Co-Excutive Director of Rethink Priorities


Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

What new charities do you want to be created by EAs?

I don't have any strong opinions about this and it would likely take months of work to develop them. In general, I don't know enough to suggest that it is desirable that new charities work in areas I think could use more work rather than existing organizations up their work in those domains.

What are the biggest mistakes Rethink Priorities did?

Not doing enough early enough to figure out how to achieve impact from our work and communicate with other organizations and funders about how we can work together.

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

Thanks for the questions!

If one is only concerned w/ preventing needless suffering, prioritising the most extreme suffering, would donating to Rethink Priorities be a good investment for them, and if so, how so?

I think this depends on many factual beliefs you hold, including what groups of creatures count and what time period you are concerned about. Restricting ourselves to the present and assuming all plausibly sentient minds count (and ignoring extremes, say, less than 0.1% chance), I think farm and wild animals are plausibly candidates for enduring some of the worst suffering.

Specifically, I'd say it's plausible some of the worst persistent current suffering is plausibly in farmed chickens and fish, and thus work to reduce the worst aspects of those is a decent bet to prevent extreme suffering. Similarly, wild animals likely experience the largest share of extreme suffering currently because of the sheer numbers and nature of life largely without interventions to prevent, say, the suffering of starvation, or extreme physical pain. For these reasons, work to improve conditions for wild animals plausibly could be a good investment.

Still restricted to the present, and outside the typical EA space altogether, I think it's plausible much of the worst suffering in the world is committed during war crimes or torture under various authoritarian states. I do not know if there's anything remotely tractable in this space or what good donation opportunities would be.

If you broaden consideration to include the future, a much wider set of creatures plausibly could experience extreme suffering including digital minds running at higher speeds, and/or with increased intensity of valenced experience beyond what's currently possible in biological creatures. Here, what you think is the best bet would depend on many empirical beliefs again. I would say, only, that I'm excited about our longtermism work and think we'll meaningfully contribute to creating the kind of future that decreases the risks of these types of outcomes.

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

Thanks for the question, Edo!

We keep a large list of project ideas, and regularly add to it by asking others for projects ideas including staff, funders, advisors, and organizations in the spaces we work in.

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

Hey Edo, thanks for the question!

We've had some experience working with volunteers. In the past, when we had less operational support than we do now, we found it challenging to manage and monitor volunteers but we think it's something that we're better placed to handle now so may explore again in the coming years, though we are generally hesitant about depending on free labor.

We've not really had experience publicly outsourcing questions to the EA community, but we regularly consult wider EA communities for input on questions we are working on. Finally, and I'm not sure this is what you meant, but we've also partnered with Metaculus on some forecasting questions.

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

Hey Josh, thanks for the question!

From first principles, our allocation depends on talent fit, the counterfactual value of our work, fundraising, and, of course, some assessment of how important we think the work is, all things considered.

At the operational level, we set targets as percentage of time we want to spend on each cause area based on these factors and we re-evaluate based on that as our existing commitments, the data, and as changes in our opinions about these matters warrant.

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

I think it's going great! I think our combined skillset is a big pro when reviewing work, considering project ideas. In general, I think bouncing ideas off each other improves and sharpens our ideas. We are definitely able to cover more depth and breadth with the two of us than if only one person was leading the organization.

Additionally, Peter and I get along great and I enjoy working alongside him everyday (well, digitally anyway given we are remote).

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

Thanks for the question!

We hire for fairly specific roles, and the difference between those we do hire and don't isn't necessarily as simple as those brought on being better as researchers overall (to say nothing of differences in fit or skill across causes).

That said, we generally prioritize ability in writing, general reasoning, and quantitative skills. That is we value the ability to uncover and address considerations, counter-points, meta-considerations on a topic, produce quantitative models and do data analysis when appropriate (obviously this is more relevant in certain roles than others), and to compile this information into understandable writing that highlights the important features and addresses topics with clarity. However, which combination of these skills is most desired at a given time depends on current team fit and the role each hire would be stepping into.

For these reasons, it's difficult to say with precision which skills I'd hope for more of among EA researchers. With those caveats, I'd still say a demonstration of these skills through producing high quality work, be it academic or in blog posts, is in fact a useful proxy for the kinds of work we do at RP.

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

Thanks for the questions!

On (1), we see our work in WAW as currently doing three things: (1) foundational research (e.g., understanding moral value and sentience, understanding well-being at various stages of life), (2) investigating plausible tractable interventions (i.e., feasible interventions currently happening or doable within 5 years), and (3) field building and understanding (e.g., currently we are running polls to see how "weird" the public finds WAW interventions).

We generally defer to WAI on matters of direct outreach (both academic and general public) and do not prioritize that area as much as WAI and Animal Ethics do. It's hard to say more on how our vision differs from WAI without them commenting, but we collaborate with them a lot and we are next scheduled to sync on plans and vision in early January.

On (2), it's hard to predict exactly what additional restrict donations do, but in general, we expect them to increase in the long run how much we spend in a cause by an amount similar to how much is donated. Reasons for this include: we budget on a fairly long-term basis, so we generally try to predict what we will spend in a space, and then raise that much funding. If we don't raise as much as we'd like, we likely consider allocating our expenses differently; and if we raise more than we expected, we'd scale up our work in a cause area. Because our ability to work in spaces is influenced by how much we raise, generally raising more restricted funding in a space ought to lead to us doing more work in that space.

Rethink Priorities 2020 Impact and 2021 Strategy

Thanks for the question!

I think the short answer is this what we think of doing projects in the improving the collective understanding space depends on a number of factors including the nature of the project, and the probability of that general change in perspective leading to actions changed in the future, and how important it would be if that change occurred.

One very simplistic model you can use to think about possible research projects in this area is:

  1. Big considerations (classically "crucial considerations", i.e. moral weight, invertebrate sentience)
  2. New charities/interventions (presenting new ideas or possibilities that can be taken up)
  3. Immediate influence (analysis to shift ongoing or pending projects, donations, or interventions)

It's far easier to tie work in categories (2) or (3) into behavior changed. By contrast, projects or possible research that falls into the (1) can be very difficult to map to specific plausible changes ahead of time and, sometimes, even after the completion of the work. These projects can also be more likely to be boom or bust, in that the results of investigating them could have huge effects if we or others shift our beliefs but it can be fairly unlikely to change beliefs at all. That said, I think these types of projects can be very valuable and we try to dedicate some of our time to doing them.

I think it's fair to say these types of "improving some collective understanding of prioritization" projects have been a minority of the types of projects we've done and that are listed for the coming year. However, there are many caveats here including but not limited to:

  • The nature of the project, our fit, and what others are working on has a big impact on which projects we take on. So even if, in theory, we thought a particular research idea was really worth pursuing there are many factors that go into whether we take on a particular project.
  • These types of projects have historically taken longer to complete, so they may be smaller in number but a larger share of our overall work hours than counting projects would suggest at first glance.
Shrimp Welfare - 2020 Recommended idea

Hey I'm happy to see this on the forum! I think farmed shrimp interventions are a promising area and this report highlights some important considerations. I should note that Rethink Priorities has also been researching this topic for a while and I won't go into detail as I'm not leading up this work and the person who is currently is on leave, but I think we've tentatively come to some different conclusions about the most promising next steps in this domain.

In the future, if anyone reading this is inclined to work on farmed shrimp, in addition to reviewing this report I'd hope you'd read over our forthcoming work and/or reach out to us about this area.

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