Author, The Roots of Progress (rootsofprogress.org)


AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

I haven't forgotten this, but my response has turned into an entire essay. I think I'll do it as a separate post, and link it here. Thanks!

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

I don't have strong opinions on the reproducibility issues. My guess is that if it has contributed to stagnation it's been more of a symptom than a cause.

As for where to spend funding, I also don't have a strong answer. My feeling is that reproducibility isn't really stopping anything, it's a tax/friction/overhead at worst? So I would tend to favor a promising science project over a reproducibility project. On the other hand, metascience feels important, and more neglected than science itself.

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

I think advances in science leading to technology is only the proximal cause of progress. I think the deeper causes are, in fact, philosophical (including epistemic, moral, and political causes). The Scientific Revolution, the shift from monarchy to republics, the development of free markets and enterprise, the growth of capitalism—all of these are social/political causes that underlie scientific, technological, industrial, and economic progress.

More generally, I think that progress in technology, science, and government are tightly intertwined in history and can't really be separated.

I think advances in the humanities are absolutely needed—more so in a certain sense than advances in the physical sciences, because our material technology today is far more advanced than our moral technology. I think moral and political causes are to blame for our incompetent response to covid; for high prices in housing, education, and medicine; and for lack of economic progress in poorer countries. I think better social “technology” is needed to avoid war, to reform policing, to end conspiracy theories, and to get everyone to vaccinate their children. And ultimately I think cultural and philosophical issues are at the root of the scientific/technological slowdown of the last ~50 years.

So, yeah, I think social advances were actually important in the past and will be in the future.

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

It's hard to prioritize! I try to have overarching / long-term goals, and to spend most of my time on them, but also to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. I look for things that significantly advance my understanding of progress, build my public content base, build my audience, or better, all three.

Right now I'm working on two things. One is continued curriculum development for my progress course for the Academy of Thought and Industry, a private high school. The other, more long-term project is a book on progress. Along the way I intend to keep writing semi-regularly at rootsofprogress.org.

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

I am broadly sympathetic to Patrick's way of looking at this, yes.

If progress studies feels like a miss on EA's part to you… I think folks within EA, especially those who have been well within it for a long time, are better placed to analyze why/how that happened. Maybe rather than give an answer, let me suggest some hypotheses that might be fruitful to explore:

  • A focus on saving lives and relieving suffering, with these seen as more moral or important than comfort, entertainment, enjoyment, or luxury; or economic growth; or the advance of knowledge?
  • A data-driven focus that naturally leads to more short-term, measurable impact? (Vs., say, a more historical and philosophical focus?)
  • A concern about existential risk from technology and progress?
  • Some other tendency to see technology, capitalism, and economic growth as less important, less moral, or otherwise lower-status?
  • An assumption that these things are already popular and well-served by market mechanisms and therefore not-neglected?

As for “tuning the metal detector”, I think a root-cause analysis on progress studies or any other area you feel you “missed” would be the best way to approach it!

Well, one final thought: The question of “how to do the most good” is deep and  challenging enough that you can't answer it with anything less than an entire philosophy. I suspect that EA is significantly influenced by a certain philosophical orientation, and that orientation is fundamentally altruistic. Progress isn't really altruistic, at least not to my mind. Altruism is about giving, whereas progress is about creating. They're not unrelated, but they're different orientations.

But I could be wrong here, and @Benjamin_Todd, above, has given me a whole bunch of stuff to read to challenge my understanding of EA, so I should go digest that before speculating any more.

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

I have a theory of change but not a super-detailed one. I think ideas matter and that they move the world. I think you get new ideas out there any way you can.

Right now I'm working on a book about progress. I hope this book will be read widely, but above all I'd like it to be read by the scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who are creating, or will create, the next major breakthroughs that move humanity forward. I want to motivate them, to give them inspiration and courage. Someday, maybe in twenty years, I'd love to meet the scientist who solved human aging, or the engineer who invented atomically precise manufacturing, or the founder of a company providing nuclear power to the world, and hear that they were inspired in part by my work.

