This page contains my notes from weekly meetings of Stanford Effective Altruism. These notes are not meant to be a comprehensive description of what the meeting covered; it just includes the bits I wanted to write down. Comments reproduced here represent different individuals’ opinions, not necessarily my opinion or the consensus opinion of the group.
2016-05-29: Quantitative Models for Cause Prioritization
- Quantitative models (QMs) usually do the job, e.g., QALYs/DALYs
- If you rely too much on intuitions you’re prone to bias or contradicting yourself
- I’d like to see a principled way of building robust comprehensive QMs
- We should distinguish between using QMs to make decisions and to find flaws in our thinking
- Michael should try to use his QM to predict lots of things in the near future
- This question is largely already answered: in politics, sports, etc., QMs ridiculously outperform personal judgment
- For questions about values, you can directly input your values into the model, which you can’t do for empirical facts, so estimating values should be accurate
- Our intuitions translate poorly to numbers for small/big numbers
- Multiple models perform better than a single model
- Single model has danger of overfitting
- Can you “overfit” intuitions?
- Y Combinator mostly doesn’t use QMs
- In some cases your intuition is good and hard to model, e.g., judging character
- In addition to intuition and QMs, we have things we can communicate to others but can’t easily quantify
- A prior over interventions should relate to the distribution of income because starting a great intervention is like starting a successful company
- Quantifying your values is likely to not represent them correctly
- Model doesn’t work if you have inconsistent beliefs, so first you have to clarify/fix your inconsistencies
2016-05-22: Canvassing to Change Opinions
- Canvassing seems effective and political campaigns over-invest in paid ads 
- Campaigns often prefer volunteers over paid people because paid people often don’t actually do it
- Is the result affected by the types of people who talk to canvassers?
- How might this result generalize?
- Probably easier to change sentiment than behavior
- Stanford PAW does dorm canvassing. We use a concrete ask like asking people to sign a Meatless Monday pledge and asking them to come to events. We get a decent feedback cycle by talking to them at events/emailing them
- Conversations usually take 2-3 minutes
- 60-70% of people who open their doors sign the pledge
- In my experience, it works well to show people you’re like them and you’re a reasonable normal person who changed your mind
- May be relevant that lots of people canvassed didn’t have established opinions on trans rights
- Charity Science found that canvassing is ineffective
- Companies often do cost-benefit analyses for ad campaigns, e.g., phone banks are expensive but still worth it
- If we did anti-animal welfare canvassing would it cancel out pro-animal welfare messages?
- Giving What We Can 10% pledge is a lot but could probably get students to donate 1%, maybe donate a bunch later
- Stanford has students donate $20.16 presumably so they donate more later
How reliable is social science research?
- One report found that 36% of psychology studies successfully replicated (source)
- Definitions in social science are looser than definitions in, say, physics which makes replication harder
- For something like veg ads there’s a clear measurable dependent variable
- Experiments are really important. In economics we much prefer randomized experiments over studies with large sample sizes but non-experimental design
- When something happens randomly and you use that to establish causality, e.g., a city elects a new mayor who immediately hires lots more police officers, this tells you more about how police affect crime than running a big regression across cities
2016-05-15: EA Global
- EA Global is valuable for meeting EAs
- Potentially valuable to bring a lot of smart people together at once, can have efficient conversations
- Coverage of conferences could be valuable for spreading EAs
- EAG probably not good for recruiting because random people at a conference aren’t necessarily welcoming or a good first impression
- If you wanted to recruit people, you’d design the conference differently
- EAGx model is good because it increases the public profile of local groups, you can meet EAs doing niche projects; was good for someone like me who’s involved but not super involved
- EAG was valuable for meeting people who know specific things I wanted to know and talking to people about it
- Could talk online but people are more likely to talk at a conference
- Academics have this same need and they solve it with conferences
- Increasing the public profile of EA is good even if there’s bad publicity in the short term; makes it look like we’re doing things
- The things we should look like we’re doing aren’t conferences
- Maybe someone should be working full time on press releases about EA stuff
- Orgs do do their own press releases in may cases
- Influential social movements get influence with media outlets, e.g., Jacobin for socialism 
- No they don’t 
- They generally don’t found media outlets until they’re big 
- EAG made it easier for me to learn important context when I was fairly new to EA
- There are people who are committed to EA but just don’t know EAs IRL
- You can’t prevent people from coming away with a bad impression but it’ll be better if the conference is more academic and less “populist” 
- Conference should be general (not about a specific cause area) because it’s valuable to convince people to change causes
- Should flag talks according to how much background knowledge they require
- Just synopses might be good enough or better because it’s more specific and not potentially condescending
- Getting people to hear about EA is useful so conference publicity is good; we may care too much about negative publicity because it feels disproportionately bad to us, but non-EAs don’t care that much 
- But it would be better to have different things for publicity vs. EA networking
- How to tell if a conference was useful to attendees? Feedback surveys aren’t that useful 
2016-05-09: Values Spreading
- Spreading concern for other beings may be extra important because lots of other important changes are common interest to many values
- What proportion of donations are made with the goal of doing the most good?
