Denis Drescher

I’m mostly interested in global priorities research, the questions listed in the research agendas of CLR and GPI, and computational methods for approaching them. More on that in my post on my self-study directions.

I currently dedicate 60% of my time to this self-study and may occasionally write about my latest insights.

If you’re also interested in less directly optimific things – such as climbing around and on top of boulders or amateurish musings on psychology – then you may enjoy some of the posts I don’t cross-post from my blog, Impartial Priorities.

Pronouns they, he, she, or your new gender-neutral pronoun of choice.


Wiki Contributions


What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

I’ve come to feel like it’s a red flag if such a project bills itself as a distributed state or something of the sort. There seems to be a risk that people would start such a project only to do something grand-sounding rather than solve all the concrete problems that a state solves.

I’d much rather have a bunch of highly specialized small companies that solve specific problems really well (and also don’t exclude anyone based on their location or citizenship) than one big shiney distributed state that is undeniably state-like but is just as flawed as most geographic states, because it would just add one more flawed and hard-to-coordinate actor to the international scene, and make international coordination harder rather than easier.

The ideal project here is probably something that incubates and coordinates other small projects that provide specific services to solve specific problems while not discriminating based on location or citizenship but that never uses terms like “state,” “government,” or “country” for itself.

An added benefit is that a lot of my conversations about distributed states quickly became about “Is this really a distributed state/government/country,” which is one of the least interesting conversations to have. (That’s something I’d rather leave to trained lexicographers with big corpora to figure out.) I’d much rather have conversation about whether it solves the problems it sets out to solve and at what cost.

The phrase “hard-core EAs” does more harm than good

Yes, those are the ones I hear most often – plus “highly involved EA,” which is probably synonymous? I’d be very interested in opinions on those!

A guided cause prioritisation flowchart

Great chart! Another minor wording thing: I don’t know whether to interpret “Most influential time in future” as “[This is the] most influential time in future” or “The most influential time is still to come.” From the context, I think it’s the second, but my first reading was the first. :-)

Democratising Risk - or how EA deals with critics

Sorry if this is a bit of a tangent but it seems possible to me to frame a lot of the ideas from the paper as wholly uncontroversial contributions to priorities research. In fact I remember a number of the ideas being raised in the spirit of contributions by various researchers over the years, for which they expected appreciation and kudos rather than penalty.

(By “un-/controversial” I mean socially un-/controversial, not intellectually. By socially controversial I mean the sort of thing that will lead some people to escalate from the level of a truth-seeking discussion to the level of interpersonal conflict.)

It think it’s more a matter of temperament than conviction that I prefer the contribution framing to a respectful critique. (By “respectful” I mean respecting feelings, dignity, and individuality of the addressees, not authority/status. Such a respectful critique can be perfectly irreverent.) Both probably have various pros and cons in different contexts.

But one big advantage of the contribution framing seems to be that it makes the process of writing, review, and publishing a lot less stressful because it avoids antagonizing people – even though they ideally shouldn’t feel antagonized either way.

Another is evident in this comment section: The discussion is a wild mix of threads about community dynamics and actual object-level responses to the paper. Similarly I had trouble deciding whether to upvote or to strong-upvote the post: The paper touches on many topics, so naturally my thoughts about its object-level merits are all over the place. But I feel very strongly that, as community norms go, such respectful critiques are invaluable and ought to be strongly encouraged. Then again Simon Grimm’s suggestion to make a separate link-post for the object-level discussion would also address that.

But the critique framing seems to have the key advantage of a signal boost. I think Logan and Duncan observed that social posts generated a lot more engagement on Less Wrong than epistemic posts (which I haven’t tried to confirm), and Scott Alexander’s “Toxoplasma of Rage,” though a much more extreme case, seems to feed on similar dynamics. So maybe there are particular merits to the critique framing, at least when the content is so important that the community gains from the signal boost; it’s probably one of those powerful tools that ought to be handled with great care.

Are there heuristics for when a critique framing is warranted or even better than a contribution framing? Was it the correct choice to go for a critique framing in this case?

Democratising Risk - or how EA deals with critics

This is also how I interpreted the situation.

(In my words: Some reviewers like and support Zoe and Luke but are worried about the sustainability of their funding situation because of the model that these reviewers have of some big funders. So these reviewers are well-intentioned and supportive in their own way. I just hope that their worries are unwarranted.)

Liberty in North Korea, quick cost-effectiveness estimate

Yes, good point.

I’m generally delighted that you’re looking into this! I’ve previously mentioned this as an intervention that is potentially on par with GiveWell’s top charities, so if you’ve discovered it independently, it makes me even more optimistic about it.

Liberty in North Korea, quick cost-effectiveness estimate

Yeah, I’m thinking about this at the current margin where deaths are probably some three orders of magnitude more than escapes, but those are problems that we’d run into if we were to scale this intervention a lot.

Liberty in North Korea, quick cost-effectiveness estimate

Saram is an organization in the area that I trust. You can for example get in touch with Nicolai Sprekels (, who is an expert in the area.

I’m much less up-to-date here, and I don’t know this particular organization (afaik, there are several that help escapees), but the ones I looked into back in the day weren’t able to help people escape from NK but instead helped them flee from China to South Korea. The northern border is the one that most escapees manage/d to cross, but China tries to catch them and returns them to NK if they can’t escape from China before that happens.

