Jonas loves his wife, being in nature, and exploring interesting worlds both fictional and real. He uses his bamboo bike daily to get around in Munich. During the day, he writes software to track bednets for AMF. At night, he enjoys playing Ultimate and dancing.


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COVID: How did we do? How can we know?

Hmm... Here's how I understand your estimate. Is that a fair summary?

  • If all had gone according to a perfectly happy timeline where everyone makes the right decisions, we could have had enough vaccines in August.
  • This would be worth approximately 205 million QALYs.
  • It would also cost approximately 0.7 trillion dollars.
  • That's 3400 dollars per QALY.

My concern (expressed in the comments above) is mainly that the happy timeline is unrealistic, so the estimate could be off by a large factor, similarly to how the time and cost estimates of our plans are often off by a large factor.

Your estimate is probably still valuable, even if it is imprecise. We can use it to think about whether vaccine development is cost-effective; I reckon 3400$/QALY puts the cost-effectiveness an order of magnitude below effective charities and some orders of magnitude above many other public health interventions. Is that a fair conclusion?

I'd like to take away more from your post than just the estimate, but am not sure at the moment what other recommendations I can take from it...

COVID: How did we do? How can we know?

Here's why the post reminds me of the planning fallacy: When people make flawed plans, these plans don't seem unrealistic. They often consist of detailed steps, each of which is quite likely to succeed. And yet, in most cases, the world takes a different turn and the planned project ends up late and more expensive.

You describe a "happy timeline" that's analogous to such a plan. For it to work, we would have to make many good decisions; many unknown obstacles would have to be overcome; and many novel ideas (like human challenge trials) accepted. None of these is unrealistic when looked at individually. But collectively, it is very unlikely that all these factors could realistically come together to form your happy timeline.

One example to illustrate this: Your post strongly favors vaccines and also attributes enormous costs to lockdowns. I think that this is realistic, but I can think so only in hindsight. In early 2020, it wasn't at all clear that sufficiently strong lockdowns wouldn't bring the pandemic to a manageable level or at least buy us the time we need for vaccine development. Remember the hammer and the dance? Yet, around that same time in your happy timeline, decisions are made to approve and pre-purchase vaccines at high costs. With hindsight, it's easy to say that we should have paid these costs; but at the time, it wasn't obvious at all. The answer to this question wouldn't have been easier to find with better institutional decision-making, either. It was simply a difficult question with no clear answer at that time.

COVID: How did we do? How can we know?

This post seems to fall victim to the planning fallacy.

One explanation for why people commonly underestimate project completion time is this: people consider a best-case scenario where everything goes smoothly. Like the "happy timeline" in this post. Alas, reality is not like this at all.

When people are asked for a “realistic” scenario, they envision everything going exactly as planned, with no unexpected delays or unforeseen catastrophes—the same vision as their “best case.”

Reality, it turns out, usually delivers results somewhat worse than the “worst case.”

-- Eliezer Yudkowsky, in the post linked above.

The popular solution for countering the planning fallacy is taking an outside view (aka reference class forecasting). In that light, Covid vaccines looks surprisingly good. As you note at the top of your post, Covid vaccines were developed quickly compared to the reference class of vaccines.

I'm very sympathetic to the idea of writing down our collective mistakes and trying to learn from them. It just seems to me that this post contrasts our mistakes with a highly unrealistic, idealized timeline. My guess is that more realistic expectations might lead to better goals for improving the world 🤔

What are the 'PlayPumps' of cause prioritisation?

I've seen this comment after writing my answer on GMOs... sorry for duplicating that idea.

That said, I totally think that opposing GMOs is not just a waste of time, it's actually harmful. One of the striking examples is , where delays in approval probably caused thousands of deaths from vitamin A deficiency.

What are the 'PlayPumps' of cause prioritisation?

There are a lot of good ideas in the other comments already!