- We should distinguish between values spreading to people in general and targeted values spreading to specific groups
- Can do easy targeted values spreading with Facebook/LinkedIn ads
- CEV: people’s values mostly change from things like social pressure, not thinking hard 
- Might be harmful to spread consequentialism if people are bad at it
- Making policy more consequentialist seems more likely to be good
- Governments are already pretty consequentialist with things like foreign aid
- For memes to self-propagate, they need to replicate exponentially
- It’s useful to get people to identify with things, e.g. vegetarianism has a clear identity and daily action
- Atheism movement was destroyed by feminism 
- But it basically served its purpose by making religion worthy of ridicule in certain circles
2016-05-01: EA and Humanities
- EA movement may have been better if we hadn’t focused so much on earning to give
- But it may have been useful to have a clear message
- History is useful for understanding large-scale effects, social movements
- Knowledge of history is useful but is being a historian necessary?
- Useful to have inter-field collaboration
- If we use lots of econ/CS-y terms, it makes it harder for people who could participate but just don’t know those terms
- At Yale EA we had 20+ people come to the first meeting but only a few math majors kept coming
- EA might attract techy people because that’s usually the kind of people who are interested in EA stuff
- Most effective thing might be to make EA events more fun
- Cause neutrality means you can’t revolve around a cause
Numbers indicate how many people named this field as one where they thought the EA movement needed more people in it.
- Politics/policy (8)
- Marketing/media (6)
- Writing/journalism (5)
- History (3)
- Statistics (2)
- Sociology (1)
- Philosophy (1)
2016-04-26: Larissa MacFarquhar
This was a special discussion with Larissa MacFarquhar, not a regular meeting.
Comments by Larissa:
- I wrote /Strangers Drowning/ to show what being deeply morally committed looks like, and investigate why more people don’t do that.
- The EA community is generating new morally committed people.
- “Rational” types who haven’t really thought about morality are the easiest to persuade. It’s harder to persuade people with pre-existing moral commitments.
- There’s a second potential window to get people into EA after their kids go
- Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute helps retirees find ways to make a difference.
- Lots of non-EA foundations have the same disagreements as EAs about whether to support measurable or high-risk interventions.
Comments by other people:
- According to a Slate Star Codex survey, people in the EA movement for longer. tend to move away from global poverty and toward more unusual cause areas
- A couple of people here started interested in global poverty and then shifted to other cause areas
- The EA movement under-prioritizes reaching out to highly influential people
- Lots of EAs agree that journalists (or other non-traditional-EA professions) are really valuable but that’s often not apparent to potential EAs
2016-04-24: Population Ethics
No, I didn’t forget to take notes today, but we didn’t discuss anything philosophically novel and I didn’t believe the discussion would be interesting in writing form.
2016-04-17: Universal Basic Income
Group 1 discussion
- GiveDirectly’s Universal basic income (UBI) experiment could be good for getting more donations by doing something novel
- $1/day is surprisingly low
- Would be interesting to have multiple cohorts with different amounts of money
- If income is a positional good, it matters how connected the cohorts are
- Some things generalize between Kenya and the developed world, e.g. how much not having to work affects your happiness
- If you say work makes people happy and you have a job at Google maybe you should be skeptical of that
- Have real-time happiness surveys found that people are happier with work or leisure?
