If it’s the kind of review I want, I give them $500 in return for them posting the review to EA Forum or LW with a “This post spo
4Linch4moThanks for linking my idea in your sequence! (onlookers note: MichaelA and I are coworkers) This arguably happened [] to alexrjl's critique of Giving Green [] , though it was a conjunction of a critique of an organization and a critique of research done. As an aside, I decided to focus my shortform on critiques of public research rather than critiques of organizations/people, even though I think the latter is quite valuable too, since a) my intuition is that the former is less acrimonious, b) relatedly, critiques of organizations may be worse at training dispassionate analysis skills (vs eg tribalistic feelings or rhetoric), c) critiques of orgs or people might be easier for newbies to fuck up and d) I think empirically, critiques of organizations have a worse hit rate than critiques of research posts.
4Linch4moAs you know, one of my interns is doing something adjacent to this idea (though framed in a different way), and I may convince another intern to do something similar (depending on their interests and specific project ideas in mind).
2MichaelA4moYeah, good point - I guess a more directed version of "People giving career advice or mentorship to people interested in EA-aligned research careers mention this as one way of testing fit, having impact, etc." is just people encouraging people they manage to do this, or maybe even hiring people with this partly in mind. Though I think that that wouldn't capture most of the potential value of this idea, since part of what's good about is that, as you say, this idea: (People who've already gone through a hiring process and have an at least somewhat more experienced researcher managing them will have an easier time than other people in testing fit, having impact, building skills, etc. in other ways as well.)
2Linch4moYeah I agree that a major upside to this idea (and a key differentiator between it and other proposed interventions for fixing early stages of the research pipeline) is that it ought to be doable without as much guidance from external mentors. I guess my own willingness to suggest this as an intern project suggests that I believe it must comparatively be even more exciting for people without external guidance.
2MichaelA4moAnother possible (but less realistic?) way to make this happen: * Organisations/researchers do something like encouraging red teaming of their own output, setting up a bounty/prize for high-quality instances of that, or similar * An example of something roughly like this is a post on the GiveWell blog [] that says at the start: "This is a guest post by David Barry [], a GiveWell supporter. He emailed us at the end of December to point out some mistakes and issues in our cost-effectiveness calculations for deworming, and we asked him to write up his thoughts to share here. We made minor wording and organizational suggestions but have otherwise published as is; we have not vetted his sources or his modifications to our spreadsheet for comparing deworming and cash. Note that since receiving his initial email, we have discussed the possibility of paying him to do more work like this in the future." * But I think GiveWell haven't done that since then? * It seems like this might make sense and be mutually beneficial * Orgs/researchers presumably want more ways to increase the accuracy of their claims and conclusions * A good red teaming of their work might also highlight additional directions for further research and surface someone who'd be a good employee for that org or collaborator for that researcher * Red teaming of that work might provide a way for people to build skills and test fit for work on precisely the topics that the org/researcher presumably considers important and wants more people working on * But I'd guess that this is unlikely to happen in this form * I think this is mainly due to inertia plus people feeling avers
4Linch4moYeah I think this is key. I'm much more optimistic about getting trainees to do this being a good training intervention than a "directly improve research quality" intervention. There are some related arguments why you want to pay people who are either a) already good at the relevant work or b) specialized reviewers/red-teamers 1. paying people to criticize your work would risk creating a weird power dynamic, and more experienced reviewers would be better at navigating this 1. For example, trainees may be afraid of criticizing you too harshly. 2. Also, if the critique is in fact bad, you may be placed in a somewhat awkward position when deciding whether to publish/publicize it.
3reallyeli3moThis idea sounds really cool. Brainstorming: a variant could be several people red teaming the same paper and not conferring until the end.

Here are some things I've learned from spending the better part of the last 6 months either forecasting or thinking about forecasting, with an eye towards beliefs that I expect to be fairly generalizable to other endeavors.

Note that I assume that anybody reading this already has familiarity with Phillip Tetlock's work on (super)forecasting, particularly Tetlock's 10 commandments for aspiring superforecasters.

1. Forming (good) outside views is often hard but not impossible. I think there is a common belief/framing in EA and rationalist circles that coming up with outside views is easy, and the real difficulty is a) originality in inside views, and also b) a debate of how much to trust outside views vs inside views.

I think this is directionally true (original thought is harder than synthesizing existing views) but it hides a lot of the details. It's often quite difficult to come up with and balance good outside views that are applicable to a situation. See Manheim and Muelhauser for some discussions of this.

2. For novel out-of-distribution situations, "normal" people often trust centralized data/ontologies more than is warranted. See here for a discu... (read more)

Consider making this a top-level post! That way, I can give it the "Forecasting" tag so that people will find it more often later, which would make me happy, because I like this post.

6Linch1yThanks! Posted [] .
2Linch1yThanks for the encouragement and suggestion! Do you have recommendations for a really good title?
2Aaron Gertler1yTitles aren't my forte. I'd keep it simple. "Lessons learned from six months of forecasting" or "What I learned after X hours of forecasting" (where "X" is an estimate of how much time you spent over six months).
1NunoSempere1yI second this.

General suspicion of the move away from expected-value calculations and cost-effectiveness analyses.

This is a portion taken from a (forthcoming) post about some potential biases and mistakes in effective altruism that I've analyzed via looking at cost-effectiveness analysis. Here, I argue that the general move (at least outside of human and animal neartermism) away from Fermi estimates, expected values, and other calculations just makes those biases harder to see, rather than fix the original biases.

I may delete this section from the actual post as this point might be a distraction from the overall point.


I’m sure there are very good reasons (some stated, some unstated) for moving away from cost-effectiveness analysis. But I’m overall pretty suspicious of the general move, for a similar reason that I’d be suspicious of non-EAs telling me that we shouldn’t use cost-effectiveness analyses to judge their work, in favor of say systematic approaches, good intuitions, and specific contexts like lived experiences (cf. Beware Isolated Demands for Rigor):

I’m sure you have specific arguments for why in your case quantitative approaches aren’t very necessary and useful, because your uncert

... (read more)
2Buck2moWhat kinds of things do you think it would be helpful to do cost effectiveness analyses of? Are you looking for cost effectiveness analyses of problem areas or specific interventions?
9Denkenberger2moI think it would be valuable to see quantitative estimates of more problem areas and interventions. My order of magnitude estimate would be that if one is considering spending $10,000-$100,000, one should do a simple scale, neglectedness, and tractability analysis. But if one is considering spending $100,000-$1 million, one should do an actual cost-effectiveness analysis. So candidates here would be wild animal welfare, approval voting, improving institutional decision-making, climate change from an existential risk perspective, biodiversity from an existential risk perspective, governance of outer space []etc. Though it is a significant amount of work to get a cost-effectiveness analysis up to peer review publishable quality (which we have found requires moving beyond Guesstimate, e.g. here [] and here [] ), I still think that there is value in doing a rougher Guesstimate model and having a discussion about parameters. One could even add to one of our Guesstimate models, allowing a direct comparison with AGI safety and resilient foods [] or interventions for loss of electricity/industry [] from a long-term perspective.
2Linch2moI agree with the general flavor of what you said, but am unsure about the exact numbers.
5Linch2moHmm one recent example is that somebody casually floated to me an idea that can potentially entirely solve an existential risk (though the solution might have downside risks of its own) and I realized then that I had no idea how much to price the solution in terms of EA $s, like whether it should be closer to 100M, 1B or $100B. My first gut instinct was to examine the solution and also to probe the downside risks, but then I realized this is thinking about it entirely backwards. The downside risks and operational details don't matter if even the most optimistic cost-effectiveness analyses isn't enough to warrant this being worth funding!

cross-posted from Facebook.

Sometimes I hear people who caution humility say something like "this question has stumped the best philosophers for centuries/millennia. How could you possibly hope to make any progress on it?". While I concur that humility is frequently warranted and that in many specific cases that injunction is reasonable [1], I think the framing is broadly wrong.

In particular, using geologic time rather than anthropological time hides the fact that there probably weren't that many people actively thinking about these issues, especially carefully, in a sustained way, and making sure to build on the work of the past. For background, 7% of all humans who have ever lived are alive today, and living people compose 15% of total human experience [2] so far!!!