To add one more: Fighting Genetically Modified Organisms (plants specifically). There are of course valid concerns about the technology. However, most of the concerns that I hear (and believed for a long time) are motivated by hearsay and by religion. Many Christian friends share a feeling that we shouldn't "pretend to be God" and interfere with his creation. On the other hand, many people lack knowledge about the benefits of GMOs.

The podcast episode that radically changed my thinking about GMOs is (in German unfortunately, but highly recommended.)

By the way: you've probably heard about Bruce Wydick's book "The Shrewed Samaritan"? Its goals sound similar to those of your book.

What should CEEALAR be called?

Effective Hospitality

I've been thinking about this name on and off, and Effective Hospitality was the name that my thoughts kept returning to. I'd use it first as a name for what CEEALAR does: doing the most good possible by hosting people.

The name generalizes very well, in my opinion. Specifically, CEEALAR and/or the hotel could become "EH Blackpool". The idea might spread, and there could soon be "EH Tokyo", "EH Munich" and others (just as today there are effective altruism groups that call themselves "EA <location>").

The other primary advantage is that the name is quite self-explanatory.

What should CEEALAR be called?

I like Xenea, a combination of Xenia (ancient Greek concept of hospitality) and EA.

Other ideas that I've thought about but like a bit less:

How about something like LEARN? -- not intended as an acronym; just "learn" with the letters "EA" in it highlighted in some way.

One could even play with the fact that "EA" also appears in "research" and consider a logo where these letters are highlighted the same, shared, ...

How do other EAs keep themselves motivated?

I like this question and have experienced the need for motivation in a similar way. For me, becoming motivated is a combination of (1) knowing more about the problem I'm working on and (2) establishing motivating reminders. The rest of this post is focused on malaria (disclaimer: I work at AMF) but I believe the ideas could be applied to many domains.

Example for (1): Over time, I've learned a lot about how malaria affects people, and also about the huge amount of work and logistics involved in a bednet distribution. I've seen videos of people driving motorbikes with bednets over muddy roads through the rain to get them to their destination. There were so many bednets loaded onto that bike that one could barely see the driver ;-) It's humbling and motivating to me to experience how hardworking and dedicated and appreciative our partners are.

Example for (2): Above my desk hangs a graph from a statistical model of malaria incidence in a partner country. It predicts that there would be ~40% more malaria cases without "our" bednets. I'm not claiming that this is the correct number, but I have some confidence that it's in the right range, and the printout provides a great boost of motivation. I also keep a folder on my computer with some highlights. For example, there's a picture I love where GPS coordinates of bednets are plotted over a satellite image of rural Uganda. One can see immediately that every household has received nets.

Ultimately, motivation is individual and drifting... I have to refresh mine regularly. It's still sometimes low; that's part of life!

Being Vocal About What Works

I like this post, thanks for writing!

I often consider two things when giving advice: (1) the quality of the advice and (2) my relationship with the person to whom I'm giving advice. Point (1) seems natural: by default, ideas are cheap and we shouldn't necessarily share them. The more an idea has helped me, the more readily I'll share it. Also, +1 to the risk aspect that jimrandomh mentioned.

Regarding point (2): I think that we need to somehow earn the right to speak into the lives of others. Advice is often demanding, as in "I think you should do X". Advice without a good relationship to the other person is just advertising or propaganda, and I'm skeptical when strangers give me advice. However, once I know and respect someone, that person has earned the right to give me advice, and I'll be ready and happy to follow it.

Thoughts on being overqualified for EA positions

The disincentives listed here make sense to me. I would just add that people's motivations are highly individual, and so people will differ in how much weight they put on any of these points or on how well their CV looks.

Personally, I've moved from Google to AMF and have never looked back. The summary: I'm much more motivated now; the work is actually more varied and technically challenging than before, even though the tech stack is not as close to the state of the art. People are (as far as I can tell) super qualified in both organizations. I'm happy to chat personally about my individual motivations if anyone who reads this feels that it would benefit them.

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