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Is the coronavirus the most important thing to be focusing on right now?

by adamzerner1 min read18th Mar 202022 comments



LessWrong has been and is planning to devote a significant amount of attention to the coronavirus. But is that what we should be focused on? Is it more important than things like existential risk reduction and malaria treatments?

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My current sense is yes, though I really don't think it's obvious and think that this is a pretty high-stakes call. 

My sense is that work in a crisis generally has really high-leverage, and I think there are reasonable arguments that this is the biggest global crisis since World War 2, at least in terms of how the world will be shaped by it, and how much is at stake (you don't see a 30% drop in the stock market that often, and the number of people who will die is quite plausibly more than WW1). I do indeed think that during World War 2 it would have been reasonable for many people on LessWrong to participate in the war effort, and think the same is true in this case. I do think that on an all-things-considered view this is likely going to be much less big of a deal than World War 2, but I think the basic argument is plausible enough that it seems worth betting quite a bit on. 

I also think this topic is a much better fit than usual political and news-related topics for LessWrong, because we are ultimately dealing with a "Player vs. Environment" type of threat, and not a "Player vs. Player" type of threat. I think in cases like this, our tools for epistemic rationality and general scientific inquiry are in a good place to shine, and there is less risk of us getting sucked into an adversarial epistemic environment, because the questions to be asked and answered are primarily about pretty stable ground-truths. 

The second argument is tractability. I think it's pretty key that people on LessWrong noticed that this was important much earlier than the vast majority of the world, and even the vast majority of the world's intellectual elite. I think this made LessWrong a natural Schelling point of attention, and I don't think it's obvious that a separate Schelling point would emerge if we were to deemphasize coronavirus related topics on LessWrong. This makes me think that LessWrong has at least some responsibility in not damaging the communication around this topic by suddenly deemphasizing the topic, at least not without creating a separate hub where discussion can coalesce instead.

The third argument is that taking a global perspective, I think there is a good argument that you should help out in crises like this, even if working on them is not directly related to your goals, because many other players in the world care a lot about it, and will be deeply grateful for your assistance. I think from a perspective of cooperating with other powers in the world, it's good form to help out with this as much as possible, given the overwhelming importance other people put on this. 

The fourth argument is just relevance to all of our wellbeing. I don't think we are at the stage where we can just rely on local governments or standard expert hierarchies to give us advice and tell us what to do. Most governments and municipalities have not yet announced safety measures that seem sufficient to me, and so it's still up to the individual and small communities like LessWrong to figure out what the appropriate level of safety is, and I sadly expect this to be the case for a while. 

Yes, though I think it's important to be asking this question, both now and every few weeks, to check "Hmm, do we actually have comparative advantage here? Have we picked all the low-hanging fruit?"

There are roughly three reasons I see to focus on this:

To make sure we're safe. 

You can't research x-risk if you're dead, or your life is disrupted. Right now a lot of stuff is up in the air. Having an accurate model of both the coronavirus itself, and possibly downstream economic/political turmoil seem important, at least until we've narrowed down the scope of how bad things area. (Maybe in a month it turns out things aren't that bad, but I think the error bars are wide enough to justify investing another month of thinking and preparation)

For standard EA Reasons. 

I read your initial question as mostly asking within this frame. Is Coronavirus important, neglected, and tractable? Do we have comparative advantage at it? 

I'm not sure about the answer to this question. On one hand, it's definitely not neglected. But it does seem important and tractable, and I think it is a quite achievable goal for LessWrong but to be one of the best places on the internet to discuss it and get information. 

My guess is that people who were working professionally on x-risk should most likely continue focusing on that, but I think for a lot of "freelance EA research" types, coronavirus is at least worth considering within the standard EA paradigm. 

But I would not be surprised if the answer was "no, when you factor in the non-neglectedness, the QALYs or other impact here isn't on par with usual EA effort."

Tight feedback loops. 

This is my biggest crux (after ensuring personal safety). What seems very significant about coronavirus to me is that it gives us a situation where:

a) there is clearly value to marginal thought, from people who aren't necessarily specialists.

b) you will probably get an answer to "was I right?" on the timescale of months or a year, rather than years/decades, which is how most EA is. 

I currently think it's worth marshalling LW and EA towards coronavirus, mostly as an Exam to see how competent we are, intellectually and logistically. It's a particularly good time to practice forecasting, research, first principles thinking, fermi-calculations, and collaboration. In the end, we'll a) have a clear sense of our own capabilities, and b) moreso than usual times, it'll be easier to signal our competence (assuming we turn out to be competent) to the rest of the world, possibly leveraging it into more people trusting us when it comes to more confusing domains.

I think LW has way too much coronavirus coverage. It was probably useful for us to marshal information when very few others were focusing on it. That was the "exam" component Raemon mentioned. Now, though, we're stuck in a memetic trap where this high-profile event will massively distract us from things that really matter. I think we should treat this similarly to Slate Star Codex's culture wars, because it seems to have a similar effect: recognise that our brains are built to overengage with this sort of topic, put it in an isolated thread, and quarantine it from the rest of the site as much as possible.

Before it was even clear it'd be this big a threat, I wrote: EA Should Wargame Coronavirus. Now I think there's an even stronger argument for it.

I think that this offers us valuable experience in dealing with one plausible source of existential risk. We don't want AI Safety people distracted from AI Safety, but at the same time I think the community will learn a lot by embarking on this project together.

We're going to head into a great depression. This will genuinely, not bullshitting, for reals this time have enormous ripple effects on all those topics, and Lesswrong is right for emphasizing it. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm glad we have stopped talking about Malaria and X-Risk and start talking about what's on CNN.