I'd also like my message to reach people in education, journalism, and the arts, and for them to help spread the philosophy of progress too, which will magnify that kind of impact.

And I'd like it to reach people involved in policy. See my answer to @BrianTan about “interventions” for more detail on what I'm thinking there.

I'd like to see the progress community doing more work on many fronts: on the history of specific areas, on frontier technologies and their possibilities, and on specific policy programs and reforms that would advance progress.

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

Let me say up front that there is a divergence here between my ideological biases/priors and what I think I can prove or demonstrate objectively. I usually try to stick to the latter because I think that's more useful to everyone, but since you asked I need to get into the former.

Does government have a role  to play? Well, taking that literally, then absolutely, yes. If nothing else, I think it's clear that government creates certain conditions of political stability, and provides legal infrastructure such as corporate and contract law, property law including IP, and the court system. All of those are necessary for progress.

(And when I mentioned “root-cause analysis on most human suffering” above, I was mostly thinking about dysfunctional governments in the poorest countries that are totally corrupt and/or can't even maintain law & order)

I also think government, especially the military, has at least a sort of incidental role to play as a customer of technology. The longitude problem was funded in part by the British navy. The technique of canning was invented when Napoleon offered a prize for a way to preserve food for his military on long foreign campaigns. The US military was one of the first customers of integrated circuits. Etc.

And of course the military has reasons to do at least some R&D in-house, too.

But I think what you're really asking about is whether civilian government should fund progress, or promote it through “policy”, or otherwise be actively involved in directing it.

All I can say for sure here is: I don't know. So here's where we get into my priors, which are pretty much laissez-faire. That makes me generally unfavorable towards government subsidy or intervention. But again, this is what I don't think I have a real answer on yet. In fact, a big part of the motivation for starting The Roots of Progress was to challenge myself on these issues and to try to build up a stronger evidentiary base to draw conclusions.

For now let me just suggest:

  • I think that all government subsidies are morally problematic, since taxpayers are non-consenting
  • I don't (yet?) see what government subsidies can accomplish that can't (in theory) be accomplished non-coercively
  • I worry that even when government attempts to advance progress, it may end up slowing it down—for example, the dominance of NIH/NSF in science funding combined with their committee-based peer-review system is often suggested as a factor slowing down scientific progress
  • In general I think that progress is better made in decentralized fashion, and government solutions tend to be centralized
  • I also think that progress is helped by accountability mechanisms, and government tends to lack these mechanisms or have weaker ones

That said, here are a few things that give me pause.

  • Government-backed R&D, even for not-directly-military purposes, has had some significant wins, such as DARPA kicking off the Internet.
  • Some major projects have only gotten done with government support, such as the US transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. This happened in the most laissez-faire country in the world, at a time when it was way more laissez-faire than it is now, so… if that needed government support, maybe there was a reason. (I don't know yet.)
  • Economic strength is closely related to national security, which entangles the government and the economy in ways I haven't fully worked out yet. E.g., I'm not sure the best way for government to ensure that we have strategic commodities such as oil, steel, and food in wartime.

Anyway, this is all stuff I continue to think deeply about and hope to have more to say about later. And at some point I would like to deeply engage with Mazzucato's work and other similar work so that I can have a more informed opinion.

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

I don't really have great thoughts on metrics, as I indicated to @monadica. Happy to chat about it sometime! It's a hard problem.

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

Re measuring progress, it's hard. No one metric captures it. The one that people use if they have to use something is GDP but that has all kinds of problems. In practice, you have to just look at multiple metrics, some which are narrow but easy to measure, and some which are broad aggregates or indices.

Re “piecewise” process, it's true that progress is not linear! I agree it is stochastic.

Re a golden age, I'm not sure, but see my reply to @BrianTan below re “interventions”.

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

I'll have to read more about progress in “renewables” to decide how big a breakthrough that is, but at best it would have to be counted, like genetics, as a potential future revolution, not one that's already here. We still get most of our energy from fossil fuels.

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