- Rent could decrease with UBI because people don’t have to live near jobs
- Empirically, moving is hard because people don’t usually move to places with more jobs
- Could be stigma on UBI as “parasitism”
- GiveDirectly has found that cash transfers create conflicts between neighbors 
- How do we detect that UBI makes people happier/less happy?
- UBI may have better/different effects if it’s for life, and results of a 10 year study may not generalize
- This study would convince me1 UBI is good if unemployment doesn’t increase
Group 2 discussion (notes by Caroline)
- what will the effect of UBI be on prices?
- what about wages?
- will there be jobs with no one who wants to do them?
- what about migrants?
- if migrants are given UBI, lots of people will migrate
- Swedish immigration partly caused by generous welfare state
- Alaska Permanent Fund
- doesn’t really incentivize moving there
- what will happen to rent?
- will it cause homelessness?
- will people still want to work minimum wage jobs?
- evidence from Indian reservations
- they get a UBI from casino money
- many choose not to work and live below poverty level
- how do jobs affect happiness?
- unemployment makes people really unhappy
- but partly because stress of looking for jobs
- retirement is better than unemployment
- majority of people retire as soon as they can
- but a lot of them are blue collar workers with physical health issues
- what will Kenyans do with more leisure time?
- no Netflix, etc.
- could mean they spend more time on social interaction than us
- people love Social Security
- could phase in UBI in America by lowering retirement age
- [long off-topic argument about shipping routes and whether we should sell the United States to Singapore]
- how much can we generalize from Kenya to other countries?
- studies in India would be useful due to different culture
- also Ghana
- (most African countries don’t have good payment infrastructure)
2016-04-10: Jacob Steinhardt on AI Safety
- Experts know things that are difficult to communicate to outsiders
- A lot of GiveWell’s early success came from the ability to find arguments for/against something
- My responsibilities as advisor for the Open Philanthropy Project
- Open-ended conversations on early investigations
- Referrals to relevant contacts
- Represent Open Phil at the Puerto Rico AI conference
- I’m somewhat skeptical of MIRI’s agenda
- Some problems they’re working on seem disconnected from AI safety
- Both safety-concerned AI research and AI safety research are important so personal fit is the most relevant consideration
- Some machine learning problem domains require a way to robustly handle low-probability bad events, e.g. self-driving car crashes
- Could be worried about poorly organized coalitions building AGI with kinda bad values designed by committee or something
- OpenAI: Elon Musk is concerned about authoritarian government/surveillance
2016-04-03: Does development make people happier?
- GiveWell charity comparison measures utility in percent income increase
- Isomorphic to converting income increase to some other metric
- It’s bad for the final metric to be something that’s questionably good
- Do life satisfaction survey questions lose something in translation?
- You could ask bilingual people the same questions in two languages and see if they answer differently
- GDP per capita is a bad metric of how much richer people got
- GDP per capita growth looks similar to median income growth
- How to account for hedonic set point in different places?
- Look at difference in prison vs. not-prison happiness across countries
- People in urban China are much healthier than rural China
- Health in China has gone up a lot but self-reported health has not
- High uncertainty on what affects happiness means maybe we should be less confident about global poverty
- More clear that disease is bad
- Income and happiness over time are correlated in most countries, but not US or China because of rising income inequality
2016-03-27: Monetary Policy
Today I make lots of empirical claims without citations so just add  to everything.
