Exploring different research directions to find out where in the x-risk research ecosystem I best fit in. Part of the 2018-2020 cohort in FHI's Research Scholars Programme. Previously Executive Director of the Foundational Research Institute, a project by the Effective Altruism Foundation (but I don't endorse that organization's 'suffering-focused' view on ethics).

Max_Daniel's Comments

Max_Daniel's Shortform

[Epistemic status: info from the WHO website and Wikipedia, but I overall invested only ~10 min, so might be missing something.]

Under the 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR), states have a legal duty to respond promptly to a PHEIC.
[Note by me: The International Health Regulations include multiple instances of "public health emergency of international concern". By contrast, they include only one instance of "pandemic", and this is in the term "pandemic influenza" in a formal statement by China rather than the main text of the regulation.]
  • The WHO declared a PHEIC due to COVID-19 on January 30th.
  • The OP was prompted by a claim that the timing of the WHO using the term "pandemic" provides an argument against epistemic modesty. (Though I appreciate this was less clear in the OP than it could have been, and maybe it was a bad idea to copy my Facebook comment here anyway.) From the Facebook comment I was responding to:
For example, to me, the WHO taking until ~March 12 to call this a pandemic*, when the informed amateurs I listen to were all pretty convinced that this will be pretty bad since at least early March, is at least some evidence that trusting informed amateurs has some value over entirely trusting people usually perceived as experts.
  • Since the WHO declaring a PHEIC seems much more consequential than them using the term "pandemic", the timing of the PHEIC declaration seems more relevant for assessing the merits of the WHO response, and thus for any argument regarding epistemic modesty.
  • Since the PHEIC declaration happened significantly earlier, any argument based on the premise that it happened too late is significantly weaker. And whatever the apparent initial force of this weaker argument, my undermining response from the OP still applies.
  • So overall, while the OP's premise appealing to major legal/institutional consequences of the WHO using the term "pandemic" seems false, I'm now even more convinced of the key claim I wanted to argue for: that the WHO response does not provide an argument against epistemic modesty in general, nor for the epistemic superiority of "informed amateurs" over experts on COVID-19.
Max_Daniel's Shortform

Thank you for pointing this out! It sounds like my guess was probably just wrong.

My guess was based on a crude prior on international organizations, not anything I know about the WHO specifically. I clarified the epistemic status in the OP.

Max_Daniel's Shortform

[Epistemic status: speculation based on priors about international organizations. I know next to nothing about the WHO specifically.]

[On the WHO declaring COVID-19 a pandemic only (?) on March 12th. Prompted by this Facebook discussion on epistemic modesty on COVID-19.]

- [ETA: this point is likely wrong, cf. Khorton's comment below. However, I believe the conclusion that the timing of WHO declarations by itself doesn't provide a significant argument against epistemic modesty still stands, as I explain in a follow-up comment below.] The WHO declaring a pandemic has a bunch of major legal and institutional consequences. E.g. my guess is that among other things it affects the amounts of resources the WHO and other actors can utilize, the kind of work the WHO and others are allowed to do, and the kind of recommendations the WHO can make.

- The optimal time for the WHO to declare a pandemic is primarily determined by these legal and institutional consequences. Whether COVID-19 is or will in fact be a pandemic in the everyday or epidemiological sense is an important input into the decision, but not a decisive one.

- Without familiarity with the WHO and the legal and institutional system it is a part of, it is very difficult to accurately assess the consequences of the WHO declaring a pandemic. Therefore, it is very hard to evaluate the timing of the WHO's declaration without such familiarity. And being even maximally well-informed about COVID-19 itself isn't even remotely sufficient for an accurate evaluation.

- The bottom line is that the WHO officially declaring that COVID-19 is a pandemic is a totally different thing from any individual persuasively arguing that COVID-19 is or will be a pandemic. In a language that would accurately reflect differences in meaning, me saying that COVID-19 is a pandemic and the WHO declaring COVID-19 is a pandemic would be done using different words. It is simply not the primary purpose of this WHO speech act to be an early, accurate, reliable, or whatever indicator of whether "COVID-19 is a pandemic", to predict its impact, or any other similar thing. It isn't primarily epistemic in any sense.

- If just based on information about COVID-19 itself someone confidently thinks that the WHO ought to have declared a pandemic earlier, they are making a mistake akin to the mistake reflected by answering "yes" to the question "could you pass me the salt?" without doing anything.

So did the WHO make a mistake by not declaring COVID-19 to be a pandemic earlier, and if so how consequential was it? Well, I think the timing was probably suboptimal just because my prior is that most complex institutions aren't optimized for getting the timing of such things exactly right. But I have no idea how consequential a potential mistake was. In fact, I'm about 50-50 on whether the optimal time would have been slightly earlier or slightly later. (Though substantially earlier seems significantly more likely optimal than substantially later.)