It will not surprise me if there are about as many living philosophers today as there were dead philosophers in all of written history.

For some specific questions that particularly interest me (eg. population ethics, moral uncertainty), the total research work done on these questions is generously less than five philosopher-lifetimes. Even for classical age-old philosophical dilemmas/"grand projects... (read more)

4MathiasKB2yIf a problem is very famous and unsolved, doesn't those who tried solving it include many of the much more competent philosophers alive today? The fact that the problem has not been solved by any of them either would suggest to me it's a hard problem.
2saulius2yHonest question: are there examples of philosophical problems that were solved in the last 50 years? And I mean solved by doing philosophy not by doing mostly unrelated experiments (like this one []). I imagine that even if some philosophers felt they answered a question, other would dispute it. More importantly, the solution would likely be difficult to understand and hence it would be of limited value. I'm not sure I'm right here.
2saulius2yAfter a bit more googling I found this [] which maybe shows that there have been philosophical problems solved recently. I haven't read about that specific problem though. It's difficult to imagine a short paper solving the hard problem of consciousnesses though.
9Linch1yI enjoyed this list [] of philosophy's successes, but none of them happened in the last 50 years.
9Jason Schukraft2yYou might be interested in the following posts on the subject from Daily Nous [], an excellent philosophy blog: "Why Progress Is Slower In Philosophy Than In Science" [] "How Philosophy Makes Progress (guest post by Daniel Stoljar)" [] "How Philosophy Makes Progress (guest post by Agnes Callard)" [] "Whether Philosophical Questions Can Be Answered" [] "Convergence as Progress in Philosophy" []
2Linch1yI'll be interested in having someone with a history of philosophy background weigh in on the Gettier question specifically. I thought Gettier problems were really interesting when I first heard about them, but I've also heard that "knowledge as justified true belief" wasn't actually all that dominant a position before Gettier came along.

Recently I was asked for tips on how to be less captured by motivated reasoning and related biases, a goal/quest I've slowly made progress on for the last 6+ years. I don't think I'm very good at this, but I do think I'm likely above average, and it's also something I aspire to be better at. So here is a non-exhaustive and somewhat overlapping list of things that I think are helpful:

  • Treat this as a serious problem that needs active effort.
  • In general, try to be more of a "scout" and less of a soldier/zealot.
    • As much as possible, try to treat ideas/words/stats as tools to aid your perception, not weapons to advance your cause or "win" arguments.
    • I've heard good things about this book by Julia Galef, but have not read it
  • Relatedly, have a mental check and try to notice when you are being emotional and in danger of succumbing to motivated reasoning. Always try to think as coherently as you can if possible, and acknowledge it (preferably publicly) when you notice you're not.
    • sometimes, you don't noti
... (read more)
7Aaron Gertler1moI've previously shared this post on CEA's social media and (I think) in an edition of the Forum Digest. I think it's really good, and I'd love to see it be a top-level post so that more people end up seeing it, it can be tagged, etc. Would you be interested in creating a full post for it? (I don't think you'd have to make any changes — this still deserves to be read widely as-is.)

While talking to my manager (Peter Hurford), I made a realization that by default when "life" gets in the way (concretely, last week a fair amount of hours were taken up by management training seminars I wanted to attend before I get my first interns, this week I'm losing ~3 hours the covid vaccination appointment and in expectation will lose ~5 more from side effects), research (ie the most important thing on my agenda that I'm explicitly being paid to do) is the first to go. This seems like a bad state of affairs.

I suspect that this is more prominent in me than most people, but also suspect this is normal for others as well. More explicitly, I don't have much "normal" busywork like paperwork or writing grants and I try to limit my life maintenance tasks (of course I don't commute and there's other stuff in that general direction). So all the things I do  are either at least moderately useful or entertaining. Eg, EA/work stuff like reviewing/commenting on other's papers, meetings, mentorship stuff, slack messages, reading research and doing research, as well as personal entertainment stuff like social media, memes, videogames etc (which I do much more than I'm willing to admi... (read more)

I liked this, thanks.

I hear that this similar to a common problem for many entrepreneurs; they spend much of their time on the urgent/small tasks, and not the really important ones. 

One solution recommended by Matt Mochary is to dedicate 2 hours per day of the most productive time to work on the the most important problems.

I've occasionally followed this, and mean to more. 

9Daniel_Eth5moSo framing this in the inverse way – if you have a windfall of time from "life" getting in the way less, you spend that time mostly on the most important work, instead of things like extra meetings. This seems good. Perhaps it would be good to spend less of your time on things like meetings and more on things like research, but (I'd guess) this is true whether or not "life" is getting in the way more.
3Linch5moThis is a really good point, I like the reframing.
5FJehn5moThis resonated with me a lot. Unfortunately, I do not have a quick fix. However, what seems to help at least a bit for me is seperating planning for a day and doing the work. Every workday the last thing I do (or try to do) is look at my calendar and to do lists and figure out what I should be doing the next day. By doing this I think I am better at assessing at what is important, as I do not have to do it at that moment. I only have to think of what my future self will be capable of doing. When the next day comes and future self turns into present self I find it really helpful to already having the work for the day planned for me. I do not have to think about what is important, I just do what past me decided. Not sure if this is just an obvious way to do this, but I thought it does not hurt to write it down.
4Khorton5moThis seems like a good topic for a call with a coach/coworker because there are a lot of ways to approach it. One easy-to-implement option comes from 80k's podcast with Tom Kalil: "the calendar is your friend." In Tom's case, it was Obama's calendar! I have a more low-key version I use. When I want to prioritize research or writing, I will schedule a time with my manager or director to get feedback on a draft of the report I'm writing. It's a good incentive to make some meaningful progress - hard to get feedback if you haven't written anything! - and makes it a tiny bit easier to decline or postpone meetings, but it is still somewhat flexible, which I find really useful.
4Jamie_Harris5moSide question: what was the management training you took, and would you recommend it?
6saulius5moI think that all of us RP intern managers took the same 12-hour management training from The Management Center []. I thought that there was some high-quality advice in it but I'm not sure if it applied that much to our situation of managing research interns. I haven't been to other such trainings so I can't compare.

Thanks salius! I agree with what you said. In addition, 

  • A lot of the value was just time set aside to thinking about management, so hard to separate that out without a control group 
    • (but realistically, without the training, I would not have spent ~16 (including some additional work/loose threads after the workshop) hours thinking about management in one week.
    • So that alone is really valuable!
  • I feel like the implicit prioritization for some of the topics they covered possibly made more sense for experienced managers than people like me. 
    • For example, about 1/3 of the time in the workshop was devoted to diversity/inclusion topics, and I'd be very surprised if optimal resource allocation for a new manager is anywhere close to 1/3 time spent on diversity/inclusion. 
  • A really important point hammered throughout the training is the importance of clear and upfront communication. 
    • Again, I think this is something I could have figured out through my usual combination of learning about things (introspection, asking around, internet research), but having this hammered in me is actually quite valuable.
  • I  find a lot of the specific tools they suggested  intuitively useful (eg, explicit MOCHA diagrams) , but I think I have to put in work to use them in my own management (and indeed failed to do this my first week as a manager).
2Jamie_Harris5moThanks, good to know!
4MaxRa5moYeah, I can also relate a lot (doing my PhD). One thing I noticed is that my motivational system slowly but surely seems to update on my AI related worries and that this now and then helps keeping me focused on what I actually think is more important from the EA perspective. Not sure what you are working on, but maybe there are some things that come to your mind how to increase your overall motivation, e.g. by reading or thinking of concrete stories of why the work is important, and by talking to others why you care about the things you are trying to achieve.

cross-posted from Facebook.

Catalyst (biosecurity conference funded by the Long-Term Future Fund) was incredibly educational and fun.

Random scattered takeaways:

1. I knew going in that everybody there will be much more knowledgeable about bio than I was. I was right. (Maybe more than half the people there had PhDs?)

