What are your questions about making a difference?

by Benjamin_Todd1 min read12th Aug 201243 comments

28

Effective Altruism
Personal Blog

How can you best use your time to make a difference?

80,000 Hours now has several people working full time on research, and they would like your questions!

We’re happy to consider any questions about how to effectively make a difference, in whatever sphere of your life – volunteering, career or donations. These questions could be at the conceptual or ethical level, or they could concern nitty-gritty practicalities.

We’re particularly interested in questions that are not already well addressed by other groups, and where there's significant opportunity for progress.

The most popular questions will receive the attention of our research team, and their findings will feature in our new careers guide.

Either post your questions below, or send them to careers@80000hours.org

43 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:07 AM
New Comment
[-][anonymous]9y 20

I am glad to see evidence-based evaluations of charitable work and I hope it continues. My question: which charities state their terms of surrender? An imaginary example: if the Fencing Scholarship for Left-Handers does not see a recipient in the Olympics within 50 years, we will disband and give our remaining resources to the General Fencing Scholarship.

My guess is few charities will consider it possible their cause will not succeed even on their own terms of success.

Good question. We tend to take our charity evaluation from Givewell (though we've started our evaluation in some areas). So, we wouldn't be able to easily answer this. I don't think we've ever come across a charity which openly states its terms of surrender. What I can say is that the charities that tend to get recommended have a very focused method (e.g. distributing malaria nets) with a measurable outcome (less malaria), so it's pretty obvious if their failing, and that would cause them to lose funding.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

I could be mistaken and I hope you will correct me of I am wrong. That sounds like equating a measurable outcome with success. Like a company that invested five hundred dollars, made a penny, and called itself profitable. A profit was made, but... no. One net distributed, one life saved, I will not say that's no good at any cost. But some bottom line of failure, of surrender, should be part of the evaluation. Charities that crow the most about 'raising awareness' or prayer are the worst offenders, confusing activity with achievement. They do more than nothing, but... no.

Givewell is effectively attempting to work out which charities most increase human welfare for dollar. So, a charity 'fails' if it becomes clearly less effective than the next best.

Why is it so hard to stay focused on making a difference rather than spending frivolously on myself? How can I correct it?

that's a good one. It's going on the list. We have an upcoming series about happiness and career choice. The first (and one of the upcoming posts) are partially relevant. Drethelin's suggesting a good general strategy. If spending's the problem, you could also consider giving up on altruism in that domain, and making a difference in some other way. This is an example of macrooptimisation

You could do both at the same time to feel good about donating as well as spending on yourself. Charity auctions, kickstarters, etc. are good ways to do this.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing free and open source software for a moderate salary, as opposed to writing proprietary software for a higher salary and donating more?

FOSS increases the general economic output. If you expect more people to donate to appropriate causes, it would generate a greater impact over time. However, if you feel that the public chooses their donation targets poorly, then writing proprietary software and donating that money yourself will produce larger benefits. This is ignoring the potential for "changing things" through the software itself, which is too difficult to calculate.

That's a fairly common and very interesting question. Carl's got some thoughts on it, which we'll hopefully get written up. It's closely linked to two big and controversial issues: how good is economic growth and how good is technological progress? It's a case of weighing your contribution to that against the extra donations you can make.

Whats is the main difference of the traditional NGOs?

I've seen this movement and assume these people have some different method to overcome problems like poverty, diseade, altruistic-wharever.

It's all about donating? Or are some plans have direct actions, activism?

It's not all about donating. What's different about us is that we really try to weigh up different career options in terms of how much difference they make. We understand 'making a difference' to mean 'making good stuff happen that wouldn't have happened otherwise.' So, we wouldn't just recommend working for a traditional NGO if someone was going to do that job equally well if you didn't take it. Or if it didn't seem to be particularly cost-effective. In carrying this out, we take an evidence-based approach, paying attention to heuristics and biases. We'd apply this to any career path. This is really different from normal careers guidance. More here. We're not, however, proposing new ways to end poverty. We're more about helping people choose within what's already out there.

I'm interested in knowing about which industries are the best to enter if you're an entrepreneur. From what I vaguely remember from reading The Illusions of Entrepreneurship a few years ago, software and biomed are good, and most industries suck. But for software developers like me, there's the possibility of disrupting an industry by writing software for it (see Why Software is Eating the World). So this might make companies that already exist in the industry part of the wrong reference class.

