Ryan Beck


I'm the Forecasting Program Coordinator at Metaculus. Formerly a bridge engineer and I've also written some sci-fi.



What's the basis for using expected utility/value calculations when allocating EA funding for "one off" bets? More details explaining what I don't understand are below for context.

My understanding is expected value relies on the law of large numbers, so in situations where you have bets that are unlikely to be repeated (for example, extinction, where you could put a ton of resources into it and go from a 5% extinction risk over the next century to a 4% risk) it doesn't seem like expected value should hold. The way I've seen this justified is using expected utility and the Von Neumann Morgenstern (VNM) theorem which I believe says that a utility function exists that follows rationale principles and that they've proved that it's optimal to maximize expected utility in that situation.

However, it seems like that doesn't really tell us much, because maybe you could construct a number of utility functions that satisfy VNM, and some bankrupt you and some don't. It seems reasonable to me that a good utility function should discount bets that will rarely be repeated at that scale and would be unlikely to average out positively in the long run since they won't be repeated enough times. But as far as I'm aware EA expected utility/value calculations often don't account for that.

It seems like people refer to attempts to account for that as risk-aversion, and my understanding is EAs often argue that we should be risk-neutral. But the arguments I've seen typically seem to frame risk-aversion as putting an upper bound on valuing people's well-being and that we don't want to do that. But it seems to me like you could value well-being linearly, but also factor in that you should downweight bets that won't be repeated enough to average out in your favor.

Apologies for the lengthy context, I'm sure I'm confused on a lot of points so any clarity or explanations on what I'm missing would be appreciated!

My two cents on a couple of these from the perspective of a father of two girls (4 years old and 2 years old, I'm 30). Just my perspective, feel free to disregard if not helpful!

On emotions and discipline, I'm also a very calm person and rarely show anger and frustration. But kids are really good at finding was to frustrate you. I almost never yell at them, but I do get frustrated or exasperated and raise my voice, and it's genuinely unclear to me how anyone could parent a child without doing that.

In general I think the military wisdom "no plan survives first contact with the enemy" is a good rule of thumb for parenting, except substitute "the enemy" with "these small lunatics I never imagined I could love so much." My wife and I had bold plans for how we would parent, how we would minimize screen time, how our children would eat healthy foods all the time, and so on. But a lot of that goes out the window when you're tired and have chores to do and the kids won't give you an inch of personal space or you need to make a quick dinner or one kid is potty training and needs near constant attention but your other kid is bored and also wants attention or whatever. We also know other parents who had big plans about how they would parent, and in the end made many compromises.

All that is to say that I think it's good that you're thinking about how you want to parent. Maybe you'll have more luck than I did sticking to your original plans. And maybe it's good to start with ambitious initial plans, that way if you deviate from them you're still mostly on track, I'm not sure. But I would just advise that I think a key part of parenting is flexibility and prioritizing which values you care about. If you let your three year old watch a TV show a few times a week so you can have some time to get the dishes done or get dinner made, how harmful is that really? If that helps you de-stress a little and leads to less exasperation it may be beneficial on net. Kids differ a lot in personalities and attitudes (it was surprising to me how different my kids can be), so the compromises you need to make may vary depending on what your kid is like, and I think it can help to be mindful of that going in.

On developing curiosity and wonder I think just sharing fascinating things with your kids whenever possible seems to work well. Sometimes I share something and I can tell my four year old isn't really interested or maybe doesn't understand, and that's fine. But other times I'll show her something cool I can tell she's echoing my excitement and interest in it and asking surprisingly thoughtful questions. I think the big thing is just sharing your excitement about it and trying to include your kid in it. In general making time to share your interests seems to work well, recently I've been watching football with my oldest and explaining the rules and how it works, and even though I don't think she fully understands it she seems to be really enjoying it and picking up a lot of stuff, and I think that's mainly just because she knows I'm trying to include her in it. The same thing happens when I show her pictures from the James Webb space telescope or show her videos of rocket launches or SpaceX landing their boosters or whatever and make the time to explain why I think it's so awesome.

I always interpreted the 10% as a goal, not a requirement for EA. That's a pretty high portion for a lot of people. I worry that making that sound like a cutoff makes EA seem even more inaccessible.

The way I had interpreted the community message was more like "an EA is someone that thinks about where their giving would be most effective or spends time working on the world's most pressing problems."

Thanks for writing this, as a new-ish user of the forum it's been frustrating trying to find previous posts that address questions I have or things I want to learn more about, only to find sprawling or multi-part posts with half hour or longer read-times that may or may not address the specific thing I'm interested in.

Also you mentioned jargon and I think there's room for a lot of improvement there, it seems to me like there's more jargon than is justified and it made the forum daunting for me. This previous post has some good recommendations and in my opinion it would be valuable for more people to try to simplify their language where possible.

Great post as usual.

It looks like your Putin's health link goes to the wrong forecast.

I've found this short article useful in explaining the case for it. Basically it says that a guarantee of defense could embolden Taiwan to more aggressively pursue independence which could provoke China, while committing to not interfere could embolden China to invade. The US benefits from better relations with both countries if it walks a line between them and it may be better for peace between them if Taiwan has to tread carefully and China expects a high chance of the US fighting off an invasion of Taiwan.

Thanks for posting this, I'm glad to see more discussion of the issue and you've laid it out very nicely.

In the interest of thinking seriously about this potential deadly conflict, could you explain why you lean toward abandoning Taiwanese independence if war appears likely? Aside from principle based stances about protecting potential allies and the right of countries to continue governing themselves, I think my main worry is that giving in to bullying seems like it would incentivize future bullying. If the US and other nations declare that they no longer care about Taiwan, what stops superpowers in the future from using military aggression to stake a claim to some territory they had previously held at some point in the past few centuries?

On a related note, this same kind of approach would have suggested Ukraine give in to Russian demands and possibly even offer up the Donbas, which would likely have saved lives in 2022, but is it reasonable to expect that Russia would have been satisfied with that negotiation 5 or 10 years down the road?

The argument for abandoning Taiwan makes sense, ~25 million people's independence may not be worth the chances of billions being killed in a nuclear exchange, but my perception of China and Russia is that there's not some set of demands where you can give them what they want at the moment and then they're satisfied, it seems more likely that new points of contention keep cropping up over time whether you give in to their demands or not.

Your comment is 3 months old, but somehow I missed it back when I was posted and am just now seeing it, so I just wanted to say these are all good points, particularly about cooperation on other issues like your climate example!

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