2. Nonetheless, I felt like most conversations were very approachable and informative for me, from Chris Bakerlee explaining the very basics of genetics to me, to asking Anders Sandberg about some research he did that was relevant to my interests, to Tara Kirk Sell detailing recent advances in technological solutions in biosecurity, to random workshops where novel ideas were proposed...

3. There's a strong sense of energy and excitement from everybody at the conference, much more than other conferences I've been in (including EA Global).

4. From casual conversations in EA-land, I get the general sense that work in biosecurity was fraught with landmines and information hazards, so it was oddly refreshing to hear so many people talk openly about exciting new possibilities to de-risk biological threats and promote a healthier future, while still being fully cognizant ... (read more)

Publication bias alert: Not everybody liked the conference as much as I did. Someone I know and respect thought some of the talks weren't very good (I agreed with them about the specific examples, but didn't think it mattered because really good ideas/conversations/networking at an event + gestalt feel is much more important for whether an event is worthwhile to me than a few duds).

That said, on a meta level, you might expect that people who really liked (or hated, I suppose) a conference/event/book to write detailed notes about it than people who were lukewarm about it.

6Habryka2yI am glad to hear that! I sadly didn't end up having the time to go, but I've been excited about the project for a while.
3mike_mclaren2yThanks for your report! I was interested but couldn't manage the cross country trip and definitely curious to hear what it was like.
2tessa2yI'd really appreciate ideas for how to try to confer some of what it was like to people who couldn't make it. We recorded some of the talks and intend to edit + upload them, we're writing a "how to organize a conference" postmortem / report, and one attendee is planning to write a magazine article, but I'm not sure what else would be useful. Would another post like this be helpful?
2mike_mclaren2yThat all sounds useful and interesting to me! I think multiple posts following events on the personal experiences from multiple people (organizers and attendees) can be useful simply for the diversity of their perspectives. Regarding Catalyst in particular I'm curious about the variety of backgrounds of the attendees and how their backgrounds shaped their goals and experiences during the meeting.

cross-posted from Facebook.

Reading Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith's new book has made me somewhat more skeptical about Open Borders (from a high prior belief in its value).

Before reading the book, I was already aware of the core arguments (eg, Michael Huemer's right to immigrate, basic cosmopolitanism, some vague economic stuff about doubling GDP).

I was hoping the book will have more arguments, or stronger versions of the arguments I'm familiar with.

It mostly did not.

The book did convince me that the prima facie case for open borders was stronger than I thought. In particular, the section where he argued that a bunch of different normative ethical theories should all-else-equal lead to open borders was moderately convincing. I think it will have updated me towards open borders if I believed in stronger "weight all mainstream ethical theories equally" moral uncertainty, or if I previously had a strong belief in a moral theory that I previously believed was against open borders.

However, I already fairly strongly subscribe to cosmopolitan utilitarianism and see no problem with aggregating utility across borders. Most of my concerns with open borders are rel... (read more)

5Linch13dSam Enright has a longer review here [] .
2Nathan Young12dDid you ever write to caplan about this? If not, I might send him this comment.
4Aaron Gertler2yIf you email this to him, maybe adding a bit more polish, I'd give ~40% odds he'll reply on his blog, given how much he loves to respond to critics who take his work seriously. I actually find this very difficult without envisioning extreme scenarios (e.g. a dark-Hansonian world of productive-but-dissatisfied ems). Almost any situation with enough disutility to counter GDP doubling seems like it would, paradoxically, involve conditions that would reduce GDP (war, large-scale civil unrest, huge tax increases to support a bigger welfare state). Could you give an example or two of situations that would fit your statement here?
1Linch2yI think there was substantial ambiguity in my original phrasing, thanks for catching that! I think there are at least four ways to interpret the statement. 1. Interpreting it literally: I am physically capable (without much difficulty) of imagining situations that are bad to a degree worse than doubling GDP is good. 2. Caplan gives some argument for doubling of GDP that seems persuasive, and claims this is enough to override a conservatism prior, but I'm not confident that the argument is true/robust, and I think it's reasonable to believe that there are possible bad consequences that are bad enough that even if I give >50% probability (or >80%), this is not automatically enough to override a conservatism prior, at least not without thinking about it a lot more. 3. Assume by construction that world GDP will double in the short term. I still think there's a significant chance that the world will be worse off. 4. Assume by construction that world GDP will double, and stay 2x baseline until the end of time. I still think there's a significant chance that the world will be worse off. __ To be clear, when writing the phrasing, I meant it in terms of #2. I strongly endorse #1 and tentatively endorse #3, but I agree that if you interpreted what I meant as #4, what I said was a really strong claim and I need to back it up more carefully.
2Aaron Gertler2yMakes sense, thanks! The use of "doubling GDP is so massive that..." made me think that you were taking that as given in this example, but worrying that bad things could result from GDP-doubling that justified conservatism. That was certainly only one of a few possible interpretations; I jumped too easily to conclusions.
1Linch2yThat was not my intent, and it was not the way I parsed Caplan's argument.

Over a year ago, someone asked the EA community whether it’s valuable to become world-class at an unspecified non-EA niche or field. Our Forum’s own Aaron Gertler responded in a post, saying basically that there’s a bunch of intangible advantages for our community to have many world-class people, even if it’s in fields/niches that are extremely unlikely to be directly EA-relevant.

Since then, Aaron became (entirely in his spare time, while working 1.5 jobs) a world-class Magic the Gathering player, recently winning the DreamHack MtGA tournament and getting $30,000 in prize monies, half of which he donated to Givewell.

I didn’t find his arguments overwhelmingly persuasive at the time, and I still don’t. But it’s exciting to see other EAs come up with unusual theories of change, actually executing on them, and then being wildly successful.

Something that came up with a discussion with a coworker recently is that often internet writers want some (thoughtful) comments, but not too many, since too many comments can be overwhelming. Or at the very least, the marginal value of additional comments is usually lower for authors when there are more comments. 

However, the incentives for commentators is very different: by default people want to comment on the most exciting/cool/wrong thing, so internet posts can easily by default either attract many comments or none. (I think) very little self-policing is done, if anything a post with many comments make it more attractive to generate secondary or tertiary comments, rather than less.

Meanwhile, internet writers who do great work often do not get the desired feedback. As evidence:  For ~ a month, I was the only person who commented on What Helped the Voiceless? Historical Case Studies (which later won the EA Forum Prize). 

This will be less of a problem if internet communication is primarily about idle speculations and cat pictures. But of course this is not the primary way I and many others on the Forum engage with the internet. Frequently, the primary publication v... (read more)

2MichaelA6moI think these are useful observations and questions. (Though I think "too many comments" should probably be much less of a worry than "too few", at least if the comments make some effort to be polite and relevant, and except inasmuch as loads of comments on one thing sucks up time that could be spent commenting on other things where that'd be more useful.) I think a few simple steps that could be taken by writers are: 1. People could more often send google doc drafts to a handful of people specifically selected for being more likely than average to (a) be interested in reading the draft and (b) have useful things to say about it 2. People could more often share google doc drafts in the Effective Altruism Editing & Review Facebook group 3. People could more often share google doc drafts in other Facebook groups, Slack workspaces, or the like * E.g., sharing a draft relevant to improving institutional decision-making in the corresponding Facebook group 4. People could more often make posts/shortforms that include an executive summary (or similar) and a link to the full google doc draft, saying that this is still like a draft and they'd appreciate comment * Roughly this has been done recently by Joe Carlsmith and Ben Garfinkel, for example * This could encourage more comments that just posting the whole thing to the Forum as a regular post, since (a) this conveys that this is still a work-in-progress and that comments are welcome, and (b) google docs make it easier to comment on specific points 5. When people do post full versions of things on the Forum (or wherever), they could explicitly indicate that they're interested in feedback, indicate roughly what kinds of feedback would be most valuable, and indicate that they might update the post in light of feedback (if that's true) 6. People could implement the advice given in these two good posts: 1. ht
2MichaelA6moOne other semi-relevant thing from my post Notes on EA-related research, writing, testing fit, learning, and the Forum [] :

Very instructive anecdote on motivated reasoning in research (in cost-effectiveness analyses, even!):

Back in the 90’s I did some consulting work for a startup that was developing a new medical device. They were honest people–they never pressured me. My contract stipulated that I did not have to submit my publications to them for prior review. But they paid me handsomely, wined and dined me, and gave me travel opportunities to nice places. About a decade after that relationship came to an end, amicably, I had occasion to review the article I had published about the work I did for them. It was a cost-effectiveness analysis. Cost-effectiveness analyses have highly ramified gardens of forking paths that biomedical and clinical researchers cannot even begin to imagine. I saw that at virtually every decision point in designing the study and in estimating parameters, I had shaded things in favor of the device. Not by a large amount in any case, but slightly at almost every opportunity. The result was that my “base case analysis” was, in reality, something more like a “best case” analysis. Peer review did not discover any of this during the publication process, because each individual esti

... (read more)

Do people have advice on how to be more emotionally resilient in the face of disaster?