Activism for COVID-19 Local Preparedness

I've also heard that 40-70% figure (e.g. from German public health officials like the director of Germany's equivalent of the CDC). But I'm confused for the reason you stated. So I'd also appreciate an answer.

Some hypotheses (other than the 40-70% being just wrong) I can think of, though my guess is none of them is right:

(a) The 40-70% are a very long-term figure like risk of life-time infection assuming that the virus becomes permanently endemic.

(b) There being many more undetected than confirmed cases.

(c) The slowdown in new cases in Hubei only being temporary, i.e. expecting it to accelerate again and reaching 40-70% there.

(d) Thinking that the virus will spread more widely outside of Hubei, e.g. because one expects less drastic prevention/mitigation measures. [ETA: This comment seems to point to (d).]

Max_Daniel's Shortform
I don't think that peculiarities of what kinds of EA work we're most enthusiastic about lead to much of the disagreement. When I imagine myself taking on various different people's views about what work would be most helpful, most of the time I end up thinking that valuable contributions could be made to that work by sufficiently talented undergrads.

I agree we have important disagreements other than what kinds of EA work we're most enthusiastic about. While not of major relevance for the original issue, I'd still note that I'm surprised by what you say about various other people's view on EA, and I suspect it might not be true for me: while I agree there are some highly-valuable tasks that could be done by recent undergrads, I'd guess that if I made a list of the most valuable possible contributions then a majority of the entries would require someone to have a lot of AI-weighted generic influence/power (e.g. the kind of influence over AI a senior government member responsible for tech policy has, or a senior manager in a lab that could plausibly develop AGI), and that because of the way relevant existing institutions are structured this would usually require a significant amount of seniority. (It's possible for some smart undergrads to embark on a path culminating in such a position, but my guess this is not the kind of thing you had in mind.)

I am pretty skeptical of this. Eg I suspect that people like Evan (sorry Evan if you're reading this for using you as a running example) are extremely unlikely to remain unidentified, because one of the things that they do is think about things in their own time and put the results online. [...]
I am not intending to include beliefs and preferences in my definition of "great person", except for preferences/beliefs like being not very altruistic, which I do count.

I don't think these two claims are plausibly consistent, at least if "people like Evan" is also meant to exclude beliefs and preferences: For instance, if someone with Evan-level abilities doesn't believe that thinking in their own time and putting results online is a worthwhile thing to do, then the identification mechanism you appeal to will fail. More broadly, someone's actions will generally depend on all kinds of beliefs and preferences (e.g. on what they are able to do, on what people around them expect, on other incentives, ...) that are much more dependent on the environment than relatively "innate" traits like fluid intelligence. The boundary between beliefs/preferences and abilities is fuzzy, but as I suggested at the end of my previous comment, I think for the purpose of this discussion it's most useful to distinguish changes in value we can achieve (a) by changing the "environment" of existing people vs. (b) by adding more people to the pool.

Could you name a profile of such a person, and which of the types of work I named you think they'd maybe be as good at as the people I named?

What do you mean by "profile"? Saying what properties they have, but without identifying them? Or naming names or at least usernames? If the latter, I'd want to ask the people if they're OK with me naming them publicly. But in principle happy to do either of these things, as I agree it's a good way to check if my claim is plausible.

I think my definition of great might be a higher bar than yours, based on the proportion of people who I think meet it?

Maybe. When I said "they might be great", I meant something roughly like: if it was my main goal to find people great at task X, I'd want to invest at least 1-10 hours per person finding out more about how good they'd be at X (this might mean talking to them, giving them some sort of trial tasks etc.) I'd guess that for between 5 and 50% of these people I'd eventually end up concluding they should work full-time doing X or similar.

Also note that originally I meant to exclude practice/experience from the relevant notion of "greatness" (i.e. it just includes talent/potential). So for some of these people my view might be something like "if they did 2 years of deliberate practice, they then would have a 5% to 50% chance of meeting the bar for X". But I know think that probably the "marginal value from changing the environment vs. marginal value from adding more people" operationalization is more useful, which would require "greatness" to include practice/experience to be consistent with it.

If we disagree about the bar, I suspect that me having bad models about some of the examples you gave explains more of the disagreement than me generally dismissing high bars. "Functional programming" just doesn't sound like the kind of task to me with high returns to super-high ability levels, and similar for community building; but it't plausible that there are bundles of tasks involving these things where it matters a lot if you have someone whose ability is 6 instead of 5 standard deviations above the mean (not always well-defined, but you get the idea). E.g. if your "task" is "make a painting that will be held in similar regards as the Mona Lisa" or "prove P != NP" or "be as prolific as Ramanujan at finding weird infinite series for pi", then, sure, I agree we need an extremely high bar.

For what it's worth, I think that you're not credulous enough of the possibility that the person you talked to actually disagreed with you--I think you might doing that thing whose name I forget where you steelman someone into saying the thing you think instead of the thing they think.