- Fed is scared of inflation so it wants to raise rates but Fed Up says unemployment is more important
- Raising rates could hurt returns for pension funds, hurting future generations
- This only matters for low-risk investments like bonds
- Lobbying to keep rates low could make Fed over-reactive if inflation accelerates
- Open Phil: even if so, Fed Up creates more debate which is good
- This is fully general argument for lobbying for anything
- Open Phil: even if so, Fed Up creates more debate which is good
- Yellen doesn’t want to raise interest rates
- Yellen wants to raise interest rates
- Useful to have a Schelling fence against using public opinion to shape monetary policy
- Other groups already do this
- More transparency in Fed appointments is probably good
- Fed Up’s race argument fell flat, I1 have low confidence that Fed Up is effective
- Interest rates track expectation Fed raising federal funds rate
- Making the dollar stronger is good for US but possibly net bad because international debtors owe more. Fed incentives are misaligned here
- Fed has claimed that it cares about other countries’ economies
- Other countries like Brazil have worse unemployment and people in charge of monetary policy probably aren’t as good so trying to shift policy there may be better
- Maybe Brazil is a bad example
- Lots of groups are lobbying on interest rates
- Fed has institutional bias to do what it’s always done rather than new things
- Fed wants to be credible because if Fed isn’t credible, interest rates won’t track federal funds rate
- We should target Spain or Nepal because they’re the largest countries with lots of unemployment
- Taylor rule suggests that the federal funds rate should be two percentage points higher than it currently is
2016-03-13: Cultured Meat
- It’s better to tax animal meat than subsidize cultured meat but probably less politically feasible
- Easier to add new subsidies than remove subsidies because of lobbying pressures
- Subsidies are harder than getting grants or other methods of furthering cultured meat
- Cultured meat hate is analogous to GMO hate
- Anecdotally, a lot of GMO hate is really Monsanto hate
- Cultured meat people and the Good Food Institute are market testing some better things to call it
- Cultured meat could taste better than animal meat because we can customize it
- Open Phil’s writeup on why they’re not funding cultured meat used 2004 cost-effectiveness estimates which are inaccurate; conversation notes have an expert claiming he won’t get funding any time soon but got $2.5M two months later 
- Given how few people are working on it, it’s too hasty to conclude that we can’t reduce costs
- Claims plant-based meat is crowded; it currently has ~$200M funding, and there’s potentially at lot more room
- Chicken nuggets don’t resemble chicken that much, we can more easily culture stuff like that than fully-formed chicken parts
- High-impact policy areas: foreign aid, immigration policy, wars + international stability, science + research funding, economic growth, industrial agriculture
- Other high-impact areas: US poverty, trade, criminal justice
- Lobbying might be efficient or might not, we disagree a lot
- Swift Boat campaign was effective
- A study found that if you ask people about candidates before an election policy predicts votes much better than personality traits2
- Funding is a trailing indicator: candidates who do well get money, not the reverse 
- Maybe more effective to try to influence future candidates. Might not be too hard to predict who future presidential candidates are
- Disrupting speakers might influence rhetoric a lot, e.g. Black Lives Matter protesting candidates
- Could be good to mobilize for World Bank appointments or other powerful non-elected positions
- If Fed Up-like campaigns worked, you’d expect big bond holders or other people with an interest in keeping interest low would fund them
- Unless tragedy of the commons
2016-02-28: Scientific Research
- Could we predict in advance that life-saving research projects were valuable?
- Smallpox eradication was clearly important when there was a big international project on it, but not obvious before
- Easy to tell that high yield crops would be useful
- What is valuable and physically possible but we don’t know how to do?
- In vitro meat
- Anti-aging? (probably physically possible but unclear)
- Hard to get funding for projects that take more than a few years 
- Should we fund the development of ideas? How?
- In vitro meat might not get much industry funding because it would be easy for competitors to replicate once it’s marketable, so it might not be profitable
- Hampton Creek raised tons of funding for something in the same space as in vitro meat
- In vitro caviar could be effective because it’s really expensive anyway so you don’t have to drive the price down to be competitive
- Fish need better PR because no one cares about them
- Should research how to make animals feel less pain
Other group discussion (notes by Daniel Filan)
- AI safety strategy
- Daniel Dewey has a paper about how to make sure that people actually use friendly AI
- Unsexy research
- Unsexy research is probably undervalued, and where we should look to find high value things.
- This sort of attitude is common in startups
- What things could help science?
