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.


Researchers Answering Questions


Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

Hi, and thanks for running this AMA!

I’d be curious how you went about building the sort of network that allows you to identify promising projects in many different countries, including countries whose language and culture you may not be conversant in.

Two follow-up questions that may not be applicable: If this is a network of trusted experts who make grant recommendations to you when they notice such a project, then what, would you say, is the weight of their recommendation in the final grant decision? Should more funders outsource grant recommendations to be able to identify a wider variety of grant opportunities?

How do you stay emotionally motivated while working on highly specific problems?

The article “Why I find longtermism hard, and what keeps me motivated” by Michelle Hutchinson seems related:

I find working on longtermist causes to be – emotionally speaking – hard: There are so many terrible problems in the world right now. How can we turn away from the suffering happening all around us in order to prioritise something as abstract as helping make the long-run future go well?

A lot of people who aim to put longtermist ideas into practice seem to struggle with this, including many of the people I’ve worked with over the years. And I myself am no exception – the pull of suffering happening now is hard to escape. For this reason, I wanted to share a few thoughts on how I approach this challenge, and how I maintain the motivation to work on speculative interventions despite finding that difficult in many ways.

This issue is one aspect of a broader issue in EA: figuring out how to motivate ourselves to do important work even when it doesn’t feel emotionally compelling. It’s useful to have a clear understanding of our emotions in order to distinguish between feelings and beliefs we endorse and those that we wouldn’t – on reflection – want to act on.

My personal cruxes for focusing on existential risks / longtermism / anything other than just video games

Thanks for telling me about this post!

I answered Brian’s questions at one point, which struck me as an interesting exercise. I suppose most of your questions here are semi-empirical questions to me thanks to evidential cooperation, and ones whose answers I don’t know. I’m leaning in different directions from you on some of them at the moment.

Cause Area: Human Rights in North Korea

Thank you for your comprehensive comment! :-D

I’ve added a note to the post that I accidentally changed the publishing date of it yesterday. I wanted to edit it but made it a draft instead, and when I reversed that, it must’ve bumped the date. All of this information is 3–4 years out of date.

Today I would approach things differently in three main ways:

  1. I would put a strong emphasis on trying to determine the robustness of all candidate interventions, by which I mean how likely I think they are to backfire in terrible ways, how many such ways I can think of, whether they can be preempted, or monitored and responded to, or whether they are more likely to happen suddenly and irreversibly or unknowably.
  2. I would take more seriously the possibility that extreme suffering is worse than median-levels of suffering by factors of 10, 100, or 1000 than by a factor of around 2. That would make the suffering in concentration camps and that of factory-farmed chickens vastly more important than it appears according to the calculations here.
  3. I would ask how this problem interacts with other problems, especially those that I deem even more urgent and important. For example, would a more human rights–respecting North Korea (or a united Korea under a South Korea–like government) improve existential security? Might it decrease the probability of some s-risks? Or would activism in this area, especially EA-adjacent activism, detract from the talent pools, funding, or attention that other problems, such as AI policy, have/receive?

Comparing the US prison population & NK: Yes, that comparison only serves to get an idea of the scale but leaves open how many comparatively difficult subproblems we’re dealing with in each case, what interventions there are to address them severally or all together, and hence how tractable the most tractable ones of these interventions are and at what rate they’re becoming less tractable up to the point where the problem is largely solved.

Estimates of total GDP lost in NK: I think I agree. Only two comments: (1) I think all the interventions I came up with except for the one concerning safer escape routes are either “meta” or aim at destabilizing the regime as a whole. Whatever connects and empowers the North Korean population or weakens the government makes it more likely that the government can be overthrown or at least becomes irrelevant. And (2), maybe the recovery of the former German Democratic Republic could be seen as a best-case scenario because there there was also a more developed part of the same country that it could reunite with and receive support from. But I think the cultural differences between North and South Korea are more extreme at this point than the differences between GDR and FRD.

Neglectedness: Indeed! But I don’t. I think people at Saram or the ICNK may have estimates though. I would imagine that government grants are transparent and that the charities in the space also publish their financials. Maybe the financials of the Ministry of Unification (other than grants) or South Korean intelligence are harder to know.

Tractability: Yes, I think that should be possible to estimate at least for someone who speaks Korean because a lot of North Koreans eventually flee to South Korea where they receive support and so are known to the authorities. The charities that support them to get through and out of China are often US-based, so maybe there’s even English-language information on this.

Intervention - Capacity building: Thank you! The first part is a mix of the idea that capacity building is a convergent instrumental goal in a lot of contexts and a general impression I got from discussions in EA. The second part may not be true. What I think was true at the time was that the space had these Attribution Moloch type of dynamics going on that made organizations more secretive and suspicious of each other. I don’t know if that’s still the case. But even without that problem, they may still not be able to do their research completely in the open because then the North Korean government can react to it more easily. For example, if you send aid via balloons into North Korea, the North Korean government can launch identical balloons of their own, ostensibly coming from the south, but with poisoned products or misinformation.

Thanks again for all your comments! I probably won’t write an updated version of the article, but I hope someone else will want to dig deeper!

Our plans for hosting an EA wiki on the Forum

Thanks for the clarification, and looking forward to the stub finder system! :-)

Our plans for hosting an EA wiki on the Forum

Adding more details about the topic

Quick question to understand how I can help here: Is this about editing the texts on the tag pages themselves or about writing articles that plug gaps in the content that is covered by the articles that have a certain tag? If it’s the first, is there a way to quickly get a ranking of the most stub-like tag pages?

Thanks! I love this!

How can I handle depictions of suffering better emotionally?

My problem used to be a bit different, but maybe my tips from Dissociation for Altruists are still helpful for you!

Some people do not lack in altruism and are well aware of effectiveness considerations too, but the sheer magnitude of suffering that effective interventions would force them to face is too unbearable for them to acknowledge. I give tips on how they can use dissociation to put altruism on a more scalable basis.

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