A good example of this "software eating stuff" idea might be Pinterest. Someone pointed out to me that Pinterest is not too different from scrapbooking, which is a multi-million dollar industry (!!!). Is there a database of industries on some government website that I can run queries on? Industries that cater to people who aren't typically software developers, like scrapbooking, might be especially good for software developer entrepreneurs.

Quite a few 80k members are interested in entrepreneurship. We'd definitely like to investigate these kinds of questions. But haven't found anyone yet.

Quilting has been the standard discussion as long as I've heard discussions about such targeting - quilt design software has been around for a long time. I don't know of any lists in general, though one might expect more and more such niches to be discovered as programming (or hiring programmers) becomes easier.

[-][anonymous]9y 6

Another ad for 80,000 hours? Haven't we had some of these very recently?

No. Google shows that there's 5 other posts that focus on 80,000 Hours, of which one is a link by somebody who doesn't work for 80K, the most recent one is a criticism of 80K, and the other three all date back at least 6 months.

The most recent mention of 80k was in the my introduction for THINK, which I suspect is what paper-machine is remembering. (It was a rather blatant advertisement, although the project has many of its roots in Less Wrong community and I think posts describing various "rationality task forces" should be encouraged)

[+][anonymous]9y -6

one is a link by somebody non-affiliated with 80K

Not quite. Jkaufman is a member of 80,000 Hours, though not staff or a volunteer for them.

Let's be consequentialists about this. Are "ads" necessarily bad? Previously, I suggested that people dislike ads and advertisers because they introduce what social scientists call "market norms" somewhere where regular social norms typically prevail. (A product listing page on Amazon isn't an ad, because you expected market norms on Amazon. Put the same information on a billboard and it becomes an ad.) But marketplace transactions frequently generate producer and consumer surplus, so from a consequentialist perspective they can be definitely be good. (You wouldn't pay $5 for a sandwich unless the sandwich was worth more to you than the $5. The sandwich maker wouldn't sell you the sandwich for $5 unless the $5 was worth more to them than the sandwich.)

This "ad" isn't even an advertisement for a marketplace transaction, it's an offer to provide a service for free: specifically, free research in to how to do more good with your career. It looks like folks are objecting to it because it kind of superficially resembles the way people typically describe marketplace transactions they wish to engage in. How about we stop reasoning by an analogy?

I agree, however, that there's a risk with ads that the person making the ad fails to take in to account the attentional cost from people who see the ad but don't wish to engage in any transaction. (Spam would be the extreme example of this.) So when determining whether to allow an ad or not, how about estimating attentional costs and subtracting that from estimated total producer and consumer surplus?

I suspect people dislike ads because ads have usually a very low information to noise ratio. This may be untrue for this particular ad, but always there are slippery-slope concerns. No ads rule is much easier to enforce and harder to game than a "no ads except those which have something common with LW and are honest and contain no misleading information". Just keep this in mind when doing the consequentialist analysis.

A product listing page on Amazon isn't an ad, because you expected market norms on Amazon. Put the same information on a billboard and it becomes an ad.

You don't expect market norms on a billboard? I think a product listing page on Amazon isn't an ad because its purpose is not advertising, it just informs you what can you find on a site you have already chosen to visit. Advertising is usually not requested - if you enter a restaurant and ask for the menu, receiving it is not advertising. If you find the menu in your mailbox, it is.

I suspect people dislike ads because ads have usually a very low information to noise ratio. This may be untrue for this particular ad, but always there are slippery-slope concerns.

"I suspect people dislike blog posts because blog posts have usually a very low information to noise ratio. This may be untrue for this particular blog post, but there are slippery-slope concerns."

All I'm suggesting is that we treat ads like any other post--vote up the ones we recommend and vote down the ones we disrecommend. I don't see any "slippery slope concerns".

You don't expect market norms on a billboard? I think a product listing page on Amazon isn't an ad because its purpose is not advertising, it just informs you what can you find on a site you have already chosen to visit. Advertising is usually not requested - if you enter a restaurant and ask for the menu, receiving it is not advertising. If you find the menu in your mailbox, it is.

OK, but it's still fundamentally about market vs social norms. A sign that says "hi there good looking!" or Rob wants to give you a hi five wouldn't be an ad, even if you didn't request it. A sign that advertised a transaction you could take part in that involved money and goods or services would be an ad.

My question is, is this aversion to marketplace transactions necessarily rational, assuming we can correctly vote ads up and down based only on their information to noise ratio?

All I'm suggesting is that we treat ads like any other post--vote up the ones we recommend and vote down the ones we disrecommend. I don't see any "slippery slope concerns".