- Good, easy-to-use numerical methods have been good
- Same thing but for inference is possibly really valuable
- William Shockley wrote a paper about why some scientists are much more productive than others
- Basically, there are like 8 independent things you need to do to write a paper
- If you can get a bit better at all of them, this is a huge productivity boost
- “On the statistics of individual variations of productivity in research laboratories”
- Could be good to get scientists in congress to stop dumb things in allocation of research funding
- Good paper on whether the FDA is making it too easy or hard to sell drugs
- “Is the FDA too conservative or too aggressive? A Bayesian decision analysis of clinical trial design”
- About the field of metascience
- Tend to be in clinical/social science
- Could be valuable to have research in math/physics/cs
- People/orgs/websites to look at:
- John Ioannides
- Stanford METRICS (website)
- Centre for Open Science
- Reproducibility project
- Science exchange (company?)
2016-02-21: EA Community
- If we spent a year looking for weird ideas, how likely are we to find something good?
- The group has a variety of opinions on this point
- If you do identify a good cause for which no organization exists, it’s hard to do anything with that knowledge
- You can write about it and get others interested, maybe someone can do something
- If campus EA groups protest something we could get attention and potentially associate EA with good things
- Fossil Free Stanford is trying this but isn’t attracting as much media attention as Black Lives Matter; some people think it’s trying too hard to get publicity instead of focusing on what they care about
- Experience Poverty went poorly
- But Live Below the Line is similar to Experience Poverty and hasn’t gotten serious negative PR
- Black Lives Matter has an advantage because it’s about identity politics
- Likely to get good publicity: write about some popular issue from an EA perspective, e.g. how much good Bush did with his global health policies
- Gets people thinking about global health as an important consideration for presidents
- We should maybe care more about EA ideas getting good publicity than the EA movement itself
- People have negative affect attached to math, so we should avoid math in PR pieces
- Why people leave Stanford EA
- I come when topics are interesting
- Too much public display of affection
- It’s bad for my schedule
- Meetings are boring
- Organizing logistics of donating to charity is not our comparative advantage so we shouldn’t spend so much time discussing it
- Talking about politics is fun but maybe not the greatest topic
- Getting people to show up isn’t an end in itself; we want people to donate and do effectively altruistic things
- It’s important for communities to accommodate people with kids (maybe not for SEA though)
- Sometimes we assume a disagreement exists because we believe other people haven’t considered our point of view
- Example: assuming the best part of Elon Musk coming to EA Global is to get him more EA, not because he could teach us something
- We could read GiveWell writeups to learn about their methods, discuss disagreements, etc.
- AGI could easily kill everybody
- Bostrom explains why in Superintelligence
- “Core” EA focuses on robust evidence, which you can’t get for AI safety so we need other ways to assess MIRI’s effectiveness
Group Discussion: Measuring Effectiveness
- Count number of publications
- Could fund PhD fellowships to publish more papers
- Look at who MIRI is working with, who’s giving it grants
- MIRI could be net harmful for AI safety
- MIRI caused OpenAI to be created  which is probably bad
- A visible weak AI could make MIRI more palatable
- Early researchers usually do not become well-recognized after a field grows (cf Robin Hanson)
- Getting highly cited is a good signal because it means the org is interesting and more likely to get top researchers on board
- EAs are bad at management. They should read How to Run a Business 101
- MIRI has exceeded expectations—a few years ago I wouldn’t have thought it would have this much influence
Other Group Summary
- What makes academia successful?
- Evidence for MIRI will always be weaker than AMF, so to prefer MIRI you have to care about the size of outcomes
2016-02-07: Global Health Unmeasurables
- Saving human lives is generally easier than improving them
- Curing chronic pain looks promising
- Lots of chronic pain is fixable by exercise  but not neglected or tractable
- Living in a malaria-prone area makes you afraid of mosquitoes, so there are indirect quality of life benefits to reducing malaria
- Is malaria eradication bad for mosquitoes?
- Successful eradication could make ecological intervention more palatable
- Malaria effects: fever, nausea, aching joints, swollen organs; can cause other chronic illnesses
- Why might the EA approach to global health be fatally flawed?