Thanks for pointing this out. FWIW, I think there likely is both substantial disagreement between me and that person and that I misunderstood their view in some ways.

Against anti-natalism; or: why climate change should not be a significant factor in your decision to have children

You might also be interested in John Halstead's and Johannes Ackva's recent Climate & Lifestyle Report for Founders Pledge. They point out that taking into account policy effects can dramatically change the estimated climate impact of lifestyle choices, and on children specifically they say that:

The biggest discrepancy here concerns the climate effect of having children. For the reasons given, we think our estimate of the effect of having children is more accurate for people living in the EU or US states with strong climate policy, such as California, New York, as well as other states in the Northeast. Indeed, even outside the US states with strong climate policy, we think the estimate accounting for policy is much closer to the truth, since emissions per head are also declining at the national level, and climate policy is likely to strengthen across the US in the next few decades.

After taking into account policy effects, they find that the climate impact of having children is comparable to some other lifestyle choices such as living car-free. (I.e. it's not the case that the climate impact of having children is orders of magnitude larger, as one might naively think w/o considering policy effects.)

For more detail, see their section 3.

Against anti-natalism; or: why climate change should not be a significant factor in your decision to have children

I agree that blanket endorsements of anti-natalism (whether for climate or other reasons) in EA social media spaces are concerning, and I appreciate you taking the time to write down why you think they are misguided.

FWIW, my reaction to this post is: you present a valid argument (i.e. if I believed all your factual premises, then I'd think your conclusion follows), but this post by itself doesn't convince me that the following factual premise is true:

The magnitude of [your kids'] impact on the climate is likely to be much, much smaller than any of the three other factors I have raised.

At first glance, this seems highly non-obvious to me. I'd probably at least want to see a back-of-the-envelope calculation before believing this is right.

(And I'm not sure it is: I agree that your kids' impact on the climate would be more causally distant than their impact on your own well-being, your career, etc. However, conversely, there is a massive scale difference: impacts on climate affect the well-being of many people in many generations, not just your own. Notably, this is also true for impacts on your career, in particular if you try to improve the long-term future. So my first-pass guess is that the expected impact will be dominated by the non-obvious comparison of these two "distant" effects.)

Max_Daniel's Shortform

Thanks, very interesting!

I agree the examples you gave could be done by a recent graduate. (Though my guess is the community building stuff would benefit from some kinds of additional experience that has trained relevant project management and people skills.)

I suspect our impressions differ in two ways:

1. My guess is I consider the activities you mentioned less valuable than you do. Probably the difference is largest for programming at MIRI and smallest for Hubinger-style AI safety research. (This would probably be a bigger discussion.)

2. Independent of this, my guess would be that EA does have a decent number of unidentified people who would be about as good as people you've identified. E.g., I can think of ~5 people off the top of my head of whom I think they might be great at one of the things you listed, and if I had your view on their value I'd probably think they should stop doing what they're doing now and switch to trying one of these things. And I suspect if I thought hard about it, I could come up with 5-10 more people - and then there is the large number of people neither of us has any information about.

Two other thoughts I had in response:

  • It might be quite relevant if "great people" refers only to talent or also to beliefs and values/preferences. E.g. my guess is that there are several people who could be great at functional programming who either don't want to work for MIRI, or don't believe that this would be valuable. (This includes e.g. myself.) If to count as "great person" you need to have the right beliefs and preferences, I think your claim that "EA needs more great people" becomes stronger. But I think the practical implications would differ from the "greatness is only about talent" version, which is the one I had in mind in the OP.
  • One way to make the question more precise: At the margin, is it more valuable (a) to try to add high-potential people to the pool of EAs or (b) change the environment (e.g. coordination, incentives, ...) to increase the expected value of activities by people in the current pool. With this operationalization, I might actually agree that the highest-value activities of type (a) are better than the ones of type (b), at least if the goal is finding programmers for MIRI and maybe for community building. (I'd still think that this would be because, while there are sufficiently talented people in EA, they don't want to do this, and it's hard to change beliefs/preferences and easier to get new smart people excited about EA. - Not because the community literally doesn't have anyone with a sufficient level of innate talent. Of course, this probably wasn't the claim the person I originally talked to was making.)
Thoughts on electoral reform

(The following summary [not by me] might be helpful to some readers not familiar with the book: )

How do you feel about the main EA facebook group?

I almost never read the EA Facebook group. But I tend to generally dislike Facebook, and there simply is no Facebook group I regularly use. I think I joined the EA Facebook group in early 2016, though it's possible that it was a few months earlier or later. (In fact, I didn't have a Facebook account previously. I only created one because a lot of EA communication seemed to happen via Facebook, which I found somewhat annoying.) Based on my very infrequent visits, I don't have a sense that it changed significantly. But I'm not sure if I would have noticed.

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