I understand the recommendation. What I am saying is that it is plausible that a general norm against ads is a net win although it supresses even the few ads from which the community would profit. In other words, I consider it possible that we aren't going to be able to consistently let the beneficial ads in while keeping the typical ads away.

OK, but it's still fundamentally about market vs social norms. A sign that says "hi there good looking!" or Rob wants to give you a hi five wouldn't be an ad, even if you didn't request it. A sign that advertised a transaction you could take part in that involved money and goods or services would be an ad.

Of course absence of request isn't sufficient for a sign to be an ad. On the other hand I think it is a more necessary condition than its being about money and goods: a political poster saying "Every responsible citizen votes for the Blue party!" is more of an ad than a price list hanging in a butchery, at least concerning the aversion it generates. Ads are made to persuade, not inform; hence the prevalence of rhetorical noise over information.

The aversion to ads is rational in this respect. Somebody else is trying to push you into increasing their utility. Not only it is in the advertiser's interest to skew one fact a little bit and omit another, the very existence of advertising primes you to consider the advertised alternative instead of others which introduces bias in your choice. Given the number of ads we encounter it is perfectly reasonable to have some countermeasures which decrease the effectivity of advertising.

I am pretty sure that I have no aversion to marketplace transactions which I initiate.

Edit: of course there is the possibility that "market norms" in your parlance include the norm that advertising is appropriate. Then I would agree that aversion to advertising implies aversion to market norms, although somewhat tautologically so.

I see calls (and I'm sympathetic!) to do things like "work as an investment banker, give lots to charity." My question is: do some good in donating and some good in a career; just don't do evil ("neutral impact") in a career and otherwise optimise for big donations; or optimise career entirely for money, regardless of goodness, and make it up and more in huge donations?

(It seems to me that donating offers much more potential "good" than career, but are there careers that have significant potential "bad", such that it might outweigh even millions of dollars of donations?)

There must be some, and it we'd certainly like to investigate which areas of industry are the most harmful. But in general, it's pretty hard for a career to result in the deaths of 600 people, which is a lower bound for what you could do with $1m (you could also fund SI for 1-2 years...). The most common harmful careers seem to inflict economic damage, and since the average dollar is spent on stuff which produces much less welfare than malaria nets or catastrophic risk research, you have to do a lot of it to outweigh your donations, like maybe 1-2 orders of magnitude more. Of course, doing lots of harm with your career might still be ethically impermissible. There's also some tricky questions regarding the long term compounding benefits of economic growth.

I've opted for the second option, finding it easier to engage my natural laziness than stay motivated in any particular direction.

This question probably fails the "significant opportunity for progress" test, but it's been bugging me and I'm sure a lot of other people too.

How should somebody go about evaluating the effectiveness of organizations working to address global catastrophic risks? I can imagine measuring outputs that you think will help reduce GCRs, but how do you decide what you should be measuring in way that's fair and doesn't involve wild speculation?

This seems to essentially be the question 'how can we best reduce xrisk?' We've got people ready to write about this in the fall, if not earlier. As a teaser, it seems like you can make a pretty good argument for EA movement building dominating most of the other approaches.

EA movement building dominating most of the other approaches

Good thing I'm doing that then :-)

On the other hand, my map says that people in the EA movement will say that EA movement building is the bestest thing, people in the SI will say that it's FAI research, etc. etc. Once you've filtered for strategically-minded people, you'd expect them all to already be doing whatever they thought was most effective (though out of the people I have in mind, not everyone is motivated by xrisk reduction, or not exclusively).

Looking forward to what your team has to say on the matter though, definitely.

Heh almost, but the argument only seems to apply to xrisk. I don't see much reason to think EA movement building is the most effective way to fight global poverty.

(Just making this more visible.)

Don't read this until you've already thought about your questions!

But here's what we're already working on:

  1. Which people can have the most impact in research careers? When does working in research trump funding research?

    1. How should we factor our own happiness into career decisions? What leads to job satisfaction and how realistic is it to take jobs in industries we're not passionate about?

    2. Among the 'effective altruist' and xrisk organisations, which have the greatest need for more funding or skills of various sorts?

  2. What are the best funding and career opportunities within the cause of reducing animal suffering?

  3. Which biases and heuristics particularly affect altruistic career decisions? How can we make good career decisions?

  4. Now vs Later issues - should I invest in training in order to earn more in the future? should I give my money now or give it later?

  5. How many lives does someone typically save by becoming a doctor? How much can you earn as a doctor?

  6. What opportunities are there to increase the effectiveness of large budgets by becoming some kind of grant maker?

  7. What are the best careers tests out there? Which are based on evidence?