I spent some time this year thinking about things that are likely to be personally bad in the near-future (most salient to me right now is the possibility of a contested election + riots, but this is also applicable to the ongoing Bay Area fires/smoke and to a lesser extent the ongoing pandemic right now, as well as future events like climate disasters and wars). My guess is that, after a modicum of precaution, the direct objective risk isn't very high, but it'll *feel* like a really big deal all the time.

In other words, being perfectly honest about my own personality/emotional capacity, there's a high chance that if the street outside my house is rioting, I just won't be productive at all (even if I did the calculations and the objective risk is relatively low).

So I'm interested in anticipating this phenomenon and building emotional resilience ahead of time so such issues won't affect me as much.

I'm most interested in advice for building emotional resilience for disaster/macro-level setbacks. I think it'd also be useful to build resilience for more personal setbacks (eg career/relationship/impact), but I naively suspect that this is less tractable.


5gavintaylor1yThe last newsletter from Spencer Greenberg/Clearer Thinking might be helpful: []
7Linch1yWow, reading this was actually surprisingly helpful for some other things I'm going through. Thanks for the link!
2Misha_Yagudin1yI think it is useful to separately deal with the parts of a disturbing event over which you have an internal or external locus of control. Let's take a look at riots: * An external part is them happening in your country. External locus of control means that you need to accept the situation. Consider looking into Stoic literature and exercises (say, negative visualizations) to come to peace with that possibility. * An internal part is being exposed to dangers associated with them. Internal locus of control means that you can take action to mitigate the risks. Consider having a plan to temporarily move to a likely peaceful area within your country or to another county.

I think it might be interesting/valuable for someone to create "list of numbers every EA should know", in a similar vein to Latency Numbers Every Programmer Should Know and Key Numbers for Cell Biologists.

One obvious reason against this is that maybe EA is too broad and the numbers we actually care about are too domain specific to specific queries/interests, but nonetheless I still think it's worth investigating.

6Habryka4moI think this is a great idea.
4Aaron Gertler4moI love this idea! Lots of fun ways to make infographics out of this, too. Want to start out by turning this into a Forum question where people can suggest numbers they think are important? (If you don't, I plan to steal your idea for my own karmic benefit.)
2Linch4moThanks for the karmically beneficial tip! I've now posted this question [] in its own right.

I find the unilateralist’s curse a particularly valuable concept to think about. However, I now worry that “unilateralist” is an easy label to tack on, and whether a particular action is unilateralist or not is susceptible to small changes in framing.

Consider the following hypothetical situations:

  1. Company policy vs. team discretion
    1. Alice is a researcher in a team of scientists at a large biomedical company. While working on the development of an HIV vaccine, the team accidentally created an air-transmissible variant of HIV. The scientists must decide whether to publish their discovery with the rest of the company, knowing that leaks may exist, and the knowledge may be used to create a devastating biological weapon, but also that it could help those who hope to develop defenses against such weapons, including other teams within the same company. Most of the team thinks they should keep it quiet, but company policy is strict that such information must be shared with the rest of the company to maintain the culture of open collaboration.
    2. Alice thinks the rest of the team should either share this information or quit. Eventually, she tells her vice president her concer
... (read more)
3JP Addison2yI really like this (I think you could make it top level if you wanted). I think these of these are cases of multiple levels of cooperation. If you're part of an organization that wants to be uncooperative (and you can't leave cooperatively), then you're going to be uncooperative with one of them.
3Linch2yGood point. Now that you bring this up, I vaguely remember [] a Reddit AMA where an evolutionary biologist made the (obvious in hindsight, but never occurred to me at the time) claim that with multilevel selection, altruism on one level is often means defecting on a higher (or lower) level. Which probably unconsciously inspired this post! As for making it top level, I originally wanted to include a bunch of thoughts on the unilateralist's curse as a post, but then I realized that I'm a one-trick pony in this domain...hard to think of novel/useful things that Bostrom et. al hasn't already covered!

New Project/Org Idea: JEPSEN for EA research or EA org Impact Assessments

Note: This is an updated version of something I wrote for “Submit grant suggestions to EA Funds

What is your grant suggestion? 

An org or team of people dedicated to Red Teaming EA research. Can include checks for both factual errors and conceptual ones. Like JEPSEN but for research from/within EA orgs. Maybe start with one trusted person and then expand outwards.

After demonstrating impact/accuracy for say 6 months, can become a "security" consultancy for either a) EA orgs interested in testing the validity of their own research or b) an external impact consultancy  for the EA community/EA donors interested in testing or even doing the impact assessments of specific EA orgs. For a), I imagine Rethink Priorities may want to become a customer (speaking for myself, not the org).

Potentially good starting places:

- Carefully comb every chapter of The Precipice

- Go through ML/AI Safety papers and (after filtering on something like prestige or citation count) pick some papers at random to Red Team

- All of Tetlock's research on forecasting, particularly the ones with factoids most frequently cited in EA circle... (read more)

Edit: By figuring out  ethics I mean both right and wrong in the abstract but also what the world empirically looks like so you know what is right and wrong in the particulars of a situation, with an emphasis on the latter.

I think a lot about ethics. Specifically, I think a lot about "how do I take the best action (morally), given the set of resources (including information) and constraints (including motivation) that I have." I understand that in philosophical terminology this is only a small subsection of applied ethics, and yet I spend a lot of time thinking about it.

One thing I learned from my involvement in EA for some years is that ethics is hard. Specifically, I think ethics is hard in the way that researching a difficult question or maintaining a complicated relationship or raising a child well is hard, rather than hard in the way that regularly going to the gym is hard. 

When I first got introduced to EA, I believed almost the opposite (this article presents something close to my past views well): that the hardness of living ethically is a matter of execution and will, rather than that of constantly making tradeoffs in a difficult-to-navigate domain. 

I still ... (read more)

I've started trying my best to consistently address people on the EA Forum by username whenever I remember to do so, even when the username clearly reflects their real name (eg Habryka). I'm not sure this is the right move, but overall I think this creates slightly better cultural norms since it pushes us (slightly) towards pseudonymous commenting/"Old Internet" norms, which I think is slightly better for pushing us towards truth-seeking and judging arguments by the quality of the arguments rather than be too conscious of status-y/social monkey effects.

 (It's possible I'm more sensitive to this than most people). 

I think some years ago there used to be a belief that people will be less vicious (in the mean/dunking way) and more welcoming if we used Real Name policies, but I think reality has mostly falsified this hypothesis.

I've finally read the Huw Hughes review of the CE Delft Techno-Economic Analyses (our summary here) of cultured meat and thought it was interesting commentary on the CE Delft analysis, though less informative on the overall question of cultured meat scaleups than I hoped. 

Overall their position on CE Delft's analysis was similar to ours, except maybe more bluntly worded. They were more critical in some parts and less critical in others.