If escapees leave families behind, the families often claim that the person has died. So they don’t suffer consequences at first, but if the person is then returned from China, it becomes clear that they lied, and the escapee and three generations of the family are sent to concentration camps or killed. So helping them to escape from China saves the whole family from that fate, which increases the cost-effectiveness estimate.

So if this is still true and true of this organization (Nicolai may know more), this flips the sign of points 2 and (separately) changes some other points subtly, because the organization doesn’t affect who or how many people escape in the first place.

Point 4 is probably a very small effect because of how few people escape compared to the general population, and how little power they have to organize or even move around in the country. The people who escape are probably mostly from the north because few people who are not from the north can travel there. Conversely, to influence something in the country politically, you’d probably have to be in the top caste and in Pyongyang.

Point 5 is potentially important. They may execute people in particularly public, gruesome ways in response to rescue attempts to deter foreign organizations.

Announcing the launch of EA Impact CoLabs (beta) + request for projects, volunteers and feedback

Hi Mats! That sounds splendid!

Meanwhile I’ve set up my wiki, started thinking about the structure of the template I’d like to use for the project pages, and have started reading up on your Google Docs. It’s impressive how thoroughly you’ve already evaluated your project concept!

My “idea foundry” project itself will have its own page in its wiki with more information on my future plans. That’ll make it easier to reflect on whether the whole thing is sustainable. I haven’t thought about it sufficiently myself. I’ll only publish individual pages once I have proofread them for possible info hazards and have gotten feedback from some trusted friends too.

… as well as a list of past/failed projects or lessons learned from projects

Yeah, and there are also a lot of ostensibly brilliant project ideas in various lists that I think are subtly deleterious. No one has attempted to realize them yet (at least the ones I vaguely recall and to my knowledge) but a project database with just a bit more detailed thinking may help to keep it that way. (Or else may inspire someone to come up with a way to realize the project in a way that avoids the subtly deleterious bits.)

… as long as you're OK with your wiki being separate from the project database

Totally. It feels like so far I’ve been wholly unconvinced by some 95+% of project ideas I’ve read about, so those should not end up on your platform. It would just be valuable – or essential – to be able to promote the top of the shortlist to potential founders.

My only slight hesitation for your approach is the effort involved in development and upkeep, we would rather offer a lower-value solution (just a list of ideas) that we can guarantee can be maintained than a higher-value solution (detailed wiki with required fields for each project idea) that has a large chance of being abandoned after a while.

I’m worried about that too. I’d be willing to risk it, pending further thinking. An alleviating factor is that the detailed reviews would be reserved for a small shortlist of projects. Most of them would just get a quick stub summary and the reason why I didn’t prioritize them.

I’ve read that you’re perfectly open to (for-profit) social enterprises and of course early-stage project in need of cofounders. But I see the term “volunteer” a lot in the materials. It has these particular associations with low commitment, low responsibility, no salary, nonprofits, etc. Is it the best synonym for the job? None of the alternatives I can think of is quite broad enough either – cofounder, collaborator, partner, talent, … – but I imagine that such word choices can influence what the platform will end up being used for. A platform for “cofounder matching” may end up being used for more high-value work than one for “volunteer matching,” maybe some sort of “Task Y” notwithstanding. But I’ve also heard that someone had the impression that cofounder matching is not a current bottleneck, which I found surprising.

I’ll get in touch through one of the channels you recommended.

Announcing the launch of EA Impact CoLabs (beta) + request for projects, volunteers and feedback

This sounds like really valuable project!

I’ve been thinking about helping to set up some sort of EA incubator ecosystem. My contribution could be to collect, organize, prioritize, and roadmap all the project ideas that are floating around. I’d apply some sort of process along the lines of that of Charity Entrepreneurship but with a much more longtermist focus. I’ve been envisioning this in the form of a wiki with a lot of stub articles for project ideas that didn’t pass the shallow review phase and a few comprehensive articles that compile (1) detailed thinking on robustness, importance, tractability, etc.; (2) notes from interviews with domain experts; (3) a roadmap for how the project might be realized; (4) descriptions of the sorts of skills and resources it will require; (4) talent, funding, and other buy-in that is maybe already interested; (5) a comment section for discussions. (Jan’s process could be part of this too.) Since this would take the format of a wiki, I could easily add other editors to contribute to it too. I wouldn’t make it fully publicly editable though. Ideally, there’d also be a forum post for each top project that is automatically updated when the wiki changes and whose comments are displayed on the wiki page too.

My main worry is that the final product will just collect dust until it is hopelessly outdated.

So I’ve been wondering whether there are maybe synergies here, e.g., along the lines where I do the above, and your platform can in the end reduce the risk that nothing ever comes of the top project ideas?

I’ve only spot-checked a few of your current projects, but it seems to me that they typically have project owners whereas my projects would typically start out with no one doing them and at max. vague buy-in of the sort “People X and Y are tentatively interested in funding such a project, and person Z has considered starting this project but is now working on something else because they couldn’t find a cofounder.” Do you think that would be a critical problem?

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