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Open and Welcome Thread: August 2020

Hi all! I'm Litawn. I found EA through my interest in rationality (Lesswrong, SSC). I was involved with Stanford Effective Altruism, but mostly am a serial lurker. I want to start engaging more with the community and EA in general, as I can see that there is a lot to learn.

My interests are usually in fundamental questions as well as pragmatic ones. I like thinking about big questions like the far future, the fate of the universe, nature of life, etc. I'm inherently drawn to these sorts of things.

I also care about improving human coordination and raising the sanity water line. I want more people to feel like they have the ability to make a positive difference, and for their efforts to be fruitful.

Covid offsets and carbon offsets

Some thoughts:

There may be more of a personal incentive to avoid COVID-19 than can be assumed from looking at mortality gradients with respect to age and health. SARS-1 has documented long-term effects that range from permanent lung damage to chronic fatigue; there's compelling reasons not to get involved with our current mass SARS-2 experiment. In general, recovering from a virus is not necessarily smooth, see viral meningitis.

I think it's interesting to compare offsetting with climate change and this pandemic. I'm no expert on modeling the effects of individual effort to mitigate climate change, but I assume that a pandemic has an inherently exponential nature that makes high compliance to social-distancing guidelines imperative. I would say people in good health are absolutely morally obligated to social distance.

With carbon emissions, I feel a little more comfortable making direct comparisons between offsetting vs decreased personal emissions. Obviously it depends on the nature of the offset, but I think that you can do a straightforward cost-benefit analysis based on how much emissions you prevented/caused.

The pandemic is different. What does a donation to Johns Hopkins pay for? Perhaps better information, better models, better science. That's not really the same currency as decreasing R0 through social distancing. Better information would be quite useless at a high enough R0.

And say we do make a consequentialist analysis of the situation that donation can make up for social distancing. In that case, I'd be worried about the relationship between variance and chaos -- a donation might not always lead to mitigating R0 consistently compared to social distancing. Tweaking parameters in a complicated exponential epidemiological model is a sure way to get unexpected results and invite tail risk.