Things I liked about the Hughes review:

  • the monoclonal antibodies reference class point was interesting and not something I've considered before
  • I liked how it spelled out the differences in stability between conventional meat and cell slurry; I've thought about it before but didn't seriously consider it, having this presented so clearly was useful
  • I liked the author diagramming an entire concept area to see what a real factory might look like, instead of only looking at the myocyte cell process
  • I fully agree with the author about the CE Delft TEA being way too underspecified, as well as the aseptic conditions stuff making food bioreactors a very unlikely reference class (though of course I already knew these points)
  • I liked the points about reg
... (read more)
4Neil_Dullaghan16dFor those interested, here are the paragraphs that added new information on the CE Delft TEA that I hadn't considered or seen in other TEAs or reviews. Cell growth "For bacteria, one may generally subculture in the range of 1:10 to 1:100, depending on the bacterium. For stem cells, which are more fastidious, the highest subculture ratio (i.e. the amount of an old culture one uses to seed or start a new culture) is typically 1:5. This is significantly less than the 1:200 cell ratio that is proposed in the TEA. Experience dictates that if stem cells are sub-cultured at the ratio proposed, they will either differentiate and stop growing, or simply will die. " Medium costs "In an analysis of culture medium costs, Specht (2019) used DMEM/F12 medium as a base, with a cost of $62,400 for a 20,000 L batch (or $3.12/L). However, this appears to be the cost for powdered bulk medium (from, e.g., MP Bio), and does not include the cost for labour, USP water, formulation, filtration and testing prior to culture. Given the fact that up to now stem cells require custom media, the price for base medium alone could rise to $822,000 for the same sized (20,000 L)batch. However, it should be noted that a properly developed medium may rely less on growth factor additives" This is also used by Risner, et al (2020) in their "this is where the miracle happens" Scenario 4. "insulin costs will likely remain as they are due to current and future manufacturing standards and volumes. " Contamination "The building will require air locks with increasing air handling quality, for both materials and personnel. Typically this comprises a Class D corridor, with Class C rooms except where open phase is carried out, which must be Class A in a Class B environment with Class C minimal changing rooms. The TEA document does not take into account this quality standard, nor does it take into account the additional personnel time" Stability “Cell pastes or slurries are notoriously unstable and will de

What will a company/organization that has a really important secondary mandate to focus on general career development of employees actually look like? How would trainings be structured, what would growth trajectories look like, etc?

When I was at Google, I got the distinct impression that while "career development" and "growth" were common buzzwords, most of the actual programs on offer were more focused on employee satisfaction/retention than growth. (For example, I've essentially never gotten any feedback on my selection of training courses or books that I bought with company money, which at the time I thought was awesome flexibility, but in retrospect was not a great sign of caring about growth on the part of the company).

Edit: Upon a reread I should mention that there are other ways for employees to grow within the company, eg by having some degree of autonomy over what projects they want to work on.

I think there are theoretical reasons for employee career growth being underinvested by default. Namely, that the costs of career growth are borne approximately equally between the employer and the employee (obviously this varies from case to case), whil... (read more)

6Ozzie Gooen1yDefinitely agreed. That said, I think some of this should probably be looked through the lens of "Should EA as a whole help people with personal/career development rather than specific organizations, as the benefits will accrue to the larger community (especially if people only stay at orgs for a few years). I'm personally in favor of expensive resources being granted to help people early in their careers. You can also see some of this in what OpenPhil/FHI funds; there's a big focus on helping people get useful PhDs. (though this helps a small minority of the entire EA movement)

I'm worried about a potential future dynamic where an emphasis on forecasting/quantification in EA (especially if it has significant social or career implications) will have adverse effects on making people bias towards silence/vagueness in areas where they don't feel ready to commit to a probability forecast.

I think it's good that we appear to be moving in the direction of greater quantification and being accountable for probability estimates, but I think there's the very real risk that people see this and then become scared of committing their loose thoughts/intuitive probability estimates on record. This may result in us getting overall worse group epistemics because people hedge too much and are unwilling to commit to public probabilities.

See analogy to Jeff Kaufman's arguments on responsible transparency consumption:

I'm pretty confused about the question of standards in EA. Specifically, how high should it be? How do we trade off extremely high evidential standards against quantity, either by asking people/ourselves to sacrifice quality for quantity or by scaling up the number of people doing work by accepting lower quality? 

My current thinking:

1. There are clear, simple, robust-seeming arguments for why more quantity* is desirable, in far mode.

2. Deference to more senior EAs seems to point pretty heavily towards focusing on quality over quantity. 

3. When I look at specific interventions/grant-making opportunities in near mode, I'm less convinced they are a good idea, and lean towards earlier high-quality work is necessary before scaling.

The conflict between the very different levels of considerations in #1 vs #2 and #3 makes me fairly confused about where the imbalance is, but still maybe worth considering further given just how huge a problem a potential imbalance could be (in either direction). 

*Note that there was a bit of slippage in my phrasing, while at the frontiers there's a clear quantity vs average quality tradeoff at the output level, the function that translates inp... (read more)

Malaria kills a lot more people >age 5 than I would have guessed (Still more deaths <=5 than >5, but a much smaller ratio than I intuitively believed). See C70-C72 of GiveWell's cost-effectiveness estimates for AMF, which itself comes from the Global Burden of Disease Study.

I've previously cached the thought that malaria primarily kills people who are very young, but this is wrong.

I think the intuition slip here is that malaria is a lot more fatal for young people. However, there are more older people than younger people.

Should there be a new EA book, written by somebody both trusted by the community and (less importantly) potentially externally respected/camera-friendly?

Kinda a shower thought based on the thinking around maybe Doing Good Better is a bit old right now for the intended use-case of conveying EA ideas to newcomers.

I think the 80,000 hours and EA handbooks were maybe trying to do this, but for whatever reason didn't get a lot of traction?

I suspect that the issue is something like not having a sufficiently strong "voice"/editorial line, and what you want for a book that's a)bestselling and b) does not sacrifice nuance too much is one final author + 1-3 RAs/ghostwriters.

4Jamie_Harris4moDoes the Precipice count? And I think Will Macaskill is writing a new book. But I have the vague sense that public-facing books may be good for academics' careers anyway. Evidence for this intuition: (1) Where EA academics have written them, they seem to be more highly cited than a lot of their other publications, so the impact isn't just "the public" (see Google Scholar pages for Will Macaskill, Toby Ord, Nick Bostrom, Jacy Reese Anthis -- and let me know if there are others who have written public-facing books! Peter Singer would count but has no Google Scholar page) (2) this article about the impact of Wikipedia. It's not about public-facing books but fits into my general sense that "widely viewed summary content by/about academics can influence other academics" [] Plus all the usual stuff about high fidelity idea transmission being good. So yes, more EA books would be good?
2Linch4moI think The Precipice is good, both directly and as a way to communicate a subsection of EA thought, but EA thought is not predicated on a high probability of existential risk, and the nuance might be lost on readers if The Precipice becomes the default "intro to EA" book.

In the Precipice, Toby Ord very roughly estimates that the risk of extinction from supervolcanoes this century is 1/10,000 (as opposed to 1/10,000 from natural pandemics, 1/1,000 from nuclear war, 1/30 from engineered pandemics and 1/10 from AGI). Should more longtermist resources be put into measuring and averting the worst consequences of supervolcanic eruption?

More concretely, I know a PhD geologist who's interested in doing an EA/longtermist career and is currently thinking of re-skilling for AI policy. Given that (AFAICT) literally zero people in our community currently works on supervolcanoes, should I instead convince him to investigate supervolcanoes at least for a few weeks/months? 

If he hasn't seriously considered working on supervolcanoes before, then it definitely seems worth raising the idea with him.

I know almost nothing about supervolcanoes, but, assuming Toby's estimate is reasonable, I wouldn't be too surprised if going from zero to one longtermist researcher in this area is more valuable than adding an additional AI policy researcher.

2DonyChristie10moThe biggest risk here I believe is anthropogenic; supervolcanoes could theoretically be weaponized.

Clarification on my own commenting norms

If I explicitly disagreed with a subpoint in your post/comment, you should assume that I'm only disagreeing with that subpoint; you should NOT assume that I disagree with the rest of the comment and are only being polite. Similarly, if I reply with disagreement to a comment or post overall, you should NOT assume I disagree with your other comments or posts, and certainly I'm almost never trying to admonish you as a person. Conversely, agreements with subpoints should not be treated as agreements with your overall point, agreements with the overall point of an article should not be treated as an endorsement of your actions/your organization, and so forth.