- Saved lives were net negative
- Not enough funding on research
- Negative flow-through effects
- We should have spread Western culture instead of resisting colonialism
- If you give people nets for free, they’re more likely to buy nets later because they’re more aware that nets are important [source: “Short-Run Subsidies and Long-Run Adoption of New Health Products: Evidence from a Field Experiment”]
2016-01-31: Political Reform
- Some countries tend to follow others, e.g. US follow UK on social policy. May be better to focus reforms on leading countries
- People psychologically prefer command and control over Pigovian tax because they don’t like thinking about tradeoffs
- Open borders in China–authoritarian government can control things, plus large population can absorb a lot of people
- Chinese culture requires that immigrants assimilate, so would probably not create cultural divides like in the US
- Important to have people who understand AI research and know what’s dangerous
- Probably fewer than 100 people would re-implement AlphaGo given a low-level description
- Measuring political change
- It matters how fast transitions are; depends on the issue and is hard to predict
- How impactful is lobbying? Silicon Valley firms spend more as they grow which suggests lobbying is rational 
- Professional lobbyists probably have information on the impact of lobbying
- Could fix North Korea by uniting with South Korea
- Worked well for Germany, maybe not for Yemen
- Can use $1 million to bribe Representatives on issues they don’t much care about
- More corrupt countries are easier/less risky to bribe
2016-01-24: Criminal Justice
(Here BFF refers to the Bronx Freedom Fund.)
- Unclear how cost-effective BFF actually is. How much does bail cost? How long do people get out of jail for?
- BFF claims to reduce guilty rate from 90% to 50% by reducing plea bargains
- Could be a selection effect
- Would BFF grantees have taken bail bonds? What can BFF do that markets can’t?
- Potential benefits to government for not having to pay for incarceration
- How is 97% court appearance rate plausible? Why would the government even bother with bail if that were true?
- Charity might be more effective than private corporations because charities can be more discriminating (less legal restriction)
Flow Through Effects
- Theory: use BFF to raise concern for bail reform
- Why do people take pleas if it’s bad? Is their legal counsel doing its job?
- It would be hard to convince people to eliminate bail altogether, maybe easier to reduce or eliminate for minor offences
- Most European countries have reduced bail and lower court attendance rates 
- Lost of people who don’t plead guilty go on trial and are found not guilty might actually be guilty
- 97% figure comes from BFF’s form 990 so it’s at least correct on the face
- Not showing up for court is really bad for you so you might expect almost everyone to do it
- If BFF chooses grantees who are particularly trustworthy/honest/etc. then it’s a weaker case for bail reform
Expected Value of BFF
- Effects: Pre-trial jail time, more acquittals, grater time working, increased trial costs
- Only 7% of people released without bail fail to show up
- Could be strong selection effects
- Bigger flow-through effects on helping first-world people
- A lot of people think of (accused) criminals as the outgroup, which is psychologically harmful for criminals. Possible really good to lift that psychological burden
- Bail on average prevents 15 days of pre-trail jail time
- 365/15 * $790 spent/year = $19K per person-year of jail prevented
- Costs government $450/night to keep BFF people in jail
- About half of big law firms do pro bono work on things like this so it’s pretty crowded 
2016-01-17: Org Structure for Progress on Hard Questions
- Brian Tomasik has apparently not studied physics because if he had, he would care more about protons than about electrons
- Effective Altruism Outreach wants questions for essay contests or research
- They should curate topics to focus on importance rather than interestingness
- Cause prioritization is important and neglected among EAs, but maybe not the best for an essay contest because it’s dominated by value differences
- How useful are academic conferences?
- Very useful in math/CS because you learn about colleagues’ work and get new interests
- People sitting in a room isn’t as good as divvying tasks and sending people off separately
- Academic conferences can incentivize people to do research because they know there’s demand
- Combine people who we trust and are good at new areas along with domain experts
- It would be useful for SEA to have someone who knows the numbers on topics
Fiorina, Morris, Samuel Abrams, and Jeremy Pope. 2003. “The 2000 US Presidential Election: Can Retrospective Voting Be Saved?”. British Journal of Political Science 33 (2). Cambridge University Press: 163–87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4092337. ↩