I welcome both public and private feedback on my own comments and posts, especially points that note if I say untrue things. I try to only say true things, but we all mess up sometimes. I expect to mess up in this regard more often than most people, because I'm more public with my output than most people.

Regardless of overarching opinions you may or may not have about the unilateralist's curse, I think Petrov Day is a uniquely bad time to lambast the foibles of being a well-intentioned unilateralist.

I worry that people are updating in exactly the wrong way from Petrov's actions, possibly to fit preconceived ideas of what's correct.

2Nathan Young1moWhen you say updating in exactly the wrong way, I don't know what you mean. Do you think it's bad that the event might have an opt in next year? Or you think it's good that some people were tempted to press the button to make a statement?
5Linch1moPetrov was a well-intentioned unilateralist. He can reasonably be read as either right or wrong but morally lucky. I point out the dissimilarities between Petrov and our Petrov Day activities here [] and here [] .

Possibly dumb question, but does anybody actually care if climate change (or related issues like biodiversity) will be good or bad for wild animal welfare?

I feel like a lot of people argue this as a given, but the actual answer relies on getting the right call on some pretty hard empirical questions. I think answering or at least getting some clarity on this question is not impossible, but I don't know if anybody actually cares in a decision-relevant way (like I don't think WAW people will switch to climate change if we're pretty sure climate change is bad... (read more)

3niplav2moI think at least Brian Tomasik [] cares about this. If your suspicion is correct, then that's pretty damning for the WAW movement, unless climate change prevention is not the highest-leverage influence against WAS (a priori, it seems unlikely that climate change prevention would have the highest positive influence).
3Linch2moI've read his post on this before. I think this question is substantively easier for heavy SFE-biased views, especially if you pair it with some other beliefs Brian has. I read it as more damming for climate change people for what it's worth, or at least the ones who claim to be doing it for the animals.

I'm interested in a collection of backchaining posts by EA organizations and individuals, that traces back from what we want -- an optimal, safe, world -- back to specific actions that individuals and groups can take.

Can be any level of granularity, though the more precise, the better.

Interested in this for any of the following categories:

  • Effective Altruism
  • Longtermism
  • General GCR reduction
  • AI Safety
  • Biorisk
  • Institutional decision-making
4MichaelA10moI think a sort-of relevant collection can be found in the answers to this question about theory of change diagrams [] . And those answers also include other relevant discussion, like the pros and cons of trying to create and diagrammatically represent explicit theories of change. (A theory of change diagram won't necessarily exactly meet your criteria, in the sense that it may backchain from an instrumental rather than intrinsic goal, but it's sort-of close.) The answers in that post include links to theory of change diagrams from Animal Charity Evaluators [] (p.15), Convergence Analysis [] , Happier Lives Institute [], Leverage Research [], MIRI [], and Rethink Priorities [] . Those are the only 6 research orgs I know of which have theory of change diagrams. (But that question was just about research orgs, and having such diagrams might be somewhat more common among non-research organisations.) I think Leverage's diagram might be the closest thing I know of to a fairly granular backchaining from one's ultimate goals. It also seems to me quite unwieldy - I spent a while trying to read it once, but it felt annoying to navigate and hard to really get the overall gist of. (That was just my personal take, though.) One could also argue that Toby Ord's "grand strategy for humanity"[1] is a very low-granularity instance of backchaining from one's ultimate goals.
2Linch1yIt has occurred to me that very few such documents exist.
1DonyChristie10moI'm curious what it looks like to backchain from something so complex. I've tried it repeatedly in the past and feel like I failed.

A corollary of background EA beliefs is that everything we do is incredibly important. 

This is covered elsewhere in the forum, but I think an important corollary of many background EA + longtermist beliefs is that everything we do is (on an absolute scale) very important, rather than useless. 

I know some EAs who are dispirited because they donate a few thousand dollars a year when other EAs are able to donate millions. So on a relative scale, this makes sense -- other people are able to achieve >1000x the impact through their donations as you ... (read more)

4Linch4mo(why was this strong-downvoted?)

I don't know, but my best guess is that "janitor at MIRI"-type examples reinforce a certain vibe people don't like — the notion that even "lower-status" jobs at certain orgs are in some way elevated compared to other jobs, and the implication (however unintended) that someone should be happy to drop some more fulfilling/interesting job outside of EA to become MIRI's janitor (if they'd be good).

I think your example would hold for someone donating a few hundred dollars to MIRI (which buys roughly 10^-4 additional researchers), without triggering the same ideas. Same goes for "contributing three useful LessWrong comments on posts about AI", "giving Superintelligence to one friend", etc. These examples are nice in that they also work for people who don't want to live in the Bay, are happy in their current jobs, etc.

Anyway, that's just a guess, which doubles as a critique of the shortform post. But I did upvote the post, because I liked this bit:

But the "correct" framing (I claim) would look at the absolute scale, and consider stuff like  we are a) among the first 100 billion or so people and we hope there will one day be quadrillions b) (most) EAs are unusually well-placed within this already very privileged set and c) within that even smaller subset again, we try unusually hard to have a long term impact, so that also counts for something.

8Lukas_Gloor4moI agree that the vibe you're describing tends to be a bit cultish precisely because people take it too far. That said, it seems right that low prestige jobs within crucially needed teams can be more impactful than high-prestige jobs further away from the action. (I'm making a general point; I'm not saying that MIRI is necessarily a great example for "where things matter," nor am I saying the opposite.) In particular, personal assistant strikes me as an example of a highly impactful role (because it requires a hard-to-replace skillset). (Edit: I don't expect you to necessarily disagree with any of that, since you were just giving a plausible explanation for why the comment above may have turned off some people.)
2Linch4moI agree with this, and also I did try emphasizing that I was only using MIRI as an example. Do you think the post would be better if I replaced MIRI with a hypothetical example? The problem with that is that then the differences would be less visceral.
6Linch4moFWIW I'm also skeptical [] of naive ex ante differences of >~2 orders of magnitude between causes, after accounting for meta-EA effects. That said, I also think maybe our culture will be better if we celebrate doing naively good things over doing things that are externally high status.* But I don't feel too strongly, main point of the shortform was just that I talk to some people who are disillusioned because they feel like EA tells them that their jobs are less important than other jobs, and I'm just like, whoa, that's just such a weird impression on an absolute scale (like knowing that you won a million dollars in a lottery but being sad that your friend won a billion). I'll think about how to reframe the post so it's less likely to invite such relative comparisons, but I also think denying the importance of the relative comparisons is the point. *I also do somewhat buy arguments by you and Holden Karnofsky and others that it's more important for skill/career capital etc building to try to do really hard things even if they're naively useless. The phrase "mixed strategy" comes to mind.
2Aaron Gertler4moThis is a reasonable theory. But I think there are lots of naively good things that are broadly accessible to people in a way that "janitor at MIRI" isn't, hence my critique. (Not that this one Shortform post is doing anything wrong on its own — I just hear this kind of example used too often relative to examples like the ones I mentioned, including in this popular post [] , though the "sweep the floors at CEA" example was a bit less central there.)
2Habryka4moI feel like the meta effects are likely to exaggerate the differences, not reduce them? Surprised about the line of reasoning here.
2Linch4moHmm I think the most likely way downside stuff will happen is by flipping the sign rather than reducing the magnitude, curious why your model is different. I wrote a bit more in the linked [] shortform.
2anonymous_ea4moCan you spell out the impact estimation you are doing in more detail? It seems to me that you first estimate how much a janitor at an org might impact the research productivity of that org, and then there's some multiplication related to the (entire?) value of the far future. Are you assuming that AI will essentially solve all issues and lead to positive space colonization, or something along those lines?
2Linch4moI think the world either ends or some other form of (implied permanent) x-risk in the next 100 years or it doesn't. And if the world doesn't end in the next 100 years, we eventually will either a) settle the stars or b) ends or drastically curtails at some point >100 years out. I guess I assume b) is pretty low probability with AI, like much less than 99% chance. And 2 orders of magnitude isn't much when all the other numbers are pretty fuzzy and spans that many orders of magnitude. (A lot of this is pretty fuzzy).
2anonymous_ea4moSo is the basic idea that transformative AI not ending in an existential catastrophe is the major bottleneck on a vastly positive future for humanity?
2Linch4moNo, weaker claim than that, just saying that P(we spread to the stars|we don't all die or are otherwise curtailed from AI in the next 100 years) > 1%. (I should figure out my actual probabilities on AI and existential risk with at least moderate rigor at some point, but I've never actually done this so far).
2anonymous_ea3moThanks. Going back to your original impact estimate, I think the bigger difficulty I have in swallowing your impact estimate and claims related to it (e.g. "the ultimate weight of small decisions you make is measured not in dollars or relative status, but in stars") is not the probabilities of AI or space expansion, but what seems to me to be a pretty big jump from the potential stakes of a cause area or value possible in the future without any existential catastrophes, to the impact that researchers working on that cause area might have. Joe Carlsmith has a small paragraph articulating some of my worries along these lines elsewhere [] on the forum:
2Linch3moCan you be less abstract and point, quantitatively, to which numbers I gave seem vastly off to you and insert your own numbers? I definitely think my numbers are pretty fuzzy but I'd like to see different ones before just arguing verbally instead. (Also I think my actual original argument was a conditional claim, so it feels a little bit weird to be challenged on the premises of them! :)).

I know this is a really mainstream opinion, but I recently watched a recording of the musical Hamilton and I really liked it. 

I think Hamilton (the character, not the historical figure which I know very little about) has many key flaws (most notably selfishness, pride, and misogyny(?)) but also virtues/attitudes that are useful to emulate.

I especially found the Non-stop song(lyrics) highly relatable/aspirational,  at least for a subset of EA research that looks more like "reading lots and synthesize many thoughts quickly" and less like "think ver... (read more)

3Miranda_Zhang3moI love Hamilton! I wrote my IB Extended Essay on it! I also really love and relate to Non-Stop but in the obsessive, perfectionist way. I like + appreciate your view on it, which seems quite different in that it is more focused on how Hamilton's brain works rather than on how hard he works.
2Linch3moHello fellow Zhang! Thanks! I don't see nearly as much perfectionism (like none of the lyrics I can think of talks about rewriting things over and over), but I do think there's an important element of obsession to Hamilton/Non-Stop, which I relate pretty hard to. Since I generate a lot of my expected impact from writing, and it's quite hard to predict which of my ideas are the most useful/promising in advance, I do sometimes feel a bunch of internal pressure to write/think faster, produce more, etc, like a bit of a race against the clock to produce as much as I can (while maintaining quality standards). So in the context of this song, I especially admire people (including the character Hamilton, some journalists, some bloggers, and coworkers) who manage to produce a lot of output without (much) sacrificing quality.

I'd appreciate a 128kb square version of the lightbulb/heart EA icon with a transparent background, as a Slack emoji.

3Tristan Cook5moNot 128kb (Slack resized it for me) but this worked for me []
2Linch5moThank you!

I continue to be fairly skeptical that the all-things-considered impact of EA altruistic interventions differ by multiple ( say >2) orders of magnitude ex ante (though I think it's plausible ex post). My main crux here is that I believe general meta concerns start dominating once the object-level impacts are small enough.

This is all in terms of absolute value of impact. I think it's quite possible that some interventions have large (or moderately sized) negative impact, and I don't know how the language of impact in terms of multiplication best deals with this.

7EdoArad1yBy "meta concerns", do you mean stuff like base rate of interventions, risk of being wildly wrong, methodological errors/biases, etc.? I'd love it if you could expand a bit. Also, did you mean that these dominate when object-level impacts are big enough?
4Linch1yHmm I think those are concerns too, but I guess I was primarily thinking about meta-EA concerns like whether an intervention increases or decreases EA prestige, willingness of new talent to work on EA organizations, etc. No. Sorry I was maybe being a bit confusing with my language. I mean to say that when comparing two interventions, the meta-level impacts of the less effective intervention will dominate if you believe the object-level impact of the less effective intervention is sufficiently small. Consider two altruistic interventions, direct AI Safety research and forecasting. Suppose that you did the analysis and think the object-level impact of AI Safety research is X (very high) and the impact of forecasting is only 0.0001X. (This is just an example. I do not believe that the value of forecasting is 10,000 times lower than AI Safety research). I think it will then be wrong to think that the all-things-considered value of an EA doing forecasting is 10,000 times lower than the value of an EA doing direct AI Safety research, if for no other reason than because EAs doing forecasting has knock-on effects on EAs doing AI Safety. If the object-level impacts of the less effective intervention are big enough, then it's less obvious that the meta-level impacts will dominate. If your analysis instead gave a value of forecasting as 3x less impactful than AIS research, then I have to actually present a fairly strong argument for why the meta-level impacts may still dominate, whereas I think it's much more self-evident at the 10,000x difference level. Let me know if this is still unclear, happy to expand. Oh, also a lot of my concerns (in this particular regard) mirror Brian Tomasik's, so maybe it'd be easier to just read his post [] .
4EdoArad1yThanks, much clearer! I'll paraphrase the crux to see if I understand you correctly: If the EA community is advocating for interventions X and Y, then more resources R going into Y leads to more resources going into X (within about R/10^2). Is this what you have in mind?
2Linch10moYes, though I'm strictly more confident about absolute value than the change being positive (So more resources R going into Y can also eventually lead to less resources going into X, within about R/10^2).
2EdoArad10moAnd the model is that increased resources into main EA cause areas generally affects the EA movement by increasing its visibility, diverting resources from that cause area to others, and bringing in more people in professional contact with EA orgs/people - those general effects trickle down to other cause areas?
2Linch10moYes that sounds right. There are also internal effects in framing/thinking/composition that by itself have flow-through effects that are plausibly >1% in expectation. For example, more resources going into forecasting may cause other EAs to be more inclined to quantify uncertainty and focus on the quantifiable, with both potentially positive and negative [] flow-through effects, more resources going into medicine- or animal welfare- heavy causes will change the gender composition of EA, and so forth.
2EdoArad10moThanks again for the clarification! I think that these flow-through effects mostly apply to specific targets for resources that are more involved with the EA-community. For example, I wouldn't expect more resources going into efforts by Tetlock to improve the use of forecasting in the US government to have visible flow-through effects on the community. Or more resources going into AMF are not going to affect the community. I think that this might apply particularly well to career choices. Also, if these effects are as large as you think, it would be good to more clearly articulate what are the most important flow-through effects and how do we improve the positives and mitigate the negatives.
2Linch4moI agree with that. I agree that people should do this carefully. One explicit misunderstanding that I want to forestall is using this numerical reasoning to believe "oh cause areas don't have >100x differences in impact after adjusting for meta considerations. My personal fit for Y cause area is >100x. Therefore I should do Y." This is because the metrics for causal assignment for meta-level considerations is quite hard (harder than normal) and may look very different from the object level considerations within a cause area. To get back to the forecasting example, continue to suppose forecasting is 10,000x less important than AI safety. Suppose further that high-quality research in forecasting has a larger affect in drawing highly talented people within EA to doing forecasting/forecasting research than in drawing highly talented people outside of EA to EA. Then in that case, while high-quality research within forecasting is net positive on the object level, it's actually negative on the meta level. There might other good reasons [] to pay more attention to personal fit []than naive cost effectiveness, but the numerical argument for <=~100x differences between cause areas alone is not sufficient.

Minor UI note: I missed the EAIF AMA multiple times (even after people told me it existed) because my eyes automatically glaze over pinned tweets. I may be unusual in this regard, but thought it worth flagging anyway.

Do people have thoughts on what the policy should be on upvoting posts by coworkers? 

Obviously telling coworkers (or worse, employees!) to upvote your posts should be verboten, and having a EA forum policy that you can't upvote posts by coworkers is too draconian (and also hard to enforce). 

But I think there's a lot of room in between to form a situation like "where on average posts by people who work at EA orgs will have more karma than posts of equivalent semi-objective quality." Concretely, 2 mechanisms in which this could happen (and almost c... (read more)

9Aaron Gertler8moI'd prefer that people on the Forum not have to worry too much about norms of this kind. If you see a post or comment you think is good, upvote it. If you're worried that you and others at your org have unequal exposure to coworkers' content, make a concerted effort to read other Forum posts as well, or even share those posts within your organization. That said, if you want to set a norm for yourself or suggest one for others, I have no problem with that — I just don't see the Forum adopting something officially. Part of the problem is that people often have friends or housemates at other orgs, share an alma mater or cause area with a poster. etc. — there are many ways to be biased by personal connections, and I want to push us toward reading and supporting more things rather than trying to limit the extent to which people express excitement out of concern for these biases.

crossposted from LessWrong

There should maybe be an introductory guide for new LessWrong users coming in from the EA Forum, and vice versa.

I feel like my writing style (designed for EAF) is almost the same as that of LW-style rationalists, but not quite identical, and this is enough to be substantially less useful for the average audience member there.

For example, this identical question is a lot less popular on LessWrong than on the EA Forum, despite naively appearing to appeal to both audiences (and indeed if I were to guess at the purview of LW, to be cl... (read more)

2MichaelA8moI do agree that there are notable differences in what writing styles are often used and appreciated on the two sites. Could this also be simply because of a difference in the extent to which people already know your username and expect to find posts from it interesting on the two sites? Or, relatedly, a difference in how many active users on each site you know personally? I'm not sure how much those factors affect karma and comment numbers on either site, but it seems plausible that the have a substantial affect (especially given how an early karma/comment boost can set off a positive feedback loop). Also, have you crossposted many things and noticed this pattern, or was it just a handful? I think there's a lot of "randomness" in karma and comment numbers on both sites, so if it's just been a couple crossposts it seems hard to be confident that any patterns would hold in future. Personally, when I've crossposted something to the EA Forum and to LessWrong, those posts have decently often gotten more karma on the Forum and decently often the opposite, and (from memory) I don't think there's been a strong tendency in one direction or the other.
2Linch8moYeah I think this is plausible. Pretty unfortunate though. I don't ever recall having a higher karma on LW than the Forum, though I wouldn't be surprised if it happened once or twice.

Are there any EAA researchers carefully tracking the potential of huge cost-effectiveness gains in the ag industry from genetic engineering advances of factory farmed animals? Or (less plausibly) advances from better knowledge/practice/lore from classical artificial selection? As someone pretty far away from the field, a priori the massive gains made in biology/genetics in the last few decades seems like something that we plausibly have not priced in in. So it'd be sad if EAAs get blindsided by animal meat becoming a lot cheaper in the next few decades (if this is indeed viable, which it may not be).

4MichaelStJules5moBesides just extrapolating trends in cost of production/prices, I think the main things to track would be feed conversion ratios [] and the possibility of feeding animals more waste products or otherwise cheaper inputs, since feed is often the main cost of production. Some FCRs are already < 2 and close to 1, e.g. it takes less than 2kg of input to get 1kg of animal product (this could be measured in just weight, calories, protein weight, etc..), e.g. for chickens, some fishes and some insects. I keep hearing that animal protein comes from the protein in what animals eat (but I think there are some exceptions, at least), so this would put a lower bound of 1 on FCR in protein terms, and there wouldn't be much further to go for animals close to that. I think a lower bound of around 1 for weight of feed to weight of animal product also makes sense, maybe especially if you ignore water in and out. So, I think chicken meat prices could roughly at most halve again, based on these theoretical limits, and it's probably much harder to keep pushing. Companies are also adopting less efficient breeds to meet welfare standards like the Better Chicken Commitment [], since these breeds have really poor welfare due to their accelerated growth. This might be on Lewis Bollard's radar, since he has written about the cost of production, prices and more general trends in animal agriculture.
2Pablo6moThis post [] may be of interest, in case you haven't seen it already.
2Linch6moYep, aware of this! Solid post.

I'm now pretty confused about whether normative claims can be used as evidence in empirical disputes. I generally believed no, with the caveat that for humans, moral beliefs are built on a scaffolding of facts, and sometimes it's easier to respond to an absurd empirical claim with the moral claim that has the gestalt sense of empirical beliefs if there isn't an immediately accessible empirical claim.

I talked to a philosopher who disagreed, and roughly believed that strong normative claims can be used as evidence against more confused/less c... (read more)

8MichaelDickens1yI haven't really thought about it, but it seems to me that if an empirical claim implies an implausible normative claim, that lowers my subjective probability of the empirical claim.

Updated version on

Cute theoretical argument for #flattenthecurve at any point in the distribution

  1. What is #flattenthecurve?
    1. The primary theory behind #flattenthecurve is assuming that everybody who will get COVID-19 will eventually get it there anything else you can do?
    2. It turns out it’s very valuable to
      1. Delay the spread so that a) the peak of the epidemic spread is lower (#flattenthecurve)
      2. Also to give public health professionals, healthcare sy
... (read more)

I think it's really easy to get into heated philosophical discussions about whether EAs overall use too much or too little jargon. Rather than try to answer this broadly for EA as a whole, it might be helpful for individuals to conduct a few quick polls to decide for themselves whether they ought to change their lexicon. 

Here's my Twitter poll as one example.  

Economic benefits of mediocre local human preferences modeling.

Epistemic status: Half-baked, probably dumb.

Note: writing is mediocre because it's half-baked.

Some vague brainstorming of economic benefits from mediocre human preferences models.

Many AI Safety proposals include understanding human preferences as one of its subcomponents [1]. While this is not obviously good[2], human modeling seems at least plausibly relevant and good.

Short-term economic benefits often spur additional funding and research interest [citation not given]. So a possible quest... (read more)

I find it quite hard to do multiple quote-blocks in the same comment on the forum. For example, this comment took one 5-10 tries to get right. 

2JP Addison8moWhat editor are you using? The default rich text editor? (EA Forum Docs) What's the issue?
2Linch8moThe default rich text editor. The issue is that if I want to select one line and quote/unquote it, it either a) quotes (unquotes) lines before and after it, or creates a bunch of newlines before and after it. Deleting newlines in quote blocks also has the issue of quoting (unquoting) unintended blocks. Perhaps I should just switch to markdown for comments, and remember to switch back to a rich text editor for copying and pasting top-level posts?
4Aaron Gertler7moSome ways that I do multiple blockquotes in posts/comments: 1. Start with nothing in blockquotes. Then, make sure anything I want to blockquote is in its own paragraph. Then, highlight the paragraph and format it as a quote. I haven't ever seen this pick up earlier/later paragraphs, and any newlines that are created, I can just delete. 2. You can also start with everything in blockquotes. If you hit "enter" at the end of one paragraph, you'll create a blank blockquote line between it and the next paragraph. If you hit "enter" from the newline, you'll end up with two separate blockquoted sections with a non-blockquote line in the middle. It sounds like you're seeing some unexpected behavior when you try (1), but I haven't been able to replicate it. If you want to jump on a quick call to investigate, that might be easier than trying to resolve the issue via text — you can set one up here [].

On the forum, it appears to have gotten harder for me to do multiple quote blocks in the same comment. I now often have to edit a post multiple times so quoted sentences are correctly in quote blocks, and unquoted sections are not. Whereas in the past I do not recall having this problem?

2JP Addison1yI'm going to guess that the new editor is the difference between now and previously. What's the issue you're seeing? Is there a difference between the previewed and rendered text? Ideally you could get this to repro on LessWrong's development server [], which would be useful for bug reports, but no worries if not.

Cross-posted from Facebook

On the meta-level, I want to think hard about the level of rigor I want to have in research or research-adjacent projects.

I want to say that the target level of rigor I should have is substantially higher than for typical FB or Twitter posts, and way lower than research papers.

But there's a very wide gulf! I'm not sure exactly what I want to do, but here are some gestures at the thing:

- More rigor/thought/data collection should be put into it than 5-10 minutes typical of a FB/Twitter post, but much less than a hundred or... (read more)